Sony Xperia Z1 Compact review

5 out of 5
£449

For

Design works at this size, plenty of power, excellent battery performance, great display and viewing angles

Against

Prone to scratching, launches on Android 4.3 and software hasn't moved on very far

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact is one of the first smaller-displayed devices to launch in recent years that can claim flagship status. It's something that fans have been calling for for some time: a device that's small, but packs as powerful a punch as the larger devices.

The Xperia Z1 Compact follows many of the hardware leads of Sony's full-size Xperia Z1. But whereas the Z1 was a device we weren't taken with - it didn't feel right to us because it was too large and didn't seem to hang together well as an overall device in everyday use - can the Z1 Compact fair better in a world of giant rivals?

We've been using the device for some time now and are happy to say it stands its ground, and then some.

Serious design

Sony's formula for the Xperia Z family is one we like and the Xperia Z1 Compact is the fattest of the bunch at 9.5mm, but that really doesn't matter on a phone this size, as you'll have no problems getting your fingers around it. The familiar Xperia Z sandwich design feels solid in the hand, aesthetically pleasing to hold. It's doesn't have a tempered glass back, however, as was originally claimed (and we initially reported in this review), as the back is plastic. That might make some think it is "less premium", but in reality we can't see that this makes a huge difference in practise.

We had the white model in for review - it's also available in black, lime and pink - and we think the contrast of the white finish and silver of the aluminium frame running around the sides makes for great visual effect. The subtle detail of the chamfered edges, the metal buttons and the overall solid feeling of the build, is one we really like.

There's still some bloat to this handset however. We criticised the Z1 for being just too big for what it offered, but with the Z1 Compact - although the design is the same, with 14mm of space above and below the display and 3mm at the sides on both devices - it doesn't feel quite like wasted space as it does on the big version.

READ: Sony Xperia Z1 review

That's because the Compact handset measures 127 x 64.9mm and, although Sony could fit a larger display into this size of device, we're happy with the balance. It sits nicely in the hand and is easy to manage, which we didn't think the larger device quite achieved.

It weighs 137g, which also feels right. It's fairly "heavy" for a device of this size - the HTC One mini is 122g, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini is 107g, not that any are going to feel like a brick in the hand - but we feel that adds gravitas. It feels serious, which it is, and that weight imparts a feeling of quality to us.

READ: HTC One mini review

As with other Xperia Z devices, there are plenty of ports covered with flaps to keep the water out. This is a water-resistant model, which is really handy, giving you protection from dust and water down to 1.5m for up to 30mins, so long as all the covers are correctly in place. That's useful not only for that holiday snap in crystal clear waters, but also for more mundane things, like navigating in the rain, or that disastrous moment when you drop your phone in the bath.

The 3.5mm headphone port is proofed, so there's no flap here which makes it easy to listen to music whenever you want. But, in all likelihood, you'll have to open the USB flap to charge the device. The only way around that is the side-mounted charging pins for a magnetic accessory charger - if you're bothered by the flap then this £25 purchase removes the need to unpick the flap to reveal the USB charging port. We're happy to live with the flaps given the benefits of proofing against the elements.

Who dares wins

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact has a great display. It measures 4.3-inches on the diagonal and has a 1280 x 720 pixel resolution, resulting in a 342ppi pixel density. That matches the HTC One mini which also has great display, and although it's a step down in pixel density from the Full HD larger models, the overall results are very good.

We're not going to say there's no place for larger, higher-resolution displays because those big devices bring more space into play and a more immersive viewing experience. But if your preference is for a smaller device and display, then you don't have to worry that you'll be losing out on all that quality, because the Z1 Compact still a decent display for consuming content.

Importantly, the display improves on its viewing angles compared to the Xperia Z1, because the bigger device quickly loses colour when not looked at straight on. Not so with the Compact, which fairs far better when looking from oblique angles. We sat both models on the desk side-by-side and the improvements are immediately evident.

The Compact's display is a little on the warm side by default, but there is the option to change the white balance, so we pushed the blues up a little to cool it slightly - something that's very welcome. You'll be able to tweak it to your preference, which is a pretty rare feature in a smartphone.

Sony has long been using the Bravia TV branding in its mobile devices and we've come across its Triluminos and X-Reality names before. The aim of the former is to deliver a wider colour palette and the latter is designed to process your images with a push in sharpening. X-Reality can be turned on and off, although it's an mode that works well and makes a noticeable difference to images when you're viewing them back on the device. We're happy to leave it on as it brings a nice pop to things.

The Z1 Compact display offers plenty of brightness and we found the auto-brightness levels to be good. It coped with brighter conditions outdoors (bearing in mind that London in January isn't very bright) and it also supports the use of gloves, which is an option you can turn on and off too.

There's one gripe we have about the display and that's less about its technical ability and more about choice of materials. We managed to put a scratch on the tempered glass Z1 Compact fairly quickly, because the screen has a plastic protector permanently positioned over it. Perhaps that's just unlucky, but we also have a scratch on the rear of the glass-backed Xperia Z1, whereas the HTC One and its Corning Gorilla Glass display hasn't picked up a scratch despite spending much longer being carried around in our pockets. That's a slightly anecdotal experience, and we're not about to start scratching up the Z1 Compact we've been loaned to test it, but we recommend taking care.

All guts, all glory

The normal story for small(er) devices is that you'll get internal specs that sound a little like last year's hardware. They're pitched as second tier devices, mini by name and mini by nature. The Xperia Z1 Compact, however, has the guts to bring it glory and sets a new bar for the small phone.

The phone is equipped with the same 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset as its larger brother and plenty of other top-tier smartphone devices. This is backed by 2GB of RAM, resulting in a compact handset that flies along in use.

We had no problem with the performance of the Z1, but found it did get excessively hot when pushed. From our time with the Xperia Z1 Compact, it seems to handle the heat better than the Z1, so doesn't feel as hot in the hand. Whether this is down to improved software management of the hardware, or better design, it's difficult to tell.

The result is a device that's smooth and fast in everything you ask it to do. Fire up an intensive game like Real Racing 3 and it's loaded noticeably faster that devices on a lesser hardware setup. It's fast to switch from one app to another, and it all works very well.

The Xperia Z1 Compact has 16GB of internal storage of which about 12GB is available for the user. There is a microSD card slot for expansion which can handle all your movies and music, but if you're using this as a mobile gaming powerhouse, those big games will soon fill the internal storage.

When it comes to connectivity, the Compact delivers big. It's a 4G handset, with all the connectivity you'd expect, including support for MHL through the USB socket if you want a cable connection to your TV. There's also DLNA connectivity on board so you can share your content with other compatible devices, but we couldn't find native support to playback content we had on another sharing device.

Sony software story

Sony takes a fairly heavy approach to customisation with its skin adjusting the Android base more considerably than some other manufacturers. Although each iteration of software brings a range of changes, there hasn't been a huge sweeping change in design for some time. There are a lot of personalisation options on offer, with the freedom to do things like create folders in the apps tray, or change your hardware toggles, which we really like.

On the hardware toggles - accessed in the notifications area - you can add or remove those you don't feel you need. But one oddity we found was that the Wi-Fi toggle never worked for us, it just didn't respond. We miss the native Android offering of a large grid of shortcuts accessed with a two-finger swipe, which Sony seems to have removed. Although you can customise the palette with up to eight shortcuts, we feel in opting to put them in with the regular notifications panel that they're smaller than they need to be.

Some may feel a little let down that the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact launches with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean rather than the latest Android 4.4 KitKat. Although there isn't a huge difference between the two versions of Android, we're sure to see a range of new devices in the coming months that bring Google's latest with it, so Sony really needs to try and push along any software updates it's planning to make. We've contacted Sony Mobile to ask for an update on the when the Xperia Z1 Compact will get KitKat.

READ: Android 4.4 KitKat review

Although there are a lot of clever elements to Sony's Android tweaks, they're not quite to the extent of Samsung or LG and the skin doesn't feel as mature to us as HTC Sense, but this very much comes down to personal preference: many would prefer stock Android to then doctor with apps themselves.

Sony pushes its entertainment services in its devices fairly hard, and the default in the albums, movies and Walkman apps is to have those services prominent. However, in the settings you can turn this off, so you're not always faced with subscription content you can't necessarily access if you're not a user of Sony's services.

If you are a subscriber, though, then it's nice to have everything in one place for easy access. There are some other additions that Sony makes, offering app suggestions, Sociallife News aggregator, track ID apps and so on, but we don't think these really add much appeal.

There's also a customised keyboard that has plenty of options, from changing the appearance to offering predictive words and corrections, as well as smart learning of your language profile from sources like Gmail, Twitter and Facebook. The implementation is very similar to SwiftKey and we were happy to use Sony's keyboard, as it's pretty good. Indeed, we wouldn't be surprised if it was based on SwiftKey's platform.

Battery life

The software tweak we like the most, however, is to do with power management. We'd happily discard most of the other modifications, but this one's a keeper. Sony has long been offering a Stamina mode to try to prolong the life of its devices and the Xperia Z1 Compact fairs rather well when it comes to endurance.

Thanks to the efficiency of Snapdragon 800, the smaller size of the display, and a 2300mAh battery, the Xperia Z1 Compact will last through a typical day with relative ease - and that's before you turn to the software options.

Stamina mode has a granular approach, enabling you to specify what apps will retain data access when in standby. This is really useful as you can let your messaging apps continue in the background if you need them, but won't have to worry about anything else. Even on heavy use days, using Stamina meant that we didn't have to worry about battery as much as with other devices on long days, like the HTC One. It's a real credit to the Z1 Compact.

Calling and sound quality

We found that the reception on the phone was good and we had no problems making or receiving calls. There are options to cut out background noise from the mic, or improve the caller's voice over the speaker, and we had no complaints when making or receiving calls.

The external speaker runs across the bottom of the device. It's fairly loud, but lacks the sort of quality you get from the front-facing speakers of the HTC One family. Its location means it's pretty easy to cover when holding the phone in landscape orientation too - so you'll need to take extra care not to block it.

READ: HTC One review

We found the sound quality through Z1 Compact's headphones to be excellent and there are a range of settings accessible though the Walkman app to tailor the sound quality to your liking. We're not taken with the delivery from Sony's ClearAudio+, but there's a full equaliser on offer to get frequencies to your liking depending on what genres you listen to.

Camera

Smartphones are becoming more prevalent in the camera department, and in the case of the Xperia Z1 Compact it's one of the headline features. It uses the same 20.7-megapixel sensor as the Z1, although to get that headline figure you have to dive into the settings to select it because it's only available in Manual mode, at 4:3 ratio. Full resolution also means you don't then get some other options, like HDR (high dynamic range) for example. As such, and like the Xperia Z1, we still think that Sony is playing the numbers game: the camera isn't good because it has 20.7-megapixels, it's good because it offers you shooting options and gives decent results.

There's a dedicated camera button which we like, as you can have this launch the camera with a long press. Much of what you'll find in the camera app is the same as the Z1, with a range of apps from info-eye to Augmented Reality (AR) effect that adds a bit of fun. There's a Timeshift burst mode which will let you get the perfect moment from action shots - like someone jumping into a pool - by giving access to images captured before you press the shutter button. It just buffers those images through the memory continuously until you take the shot, so they're there to make sure you don't miss the moment.

The main shooting options, however, will likely be Superior Auto, which wants to do everything for you, or Manual, which gives you some room to control more options. Where Superior Auto tries to detect the scene at hand and adjust the settings, Manual will let you select the scene mode, but also do things like set the sensitivity (ISO) to adjust for low-light, engage HDR or change the focusing mode.

Focusing can be a little iffy at times and we found ourselves often having to recompose to get the camera to automatically pick a focal point on a number of occasions.

We like the HDR mode: we think that in recent years this method of combining two shots at different exposures to lift out more detail and give you a more dynamic result has really come into its own. It's a shame you can't toggle the setting from Superior Auto, as it's really handy.

It's also useful to be able to control the ISO sensitivity. However when you line up a shot, the camera doesn't display what the settings will be, it just confirms focus. It would be more useful to tell you how long the exposure is going to be, or what auto ISO sensitivity was about to be used, so you could decide whether you need to change your composition, rest the phone on something to steady it more, or adjust other settings.

In good conditions, the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact will produce some lovely shots, full of colour with plenty of detail. As the light dips and the ISO rises, images get noisy as the "mottling" typical of higher ISO settings becomes visible. From about ISO 800 upwards it's noticeable, but it depends very much on the subject as it's fairly well handled. But it will spoil lighter areas of your picture, like adding grain to an evening sky that should otherwise be clear.

The camera isn't the best in class - the Nokia Lumia 1020 will still hold that crown - but we've liked using it and enjoyed the results its given us.

READ: Nokia Lumia 1020 camera review

The front-facing camera isn't quite as good as the rear, and don't be caught out by the "soft skin" effect that will turn your face into a fleshy smear and by default is switched on. Interestingly, HDR is an option on the front camera. Just remember to stay very still when taking that selfie.

Verdict

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact defies convention by offering power in a compact form and side-stepping the race to offer the largest display. The result is one of the best Android smartphones around.

It betters the larger-scale Xperia Z1 in most areas: it's better to use because it fits nicely into the hand, the battery life is great, it doesn't run as hot, and the screen's viewing angles are superb. And where it doesn't better it drafts in the same water-proof design and top-tier power as its bigger brother handset. Most competitor devices force you to go large to get the latest hardware and power, but the Z1 Compact doesn't.

READ: The best smartphones available to buy today

As a result the Compact doesn't come cheap, however, but importantly it's more affordable than the regular Z1 that it betters, as well as most of the other top-tier Android devices. That will give it plenty of appeal, despite there being a tier of more affordable devices beneath it too.

There are just a few minor niggles that hold it back from perfection: the software feels like it could do with an update and we feel this needs to happen fast, because as 2014 progresses there will be a lot more devices landing with new features and a newer version of Android. Sony needs to update to stay ahead of the pack. We also somehow scratched the tempered glass screen.

Sony has got the Xperia Z1 Compact right: it's packed with power, is well designed, and delivers a first class experience. We have no reservations in recommending it because it's certainly the best Android device at this size.

(Review originally published 29 January 2014, updated 18 February 2014.)