The Sony smartphone approach over the past few years has been rather non-committal. There have been plenty of Xperia devices launched, sure, but each has changed so little between generations - and often within just six months of each other - pushing the dated OmniBalance design language. Indeed, we thought that Xperia's time was hanging in the balance.

But things have changed for 2018, with Sony adopting a new approach and design language in the XZ2 and, as reviewed here, the XZ2 Compact. Yep, finally we have Xperia phones that are moving with the times, featuring specifications to match the best flagships out there, while adopting a more attractive visual that's designed to fit your hand.

In the Sony XZ2 Compact the company has produced a great small-scale phone to echo its larger XZ2 cousin. But just as we pondered with the larger device, is that enough to see the company succeeded in the flagship race? 

Design 

  • 135 x 65 x 12.1mm; 168 grams
  • Frosted plastic rear

Sony's approach to design this year is an interesting one. It's all about having a phone that follows the natural curve in your palm. Which in the XZ2 Compact means a phone that's considerably chunkier than any other 2018 flagship phone.

As a comparison point, the XZ2 Compact's 12.1mm thickness is almost 3mm thicker than last year's XZ1 Compact. It's almost twice as thick as the Huawei P20 Pro, and - as hard as it is to believe - is even slightly thicker than Apple's very first iPhone. Combine that with its weight, and the XZ2 Compact is a phone that feels at odds with its name. For a small phone it actually feels quite hefty. 

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Despite the thickness and weight, the XZ2 Compact definitely lives up to Sony's claim that it fits better in the palm. The rounded plastic exterior does feel like a more natural fit in hand than any flat, cold metal or glass device.

The "chin and forehead" mega bezel of earlier Xperia devices has been banished, too. The XZ2 Compact's elongated 18:9 aspect ratio display means the bezels have virtually been sliced in half at the top and bottom compared to its forebears, which slims down the frame to a more suitable size. However, while smaller, the bezel size isn't down to Apple iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy S9, and certainly not Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S levels of slimness. But it's much better overall. 

Display

  • 5-inch IPS LCD panel, 18:9 aspect ratio
  • 2160 x 1080 resolution (483ppi)
  • Mobile HDR/X-Reality Engine

It's official, 18:9 screens (or similar long aspect ratios) are the new trend in 2018. In the XZ2 Compact's instance it's a Full HD version that measures 5-inches diagonally. While that may not sound particularly "Compact", it's worth remembering that with the longer aspect ratio, the width is pretty much the same as the previous 4.6-inch 16:9 ratio model. With a little adjustment in the hand, it is possible to reach the top edge without too much straining, too, which is refreshing.

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For those used to reading screen specifications, seeing "LCD" would normally mean to expect a fairly neutral screen with natural, subdued colours and contrast. With the Compact, however, it goes better than expected: its colours are super vivid, while contrast is good for when watching videos and gaming.

This is down to its HDR capabilities. Using what Sony calls its X-Reality image processing for Mobile HDR, nearly everything you look at on screen pops with vibrancy and detail. Mobile HDR helps here, but so does the small scale of the display, as the 483ppi pixel density isn't too far off the sharpness you'll find on bigger Quad HD panels. 

Software

  • Android Oreo 8.0 operating system
  • Sony Xperia assistant

It's 2018, so almost any new Android phone released will be running version 8.0, codenamed Oreo, which is Google's latest version of the most popular mobile OS. This isn't stock Android though, it has plenty of Sony adjustments within - which is both good and bad. 

Some of the Sony influence rears its head as additional bloatware and apps, which in 2018 we think is a bit out of place. Album for viewing photos and Video for seeing videos seems like overkill when there are default Google apps too, although as the Sony can shoot slow-motion these apps can earmark such files so it's easy to know what's what.

More odd, however, is that features which exist within the camera app are broken out and installed as separate apps in the app drawer. The Bokeh and AR Camera effects, for example, both live as app icons (as well as being part of the camera interface).

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One potentially useful Sony-fication of Android comes in the form of Xperia Assist. Think of this, sort of, as Sony's built-in assistant, except it's designed to automate certain processes within your phone, rather than primarily act as a voice command tool. You can use it to customise a set of actions based on time and location. For instance, using the "Good Night" mode you can choose to have your battery consumption be more efficient, and have blue light filtered out of the screen, as well as having Do Not Disturb switch on. 

Other modes include the Commute mode, Abroad mode, Focus mode, and Gaming mode. With any of them, you can customise how the XZ2 Compact acts when it meets specified criteria.

One of our favourite features, though, is the battery-saving charge technology that can kick in automatically when you plug your phone in at night. Using this feature, the phone deliberately slows the refilling time so that it's fully charged by the time your morning alarm goes off. The aim here is to keep your battery lasting as long as possible. Great for those who keep their phones for more than two years. 

Performance and battery

  • Snapdragon 845, 4GB RAM
  • 2,870mAh battery, Quick Charge 3.0 fast-charging

On the whole, Sony's latest Compact device feels like a small-scale flagship. Loading up web pages, apps and games is virtually as good as most other phones out there. It maybe misses that snappy feel you get from the phones running cleaner versions of Android (Pixel and OnePlus as examples), but it copes well. 

Well, most of the time. Every once in a while during use we'd get that dreaded pop-up telling us an app had stopped responding and needed to close. Sometimes the screen would get unresponsive, too, pausing before suddenly kicking into life again. Not as a pervasive everyday occurrence, but enough to be a minor frustration - and something we certainly don't expect from high-end phones. 

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As for the battery, it has provided more life than we could have hoped from its relatively small 2,870mAh capacity. In regular/light use we often had between 40-50 per cent of our charge left at the end of the day, meaning sometimes it was capable of getting into a second day.

Of course, that depends on what and how you use your phone. We found battery consumption was quite high once you start using the screen or camera for extended periods. Mobile HDR takes more processing power, as does slow-motion video recording and HDR video recording. Even so, more demanding users should still get through a work day. 

On the rare occurrence that we did want to charge the XZ2 Compact during the day, Quick Charge 3.0 ensures it's not a painful experience. It refills quickly, getting from zero to half way in less than 30 minutes. Sadly, there's no wireless charging here like there is on the larger XZ2. 

Camera

  • 19MP stills camera
  • 4K video capture at 30fps
  • Super slow-mo 960fps at 1080p
  • 5MP front camera

Sony Mobile has long prided itself on its cameras (no surprise, really, as it sells its sensors to almost every competitor). Even in the days before Xperia smartphones were a thing, the Sony Ericsson feature phones were synonymous with feature rich cameras. With the Xperia XZ2 Compact, that trend continues, although it isn't as impressive as some of its competition. 

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In good daylight, the XZ2 Compact camera's shots are clear, sharp and colourful. Which is good news. But the not-so-good-news is how the camera performs during use. A lot of the time we found the autofocus system took a little longer than is normal for a high-powered flagship, particularly when trying to shoot close-up macro shots of still images when the camera often failed to focus at all.

The frustration is amplified by the lack of a touch-to-focus feature. Unlike pretty much every other smartphone out there, you can't tap on the screen to focus before pressing the shutter button. Instead, you tap to set the focus area, then capture the image and it focuses while it shoots. So you don't really know that the area you want in focus will be until the picture is taken. 

There are two new standout features though. First of all, Sony Mobile is the first company thus far to add HDR video recording into a smartphone camera. Secondly, there's a 960 frames-per-second slow-motion video capture at Full HD resolution. Both of those, on paper, beat even the Galaxy S9 and S9+. In reality, however, there are its share of issues, such as the heavy crop and deactivation of SteadyShot image stabilisation - which you can read about in more detail in our XZ2 review

While super slow-mo is awesome when the conditions are right, and you get the timing bang on point, it does take some concentration and can look dull and grainy in anything other than bright sunshine. 

Similarly, the XZ2 Compact's low-light performance doesn't compare to the f/1.5 camera on the Galaxy S9, but then not many phones compare favourably to the S9 and S9+'s low light camera, not even the iPhone X or Pixel 2. And with the Huawei P20 Pro being touted as the new phone camera king, the Sony's images look noticeably more noisy and a little blurry in a field of high performance competitors.

On the plus side, we were surprised at how detailed and sharp images from the front camera looked. Despite having "only" 5-megapixels, pictures have greater clarity than so many other competitors.

Verdict

As small phones go, the Sony XZ2 Compact in a league of its own. Think of the other small-ish flagships out there: the Pixel 2 and Galaxy S9 are both considerably taller and wider than the Sony. Of course, there is the iPhone SE, if you're an Apple iOS fan, but that's a couple of years old now.

While the XZ2 Compact's list of pros is strong - the camera is great and has lots of features, the screen is vibrant despite being LCD, and battery life from its relatively small capacity battery is great - there are a number of downsides. We feel that the build is too chunky, there are some software issues, and the camera isn't as great to use as it should be.

Overall, the Sony XZ2 Compact shows that Sony can still cut it. Although not strong enough to challenge many of the top-tier flagship devices, it's not often these days you'll find a phone that's both compact and powerful. So if you want a high-end Android phone that's not too big then the XZ2 Compact should be your number one choice.

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Alternatives to consider

Pocket-lintGoogle Pixel 2 image 1

Google Pixel 2

Google's second Pixel may not be as short or narrow as the Compact, but it does make up for that by having a slim, solid chassis and a clean, speedy version of Android installed. It also has one of the best camera systems that's ever been put into a smartphone. 

Read the full article: Google Pixel 2 review

Pocket-lintapple iphone se review image 1

iPhone SE

If your main aim is to get a really small phone with few compromises, the iPhone SE still delivers a top performance. It is a little old now, but Apple keeps things feeling fresh with reliable software updates. 

Read the full article: Apple iPhone SE review