Reviews

Sony Xperia Z1 Compact Review

Xperia Z1 Compact

Ever since Android phones started expanding sideways, there has been a vocal minority of people complaining about the lack of good premium compact Android phones. People were left with two choices, either go with a high-end, fully-featured smartphone the size of Africa or get something that fits a normal human hand but with substandard specifications.

Some companies made feeble attempts to address this need. Suddenly there were several ‘mini’ versions of flagship smartphones on the market. But other than the name and design, these phones shared little with their elder siblings and were often just pathetic attempts to cash in on the more expensive phone’s brand name.

Sony was the first company to offer a true solution to the problem in the form of the Xperia Z1 Compact. A smaller version of the Xperia Z1, the Z1 Compact is a largely unsullied distillation of all that was good about the Z1 into a smaller body.

Pick up the phone and the size comes as a breath of fresh air, especially if you are used to using much bigger phones. You can easily wrap your fingers around it and your thumb can reach the edges of the screen without having to shift the phone around. It brings back memories of simpler times, back when phones could still be used with one hand. Or as iPhone users call it, Tuesday.

The design is identical to the Z1. It even is waterproof and dust proof in the same way the Z1 is. I hate having to open the flap every time I have to connect the charger or the USB cable, but it is a necessary evil to keep the water and dust out.

One change made in the design is that the back is no longer made from tempered glass, but rather from plastic. The glass on the Z1 wasn’t particularly strong and indeed, back when I used it I would discover a new scratch on it every day, but this plastic is even worse. The phone arrived to me in a state that made it seemed like it was dragged around the town. I probably added more scratches to it but it’s hard to tell considering how many there are. The plastic also lacks the oleophobic coating of the front glass, so it attracts scratches and fingerprints. Lovely.

That little cost cutting aside, the Z1 Compact looks and feels like a premium phone but it needs to be handled carefully.

The display on the Z1 Compact is completely different from the one on the Z1. While the Z1 has a 5.0-inch, 1920×1080 resolution LCD, the Z1 Compact has a 4.3-inch, 1280×720 resolution LCD. The display on the Z1 is lousy; the colors are bland, the viewing angles are terrible and the only saving grace is the resolution.

With the Z1 Compact, Sony has switched to a superior IPS panel. IPS, as you may know, is known for having richer colors and wider viewing angles, basically everything that the Z1 display lacked. The difference is night and day, with the smaller Z1 Compact having a significantly better display than the bigger and more expensive Z1.

While the display on the Z1 Compact is a massive improvement over the Z1’s, I still have some issues with it. As if to make up for the bland display on the Z1, Sony has cranked up the saturation and contrast on the Z1 Compact all the way to eleven. Colors are almost AMOLED level bright and the contrast too is too high, which obscures some of the details in the darker areas of the image to give an appearance of deeper blacks. It’s rather sad that a company that has been in the business of making and selling displays for so long still can’t get the calibration right on its phones.

That aside, there is also the absurd auto contrast mode that is permanently enabled on the phone. It analyzes the image on the screen and adjusts the display brightness accordingly. A bright image on screen increases the brightness and a dark image reduces it. This has been present on televisions and other phones for a while now and its working never made sense to me as it always seems to do the exact opposite of what it should be doing. Why would you turn down the brightness if the image is already dark? It only makes it harder to see.

These two issues combined meant that the display experience for me has been less than ideal. In comparison, Samsung, LG and HTC do a much better job on their phones. Not to mention Apple, which has always been the gold standard in terms of panel calibration.

The rest of the hardware and the software is pretty much identical to the Z1. That’s a very good thing as, display aside, there was very little wrong with the Z1. If you must know the specifications, there is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (MSM8974) SoC inside, with four Krait 400 CPU cores clocked at 2.26GHz and Adreno 330 GPU, 2GB of RAM, 16GB storage space with microSD card slot, Wi-Fi 802ac, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC. All very good. On the software side, the Z1 Compact now runs on Android 4.4.2 KitKat, which is the very latest that is available right now, both from Sony and Google.

The combination of top-notch hardware and latest software means the Z1 Compact runs without skipping a beat. The phone is plenty fast, multitasking is quick and the scrolling in most cases is lag-free. It essentially behaves like a high-end Android phone should, considering it is one under that petite body.

In the past I have expressed my general appreciation of Sony’s Android skin. The good thing about it is that it is minimal and works without getting in your way. The additions are welcome (well, most of them, anyway) and it looks and behaves in a way that does not make you miss stock Android. If I had to pick one skin out of the many out there today, I’d pick Sony’s.

The 20.7 megapixel camera also leaves little room to complain. It takes good photos in nearly every lighting condition. Even the front camera churns out respectable photos, as far as front cameras are concerned. The camera software has a good deal of settings to tweak and there is also a highly dependable Superior Auto mode for those who’d rather not bother with all of that. Overall, the camera experience on the Z1 Compact is very satisfactory and honestly, I wouldn’t expect anything less from Sony so I’m glad they got this right.

(I did take many photos while using the phone but they aren’t great, photographically speaking, so I’d rather not share. You’d have to take my word on this one.)

I think what remains now is the battery life. With the reduction in physical size, the battery inside the phone also had to be made smaller and it went from 3000mAh on the Z1 to 2300mAh on the Z1 Compact. Fortunately, the Snapdragon 800, despite its incredible performance, is very efficient. The display being smaller (and lower resolution) also helps. The battery life, as a result, is still very good. I got upwards of 20 hours on every charge and I don’t use my phones lightly. Also, this is without any of the power saving modes the phone comes with. I wish the phone had wireless charging so I could have used it with my Nokia DT-900 (and not have to open that flap every time) but otherwise I was happy with the battery on the phone.

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I love my Nexus 5. It is easily one of the best phones I’ve owned and I intend to use it for a long time. But the Xperia Z1 Compact did make me question my decision to go with the Nexus 5. Over the years I have given up the convenience of using a phone comfortably singlehandedly for a bigger display. It too has its fair share of plus points that one tends to appreciate over time.

But using the Z1 Compact over a week reminded me of how important it is to have a phone that is comfortable to hold and use as it is something you literally do every time you use the phone. That the phone manages to offer all the features and performance of its bigger rivals without being physically big is a feat in itself.

I had my share of complaints with the phone, from the less than perfect display, the annoying flap you have to open every time you have to access the microUSB port, the weak loudspeaker and the scratch-prone plastic back. In the grand scheme of things, however, these didn’t matter as much as I thought they would and I genuinely enjoyed my time spent with the phone.

If you are one of those people who want a compact high-end smartphone that is not an iPhone, the Xperia Z1 Compact is your only option right now, and a darned good one at that.

8/10