Sony Xperia Z1 Compact: Australian Review

Android smartphones these days are all about the big screen. If you want a 5-inch handset, you're spoiled for choice. Smaller phones are a more difficult purchase — they're usually cheaper and have hugely reduced specifications. The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact may be relatively miniature, but it still packs a punch.

What Is It?

The Xperia Z1 Compact is built around its 4.3-inch 720p display, and there's not much else to the handset besides. It measures a svelte 127 x 65mm, and at 9.5mm thick and 137g it's well within the confines of a 'regular' smartphone size. It's built out of Sony's excellent smashproof glass front and back and one-piece aluminium frame — it mostly feels solid and well constructed.

As a mid-range smartphone, the Sony Z1 Compact is only available with 16GB of onboard memory. You can boost that by a full 64GB with the handset's microSD slot, if you find you're running out of space for apps and media.

Being on the more expensive and more fully-featured end of the mid-range smartphone spectrum, the Z1 Compact is able to connect to the 4G networks of all the major carriers. It's also penta-band 3G compatible, so it should make a good travel phone for anyone wanting a device that will work around the world.

What Is It Good At?

The 4.3-inch display of the Z1 Compact has a 1280x720 pixel resolution, and uses Sony's proprietary TRILUMINOS quantum dot pixel structure; it's a new backlighting method that promises better colour vibrancy and balance. It pays off, too — despite the display's middling 342ppi there's excellent detail and gradation whether you're looking at images or videos or just flicking through apps; colour quality and accuracy is far more important than resolution, anyway.

Like other high-end Xperia smartphones, the Z1 Compact is entirely waterproof when you ensure that its covers are appropriately sealed. In the same way as the Galaxy S5, the Compact reminds you to seal it whenever you unplug its USB charging cable or remove microSD storage. It's IP55/IP58-rated, and can survive underwater for half an hour at a 1.5m depth — enough time for you to retrieve it from the bottom of a swimming pool after you're pushed in, for example.

Sony's excellent skin for Android — the Xperia Z1 Compact is up to date with Android 4.4 Kit-Kat, thankfully — makes the same appearance here as it does on the slightly newer Xperia Z2. It doesn't extend far into the operating system; it's mostly updated icons and wallpapers and a few welcome tweaks to the notification area, as well as Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited apps and other in-house software. It's a huge credit to Sony that the phone never feels slow and there aren't many instances of features or icons not being where you expect them to be.

While the sealed waterproof design does necessitate no removable battery, the Compact's 2300mAh battery is hugely more versatile than the 1850mAh iPhone 5S you'd directly compare it to. Sony quotes 18 hours of talk time and four weeks of standby time, but in reality I got an entire day's medium-duty use out of the handset. If you're careful from the start and use Sony's battery-saving features, you can eke out a second day — but for most users, an overnight charge is all the Z1 Compact needs.

We'll have a comparison between the Xperia Z1 Compact's camera and other modern smartphones in the next few days, so stay tuned.

What Is It Not Good At?

The Xperia Z1 Compact's screen, by virtue of its necessarily small size, doesn't sport the industry-standard 1080p resolution that you get when stepping up to the larger 5-inch HTC One M8, Samsung Galaxy S5 or Sony's own Xperia Z2 or Z1. The 720p display is one of the better HD LCD panels that I've seen — it's vibrant, has good maximum and minimum brightness levels, and adjusts itself well to suit ambient lighting conditions — but you do slightly miss the extra per-pixel detail of a higher resolution.

There's also something about the Xperia Z1 Compact that doesn't feel quite as sturdy as the larger Sony flagship smartphones of previous years. Maybe it's because it doesn't have the same massive single sheet of smashproof glass, or maybe it's because its bezel edges are a little more curved and accomodating in the hand than the original (imposing) Xperia Z, but I found myself treating the Z1 Compact a little more gently than I do the Galaxy S5 or Note 3. To be fair, I do the same with the iPhone 5S, so it's probably just a side effect of its more effete size.

Another (necessary) trade-off of the Z1 Compact chassis is a very slightly less powerful processor, both for cost-saving and due to the smaller thermal footprint of the device. Sony shoehorned a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 into the Z1 Compact, and it returns entirely reasonable but not exactly world-beating results. For a direct comparison, the similarly sized (sub 5-inch) Motorola Moto X has a less powerful Snapdragon S4 Pro, while larger 2014 smartphones can produce higher synthetic benchmark figures with their faster Snapdragon 801s.

The Z1 Compact certainly isn't a slow phone — it's perfectly quick and usable in everyday usage, and doesn't show any difficulty in dealing with any but the most 3D-intensive games and performance-testing apps; the difference is largely an academic one but if you're looking for the latest and greatest, you'll probably be left a little wanting. It's on par with last year's Samsung Galaxy S4.

The Xperia Z1 Compact's 20.7-megapixel camera is good, but it's directly inherited from the Xperia Z1. This is initially good to see — no inferior model for the smaller handset — but in a time when the Xperia Z2 is now available, and the Samsung Galaxy S5 is out, its images are largely OK rather than great. An iPhone 5S shows that you can get great out of a small handset (when you sink enough R&D money into it).

Should You Buy It?

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact makes plenty of good arguments for itself — it's a powerful and capable Android phone that is a true equal-size competitor to the iPhone 5S and 5C. It's not perfect, and it's not entirely premium, but it's more than adequate for almost all users. It also has Sony's excellent no-frills Android experience as standard.

I happen to think that a larger Android handset has a number of notable advantages compared to the Z1 Compact's mid-4-inch size class, but most buyers would be equally well served with either variant. If you want a smartphone that fits more comfortably into a jeans or jacket pocket, the Z1 Compact is the best Sony for the job, one of the best Android phones for the job, and makes for strong competition to the iPhone everyone will compare it to.

The Z1 Compact is $552 outright, and is just coming to the end of its two month exclusive launch window with Telstra on a $55 per month plan with $8 handset repayment over 24 months. We'll let you know if it comes to other carriers.

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