This is, perhaps, the first credible iPhone competitor to emerge on the Android scene in recent memory. Small, waterproof, packing a 20.7 megapixel camera and a beastly Snapdragon 800 chipset, the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact is a different take on what a small Android phone should look, feel, and cost like.
While we’ll get to its impressive internal specifications in a moment, the most noticeable thing about the Z1 Compact is, indeed, the size. Unlike virtually every other premium device in the market today, the Z1 Compact is just a skosh larger than the iPhone 5s. It is easy to use one-handed even if you don’t have big hands.
Specs and Competitors
Now, those numbers: 2 gigabytes of RAM, an Adreno 330 GPU, a 4.3-inch 720p display boasting 342 ppi (higher than the iPhone’s), and a 2300 mAh battery that just keeps going. In Android-land, these are top of the line specs at the moment – a true rarity for a device this pocketable. The Z1 Compact can be had for $558 at the time of writing.
The Xperia Z1 Compact’s closest competitor is, of course, the iPhone. We won’t get into holy platform wars here, so let’s just talk hardware: at $649, the iPhone 5s, just as pocketable as the Z1 Compact, and is king of its own domain. It has a fingerprint sensor, which the Z1 Compact lacks, but it isn’t waterproof. At 640 x 1136 pixels, its display is lower resolution than the Z1. Its only has an 8 megapixel camera compared to the Z1 Compact’s 20.7, and its 1/3-inch sensor is smaller than the Z1 Compact’s roomy 1/2.3-inch sensor, too. Say what you will, though, the iPhone 5s is a decidedly premium device, oozing style and quality – which is more than can be said of the Z1 Compact’s other competitors.
For some reason, Android phone makers seem incapable of producing compact devices without severely crippling their specs, resulting in bland, cheap shadows of devices that could have been. Let’s look at three examples from leading makers:
First up, the previously-reviewed Galaxy S4 Mini. If you were expecting anything as beefy as the previously-reviewed Galaxy S4, you’d be sorely disappointed. The Mini is cute and pocketable, but has a 540 x 960 pixel sreen, just 1.5 gigabytes of RAM, an Adreno 305 GPU, and a 1900 mAh battery. The good news is that you can now have it for just $350.
Then there’s the HTC One Mini. This little guy fares better in the screen department, with a 720p screen and a pixel density of 342 ppi, just like the Z1 Compact. But when it comes to RAM, it sorely disappoints, with just a single gigabyte (to the Z1 Compact’s 2). The GPU is an Adreno 305 here as well, and the chipset is just a Snapdragon 400 (to the Z1 Compact’s 800). Again, it’s a cheaper device, now available for $410.
Finally, there’s the new LG G2 Mini. At the time of this writing, this phone doesn’t have an MSRP yet — but despite being brand-new, it will see the light of day packing a low-res 540 x 960 pixel screen, a single gigabyte of RAM, and the same Adreno 305 GPU as its spec-starved brethren. At least it has a 2440 mAh battery, one area where it exceeds the Z1 Compact.
The bottom line here is that the other major Android phone makers seem content to slap their top-of-the-line branding on so-so devices. Sony bucks this trend, delivering a device that looks, feels, and costs like a premium gadget.
What’s In The Box
It was interesting to contrast the Z1 Compact’s packaging with the recently-reviewed Oppo N1 CyanogenMod edition. While Oppo worked hard to make the N1’s packaging as fancy as possible, Sony went the opposite route with the Z1 Compact: It comes in a compact, square, unassuming box.
As for what’s inside, it’s pretty much what you’d expect: You get a charger, a micro-USB cable, and a set of lovely Sony earbuds. You do get a couple of nice extras: a USB OTG cable, and a screen protector. All accessories feel high-quality, just like the phone.
Look and Feel
The Xperia Z1 Compact mimics much of the Z1’s aesthetics. The phone is held together by an aluminum chassis, and has a glass back. It comes in a number of colors – we bought a bright-yellow unit, just because. Sony seems to have found its groove with its Xperia line: Even if you strip the phone of all marks, you’d still know it’s an Xperia at a glance.
Along the device’s right edge, you’ll find the same distinctive power button you get with the Z and Z1. Below the power button is the volume rocker, and below that, near the bottom-right corner of the device, is the phone’s dedicated camera button (which you’ll find on the Z1, but not on the original Z). At the bottom-right corner itself, you’ll find Sony’s customary lanyard loop – a killer hardware feature when you’re carrying around an expensive phone.
The top of the phone houses the headphone jack. Like on the Z1, the headphone jack is exposed while still being waterproof. The phone’s left edge is where all of the other other ports, covered with protective flaps, live: Up top you’ll find the microUSB port, closely followed by the microSD card slot. Then comes Sony’s dock connector (two bare metal contacts), and finally, the SIM card slot.
At the bottom of the device you’ll find a speaker grille. It’s hard to make a waterproof speaker sound decent, and the Z1 Compact’s speaker isn’t much to write home about. It is, however, much louder than the original Z’s. Finally, the back of the device houses the 20.7MP camera and the accompanying LED flash.
Living With The Xperia Z1 Compact
The Z1 Compact was good enough to make me wonder why do I even need a larger phone. There’s a lot to be said for a device that comfortably fits in your hand. For one thing, the phone tended to fade into the background: I didn’t have a massive display to stare into, so I spent more time away from the screen, looking at the world around me.
When I did need the phone, it performed admirably. As you can expect from a Snapdragon 800 device with 2 gigabytes of RAM, apps were snappy and multitasking was effortless. Just like the Z1, I was able to use the camera button to wake the phone from sleep mode and launch straight into the camera in just a couple of seconds.
One of the phone’s few drawbacks in daily use was its finicky Bluetooth mode: When pairing with the previously-reviewed UE Mobile Boombox, the Z1 Compact paired just fine, but would not play music. I did get it to work once after fiddling with the settings, but couldn’t get it to repeat the feat in other attempts. This was disappointing, particularly given the Z1 Compact’s weak built-in speaker.
While the Adreno 330 is more than powerful enough to run modern Android games, gaming on a 4.3-inch screen is not such a great experience. Maybe I’m getting older, but it was just too small for comfort in my case.
The 2300 mAh battery may not sound like much, but the Z1 Compact survived over 24 hours of regular use without a charge, and without enabling Sony’s Stamina mode. Sony claims that this battery-sipping mode would let the phone last about 41 hours on a charge under regular use. In my own testing, I got 42 hours of straight use in Stamina mode when combined with the stricter Low-battery Mode which disables even more functions when the battery is really low. It is not without its drawbacks: My alarm clock didn’t ring in the morning, for example (even though the phone still had a little bit of juice). Sony promises that its own alarm will work, but the dialog shown above makes no promises about third-party alarm apps.
The Stamina mode is one of the customizations you’ll find in Sony’s flavor of Android. Most make sense, such as the customizable toggles in the pull-down notification menu and the lovely default launcher. The only nonsensical inclusion in the Z1 Compact is floating apps: These tiny apps that hover over whatever else you’re doing make sense on a large screen, but don’t feel as useful on a 4.3-inch screen.
The camera is one of the Z1 Compact’s banner features; it also happens to be the exact same camera you will find on the previously-reviewed Xperia Z1, where we dedicated an entire section of the review to showing it off. The camera app that comes with the Z1 Compact is exactly the same as on the Z1. It’s a good camera, and it works, but don’t expect it to perform any spectacular feats of low-light photography. I feel I can comfortably carry it around in lieu of a compact point-and-shoot.
A Compact, Capable Android Phone
Some products are made to look great on TV; others are made to actually be great in life. A phone with a 4.3-inch screen may sound like a hard sell in a world obsessed with cramming pockets full of ever-growing screens. But once you actually use the Xperia Z1 Compact, smallish screen and all, it may just change your mind. I know it changed mine.
The Z1 Compact defines its own niche – it’s pretty much the only truly premium compact Android phone out there. I can only hope it sells well enough to establish the category.
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