Sony Xperia Z3 Compact review: the premier pint-sized powerhouse


WhistleOut
15 October 2014

If you want a smaller Android phone but don’t want to sacrifice hardware and quality, then the Z3 Compact is pretty much your only option. It’s the first ‘mini’ version of a flagship that doesn't make significant hardware forfeits.

Other phones like the Galaxy S5 Mini and HTC One Mini 2 cut back on their internals far more as they tone down the size, making for a handset with a distinctive mid-range personality. This is bad news for Android fans who prefer the 4.6-inch phones of yesteryear, but like their tech to be smooth and capably modern.

Now, Sony has filled this gap. First it was waterproof phones, now it’s a (nearly) no-sacrifice compact Android experience. The question now is: is it actually a good phone?

Yes, it is. If you want to know why feel free to stick around.

Pros:
  • The only compact high-end Android
  • Waterproof (IP65/IP68)
  • Eventual PS4 Remote Play support
  • Cheaper than a full-sized flagship
Cons:
  • UI is a bit spartan
  • Unimpressive battery life
  • Camera has more MP than necessary

Design

4.5/5

The Z3 Compact looks just like the full-sized Xperia Z3 and the Xperia Z2 before it. It retains the same simple, monochrome design complete with well-hidden side-flaps to cover its water-sensitive ports without creating a messy aesthetic.

It’s made from hardened glass both front and back, has dedicated camera button and puts the volume and lock keys low down on the right side where they’re super-simple to reach for righties and lefties alike. Everything is easy to reach and easy to use.

It’s not a beautiful phone, but its stark style does have minimalist appeal and there are more-colourful options of reddish-orange and mint-green available alongside the regular white and black models if you prefer a more eye-catching look.

Despite its 4.6 inch screen being similarly-sized to the iPhone 6’s 4.7 inches, the Z3 Compact itself is a full 1cm shorter, although it’s the same width and about 1mm chunkier on the profile. Despite this extra heft, it’s still only 8.6mm side-on, which certainly won’t put a bulge in your pocket.

The display panel is 720p, delivering about 320 pixels per inch (ppi). This is similar to the 326ppi of the iPhone 6, but a fair bit short of the full-sized Xperia Z3’s 424ppi on its 1080p screen.

Be that as it may, we didn’t notice a significant lack of sharpness. I certainly didn’t, and my daily driver is the LG G3, which sports a 2560 x 1440 display with 534ppi. Still, even to my spoiled-rotten eyes, the Z3 Compact provided favourable visuals.

It’s not perfect, but then no screen is. Viewing angles aren’t fantastic and whites come out a little bluish. Still, colours are vibrant and blacks are solid, so there’s little to complain about.

The interface itself is where Sony starts to fall short of the pack. It’s just not very pretty, and when you’re spending a good portion of your day staring at a screen you want what’s on it to be attractive. More so when you factor in what you paid for it.

This is a problem from which LG, Motorola and many other Android manufacturers once suffered, but have in the past year or so moved beyond. Sony is still trying to figure out what kind of look it’s going for. It’s not a deal-breaking issue. Just be aware that this is not a device that you’re going to turn on and find yourself immediately impressed. There are no funky animations or fun artistic flares. The user experience here is all about getting the job done well in a compact design that no one else is offering.

In terms of actual functionality the Z3 Compact is fantastic. We didn’t have a single app crash, nor was there ever any random lag spikes or strange bugs we had to work around. Everything just worked smoothly and with minimum fuss. A rare treat these days; doubly-so from a mini Android.

It’s faster at loading apps than the LG G3, the general UI works more-smoothly than does Touchwiz on the Samsung Galaxy S5 and it never overheated.

PlayStation support

The Xperia Z3 and Xperia Z3 Compact, as well as the yet-to-be-released Z3 Tablet, all have one feature that will be very important to a select few buyers: PS4 Remote Play. Until now this service has only been available on PS Vita, and it’s a seriously awesome addition to any gamer’s arsenal.

Essentially it lets you use your handset or tablet as an emergency screen in case someone else is using the TV. It will stream the video output of your PS4 straight to the unit itself. There’s even an adjustable mount you can buy that inserts in the top of your controller, essentially turning it in to a portable console unit with its own little display.

We had a play around with a demonstration setup a couple of weeks back and it was flawless. There was no lag and it was surprisingly easy to play on the 5.2 inch screen of the full-sized Xperia Z3.

Unfortunately it’s not operational for consumers yet, so we can’t try it out with the Z3 Compact or comment on how it works if you move in to a different room or upstairs.

Still, this is a major consideration if you have a PS4 at home plugged in to a shared TV. You’ll never have to give up gaming time again.

Camera

4/5

When it comes to cameras, Sony loves to toot its own horn. You’ll hear a lot of talk about the 20.7MP shooter on the Z1, Z2, Z3 and Z3 Compact being the best cameras on the market. This is an unfortunate (and probably intended) side effect of that “20.7MP” stamp.

Megapixels are not the be-all and end-all of camera quality. Sony certainly makes good cameras, but the Z3 Compact’s shooter can’t compare to the downright impressive offerings from the 8MP systems on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Nor does it seem as good as the Galaxy S5’s 16MP camera, or the LG G3’s 13MP.

Marketing grievances aside, the Z3 Compact does take great photos outside during the day and even later in the evening.

Once the sun goes down, or you adjourn indoors, it starts to look like last year’s flagship. It’s not terrible, but it’s far from market-leading. Photos are noisy and often off-colour. If you're in a moderately well-lit room, but there's a window through which the sun is shining, then you're going to get a dark picture no matter what you do.

These are things with which the modern smartphone user is already familiar, and the Compact will undoubtedly do a better job if you're coming off a 2-year contract. It's just not the groundbreaking camera you might expect from something with such big numbers attached to it.

The flash is also a simple white LED and not a two-tone or multi-tone unit. As a result you get that old familiar white-washed look when using it, instead of the more-natural kind of colour we’ve begun to get used to on other devices.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Autofocus is fiendishly quick and the dedicated shutter button is something that every smartphone should have. It makes snapping photos so much easier and lets you jump straight to the camera app from standby mode. It also lets you take photos underwater, which is pretty cool. Overall this is a good camera, but it’s not the reason you’d buy a Z3 Compact.

Battery Life

3.5/5

Sony is advertising the Z3 Compact as a two-day phone. We can get behind that concept. A phone with two days of battery life makes life much easier than you might recall if you’ve been saddled with a one-day-wonder for the past couple of years.

The only problem is that it doesn’t last two days. Not even nearly.

In fact, it has worse battery life than most phones we’ve reviewed this year, none of which claimed two days of battery. The G3, Oppo Find 7, iPhone 6 Plus and even Xperia Z2 all have batteries that will last you well in to tomorrow, if not right up until the end of it.

The Z3 Compact will get you through a single day easily, but if you forget to charge it you’ll be looking for a power outlet by the time you get to work the next day. Even leaving Sony’s patented Stamina Mode on all day did nothing except make the phone a little slower to wake up when coming off of standby.

Multitasking is a particular battery killer. If you run a lot of apps, especially the PlayStation Network app that comes pre-installed, you might even be needing a charge before day's end. In general, though, you're safe from breakfast till bed time.

Verdict

We’ve griped on a little about the Z3 Compact’s faults, but for all of them it’s still a great phone. Remembering that it’ll run you $100 or more under another flagship, or even almost $200 less than an iPhone, it certainly delivers on your money.

It’s also difficult to describe how easy it is to use without sounding obvious or repetitive, but this really is one of the smoothest Android experiences to hit shelves in a long time. Everything just… worked. Add on top of that the IP65 and IP68 water-resistance, the surprisingly-good screen and easy-to-use design then you’ve got a winner.

The final kicker: the Z3 Compact really doesn’t have any direct competitors. There are no Android phones this size that can compare. Even the Moto G has recently made the jump up to 5 inches. If you want a small, high-end Android you’ll be looking at a Z3 Compact. And that’s in no way a bad thing.


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