What is the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact?

In an age when flagship phones are being fed red meat and steroids to make their screens grow as big as possible, Sony bucks the trend with the Xperia Z1 Compact. It's a powerhouse with a diminutive 4.3-inch display that costs around £430. It may be small, but you won’t find the performance compromises that the HTC One Mini and Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini are lumbered with.

The question is does packing top-notch specs in a compact _phone_ make sense? We think it does, read on to find out why.

Watch Sony Xperia Z1 Compact video:

Sony Xperia Z1 Compact – Design

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact looks like a fun-sized version of the 5-inch Xperia Z1. And that is a very good thing.

Its single-piece aluminium frame makes it rock solid, and the curved edges nestle perfectly in the creases of your hand. The frame is sandwiched between two pieces of glass with a thin plastic join.

The construction is similar to that of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, but is actually more comfortable to hold because of the soft curves. However, the toughened glass back is prone to fingerprint marks and, much worse, scratches – not a problem if you intend to use a case, but the Z1 Compact feels so good in the hand it’d be a shame to alter the shape even slightly.

Xperia Compact

The Z Ultra on the left, the Z1 in the middle and the Z1 Compact on the right

The button layout of the Z1 Compact is similar to that of the Z1. All the covered ports and slots for microSD, SIM and charger are placed on the left, while the power button, volume rocker and dedicated camera button are on the right.

It would have been a nice touch for the volume and camera buttons to match the stylish metal Xperia power button but instead they are plastic. It’s a small issue and, on the plus side, the power button is perfectly placed for easy access.

Z1 compact

The flappy plastic covers that keep the ports dry are a necessary evil and one we’d happily live with for the IP55 and IP58 dust and waterproofing benefits they provide. This means the Z1 Compact is dustproof and can be dunked in water without dying. You'll hardly ever need to open the microSD and SIM, but the power socket will get regular exercise.

The 3.5mm headphone jack at the top is open, meaning you can plug in headphones without any messing around with flaps. The speaker grille sits on the bottom of the Xperia Z1 Compact, which also has a wrist-strap hole.

It’s a tried-and-tested design that works well – the only thing that breaks the sleek lines is a proprietary charging port in the middle of the left hand edge, for use with a charging dock accessory (not included). On the Xperia Z1 this felt a little awkward, but the smaller size of this _phone_ means it’s not as much of an issue. Another bonus of the design is that there is enough of a flat surface to balance the phone on its side, although not if you also want to be charging it at the same time. 

Xperia Z1 compact

While you would quite rightly expect the Z1 Compact to be a small phone, it’s not quite as small as the name implies. At 127 x 64.9 x 9.5 mm the Xperia Z1 Compact is a lot smaller than the thumb-cramping 144 x 74 x 8.5 mm Z1 although it is slightly thicker.

It’s also not that slim or light when compared to other 5-inch Androids like the Galaxy S4 and Nexus 5 either, which, while several millimetres taller and wider, actually weigh 10g less than the 140g Xperia Z1 Compact.

So what’s the benefit of having a smaller screen if the phone isn't all that much smaller or lighter?

The biggest plus is that it’s easy to reach every area of the screen. Juggling a phone with one hand to try and reach the back browser button, all the while being crushed between sweaty commuters, is an experience we have had once too often with a 5-inch phone. The smaller size of the Compact and its ergonomic design means that it’s much easier to handle.

Xperia Z1 Compact front

Trying to fit a big screen into as small a frame as possible comes with its own set of issues. The tiny bezels on some phones mean you occasionally touch an area of the screen by accident, making the rest of it unresponsive. You won’t have any such problems with the Z1 Compact as it comes with particularly chunky 6mm border from screen to phone’s edge. We would prefer a thinner bezel, but the 4.3-inch screen size means it’s not as much of an issue as it would be on larger-screened phones like the Z1.

Xperia Z1 compact

There are the two new colours that the Z1 Compact comes in: lime and pink. Both are surprisingly tasteful, helped by the lightly coloured shaved aluminium edges of the frame. The other colours are black and white – similar to the Z1 but with a slightly darker frame.

Sony Xperia Z1 Compact: Screen and speakers

There is one spec area, aside from screen size, where the Xperia Z1 Compact loses out to its bigger brother. The 4.3-inch screen has a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, where the Xperia  Z1 is Full HD. The Z1 Compact screen has 341 pixels per inch. That’s 100 less than the Full HD Z1, but actually a little more than the iPhone 5S's 326ppi.

However, we’re not playing tech Top Trumps here – what we look for is the experience the screen provides. The Xperia Z1 Compact’s screen is excellent, and its resolution perfectly suited to the 4.3-inch display size.

It will take very keen eyes to be bothered by any lack of clarity or sharpness. Only when fully zoomed out will you notice that tiny website text is not quite as clear as it is the Xperia Z1 Compact’s Full HD competitors. Sony's improvements to image quality and black level are much more noticeable than any lack of sharpness. The Xperia Z1 Compact doesn’t suffer from many of the screen issues we noticed while reviewing the Z1, either. 

The decades Sony has spent crafting TVs mean that it knows or thing or two about image quality and display technology. It’s quite apparent that this knowledge is trickling into phone screens, as the colours are deep and accurate while the brightness is solid.

Sony claims its Triluminos display technology provides a larger colour palette than on competitor phones. This is a bold claim, but a solid one this time around. Colours are visibly more accurate and deeper than the iPhone 5S's and we found watching movies and TV programs on it a pleasure. On the flip side the Xperia Z1 Compact is not quite as bright as the most dazzling phones, but it’s still bright enough to see in strong daylight. Whites also are not quite perfect, but the better colours and blacks are a trade-off we’d take any day. 

Viewing angles are a lot better than on the Z1

Phones are individual devices so viewing angles aren’t as important as they are on other products like tablets or laptops, however we’re pleased to note these are also significantly improved over the Z1. 

Sony Xperia Z1 Compact: Performance and apps

The Xperia Z1 Compact uses the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU. This is a processor we’ve had plenty of experience with and it is plenty fast for the vast majority of users.

You’ll not experience any significant slow-down or delay in opening apps, and moving through menus is zippy. Games look great and run superbly too. Real Racing 3 plays like a dream and the excellent colour reproduction shows off the cars in all their sun-drenched glory.
Real Racing 3

The Z1 Compact zooms past phones like the HTC One Mini and is the fastest Android we’ve ever tested, as of February 2014. It is even faster than the iPhone 5S in some tests. Whether it's down to software massaging of the score or better memory management, the scores of 2,836 for Geekbench 3 and 19,012 for 3D Mark’s Ice Storm Unlimited are almost 10 per cent faster than the Z1. It'll soon be topped once Snapdragon 805 phones surface, though, possibly by the end of the month.

The Xperia Z1 Compact is as fast as you can get at present, but all that power comes with a minor problem. The Compact gets hot under stress. Not ridiculously hot like the Xperia Z, released a few years ago, but it gets a little more toasty than we like when playing games or watching video. Sony has been clever, though. It has placed the processor at the centre of the back of the phone meaning most of the heat dissipates without making your hands too warm, or your ears burn when you take a call. 

Unlike Samsung and HTC, Sony chooses to only apply light touches to the Android 4.3 operating system on the Xperia Z1 Compact. This means performance isn’t affected by software detritus and you get most of the 16GB of on-board storage to use as you wish. Add to that a microSD slot that takes cards up to 64GB and you’re able to keep oodles of music and TV on the Z1 Compact.

However, the internal speaker is not great. While loud enough at max power, audio lacks clarity when compared to the HTC One or iPhone 5S.

Sony Xperia Z1 Compact: Camera

The Xperia Z1 Compact's camera sounds like a corker. A 20.7-megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor should beat the competition - bar the Nokia Lumia 1020 - hands down. Unfortunately, just like the Xperia Z1, it is slightly disappointing.

The Xperia Z1 Compact is automatically set to take photos using an intelligent auto setting at eight megapixels, which seems odd considering it has an extra twelve-odd in reserve. The reasons for this become clear when you take pictures in manual 20.7-megapixel mode. 

Photos at maximum resolution lack clarity, sharpness and definition. This is surprising considering the megapixel count. Low-light shots are extremely dark and noisy when shooting at full-res too. It’s a predictable result of packing so many pixels into such a tiny sensor but it’s disappointing that images are distinctly worse than the lower resolution Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5S.

Z1 Compact London

Results between 8MP auto and 20.7MP manual vary wildly

Use the 8-megapixel intelligent auto function, however, and things get much better. Colour accuracy and sharpness of photos taken in good light are significantly improved when compared to the murky manual mode.   

Some hefty photo post-processing leads to incredibly bright low-light shots – so incredible that I had to check twice to ensure I hadn’t left the flash on. Impressive detail levels are captured considering the darkness of the room but it is evident that the image is not particularly true to the conditions it was taken in. The colour of the tangerine is too orange, and its edges are very fuzzy. By comparison the same shot taken with an iPhone 5S looks more true to life. In a dimly lit pub, however, you may well prefer the increased detail and brightness so this is more a matter of taste. 

Z1 Compact iPhone 5S low light

The heavy post processing on the Z1 Compact leads to some plasticky surfaces but loads of light

Z1 Compact macro

The Z1 Compact copes well with macro shots

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact can also take Full HD video. Focusing and movement capture is good although videos come out a little darker than we’d like.You won’t be taking any amazing selfies, but the 2-megapixel front camera is perfectly adequate for video calling.

Sony Xperia Z1 Compact: Battery life

The Xperia Z1 Compact Sony is about 1mm thicker than the Z1, but we easily forgive the extra bit of bulk when it lets the phone pack-in a decent 2300MAh battery.

That’s a smaller battery than the Z1's, but the smaller, lower-res screen offsets the difference. It's the same-size battery as the 5-inch Full HD Nexus 5, and manages to last a good deal longer than that phone.

We easily managed a heavy day of use (excluding gaming) with battery saving mode on and still went home in the evening with more than 20 per cent to spare. Usage included two hours of 3G browsing, several hours of GPS navigation, 50 photos taken, an hour of calls, texts and two hours of watching on-device video all on 75 per cent brightness. Used more sparingly we managed to get almost two days of use from it. It offers impressive stamina.

While a 30 minute blast adds 25 per cent of battery life from empty there is a note of caution – if you decide to live on the edge and turn Stamina Mode off and play a couple of hours of a 3D game you’ll struggle to last a full day.

Sony Xperia Z1 Compact: Call and signal quality

The Z1 Compact's call quality is excellent. You can hear the person on the other end of the line, and they you, as clear as a bell, even when on a noisy train or walking down a windy main road. It uses a second noise cancelling mic to help out in situations like this.

Wi-Fi signal is also strong, but we did notice that signal was randomly dropped on occasion even when we were not mobile. This only lasts for a few seconds and never occurred during a call but did while 3G browsing a few times. 
Xperia Z1 Compact

Should I buy the Xperia Z1 Compact?

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact is the best small Android phone on the market. It’s also one of the best Android phones, full stop.

If you find 5-inch phones a bit of a handful, the Compact will be right up your street. It is superbly designed, has an excellent screen, stonking performance and even a memory card slot. It also comes with one of the most impressive party pieces any phone has to offer – it’s waterproof to 1.5m. Add that it costs a reasonable £430 (as much as £120 less than its 5-inch brother) and you have a very compelling proposition indeed. 

If a Full HD 5-inch phone is a must, consider the Nexus 5 for £130 less or the older Galaxy S4 for around the same price. The S4 has a slower processor while the Nexus 5 has an inferior camera and no microSD. 

Sony Xperia Z1 Compact: Verdict

It’s not the smallest or lightest phone on the market but it exudes quality and class in every area. In the Xperia Z1 Compact Sony has created a truly mighty mini.

Next, read our best phones round-up