Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Review: The little smartphone that could

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact review: Ever wanted the capabilities of Sony’s latest XZ1 flagship in a smaller form factor or looking for the Android equivalent of an iPhone SE? The Xperia XZ1 Compact should be right up your street.

People always splutter with surprise when they’re told that smartphones with screens under 5-inches are considered ‘small’ in 2017, but if you’re looking for a decently powerful blower that doesn’t break that size barrier, chances are you’re fishing in a decidedly small pond; occupied almost exclusively by Apple and Sony.

If you’re not of the iOS persuasion, then Sony’s Compact family really is one of the few worthwhile alternatives out there or at least it should be, assuming the new Xperia XZ1 Compact is any good…

The £500 pint-sized smartphone undoes the misstep of its predecessor, 2016’s Xperia X Compact, which broke with tradition and gave us more middling hardware than any of its previous incarnations. The XZ1 Compact sports many of the same top-tier components as the 5.2-inch screen-laden standard Xperia XZ1, including its Snapdragon 835 processor and cutting-edge Motion Eye camera.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Review: Design

Sony’s design language has come under fire of late, as although the underlying hardware being used in its smartphones is keeping pace with current trends, the general forms of its flagship handsets haven’t evolved all that much since the original Xperia Z that launched back in 2013. Manufacturers often have to tread a line that requires their products to look distinct without their designs becoming stale and the likes of the Apple and Sony have both passed the point of acceptability with their most recent handsets. Apple is already correcting course with the eye-catching new iPhone X, Sony is currently still entrenched in its old ways.


Thankfully, Kenichiro Hibi, Sony’s MD for India, recently told The Indian Express that Xperia fans “can expect a complete[ly] new design” when the company launches its next wave of smartphones, which will presumably arrive next year at MWC in Barcelona. Whilst this does suggest that there is light at the end of the tunnel with regards to the company’s smartphone aesthetics, it doesn’t help the XZ1 Compact all that much.

As the role of every Compact phone is to squeeze the same amount of tech as its larger siblings into a smaller footprint, you shouldn’t be surprised by the bump up in thickness it exhibits (9.3mm, compared to 7.4mm on the standard XZ1). However, the actual design language used by the XZ1 Compact feels too familiar, and a little inelegant.

Its squared appearance is almost identical to that of the Z5 Compact, meaning it feels chunky in-hand and won’t readily slide into a pocket like thinner comparable devices. The forms at play simply don’t flow, giving it an awkward, blocky, mismatched aesthetic (opting for the black colourway goes some way to alleviating this effect).

That said, the materials Sony’s employed do feel nice in the hand, with a smooth composite wraparound body, metal caps at either end with polished edges and easily reachable hardware controls running along its right side, including an impressively responsive fingerprint sensor-laden power key, and a dual-detent shutter button.

Aside from a sturdy build, one other reason to love the XZ1 Compact’s build over its predecessor’s is that it reintroduces water resistance with IP68 certification. We wish Sony would switch to the thinner nanoSIM/microSD card trays used by the likes of Apple and Samsung on their most recent water-resistant phones, as the sizeable flap on the Compact’s lower left side is yet another element that adds obvious breaklines into its design.

What works?

The XZ1 Compact feels well built and its small size makes one-handed use a doddle. The reintroduction of IP68-certification is a welcome inclusion too.

What doesn’t?

Just as with Sony’s larger handsets, the design language at play feels stale. The XZ1 Compact is understandably chunky but some refinement to its aesthetics would have been appreciated.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Review: Screen and media

Sony’s smartphone displays always offer a great viewing experience and whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with the 4.6-inch panel used on the XZ1 Compact, we can’t help but feel that it represents an opportunity missed.

This year’s XZ Premium and the XZ1 are amongst the first phones on the market to support HDR visuals and yet the XZ1 Compact loses out on this powerful new capability. A resolution bump would have been a welcome change too, with 720p HD serving as the standard since the original Z1 Compact.

Despite losing out on some of Sony’s most impressive mobile display innovation to date, the Compact’s screen still benefits from the company’s X-Reality engine and its Triluminos tech, both of which ensure you get bright, accurate visuals with impressive colour and contrast that you can tailor to your preference with its various viewing modes. Viewing angles are arguably more important on a smaller device such as the Compact and thankfully the IPS LCD puts in a fine effort, with only minimum brightness drop-off at more extreme angles.

Shrinking beneath the 5-inch barrier also makes one-handed usage far more palatable (especially as Sony’s Android overlay doesn’t include a one-handed mode) and zipping around the XZ1 Compact’s interface with a single mitt is, thankfully, a doddle.

As for audio, Sony’s dual front-facing S-Force virtual surround sound speaker setup doles out impressive sound (50 percent more than previous models, according to Sony) with minimal distortion. It takes its place amongst the output capabilities of the iPhone 8 and the HTC U11’s BoomSound arrangement, albeit with the phone’s back vibrating as a side effect of listening at full pelt.

If you’re more likely to strap on some cans or put in some buds, the Compact also offers up a cornucopia of tailor-made extras, with High-Resolution audio support, Sony’s own Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE HX) on-hand to up the perceived quality of tracks that are more heavily compressed, fine-grain control over sound output with a built-in equaliser, aptX HD support for wireless audio and more – in essence, it’s jam-packed.

What works?

Sony gives you plenty of control over the XZ1 Compact’s viewing experience and the dedicated audio software on offer should satiate the needs of most audiophiles too.

What doesn’t?

We weren’t expecting a 4K screen at this size but a bump in resolution and/or the inclusion of HDR support wouldn’t have gone amiss. Instead, we get the same 720p HD viewing experience we’ve had since the original Compact.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Review: OS and features

Sony has demonstrated great restraint with each subsequent release of its modified Android experience. The XZ1 Compact not only benefits from running the latest and greatest build of Android available right now, version 8.0 Oreo, it also isn’t weighed down by excessive modifications to the underlying experience, or a wealth of Sony-branded duplicate apps.

There are a few doubles but each has the odd unique feature or capability that brings something genuinely appealing to the table. You have plenty of control when customising the look and feel of the software, with dynamic wallpapers, each colour-matched to the four shades of XZ1 Compact available (black, Warm Silver, Venus Pink and Moonlit Blue), as well as a theme store to really switch up the device’s software aesthetic.

Standout features that show off the Compact’s hardware are also on offer, like some of the more stylised camera shooting modes and the 3D Creator tool. This puts a surprisingly competent 3D scanner into the phone’s skill set, giving you the ability to make impressively detailed 3D models of objects and people for perusal both locally, online via social media and, potentially, in a physical form thanks to native 3D printing compatibility.

The Google Assistant is also on-hand, along with native support for PS4 Remote Play, plus a few third-party offerings that some users might appreciate, like reader apps from Kobo and Amazon, as well as AVG Protection, all of which can be disabled if you feel they’re just in the way.

What works?

Not only is the XZ1 Compact one of the first to run the latest version of Android, Sony also hasn’t mucked about with it too much, meaning whilst the user experience is still decidedly Sony, it doesn’t feel overbearing of slow the phone down.

What doesn’t?

There are some duplicate and pre-loaded app that won’t be to everyone’s liking, but at least you can disable the lot if you never plan on using them.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Review: Performance and battery

Where the XZ1 Compact stands apart from its predecessor is in a return to flagship-class silicon. Just like the standard XZ1 and XZ Premium from earlier in the year, this latest Compact is powered by Qualcomm’s best and brightest Snapdragon 835 octa-core chipset, backed up by 4GB of RAM. Benchmarking (Antutu) places it in good company, amongst the likes of the LG G6, Galaxy S8 and Sony’s own XZ Premium, with a score of 158374.

Paired with the lesser demands of the phone’s 720p HD display you can expect unquestionably fast and fluid performance. That said, reliability was called into question on more than one occasion, with the odd stutter and restart which we’ve pinned down to the early state of the software onboard. Indeed, in the time we reviewed the phone, one such repeatable bug was ironed out and Sony will hopefully continue to hold the reins tightly in order to avoid any embarrassing behaviour from this otherwise beefy smartphone hardware, once it’s in the hands of consumers.

That 720p HD resolution likely also goes some way to blessing the phone with its outstanding battery life. The phone uses the same-sized 2700mAh cell as the larger XZ1, but can comfortably last two days in general use. it’ll likely give you more if you only plan on using it to occasionally check Facebook and snap a few photos. Sony has also considered long-term battery health with its integrated Qnovo tech, which analyses your charging behaviour and then sets up an automated power plan to avoid overcharging the cell repeatedly; the end goal being that the day-to-day battery life of the Compact degrades at a slow rate than it otherwise would.

What works?

A small phone with a modest display resolution, twinned with one of the best chipsets on the market (not to mention plenty of RAM) is a recipe for success, meaning the XZ1 Compact is as capable as its larger flagship siblings with regards to performance. A classic trait of the Compact line also endures with the excellent battery capabilities this phone offers.

What doesn’t?

At launch, the software is a little buggy, so it’s up to Sony to ensure such problems are ironed out quickly. You also only get half as much internal storage as the standard XZ1 at 32GB.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Review: Cameras

Our XZ1 Compact camera review gives you the full picture with regards to the phone’s photographic capabilities, but the main takeaway is that Sony has squeezed the same exceptional Motion Eye camera technology from the standard XZ Premium/XZ1 into the 19-megapixel snapper on this latest Compact.

What works?

It shows a particular flair for capturing light and colour, and also possesses some rather unique features, such as breathtaking 960fps slow-motion video capture and augmented reality shooting modes. It also offers some seriously impressive gyroscope-based electronic image stabilisation within video footage.

What doesn’t?

Image processing takes a little longer than we’d like, stills aren’t perfect and the front-facing wide-angle snapper tells porky pies by spitting out uprezed (approximately) 3-megapixel photos as 8-megapixels shots when not using the wide-angle shooting mode.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Review: Verdict

Sony has restored the good name of its Compact range with this latest offering. The £499 asking price takes you most of the way to the full flagship experience offered up by standard Xperia XZ1, with the last £100 difference manifesting in the XZ1 Compact’s comparatively underwhelming screen tech.

Despite a lack of HDR or a sharper panel, the overall capabilities of the Xperia XZ1 Compact mean it’s more than a match for the now ageing iPhone SE, arguably the only other powerful pint-sized mobile worth considering in 2017.

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