Waterproof to 1.5m
Long battery life
Wi-Fi reception could be better
Not yet Android KitKat
Lots of Sony bloatware pre-loaded
Like action heroes, the latest smartphones seem to be constantly bulking up, especially when it comes to the size of their screens. Not everyone wants a huge mobile bursting out of their trouser pocket or cluttering up their bag though, and these are the people Sony has in its sights for the Xperia Z1 Compact. The handset is essentially a shrunken version of the company's premium Z1 phone. Nothing new there, owners of the mini version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One are probably thinking. However, unlike those miniaturisation attempts, Sony's Z1 Compact retains all the power of the original, but just crams it into a more petite, and arguably more palatable, form factor. It sounds like a winning formula on paper and – apart from a few niggles – in practice it does turn out to be a top notch blower.
Design: If it ain't broke
If you like the look of the Z1 then you're going to like the Z1 Compact too, as both understandably share a similar design aesthetic. It still looks like a glossy, rectangular slab, but the high-quality glass and aluminium material used in its construction help it to look suitably premium.
It's not perfect, though, as the design isn’t as clean as the likes of the iPhone 5. For example, the slightly knobbly, circular power button on the right-hand side seems visually out of the kilter with the slim and thin volume rocker switch and camera button that sit beneath. Also, the indent for the magnetic charging connector on the left-hand side feels lumpy under your fingers when you're holding the phone during a call. It's slightly annoying too that the microUSB charging port is hidden behind a fiddly flap, just like the SIM and microSD card slots.
These flaps are necessary because – like the bigger Z1 – the Z1 Compact is waterproof to 1.5m. This is a great feature, especially if you're prone to a bit of clumsiness now and again (and who isn’t?). However, Sony managed to waterproof the headphone jack without needing to add a protective flap, so we wish it had done the same for the microUSB port. To be fair, there is the option of charging the handset via a magnetic charging dock, bypassing the need to use this port at all, but that dock costs an extra £30 on top of what is already a pricey phone.
Build: Feel the quality
At 140g this model is relatively heavy, but it also feels like it's well bolted together and the materials have a satisfyingly premium feel. The glossy rear does collect more finger prints than the cast of CSI, though, and more alarmingly it seems to scratch relatively easily too. After just a few days of pretty careful handling it had already picked up quite a few minor nicks on the rear.
Also, it's worth pointing out that despite the fact it uses a smaller 4.3-inch screen size, it's not quite as compact as it could have been. It's only around 3mm shorter and narrower than the HTC One X, for example, even though that model uses a significantly larger 4.7inch display.
The screen is excellent, though. It's got a lower resolution than its bigger brother, as it tops out at 1280 x 720 rather than 1920 x 1080 pixels. However, that's still plenty of pixels for a display of this size. Even when you're zoomed out on a website, text still looks crisp and sharp. The overall quality of the display is better than that found on the Z1 too. The biggest difference is that it has wider viewing angles, so colours and contrast don’t shift as much when you tilt the phone around in your hand.
The screen has bags of brightness on tap too (especially if you disable the automatic brightness control). As it also delivers fairly deep black levels, images tend to have good levels of contrast. Colours look punchy too, and while whites have a slightly cold, blue-ish tone, Sony allows you to tweak the white balance via the Settings menu to give them a warmer look if you want.
Connections: Weak Wi-Fi
As you'd expect of a high-end Android device, the Z1 Compact ticks all the boxes on the connectivity front. It's 4G compatible and also has NFC sitting alongside the usual Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support. However, its Wi-Fi reception is below par and there were quite a few times when it wouldn't hold on to a wireless signal in rooms where other comparable phones had no problems sustaining a reliable link.
Thankfully, its performance on calls is first rate. It delivered exceptionally clean call quality, no doubt helped by the secondary microphone it uses for noise cancelling duties. However, in terms of general signal strength on calls, it's not up there with the best phones and it does seem to struggle a bit in weaker signal areas, especially when it comes to maintaining a HSDPA or 3G data signal.
Performance: Small but powerful
When most other manufacturers shrink down their premium headsets to more manageable proportions, they also gut the processor of a lot of its power. Thankfully, Sony has learned from its mistakes, as the Z1 Compact uses a grown up Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at 2.2GHz and backed up by a healthy 2GB of Ram. Those specs produce a real speed demon that is one of the fastest phones you can buy right now.
Forget about stodgy menu performance or sluggish load times in processor-bashing games – on this handset everything runs along at a blistering pace. It's a marvel to behold, especially if you're upgrading from a phone that's a generation or two behind. The 16GB of onboard storage is reasonably generous too, and if you're an out and out media junkie who stuffs their phone full of music and videos, then you'll be glad to hear that you can also whack cards of up to 64GB in size into its microSD card slot.
While it's true that the Z1 Compact uses a 2300mAh battery as opposed to the 3000mAh power pack found in its bigger sibling, it still offers very impressive battery life. Lighting a smaller screen means the drop of 700mAh over the larger model has no effect, as you can get two days out of the Z1 with fairly light usage. Even if you're really hammering the phone by using it for lots of calls, GPS navigation and web browsing, it'll still easily last more than a full day.
Camera: Switching to manual
The Z1 Compact's camera is on the whole very good and we love the fact it has a hardware button that you can hold down to launch the camera directly from standby mode – a feature we've always admired on Windows phones. The camera uses a 20.7-megapixel sensor, but in the default iAuto modes it captures 8-megapixel images. If you want to capture at the full resolution you have to switch to manual mode instead and the results can look a bit noisy, with pretty obvious speckling in areas of the image.
The iAuto mode, by comparison, produces very good quality photos. It does a neat job of capturing accurate colours and handles shots with more extreme degrees of light and shade well, avoiding blowing out highlights like a lot of cameras on phones tend to do. It also works well in low light, capturing amazingly bright looking images even in very dimly lit locations without the aid of the flash. Sony is obviously doing a lot of post processing on the image to achieve this look, but the results are impressive. People are going to be pretty happy with the shots they take in pubs or clubs when they look back on them the next morning, even if they do have a slightly fuzzy head at the time.
On the software front the Z1 Compact is a bit of a mixed bag. Sadly it runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean rather than 4.4 KitKat, which we'd have preferred. However, Sony has promised that an update to 4.4.2 KitKat is on the way and it's thought that upgrade might also include an overhaul of the user interface. That would be welcome, as Sony's launcher and app drawer isn’t quite as user friendly as HTC's, for example, and there are some oddities in the way some of the added features work. For example, there are a graphical equaliser and some sound enhancement modes available via the phone's Settings menu. However, they only seem to work with Sony's own Walkman app, but not with other music services such as Google Play Music. Also many of the extra apps Sony has installed feel like bloatware but, let's face it, that's an accusation you could level at most Samsung handsets too.