Lets forget the design and the specs of the Z1 Compact for a moment and instead wax nostalgic on what it is like to have a high-end Android phone with a smaller screen. I say "smaller screen" but the last time such a device existed, this so called smaller screen was actually considered huge and expansive! Now of course, a large screened phone can get up to and beyond six inches along its diagonal and indeed, Sony sells a fantastic example of the breed in their Z Ultra and so the Z1 Compact suddenly feels tiny.
So why is any of this important or even relevant? Well, the biggest selling single model of a smartphone today is the Apple iPhone 5s. And it is small. And it is high-end. In fact, it is astonishing that none of the Android device manufacturers have cottoned on to this sooner and done something about it. Finally though, Sony have, and boy have they knocked it out of the park with this one. Ever since I pulled the Z1 Compact from its generously appointed box, the thought of nails being hit on the head has come to mind.
Design and specs
As boring as it may be, it is worthwhile discussing the box. It must be noted, that I have a full UK retail box for a network unlocked phone here, so your experience may vary between different countries and networks. This is not something I would normally bring up in a device review, but I was genuinely surprised and amused with what Sony have included. The surprising part was the inclusion of a very useful USB On The Go cable which allows you to connect a USB storage device to the phone. The amusing part of the included package are the screen protectors. Like most Sony devices, the Z1 Compact comes with a factory installed shatter proof screen protector. So I now have a screen protector sitting on top of my screen protector! Unfortunately, there is a less funny consideration here. Sony do not use Gorilla Glass but rather a different type of screen which then requires a shatter proof plastic protector which is in turn not scratch resistant. So your glass fronted phone feels a bit plasticky and is in danger of being scratched unless you apply another screen protector. Enough of this nonsense Sony, lets just get some proper toughened scratch resistant glass on your devices, just like everyone else.
Talking of the screen, Sony have finally managed to make a good one. It has been something of a running joke for a while now that Sony cannot make a decent phone screen. The Xperia Z and then Z1 both had fairly disappointing displays with terrible viewing angles and a washed out colour palette. Finally, this has basically been fixed. I am being a little non-committal here as even after two weeks using the phone, I cannot decide how good the screen is. It is a proper IPS display which means we do get excellent viewing angles and it is fairly bright too, but I don't think it is quite up there with the best in the business. Don't get me wrong, a 720p 4.3" IPS screen with a super high pixel density in excess of 340 PPI is never going to be terrible, but it doesn't quite have the deep blacks and super punchy colours that you get with an HTC or LG screen. I am still more than happy with it, but in ultimate terms, there are better displays out there.
The Z1 Compact is a relatively small phone. You can see how it compares to the iPhone 5s and Xperia Z Ultra. It may be relatively small in todays phone market, but it packs a massive punch. Just like its bigger brothers, it comes with a 2.2Ghz Snapdragon 800 system with 2Gb RAM and 16Gb storage. Sony have even managed to find room for SD Card expansion. This is great packaging despite the Z1 Compact being very slightly thicker than most devices these days. As with most Sony products, the Z1 Compact is also waterproof which is very useful if you want to go swimming with your phone!
One of the downsides of the waterproofing here is that the standard microUSB power socket is behind a port cover. Sony mitigate this a little by providing a magnetic charging port which is not covered at all, but it is a real shame they don't provide a cable for this in the box. You can buy a dock separately, and it might well be worth it if you find the port cover annoying. Luckily, there is no cover over the 3.5mm headphone jack which is situated at the top of the phone. The speaker, found along the bottom of the device, does not sound like it has any protection even though clearly it must. It is a loud and clear unit.
The Z1 Compact is a very square phone. OK, it is actually rectangular, but you get the idea. The omni-balance design introduced just over a year ago with the Xperia Z works much more successfully on the slimmer Z1 and Z Ultra, the Compact is just a little chubby.
It remains quite comfortable to use, but I take issue with the slightly spongy power button which is too low on the right hand side, as well as the position of the magnetic charging contacts which my fingers rested on all too often. Why Sony decided to put the volume rocker beneath the power button is beyond me. It is not a terrible decision, but it is odd given the amount of space above the power button which also happens to be where your fingers fall when holding the phone.
The worst part of the design of the Z1 Compact is found on the back. Instead of being covered in a nice piece of glass, it is plastic. And not the type of plastics we like from HTC and Nokia but rather closer to the slimy type of materials used by Samsung and LG in the recent past. It is in no way that bad, but does ruin the effect somewhat. Thankfully, the whole phone is encased inside an aluminium frame, adding a touch of class.
Performance is predictably stunning given that unlike many smaller versions of flagship phones, the Z1 Compact has the same basic specs as its bigger brother, the Z1. In fact, with fewer pixels to push around, it is sometimes even better. This is a great job from Sony. Apps open extremely quickly and everything is very smooth and fast, testament to the Snapdragon 800.
Even though 16Gb of storage is included, Sony also make available microSD card expansion which works as expected and is not yet hindered by the changes in Android 4.4 which stop you writing to the storage card. Connectivity options are as wide and varied as you expect. Sony are fans of NFC and they definitely push the technology a little with an icon on the back of the phone and NFC enabled by default. The full range of Bluetooth, WiFi and 4G radios are all present and work properly.
If you insist on using your phone as a phone and making phone calls, the Z1 Compact will not disappoint with voice quality. It was flawless in my time with it. One slight annoyance is that the screen is slow to switch on when moving the phone away from your head. In general data transferred at excellent speeds, especially over 4G networks. The overall cellular performance of the Z1 Compact is outstanding.
So we can say that unlike most mini versions of flagship devices, the Z1 Compact performs properly, has a great screen and decent design and build quality. What about the other areas where most mini devices fall down? Specifically, the camera and battery life. Well, lets look at the latter first.
The Z1 Compact packs a 2300mAh battery which is good for the size of device. The ever so slightly larger Moto X has a 2200mAh unit while the S4 Mini only has a 1900mAh battery. These raw numbers do not tell the whole story though. The Z1 Compact battery life is nothing short of stunning. It can easily power its way through a whole day, often with upwards of 6 hours screen time, even with a Pebble connected and so the bluetooth radio in use. I found that during a day of light use, it would comfortably have more than 50% of the available battery remaining making this a genuine two day device. It should be noted too that I use 4G and live and work in areas with very weak signal. I can only imagine what the battery life would have been like in a good signal area.
And so we come to the camera. Whilst this can be highly subjective, you cannot argue with the specs on paper. The Z1 Compact has a 20.7 megapixel sensor topped with a Sony G lens. That sensor is relatively large for a phone and surely contributes to the large bezel above the screen. I suspect Sony could not fit this camera module behind the screen without an unsightly hump. The camera is backup up by a decently powerful LED flash.
The camera has a few tricks up its sleeve, not least the use of oversampling to create 8 megapixel images by combining multiple pixels into one. This is the same technique Nokia use in their Pureview cameras. It allows for some degree of digital zoom with almost no loss of clarity. When you first fire up the camera software, it loads into Superior Auto mode which does all the thinking for you to generate these oversampled images. It detects low light conditions, macro mode etc and does a surprisingly good job of understanding the scene you are trying to shoot.
If you want access to all the available pixels from the sensor, switch to manual mode which allows for the selection of the type of scene being shot, white balance control and exposure settings. In addition, there is an HDR mode as well as digital image stabilisation.
Similarly to Windows Phone, there are a number of camera apps that can be used including a ridiculous AR effect app which adds virtual elements such as dinosaurs and an underwater scene. These are very cartoony and oddly out of character with what is otherwise a very serious phone and camera app. Another app is for panoramas which work well enough and Timeshift burst which takes a series of shot and helps you pick the best one. The burst mode actually works really well, but having to switch to that camera app makes it less useful.
So the camera has all the usual sorts of tricks and modes and a fair amount of custom control. But that is not all. The Z1 Compact has a two stage camera button. Press it half way down and it focuses on your subject. Press it fully down and it captures a picture. As expected, you can set the camera button to wake the device straight to the camera app and even to immediately shoot a picture. You cannot change which app it opens. Whilst a camera button is a great addition to any device and is quick to operate here, it is not perfect. The button itself is very small and the range of travel is very limited making it quite hard to use the focus mode properly. Still, it's better than not having the camera button and you don't have to use it. One thing to be aware of is that using the camera button can actually make it hard to keep the phone steady leading to blurred pictures.
As for picture quality, the Z1 Compact is a capable camera and does take some very nice images. Sometimes those images are absolutely stunning. It is particularly effective when faced with mixed lighting conditions, coping better than any other camera phone I have used except perhaps the Nokia Lumia 1020. In dark environments, it is able to pick out detail that most other phones will not have a hope of capturing, although it can also suffer from excessive noise. I still think it captures a good level of detail for the available light. Outdoors, the Z1 Compact seems to overexpose images and lose detail in light areas of a shot very quickly which is a shame. However, it is more than capable.
All is not perfect though as the focus is slow and can be unreliable. The camera app can be a bit slow to load and will try to re-focus far too readily. There is something very odd about the time it can take to capture and all too often an image is totally out of focus unexpectedly. This slow focus and lack of optical image stabilisation can cause real issues as you can tell in the macro shot sample included below.
The biggest problem here though is with the software processing Sony employs. In creating the oversampled images that Superior Auto mode generates, colours can get over exposed whilst images somehow also manage to become over exposed. In manual mode, it is simply too much effort to get the right shot. I can only suggest - and strongly suggest - a third party camera app which is able to capture all 20.7 megapixels, with far less processing but enough auto detection to not have to manually change scene, exposure etc. There are plenty in the Play Store. Thankfully, Sony could fix this problem with a software update and we can only hope they will.
You can click on any of these samples to view a full sized image. These were all taken in Superior Auto mode except for the indoor shot taken in both Superior Auto and Manual mode to give an idea of how heavily Sony processes images. The full 20.7 megapixel shot is far superior. These were all taken with the stock camera software, but using an app such as Camera Awesome allows you to access all of the pixels on the lens and get a much better auto shooting mode. Frustratingly, the Sony camera software does not even remember that it has been set to Manual mode all the time.
Indoor Superior Auto:
Onto the software side of the Z1 Compact and what we have is Sony's standard high-end software build just as we see on the Z1 and Z Ultra. It runs on Android 4.3 which is fine by me. I would rather have the amazing battery life and fast performance on offer here than a rushed update although it is getting to the point where enough time has passed and Sony need to get an update out.
The look and feel of the software is a mix of sombre darkness and slightly too playful and cartoony. The colourful wavy default background has fairly dark edges but really does nothing to show off the new screen. Something a little bolder would have been welcome. What is welcome is the flexibility on offer.
Up to seven home screens are on offer and you get to choose which is the default. Widgets and apps can be added via a rather nifty customisation view too. A variety of themes are on offer which affect things such as the wallpaper and highlight colours throughout the user interface.
Sony include a number of customised apps including the calendar, messaging, dialler and contacts, settings and alarm as well as a keyboard. In addition there are various Sony services on board including video unlimited as well as some duplicate apps such as Walkman and Play Music which broadly do similar things. Obviously Sony want to push their own services but the best thing that can be said about these apps is that they can be disabled easily. Once Google put the dialler and launcher from the Nexus 5 into the Play Store as we hope they will, there will be no need to use any of the included Sony customised apps. During my time with the device, I didn't bother with these apps, they are simply no better than the Google apps and often a little worse.
Special mention though to the keyboard which I found excellent despite its rather small spacebar. I still prefer the stock Android keyboard or SwiftKey, but Sony have done a better than average job with their offering.
The power saving options are quite interesting as Sony include a Stamina Mode which will disable your WiFi and cellular radios when the screen is off in an effort to save battery in standby mode. You can still receive calls and texts, but only the apps you explicitly choose can sync data. The location based WiFi is another nice feature which uses cell location - not battery hogging GPS - to record the locations where you have an active WiFi connection. When you leave those areas, the WiFi switches off entirely. When you come back to a location that has been saved, the WiFi switches back on and reconnects automatically. This works surprisingly well although it is hard to measure its effect on battery usage.
Of course there is a Playstation Mobile app but this is something best avoided as the content is sparse and it is slow to operate.
The app drawer is highly customisable and you can choose your own layout including the use of folders. Apps can be shown in alphabetical order, in order of most used and last installed too. There is something for everyone. The notification drawer has Sony's customised quick toggles and you can choose which are shown and in what order. On this smaller screen, the stock Android version of these which sit on the reverse of the notifications is a better solution, but the Sony implementation is not bad at all.
I still struggle to understand why companies such as Sony bother to write their own calendar, dialler and messaging apps. They don't seem to add any value. Regardless, the software on the Z1 Compact is not at all difficult to get along with and is easy to disable on the whole. The fact it seems extremely fast and stable merely serves to increase my feeling that alongside HTC Sense, this is the only customised software for Android that is worth keeping.
If like me you are looking for a flagship Android device but do not want a large screen, the Z1 Compact is the best of a very small list of phones. The only real competition that gets close to fulfilling these criteria is the Motorola Moto X, but it is not a totally fair comparison. For starters, the Z1 Compact has a significantly greater amount of power at its disposal even if the Moto X feels like a proper high end phone. The Moto X falls down in two significant ways though, it has a poor camera and weak battery. It is a far more complex device than that and if it had a camera that was usable, it would present stronger competition to the Z1 Compact.
The Z1 Compact's biggest problem is that Android seems so much better optimised for larger screens. Compared to an iPhone for instance, some elements on the screen are strangely small and text can be very slightly difficult to read. The iPhone is so precisely optimised for its screen size. Google have had 3 generations of Nexus phones falling into the 4.7" screen or larger category and the feel of Android has been heavily influenced by that. To compound this feeling, Sony have not done enough to distinguish the Z1 Compact's software from that which runs on the 5" screened Z1 either, and they even include mini floating apps which are a total waste of time on this size screen.
Despite any negatives, Sony have done a great job with this phone. I like the design, and the way it operates. I wanted a phone with more compact dimensions, decent battery and a great camera. The Z1 Compact is the closest we have come in the Android space for a long time, and it was totally worth the wait.