If you’ve had your eye on the newest generation of Sony Xperia phones, you might be wondering whether you’re better off going for the £549 full-sized Z3 or its ‘mini’ version, the Z3 Compact, at £429. But smaller versions of flagships are often compromised, weakened versions of their namesakes – how much will you be sacrificing for that £120 saving? The answer is, not much.
The design of the Xperia Z3 Compact is a big hit, judging by all the admiring comments I’ve had over the last few weeks. It helps that I’ve got the Green model, which has an attractive jade hue – it also comes in Black, White and Orange (no fancy colour names here):
Given the much less appealing shade options on the full-size Z3, the Compact got off lightly. The Z3’s ‘Copper’ is – let’s be honest – brown, and its green is much more faded and wishy-washy:
On the Z3 Compact, the tempered glass back is quite slippery, but not to the extent of being droppable. The frosted plastic sides have rounded, bumper-like corners for extra protection, and there are front facing speakers above and below the 4.6-inch screen. I was expecting great things from these, but they were one of the few features of the phone to disappoint: the sound isn’t terrible, but it’s thin and more noisy than I’d expect, and the back vibrates noticeably.
The ports on the sides of the Xperia Z3 Compact are covered with plastic flaps, which require a decent-length fingernail to dislodge. They stay attached to the phone with short, flexible plastic rods, which look like they’d be fairly easy to break, and it’s quite frustrating having to remove a panel every time you want to charge the phone. Still, it’s all for a good purpose: the Z3 Compact has the highest waterproof rating, meaning you can safely drop it in a puddle without fretting (provided all covers are closed, of course). The phone can withstand up to 1.5m of fresh water for up to half an hour, including low-pressure jets (don’t point a hose at it, in other words). This means you can read in the bath, make calls in the rain, and take photos while swimming in freshwater lakes.
The headphone jack is waterproof without needing a plastic cover, so you can jam your ‘phones straight in without faffing. That’s handy, and there’s also a pair of magnetic contacts on the side for the charging dock – it’s available separately for £35, but worth it if you hate the plastic flaps.
There’s an LED notification light on the top left of the handset, above the screen. Brilliantly, if you switch the option on in Settings, this will light up different colours for different kinds of notification. Text messages are white, Facebook notifications are blue, Twitter ones are green, charging is yellow and of course low battery is red. This is a lovely touch and actually made me want to turn on Twitter notifications for the first time ever.
As you’d expect, the Xperia Z3 Compact comes with Android KitKat. More surprising, though, is the fact that it has an identical processor to the Z3: a quad-core Qualcomm SnapDragon 2.5 GHz, which puts it on the same level as full-sized flagships. RAM is a little lower at 2GB rather than 3, but still, that’s an impressively good processor.
And it really performs. Browsing, multitasking and gaming are fault-free, and the phone didn’t slow down or lag at all in weeks of use. It did warm up considerably though, and that warmth can cause the camera app to hold its hands up and quit, so that’s worth being aware of if it’s likely to bother you.
Sony don’t generally interfere with stock Android too much, but they do add lots of undeletable apps. On the Xperia Z3 Compact, these include Garmin Navigation, AVG AntiVirus, Lifelog, NeoReader, and a whole load of Sony music, movie and gaming apps.
There are a lot of touches on this phone designed to appeal to the gamer. There are downloadable themes designed around PlayStation games, a preinstalled PlayStation app, a screen-capture facility to help you record videos of you playing games, and most excitingly, the ability to use your phone as a screen for your PS4. This functionality, called PS4 Remote Play, works on the Xperia Z3, the Xperia Z3 Compact and Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact (with the aid of a special mount) and is scheduled to go live any day now. Unfortunately, it wasn’t available at the time of reviewing, so we couldn’t test it. Still, being able to play the living-room PS4 while sitting upstairs in bed is a very appealing prospect.
The colourful Little Big Planet theme really shows off the bright, crisp screen on the Xperia Z3 Compact. It’s a 4.6-inch HD IPS panel, with a resolution of 1280×720 (so HD, but not full 1080p HD like the full-sized Z3). That gives the Z3 Compact a pixels-per-inch count of 319 – the full-size Z3 has 424, while the HTC One Mini 2, Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini and iPhone 6 all offer 326.
Viewing angles are excellent, with only very slight darkening when you tilt the screen to extreme angles. Photos and videos look fantastic, and you won’t notice that it’s not full HD unless you put it next to a higher-spec display (and who does that?). You can adjust the screen brightness manually or automatically, and the top end brightness is sufficiently squint-making. Blacks are deep and inky and photo colours are faithful. No issues with direct sunlight, either.
Strangely, the official blurb about the phone only talks about ‘tempered’ glass, with no mention of a particular brand. But a post from a Sony employee on the official forums states both Gorilla Glass 3 and Dragontrail X versions of the phone are available, although he goes on to say that there’s no way to tell which one you have. It’s strange that Sony haven’t made use of this clear selling point in their marketing materials, because who doesn’t want to know that their new phone is tough as nails?
This is another area where the Xperia Z3 Compact has identical specs to its bigger brother. The 20.7MP camera has autofocus and an ISO of 12800, the highest in any smartphone. As with previous Xperia models, the camera app is packed with modes you may or may not find useful – the AR Effect one that we previously demonstrated in the Z2 video review is a bit naff and only really good for kids, while adding sound to photos and adding ‘creative effects’ won’t be for most people.
The more useful modes include timeshift video (which lets you slow down a designated segment of your video for dramatic effect), background defocus for SLR-like shots, and sweep panorama for taking epic shots of landscapes and scenes.
Background defocus works best when you’re quite close to the subject, but using the slider to adjust the effect can produce some stunning results:
Panorama mode, sadly, is tricksier. In fact, it’s a complete faff. You have to choose beforehand which direction you want to pan in (competitors like Google Camera just figure out which way you’re moving), and it frequently abandons your shot because you weren’t doing it ‘properly’. It’s told me off for panning too quickly, too slowly, and not for long enough: there’s a set length for every panorama, which means if you don’t fancy doing a huuuuge 180-degree shot and want to choose where your image begins and ends, you’re out of luck. You just have to keep panning until you’ve used up the whole strip, even if that means adding a load of bumf to one end of your image. Yes, you can edit it out later, but it’s annoying.
Also, this mode frequently cut the top or bottom off things that were very much in shot, for reasons I can’t understand, or added black bars. When the panoramas came out well, they were great, but I had to discard a lot.
You can see how I’ve had to include more of the building on the right than on the left, purely to use up the pre-determined panorama shot length.
One basic feature I couldn’t find anywhere on the camera app menu was the fairly standard HDR. This turns out to be because it’s hidden – you have to go into Manual mode, then the opaquely named ‘SCN’ menu (scene selection, apparently), then turn it on – and it only works if you select a resolution of 8MP or lower. You’d basically never figure this out on your own, and it’s a bit shocking to see such a commonly-used feature so buried in the settings when things like augmented reality dollops are accessible from the main menu.
It’s also not made clear that if you choose Superior Auto mode rather than Manual – which all non-experts will do – you’re shooting at 8MP, not the promised 20.7.
That said, pictures taken with this mode are very good, they’re just not the mind-blowing superphotos I was expecting from Sony’s breathless description:
Disappointingly, the 4K video mode warns you that it might fail before you’ve even started filming!
As you’d expect after that, filming in 4K heats the phone up pretty rapidly and often causes it to quit, so don’t expect to film long videos in this mode.
The dedicated hardware camera button is useful, though: you’ll find it on the lower right of the handset, so you can use it like a proper shutter button when shooting in landscape mode. It’s a little slow to start up, but not bad.
The front-facing (selfie) camera has a resolution of 2.2MP, which is standard if a little low compared to the other specs on this phone. If the Superior Auto mode is going to force you to use 8MP, wouldn’t it have been better to have an 8MP main camera and a better selfie one for the same price? Just a thought, Sony.
Selfies vary according to the light quality, but are generally on the fuzzy side of OK:
On the whole, the Xperia Z3 Compact has a very good main camera and an average front-facing, both of which are let down by the thoroughly confusing software and the over-hyped marketing fluff. You can take great photos with this phone (once you’ve navigated the software), but I’d argue it has much stronger selling points than that.
Sony’s claim that the Xperia Z3 Compact has a two-day battery life was received with a fair slice of skepticism. They’re not fibbing, though: the power pack on this phone is an absolute beast.
It’s only 2600 mAh (and non-removable), so I was surprised to see it perform as well as it does – though having a 720p screen rather than 1080 will help. The full-size Z3 has a 3100 mAh battery, which it needs to power its larger, higher-res screen.
The two-day claim will obviously only apply if you’re not absolutely hammering the phone, but if you have a couple of lower-use days, it’ll last easily. We ran our usual test of streaming a film over Wi-Fi with brightness set to max and GPS on. From a full charge, the phone had 73% battery remaining after two hours of movie time. That’s an excellent result, only bested by the full-size Z2 (we haven’t tested the Z3 yet, but its battery is smaller than the Z2’s), which scored 78%. The flagship HTC One M8 scored 66%.
In day-to-day use, the Z3 Compact surprised me constantly. After using a lot of phones, you develop a sixth sense for how much battery will be left when you glance at your screen at a particular time of day. This phone consistently had much higher percentages than I was expecting – double-takes were frequent. In fact, I streamed music over 3G through Spotify and broadcast it via Bluetooth for an entire 3-hour car journey, while using GPS navigation and social media apps, and the Xperia Z3 Compact still had more than 50% battery remaining when I got to the other end. The phone never reached low-battery level in daily use, and I actually stopped carrying around my portable charger. It’s going to be hard going back to phones with a lesser battery after this.
Despite the stellar battery, Sony have included three battery-saving modes with the Z3 Compact: STAMINA, Ultra STAMINA, and low-battery mode. The latter lets you choose which functions to turn on and off when your battery is low, while Ultra STAMINA restricts your phone to only the most basic functions, and normal STAMINA mode stops all data when the screen is off.
Tucked away on the Power Management menu is one of the most useful phone functions I’ve ever seen, which should be front and centre on the home screen, frankly. It’s barely even power-related. It’s called ‘Location-based Wi-Fi’, and automatically switches on the phone’s wi-fi function when it’s in range of one of the wi-fi networks you’ve saved. In other words, instead of manually turning wi-fi on when you get to work, the phone can figure out that you’re in range of your office network and turn it on for you. This is brilliant, and something I spent a very long time manually setting up on my personal phone using Tasker. To have this option in a simple yes/no switch is worth shouting about – not hiding away on a side menu.
With most ‘mini’ versions of flagship phones, the comparison is a killer. They just can’t match up to the top-end specs of their stablemates, and inevitably feel like a watered-down version of the ‘real thing’. But the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact breaks that tradition and stamps on it.
In fact, if this phone had a different name, I suspect it’d be hailed as a flagship in its own right: calling it a small version of a ‘better’ phone is disingenuous when it’s as good as this. The design is beautiful enough to attract admiring comments, the battery life is phenomenal, the screen is excellent and the performance is top-notch. It only stumbles a bit on software – there’s a lot of extraneous nonsense preinstalled and the camera app is confusing at best (I’d suggest using something like Google Camera instead). But these are small concerns on an otherwise outstanding phone. It’s priced fairly, neither cheap nor expensive, and doesn’t leave you with many reasons to shell out more for a full-sized Z3. It’s only really worth it if you want the better screen, but £120 is a bit steep for that.
For a so-called mini, this phone casts a pretty big shadow.
Outstanding battery life
Attractive, waterproof design
Camera app needs improvement
Loads of preinstalled apps
Fiddly cover flaps