Sony debuted the Xperia Z1 Compact at CES, noting that the consumer who prefers to have a smaller device does not want fewer features. Could Sony take the experience in their flagship smartphone and pack it into a much smaller package without hindering the power user?
In the marketplace, the relative power of a phone in terms of specifications and capability. The more powerful phones will have the larger screens, while the smaller phones (at a lower price) will not be a match for the larger brethren. It’s not a perfect rule, but in general it holds across a manufacturer’s product range.
The sales pitch of the Z1 Compact is simple – it breaks that rule by putting high-end specifications in a smaller package. Announced at CES 2014, the Z1 Compact sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 system, with a 2.2 GHz quad-core Krait CPU, the Adreno 330 GPU, 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of on-board storage (which can be increased with a microSD card). That’s the same chipset as Sony’s current flagship Xperia Z1 smartphone (reviewed here on Forbes).
The Z1 Compact continues Sony’s trend of waterproofing and dustproofing their Xperia handsets, and this handset carries the IP55 and IP58 ratings. The headphone socket is waterproofed on the inside so it remains exposed, while the other posts (including the USB connectivity and charging port, SIM card and microSD card slots) all have protective flaps to seal them against the elements. I’m still surprised that other manufacturers haven’t looked to join Sony in this feature, because it is practical and an easy sell to customers. As long as you remember to keep the flaps closed, the threat of liquid spills to your handset is much reduced.
To get the small size, two areas have been sacrificed. The screen is a 4.3 inch TFT screen with an IPS panel. Running at 1280×768, the 720p screen has a pixel density of 340 ppi, and it’s very sharp. The Z1 Compact is an improvement on previous Xperia handsets, and there is more vibrancy to the colours, and you can see the improvement when viewing handsets side by side. Viewing angles of the content are very wide, but the strong backlighting to create the vibrant colours has a narrower angle, so anyone watching from the side will see a darker screen. Given the Z1 Compact is going to be far more personal than larger devices, this is not a huge issue.
What is useful is the ‘glove’ mode of the screen, which increases the sensitivity of the touchscreen so the handset can be used without taking off your gloves or mittens. Nokia have brought this to their high-end handsets for some time, and it’s good to see it on another device. This is another practical point in Sony’s favour when compared to other Android manufacturers.
The battery in the Z1 Compact is rated at 2300 mAh (compared to 3050 mAh on the Xperia Z1). By current smartphone standards the Z1 Compact is not thin, but I suspect that the 8.5mm has been bulked up slightly to give the handset a decent sized battery.
Coupled with the smaller screen (and therefore the reduced power requirements through less baclkighting to push the colors, and the reduced pixel count of 720p compared to 1020p on larger handsets), the Z1 Compact easily makes it through a busy working day. You can boost this with Sony’s ‘Stamina’ battery management tools. With some aggressive options (including dropping any connectivity when the screen is off, and a low battery mode that disables functions when power is under 20%) you can get two days of functionality out of a single charge without too much effort.
Contrast this to the Samsung Galaxy Mini, which reduces the specifications compared to the Galaxy S4, focuses on the thin svelte design, and has a battery 20% smaller than the Z1 Compact. While I realise the Galaxy Mini is much more fashionable choice, the Z1 Compact has the spare capacity that makes it much more attractive proposition over a two-year contract.
Design wise the Z1 Compact follows Sony’s current ‘OmniBalance’ design ethos, with Gorilla Glass on the front and back of the smartphone (coated with an ant-shatter film that can ping up small scratches and dings relatively easily, I would still recommend using a lightweight case or cover). The sides of the handset are wrapped in an aluminium frame, and there is a good level of chamfer to help sculpt the shape. Sony’s power button (a consistent design touch on their portable devices) is on show, as is a volume rocker and a dedicated two stage camera shutter button (which can also open the camera app). The package weights in at a relatively hefty 139 grams.
It’s still boxy though, lacking the smooth curves and styling that other handsets have. It doesn’t slip easily into your hand, and you will need to make a bit more effort to hold the Z1 Compact compared to a handset like the Moto G. It’s far from a deal-breaker, but if you’re not sure you should try to get some hands on time in-store before purchasing. While it does look quite masculine, the larger battery, waterproofing, and feeling of a robust design that can take some damage, make this a far more attractive design for my tastes.
The focus of this review is mostly on the altered hardware rather than software, because Sony has taken the Xperia Z1 software stack and replicated it on the Z1 Compact. That means all the benefits of Sony’s Android skin are on show. This is clearly Android, and Sony has not tinkered to much with the home screens, desktops, menus or icons. If you are coming from another Android device the learning curve of Sony’s Android variant is minimal. Also bundled is Sony’s own suite of applications, including the Walkman branded music player, image and video viewers, the Sony Reader software and PlayStation Mobile support.
The Xperia Z1 Compact also has the same camera module as the larger Z1. With a 1-2/3 inch sensor, you can take 20 megapixel images, or use Sony’s oversampling option to create smaller images with far more detail. I’m sure the marketing will focus on the 20 megapixel message, but at the same time Sony’s camera software tries to do too much with the raw images. Like many modern smartphones, image contrast and brightness is pushed hard, and aggressive edge sharpening is used. This results in images that look good when viewed on the smartphone screen (either after taking the image or sharing smaller versions of the image online through social networks), but the full-sized picture struggles to look natural when closely examined. While you have access to a number of different shooting modes, and the manual mode allows you access to white balance and exposure settings, you are still left at the mercy of Sony’s post-processing options which you cannot alter. Anyone who places a strong emphasis on smartphone photography will want to look carefully at the Z1 Compact’s output before making a purchase decision.
Sony is using the bundling approach with the Xperia range to help the software stand out as well as the hardware. The majority of the bundled apps cannot be uninstalled, and while 16 GB of storage leaves enough room for most users, you’re still left with apps such as McAfee Security taking up space in the handset and on your app screen that you may not want.
Neither has Sony addressed a long-standing issue with their handsets… they are rarely up to speed with Android releases. Sony is shipping the Xperia Z1 Compact with Android 4.3 and the update to Android 4.4 KitKat is promised ‘in the next few weeks.’ While other manufacturers are shipping handsets with 4.4 and providing updates over the air, Sony has never shown any urgency in moving up the version numbers. They do arrive in time, but if you’re the sort of smartphone user who wants to be as up to date as possible, the Xperia Z1 Compact is going to disappoint you.
Sony’s research shows consumers asking for a powerful phone in a smaller size. I will be very interested to see if this demand through a survey matches the demand and sales. I hope it does, because I know I am in the compact that prefers the smaller form factor.
But if I was recommending the Xperia Z1 Compact, I would not be focusing on just on the size. The battery life on the Z1 Compact is immense for a capable Android device. The smaller and more efficient screen, the extra volume allowing for more capacity than other ‘mini’ devices, and Sony’s aggressive yet functional battery software have created an Android device that can run smartly all day without having to worry if you’ll make it back home to your charger. This is one of the best performing Android devices for battery life of this generation of smartphones.
That’s something Sony should make sure everyone knows when marketing the device. Small does not mean cut down. While the marketing is focusing on the hardware specs in the Z1 Compact, the real strength is in the battery life.
The Sony Z1 Compact shows that size is not everything in the Android game. Manufacturers can put everything in a smaller footprint without compromising on their Android vision. Technically speaking this is a fantastic handset, and I’m fascinated to see if the public support the concept and buy the phone.