In a smartphone world filled with heavyweights vying to be number one, Sony’s Xperia Compact range has always been the bantamweight champ.
With similar specs as the big hitters, only squeezed into a much smaller frame, they were everything you could want if you didn’t have gigantic hands. Or almost everything, anyway.
That changed last year, when the XZ Compact didn’t quite make the weigh-in. A cut-price CPU dented its appeal, which is why Sony has been in training and is now ready to unleash its replacement.
Meet the XZ1 Compact. I went three rounds with one ahead of its big reveal at IFA this week, to see if it’s the contender Sony wants it to be. (That’s the last boxing reference, honest.)
DESIGN AND BUILD
The XZ1 Compact is, funnily enough, a smaller version of the XZ1. I see what you did there, Sony.
Whereas the bigger phone is milled out of a single block of aluminium, the Compact goes for something a little different. It’s made from glass fibre-woven plastic, which sounds more like something you’d find on an F1 race car than a smartphone.
Essentially it’s supposed to be more resistant to bending and twisting, meaning it won’t go crunch if you sit down with one in your pocket.
Add in diamond cut edges, a metallic finish and IP65/IP68 dust and water resistance, and you’ve got an uncompromised design that doesn’t really take any shortcuts to shrink down the size.
Unfortunately, that design isn’t exactly much different from the rest of the Xperia line-up, which has been desperately in need of a refresh for a year or two now. There are still chunky bezels above and below the screen, and the angular shape isn’t anywhere near as slick as the smooth, rounded phones you’ll find from other manufacturers.
Unless you’ve been paying very (very) close attention to Sony’s recent output, you’ll struggle to see how it looks any different to last year’s model - which doesn’t bode well when the rest of the smartphone world is mixing things up with new shapes, materials and bezel-free screens.
Still, it’s small enough for even tiny hands to use. And that’s kind of the point, right?
SCREEN AND SOUND
Up to now, every Xperia Compact has made do with a 720p screen. Hardly a tragedy, especially stretched over a meagre 4.6 inches, but not exactly desirable either.
That changes for 2017, as the XZ1 Compact makes the step up to 1080p. Now we’re talking.
Cramming a Full HD panel in such a compact handset makes all the difference, giving your photos and videos so much more visible detail, and dialling down the pixel grid effect that makes text and icons look blocky.
Sony hasn’t added HDR support here - you’ll need to splash out on the full-size XZ1 if you want your Netflix and Amazon Prime streams to look their best - but otherwise this is a great step forward for the Compact range.
Colours are on point, if a little on the cool side, and brightness was good enough for me to step outside and still be able to see what was on-screen without squinting. The stereo speakers really pack a punch, too. (is that another boxing reference? Sorry.) They pump out 50% more volume than last year’s model, which means music, podcasts and streaming videos are all a joy to listen to - without having to plug in headphones first.
The XZ1 Compact plays nicely with Hi-Res audio, too, and supports Sony’s high quality LDAC wireless protocol if you’ve got a set of compatible Bluetooth cans. As far as audio goes, you’d have to step up to a quad-DAC packing LG G6 to get something better - and then only if you live in the US. We missed out on the DAC magic here in India, so the Xperia has the edge.
In case you hand’t noticed a pattern already, the XZ1 Compact shares its rear camera with the full-size XZ1 - meaning you get the same 19MP sensor, same predictive capture abilities and same ridiculously slow 960fps slo-mo video capture.
That should put it in a class of its own when it comes to small yet capable phones, although picture quality will play a big part here - and we won’t know how it performs until we get a finished phone in for review.
Still, extras like predictive capture and smile detection should make it that little bit easier for camera novices to get shots they’re happy with, without having to risk diving into the manual mode.
Give the dedicated shutter button a squeeze and it’ll rattle off a series of shots, letting you pick the best one - including from before you even pressed the shutter. You can forget missing the moment ever again, apparently.
Burst mode gets tracking autofocus this year, too. Hold down the shutter for up to ten seconds and you’ll get 10fps shooting, where your subject is kept in focus the whole time. I don’t know how fast it is just yet (Sony’s example was a running toddler, but I’m intrigued if it’ll handle sports or motor racing) but it certainly did the job when I tried it on a relatively easy subject.
Of course, Sony’s overly aggressive image processing is still on board, too. That means seriously vivid colours, which don’t always line up with reality. A vase of pink and purple flowers looked far too saturated on-screen when I took a few practice shots, and experimenting with the manual mode didn’t make much difference.
Again, I’ll withhold judgment until a final review, to see how it stacks up with the rest of the Android world.
If the XZ Compact was down in power last year, Sony seems to be making up for it in 2017: the XZ1 Compact is packing a Snapdragon 835 CPU.
Qualcomm’s silicon is practically a requirement for any flagship phone right now, and to show up with less would have been crazy, so I think Sony has made the right move - even if it’ll inevitably push the price up a bit.
Paired with 4GB of RAM, the XZ1 Compact handled just about everything I could throw at it, given the short hands-on time I had with the phone. Apps loaded smoothly, multitasking worked well, and games should tick along at a healthy frame rate too - the Snapdragon 835 usually has to render games at 2K resolution, so 1080p here is practically a walk in the park.
The 2700mAh battery should be plenty, as well - even with the bump in screen resolution, the small screen won’t be draining much juice. We’ll have to wait until a full review to see how much stamina it has, but getting a full day of charge shouldn’t be a problem.
USB-C and fast charging are on board, too, so you’re not waiting around when it’s time to refuel.
Sony’s spin on Android has been getting progressively simpler over the past few years, which has helped speed up how long users are waiting around for updates. The good news is that the XZ1 Compact will arrive with Oreo out of the box, so you’ll be running Google’s latest and greatest straight away.
There are still a few custom icons, a rearranged Settings Menu and a redesigned notification tray, along with a handful of Sony’s own apps pre-installed for good measure, but it won’t take long to adjust to if you’re coming from a different company’s view of what Android should look like.
32GB of on-board storage is maybe a little on the small side, especially when the bigger XZ1 gets 64GB, but at least there’s a microSD card slot for adding more space later should you run low.
The one thing I’m not convinced by? The new 3D Creator app, which scans faces to create 3D models for sharing online or turning into physical replicas with a 3D printer. Sure, the tech works well, and there might be a niche appeal for sharing funky 3D scans of your mates on their Facebook feeds, but it just feels like a big gimmick right now.
Prove me wrong, Sony. Prove me wrong.
SONY XPERIA XZ1 COMPACT INITIAL VERDICT
Sony took its foot off the gas with last year's Xperia X Compact, which focused on the mid-range instead of flying the flag for small-yet-powerful Android phones.
That has changed for 2017, and it's great to see the XZ1 Compact matching its bigger brother on almost every feature. Sure, you don't get an HDR-ready screen, but that just means battery life won't take a beating whenever you stream a bit of Netflix.
The potent CPU and high-resolution camera look very tasty in a handset no bigger than Apple's iPhone SE - which is quickly beginning to show its age. If Sony gets the price right, this could be the most suitable alternative for anyone jumping ship from iOS, but wants to keep a smaller phone.
It sure beats buying jeans with bigger pockets, anyway. We'll be giving the XZ1 Compact a full review a little closer to launch, so be sure to check back for a decisive verdict.