Review: Sony Xperia Z1 Compact

I have to confess to not always agreeing with industry trends. Non-expandable storage and sealed batteries come near the top of my list here. But there’s one trend I heartily approve of – the possibility to get smaller versions of flagship phones. Except you usually don’t – you get a very watered down version that’s 30% smaller but 200% less satisfying. The exception, featured here, is the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact. While by no means perfect, at least you can’t accuse Sony on skimping on the internals….

Z1 front

The ‘phone-sized phone’ with the supercomputer heart – the Xperia Z1 Compact

On the other hand, it’s also a fair question to ask why anyone would want something this size yet with a monster 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor. No, I can’t think of a reason either, other than the geek satisfaction of knowing that your innocuous ‘normal sized’ phone can outperform ‘the best of the rest’. And it’s a lot better than going too far the other way and ending up with something underpowered.

Of course, screen resolution and battery capacity both had to be scaled back to match the physical size, but those parameters aside, everything’s just as it was on the Xperia Z1, already reviewed here. Even the 21MP, 1/2.3”  sensored camera, talked up by Sony with buzzwords galore (e.g. ‘EXMOR R’), yet which failed to live up to the hype on the Z1 and, despite months of possible work on image processing, also disappoints here.

Camera

The Z1 Compact camera – Sony even prints the ‘super specs’ besides the lens…

Let’s kick off with the camera side of things, since this is likely to be one of the reasons, other than hand and pocket-friendly size, that someone might want to choose the Z1 Compact in the first place. It’s often quoted (e.g. on the Z1) as being the ‘best in the Android world’ – that’s as may be, but results are often short of those from the smaller sensored Apple iPhone 5/5S and a long way short of the Nokia camera in the Lumia 1020.

Golf1

Zoomed in photo of a clubhouse in the sun…

Take this snap above, for example – the colours are a bit skewed – below, from my Nokia, is what the clubhouse should look like.

Golf2

…and, courtesy of the Nokia Lumia 1020, what the clubhouse should look like….

It’s not clear how such colour inaccuracies were allowed to creep into the Z1 Compact’s firmware, but someone has clearly been asleep at the wheel. The disappointments continue into noise levels and general handling in low light situations. Take this low light macro shot:

Angel1

Angel statue taken in moderate indoor light…

It was taken indoors under a bulb, but the light really wasn’t that low. Now look at a 1:1 crop from the centre. Look at the noise and grain:

Angel 2

The amateur image processing is all too apparent once you look closely…

Then look at this, below, from the Nokia Lumia 1020:

1020 Angel

Comparison from the 1020, note the colours and cleaner appearance

I make no apologies for comparing the Z1 Compact with the Nokia – both are supposed to be camera champions in their respective ecosystems, both have high megapixel sensors from which they pluck ‘shareable’ results, and both are roughly the same size.

The Z1 Compact did surprisingly well in my traditional party mock-up shot – motion was frozen by virtue of a 1/64s shutter time, but look closely and the actual quality isn’t brilliant, with what’s evidently a very noisy image that’s been stomped all over by Sony’s usual over-zealous noise reduction.

Party1

Mocking up the typical social/party shot. Moving subject, low light etc.

Again, I’ll compare it to the Lumia 1020′s output:

Party2

The 1020′s proper flash and larger sensor makes for a far more satisfying social photo…

Like the Nokia PureView camera phones, the Z1 Compact tries to do more with its high native resolution (i.e. 21MP), but it doesn’t quite pull it off. I appreciate that great strides can be made in firmware updates here, but I have to review the device as it is right now. There’s no evidence of any kind of sophisticated oversampling, any kind of purity, Nokia-style, to reduce noise in the 8MP output images. Maybe that’ll come in an update, maybe not.

Sony does shout about the ability to zoom in – a little – losslessly. As with Nokia in its high (41) megapixel sensored phones, what you’re actually doing is cropping in on the sensor while staying above the baseline – in this case 8MP – output resolution. And this works as advertised, though you only get up to 2x zoom and with the huge caveat that there’s no protection at all from going beyond 2x well into lossy, blocky, digital zoom territory. Sony should have slipped in a software limiter or detent at the 8MP crop limit – it would make all the difference in terms of usability and quality! As it is, there’s a little zoom bar on-screen marked with two shaded areas – after some testing it seems that these are artificial and purely cosmetic, since the transition from lossless to lossy zoom occurs a long way before the indicator hits the next region in the indicator.

Camera 1

Zooming past the lossless/lossy boundary in the camera interface – don’t go by the grey gradation!

This potentially lossless digital zoom is more useful in video mode, since the frame size is obviously much smaller – 1080p works out to about 2MP per frame – and so you get at least 3x genuinely lossless zoom when filming something. And yes, as before, get a little enthusiastic on the volume/zoom buttons and you’re into blocky digital zoom territory and quality takes a nosedive.

Camera modes

Sony’s camera modes – all quite impressive, with ‘Superior Auto’ intelligently shifting traditional ‘scene’ modes according to conditions and focussing distance

Overall, though, imaging on the Z1 Compact is frustrating – the sensor here is over 70% larger than those in most other smartphones (the Lumia 1020 excepted, whose sensor is at least twice the size of the Z1 Compact’s) and yet performance for most subjects isn’t significantly better – and sometimes worse. If Sony’s imaging engineers are on the ball, they’ll realise that something here is underperforming and will re-do all the algorithms to work an apparent miracle. Here’s hoping.

Side left

The Z1 Compact’s left side, note the flap (extreme left) over the charging port and the contacts for the magnetic dock (available as an extra)

Away from camera underperformance though, there’s a lot to like here. You still get the slightly tiresome waterproof flaps – yes, it’s great to be dunk proof, but having to open the data and charging flap in particular, every single day, gets quite annoying – and no, there’s no Qi wireless charging option, which would have saved the day most conveniently here. A missed opportunity, though Sony will claim that its add-on magnetic charging dock will help here – as on the Z1, on the left side are two metal contacts. But the dock is something you have to pay extra for in most cases, so I suspect that the vast majority of users won’t bother and will settle for wrestling with the plastic flap each day…

Right side

The right side: power, volume/camera-zoom and shutter ‘button’….

The power button is still circular and, well, quirky, but I cannot forgive the stupidly tiny and fiddly camera shutter button – it’s quite easily the worst shutter button I’ve ever used. On anything. Including £5 toy plastic cameras. It’s hard to find, hard to press all the way down and every single time you manage to do it there’s so much pressure that you end up jarring the device. And, with no OIS in the aforementioned camera, you get a blurred photo. So you use the on-screen shutter icon instead… The camera button doesn’t even launch the Camera application* unless the screen is first powered on separately with the main power button. Sony could have done so much better here.

* Interestingly, it does if the screen has only been off for a short time. But doesn’t if the screen has been off for minutes. This behaviour leads me to suspect that the non operation is a bug and that it’s something Sony can easily fix in a future update, if it chooses to.

Bottom

The bottom speaker grille and lanyard hole….

Down at the bottom is what looks like a huge speaker aperture, though further investigation reveals a much smaller speaker over on the left hand side of the grille. Still, audio quality for podcasts and music is pretty good, albeit without breaking any volume records – everything could definitely be louder. Audio quality via wired or Bluetooth headphones is fantastic again, just as on the Z1. Sony is really switched on in this department, as you might expect given the company’s audio heritage.

Screen

Oblique view. You can’t easily see the factory-fitted plastic screen protector, but it does impact feel and visibility….

As with all of Sony’s recent Xperias, I remain utterly baffled by the factory-fitted plastic screen protector. It’s more scratchable than the Gorilla Glass underneath, it shows fingerprints more, it feels awful, it attracts dust… and all for what? So, if dropped, the bits of glass won’t fall off and injure someone? I’ve heard of safety first, but this is ridiculous.

The 4.3” screen is OK, but it’s hard to enthuse too much about a very average LCD panel (compared to the clarity and colours of the HTC One and Nokia Lumia 920′s LCDs, for example). At this screen size you won’t be watching too many movies, but there’s simply no comparison to viewing a captured photo on a Samsung Galaxy S4 or similar and gasping at the colours.

Display

Contrast is fine for general use – but colours do pale in a direct comparison to an AMOLED-screened phone

As usual, there’s Sony’s attempt to fix things in software, with ‘X Reality for Mobile’, a way of boosting colours and contrast in software when viewing photos or videos, but this shouldn’t be needed at all. Sony, just use better screen tech in the first place, pretty please? 

Sony’s Xperia UI hasn’t changed much in the last year, with the now familiar slide out panel of organisational options in the main app launcher, plus a customisation view of the homescreen set, as shown below:

Launcher

The Z1 Compact’s default lockscreen and tweaked app launcher – note the ‘modern Android’ slide-in options panel from the left…

Customisation

Customising the Z1 Compact homescreens with wallpapers and themes galore – how do you want your Xperia to look today?

I was dismayed to see, as usual with Xperia handsets, over and above the usual Android application set, that there’s all of Sony’s own media shops. Sony Select, Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited, PlayStation Mobile, and so on, plus promo apps like Xperia Lounge and Xperia Privilege. I say ‘dismayed’ because there’s so much duplication with Google’s own Play Store offerings.

Store

Buying Movies in Sony’s Video Unlimited Store… To be fair, the prices are the same as in the Google Play Store, but I’d have more peace of mind for future re-downloads with Google’s generic version….

Sony is hoping that new users start off in their siloed content stores and never leave, but I bet the company doesn’t make that much money from it all and I wish Sony would stick to just making the hardware. Interestingly, we’ve recently heard news of Google persuading Samsung to start toning down its similar duplication efforts – I wonder if Sony might be next?

There’s also the viewer-only part of OfficeSuite, somewhat redundant now that the full Quickoffice has been released as freeware by Google, though admittedly it’s only a 5 Euro fee to unlock the ‘pro’ editing features here. Maybe users might like to try both and uninstall the one they liked least. Plus the usual TrackID music track recognition utility, the rather pointless McAfee Security and the trivial photo effects utility Pixlr Express.

Smart

Smart Connect is a great initiative, triggering off headphone insertion and charging. Add in NFC tag actions and your smartphone life is pretty automated…

Smart Connect is familiar from other Sony devices and attempts to action the appropriate system functions and apps when certain events occur, e.g. plugging in headphones or your charger. A nice idea, though it doesn’t seem to have evolved or taken off.

In all, Sony ships the Z1 Compact with 56 applications, which seems excessive, and only some of the bloat can be uninstalled. Again, I think it’s downright confusing for new users to see two of just about everything and not know whether they’re coming or going.

Apps

Well over 50 applications installed by default, including so many apparent duplicates… (right) the Sony keyboard in action

Sony also ships its own keyboard, like Samsung, which seems a bit unnecessary, given how excellent the stock Google (Jelly Bean) one is. Spell checking and auto correct seemed to be turned off by default, but a little fiddling in Settings and some ‘bedding in’ and correction became as fast and intelligent as the Google version, so all’s well that ends well.

The Z1 Compact is all about the combination of form factor and specification. If I knew for a fact that Sony would be fixing up the camera with a decent firmware upgrade with much better image processing, this might even be my Android smartphone of choice – there’s definitely potential here.

Lock screen

Default lockscreen, cool wallpaper, note the top of screen swipe to camera or to other lockscreen widgets…

But, in the absence of such future knowledge, I can’t quite bring myself to recommend this across the board. The app bloat, the average screen, the average speaker, the underperforming camera, and so on. It’s all a little uninspiring.

On the other hand, if you’re desperate for something small and yet powerful then it’s the obvious choice, at least at February 2014 – it’s certainly a cut above the ‘mini’ flagships put out by rival manufacturers.

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  • Richard Kelsey

    Nice review, Steve.

    I spent too much money on Sony last year with the Z and SP, and both rather disappointed me. The Z1 Compact looks much better and is headed in the right direction.. I think I’ll pass, though, and hang on to what I’ve got until the next generation yet.

  • Pascal Brax

    Good review, I could agree on many points.

    But I really can’t stand a few things.

    Yes: there are many duplicate apps. But (un)luckily the Sony’s picture gallery and media player (Album and Walkman) are way far superior than standard apps. Same story for the Sony keyboard, which support swiping and keyboard keys and color customization. No, the Jelly Bean keyboard isn’t “excellent”, unless you compare it to the Froyo keyboard, of course.

    But the main point here is the camera, and unfortunately you are right. The camera is basically a 20 megapixel size big disappointment.

  • Death89

    The more I look at the current crop of phones I’ll get to choose from when my upgrade comes, the more I think I’m just gonna have to live with the limited storage on something like the G2 as the smaller size/better camera alternatives just seem to come as disappointments. There at least seems to be more options for wireless storage these days…

    • http://www.symbian-guru.com khouryrt

      I have a G2 and I agree with the “live with” term here. After having a GS3 with a 32GB microSD card, switching to only 16GB of internal storage with barely 9 or 10 free was torture. I had to give up on carrying my music, and resort to only a couple of albums and my regular podcasts. I have a Meenova for on-the-go file storage, it’s quite helpful but it’s nothing like built-in storage. Other than that, that phone is just awesome and I love it more every day.

      • Death89

        After looking at all the flagships this lunchtime the G2 was the one I left feeling positive about (quite a shock to me having never bought lg before) and so I searched for a storage solution, sandisk seem to do a decent option in the connect so I may go that way in the end.

        • http://www.symbian-guru.com khouryrt

          Ah yes, I was considering that Sandisk WiFi USB stick, then I remember I had the Meenova, which does the same thing, kinda.

          • Death89

            Hadn’t heard of that, looks awesome, and much cheaper!

          • http://www.symbian-guru.com khouryrt

            it is a no-brain buy to be honest, esp since it takes any size microSD card u have lying around.

  • Two ForMe

    Interesting review, though I’ll have to disagree on many points. First, the iPhone camera is nothing wonderful, or even great. I maintain a couple web sites on the side, and 2 of my clients constantly insist on using the 5S as their camera source. It’s a pretty mediocre camera, at best. I’ve seen the Z1C steadily outperform both the GS5 and 5S in picture quality. Though that could likely be a result of updates since your review.

    Secondly, have you actually used an AMOLED screen? Try looking at something with a solid white or grey color on one. It’s pretty awful. There are inconsistent colors all over the place due to the nature of the screen technology. I’d take the small IPS screen over that any day.

    Point is, this is THE phone to get if you want a phone that isn’t the size of a TV. Quality is superb, and the magnetic dock or cable can be had on amazon for 10$. I don’t get the fascination with companies wanting to make the biggest phone out there. I’d rather have something small, sleek, powerful, and able to be operated with a single hand. Something that can fit in the pocket and not dig into my hip bone when I’m on the motorcycle. We should applaud Sony for not only following the hype train of huge phones and making something for everyone else.

    • http://stevelitchfield.com/ stevelitchfield

      Thanks for the comment.

      1) The Z1C is on a par with the iPhone 5S overall. But it should be much further ahead. Maybe an update has improved the former since the review, yes. Or maybe not. Sony uses too much noise reduction and oversharpening still IMHO.

      2) Yes, I love AMOLED screens. I’ll agree it’s a subjective thing and a personal preference.

      3) Agreed, the Z1C is a great size overall.

  • philiprporter

    Have to agree with this review – the image quality from the camera is appalling – so bad in fact that I’m wondering if mine is faulty – at 50 ISO and 20.7 MP images look more like impressionist paintings that photographs when zoomed in. Way way worse than even my 5 year old Nokia. Very disappointed.