Sony Xperia Z3 Compact review: almost the perfect smartphone

Last week, I reviewed the Xperia Z3 and rated it the best in the series yet, marred only by being a little tall and with large bezels, and by an under-performing camera. Happily, launched alongside the Z3 was a ‘Compact’ version that utterly solves the first of these issues, with only a very small spec drop to match. The Z3 Compact absolutely nails the size and form factor for anyone with normal hands, yet offers blazing performance.

[Writer’s note: quite a bit of the text below, and the sample photos from the phone’s camera, are identical to the relevant sections of the Z3 review – this is intentional.]

The Z3 Compact follows the Z1 Compact (there was no Z2 version) in providing a scaled down device, physically, without any serious spec compromises, something for which Sony should be commended, since other phone manufacturers tend to scale down internals as well in their ‘minis’. The Z3 Compact takes design cues from its big sister and feels rather splendid in the hand, even though there’s no metal that’s immediately detectable with the fingers. I strongly suspect that there’s still an aluminium frame, but the curved side mouldings are plastic, plus the now-rounded corners are encased in tough nylon to protect again drops.

Side mouldings and magnetic charging dock connectors

The result is something that’s really comfortable to carry and to use – it may not seem as ‘premium’ as the Z1 Compact, but it’s a heck of a lot more pleasant in the hand.

The Z3 Compact, perfectly formed…

The bezels that I took a dislike to on previous Z series handsets have also been scaled back here, in line with the ‘Compact’ moniker, and we have a 4.6″ screen here, in a form factor that measures only 127 x 65mm, so very reasonable indeed. Not least considering that Sony has also managed to squeeze in the Z3’s front-facing stereo speakers into the Compact’s form.

Sony has now got the displays in its Z series right too, starting (arguably) with the Z2, and we now have that tech in a Compact. The display in the Z3 Compact is top notch, a full RGB matrix IPS LCD at 720p (that’s a lot of acronyms!), but essentially it’s clear and sharp and even works acceptably outdoors in the sunshine. Viewing angles aren’t great, but 99% of the time it’s only going to be you viewing the display so who, at the end of the day, cares about angles?

Display visibility is good in almost all light conditions, at least when viewed straight on….

The RGB nature of the screen is important as it means you get the full resolution and not an approximation, as is the case on the pentile (AMOLED) screens beloved by Samsung. Sony does admit to some software enhancement of photos and videos, with ‘X-Reality’ and ‘Super-Vivid Mode’, but the end user doesn’t care – the results still look spectacular.

The right hand side of the Z3 Compact, showing power, volume/zoom rocker and tiny camera shutter button…

The third aspect of the Z series, the one Sony has yet to fix (to my satisfaction), is the camera. Now, I’ve a fair amount of experience in smartphone imaging and a 1/2.3″ 21Mp BSI sensor should produce stunning images, with Sony’s software ‘pulling a Nokia’ and producing an oversampled 8MP image by default. Nokia tends to opt for 5MP output and more oversampling, but Sony’s approach should still work OK.

The slightly disappointing camera on the Sony Z3 Compact

Unhappily, the imaging routines in Sony’s camera software apply both heavy noise reduction and then heavy sharpening, something that was necessary on lesser hardware but which definitely needs dialling back with this higher resolution sensor and oversampling. The end result is photos that look OK at first glance but then which are disappointing – blotchy, with artefacts, when you look closer, for example when cropping in to produce a snap from a part of the frame.

Perfect – at least seen as-is, in good light. The Z3 Compact camera is, admittedly, good enough for 90% of users.
Lightning 1
A more challenging subject – lots of detail, oblique lighting, lots of hard-to-capture silver!
Lightning 2
Cropping in to 1:1 shows discolouration and a general air of ‘artificiality’.
Glade 1
Another example, this glade shot looks great at Facebook resolution….
Glade 2
… but looked at in a 1:1 crop, it all looks over-sharpened and, again, ‘artificial’….

Now, I realise that I could be accused of being too picky – and everyday users of the Z3 Compact as a ‘phone’ will no doubt get by just fine for snaps for Facebook and the like – but there seems little point in putting in what is undoubtedly a high spec camera, advertising the whole package as ‘Demand Great’ and then skimping on the quality of the camera software. Results should most definitely be better.

Another example – when using the zoom facility in the camera UI, there’s a handy grey detent marked out in the zoom slider/scale, the zoom even stops on the detent, so that you have to press the volume buttons again to continue zooming. So, obviously, the detent marks the point at which the lossless zoom (down to 1:1 on the sensor) stops and blocky, lossy digital zoom starts? Actually no – it turns out that the detent is massively, crazily, into lossy zoom territory, such that you use it to take the shot, get back to base and realise that your subjects are distorted and blotchy (typical digital zoom artefacts).

Lake zoom 1
Using just a touch of lossless zoom on the Z3 Compact – way, way short of the misleading detent in the UI….
Lake zoom 2
… and again, in a 1:1 crop you can see the degree to which lossy zoom and over-sharpening have damaged any natural look in the image….

I’m puzzled – surely some effort in fixing up its software to match the quality of the sensor would have helped? Or perhaps this particular Sony sensor has always been under-performing and it’s all the Sony noise reduction and sharpening software can do to keep the image useable?

But, stepping away from this one negative, the Z3 Compact is a classy performer. In terms of internals , a 2.5GHz processor with 2GB of RAM and a light Android skin, and bearing in mind that ‘only’ a 720p screen is being driven, means that the Z3 Compact flies, whatever you’re doing. It’s just quick, quick, quick.  There’s a 16GB internal disk, of which about 11GB is available out of the box, plus microSD, so storage isn’t a problem either.

This latter (microSD) is inserted behind a waterproof double-flap on the left hand side of the phone and the assembly is sleek and – in theory – waterproof. Though am I the only person to be a little paranoid and not want to put the 30 minute immersion claim to the test, on such an expensive smartphone? At least on Android Beat’s budget! But it’s good to know that a brief dunk or getting caught out in a rain shower will be absolutely no problem.

The glossy body is a fingerprint magnet, of course, but less so than for previous models and the glass does seem much easier to wipe clean, so there does seem to be some Sony oleophobic coating magic here.

The reflective (and oleophobic) glass back…

There’s a lanyard eyelet near the bottom left of the Z3 Compact, though actually feeding a lanyard loop through is a bit fiddly. Good to see the option, though.

For a compact device for really mobile users, good to see a lanyard eyelet….

The aforementioned front-mounted stereo speakers are decently loud, but nowhere near the fidelity of those in the latest top HTC devices. Possibly, the EQ is limited by the waterproofing of the speaker membranes – but they’ll do for most people and most media. It’s somewhat remarkable how decent speakers have now become a ‘thing’ in the phone world (after years of reviewers like me moaning about poor speakers) but I’m delighted that we no longer have to endure tinny, scratchy audio when listening to podcasts or YouTube videos or when using Navigation in the car.

Sealed in is the battery, 2600 mAh is about right for a Z3 Compact-size device in 2014. Moreover, battery life has been stellar in my tests, rather surprising me. Certainly the Snapdragon 801’s own optimisations help. Add in all of Sony’s extras:

  • Stamina mode (when on, stops apps from running in the background – you can specify any exclusions – and kills data when the screen is off)
  • Ultra Stamina mode (puts the device in an ultra-low-power stats in terms of graphics and applications/functions available – Sony claims up to a fortnight in standby in this mode is possible – not that you’d want to live like this!)
  • Data-queuing (queues up requests to go online from applications, such that it all happens in more focussed bursts)
  • ‘display memory’ in the screen electronics, to preserve content with slower screen refresh rates

…and I think you could quite easily get two days of normal(ish) use from the Z3 Compact (perhaps turning on some of the tricks above if you get really short of power), which is quite impressive.

Delving into settings, there’s an extraordinary amount of Xperia-only connectivity, helpful in an all-Sony household, plus a wealth of ‘Oh **** I’m running out of power’ options!

Although there’s no Qi wireless charging, presumably for space reasons, there’s the usual Sony magnetic dock adapter, which makes for a convenient alternative.

Rounding out the hardware, video capture is at 1080p and in stereo. Quality is excellent, though there’s no OIS and so the digital ‘Steady-shot’ has to be relied on instead. Unless you’re driving or jogging or something extreme though, you’ll be happy with quality overall. There’s a specialist mode in which you can shoot 4K resolution, but it’s strictly limited to short bursts, otherwise the Snapdragon 801 overheats – yes, really, though this is common to all other 801-based devices trying do the 4K trick (and, often to use this footage for extracting 8MP stills later).

An a top Android smartphone though, the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is right up with the pack. Every day buyers will struggle a little to get past the immense push of all Sony’s content – the default homescreen is all Sony, Sony, Sony. Browsing through the Android app folders, there’s Walkman, Movies, Playstation, Sony Select, Video Unlimited, Play Games and much more.

The weight of Sony content is enormous. For new users, this may even help, but Android experts will want to ditch almost all of this.

Plus the almost completely redundant Garmin Navigation, Xperia Lounge, AVG AntiVirus. And so on. That’s a lot of bloat, if you choose to view it all that way. Maybe a new user would like it in the Sony universe and would welcome all this in-house content?

An Android Beat reader, though, will simply resolve to hide or uninstall it all (the Sony offerings are mostly built-in and can only be hidden in a folder, while the third party licensed stuff can actually be removed) and use the Z3 Compact as a fast (and diminutive) Android machine, which is what it ultimately is.

Pinching to see the homescreen customisation UI – something that Sony does very well. Here I’m changing the phone’s ‘theme’!

As usual, Xperia UI is a pleasant extension to Android, with far more pleasant surprises than frustrations. Pinching the homescreen reveals the usual Xperia carousel for customising your home experience, adding widgets, wallpapers or, almost uniquely to Sony, themes, of which there are now lots available – a new look for your smartphone every day? The main application list is impressively done again, with options for the default custom order, for alphabetical or for ‘most used’.

Also of note are other typical Sony additions to the UI, such as the mini-apps (Active Clip, Calculator, Timer, Browser search, etc.), which can be pinned to a ‘favourites’ bar on the usual Android ‘Recent apps’ carousel. At every stage you’ll see minor differences from stock Android and stock applications, but they’re rarely intrusive.

The premier ‘compact’ Android smartphone?

If you’re not that fussed over ultimate camera quality and if you’re prepared to work round the Sony store bloatware, then I can recommend this latest Z series iteration. The choice then comes down to whether to plump for this Z3 Compact or its larger sister device, the full Z3? The latter has the higher resolution, larger screen, slightly more RAM and the feel of cold hard metal on your fingers each morning – and some people simply must have the latest, greatest and biggest. But with all this comes significant extra size (an extra 2cm in length ) and significant extra cost.

In contrast, the Z3 Compact can be found at rather good prices (our review unit supplier Clove has it at £350 all-in, in the UK), and is much easier to pocket and to hold. It felt, to me, by far the more natural of the two handsets and I’d pick it in a jiffy.

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Related Topics: Editorial, Featured, Reviews, Sony, Xperia Z3

  • Alex Penaud

    Great review thanks !

  • epdm2be

    “There’s a 16GB internal disk, of which about 11GB is available out of the box, plus microSD, so storage isn’t a problem either.”

    yes storage is going to be a problem. Because you can’t install APPS on microSD. This means installing a few high-profile games and a few high-profile imaging apps eats your usable storage pretty fast.

    For example TomTom europe (a welknown offline navigation app) eats approx. 3GB of internal storage with no means of storing the actuall maps to the microSD card. The same with Sygic or Garmin Navigon navigation apps, well not in the versions that I tried, anyway. So that 11GB spare system storage is becoming a problem.

    These flagship phone should come with (at least) 32GB out of the box. Especially the imaging-centric devices (whom can soon save pics in RAW format). But thank god, that at least some camera apps allow microSD storage.

  • DeesNuts

    Good review, although the I’d argue the value of the included garmin navigation app. Sure, you can use google maps, and you can download maps for offline use, but lose your internet connection and good luck using it to find a route to an address. The Garmin Navigation app is a huge bonus to me, since it works with or without internet, allowing me to search for a route to a location regardless of how remote I am.

  • Rcb

    I’ve got the Z3c.. the picture processing really lets this phone down.. I’ve noticed a softening though more than a sharpening.. If I take a picture of my hand, the initial capture looks great, a split second later it looks softer and 9 times out of 10.. the ‘processed’ image looks worse than the raw capture…

    • robertkoa

      I took a few shots in brightly lit Sony Store and the 20.7 shots were comparable to Alpha and S5 , a hair more detail .

      My friend’s Note 4 smoked all for sharpness, detail , but this was no tweaking just a few shots each device.

      But Z3 C was sharper than I expected.

      Also did not expect Note 4 to be sharper than S5, S5 and Alpha and Z3C were all close- Note a Step up, Note was good.

      Alpha should have been full featured Note Compact…