The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact has taken far too long to arrive. The iPhone has shown for years that you can make a powerful, compact smartphone a storming success. Of course, the iPhone has also scared competitors into taking it on by ramping up screen sizes to absurd levels – firstly with phones that neared the 5-inch mark, and then with ‘phablets’ that bust through the 6-inch barrier.
When Android manufacturers do venture into iPhone-sized territory, it’s typically with an emaciated, under-powered ‘mini’ version of their best efforts such as the lacklustre HTC One Mini or the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini. As a result, smartphone fans looking for raw power have only really been left with two options: pricey, delicate little Apple smartphones or enormous Android phablets straight out of a Dom Joly sketch.
Yet here we have a sensibly sized smartphone with a 4.3-inch display, but the specs – and the price – of a gigantic Android flagship phone. Is it the best of both worlds? Oh yes, and resoundingly so.
The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact is not a budget, affordable version of the Z1 that looks a little like it; it’s a near-identical replica, inside and out, with a price to match.
It rocks the same monolithic, glass and metal design that echoes both the Xperia Z1 and Z1 Ultra, as well as Sony’s Walkman heritage. It’s a very ‘Sony’ device, for better or worse.
If held with your eyes shut you could mistake it for an iPhone (at 134g, it’s just as light and premium-feeling to the touch). It’s also robust, being waterproof at depths of 1.5m for up to 30 minutes, and dust-proof too, which is good news for the mucky among you.
Despite its waterproof layer, the innards are still accessible, which gives the Xperia Z1 Compact a distinct advantage over Apple’s locked-down iPhone. You can also add storage if 16GB isn’t enough, and you won’t have to pay through the nose either, since microSD cards cost very little online.
The downside of all this protection is that the Z1 Compact isn’t quite as sexy as an iPhone, nor is it as thin, at 9.5mm thick.
The design is nowhere near as clean as Apple’s device and there’s an awful lot going on around the edges of the screen. The flaps covering the micro-SIM card, microSD and micro-USB ports may also bug you, especially when you need to prise one off to charge the device. But at least they mean the phone will take some knocks. They don’t feel like they’re about to snap off either.
One thing that has inevitably changed from the Xperia Z1 is the display size – it is ‘Compact’, after all. The 4.3-inch LCD display sports a lower 720×1,280-pixel resolution – less than its Full-HD sibling. But in practice, the difference is negligible.
Pixel density is similar and you can’t spot a single pixel without a magnifying glass. Colours on the IPS, Triluminous panel are glorious, as are viewing angles.
You could happily watch an entire film on a train, even if it’s nowhere near the size of a 1080p-resolution Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
More importantly, the 4.3-inch display is a manageable size for anyone without NBA basketballer-sized hands. You can reach anywhere on the screen with one thumb, a rule Apple seems to work to, but it’s not so small that you’ll miss individual keys when typing.
If anything, the Xperia Z1 Compact provides a superior typing experience than the iPhone since you can install a predictive keyboard like SwiftKey on it (and you probably should, since Sony’s own-brand effort isn’t brilliant).
The miniature Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One models both ran on under-powered silicon that just about chugged along, but the Xperia Z1 Compact really is a Z1. Inside, it’s powered by a top-of-the-line quad-core 2.2GHz processor with an Adreno 330 GPU, paired with a beefy 2GB of RAM.
It absolutely flies: this is every bit as fast as the best phones from Apple, Samsung and Nokia. You won’t have problems running the latest games on high settings, like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, or jumping between apps while streaming tunes in the background.
The same is true of the camera which, unusually in 2014, boasts its own two-stage dedicated shutter button. The rear snapper boasts a staggering 20.7-megapixel sensor with LED flash – the same as you’ll find in the larger Z1.
In daylight, the camera is fantastic, though it does struggle indoors where the HTC One or iPhone 5s would shine. It’s not quite in the same league as Nokia’s Lumia 1020 Windows Phone either.
Still, the useful selection of filters, scenes and shooting modes – Timeshift, for instance, is back to help you grab the right frame in a moving composition, with its rapid burst mode – make this a handy camera to have around. Just be prepared to experiment, since the auto mode isn’t quite as automatically effective as it should be.
Meanwhile, call quality from the solid speakers was excellent, if not quite on a par with the stereo speakers on the full-fat HTC One. Battery life, on the other hand, has taken a slight hit, which is unsurprising given the smaller dimensions and 2,300 mAh battery. But we still made it through a day of regular use with push email on.
The software experience on the Xperia Z1 Compact is almost uniformly excellent. Google’s Android software needs no introduction: it’s fast, powerful and boasts an app store with more than a million apps, with games falling off the shelves.
Sony hasn’t tinkered too much with the basic experience Google had intended, and that’s a good thing. The launcher is speedy and Sony’s custom widgets let you add Windows-style scalable applets, like a notepad, on top of the home screen.
We still love Android’s notification system and supremely customisable framework; if you don’t like anything, from the dialler to the lockscreen, you can change it, which is a revelation if you’ve lived with Apple’s rigid iOS software for years, and a welcome one, so long as you’re prepared to tinker.
If we must nitpick, though, the Xperia Z1 Compact’s software is not quite on the cutting edge. Out of the box it’s running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, but Google has since moved on to 4.4 KitKat. The updated version offers speed improvements, especially for multitasking, as well as support for its Chromecast streaming dongle.
It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but other phones are already rocking the new update, including Google’s own Nexus 5, the Motorola Moto G and the Moto X.
Sony says an update is coming and, in fairness, the company has been pretty reliable with these; the problem is it simply can’t guarantee it, when the requirements of networks and other factors are involved.
If you want to stay on the bleeding edge of mobile software, a Nexus device from Google is the only way to go. Unless you want an iPhone, of course.
There are also a few needless Sony apps that attempt to duplicate some of Google’s own, which only causes confusion: SocialLife is an ugly social feeds aggregator that you should not use in place of Facebook, while Sony Select is a miserable app store alternative.
McAfee Security, meanwhile, also comes preloaded though we’re not convinced there’s a valid case for an anti-virus on Android, which just hogs the memory. Still, you don’t have to use these apps, so we won’t grumble too much.
Hate phablets? Don’t like Apple’s iOS? Help is at hand at long last. Now you can finally buy a premium phone that doesn’t swamp your hands or dwarf your face when you lift it to take a call.
Kudos to Sony for coming up with a phone as petite and powerful as Apple’s bad boy. Even if it lacks Touch ID, the Xperia Z1 Compact still goes toe-to-toe with the iPhone 5s and 5c for great features in small proportions.