S ony’s Xperia Z1 Compact was one of our favourite phones of early 2014, squeezing big performance into a lightweight, water-resistant chassis. Now the range continues in the same vein with the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact.
It’s endearingly petite compared to modern flagship phones, with a screen that measures 4.6in across the diagonal helping to make for a very pocketable handset. Design-wise it’s reasonably attractive, too, with curved edges clad in translucent plastic, a glossy flat back and “shatterproof glass” up front. The Z3’s sturdy-feeling body isn’t the slimmest out there – it measures a chunky 8.7mm thick – but despite a screen that’s only the tiniest bit smaller than Apple’s iPhone 6, the Z3 feels markedly more compact (it’s actually 11mm shorter), and it’s just as light, weighing 129g.
We weren’t particularly keen on the slightly unpleasant green colour of our review unit, but the good news is that you can also buy it in much more palatable shades of red, black and white. And the design is more than just distinctive – it’s also seriously tough. A pair of flaps on the left edge seals the ports, giving the Z3 its IP68 water- and dust-resistant rating, and as with other high-end Xperia devices, you can dunk the Z3 Compact in up to a metre of water for 30 minutes. This is a phone that can easily shrug off rain showers, sweat and accidental tea spillages, and soldier on.
Beneath those flaps, there’s a decent level of connectivity, too: the upper flap covers the phone’s micro-USB port and microSD slot, which allows up to 128GB of extra storage to be added; the other conceals the handset’s nano-SIM tray. In general it’s an excellent, no-nonsense design: light, robust, pocketable and usable one-handed. There’s even a dedicated camera button, making it simple to fire off quick snaps.
Features and specifications
The Z3 Compact matches its sensible design with a raft of top-of-the-line features and components. Where most smaller smartphones sacrifice performance, the Z3 Compact makes no such compromise, matching its bigger brother, the 5.2in Xperia Z3, blow for blow.
The processor is a quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, as fast as you’ll find in any Android phone currently, which is coupled with 3GB of RAM, an Adreno 330 CPU and 16GB or 32GB of included storage.
The rear camera’s 1/2.3in sensor captures 20.7-megapixel stills and 4K video at 30fps (1080p is shot at 60fps), and there’s a 1/8th speed slow-motion mode to match the iPhone 6.
Elsewhere, the Z3 Compact has most other bases covered as well. There’s Cat4 4G support for downloads of up to 150Mbits/sec, Bluetooth 4, NFC and dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Even the battery is big: Sony has squeezed in a 2,600mAh unit – a remarkable feat in a phone so small.
A screen resolution of 720 x 1,280 isn’t a match for larger rivals, which tend to have Full HD displays or higher. Due to its smaller size, though, the pixel density is perfectly respectable. Its 319ppi delivers onscreen images that look just as sharp as they do on the iPhone 6 (327ppi).
There are some areas in which the Z3 Compact lags behind the very best, but fortunately these aren’t critical. It has no infrared transmitter, no heart-rate monitor, no fingerprint reader, and the camera doesn’t have phase-detect autofocus, using only the slower contrast-detect AF method.
The upshot of squeezing such powerful hardware into a compact, 720p phone is that it performs like a rocket. In the most demanding of the benchmarks we run on phones – the GFXBench T-Rex HD gaming test – the Z3 Compact delivered a frame rate of 41.2fps, slightly faster than the Samsung Galaxy Alpha. Only the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are significantly quicker.
Its browser results were less than stellar, with 825ms in SunSpider and 913 in Peacekeeper, but scores of 927 and 2,602 in the single- and multi-core parts of the CPU-focused Geekbench 3 test were superb, and equal to most Android challengers. Once again, though, both iPhones beat it.
In real-world use, the phone felt perfectly slick in most departments. The only problem we encountered was a slight pause when opening the camera app and some of the more graphics-heavy apps.
The screen performs brilliantly. It’s blazingly bright at its maximum setting: we measured it at 550cd/m2, which means it’s readable on even the brightest days. Even with Sony’s “X-Reality” and “Super-vivid” image enhancements turned off, contrast is a highly respectable 966:1, lending movies, games and photos plenty of solidity and depth. With good colour accuracy and the ability to cover 97.5% of the sRGB colour gamut, the Sony Z3 Compact’s display is as good as any we’ve come across on a phone.
We have no complaints over call quality either. Most calls we made came through loud and clear at both ends. We had no issues with dropped calls either, and the speaker reaches loud enough volumes that you can listen to talk radio and YouTube videos without having to connect to an external speaker.
The camera is also fantastic. Slightly over-aggressive compression does smear details in good light, and the autofocus isn’t the quickest – it hunts back and forth more than the cameras on the iPhone 6 or the Samsung Galaxy S5. However, for overall quality in low light (without the flash), it beats both, with a cleaner, more detailed image. Plus, it’s fun using the various modes, in particular the aforementioned slow motion, and quality in video is top-notch.
Perhaps more importantly, battery life is excellent. In our time with the phone, its 2,600mAh power pack reliably delivered more than 24 hours of mixed use. It also performed well in our tests, depleting at a rate of 7.5% per hour while playing 720p video (in flight mode with the screen set to a brightness of 120cd/m2), and at a rate of 3.3% per hour while streaming audio over a 3G connection with the screen switched off.
If we’re being picky, the Z3 Compact does fall slightly behind the very best here: its predecessor, the Z1 Compact, was more frugal – using 5.4% and 2.7% per hour in the video and streaming tests – as were the HTC One M8 (6.5% and 3.8%) and the iPhone 6 (7.5% and 1.7%). There isn’t a huge amount in it, though, and when battery life is really low, the Z3 Compact’s Stamina mode can help eke things out for a little longer.
Finally, as with its other Android devices, Sony installs its own skin on top of Android 4.4.4 (KitKat), and there’s much to like. The most notable difference from plain Android is the way that the app drawer works: Sony adds the ability to reorder apps or have them displayed alphabetically, and uninstalling apps is different, too: the “long-hold and drag” method has oddly been removed.
We like the extra, customisable shortcut menu that Sony has added to the bottom of the multitasking view. Largely, though, we appreciate that Sony’s customisations are unobtrusive and subtle. For the most part, the Z3 Compact behaves like a standard Android phone, and that’s a very good thing.
The Xperia Z3 Compact can’t quite match the very best smartphones we’ve seen over the past year when it comes to all-round performance, but then it doesn’t need to. Why? First, if you want flagship performance and features in a smaller package, it’s currently your only option other than the iPhone 6. Second, its $699 SIM-free price undercuts all of its larger-screened rivals by a huge margin.
It deserves to take the prime spot in our A-List. The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact may be a little smaller than the HTC M8, and its A-list predecessor the Google Nexus 5, but it’s more manageable, superior to the Nexus 5 in all other departments. In short, no other smartphone offers the same level of performance and features at this price.