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Featured Review: Xperia Z5 Compact, Size Matters

December 1, 2015 - Written By Tom Dawson

For years now, Sony have been launching smaller versions of their Xperia Z flagship smartphones. First launching with the Xperia Z1 the ‘Compact’ moniker that Sony had chosen for their smaller smartphones has become even more niche. That little section they’ve carved out for themselves however is no more important today, as there are fewer and fewer options out there. Phones around the 5.0-inch size and below aren’t uncommon, but those featuring the same high-end processors, features and excellent camera? Those are even less common, and in the case of the Xperia Z5 Compact, Sony might just have the absolute best Android smartphone that is nice and compact, with few – if any – compromises.

Specs

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Despite its diminutive size, measuring just 127 x 65 x 8.9 mm (5.0 x 2.56 x 0.35 in), compared to the Xperia Z5’s 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm (5.75 x 2.83 x 0.29 in) it keeps many of the same specs. There’s a 4.6-inch 720p (1280 x 720) display here, with a Snapdragon 810 clocked at 1.5 GHz lying underneath. One of the few changes to the larger Xperia Z5 here is the fact that there’s 2GB of RAM here instead of 3GB, but there is 32GB of internal storage here as well as support for up to 200GB via the microSD card slot. In terms of battery, there’s a 2,700 mAh battery that Sony says will last for two days. While this is probably inflated, this is a great battery size for a phone that’s this small. For taking pictures, there’s the very same 23-megapixel camera found in the Xperia Z5, as well as the 5.1-megapixel front-facing camera. There’s support for 4K video recording at 30 fps, Full HD video at 60 fps and 720p video at 120 fps. There’s a long, long list of specifications in this small package, and for those interested in more than just the main hits, they take a look at our full breakdown here.

Display

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It would be brilliant if absolutely everything about the Xperia Z5 Compact lived up to its larger sibling, but where the display is concerned that’s not the case. This 4.6-inch Super LCD only has a resolution of 720p, which isn’t awful by any means, but it could be a lot better. Text and icons aren’t quite as crisp as we’ve become accustomed to in a world of 1080p displays everywhere. The overall result in terms of resolution is one that is a little less crisp and due to fewer pixels everything appears to be a little “bigger” on the display. In terms of brightness, there are no complaints here, this gets plenty bright enough to cut through sunlight – what little of it we get where I am in England – and it’s pleasant enough in lower brightness settings, too.

Color reproduction on the other hand is not so good. The majority of colors on the Xperia Z5 Compact’s display come across like they’re trying too hard. Particularly reds and brighter colors, they appear to be overblown and too bright, almost artificially so. There’s also a strange sort of look to the display with the brightness turned up high, resulting in some luminance of some sort. Having said that, colors keep their place, and white is white, which means text is perfectly easy to read and there’s a lot to like about the display overall. It’s just not as good as some other displays in this price range, but considering there can’t be too many people making displays at this size anymore, Sony have done a good job.

Design and Build

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As you might expect, the Xperia Z5 Compact is not quite the phone the Xperia Z5 is, and it’s even further away from the Xperia Z5 Premium. That isn’t to say that this doesn’t still look and feel like a Sony smartphone. If you were to place this alongside any Xperia Z device from the past few years, including the Xperia Z3 Compact, then you would know that these are all from the same family of devices. Whether or not this is a good thing is down to you.

In terms of overall design, there isn’t that much of it here, which is always a good thing in my book. The familiar simple design of the Xperia Z line is here, and there’s not much to look at on the back of the device, or on the sides of the device. There’s a fingerprint sensor that doubles as a power button, with a volume rocker and a dedicated camera button further below it. Nothing is on the opposite side except a second Xperia logo (which I actually think looks quite tasteful) and the only flap for the SIM card and microSD card slots. There’s a cutout especially for phone danglers, as there is on all Xperia Z devices, and I’m fairly certain that this is more for the Japanese market than anything else, but it is a nice addition for those that look for one these days. This is a ‘chubby’ phone in so much that isn’t the svelte, stretched-out slates that a lot of devices are these days, but there has to be a trade-off somewhere to get such a device so small, physically. The Xperia Z5 Compact is a good-looking phone, no doubt about it, and the Coral that we were given is a color we don’t normally see in many devices. Not quite pink, but definitely bright and colorful, this is a nice option to be able to choose.

Where build quality is concerned, the Xperia Z5 Compact feels like a well-made and well-built smartphone, but the buttons are something of a mixed bag. While the fingerprint sensor/power button is nice and clicky as well as easy to find, along with the volume rocker, the camera button isn’t. This wouldn’t be a problem on most other phones, but considering the camera is a big selling point, it’s disappointing to get a lackluster experience here. I’m not sure if this is just my unit or not, but the camera button is not only incredibly small (this could be my massive hands talking, here) but it’s also shallow and frustrating to use. It doesn’t so much ‘click’ as it does ‘disappear into the phone’ and by that I mean that it’s not a very tactile experience, which is a shame as having a dedicated camera button changes the game of taking pictures while on the move and all phones should have one, in my opinion.

Performance and Memory

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There’s a Snapdragon 810 clocked at 1.5 Ghz inside this little critter, and this is backed up by 2GB of RAM. This combination makes for an interesting level of performance that, while pretty good overall, leaves a little to be desired.

Using my go-to game, Colin McCrae Rally, which I feel is a nice middle point between casual and high-end gaming on Android, things were just as good as many other smartphones from 2015, the game ran at a high frame rate, and everything was smooth and responsive. There were a few frame drops here and there, but make no mistake the Xperia Z5 Compact punches well above its weight compared to other devices at this sort of size. Everyday performance is similarly good, as you’d expect from a 64-bit Octa-Core CPU. I was very happy with web browsing, app load times and everything in-between. The best words I have for the overall performance here are ‘snappy’ and ‘immediate’, I was genuinely impressed, especially for a device that really doesn’t look like it should perform as well as it does. Now, there’s “only” 2GB of RAM on offer here, which for a lot of people might sound okay, but swapping in and out of apps can be a real challenge at times. The key term here is ‘at times’, as the majority of the time there are no issues, but as Android now keeps as many apps open or available as it can, you might go to an app you haven’t used in a while to find it taking a lot longer to open up. This is not a regular occurrence however, and for the majority of the time I can see a lot of users being fine with the overall performance here, even more so when we consider how much people are likely to do on such a small display.

Camera

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Unlike other smaller smartphones, the Xperia Z5 Compact has one of the best camera sensors available in a phone today. The 23-megapixel rear-facing camera here is excellent, depending on how you use it. In use, the Xperia Z5 Compact is a joy to experience, the dedicated camera button is nice, and despite the smaller display it’s easy to see what you’re shooting, the only problem is that Sony’s Intelligent Auto once again thinks that it knows best, when a lot of the time, it really doesn’t. This could be anecdotal, and my depressingly-British Fall shots might be throwing it off, but in every Xperia Z smartphone the Intelligent Auto has done nothing but wash out scenes or black out the details, there is no in-between. Having said that, this is a thoroughly capable camera, but why the 23-megapixel size isn’t set at default confuses me, it starts off at 8-megapixels, why advertise a resolution most users will never use?

The camera software is something we already looked at with the Xperia Z5 Review found here, but for the most part there’s a good range of scene modes and settings. For me, I found that using Manual with a step below or a step above 0 exposure got the best results. Intelligent Auto always seemed to try and oversaturate things or simply wash scenes out or overly darken them. For a compact smartphone, the Xperia Z5 Compact feels more like a compact camera when shooting. With 23-megapixel stills and up to 4K video, this will get the majority of jobs done for a lot of average users and it’s nice and easy to use.

We’ll let the camera samples do the talking, found below on Flickr, and as we say, for more info on the camera software you can check our Xperia Z5 Review here.

Flickr Z5 Compact Gallery

Software

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Perhaps part of the reason the Xperia Z5 Compact is so stable and zippy is down to the fact that Sony have not messed with Android unnecessarily. If it didn’t need changing, Sony haven’t changed it. We explored the software in-depth in our Xperia Z5 review found here, but for the most part the Xperia Z5 Compact runs stock Android with some key changes. Those key changes come in the form of a simplified launcher, replacement camera, phone, messaging and contacts apps and some add-ons as well. There’s nothing here that is offensive in any way however, and key parts of Android, such as the settings menu and multitasking view, are exactly the same on most other Android devices.

It feels as though you’re using a device with a theme on top of everyday Android, rather than something totally different from the likes of Samsung and LG, and that’s great. Key add-ins include the now-familiar small apps from Sony, which allow you to call up small overlapping apps from the multitasking view. These can be pretty neat, and there’s a gallery of them and their uses down below, essentially they are just little widgets that you can call up and get rid of no matter which app you’re in, these can be genuinely useful.

Elsewhere, things are fairly straightforward as well, we mentioned earlier that it feels as though you’re using a different theme, rather than a different version of Android. This is taken further by the introduction of themes from Sony, and there’s a good deal of them to choose from, by pre-installed and easily available on the Play Store. Sony even changed their own icon theme (which is included by default) to be ‘more Material’ and it’s evidently clear that Sony have followed Google’s vision for Android Lollipop here. Speaking of which, the version on our fetching review unit is Android 5.1.1 and while Marshmallow is a long way off, Sony have confirmed the Xperia Z5 line will be first to get it.

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Benchmarks

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We’ve already gone over how much of a performer the Xperia Z5 Compact is above, but we know that a lot of people enjoy concrete evidence and so we’ve provided some here. Benchmarks aren’t exactly our favorite thing here, but we include them often because they deliver a good yard stick to help users measure things with. We put the Xperia Z5 Compact through the same benchmarks as other devices, and while not a stellar outing for Sony here, it does so much better than other devices at this sort of size. We’ve put together a small gallery on how it performs below for people to take a look at.

Fingerprint Sensor

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Just as it is with the Xperia Z5 and Xperia Z5 Premium, the fingerprint sensor here is located on the right-hand side of the device and doubles as the power button. For Sony users, this is a good thing, as it adds to the overall user experience, as well as maintains the same usability, as it’s in a familiar place. For users new to a Sony smartphone, this means that the fingerprint sensor is in a location position, it’s where your thumb goes…if you’re right-handed. I love the position of this, but then I’m right-handed. We have to give to Sony a lot of credit here for working this in so well with their already existing design though, and it’s something I wish a lot more companies would do.

In practice, the fingerprint sensor is amazing. It is super-quick and works excellently, it’s one of the few that also seems quite good at recognizing different points on your thumb as well, which is much quicker in unlocking your phone or using apps that want a fingerprint, as it means you don’t have to stop and position your thumb exactly right.

Call and Sound Quality

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Now that there are tens of different Xperia Z smartphones out there, each one iterating on the one that came before it, we know what to expect from Sony in this department. The Xperia Z5 Compact does not disappoint, either. Where phone calls are concerned, over GSM, callers sounded warm and natural with a touch of bass to them and callers said that I sounded nice and clear, with little if any background nice. Using WiFi-calling apps, such as WhatsApp, and things get even better, with voices coming through crisp and natural.

Considering not many people make phone calls these days, a lot of people will be interested to hear how the Xperia Z5 Compact sounds. Again, things are impressive here, and how your music sounds is really up to you with the X5 Compact. There’s a system-wide equalizer that gets the job done and genuinely makes a difference, but the real star here is ‘Clear Bass’, once again. This not only adds some much-needed warmth to some tracks, but it’s tight, natural bass not bloated and overwrought bass that a lot of EQ apps seem to add to the low-end. DSEE HX is included here as it is with its larger siblings, but again I didn’t feel it made too much of a difference. In a nutshell, the Xperia Z5 Compact can take lossy MP3s and upscale them to lossless 24-bit ‘Hi-Res’ audio (using the Walkman app only). Songs sounded a little more spacious and cleaner, but Spotify sounds just as good here, which is a testament to how good the EQ and sound processing on the Xperia Z5 Compact really is. Make no mistake, this is one of the few smaller smartphones that doesn’t skimp on sound quality.

Battery Life

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No matter its size, any smartphone can be packed with the latest and greatest specs out there, but if it hasn’t got what it takes in battery life, then it’s not all that much fun. After all, the last thing that we need is our smartphones checking out on us before our own day is over. With a device as small as this, with just a 2,700 mAh battery, there’s obviously going to be some concern over how well the battery here performs. With the Xperia Z5 Compact it appears that there’s no need to worry. With the brightness set to as close to 50% as I could get it, the Xperia Z5 Compact got a great 7h 34m in the PCMark Battery Benchmark. This is pretty impressive to say the least, and while this isn’t a reflection of the majority of users’ everyday habits it’s a good test nonetheless.

In real life tests, the Xperia Z5 Compact is surprising in how long it can last between charges, Sony claim you can get as much as two-days out of this little guy, but I think it’d be more like one day plus. Using STAMINA however, you can reach that two-day mark if you’re careful. Idle time is great here, and it sips away at power while asleep, rather than running away with your remaining battery as other phones can. Taxing the processor and display however will see your battery float away after just a short time. Watching a lot of YouTube, Netflix or playing games will eat away at your battery life and if you’re looking for a device to keep you entertained without a recharge in-between, the Xperia Z5 Compact might not be that phone.

Final Thoughts

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No doubt about it, the Xperia Z5 Compact is a niche product, but it’s one that I’m very glad that Sony has made. Whether or not it has as many followers as it did say, a year or two ago, is debateable. It is refreshing however, to see that at least someone is still making a device that’s smaller without insulting the people looking to purchase a smaller device and packing it with sub-par specifications. Updates will come to the Xperia Z5 Compact over time, and while Sony do take their time they at least definitely keep their devices updated, which is more than we can say for a lot of other smaller devices.

Does size matter? It’s something that a lot of people looking at such a device will ask, and the answer is yes, the size of a smartphone matters to a lot of people. We live in a world of 5.2-inch plus devices, and even folks like Motorola took their flagship Moto X from a manageable 5.2-inches to a massive 5.7-inches earlier this year. There are few options for someone looking for a physically small smartphone that has all the same features as something much larger. The Xperia Z5 Compact is the absolute best of those few options, and while it felt cramped and awkward to type on and unsatisfying to me personally, the joy of being able to use a phone in one hand totally, was not lost on me. For those that are in the market for a device that isn’t touching small tablet territory, the Xperia Z5 Compact is the only smaller smartphone to consider. There is a market out there for a device like this, it’s just not clear how big that already small market is anymore.

Buy The Sony Xperia Z5 Compact