Review: Sony Xperia Z5 Compact
Sony is offering its Xperia Z5 Compact to US buyers online. This unlocked Android smartphone works with both AT&T and T-Mobile. It offers the best of the Z5 flagship in a smaller, more affordable package. The design, materials, and build quality are top notch, and the camera software dazzles. Here is Phonescoop's in-depth report.
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Is It Your Type?
The Sony Xperia Z5 Compact is for the phablet-averse who still want quality hardware. This diminutive smartphone delivers big features despite its small stature. If you're in the market for a high-end, usable, unlocked Android smartphone, and value small phone size over a large screen, the Xperia Z5 Compact is a great place to start.
Sony is bucking conventional wisdom with the Xperia Z5 Compact. Manufacturers have for years told Phone Scoop that there's no market for small, premium smartphones. If people are going to spend a lot of money to get a top-tier phone, argue phone makers, those people will buy the biggest one they can afford.
Not everyone lives by the "bigger is better" mantra, and Sony believes that strongly enough to take a chance on the Xperia Z5 Compact. As the name implies, the Z5 Compact is a smaller version of the Z5 flagship smartphone. It carries over the basic design language of the larger flagship, with minimal impact on specs and other essential features, such as the camera and waterproof performance.
The newer X series may or not be replacing the Z-series. (Reports on this conflict.) Regardless, the smallest X series phone — the Xperia XA — is a decidedly lower-end phone. If you truly want high-end, flagship specs in a small phone, the Z5 Compact is all Sony offers right now.
The Compact has an aluminum frame with glass panels on front and back. The frame has a heavy paint job, and the rear glass panel is frosted so thickly it hardly feels like glass. The corners are sharp and the side edges are mostly flat, although they angle over just a bit to meet the glass panels. Our review unit is white all around, but the phone is available in titanium, yellow, and red. The materials and build quality are excellent. The Z5 Compact feels every bit the premium smartphone it is. Sony could easily have switched to a polycarbonate frame or rear panel, but instead chose to keep the high-end build of the Z5 intact.
The Z5 Compact is a blocky, almost chubby little phone. It's narrower and shorter than the full-sized model, but Sony had to increase the thickness a bit to accommodate all the electronics. (The Z5 measures 5.75 by 2.83 by 0.29 inches, and the Compact measures 5.0 by 2.56 by 0.35 inches.) It is noticeably smaller than every other phone I have in my office right now. If big phones make you mad, the Z5 Compact should cool your jets. The compact is also lighter than its larger brother, at 4.87 ounces compared to 5.43 ounces.
As small and easy as the Compact is to hold and use, the thicker profile and sharp edges are noticeable. The frame, for example, forms a rim around both the front and rear glass panels. This rim can dig into your flesh. Moreover, the thickness and blocky shape together make the phone stand out in tight pockets.
Many of Sony's smartphones have had enormous, unappealing bezels. The Compact corrects that design niggle. Sony went for a refined look for the front panel. The display fills most of the face and the Compact manages to shrink down the bezels to what most might consider "normal" levels. Sony cut two slits in the glass along the top and bottom edges for the stereo speakers. There are no physical keys on the phone's front, which is becoming the norm for Android handsets these days.
I like that Sony carved the Xperia brand name into the metal frame on the left side of the phone. It looks classy. The left side also houses the SIM and memory card slots, which are protected by a large hatch. The hatch is easy to peel back and both card types can be inserted or ejected without trouble. Be sure to firmly close the hatch to maintain the phone's watertight seal.
All of the physical buttons are positioned on the right edge of the Compact. The biggest and most obvious button is the screen lock / power key. It's located about in the middle, and is offset visually thanks to its chrome coloring. The button sits lower than the frame. It's still easy to find, and thankfully travel and feedback are great. Of note, the international versions of the Z5 Compact include a fingerprint sensor in the power key. Not so in the US version. That's a damned shame.
The volume button is ridiculous. The key measures about 13mm in length, which is 7mm less than the width of my thumb. To say that it's hard to differentiate up from down is an understatement. Worse, travel and feedback are absolutely horrible. The dedicated camera button, which has become a rare commodity on today's phones, has a nice profile and well-defined two-stage action.
The positioning of these buttons is a bit troublesome to me. I hold my phone in my right hand, and place my thumb along the bottom right edge of the phone. When gripped this way, I constantly found myself adjusting the volume and toggling the camera on and off accidentally. Since the power, volume, and camera buttons are packed so closely, there's nowhere to put my thumb without activating something. Sony didn't quite think this through.
The headphone jack and a microphone are visible on the top edge of the Compact, while the micro USB port and another microphone are on the bottom edge. In other words, the Compact has a fairly typical layout.
The rear panel is pleasing in its simplicity. The camera module is pushed into the upper-left corner. A chrome rim helps it stand out. A small LED flash sits to the camera's right. The only other design elements are the NFC, Sony, and Xperia logos, which are all painted on the glass. As you might have guessed, the rear panel cannot be removed. This means no access to the battery; the power supply is sealed in tight.
Sony has long water-proofed its Xperia Z series handsets, and the Z5 Compact can go for a swim just like its predecessors. The phone bears an IPX8 rating, so it can sit in 1.5 meters of water for about 30 minutes. The Z5 Compact, therefore, could be a good companion at the pool this summer. I tested its mettle and found the Compact easily laughed off flowing water from the shower, as well as a warm bath in the tub. The Xperia Z5 Compact is waterproof, but it is not rugged. It does support glove mode for those cold winter months, but will break if you drop it into a hard surface.
Bottom line: Sony did a great job with this small smartphone hardware. I can't think of another phone that so successfully combines a premium experience with preemie sizing.
Where the Z5 has a 5.2-inch full HD screen, the Compact reduces the screen size to 4.6 inches and the resolution to 720p. I generally like Sony's displays and that holds true with the Compact's screen. The resolution works for this size and helps keep the pixel density at a good level. I didn't see individual pixels, and most on-screen elements appear smooth and/or sharp. Brightness is quite good, and colors are accurate. Viewing angles are adequate, but there's a significant loss in brightness when the phone is tiled to the side. That's pretty typical for an LCD panel.
A couple of other things worth pointing out. Sony's software allows you to tweak the display's white balance. You can adjust the coloration on an infinite scale, which is to say you can play with the appearance forever. The default settings looked fine to my eyes, as it delivers the most pure whites. Sony's software also has several different color/sharpness profiles specifically for images. Image Enhancement can be set to off, X-Reality, or Super-Vivid. The X-Reality is supposed to offer a more natural look, while Super-Vivid boosts colors and sharpness to give photos extra pop. The default setting is X-Reality.
The Xperia Z5 Compact is sold unlocked and works on most GSM networks in the U.S. Importantly, it supports the LTE bands used by AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. (Side note, T-Mobile didn't certify the Z5 Compact for Band 12, which means VoLTE and some services aren't supported.) We tested the Z5 Compact on both networks and I found the Compact performs on par with other phones that run on AT&T and T-Mobile. The Compact connected calls quickly and didn't drop them, even at highway speeds. The phone didn't miss any calls while I reviewed it. Data speeds were very good across AT&T and T-Mobile's networks. I was pleased with the Compact's performance and saw quick app downloads, fast Facebook scrolling, and swift web page rendering. Performance was about even on the two networks; neither stood out as better for the Z5 Compact.
Call quality is about average for a device in this class. The earpiece delivers a reasonably good amount of sound to your ear, but quality is a bit off. I'd say the Compact pumps out enough volume (when set all the way up) that you can hear it in regular places such as home, the office, and the mall. It will be more difficult to hear in coffee shops and on city streets. Voices sound a bit sharp and piercing to my ears, but those I spoke to through the Compact said my voice was smooth. The speakerphone is loud enough for home and the office, and maybe the car, but the quality is rather harsh.
I couldn't discern any real difference in call quality between AT&T and T-Mobile's networks.
Ringers and alerts always got my attention, and the vibrate alert is plenty strong.
The stereo speakers are adequate enough that you can skip using a Bluetooth speaker. Music comes through a little thin-sounding, but loud enough to hear as long as you are within about 20 feet of the phone.
Sony took the larger Z5's 2,900 mAh battery and trimmed a mere 200 mAh of capacity to fit it into the Compact's smaller frame. The Compact includes a 2,700 mAh power source that I found provided a full day of power without fail. The phone often had about 20% capacity left by the time I called it a day. It does well. We can probably thank the 720p display to some degree.
Even so, Sony installed not just one but three power management tools. First, Battery Saver Mode is the system-level tool that can be set to switch on automatically when the battery reaches 5% or 15%. It tones down notifications, spins down the processor, and dims the screen. Then there's Power Saver Mode, which more aggressively reduces the processor's output while also allowing people to tweak notification and screen settings. If you find yourself in real trouble without a power outlet in sight, the Compact includes Sony's Ultra Power Saver Mode. This is essentially a weapon of last resort. It kills data entirely and leaves only the phone and messaging apps running. The benefit? It lasts for hours and hours.
Last, the Compact supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0. The battery can suck up a full charge in less than two hours, which is great. It doesn't support wireless charging.
Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, WiFi
The Xperia Z5 Compact has one of the more capable Bluetooth radios I've tested in recent memory. It was a snap to pair the phone with a variety of other devices, including headsets, speakers, cars, PCs, other phones, and keyboards. I tested calls through my car's hands-free system and quality was reasonably good. I was most impressed with how music sounded when I paired the Compact with my top-of-the-line Bluetooth speaker. It was very, very good thanks to support for the aptX profile.
Having NFC aboard helped pair the Compact with several of the Bluetooth accessories I tested, which is always a big help. The NFC radio also supports Android Pay. (But note that the lack of fingerprint reader makes it less convenient to use.)
Google Maps and the Compact's GPS radio were bosom buddies. The software and hardware worked hand-in-hand to pinpoint my location swiftly and help me navigate from here to there. Maps worked well as a real-time tour guide and accuracy was excellent as I moved around my town.
The WiFi radio didn't give me any problems.
Sony's latest flagship family impresses with high-quality materials, top-notch specs, and user-friendly features. The Xperia Z5, Z5 Compact, and Z5 Premium make for a formidable lineup of Android handsets.
Jan 14, 2016
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