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 lock screen treatment is mostly typical for an Android phone, though there are a few anomalies.
To start, the Compact can be woken with a double-tap of the screen if you wish. This feature needs to be turned on manually but works well once enabled. The lock screen includes a clock, notifications, and shortcuts to the phone and camera apps. This is normal. What's not normal are how notifications are handled.
Most Lollipop phones allow you to show all notifications in the lock screen (including sender names and message content), hide sensitive content (don't show the names or message details, but still mention there's message), or show nothing at all. I always select the middle option, as it lets me know I have messages or emails, but doesn't reveal who they are from. On the Compact, only the first and third options are available, meaning you either see all your notification content — including names — or none of it. That's rather annoying.
Security options include none, pattern, password, or PIN. (Again, no fingerprints.) As always, you can choose how quickly the phone locks itself once you put it down.
Sony dialed its Android skin way back on the Z5 Compact. The Android 5.1 (Lollipop) operating system (Sony says Android 6.0 Marshmallow is on its way!) behaves mostly as expected for a Lollipop phone.
The Compact ships with five active home screen panels, three of which are jammed with apps and widgets. Press-and-hold one of the home screen panels to bring up the home screen control panel, which lets you easily adjust widgets, apps, wallpapers, themes, and general settings. The Quick Settings panel is the stock version from Google, but Sony allows users to customize which toggles appear in the panel. That's appreciated.
The app drawer is arranged in pages that you swipe left and right. Users can elect to view apps in custom order, most used, alphabetically, or by date. Sony also allows users to uninstall a fair number of the pre-installed apps. The app drawer supports folders if you wish.
The settings tools have been skinned with Sony's fonts and icons, but otherwise behave as the stock Android tools do. The one major difference to my eyes are the inclusion of themes. These bundle together similar color palettes for the home screen, app drawer, and other aspects of the user interface.
As far as performance goes, the Z5 Compact is fantastic. It relies on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor with eight cores at 2 GHz. The Snapdragon 810 got off to a rough start in mid-2015, but Qualcomm appears to have sorted out the issues. Notably, the Z5 Compact never got too hot. The Compact has 2 GB of RAM, which is a bit less than the Z5's 3 GB of RAM, but you wouldn't know it. The phone performed flawlessly while I reviewed it. It never stuttered nor stammered, screen transitions flowed from one to the next, and apps opened in a blink.
A quick press of the dedicated camera button opens the camera app very quickly. You can also open it from the lock screen, but the physical button method is fastest. The camera app is powerful and doesn't take too long to master. It offers enough flexibility for novice and expert users alike.
The default shooting mode is Sony's Superior Auto. The Compact also includes Manual, Video, and Fun modes. The shutter button, settings button, and recent photos button are all positioned on the right side of the screen, while the left is reserved for toggles to the different modes in addition to controls for the flash and user facing camera. Switching modes works exactly as on the iPhone — you need to swipe the screen to jump from mode to mode.
Superior Auto is pretty darned smart; it usually succeeds in figuring out what it's looking at and adjusting automatically to get the best shot. For example, I aimed the Z5 Compact at my desk calendar and it switched to Document. It also switched to Sport when it noticed I was moving the camera around a lot, and to Macro when I held it close to some flowers. Superior Auto does allow you to adjust basic camera options, such as geotagging, review, the timer, resolution, and so on.
Manual Mode gives you far more control over the camera and its behaviors. For example, Manual Mode allows you to set white balance, ISO, brightness, and color, and it also offers a number of scenes (landscape, HDR, night, foot, pet, beach, snow, etc.) Using Manual Mode is not intimidating at all, I promise. It's simple to dial in different scenes, and you can still let the camera take care of exposure, focus, and so on if you want.
There are 11 other shooting modes lumped into the Fun category, and you can download more if you wish.
Those extra modes include: Panorama, 4K Video; Timeshift Video (high frame rate for slow-motion results); Sound Photo (takes photos with background sounds); Multi Camera (use both cameras at the same time); Face In (use both cameras to put your face in either photos or videos); AR Effect (take photos with virtual scenes and characters); Creative Effect (select effects - i.e., filters - for artistic photos and videos); Timeshift Burst (takes a quick burst before you press the shutter button to increase likelihood of getting good shot); and Style Portrait (for tweaking those selfies).
Each of these individual modes works fairly well, but takes some practice before you'll get good shots. I like that Sony included a quick, simple tutorial to help you learn each of the modes.
The Z5 Compact can also detect smiles, and has four different settings for the flash, including fill-flash. Fill-flash helps take photos when you have a light background and a dark foreground and you want to make the foreground pop a little bit (it uses a lower-power burst than the normal flash mode.)
Everything about the camera is fast. It focuses quickly, and shoots/saves images quickly.
The Z5 Compact has a 23-megapixel camera. Users can drop the megapixel count to as low as 8, and also toggle between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios to suit tastes. The Compact's camera handles exposure, focus, and color in excellent fashion. I was quite pleased with the overall quality of the shots I captured with the phone. My biggest complaint is noise and/or grain, which is easily visible when photos are blown up and scanned for details. The other issue is low-light performance. Without the flash, the Z5 Compact has trouble with exposure in dark environments. In other words, using the flash is almost essential when taking shots of your friends at the nightclub or when out to dinner.
Selfie lovers will be mostly pleased with the 5-megapixel user-facing camera. Aside from some grainy shots, it captures images that are mostly sharp and properly exposed.
The phone shoots video up to 4K resolution, but you may as well stick with 1080p HD. The video I shot with the Compact was generally impressive in terms of focus, exposure, and color. Like the camera, the video camera added some grain to results, but it's less noticeable.
Bottom line: the Compact serves as a solid everyday imaging and video device, You can probably get away with using it as your main camera most of the time. You may want to switch to something more powerful if you have a lot of indoor shooting to do.
Sony kept bloatware to a minimum, and what little there is can be deleted. The most important apps are the PlayStation tools, which let users hook into their PlayStation accounts for gaming, watching videos, streaming music, and networking with friends. Some of the other extras include TrackID, Sketch, Movie Creator, and Lifelog for managing and interacting with media content.
The Sony Xperia Z5 Compact offers what few other phones do: flagship performance in a petite piece of hardware. The Z5 Compact is refined, small, and manufactured with the best materials. The glass-and-metal combo offers a premium experience, and its waterproof nature makes it all the more appealing.
It's not without faults. The phone is thicker than I'd like it to be, and the button layout is annoying. However, it does support memory cards, the screen is really nice, battery life is above average, and wireless performance is just fine across AT&T and T-Mobile's networks. I wish voice calls were a bit better, but they were by no means awful. The processor delivers plenty of power and gives the camera enough oomph for swift action.
At $499, the Xperia Z5 Compact is a good buy. The phone is only available from online retailers, including Amazon, B&H, and Best Buy. It's sold unlocked, which offers its own appeal in terms of carrier flexibility.
If you're in the market for a small, premium phone right now, the Z5 Compact is about the best — if only — choice.
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