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Review: Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact

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Jun 19, 2018, 3:00 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper

The Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact is a phone for those averse to today's mega-slabs. It's a diminutive dynamo that packs a big punch. This Android phone won't take no guff from nobody. With a top-tier processor, capable camera, and features to spare, the Xperia XZ2 Compact is the one-handed phone you might not be able to say no to. Here is Phone Scoop's in-depth review.

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Hardware 

Is It Your Type?

The Xperia XZ2 Compact is the smaller, more hand-friendly version of Sony's flagship phone. It boasts a frosted polycarbonate design, top-of-the-line processor, powerful camera, and rich media experiences. If you seek raw performance in a small package, the XZ2 Compact is a fine place to start.

Body

Editor's Note: In many respects, the smaller Xperia XZ2 Compact and larger Xperia XZ2 have identical guts, software, and performance. As such, major portions of this review are carried over from our earlier review of the Xperia XZ2. The screen size, physical size, and battery capacity differ, and the XZ2 Compact does not have wireless charging and the haptic engine found on the larger model. We specifically spent time with XZ2 Compact to assess its smaller form factor, battery life, and performance on Verizon's network. Here's what we found.

The Xperia XZ2 Compact is at once new and familiar. There's no question it's a Sony phone, but it adopts new design characteristics that help bring Sony into the modern age of smartphones. The company has — almost a year after its competitors — moved to a 2:1 screen shape. That means a taller screen in a narrower chassis, for more of an "all screen" front. As good as this update is, the phone still manages to look and feel a bit awkward.

XZ2 Compact  

The XZ2 Compact has a metal frame that wraps around the outer edge and is sandwiched between Gorilla Glass and polycarbonate The frame is pleasingly rounded so the phone feels smooth against your hand. The front glass has the 2.5D shape common to many phones, which means it curves right where it meets the metal frame. Notably, the rear is much curvier, swelling along the center axis to be much thicker in the middle. While comfy to hold, it prevents the phone from sitting steadily on flat surfaces, something I find annoying. The shaping of the back gives the XZ2 Compact a chubby look from some angles, which isn't exactly becoming in the era of super slim phones.

The smaller XZ Compact is all about frost. It eschews the smooth, liquid glass rear panel of the larger XZ2 for a frosted finish that has a distinct texture. I like the frosted back, but it's not as inspiring as the liquid glass of the bigger XZ2. Our review unit is mossy green, which is to say something between green and blue. The phone is also sold in silver, black, and pink, all with a frosted coating.

The XZ2 Compact is aptly named. Compared to most phones today, it's downright petite. It measures a squat 5.33 inches tall by 2.54 inches wide. This makes it really hand-friendly. I'm not entirely happy about the 11.9mm girth from front to back. I understand the physics here and I know that Sony crammed an awful lot into the smaller footprint. Even so, there's no denying that it looks a little chubby. The thickness is most obvious when the phone is in your pocket, though this is offset by the reduced length and width. The frosted polycarbonate back is easier to hold onto than the slippery liquid glass of the XZ2. So there's that.

Sony selected fine components for the body and assembled them perfectly. The metal frame is solid and the glass front is of the highest quality. The XZ2's liquid glass does offer a more luxurious feel than the Compact's polycarbonate, but the quality of the smaller phone is just as good as the larger phone. Everything about the XZ2 Compact is elegant.

Like the majority of Sony flagships, the XZ2 Compact is at least water resistant. The U.S. version is rated IP65 (versus IP68 for the international). This means it can handle a few minutes of flowing/spraying water, such as rain or a splash next to the kitchen sink. It is not meant to be fully submerged, so be careful around the pool this summer. Sony says the XZ2 Compact is durable thanks to the polycarbonate rear panel. It's certainly not as fragile as all-glass phones.

Sony phones have long had horrendously thick bezels. The XZ2 Compact makes progress on that front with its 2:1 display, but not enough as far as I'm concerned. It could have done much more to make the screen truly fill the front. Many of today's competing flagship phones offer a better screen-to-body ratio than the XZ2 Compact.

All of the buttons are on the right. The volume toggle is close to the top edge. It's a thin, short key that has a good profile and feedback. I do wish there were nubs at either end to help give you some guidance. The screen lock button is right in the middle. It's small and doesn't have as thick a profile as I'd like. Feedback is very good.

Sony is one of the last phone makers to include a dedicated camera button on its phones. The XZ2 Compact's camera key is really small and tucked down on the bottom of the right edge. It's a two-stage button. The action between the two stages is much more well defined than the same button on the larger XZ2. It's easy to push the button half way down to focus, and then all the way down and shoot a picture. I really do like the two-stage shutter button as a hardware feature.

Hand Fit  

Sony is unique in offering a SIM / memory card tray you can access with just your thumbnail. You'll find that on the left edge. The USB-C port is located on the bottom edge. There's no 3.5mm headphone jack, which is a shame. (Sony includes a 3.5mm adapter in the box.)

I'm not entirely in love with the bowed shape of the XZ2 Compact's rear panel. Because the phone is thicker than the XZ2, the arc is more noticeable as it reaches from corner to corner. Sony arranged the camera, sensors, fingerprint reader, and other components near the top edge. The fingerprint reader is placed just a bit low (it's egregiously low on the XZ2). More often than not, my finger touched the glass above the fingerprint reader rather than the fingerprint reader itself. At least I didn't accidentally smudge the camera lens. The battery cannot be removed.

Camera

Camera

There's a lot to like here. Sony finally designed a device with respectable bezels. The company could have gone further, and I expect it to with its next-generation flagships. I also wish the phone were a bit thinner. These are hardly the worst complaints, however. Sony fans should be pleased with the updated hardware.

Screen

Sony opted for a 5-inch LCD panel with full HD+ (2,160 by 1,080) resolution. There's no notch. The screen looks incredibly sharp and clean. Everything on the display has smooth edges and is well-defined. The display of the XZ2 Compact has better pixel density (483ppi) than the display of the XZ2 (424ppi) because the Compact packs the same resolution into a smaller panel. Many of Sony's competitors in the flagship space (Samsung, LG) offer quad HD+ resolution on their phones, but I don't think you're missing anything here.

The display pumps out plenty of light. I was able to use it outdoors with no problems. The camera app was always visible, even under sunny skies, though things that have white backgrounds were harder to see under the sun. Support for HDR video playback means you can experience higher-contrast video from Netflix and other streaming services. HDR content looks excellent on the XZ2 Compact. Viewing angles are very good.

Like most Sony phones, the screen settings put you in control. Sony added a "smart backlight control" that keeps the screen on if you are merely looking at it. I appreciate that you can choose from several different color and contrast options, such as Super Vivid Mode, which makes viewing movies that much better by improving contrast. You can also make fine-tuned adjustments to white balance.

The phone has a fine screen.

Display  

Signal

Sony sells the Xperia XZ2 Compact unlocked in the U.S. It supports a respectable number of LTE bands, including Band 29 for AT&T and Band 66 for T-Mobile (though not Band 71). More importantly, it's certified by Verizon for use on its LTE 4G network. This means Verizon tested the XZ2 Compact it its lab and vouches for its network performance. I tested the phone on Verizon's network around NYC and came away impressed.

Every call connected on the first dial, even when the network was hardly there. I ran the phone up and down miles of highway and not once did it drop a call. Data speeds were excellent. The phone has a first-rate Cat 18 LTE modem and really delivered zippy data. Everything I did on the network — surfing the web, streaming media, downloading apps — ran smoothly and quickly.

Sound

The XZ2 Compact is a very good tool for making calls. Voices sound clean and present via the earpiece. I was pleased with clarity and tone. Volume was a bit better than what I experienced with the larger XZ2. I handled calls in a busy coffee shop and city noisy streets with no issue. Those I spoke to through the XZ2 Compact said I sounded “very good.”

The phone doesn't support WiFi calling, but it does offer VoLTE for HD Voice service. The clarity of VoLTE calls on Verizon's network was outstanding. It was as though people were talking to me from the next room.

Calls routed to the speaker are very loud, thanks to Sony's ramped-up amplifier. Clarity will suffer from some distortion at the loudest volumes, but you'll easily be able to hear calls in moving cars and in office spaces.

Sony is doing some interesting things with the sound when it comes to media playback. Like many modern flagships, the Xperia XZ2 Compact pushes sound out of the earpiece and the speaker. Together these create a stereo effect. The tones are generally good and I was very impressed with not only the volume, but the clarity and quality of both music and movies. Sony calls this S-Force Front Surround.

Sadly, the Xperia XZ2 Compact loses the awesome haptic engine and Dynamic Vibration of the larger phone.

Audio Settings  

Battery

The phone has a 2,870 mAh battery inside and it does a fine job. I was able to run the XZ2 Compact all day without it dying on me. Normal usage — browsing social media, sending messages — hardly seemed to impact the battery at all. Using the camera takes a more obvious toll on battery life. If you spend a day sightseeing with the camera on constantly, you'll likely run into trouble by suppertime.

Stamina Mode and Ultra Stamina Mode will truly help extend battery life if you find yourself running short. While the former tamps down vibrations, notifications, brightness, and alerts, the latter puts the XZ2 Compact into dumb-phone mode and kills most apps and services.

The phone supports Quick Charge 3.0 for rapid power-ups. Plugging in for as little as 15 minutes boosts the battery by as much as 25%. The XZ2 Compact does not include wireless charging.

Battery  

Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, WiFi

The Xperia XZ2 Compact is loaded with radios.

Let's start with Bluetooth 5.0 with support for aptX. This is a good start for music lovers. The phone connected to various headphones, speakers, and my car without much effort. Calls routed to my car were solid in terms of volume and clarity. Music streamed to aptX-capable headphones sounded excellent.

The GPS radio did its job admirably. It pinpointed me in a blink and accuracy was as good as about 10 feet. The XZ2 Compact had no trouble navigating between points, whether you're traveling by foot or car.

I appreciate having an NFC radio aboard the phone. It made for easy pairing with select Bluetooth accessories, and it of course supports mobile payments via Google Pay.

The WiFi worked really well. The XZ2 Compact includes its own VPN software, which I recommend you turn on.

Software 

Lock Screen

A quick press of the XZ2 Compact's screen lock button or fingerprint reader wakes the display and reveals the clock, notifications, and two shortcuts: phone and camera. (You can't customize the shortcuts.) I really appreciate that Sony allows you to select from a five different clocks for the lock screen. All of them are easy to read, even under adverse lighting. As always, you can choose how visible notifications are on the lock screen and even control the LED indicator light.

Security features are typical for a flagship device. Training several prints takes no time at all and the reader is quick and accurate most of the time. I'm glad the reader is somewhat easier to find on the XZ2 Compact than it is on the regular XZ2.

Home Screens

The Xperia XZ2 Compact runs Android 8 Oreo with Sony's tweaks.

As per the norm, you can manage the home screens however you wish. You can adjust the grid size, the icon size, add widgets, screen transitions, and much more. Home screens are searchable through a tool that works almost identically to that of iOS. Tap in the center of a home screen panel and pull down. This reveals a search bar along with the results from your most recent app searches. The search results will change over time, though if you keep using the same result it might be faster to just put that app on the home screen.

Home Screens  

The app drawer, available via dedicated button in the home screen dock, is arranged in side-by-side pages that you swipe left and right. You can opt to view apps in custom order, most used, alphabetically, or by date. A search tool is always available in the app drawer, which is nice. The app drawer also supports folders.

The settings menu behaves just as with standard Android, but with a splash of color. It's easy to make sense of and has its own search function for finding those buried settings.

Sony includes themes, as do HTC, LG, Samsung, and others. These bundle together similar color palettes for the home screen, app drawer, and other aspects of the user interface. Sony offers a few themes of its own, but you can design your own. That's cool.

One thing I noticed: If you're coming from a larger phone, the XZ2 Compact's narrow screen really takes some getting used to. It feels cramped in terms of how much is visible on the screen at any given time, and the keyboard feels absolutely tiny. I had difficulty typing on the phone. If you have small hands, or fingers more nimble than mine, then perhaps this will be a benefit.

Settings  

The Xperia XZ2 Compact does really well in the speed department. It is built around the top-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor with 4 GB of RAM. The phone performed very well while I tested it. The XZ2 Compact was never laggy, screen transitions were smooth, and the vast majority of apps opened in a blink.

Camera

The quickest way to launch the camera is to long-press the dedicated camera button. You can also double-press the screen lock button. The camera app opens quickly (~1 second) whether the phone is locked or unlocked.

Camera App  

The app is powerful and easy to use. By default, the Xperia XZ2 Compact uses Sony's Superior Auto shooting mode. The idea is that the camera is smart enough to automatically detect what it's shooting and adjust accordingly. Competitors are just launching this feature and hyping it as "AI", but Sony has been doing it for a while. You'll see the camera automatically switch modes when you point it at food, landscapes, and so on.

The other basic modes include manual and video. You can also access some secondary shooting modes, such as AR effect (put dinosaurs in your pix), Creative Effect (live filters), Sound Photo (takes photos with background sounds), panorama, 4K video, and burst. HDR for photos works automatically in Superior Auto mode, but can be toggled on/off manually when in Manual mode. The XZ2 Compact is one of the first phones able to shoot HDR video at 4K resolutions.

Manual Mode allows you to set white balance, ISO, brightness, shutter speed (but only up to 1 second), and focus. It's relatively easy to use. I'm stunned you can't set a longer shutter speed for night shots.

Camera Modes  

The XZ2 Compact adds a dedicated bokeh / portrait tool for taking more artistic photos. It's an odd one. To start, it's not as automatic as on other phones. You need to tap the item on the screen you want to be in focus. The camera then asks you to hold still while it shoots two photos. The phone has only one lens, rather than two like many competing phones. The XZ2 Compact then combines the results of the two photos and allows you to make some edits right away.

For example, you can raise or lower the depth of field (how much the background is on/out of focus), as well as select from three different styles of bokeh smudging (circular, horizontal line, vertical line). You have to remember to save your edits after the fact to keep the photo. It requires more work than the iPhone X and Galaxy S9+, and doesn't deliver results that are as good. Worse, half the time it tells you it couldn't blur the background at all.

On the other hand, Sony's super slow-motion tool is much easier to use than others. Switch to video mode and start recording video. When you see something you want captured in super slow-mo, hit the secondary button and voila. Samsung and Huawei have horrible implementations, by way of comparison. And the XZ2 Compact can capture 960fps slow-motion in 1080p, rather than just 720p.

All of the main shooting modes are available to the user-facing selfie camera as well, which is unusual and nice. But, uh, no selfie portraits / bokeh. C'mon, Sony!

I do also like that the extra modes are available as individual "apps." In other words, Sony knows how clunky it is to open the camera, swipe to the extra modes, and then select the mode you want to use. Instead, you can jump right to bokeh or AR effect via dedicated app shortcuts available in the app drawer or your home screen.

Everything about the camera is fast, and that's good.

Photos/Video

The XZ2 Compact performed exactly as the larger XZ2 did as far as the camera is concerned.

The XZ2 Compact has a 19-megapixel camera. The default setting is 17 megapixels at 16:9. If you want the full pixel count you need to switch to 4:3. The Exmor RS sensor has a 25mm lens at f/2.0 with low-light photo capture up to ISO 12,800 (ISO 4,000 for video).

The XZ2 Compact takes very, very good pictures in most settings. I was generally impressed with the majority of snaps I captured, which were clean, sharp, and accurate. Focus is almost always spot-on. White balance and color representation was typically true-to-life, with only minor issues here and there. Daytime shots were free of grain, though low-light shots introduced some noise. You do have to mind the camera lens and be sure it's smudge-free.

The XZ2 Compact handles exposure much better than the XA2 Ultra, which we reviewed earlier this year. It managed to balance scenes with more accuracy while maintaining white balance. The HDR function handled shots with bright/dark regions very well and the XZ2 Compact made some serious gains in the low-light department. It's still not near Pixel 2 XL and P20 Pro levels, but it's very good for a Sony.

The selfie camera has a 5-megapixel sensor. It takes sharp, clean selfies. Images are colorful and properly exposed. The majority of selfies are free of grain, too, which puts it ahead of many selfie cams. The screen-based selfie flash helps a bit in low-light situations.

If you want to take some extra-wide selfies, you'll have to use the selfie panorama tool. It works, but not as well as a dedicated wide-angle camera might. You can use the AR Effect mode to add stickers and masks to your selfies, but there is no way to take portrait-stye selfies with blurred backgrounds.

The phone shoots video up to 4K (Ultra HD) resolution in HDR if you want. The 4K HDR video looks a bit overexposed on properly equipped TVs and/or monitors. The standard full-HD video I captured with the XZ2 Compact was excellent in terms of focus, exposure, and color. The phone is the best-performing Sony device I've tested when it comes to video.

Photo Samples  

Wrap-Up 

The XZ2 Compact represents a wholly different value for mobile phone shoppers. There are very few — if any — premium flagship phones that are also compact and truly one-handed. That makes the XZ2 Compact stand out in a sea of thin slates that seem super-size by comparison.

I'm glad to see Sony has updated its hardware and feature set to keep up with the times. The XZ2 Compact has a 2:1 screen and reduced bezels compared to older Sony phones. The materials and manufacture are great, but I prefer the liquid glass and slimmer profile of the XZ2. The screen is fantastic, as is voice performance, cellular performance on Verizon's network, and secondary radio performance. Battery life is average.

The software is mostly fine. Sony's skin on top of Android lets you make plenty of tweaks to the home screen. Sony's camera app is simpler than ever, and more powerful than it has been in the past. I'm glad to see the results catching up with competing phones.

I wish the U.S. variant of the XZ2 Compact were fully waterproof, but at least it offers rapid charging and support for memory cards.

Unlocked, the Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact costs $649. It's not available from carriers, nor with any sort of payment plan, so you'll have to eat the entire cost at once. It's much cheaper than the Galaxy S9, and iPhone 8, which are close in size/features.

Sony's Xperia XZ2 Compact is for people seeking a very specific experience. This pint-sized flagship delivers vast value.

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