Sony Xperia Z3 Compact long-term review: sexy, submersible, sensational

Mobile manufacturers really don’t make our lives very easy at all. All consumers want are the best value-for-money deals, while companies keep dishing out new, updated devices just a few weeks after their supposed “flagship” launches.

Just six months after the world got a taste of the Xperia Z2, for example, Sony decided to launch the Xperia Z3 and its Compact version, pissing off many of its loyal fans in the process. What’s more, the Sony Xperia Z4 and its selfsame Compact companion are also set to land around the middle of the year. Is there any end to the madness?

As one of those chaps who lives his life one review phone at a time, the move didn’t quite affect or surprise me, but it did leave me wondering if keeping up with the Kardashians really is possible in this manic, fast-paced world.

With the Sony Xperia Z4 (and Z4 Compact) peeking their taut little heads around the corner, is the Xperia Z3 Compact obsolete before it has even reached its prime? Is it worth even considering the outgoing models as medium-term partners? Or will you just be left heartbroken, torn between the two when the latest and greatest edition comes waltzing though the door?

I’ve spent a good few months with this device, so let me get started with some of my excessive impressions. This will take a while.

Unboxing

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Usually the unboxing is the most exciting part for reviewers but no so much for readers, and Sony refrained from cramming the box with many added goodies. So, yawn. Nothing much to see here.

You’ll get a phone and a charger and a set of mildly good headphones, but that’s pretty much it.

If it’s your first time using an Xperia, it might be a good time to read the manual, especially if you’re wondering where the hell you’re supposed to plug the charging cable into the phone. It’s hidden in a purposeful but rather graceful place, and gives the phone a sleek and untainted milk chocolate slab finish.

Once powered on, the Xperia UI differs somewhat from other custom-rolled Android interfaces, like HTC, Samsung and LG, so you’ll need to spend a few minutes familiarising yourself with that.

For one, I’m glad that Sony didn’t spend too much of its marketing budget on the box. It’s simple, protects its content well and looks attractive enough. Ten gold stars.

Aesthetics and design

Where it definitely did fork out all the cash is the phone’s exterior.

Annoyingly, it seems that every Sony smartphone released is more beautiful than the last (take the Xperia C3 for instance), and that really is pushing the boundaries of technology as art. I’ve heard utterances of the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact being boring and uninspiring, but I rather like the understated lines and tangents, especially with the waterproof band engulfing the phone’s periphery. One of my friends hilariously mistook it for an iPhone 6 too, which cannot be a bad thing at all (unless you’re Apple, I guess).

Overall the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is a gorgeous piece of work that’s put together with thought and poise.

It’s not as seductive as the iPhone 6 Plus, nor is it as flash at the HTC One M8, but the scratch resistant glass that coats the device allows the light to bounce off its face and back at a number of glorious angles. The results are stunning and the build quality is excellent.

To be fair, the glass wasn’t exactly resistant to scratches sustained prior to my review period, but it was rather difficult for me to scratch in day-to-day use.

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With more practical matters at hand, the device’s feature placements hasn’t gone amiss either. The owner gets dual front facing speakers at the top and bottom, with a light sensor and a rather modest 2.1MP selfie camera at the top left and right hand corners respectively. Around the back, the 20.7MP camera dominates the top left and just to its right we find the LED flash.

Sony has ensured that its moniker (as well as the silver Xperia badge) is bold and striking, and it looks even better in our review unit’s snow-white guise. Around the phone’s sides, tales of its prospective submersible adventures are hinted at. On the left hand side, the phone hides its charging port, the microSD card slot and the microSIM slots behind a rubber gasket-protected flap. These work really well and don’t look misplaced or unsightly either.

On the right hand side we find all the buttons including a spring-loaded camera shutter, a volume rocker and the now-customary circular power button, working our way from bottom to top. And up top there’s the archaic but necessary 3.5mm audio jack.

Internals

The Sony Xperia Z2 was no slouch back in 2014, when 2GB of RAM was quite an achievement for smartphones, so the Sony Xperia Z3 had to run a few miles and push a few weights to even come close. Has it?

Read more: 5 reasons why Sony’s Xperia Z2 will beat Samsung’s Galaxy S5

Internally, the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact isn’t too different from the larger-faced Z3, but there are reductions. Sony employs Qualcomm’s swift and capable Snapdragon 801 SoC mated to an Adreno 330 GPU and alongside sits a comfortable 2GBs worth of RAM. 16GB (or 32GB) of storage is also present while users get a 2600mAh non-removable battery which really does the job nicely.

Rather standard sounding kit, right?

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As noted earlier, the exemplary 20.7MP camera is joined by an overly modest 2.1MP front facing camera, while the handset itself weighs in at a respectable 152g. It’s not heavy at all but it definitely feels heavier than it looks.

Sony has continued its love for 720p screens by shoving one into the 4.6-inch phone and although 720p is 1990’s screen standard, Sony’s is an absolute gem. The pixel density is also no problem at all, and it’s difficult to notice when gazing at the screen.

For comparison’s sake, the Z3 proper gets a 1080p 5.2-inch screen, 3GB of RAM and the title of flagship.

On the connection front, the Z3 Compact features the usual onslaught of NFC, WiFi, LTE, Bluetooth 4.0 LE and the like. Nothing overly interesting here.

Performance

So, has the Z3 Compact come close to the Z2 in the performance stakes?

Yes, and more.

AnTuTu, the definitive Android benchmarking tool doesn’t lie too often, and in this case it awards the Z3 Compact over 48 000 points — that’s the equivalent of a relatively bad day at the office for Usain Bolt, or a cheetah that had a particularly hefty meal the night before.

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One would think that the smaller phone would be further downscaled in terms of hardware and performance, but this really isn’t the case. It really is the “compact” version of the Z3. The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact also loves multitasking.

The 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 is one of the company’s better pieces of silicon and waffles away without so much as a huff. Android can be a cumbersome OS at the best of times but the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact showed no signs of slowing down whilst rapidly opening, closing, shuffling between apps. One never seems to run out of memory on this phone either.

Granted, the only time this phone breaks a worrying amount of sweat is when recording video in 4K, which is also dispatched with astonishing ease even if the phone shows physical signs of stress. We’ll come to this later.

How’s the gaming performance? It’s brilliant, duh.

Seriously though, games are dispatched with such ridiculous ease (above the 30fps threshold too), that one could easily game and record a video if physics allowed. Of course, during excessive usage, the phone begins to blush like an Jane Austen character in the presence of a Darcy. It’s nothing to be worried about at the device’s body quickly dissipates heat.

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As far as performance of the Sony Xperia Z4 Compact is said to go, it seems that the Snapdragon 810 SoC with Adreno 430 GPU will take graphics and multitasking to another level, boosting multimedia creation too. Will one really need all this muscle? There’s a question we’d love to ask come June (we hope).

Usability and practicality

I can’t think of a nicer phone to use on a day-to-day basis. The BlackBerry Passport is definitely worth a mention, but its size doesn’t give it practicality points, while it also isn’t quite something you can dunk under water either.

Read more: BlackBerry Passport review: back to business

Speaking of water, I can’t recall a phone that loves the water more than the Z3 range. It tackles water bowls, drinking glasses, toilet bowls (I imagine), wash basins, pools, beaches and rain like a salamander. Sadly, it’s also about as slippery as one too, which makes putting this thing on any non-abrasive surface risky business. To be fair, the sleekness of this phone does make it a gorgeous thing to hold. It’s also easy to slide into a tight pants pocket, making this the perfect phone for skinny jeans lovers.

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The screen hates water though, and disregards human touches if laden with droplets but I doubt this will be an issue when prying your water-resistant (and still functioning device) from the toilet bowl.

Overall, the IP68 dust and water-resistant rating puts worrying minds at ease, especially those who tend to drop phones in pools, toilets or puddles constantly and leaves them there for half-hours at a time.

Android is probably the most familiar OS on the planet, and the Xperia UI overlay is a really nice addition. I don’t usually enjoy manufacturers tinkering with the OS’s facade, but Sony has done a sterling job, especially when laying out the settings.

Software

Sony has added some great tweaks to this phone, with special items like “Glove Mode” and the all-conquering Stamina Mode making cold-weather and low-battery usage an absolute pleasure.

Of course, the Xperia UI is additionally one of the more user friendly Android overlays, and it meshes with the phone’s exterior really well. Perhaps the only gripe is the limited number of themes available. Customisation is a key feature for Android devices, but at least swapping between wallpapers is easy enough on this Z3 Compact.

As for Android, there’s a Lollipop update coming to the Z3 and Z3 Compact later this year, which should introduce even better battery management and app management tools to the phone. Our test unit came with Android 4.4.4 KitKat, which is sleek enough, but does have its faults (on all devices).

As for the PC software, Sony’s bundled wares is quite user-friendly, as it installs directly from the phone. It allows the user to back up information directly from the phone to the PC, and it’s a nice suite to have. Did I use it often? Not at all.

Imaging

Sony also bundles a host of camera software with its flagship devices, including the popular panoramic mode, the motion blur mode (which I could, for some reason, never get to work as promised), the InfoEye mode (which tells the user about the image captured) and the manual mode, which is for more serious photographers.

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While all modes were easy enough to find, using a few was confusing. The InfoEye mode, which is a gem for tourists, but doesn’t work well over WiFi. A mobile network is definitely needed, but I can’t help but feel roaming rates would spike using this little add-on.

Nevertheless, when using the camera in its purest, auto form, it functioned adequately.

The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact takes the Z2’s now familiar 20.7MP camera and slaps it on the back. Up front, users only get a 2MP camera, which is very pre-2014 if you ask me. It was surprisingly adept though, so no qualms there. Users wishing to expand their selfies may find the snapper wanting. It’s just fine for video calling though.

As for the rear snapper, it’s an absolute gem and by far one of the best cameras fitted to a phone.

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact sample snaps
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If you're a lover of close-up snaps, you'll love the Z3 Compact's camera.

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Colours are rich and inviting in a variety of light situations.

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Whites are never washed out either, one of this camera's hallmarks.

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Sunsets are snapped with poise and grace, especially thanks to the camera's OIS feature.

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Once again, colours are deep even in the fading light of a sunset.

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Although no one should snap directly against sunlight, even that's a possibility with the Z3 Compact.

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At night, things get more challenging as rapid movements aren't quite captured with authority.

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Still, nighttime snaps are nothing to be scoffed at.

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Capturing natural images -- landscapes, closeups and the like -- is one thing this all Sony cameras are great at.

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It drinks in colours without screaming radioactive, and it balances low-light with SLR-like supremacy. It’s one of the reasons people will choose this phone as an everyday companion, and its love of extreme situations will ensure that snaps can be taken in even the most demanding of places — underwater, for instance.

And while we’re on that topic, the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact can also record video underwater with relative ease. Granted, it’s not something that Sony would explicitly want, but hell, it’s possible provided all the port holes are shut.

4K video recording it also fair game, and this phone was made for the low-light, fast-paced club scenario. It snaps and records like a more expensive video camera in low light, and in bright scenarios the frame-rate remains smooth.

The phone does get hot the longer it remains on 4K mode, and a warning does flag a user to this phenomenon, but it’s nothing shocking. When recording in 1080p, the phone shows no signs of sweat either. It’s an absolute masterpiece.

Battery performance

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For such an anorexic phone, the Xperia Z3 Compact packs spades of battery life. Without use, just idling away in the background, the battery lasts for over a week. With day-to-day use (really pushing the phone with 4K recording, constant music playback and watching content) this drops to two days, which is still brilliant.

Stamina mode also helps to push the phone to its limits, and will ensure that the phone runs out of battery when you’re near a charging device. It’s probably my favourite Sony feature, and works a great deal better than other manufacturer’s power saving modes, including Samsung’s. The Z3 proper sports a larger battery, but the Z3 Compact’s reservoir never feels too small either.

The big question: “Should I buy the Z3 Compact now, or wait for the Xperia Z4 Compact?”

During my review period, I came across a few people about to upgrade their device from previous contracts. The Z3 Compact came into question as a possibility a few times, but ultimately the question I kept asking myself was this: is it worth upgrading to the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact while the Sony Xperia Z4 (and its Compact version) is just around the corner, painting its nails?

There is, however, a massive problem with this thought process.

If consumers waited for the next and best edition of a device, they’d never purchase anything. Thanks to Sony’s recent rapid release cycle, you have around six months between launches of its flagship products.

Although the Xperia Z4 and Z4 Compact will likely be among the fastest phones ever created once launched, they are both still in their respective incubators. Sony has also mentioned that its flagship launches will occur less frequently from this year on, perhaps giving the company time to perfect the devices before pushing them out to compete with rivals. With that said, the Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact are tried and trusted Sony smartphones available now, this instant.

So would I wait for the Z4? If I didn’t need a phone this instant, I would, but if I did, I would definitely get the Xperia Z3.

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The Sony Xperia Z1 isn’t what I’d call dated either, and the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact definitely won’t feel dated in a few years time, so I see no reason not to purchase the Z3.

Don’t fall into smartphone manufacturer’s rapid release trap.

Value and Price

The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact has dropped in price since its mid-2014 launch, so at the moment I see it as one of the most value for money devices on the market, especially given its hardware, optical and aesthetic pedigree.

For between R6000 and R7000, one gets a hell of a lot of phone for the money, even if this is the “Compact” version.

Verdict: Is the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact the best phone of 2014? I can’t slap that “best” label on it, but it’s definitely one of the best, and one of the most complete phones I’ve ever reviewed. It’s solid and small without being annoyingly so, it’s seductive and it’s the perfect life companion in all situations, indoors and out. I can’t think of another phone that can attest to spreading its wings across all possible applications like the Xperia Z3 Compact, so it can wear that badge with honour.

Personally, the biggest issue with this phone is its bigger brother. I’d have the Sony Xperia Z3, which has a larger screen and more memory, but it’s difficult to fault the Z3 Compact on its own laurels.

TL;DR: For those wanting a phone below the 5.o-inch threshold, it’ll be difficult to find a better one than this.

Score: 9/10

Andy Walker
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