Sony Xperia Z3 Compact review: The best compact Android phone gets a makeover

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.0
  • Design: 8.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 8.0

Average User Rating

5 stars 1 user review
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact packs a larger screen than its predecessor in the same size body, it has tonnes of power, it's completely waterproof allowing for underwater photography and it has a good camera.

The Bad The screen size has increased, but not the resolution, resulting in a less sharp image overall than its predecessor and many of its rivals. Although the camera takes good shots, its resolution is throttled in automatic mode and the white balance isn't perfect.

The Bottom Line Although it's a disappointment Sony hasn't increased the screen resolution along with its size, and the camera's quirks are rather odd, the Xperia Z3 Compact's improved design, vast amounts of power, decent battery life and waterproof body help it maintain its position as one of the best mini flagships around.

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Although most smartphone manufacturers have made compact versions of their flagship handsets, most have been extremely watered down, and the only similarity is in the name. Not so with Sony. Its Xperia Z1 Compact packed the same slick design, supercharged processor and stunning camera as its top-end brother, but came in a much more pocketable size. I was so impressed, it earned a near-perfect review.

One year on and the best compact phone around has a successor, the Xperia Z3 Compact (Sony decided not to launch a Z2 Compact to match its Z2 phone earlier this year). It has a 4.6-inch display, making it larger than its 4.3-inch predecessor, although its body isn't any bigger. It's still fully waterproof and, like its big brother the Xperia Z3, it also has a 2.5GHz quad-core processor and a 20.7-megapixel camera.

A new addition on all Z3 phones is the ability to use the device as a wireless display for your PlayStation 4 -- that means you can actually play PS4 games on your phone. That's an impressive feature, but it won't be available until some time in November. We've therefore rated this phone on its current features only and will update this review when we give the new feature a try.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Z3 Compact can be picked up in the UK now, SIM-free from Amazon for £430 or for free on contracts starting at £26.50 per month. Although Sony is launching the Z3 in the US, exclusively on T-Mobile, it's yet to say whether the Z3 Compact will see a wider rollout outside of Europe. For reference, the UK unlocked price converts to $700 but different local taxes will see that price vary wildly.

Design and display

The physical dimensions of the Z3 Compact remain the same as the Z1 Compact, yet it manages to pack in a larger 4.6-inch display. This isn't some terrifying black magic at play though -- Sony has made the bezel much slimmer, maximising the screen size within the same size frame. The huge bezel on the Z1 Compact was my chief complaint as it made the screen look squashed, so it's great to see an improvement here as it makes the phone look much more premium, as well as giving you more screen for your movies.

The phone has a similar aesthetic to its predecessor, with the same glass front and back and minimalist Sony Xperia branding. A key change is around the edge, where the aluminium band has been replaced with an opaque plastic one. I'm not particularly keen on this tweak as it loses the luxury feel of metal found on its big brother and predecessor.

The charm of the Z1 Compact was that it offered exactly the same premium design and components as the flagship, but in a smaller frame. With a plastic edge, that's not quite the case anymore. My colleague Luke Westaway -- a Z1 Compact user -- was as equally fond of the Z3 Compact as the Z1 Compact, so I guess it's a matter of taste whether plastic or metal is preferable for you.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Still, I do think it's a great looking phone and it's very comfortable to use in one hand -- something that can't be said for the majority of 5-inch or bigger flagships. As well as the standard black and white, it's available in turquoise and dark orange hues, with matching plastic sides. If you're keen on luxurious metal in smaller sizes, look at Samsung's Galaxy Alpha -- this 4.7-inch phone has a metal chassis which looks and feels sublime.

The Z3 Compact is of course still completely waterproof, letting you submerge it for 30 minutes in up to 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) of water. Not only does that keep it safe from spilled drinks, it allows you to watch Netflix in the bath without fear of dropping it, and to take pictures while swimming in the sea. The screen won't work when wet, but a dedicated camera shutter button on the edge allows you to shoot in water.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I put its waterproof boasts to the test by submerging the phone in 30cm (12 inches) of water for 30 minutes. After drying it off, the phone was absolutely fine and showed no signs of having leaked water underneath the rubber seals where it could damage the internal components.

It's important to be careful when you do take the literal plunge though. Rubberised flaps cover all the major ports and it's critical that these are properly sealed before it goes near water. You also should not overstep the time or depth boundaries and be aware that vigorous movement of the phone in water -- such as holding it while swimming -- may cause the flaps to loosen and allow water in. I recently destroyed an Xperia Z2 while holding it and diving into a swimming pool -- the phone simply filled with water and hasn't turned on since.

Display

The display has a 720p resolution, which is the same resolution you'll find on the previous Z1 Compact. While the display was perfectly crisp on the Z1 Compact, the larger screen of the new model means that the same number of pixels have had to be spread further, resulting in a slightly lower pixel density overall.

It now has a pixel density of 319 pixels per inch (ppi), which is less than the 341ppi of its predecessor and substantially less than the 423ppi of the full HD Z3. It's less even than the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini and original Motorola Moto G, both of which have 326ppi displays and cost less than the Z3 Compact -- much less, in the Moto G's case. Its mediocre resolution means the Z3 Compact's display doesn't have quite the same clarity I'd hope to see, particularly around icon edges and on text.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

High resolution images look good, but an extra injection of pixels would really make them pop. Sure, the majority of apps and games you're likely to use look perfectly fine on the screen, but as Sony is still pitching the phone as simply a smaller flagship, it's a shame it hasn't made any effort to improve or even maintain the resolution.

On the plus side, it's a very bright screen, making it easy to read in sunlight and under the harsh overhead lights of the CNET office. Sony boasts that it uses the same Triluminous technology from its Bravia range of TVs -- while that's marketing nonsense, it is the case that the display has vibrant, punchy colours that are easily capable of doing justice to colourful Netflix films like Disney's "Tangled".

Android software

The phone comes with the latest Android 4.4.4 KitKat software, onto which Sony has slapped the same skin you'll find on most of the recent Xperia phones. The main Android structure is the same -- multiple homescreens, an app tray, pull-down notifications and settings bar -- but there are various aesthetic tweaks as well as a helpful menu to the left of the app tray that lets you easily reorganise your apps.

It's running on a 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, backed up by 2GB of RAM, which is a fiercely powerful engine. Navigation is extremely nippy with no lag visible when swiping across the homescreens or pulling down the notification bar and the camera app opens with minimal delay. It's generally a breeze to use and it happily turns its hand to more demanding tasks too.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Glossy racer Asphalt 8 played perfectly well, as did Riptide GP 2. It's certainly capable of keeping gamers happy. Image editing and video streaming were also tackled without a hitch -- in short, this phone is capable of handling anything you'll want to throw at it.

An interesting addition to the Z3 Compact -- and the rest of the Z3 series -- is the ability to use the phone as a display for your PS4. Your console will still do all the processing, but it will let you stream the game to your phone, so you can hook up a PS4 controller over Bluetooth and play actual PS4 games on your phone. Sony reckons it's great if your partner wants to watch something on TV when you want to play games. Let's be honest though, its real value is the fact that we can now play glossy PS4 titles on the toilet. Smashing.

This feature isn't available yet, however, so I'll reserve my judgement on how well this feature works. I'll be putting it to the test on the Z3 Compact and Z3 when it launches and will update this article -- and, potentially, the score -- with my findings. It could be a wonderful bonus, but it's a complex feature and I wouldn't buy this phone right now expecting it to work flawlessly in the future. If this is why you're interested in this phone, hold tight.

Update, Oct. 10: This feature has just been rolled out, so our testing is currently ongoing. However, the video below should give you some idea of how it performs on the Z3v, and one hopes, on the Z3 Compact. Check back soon and we'll update this section with our impressions on how it all works.

Play

Camera

A 20.7-megapixel camera sits on the back of the phone, which is the same resolution as the previous Z1 Compact. I was mostly pleased with the Z1 Compact's camera results, although its fully automatic mode didn't always deliver the best white balance so I was keen to see how the new model compares.

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St Paul's Cathedral, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

For the most part, I found the Z3 Compact to perform similarly. On my first test, looking out to London's St Paul's Cathedral and shooting in Sony's intelligent auto mode, it achieved a very even exposure, with plenty of details in the shadows beneath the bridge, while keeping highlights in the clouds under control.

As with the predecessor, its automatic white balance isn't fantastic and has resulted in the image having quite a cold colour cast.

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St Paul's Cathedral, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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Where to Buy See all prices

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact (white)

Part Number: XPERIAZ3COMPACTWHT
MSRP: $699.00 Low Price: $504.91 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider not specified
  • Weight 4.5 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4.6 in
  • Sensor Resolution 20.7 pixels
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