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

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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.

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8.0

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

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.

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.

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Watch this: Sony Xperia Z3v a Verizon-exclusive phone with most of the same features as the Z3 (hands-on)

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

Things get a little warmer as I move closer to the building, and again I was pleased with the phone's admirable exposure in this challenging, high contrast scene.

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Flowers, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

These flowers (above) have been captured extremely well, as has this scene across Ealing's Walpole park (below), and there's loads of detail when you view at full screen. There's a problem though. At full 20.7-megapixel resolution, the phone will deliver images 5,248x3,936 pixels in size, but it can only do so in manual mode. In full auto mode, it throttles the resolution, giving smaller 3,840x2,160-pixel images.

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Outdoor camera test, full automatic mode. Click to see full size image. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

That wouldn't be much of a problem if it wasn't for the fact that you can't use scene modes like Sports, Night Scene or Backlight Correction (HDR) at full resolution either. You'll need to knock it down to 8 megapixels in the settings in order to gain access to these.

For the most part, you might not notice the reduction as even at the lower resolution, there's plenty of detail and more than enough for Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pics.

You can still take manual control of settings like exposure and white balance at full resolution, however, and I suggest that you do in order to counter any cold colouring the automatic mode provides.

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Ealing Green, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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Ealing Green, manual mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In auto mode, this early-autumn scene in Ealing is a little drab and it looks similar when shooting with auto white balance in manual mode -- although the higher resolution is noticeable.

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Ealing Green, full manual mode with white balance changes. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

A quick change in the white balance settings, however, and the scene becomes much warmer and more accurately reflects the rich browns of the trees and leaves.

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Rose, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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Rose, manual mode with white balance changes. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Similarly, this rose didn't look great in full auto mode, but switching to manual and tweaking the white balance resulted in a much nicer image overall.

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Outdoor camera test, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Don't think you'll always have to keep tweaking settings -- it's perfectly capable of taking some great shots in auto mode, as this lovely shot of a tree shows, it's just that its reading of a scene can be hit and miss.

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Close up photo, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It has a close focusing distance for some neat macro shots and if you shoot at full resolution, there'll be plenty of scope for you to crop into the image even further without reducing the quality too much.

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Low light outdoor test, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When light levels drop, the camera still manages to snag some decent shots, thanks in part to the high ISO speeds the phone is able to use. This shot looking towards the Old Vic Theatre in London has crisp, well defined edges, good colours and minimal image noise.

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Low light outdoor test, full automatic mode. Click image to see full size. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As the light fades more, the camera does start to struggle a little. This street shot has plenty of image noise, which is particularly noticeable in the buildings to the right down the street. It's bright enough to see what's going on though and for a Facebook snap at least, it's perfectly adequate.

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Underwater camera test. Click to see full size image. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The benefit of the waterproof design of course is that you can get snap-happy underwater. Smashing.

Although the camera is unquestionably good, I don't think it improves enough over its predecessor's. Given how rival phone cameras have improved in the same time period, in particular, the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Alpha, I think Sony should have pushed for "superb", not just "good". The S5 and Alpha can both shoot with always-on HDR at full resolution without requiring you to throttle the resolution, which results in beautifully exposed shots with rich, natural colours.

You'll also find a host of creative filters on board to let you jazz up your plain snaps as well as the quirky augmented reality effect that can put a dinosaur, among other things, over the top of your image. New creative additions for the Z3 series include a mode that puts a small selfie from the front camera over the top of the main image and a function that pairs a photo with a small recording of sound -- both of which have been lifted shamelessly from the Samsung Galaxy S4 .

Battery life

Sony reckons you can squeeze up to two days of use from the phone, which from my own testing I believe to be a little ambitious. After two hours of video looping, the battery had dropped from full to 78 percent remaining which, while good, isn't outstanding. With moderately heavy use -- a spot of Web browsing, sending and receiving emails, playing some games and and taking some photos -- I found the phone would make it most of the day, but you won't get far into the second if you're demanding of it.

If you're very careful about what you do then you shouldn't struggle to get over a day from the battery. Keeping screen brightness down will be a huge help in preserving battery life and turning off Wi-Fi and GPS when not needed will help too. If you're really trying to eke out every last drop of power, make sure you leave power-hungry tasks like video streaming, gaming and photography until you're within dashing distance of a plug.

It's certainly among the better phones in battery life terms, but it's hardly a power revolution. With average use, you should still expect to give it a full charge every night if you want it to be alive to provide music for your morning commute.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact is my favourite Android phone of the past year, so I was a little nervous to find out if Sony would be able to refresh it and still keep it brilliant. I wasn't wrong to worry: the Z3 Compact is a little hit and miss.

It does have a hell of a lot going for it -- it's still a wonderfully comfortable size, thanks to Sony's efforts to slim down the once gigantic bezel. It's also got more processing power than you'll know what to do with, its camera can take some terrific shots, and it won't break the first time you drop it in the toilet. The PS4 link could prove incredibly cool too -- remember, I'll update this when that gets working.

I'm disappointed, however, that Sony hasn't increased the display resolution along with the size to secure the Compact's position as the ultimate smaller phone. The camera's insistence on throttling the resolution in automatic mode is annoying too, and although it takes good shots, it's not a big enough improvement over its predecessor, particularly when it comes to automatic white balance, which still errs on the cold side.

It's still among the best pocket-sized phones around and, minor issues aside, it's a superb choice if you don't fancy stretching your thumbs across the 5.2-inch screen of the full-size Z3. It does have a worthy rival this time round in the form of the Galaxy Alpha, which is similarly powerful, has a great camera and a compact, slim frame that's wrapped in metal. It's not waterproof though, so the Z3 Compact should be your first choice if pool-side photography is on your agenda.

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8.0

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8