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

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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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