Sony Xperia Z5 Compact review: Big performance, small phone

sony_xperia_z5_compact_lock_screen_TA

Smaller smartphones have fallen out of style in the past few years with consumers and manufacturers moving towards big, brighter screens. The “standard” smartphone screen sits around 5 inches: the Galaxy S7 offers a 5.1-inch display, HTC has stuck to the 5-inch range over the past few years, and even LG has started to back down on screen sizeswith the G5, which has a 5.3-inch screen. In a sea of large phones, Sony is one of the only companies that pays any attention to the smaller segment of the market with their Xperia Z Compact line, and the Xperia Z5 Compact continues that tradition with a high-end device with a relatively quaint 4.6-inch screen.

It’s not hard to find a smaller Android device, per se. The tricky part is finding a small phone without a gimped processor, a terrible camera, and an unbearable amount of RAM. That’s where the Xperia Z5 Compact shines, offering up a decidedly premium experience in a tiny package. There’s a top notch processor on board, plenty of memory and storage, and a very capable camera here, plus a screen that’s easy to use with one hand. Is it enough to justify it’s relatively high asking price of $499? Let’s find out.

Design

For all the Xperia Z5 Compact does right, it really falls short in the design category. That’s not to say there’s nothing to like here, but compared to all of the premium phones we’ve seen lately (Samsung’s fantastic Galaxy S6/Galaxy S7 design, the aluminum G5, HTC’s phenomenal design language, etc.) it’s hard to enjoy a phone that feels cheap and plasticky again, but that’s what you get with the Xperia Z5 Compact. The phone is blocky with noticeable corners which gives a very utilitarian look to the device, for better or worse.

sony_xperia_z5_compact_display_off_TA

Despite the cheaper feeling materials, the Xperia Z5 Compact is hardly a bad phone to hold and use. It feels solid and sturdy, even if it is a little thick, and it’s smaller screen and design are simple to hold. You’ll never struggle to reach anything on the 4.6-inch display, which is the point of the Compact line, after all.

sony_xperia_z5_compact_display_off_top_TA

You’ll find Sony’s exceedingly durable power button on the right side of the phone, which has been indented into the phone. It seems like it’d feel mushy and cheap to use, but it has a very solid feeling when pressed and supposedly won’t wear out as quickly as other power buttons. That’s a nice touch.

sony_xperia_z5_compact_right_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_power_button_TA

Below the power button, you’ll find your volume rocker and dedicated camera button. I’m not a huge fan of the placement of the volume rocker, but I definitely wish more manufacturers would take the dedicated camera button seriously again.

The bottom left of the device houses a flap with a microSD card slot and SIM tray. The flap keeps things waterproof, but it’s easy to open to swap cards out. The top of the device has a microphone and headphone jack, while the bottom houses the micro USB cable for charging and data transfer.

sony_xperia_z5_compact_bottom_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_top_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_left_TA

The back of the phone sports Sony and Xperia logos, which look tasteful and not intrusive like some other branding we’ve seen over the years. The camera doesn’t protrude from the device at all, so if you’re worried about a camera bump you can breathe easy with the Compact.

sony_logo_on_xperia_z5_compact_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_back_bottom_logo_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_camera_closeup_TA

Hardware

The Sony Xperia Z5 Compact has a 4.6-inch 72op (1280×720) IPS LCD HD display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage with microSD card slot, a 23MP rear camera with f/2.0 aperture, a 5.1MP front camera, a 2700mAh battery, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, and Bluetooth 4.2. It is IP68 certified and includes an FM radio tuner.

Performance

Performance on the Xperia Z5 Compact is top notch thanks to the extremely capable Snapdragon 810 CPU and the smaller, 720p display. It’s all too common to see phones go for the high resolution screens that choke the processor underneath, but fortunately that’s not the case here. Apps and games open quickly and run smoothly, and multitasking is a breeze thanks to the 2GB of RAM and trimmed down version of Android that Sony uses.

In 2016, it’s definitely not the highest-end hardware available considering many phones are shipping with twice as much RAM and better processors, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a night and day difference between the Compact and a 2016 flagship.

Typically, I’m never a fan of LCD screens, especially when set right next to an LED display, but Sony has done a fantastic job on creating an excellent LCD panel for the Xperia Z5 Compact. Images are bright and crisp thanks to the Triluminos Display that Sony likes to include in their devices, and it really pays off. It’s still an LCD so it’s not going to beat out a flagship-caliber AMOLED screen in my opinion, but it’s close and arguably the best LCD I’ve ever used.

Speakers are solid, if unremarkable. Gaming and videos look and perform fine, but the biggest asset of the Z5 also kills it in this category; small screens aren’t good for media consumption. Using the device day-to-day is a great experience with the 4.6-inch screen, but if you like to use your phone for watching tons of videos, the smaller screen is going to be inferior to the larger screens available on the market.

Battery Life

Sony strives for great battery life on their devices, and they didn’t drop the ball with the Compact. When you combine a sizable battery, a small screen, and an efficient processor, you’ve got a recipe for stellar battery life, and the Xperia Z5 Compact delivers.

Standby time on the Xperia Z5 Compact is incredible, partly thanks to Sony’s efficiency and partly because of Doze in Android 6.0. The screen itself doesn’t draw much power either thanks to its small size, so it isn’t rare at all to make it through the day with plenty of battery to spare. Very heavy usage could completely drain it, but with typical, moderate usage, you’ll never worry about bringing a charger with you. If you have fewer apps than I do, I could easily see someone using the device for two days on a single charge, and that’s without battery saving enabled.

Sony’s battery saver is one of the more efficient ones that I’ve used, as it managed to squeeze several extra hours out of a charge. It won’t match Samsung’s Ultra Power Saving mode, but it’s not supposed to.

If you’re looking for something that’s going to keep you from worrying about battery life, give the Xperia Z5 Compact a hard look.

Software

Sony doesn’t touch Android too much with its software overlay, but it does inject a few key additions. Most of these additions are simply extra apps, specifically things that tie into Sony’s own services. The gallery, video, and music apps all tie into Sony’s cloud services, offering things like movie trailers, photo backup, and Spotify integration in the music player. Sony offers Spotify streaming on the PS4, so this integration makes sense, and if you like Spotify you’re going to be very happy with things on the Xperia Z5 Compact.

There are several Playstation apps preloaded from the get-go (and I even found a Bloodborne trailer pre-installed to watch) and a ton of other Sony apps like Lifelog, Xperia Lounge, and some video and photo editing software. Long story short, if you’re invested in Sony’s ecosystem of products you’re going to be pleased with the tight integration in the software here. If you’re not a fan of Sony’s products… it’s going to feel like bloat and junk.

sony_xperia_z5_compact_display_bottom_TA

The extra functionality in the apps is nice, but sometimes it can feel a bit much. It’s nice to have options, but in the Photos app, for instance, you can sort things by favorites, videos, places, camera effects, folders, faces, photos on your home network, and photos from Facebook, Picasa, and Flickr. No Google Photos integration, although you can cast photos right from the app. That’s a very long list with a lot of stuff to wade through, and it’s pretty common throughout all of Sony’s apps. Again, if you buy into Sony’s offerings, you’re going to get a ton of functionality and integration, but if you don’t you’re just going to see extra filters and options that you’ll never touch.

sony_xperia_z5_compact_pictures_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_music_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_video_TA

There a handful of other Sony-centric things sprinkled through the OS, too. You can slap stickers on your SMS messages, many of which are shameless self promotions. LittleBigPlanet stickers, for example. There’s a theme engine with a ton of really cool themes available, but many of which plug Sony’s own products. There’s an Until Dawn theme, as another example. Sony likes to flaunt its Playstation 4 franchises.

sony_xperia_z5_compact_wallpaper_change_TA

Sony also takes a pretty unique approach to multitasking with their small apps. These apps are smaller, floating versions of full apps that you can keep on top of your screen and includes things like a web browser, a calculator, music player, and a handful of other shortcuts

sony_xperia_z5_compact_small_apps_selection_TA

We’ve seen other OEMs try to tackle this multitasking problem in different ways, and while Sony doesn’t really stick out, their small apps work really well. The phone handles the extra processes without slowing down at all, too, which is key. Unfortunately, the multitasking is mostly hamstrung by the smaller screen on the Z5 Compact; you’d be able to do much more with these on a large screen, but when you’re dealing with a 4.6-inch screen things get cramped very quickly.

sony_xperia_z5_compact_small_apps_launch_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_small_apps_pinned_TA

sony_xperia_z5_compact_small_apps_running_TA

But for all of the plugged Playstation promotions and Xperia-specific software, Sony did an excellent job of not letting any of it affect the device’s performance. I didn’t notice any lag or slowdown, and using the device was excellent, even with the Sony apps. And in Sony’s defense, most of the non-essential apps here can be deleted from you device, freeing up space, which is much more than you can say about other OEMs.

It still probably won’t be enough to sway a pure Android enthusiast, but if you want a branded device without going the Nexus route, Sony makes a great argument.

Camera

Considering the fact that Sony supplies camera components to other manufacturers and offers their own very respectable Cybershot and Alpha cameras, you’d expect really great things from the Xperia Z5 Compact. You’d be right to expect it, but you’re going to be incredibly disappointed.

The Xperia Z5 Compact doesn’t have a bad camera at all. It’s pretty good, in fact, but that’s the problem; it’s good, not great. Outdoor shots with great lighting all turn out well thanks to the extremely high 23 megapixel camera here, but in any other situation you’re going to get a mediocre experience.

xperia z5 compact camera cars

xperia z5 compact camera beach ball

Indoor and night shots are the most apparent flaws in the Compact’s camera, which are areas where most people are looking for big improvements in their smartphone cameras. If your shots don’t look grainy from lack of light, they’re going to look washed out. Neither of those options are good.

xperia z5 compact camera fallout

xperia z5 compact camera amiibos

Fortunately you can fix some of the shortcomings by manually adjusting some settings, but the Xperia Z5 Compact isn’t going to compete against the heavy hitters.

xperia z5 compact camera dogs

Videos and selfies are okay, and are about what you’d expect from a $500 smartphone. You won’t be blown away, but you probably won’t be disappointed, either.

Closing

The Xperia Z5 Compact is a fantastic phone, but it faces some serious competition from several different angles. The OnePlus X hits many of the check boxes that the Xperia Z5 Compact does at literally half the price with a slightly compact frame, and it’s hard to justify spending more than $200 just for a waterproof design and 32GB of storage. That doesn’t even touch on the multitude of cheap, smaller phones that are in the “good enough” category to steal sales away from Sony’s high priced compact phone, and since the Xperia Z5 Compact doesn’t offer anything like a fingerprint scanner to really set itself apart, it’s in a tough position.

The real elephant in the room, though? Apple’s iPhone SE. Whether or not you’re a fan of Apple’s software, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it offers an extremely high-end experience in a small screen with a cheap price tag. The iPhone undercuts the Xperia Z5 Compact by $100 and has a few extra features (like that fingerprint scanner) that really hurts Sony’s position in the small screen market.

If you absolutely have to have a smaller device but don’t want to sacrifice performance, the Xperia Z5 Compact is arguably the best Android phone you’re going to find. You’re still going to miss out on a few things and won’t get bleeding edge hardware here, but it’s the best compact device available with as few compromises as possible.


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid, but the tech enthusiasm currently covers just about everything. He likes PC gaming, Lenovo's Moto Z line, and a good productivity app.