Signposting: The following article at some points, tends to consider specific contexts – like market segments phone manufacturers aim to reach with their varied smartphone offerings. Consequently, for a more holistic vantage point, reading A look at mobile market segments will aid in sensitising the information that follows.
This is a long read!
Challenging the status-quo
The Samsung Galaxy Note introduced screens of over 5 inches to the smartphone landscape. This was at about the same time Apple was making claims that the average users needed screens within the sub 4 inch range. The Cupertino firm argued for one-handed ease of use predominantly. Apple was wrong and the Note went on to sell millions of units worldwide.
Subsequent iterations even bumped up their screen sizes marginally. The larger chassis of these smartphones made the incorporation of bigger batteries feasible, for one. Additionally, Samsung optimized its TouchWiz software to integrate additional functionality that was native to the device. The “Phablet” was born! Emphasis intended; reasons being that other OEMs have subsequently offered phablets. It is no surprise that the screen size of the average smartphone has been growing. Consumers’ value a more immersive multimedia experience – a contingency which has been the catalyst behind the screen-size bump trend.
It is this paradigm of bigger screen phones that the “compact” segment aims to challenge. The segment is founded on putting powerful devices with flagship grade components within an easily pocket-able frame.
The First Original Compact Phone
The aforementioned trend of big-screened phones has led numerous OEMs to consider offering ‘compact phones’. However, it can be argued that Sony made this segment mainstream with the release of the Xperia Z1 compact. Sony’s offering was a 4.3 inch powerhouse, that didn’t skimp on flagship specifications of its time. The smaller screened devices were no longer the inferior of the bunch. They could deliver to premium paying users, and additionally, justify their positioning and resultant pricing.
Accordingly, one can argue that Sony’s vision of the ‘compact phone’ is to provide flagship tier performance on a device that doesn’t follow the big screen trend. In my opinion, the Z1 compact did this flawlessly. There was room for improvements. However, the lack of these improvements did not take away from the concept of the device. One could even argue for its shortcomings being a strength – like the case of its 720p screen being less demanding on the battery toll. Expressly, there is no debate about the compact being a flagship device. Even the pricing at its introduction made that clear to prospective buyers.
However, it seems the newest compact – the X compact – doesn’t embrace this original philosophy whole-heartedly. An in-depth look at the reasons is beyond the scope of this article, as it takes away from the focus of the object of concern – the Z5 compact – the third iteration of the Japanese company’s compact line of smartphones. Regardless, key differentiation between the X Compact and Z5 Compact is highlighted subsequently.
Is Sony exhibiting a shift from the original concept of the compact phone they pioneered?
Earlier on I mentioned that more recent compact offerings deviate from Sony’s original philosophy for the segment. The reason I says so is that the new compacts are no longer created to be flagship devices in a smaller frame. Rather, they have become offerings within the mid-tier segment of the company’s arsenal. It is this deviation that raises the question, Is the Z5 compact the last smartphone to hold Sony’s original concept of the “compact” line?
Sony’s third iteration of their compact line was announced alongside the Xperia Z5, and Z5 Premium in September 2015. It was released to market the following month. Specification-wise, it is similar to the Z5, with minor deviations like the screen size and battery capacity – differences that can be argued are as a result of its smaller frame. For a while now, within the Android community, Sony has maintained a more regular release cycle. The last quarter of 2015 alone delivered 3 flagship devices to market.
Quality hardware package, based on traditional Xperia language
The Z5 Compact houses a 4.6 inch IPS LCD screen, at 720p. It gets really bright, so can be used comfortably in sunlight; conversely the panel gets dim enough for a quick read before bedtime; however these are best achieved without auto brightness turned on. I noticed the auto brightness of the device is extremely intense in bright environments. Colours are sacrificed for better visibility, similar to what I experienced with Nokia’s Lumia 1520 LCD as well.
Powering the device is a battery rated at 2700 mAh, additionally supporting Quick Charge 2.0. With my usage, it easily gets me through a day of intense use and charges in a short time – it is not a device you’ll have to plug in at bedtime for optimal charge. To put my intense use into context: the regular accounts are synced and constantly pushing notifications; music streaming for about 2 hours a day; video streaming via the PlayStation 3; irregular minutes of voice calls; constant Bluetooth connection most of the day to the Sony Smartwatch 3, and a Bluetooth speaker (during music streaming). Screen on time is roughly 3 and half hours. More conservative use delivers longer battery times.
Stereo speakers are built in and they deliver clean and clear sounds, even at higher volumes. It easily produces sounds that fill the bathroom during a shower. The speakers and mics are clear during voice calls. Generally, the device holds signals brilliantly – easily managing WiFi signals at distances the iPhone 5s struggles with. Additionally, it almost never disconnects from the smartwatch. Wireless connections are undoubtedly stellar on the Z5 Compact. One might argue such a trait is testament of top notch components and design that embody its architecture.
The main shooter is situated behind – a 21 MP camera that supports manual modes. Sony’s array of proprietary multimedia apps come pre-loaded – nothing novel in my opinion. They can’t be uninstalled, so disabling them is your only straightforward option. Built into the front of the device, accompanying the speaker grill and LED indicator, is the 5 MP selfie camera. In auto mode, both cameras provide good shots in decent lighting, but they struggle in low light environments.
The Z5 won’t win any design awards. The familiar Xperia design language we have come to know for years is still here – albeit more refined and rounded on the corners. It is a sturdy device by any standards. The right side hold the finger print scanner, implemented on the power button. A discretely placed mic and the micro USB connectors populate the bottom of the phone’s frame. On the left side holds the housing for the nano SIM and micro SD memory card reader. Both are protected by a flap to ensure the device’s waterproofing. Another mic and a 3.5 mm jack populate the top of the frame.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 is the processor of choice in this iteration – on par with flagship devices from the same year. Complimenting that is 2 GB of RAM, 32 GB internal storage – with just above 20 GB available to the user out of the box. Expressly, the smartphone possesses solid hardware which is put together in a neat, conservative, and familiar manner.
A future-proof Operating System that could be considered bloated
However, hardware is just one facet of the artifact that provides value for the user. Without software, there is no interaction with the hardware after all. The Z5 Compact is currently running Android 6 marshmallow at the time of this article. Android is skinned with the Xperia proprietary launcher – which comes with Sony’s bloatware. It is not that these apps are not useful. It is a case of me having no use for them, yet not having the ability to uninstall them. They have been baked right into the OS.
The Xperia launcher is one of the few which tries to mimic a pure Android environment with the exception of rather minor customisations. For instance, the notification drop down section is similar to stock, but changes are made to things like the icons in the settings list and the action (back, home, and recent apps) keys. Additionally, the launcher supports themes, providing a one-touch way of changing the look of the device environment. There is also access to small apps from the recent apps section – providing the ability to use more than one app at a time; albeit limited to a few pre-determined apps.
In the area of app support it is common knowledge that Android excels. The Play Store offers a wide range of applications for the Z5 compact to access, for extended functionality. From utility apps to the more mundane; from simple to high frame rate 3D games, the device handles them all problem free.
In everyday operation, the device was fast and worked as I had expected for a flagship-processor running smartphone.
With a valid Google account, you can get access to your apps from a previous device, contacts, mail, calendar appointments, et al. Chrome is the default browser here, and the advantages that come with that, come with it. A basic file manager also comes pre-installed. It requires payment for access to full functionality however. Google photos provides access to cloud storage for photos and videos. It has additional functions as well – like finding pictures of particular things easily. Google Now is the available assistant on board. It works well even if you’re heavily into voice input. All these are however Google services and not unique to the Z5 compact alone. But they all work well here without any hiccups.
Android 7 Nougat is expected to hit the Z5 Compact sometime early this year.
Where does this leave the Z5 Compact in 2017?
Although I am back in my big screen smartphone mood, every now and then I still pull out the Z5 compact from the drawer, because it has been that much of a pleasure to use. Coming from an iPhone 5s, the device was unquestionably my choice for an Android running counterpart in a frame accommodating to one-handed use. If you are about big screens on your smartphone, then the Z5 compact is not for you!
However, if you don’t mind a screen smaller than the average these days, yet desire powerful, future proof performance, the Z5 compact might just be the ideal choice. There’s the X Compact now. However that doesn’t come with the processing power of the Z5 compact, something that power users will not like to trade off.
With the Z5 Compact, you get: flagship performance, a decent battery and camera package, good speakers, a side mounted fingerprint scanner, upgrade-able software, and a 720p screen which is still pixel dense. Conclusively, In 2017, I can still recommend the Z5 Compact to the kind of user I’ve described above.