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Xperia XZ1 & XZ1 Compact review: Sony’s best ever?

by Justin Herrick | October 24, 2017October 24, 2017 10:00 am PDT

Many people, especially in North America, aren’t aware that Sony still makes phones or ever did. The company’s mobile division dropped out of relevancy in the U.S. several years ago despite being one of Google’s biggest Android partners early on. It’s hemorrhaging money, but that hasn’t stopped Sony from trying to compete with Apple and Samsung. Rather than exiting the mobile industry or at least pivoting to compete with mid-tier brands, Sony continues releasing overpriced hardware every couple months.

The latest phones coming from the Tokyo-based company are the Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact. Both were announced at IFA 2017 back in August, and now they’re shipping around the world. Each ships with Sony’s trademark design language, high-end specifications, and the latest version of Android.

We’re going to compare the two phones, and hopefully, by the end, you can figure out whether or not one of them is right for you.

Design

You know the saying. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. The opposite is also true. Sony, however, doesn’t care about its hideous design language. We haven’t seen the Xperia line change dramatically, and that’s no exaggeration. The phones were rectangles with massive bezels then and they still are now.

The Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact awkwardly stand out in 2017 as they would in 2012. They are, like their predecessors, unsightly due to the shape and bezels. Sony should at least shrink the forehead and the chin on its phones to stop the embarrassment. Apple, Samsung, Essential, LG, and other companies are doing away with the bezel while Sony can’t even give us something reasonable.

Seriously, Sony needs to let go of whatever this design language means to longtime employees. We know Sony can do better since its televisions and cameras are well-made, often winning design awards. If the company can make something half as impressive as the Galaxy S8, maybe its mobile division will be respected again.

The Xperia XZ1 Compact is, as the name suggests, a miniature version of the Xperia XZ1. Their sizes are indeed different, but their layouts and internal specifications are mostly the same. Both have front-facing stereo speakers above and below the display, a dedicated camera button along the right side, water-resistance and dust-resistance, and the same 19MP camera on the back. There’s no mistaking the two are related.

While the Xperia XZ1 is made of metal, the Xperia XZ1 Compact is made of plastic. That’s not to say the smaller model looks and feels cheap. Still, you’d expect more out of the Xperia XZ1 Compact considering its price. And neither is comfortable to use. The Xperia XZ1 is awful in one hand because of the thick bottom bezel with a sharp edge, and the Xperia XZ1 Compact is far too small. Also, the buttons for power, volume, and the camera are subpar. You’re never really sure if they’re working because the click is so soft and silent.

Maybe Sony deserves a pat on the back for offering these phones in attractive colors. You can get the Xperia XZ1 in Black, Moonlit Blue, Venus Pink, and Warm Silver. The smaller model comes in the same colors with slightly different hues. You’re probably doing design wrong if the only advantage is the choice of colors, though.

Performance

It’s puzzling that Sony’s phones are always disappointing in design because performance is consistently above average. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835, its latest high-end processor, is inside the Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact. Sony typically goes for more expensive components, but it’ll never invest in a new design even for a flagship. That’s exactly why its premium products are priced so high yet look so old.

The display on the Xperia XZ1 is not equal to the display on the Xperia XZ1 Compact, but they impress in their own ways. The larger model has a 5.2-inch Full HD (1920×1080) IPS LCD display. If you opt for the smaller model, you’re losing more than half an inch as well as screen resolution. Both have Corning Gorilla Glass 5, Sony’s Triluminos technology, and the X-Reality Engine. The latter two allow the displays on the Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact to show rich colors, deep blacks, and bright whites.

Qualcomm’s processor paired with 4GB of RAM keeps these phones running fast and without any stuttering. It’s the same processor inside other flagships, but the Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact feel faster than most of them. Only the Google Pixel 2 and OnePlus 5 seem snappier. The Snapdragon 835 is a pretty efficient chip, but it’s the light workload coming from Sony’s software overlay. Sony doesn’t put a lot on top of Android, so the entire system can breathe and focus on your tasks.

You’re also getting a superior audio experience from the Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact. The front-facing stereo speakers on these phones are ahead of the pack. Rarely do phones output sound this good. The Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact produce deep, clear sound from Sony’s in-house technology. And, yes, this duo keeps the headphone jack for personal listening.

Battery life could’ve been a problem, but the 2700mAh battery inside both phones pulls through. The Xperia XZ1 lasts throughout the day while the Xperia XZ1 Compact can stretch a single charge across two days. When it’s time to regroup, these two are compatible with Quick Charge 3.0 for fast-charging.

Camera

You’re not getting a best-in-class camera from the Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact, but it’s particularly user-friendly for everyone. The Camera app on these phones has modes for novices and professionals. Whether you want the phone to do the work for you or you want to adjust everything imaginable, Sony let’s you have your way.

Sony makes cameras itself, so much of its own technology is present. Both phones have a 19MP rear camera with Motion Eye, Exmor RS, G Lens, and BIONZ. Those are all fancy marketing terms, but you should know they help with things like predictive autofocus and and reducing motion blur.

Results from the camera are passable, and pictures do come out clear from afar. Sadly they lose quality when you zoom in. Pictures stop looking quite as sharp and clear unless you don’t blow them up.

Software

Sony doesn’t include a ton of pre-installed software on these phones. The Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact ship with the essentials and a few extra. You get Sony’s Movie Creator, Music, News, Sketch, Video, Video & TV SideView, and Weather apps alongside Google’s usual batch of services. Again, this helps keep the phones running smooth.

It may not be overbearing in terms of features, but the software overlay built by Sony isn’t attractive. Samsung’s Experience and HTC’s Sense are way better. Although they’re based on Android 8.0 Oreo, the Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact have software resembling Android 5.0 Lollipop from 2014. Sony neglected to make its own software bright, clean, and fluid.

These are the first non-Google phones to ship with Oreo, but it’s probably going to take a long time for them to move on to Android P when that’s released next year. Sony does commit to software updates; however, they don’t consistently come in a timely manner.

Availability

Distribution isn’t a struggle for Sony. It maintains strong relationships worldwide to ensure products of all types can be brought to different markets. What hurts the mobile division, though, is pricing. Sony doesn’t understand that it cannot price its phones like an iPhone or Galaxy. Consumers have expectations, and they don’t expect to pay a big price for a Xperia phone. There really aren’t any companies outside of Apple and Samsung that can charge almost $1,000 and generate a high volume of sales.

The sky-high, ridiculous prices for the Xperia XZ1 and Xperia XZ1 Compact are complete turnoffs. On Amazon, the Xperia XZ1 is priced at $699 and the Xperia XZ1 Compact is priced at $599. The larger model’s price tag is almost reasonable, but no one should be paying that amount of money for a very dated design. Sony might get away with charging that if the design was modern. And the Xperia XZ1 Compact is far too small with its 720p screen to go for $599.

None of Sony’s phones are worth your time unless you’re a die-hard fan. The specifications are as good in practice as they are on paper, but the company doesn’t understand how to make beautiful phones at a friendly price.

If you were considering the Xperia XZ1, get a Galaxy S8. And, for those eyeing the Xperia XZ1 Compact, pick up the Moto G5 Plus. Your money will go much further with those phones and others.


Justin Herrick

Justin is easily attracted to power buttons. His interest in technology started as a child in the 1990s with the original PlayStation, and two...

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