Update: Sony Xperia Z5 Compact released in the US in February, albeit with minor changes. All of these are reflected in our new review.
The Xperia Z5 Compact stands alone: Sony is the only Android manufacturer making a small high-end phone right now. That means that it could be the last stand for compacts. If the Z5 doesn't deliver, it's likely to be the last time we see top specs in a scaled-down form factor, for a while at least.
But it does deliver. Like the Xperia Z3 Compact before it, the Xperia Z5 Compact puts an impressive array of features comfortably into the palm of your hand, and makes you wonder why no other brands are interested in this niche.
Not everyone wants a giant phone, and who could be blamed for wanting to use their whole screen without needing both hands?
The Xperia Z5 Compact sits alongside two other new phones from Sony. There's the Sony Xperia Z5, which offers a 5.2-inch 1,080p screen and 3GB of RAM that you don't get here. Then there's the Xperia Z5 Premium, which will be here in November with a 5.5-inch screen and a 4K resolution screen.
One problem for the Xperia Z5 Compact is its price. High-end specs require a high-end price, even if the reduced frame might lead purchasers to expect a bargain. However, it does come in appreciably cheaper than the Xperia Z5, and a good deal below our original expectations.
The Xperia Z5 Compact costs £429 in the UK (about AU$915) – that's over £100 less than the slightly breathtaking price of £549 that Sony originally put on its site. The new price matches the launch price of the Xperia Z3 Compact last year, and you do get a lot for your money here.
The Xperia Z5 Compact follows closely the excellent design established by the Xperia Z5. It isn't drastically smaller than the Z5 – the Compact is 127 x 65 x 8.9mm, compared to 146 x 72 x 7.3mm. But it's enough to make a difference.
The Xperia Z5 Compact has lost a lot of the bezel space that felt so redundant on the Z5, and feels a lot more concise than its bigger sibling.
You might have noticed that the Z5 Compact is actually bigger than the Z5 in one dimension: it's a little thicker. That's to fit in all those high-end specs and a bigger battery than the larger phone. I barely noticed the difference in thickness until I put them next to each other, and even then it wasn't all that shocking.
The Sony Xperia Z5 Compact weighs in at 138g, 16g lighter than the Z5. Build wise, it's a similar size and weight to the iPhone 6S.
The back panel is much nicer on this new version of the Compact model. Instead of the clear glass back from previous handsets, it's now a frosted glass that feels good against the palm and looks stylish.
Colour options are white, black, yellow or coral – I was able to use all versions but the white for this review. The black version feels the most stylish, while the yellow and coral are particularly bright. They wouldn't be my choice of phone, but for those who liked the colour-pop aesthetic of the iPhone 5C, they're perfect.
The corners have been rounded off even further on the Xperia Z5 Compact than on the Z3 Compact, making it a much more comfortable fit in the hand.
The anti-break bumpers of the Xperia Z5 aren't included here, so the Compact is more likely to shatter if it falls on one of the four corners. It's unclear why Sony made this decision – they would have been easy to implement, and would make a big difference to the durability of the phone.
At the top of the left hand edge of the phone, there's the indented Xperia logo, which actually looks good this time around. On the bottom of that edge is the only flap on the handset, covering the microSD and nanoSIM slot.
It's easier to open this up than it has been on previous Xperia phones, and as you'll only need to on the rare occasions that you're swapping a SIM or microSD.
In the centre of the bottom edge sits the micro USB port for charging and data transfer. It's a shame that Sony hasn't moved on to USB-C to minimise fumbling when plugging in, but at least the inconvenience of the flap has been removed.
And Sony isn't behind the pack on USB standards, even if it would have been nice for it to get ahead. In a few years, smartphones will have moved on and USB-C will become the norm, but for now most still use micro USB.
The 3.5mm headphone jack sits at the top of the phone on the left hand side, which is the best place for it as it means the phone can sit in your pocket while you use a wired headset
At the bottom of the right hand edge is the camera button, in the perfect position for taking landscape shots. Just above that is the volume rocker, which has been moved since the Xperia Z3 Compact. This relocation is less successful, and some fumbling is required to reach down to it.
It would have been to put the volume rocker just above the power button on the same side, but at least it's not as bad as it is on the Xperia Z5. On the larger phone it's really hard to reach and the handset flips out of the hand easily.
The power button itself sits flush with the design. This is metal with the on/off symbol engraved on it. It looks good, but the exciting part is that this now features the fingerprint scanner – a new addition to the Xperia Z series, except in the hobbled US variant.
On the front of the phone, there are bezels above and below the display to house the front-facing speakers, microphone and front-facing camera. These are thinner on the Xperia Z5 Compact than on the Xperia Z5 and that means a better screen-to-body ratio.
Display and key features
Sony's new phone features a 4.6-inch screen with a pixel resolution of 720 x 1,280. That equals an acceptable 323ppi – but it's not anything on the 428ppi of the Xperia Z5 or the huge 806ppi on the Xperia Z5 Premium.
Full HD 1,080p has become the standard now, with some phones even stretching over into the 2K and 4K spectrum, so it's a bit of a shame Sony has been so conservative with the display here.
Out of the big manufacturer recent releases, the only flagship device still stuck on a 720p display is the Moto G, which costs about a third of the price of the Xperia Z5 Compact.
Calling the Xperia Z5 Compact a premium phone in 2015 without upping the screen to Full HD or more is a big claim. It doesn't look awful though: it's just fine, and fine isn't enough.
Not be able to watch the average YouTube video at its intended resolution is a disappointment, especially when you've spent this much money. And while it's not a disaster, it does make me think twice before recommending this phone.
Sony's own screen tech makes sure it's bright, but there are times when you can pick out the pixels in a way you can't on the Xperia Z5.
Viewing angles on the phone have improved though – I can look at the phone from odd angles and still see the picture a lot clearer than I could on the Xperia Z3 Compact.
The screen is the optimum size for the handset. A lot of the available front is being used for the 4.6-inches of screen, and you have to respect Sony for the elegance and efficiency here.
Fingerprint sensors have come to the Xperia series for the very first time. On the Xperia Z5 Compact it's sat on the right hand edge of the phone inside the power button and sits flush to the side of the phone.
It's about time Sony went for a more secure way to unlock your phone. With the launch of Android Pay coming soon, it's no surprise Sony has pushed it through for this iteration of the Compact. We just wish it was also a part of the US Sony Xperia Z5 model.
Considering this is the first attempt from the company at making a fingerprint sensor, it's surprisingly good. After I'd registered five fingers, I didn't encounter any problems with how quickly it unlocked.
I didn't register all my digits to start with though. I found it easy to fill the three fail attempts and put the phone into lock down after just getting the phone out and accidentally holding the button with the wrong finger.
The position also makes it a pain to unlock when the phone is lying down on a table. But it is quick once you get in: without any booting or loading animations, it means you're into the phone in record time and it's more efficient than entering a PIN or passcode.
Sony phones have a major USP that the company seems to have forgotten about: they're durable. The Xperia Z5 Compact is water and dust proof meaning, you can wash off your phone whenever it gets dirty.
There's no reason to worry about rain, dropping it in the sink or, as I found out, surprise foam parties. Being able to take your phone to the beach and not having to worry about sand getting stuck in it is particularly useful.
And this time the feature hasn't come at the expense of the design. The Xperia Z5 Compact only has one flap, and the rest of the ports are water-resistant.
The Xperia Z5 Compact also supports PS4 Remote Play, which means that PlayStation 4 owners can play games on their phone as long as they're on the right Wi-Fi network. (Eventually, this feature will be extended to 4G so you'll be able to play your PS4 games when on a train or on holiday.)
The problem here is the size of the screen. On the Xperia Z4 Tablet with a 2K 10.1-inch display, PS4 Remote Play looks beautiful; trying to play Rocket League on a 4.6-inch 720p screen is just impossible. I had a controller connected up so I wasn't blocking the screen with my fingers on the virtual controls, but it was still very difficult to keep control of the action.
I also tried out The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on the Xperia Z5 Compact, and if anything that was even worse. As soon as I got into a fight, the menu made it impossible to see what I was doing, and I had to give up pretty quickly.
Performance and interface
Sony's Xperia Z3 Compact had some impressive performance, but the Xperia Z3+ sullied the name with some horrendous overheating issues.
The surprising thing is that Sony kept the same processor from the Xperia Z3+ (a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 with 3GB of RAM) inside the Xperia Z5 Compact.
Consequently, my expectations were low. I went into this review with trepidation that the phone would crash out at the simplest tasks – but I've been rather surprised. I've not had any issues with the Xperia Z5 Compact, and it doesn't get anywhere near as warm as the Xperia Z5.
Jumping in and out, from app to app mostly proved fine. The camera took a while to boot up, and switching over to the gallery app within the camera was also slow.
Despite this, there haven't been any truly infuriating issues with Z5 Compact's performance, and overall I'm impressed, especially compared to the Xperia Z3+.
When gaming, the phone handled itself rather well, booting up quickly and not heating up much even after over an hour of playing.
And while the Xperia Z3+ would heat up considerably just from web browsing, the Xperia Z5 Compact was cool even after half an hour of use.
I ran the phone through the GeekBench 3 software and it came out with an average single core score of 1,374 and a multi-core score of 3,881. Compared to the Xperia Z3 Compact that's a staggering score – the previous phone only scored 949 on single core and the multi-core test brought out 2,760.
That's an impressive upgrade considering the Z3 Compact phone only came out a year ago. However, it's difficult to rank the Z5 Compact against the competition because there isn't really anything else in the "premium compact" niche. The Xperia Z5 is a little faster itself, coming in with scores of 1,312 single core and 4,015 multi-core.
Out of all the Android overlays, I find Sony's the most out of date and ugly. Personally I prefer a stock Android approach, but Sony is too keen to place its own software over the top to leave a good thing alone.
Here the Xperia Z5 Compact is running Android 5.1.1 Lollipop software, but it looks very different to the stock version seen on Nexus phones or Motorola devices. Instead, it's overlaid with Sony's own design and chock-full of bloatware apps.
This time there's even more bloatware apps. All the usual culprits are here taking up space – TrackID, Xperia Lounge, What's New – as well as third-party apps such as Dropbox, Amazon, AVG and even Kobo.
I'd much prefer if Sony took a leaf out of Samsung's book and left these out. If I want the Amazon app, I'll go into the Google Play Store and download it.
You can uninstall the apps to reclaim the space, but it's a pain to go through and remove them one by one. I'd just rather they weren't even there in the first place.
Sony has improved the Xperia keyboard significantly in the last few years, bringing in elements from third party developers like Swype. Even previously unique features such as swiping to make words have been adopted by Sony.
The comma button is still in an awkward position here, and I frequently end up opening the emoji menu instead. It doesn't add a space in automatically like dedicated keyboards do either, so I often find myself editing messages to put in all the omitted spaces.
A nice touch is the addition of emoticons while typing. If you're writing the word "phone," for example, you'll get the suggestion of a little mobile phone. I rarely found myself using the feature, but it highlighted how many emoticons are out there.
Sony has improved the look of stock applications a lot in recent years, but most still look old-fashioned within the app drawer. Inside the applications, there's a lot of the Android Lollipop influence, and I like that.
But on the outside it's a different story. Take the PlayStation app for example: while most stock apps are adopting flat and simple icons, this still has an overworked 3D effect. It differs quite some way from the rest of your Material Design influenced app icons.
It's certainly not to my taste but it may not be as much of a pain to others. I just wish Sony would drop the Xperia overlay for a more natural Google look that you can see it display within the apps themselves.
While Sony has dropped the battery size on the Xperia Z5, for the Xperia Z5 Compact it has increased it from 2,600mAh on the Z3 Compact to 2,700mAh. The Z3 Compact had an impressive battery life already, and its successor doesn't disappoint.
I'm a heavy user – watching video, messaging over 4G and streaming music – but I was still often going to bed with charge left on the phone. Most flagship phones this year have died before the end of the day (including the Xperia Z5), so this is impressive.
A two day charge isn't possible though. With connectivity on but minimal use, it only made it until about 1pm the next day.
In our video test (where we run a 90 minute video with full connectivity options switched on and the screen at full brightness) it came out with 79% leftover. That's exactly the same score as the Xperia Z3 Compact, which is slightly mystifying given the larger cell. I'd expect it to be capable of more.
But compare it to other flagship devices this year and you'll find that nothing approaches it. The Xperia Z5 went through the same test and came out with 75% of its battery left, although it does have a 1080p 5.2-inch screen to power. I ran the video again with 50% screen brightness on and the Z5 Compact came out with 84% battery. That's much closer to the Xperia Z5's score of 82% on that test.
When gaming, the phone has impressive stamina. After an hour of playing with the screen on full brightness and all connectivity options going, it came out the with 72% battery.
That's better than the Xperia Z5 by some way, which lost 41% of its charge in an hour of gaming. However, no Sony phone can match what Samsung is offering with the Galaxy S6, which can manage up to five hours of play time.
Sony hasn't included any wireless charging features in the Xperia Z5 range. As with the omission of USB-C, this isn't an essential feature, but it is one more way in which Sony could have set the future standard and hasn't.
Qi wireless charging technology features a lot in the big handsets this year, and Ikea has even made a desk incorporating the technology, so full mainstream acceptance must be imminent.
Sony phones have a bad reputation for photography, but this time Sony has upgraded the cameras across the entire Xperia Z range. At 23MP, the Xperia Z Compact has one of the highest pixel counts on the market next to the Moto X Style. It also gets a new autofocus feature and stronger zoom, plus all the other features we've seen on previous Xperia cameras.
And it's paid off, although the Xperia Z5 Compact is an improvement for Sony rather than a market-leading photography device: during testing, some of the low-light shots I took in the British Museum would definitely have come out better with another handset.
If you still have issues with the camera, you can make manual adjustments, although that's as likely to make your pictures overexposed as it is to improve them.
Autofocus on the Xperia Z5 Compact is the big selling point of the camera. According to Sony it reacts within 0.03 seconds, meaning it'll come out with the shot you wanted anyway even if you're having an attack of shaky hands.
It worked well with still subjects: I could whip my phone out of my pocket, boot up the camera app and start taking the picture while still moving.
It's a great new development, but it doesn't work as well when the subject is moving. Take this photo of the London Underground: I'd estimate that the train was moving at about 10mph, but the Xperia Z5 Compact didn't manage to get the quick shutter shot I was hoping for – although this is still the kind of feature you'd look for in a proper camera rather than the average cameraphone.
The camera app itself didn't prove particularly fast either. Jumping into the features section took a while to boot up, and that's not ideal when the difference between catching or missing the perfect shot is a split second.
Then trying to go back to the gallery using the shortcut on the right hand side was also slow. I just want it boot up quickly so I can look at the last photo I took, make sure it's all OK, and move along.
On the front of the phone is a 5.1MP selfie shooter to make your face snaps all the more spectacular – it's quite an upgrade on the 2.1MP sensor on last year's Xperia Z3 Compact.
The selfie camera is similar to what the rest of the market is offering – it's not remarkable but you're not going to have any complaints either. I personally find the selfie camera brings in a lot more light than the back camera on the Xperia series and the same goes here.
The Sony Xperia Z5 Compact proves strong in all the essential functions. There weren't any problems connecting up to the internet and call quality is exceptional. I didn't experience any problems when on the phone, and no one complained they couldn't hear me on the other end either. There were no problems with 4G of Wi-Fi connectivity.
NFC has been part of the Xperia range since the Z1, and that continues with the Z5 Compact. Some manufacturers, including OnePlus, are leaving the technology out of their handsets, so it's good to see Sony stick with it. Combined with the fingerprint sensor on most versions, it means the Z5 Compact is ready for the launch of Android Pay.
Here's the one problem. Android Pay has launched in only the US at this point, and the newly released Sony Xperia Z5 in American lacks that all-essential fingerprint sensor. Google's mobile payment platform is likely to launch worldwide before the Sony Xperia Z6 comes to the US with this missing feature.
Storage wise, you get one option with the Xperia Z5 – 32GB, of which the Android OS takes up 9.42GB, so you'll likely want to upgrade it with a microSD card.
Luckily Sony has gone big here and included support up to 200GB. A lot of other manufacturers only offer up to 128GB, so Xperia Z5 Compact owners can feels confident their handset is future-proofed.
The browser is a basic Chrome option, and it works exactly as you'd expect it to – smooth and as fast as the 4G signal will allow.
A few times I plugged my headphones in the jack and it didn't register them, meaning I had to pull them out and plug back in again to stop music playing out of the speakers. That's really annoying when you work in a quiet office and you just expect your headphones to work as soon as they're connected.
Audio through headphones proved generally impressive, thanks to Sony's high res technology combined with high quality streaming from Spotify.
The speakers, however, fail to live up to Sony's hype for them. After HTC BoomSound, it's difficult to get excited by anything else that can't match its volume and quality.
The Sony Xperia Z5 Compact is a phone alone in its premium compact niche, but there are still some rivals worth considering.
Apple's latest update of the iPhone comes with the same 4.7-inch screen seen on the iPhone 6 – a similar size to the Xperia Z5 Compact. But the phone itself is bigger, thanks to the big bezels surrounding its screen, so if you're looking for small, this isn't for you.
It does feature a Full HD display, which the Xperia Z5 Compact lacks. It's also your only choice if you're looking for iOS software in a moderately sized premium handset – the iPhone 6S Plus is phablet-sized, and the iPhone 5C is specced for mid-range. It comes with the new 3D Touch technology that offers extra functionality depending on how hard you press the screen.
The Xperia Z5 is larger than the Z5 Compact without being unruly. It has a 5.2-inch screen with Full HD resolution. Under the hood, it's much the same as the Compact, apart from an extra 1GB of RAM to bring it up to 3GB and a slightly larger battery. But these additions make it more expensive than the Xperia Z5 Compact, as well as less palm-friendly.
Sony updates its phones so often that the previous iterations are still quite recent. The Xperia Z3 Compact is only just over a year older than the Xperia Z5 Compact and features a similar design with a 720p screen.
The camera isn't as high spec with a 20.7MP sensor and there's only a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. The real bonus is that the Xperia Z3 Compact is much cheaper – about two thirds of the price of an Xperia Z5 Compact. If you don't need top-of-the-line, this is for you.
Earlier this year there were rumours that Sony was considering giving up on smartphones altogether, so the Xperia Z5 range needs to succeed. It deserves to do so and the Z5 Compact is a gem in the series.
Many will be distracted by the standard Xperia Z5 and the shining lights of the Xperia Z5 Premium and its 4K display, but for design, performance and well-conceived detail, it's the Compact that stands out.
If you're looking for strong battery life without compromising on design, this is your choice. The Xperia Z5 Compact offers a far better battery life than the rest of the competition right now, and that it manages this without bulking out its frame is fantastic.
The fingerprint sensor could be seen as an easy upgrade, but to do this so well is unheard of. The Galaxy S6 has an amazing fingerprint sensor on the front now, but the Galaxy S5 came before it and that scanner was atrocious.
The positioning is perfect and it reacts so quickly to the touch it'll make contactless payments a breeze when Android Pay finally comes to the phone. Just don't look for it in the Sony Xperia Z5 in the US.
The design deserves particular mention. Considering it's a smaller phone, Sony has packed it with key features. It's slightly thicker than the Xperia Z5, but you only notice the difference when you put them next to each other, and the Compact feels much more comfortable in the hand.
The lack of flaps this time is great, and Sony has achieved this without sacrificing on the water resistence that is a key selling point of the Xperia range.
Plus on top of that Sony has decided to future proof its device a little further by including 200GB microSD support. There might not be many 200GB cards out there but in the lifetime of this phone it's sure to grow.
Screen resolution is a big let-down. It doesn't match what we'd expect from a phone in 2015, and I wish Sony had made this a Full HD screen.
If it had, this could have been a five star review – but I understand why it's kept at 720p. Saving on pixels has meant a better battery life, and many picking up this phone would prefer that to a clearer view of YouTube.
The fact Sony hasn't upped the price this year is good as well, although the Z5 Compact is still on the expensive end of the spectrum. If Sony had decided to go under the £350 mark there would be no reason not to recommend this phone to anyone.
I do feel like a broken record when talking about Sony devices, but I'd love to see the company adopt stock Android. The Xperia UI isn't good looking and it'd be nice to see it retired before the next Sony phone.
While most of the big competitors look to fast charging and wireless charging technologies, Sony has left them out. It's not a deal breaker, but it's a shame it was overlooked.
If you're looking for a small Android phone right now, this is it. No other phone manufacturer is making high-end devices in this form factor, which is a shame, because the Xperia Z5 Compact is beautifully proportioned.
With an incredible battery life, a new high-end processor and some impressive camera upgrades, it's also worth getting this over last year's Xperia Z3 Compact. The screen is much the same, which is regrettable but does save on your battery. There's much more to like here than to criticise.
All I hope is that Sony puts its faith in this phone and we won't see it superseded by an Xperia Z6 Compact when March rolls around.