Back in 2010, Dell launched a smartphone called the Streak. It had a 5-inch display.
At the time, a phone that large was pretty much unheard of. “Is anyone really willing to carry an object this big all the time, as one would have to to use it as a phone replacement?,” read one Business Insider preview.
Man, how people change.
Of the many things the smartphone has killed, perhaps the most tragic is our definition of the word “compact.” Today, if a phone has the Streak’s 5-inch screen, it qualifies as small. If a manufacturer that isn’t named Apple even tries to sell a phone smaller than that, it qualifies as newsworthy.
So let’s talk about the Sony Xperia X Compact. It has a 4.6-inch display. It’s smaller than, say, an iPhone 7, but it’s only really “small” in relative terms. There is still only one Good Phone that is genuinely compact, and that’s the iPhone SE, which itself partially exists to wring upgrades out of legacy iPhone owners clinging to the past.
But in a world where smartphones are content consumption devices first and foremost, the Xperia X Compact is the only new Android phone that (1) is decently powerful, and (2) can get away with the third part of its name. It’s as small as you’ll get on Google’s side of the fence. It works on GSM networks (i.e., AT&T and T-Mobile), and it’s available now for $499 unlocked.
The Xperia X Compact’s size will either be its biggest strength or its biggest annoyance. For me, it’s refreshing. You can use it while holding onto the rail of a crowded subway cart. You can take a photo with it without putting down your drink. You can tuck it in a shirt pocket when something calls for attention. You can actually keep a good grip on it, which makes it less likely to fly from your hand unexpectedly.
These are simple conveniences that make a difference in the real world. Living with a phone the size of the Xperia X Compact (or iPhone SE) is a genuinely unique experience in 2016. Yes, a smaller screen isn’t as fun for watching video. Yes, the keyboard is little more cramped. Yes, you’ll see one less email in your inbox at any given time. (How tragic.) Some people won’t get by this, and that’s normal.
People tend to hold their smartphones close to their faces, though. After a little bit, the sacrifices I made onscreen felt trivial next to the perks of having smaller hardware. Doing capital-w Work on a smartphone is constantly clunky anyway, regardless of how big its screen is. And again, it’s not like this phone is tiny.
The rest of the Xperia X Compact is fine. The display has a 720p resolution, which sounds woefully outdated, but presents very few hints of pixelation on a panel this small. Its colors are pleasing (but can be adjusted if needed), it can get nicely bright, it’s easy to read outside, and it doesn’t wash out when you view it from an angle. For a not-OLED screen, it’s good.
That it doesn’t have as many pixels to push also helps with battery life. I got through the requisite “full day with average use” without much trouble. The phone also supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 standard, which helps it refill fast (if you buy a compatible charger). That said, it’s not as long-lasting as a lower-res phone could be. The iPhone SE, for one, blows it out of the water.
“Good, but not as good as it should be” is a common refrain here. The design, for instance, is classic Sony: all boxy, with rounded sides, a smooth finish, and zero sense of flimsiness. The back is plastic, but it’s good plastic. It’s thick, but lightweight, and the whole thing has some personality. It’s nice.
But there’s no fingerprint scanner, nothing in the way of water resistance, and a massive bottom bezel that feels like wasted space. Putting the volume rocker below the power button on the bottom right side is awkward too. These things have to be tidied up on a $500 phone.