Small and powerful smartphones are an endangered species, like the California Condor of the mobile world. If you want a top-tier phone that fits in a normal hand, the iPhone 6 is practically your only stateside option. But you know what? An exotic handset designed for Japan and Europe could have everything you've ever craved.
As increasingly larger Android devices fill up carrier stores, U.S. customers have been forced to adapt, accept, and forget about how phones used to be pleasingly small. But the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is the excellent exception to the rule. It's a small flagship smartphone that still manages to deliver on premium promises. But it isn't getting any attention from U.S. carriers, which, let me tell you, is a real bummer.
That's why last week, I snuck a 4.6-inch Z3 Compact into the United States. I've liked Sony's (albeit big) smartphones in years past, but I've never gotten my hands on a Compact before—and now I never want to go back.
And it's because of — not in spite of — Sony's decision to tread lightly in the arms race for better smartphone specs. The U.S. is often perceived as a "supersize me" culture, and it's where phone makers strut out crazy new devices with ever more pixel-dense screens. Which in turn, make for crazy large phones to fit those displays. But instead of making the Sony Z3 Turbo Max Ultra 9000, with a battery-guzzling 2K screen and 4K capable SoC, Sony built the Z3 Compact. It only has a 720p screen. But I dare you to care after trying it.
The great thing about 720p displays on small devices is per inch, you've still got a high quality screen. Images and icons are crisp and detailed, and white balance options let me adjust the Sony Triluminos panel's exact tint, avoiding the issue that marred the also-ran Samsung Galaxy Alpha. Just as importantly, fewer pixels means less power consumption. Combine that with a massive 2,600 mAh battery and the Z3 Compact suddenly has the best battery life I've ever seen. I've used this phone for four days now, and I've only charged it once, and even then it was still at 25 percent. Even as I write this very sentence, I still have one-third of my battery left.
Everyone always asks for better battery life, and I'm now living the dream. When you actually get a phone that delivers that longevity, that allows you to confidently leave your cables at home, it feels so liberating. I only wish Sony had also managed to cram in wireless charging, like the larger Xperia Z3v for Verizon, so it didn't have tiny embedded charging pins breaking up the rim of its good-looking frame.
And with a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor, the same you'll find in a Samsung Galaxy S5, an HTC One M8, a new Moto X or even a full-size Xperia Z3, it's powerful too. At no point during my European rendezvous did I feel the performance dip below flagship-grade.
Then there's the camera, an oft-neglected piece of hardware whenever you're trying to shrink the size or the price of a smartphone. But that's what's so great about the Xperia Z3 Compact—small doesn't have to mean sacrifice. The Z3 Compact comes with a 20.7 megapixel camera (with no protruding lens!) with a full array of software tweaks if you like. The shutter speed is a little slow, and some of its more special features are more fun than function, but you'll get great images in well-lit scenes and even decent ones in low-light.
Oh, and this phone is waterproof down to 1.5 meters. Let that sink in. Two port covers protect the SIM and MicroSD cards along with the MicroUSB charging port. These covers can be a teensy bit annoying, but they help give your smartphone waterproof superpowers. I showered with the Z3 Compact just because I could, and I'm man enough to admit that I enjoyed it.
Honestly, if I had to ascribe one weakness to the Z3 Compact, it would be the overall look of its UI. I'm not talking about its function or user-friendliness. The layout itself is very intuitive and clean compared to Samsung TouchWiz or even LG's Optimus UI. The problem is that Sony's apps really clash with what Google is trying to do with Android. The mix of flat icons and shimmering icons doesn't really gel with the Android aesthetic.
Sure, Sony's trying to maintain a unified look for all its software across PlayStation and Android (much like Xbox resembles Windows and Windows Phone) but it still looks a bit jumbled. Getting that look right will become even more important as Sony intertwines its mobile and gaming platforms, which is already happening right now. The entire Z3 family will be the first smartphones capable of PS4 Remote Play, allowing you to stream games from your console via Wi-Fi, and that's pretty cool.
The bottom line
If you really want to buy an Xperia Z3 Compact in the United States, you can. It'll merely cost you $530 for the privilege. It should even support AT&T and T-Mobile's LTE networks, though not Verizon or Sprint. But make no mistake, the lack of actual carrier support has effectively doomed this fantastic handset. Sales success, in large part, is still measured by carriers offering your phones through subsidies, hardware loans, and close placement near Apple's latest and greatest. The Z3 Compact has none of that.
Until it does, the Compact will remain Android's best kept secret.