Sony Xperia Z5 Compact Review: Teeny Tiny Powerhouse

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Rejoice, folks with tiny hands! Sony's Xperia Z5 Compact ($500) bucks the trend of 5-inch or larger screens, proving that good things come in small packages. The Z5 Compact crams a 23-megapixel camera, speedy processor and long-lasting battery into a waterproof 4.6-inch body. However, a dated design and excessive bloatware detract from an otherwise solid phone.

Design: Too Square to Be Hip

In a sea of rounded-rectangular phones, the boxy, straight-edged Xperia Z5 Compact stands out. With its perfectly perpendicular sides and 0.35-inch thickness, the Z5 Compact resembles a Sony Walkman, giving it a dated look.

Although it's one of the smallest phones on the market, the Z5 Compact is chunkier than competing phones such as the HTC One A9 (0.28 inches), the Nexus 5X (0.31 inches) and the OnePlus X (0.27 inches).

The Z5 Compact suffers from awkwardly placed buttons. The power button on the right sits right in the middle of the edge, while volume up, down and camera buttons line the bottom half. This made it difficult to take screenshots when I saw something I wanted to share with my friends. I also kept dropping the phone when trying to unlock it, because I'm not used to the power button being in the middle and it throws off my balance. 

Unlike the international versions of the Z5, the Z5 Compact available in the U.S. does not have a fingerprint sensor on its power button.

At 4.86 ounces, the Z5 Compact is lighter than the One A9 (5.04 ounces) and the same weight as the OnePlus X, but a hair heavier than the Nexus 5X (4.8 ounces).

Water Resistance

Like other Xperia phones, the Z5 Compact can withstand a dip in water. Rated IP65/68 for resistance to water and dust, the Z5 Compact can survive being dunked in 1.5 meters of water (about 5 feet) for up to 30 minutes. We dunked our Z5 Compact in a five-gallon tank of water and came back in about 25 minutes to find it running as smoothly as it did before.

The card slots on the left edge are covered to ensure the waterproof integrity of the phone. Conveniently, the micro USB port at the bottom of the phone remains uncovered for easy access.

Display and Audio: Bright and Accurate

The Xperia Z5 Compact's 4.6-inch display felt a tad cramped for me, even though the 4.7-inch screen on my iPhone 6s is only slightly larger, giving my fingers room to rest. The slightly thicker bezels on my iPhone might be why that phone feels roomier. Words such as "Get to know your Xperia" in the Introduction widget below the home page's clock were tiny and difficult to read on the Z5 Compact's screen.

Small size aside, the Z5 Compact's 720p display was a great canvas for a 1080p trailer for Zoolander 2. Penelope Cruz's bright red jumpsuit and motorcycle popped in the night, and it was easy enough to see edges of cobblestone roads and Justin Bieber's frown lines as he made his best "blue steel" face. Viewing angles were generous, as images barely washed out at extreme angles.

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Sony offers image-enhancement software to boost the colors of the display. You can pick from Super-Vivid mode, X-Reality for mobile and Off, which offer varying degrees of clarity, saturation and contrast. I tried watching the Zoolander 2 trailer in all three modes, but I did not notice a difference.

Registering a luminous 618 nits on our light meter, the Xperia Z5 Compact is brighter than the average smartphone (425 nits) and all other competing smartphones.

The Z5 Compact reproduced an impressive 153.3 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which is far better than the average smartphone (119.6 percent) and the Nexus 5X (106.3 percent).

With a Delta-E rating of 1.36, the Z5 Compact's screen is more accurate than both the average smartphone (3.19) and the competing devices. Numbers closer to zero are better.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide)

The Z5 Compact's booming speakers were loud enough to hear anywhere in a medium meeting room, but Bieber's "What Do You Mean" and Beyoncé's "Formation" sounded hollow and tinny.

Software: Lollipop with Too Much Sony

The Xperia Z5 Compact runs the relatively outdated Android 5.1.1 Lollipop with Sony apps that make it obvious you're not using stock Android. In place of the standard Android versions of Messaging, Dialer, Camera and Gallery, the Xperia Z5 Compact features Sony's skinned versions. Your photos and media are stored in an app called Album instead of the usual Gallery app.

One useful software touch is Sony's Small Apps feature that lets you run apps such as the browser, timer and calculator in small, resizable windows on top of other apps. You can launch a total of nine apps, including Gmail, Calendar, Music and Touch Block. The latter deactivates the screen to prevent accidental touches. Some of these apps, such as browser and Gmail, are almost impossible to use on such a small window. However, because each panel stays on top of whatever app you have open, this tool is handy for keeping an eye on an important conversation or updates.

Sony bundles a bunch of apps with the Xperia Z5 Compact — some helpful and some not so much. I liked Video Player, Movie Creator for editing videos and Sketch for creating and editing pictures and drawings, while Lifelog does a bang-up job tracking all my phone and fitness activity. The PlayStation suite of apps is also great for those who have a PlayStation account, and the Z5 Compact lets you play your PS games on the go with PlayStation 4 Remote Play.

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However, I didn't appreciate having third-party apps such as Amazon Shopping, AVG Protection, OfficeSuite, File Commander and a Shazam-like TrackID or Sony's own What's New, Xperia Lounge, Smart Connect and Privilege Plus shoved down my throat. Privilege Plus, which lets you download premium Sony movies and music, is particularly galling, as you must first sign in with the Xperia Lounge app before you can download content.

Performance: Leader of the Pack

Thanks to a speedy octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Xperia Z5 Compact turned in a peppy performance. It whirred along without a hiccup as I played several rounds of Cooking Dash with about 20 apps open in the background.

Taking 4 minutes and 13 seconds to convert a 204MB video from 1080p to 480p, the Z5 Compact handles that task faster than the average smartphone (7:10). The Z5 Compact was similarly impressive on synthetic tests. Its Geekbench 3 score of 4,011 destroyed the average smartphone's 2,838 and trailed only the Nexus 6P (4,289) out of its closest competitors. We compared the Z5 Compact with the Nexus 6P as well due to their comparative prices.

Graphics performance is the Z5 Compact's strong suit. With a whopping 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited result of 26,406, the Z5 Compact took down the average smartphone (14,778) and every other competing phone.

Cameras: Clear and Bright with Fun Modes

The Xperia Z5 Compact's 23-megapixel camera took crisp, colorful pictures. In daylight, shots of Manhattan buildings were clear enough to make out window edges and street signs, and red buildings looked accurate.

Credit: Cherlynn Low / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Cherlynn Low / Tom's Guide)

My co-worker's lovely locks had a reddish tint, while her light blue sweater was sharp down to the last fiber. However, her white-on-silver Mac keyboard was blown out, and looked like white-on-white instead.

Credit: Cherlynn Low / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Cherlynn Low / Tom's Guide)

I shot the same scene with an iPhone, and the resulting image had more accurate, neutral colors, while the keyboard was evenly exposed.

Credit: Cherlynn Low / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Cherlynn Low / Tom's Guide)

In a dimly lit studio, the Z5 Compact was able to capture my bright red nails accurately, and my facial features looked sharp.

My 1080p video of a co-worker sidling up to my desk and stealing my candy served as bright, clear and smooth video evidence of workplace malfeasance. The Z5 Compact struggled to keep focus during the shoot, though, and sometimes the footage ended up blurry.

Credit: Cherlynn Low / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Cherlynn Low / Tom's Guide)

Selfies shot with the 5-MP front camera were clear and bright, although there was a green cast over the portraits.

In addition to the typical camera modes such as Manual and Panorama, Sony packs a slew of fun into the camera app. These include Multi Camera for recording through multiple devices at the same time and Style Portrait for adding real-time filters to your selfies.

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I particularly loved AR Mask, which let me superimpose other (human or animal) faces onto mine. My shot of my colleague's mug on my visage was a particularly gruesome example of the horrors when Mother Nature wreaks havoc, but delighted our entire newsroom.

Battery Life: Plenty of Stamina

Size clearly doesn’t matter when it comes to endurance. Despite its petite size, the Z5 Compact chugged along for 10 hours and 54 minutes on our battery test (Web surfing over T-Mobile's LTE network at 150 nits of brightness) before conking out. That's far longer than the average smartphone (8:15) lasted, and better than all the competing phones except Google's power-conscious Nexus 5X (11:30) and Nexus 6P (12:25).

Bottom Line

The Xperia Z5 Compact packs a lot of good things into its small size: powerful performance, excellent endurance and a bright, colorful display. However, the boxy phone is stuffed to the brim with unnecessary apps and marred by awkwardly placed buttons that are hard to access.

For the same $500 price, you can get the equally petite HTC One A9, which has a sharper, more colorful display in a handsome, iPhone-like body. And if you're not stuck on a smaller display, the Nexus 5X offers longer battery life and capable performance at $100 cheaper.

However, you'll be hard-pressed to find a faster compact phone than the Xperia Z5 Compact that also carries such a long-lasting battery in a waterproof body.

Cherlynn Low

Cherlynn is Deputy Editor, Reviews at Engadget and also leads the site's Google reporting. She graduated with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University before joining Tom's Guide and its sister site LaptopMag as a staff writer, where she covered wearables, cameras, laptops, computers and smartphones, among many other subjects.