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Hands on: Sony Xperia X Compact

Sony's Xperia X Compact is available in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg

Sony’s Xperia X Compact inherits many of the XZ’s best characteristics … and its baggage.

Sony’s top-of-the-line smartphones have traditionally been accompanied by cheaper, smaller handsets. Historically, it’s a strategy that’s done the firm well: the Xperia Z3 Compact topped the smartphone sales list in Japan, and last year’s effort, the Xperia Z5, left us thoroughly impressed. It’s not really surprising that alongside the flagship Xperia XZ we’re going to get the Xperia X Compact.

The Xperia X Compact is mostly in line with its predecessors, which is to say that it retains its pricier sibling’s stylistic highlights while omitting a few top-of-the-line components. In the case of this year’s model, the handset borrows the Xperia XZ’s curved edges, a seamless unibody, and minimalist design, but trades the processor for a weaker processor, the high-resolution screen for a lower-spec display, and a build material that’s a little less polished than that of the XZ.

Related: Hands-on: Sony Xperia XZ

That’s not to say the X Compact’s a bad phone, per se. Whether or not it qualifies as a great one, though, will depend on the value you place on Sony’s hardware expertise.

A similar design

If you mistake the Xperia X Compact for another Xperia phone, we forgive you. Beyond the obvious difference in dimensions — the Xperia X Compact measures 129 x 65 x 9.5 mm, or shorter, narrower, and stouter than the Xperia XZ (146 x 72 x 8.1 mm) — the aesthetic differences are largely superficial.

One exception is the X Compact’s display. At 4.6 inches, it’s shorter than the Xperia XZ’s 5.2-inch panel, and measurably lower in resolution — it’s 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels) rather than 1080p (1,920 x 1,080p), as is the XZ’s screen. That said, our initial impressions of it are quite good: in our brief time with the unit, didn’t notice any problems that might be considered deal breakers. While we swiped through home screens and launching apps aimlessly, it seemed just as bright and vivid as the Xperia XZ’s screen. And moreover, its viewing angles were superb — even tilted 180 degrees horizontally, the X Compact’s screen didn’t appear to exhibit any major banding or distortion.

If you mistake the Xperia X Compact for another Xperia phone, we forgive you.

The screen’s protected by the same Gorilla Glass 4 shielding as the XZ’s panel, and it sports the same curved, 2.5D design. The speakers — stereo, like the XZ’s pair — look identical in appearance to the naked eye (unfortunately, we weren’t given the opportunity to hear how they compared.) And even the sensor placement’s eerily, almost concertedly similar — the proximity sensor occupies the same spot above the X Compact’s display as the sensor on the XZ.

The Compact X’s sides are a dead ringer for the XZ’s. On the left is a silver-accented, elongated, and flush power button housed a few inches higher than the handset’s volume rocker and dedicated camera key. The top and bottom bare no surprises: there’s a USB Type-C port on the latter, and a headphone jack on the former. And on the left side’s a removable SIM slot that, as on the XZ, doubles as an SD Card slot.

Taken as a whole, the X Compact’s design is neither more nor less polarizing than the Xperia XZ’s — they’re basically identical. The X Compact’s sides slope just as gently and attractively as the XZ’s own. The corners are just as angular, and the seams are just as visible. That’s all to say if you find yourself less than impressed with the Xperia XZ’s aesthetic, the X Compact won’t do you better.

A point in the XZ’s favor, though is the X Compact’s shell. It swaps the aluminum blend on the XZ for a thick plastic that feels hollow, albeit light, to the touch. The result isn’t altogether pleasant — whereas the Xperia XZ’s unibody is heavy to the point of being uncomfortable, the X Compact felt almost insubstantial.

A comparable camera

The front-facing camera on the X Compact can’t reach the resolutions (5 megapixel) achievable by the XZ’s impressive selfie sensor (13 megapixel). But it’s worth noting that in all other respects, the two shooters are basically identical, at least on paper: they share same f/2.0 aperture, the same model of wide-angle lens, and the same 1/3.06 pixel size. Any differences in quality of pictures produced between the two, then, should be theoretically minimal.

Flip the X Compact around, sit it adjacent to the XZ’s rear, and you’ll note the same series of striking similarities.

sony-xperia-x-compact-back
Malarie Gokey

The X Compact’s camera’s the exact same 23-megapixel model as that on the XZ, and it packs the XZ’s supporting cast of sensors: an LED flash, laser depth sensor, and RGB sensor flank its right side. It has the same five-axis optical image stabilizer that accounts for pitch, yaw, horizontal, vertical, and “roll” movement as the XZ’s camera, and the same “award-winning” 24mm lens.

But the similarities between the two cameras end when it comes to video: the X Compact shoots in resolutions of up to 1080p, short of the 4K that the XZ is capable of shooting. Sony blamed the limitation on the X Compact’s weaker processor.

We weren’t able to test X Compact’s camera app in our brief time with the phone, but Sony said it’s materially the same as the one preloaded on the XZ. That app features Superior Auto mode, an assistance function that automatically adjusts white balance, exposure, and contrast in real time. It offers a timer, too, plus an “auto capture” option which snaps shots when a smiling subject is detected in frame. And for more proficient photographers, there’s a manual mode that exposes the camera’s focus, shutter-speed, exposure, and white-balance settings.

A moderately powerful phone

Where the X Compact falls short in design, though, it makes up for in silicon. Humming along inside it is a hexa-core Snapdragon 650 processor which is made of two powerful 1.8GHz processors for intensive tasks and four weaker, 1.2GHz companion cores for the lighter day-to-day. Architecturally speaking, it couldn’t be more different than the XZ’s processor: it, by contrast, features four uniformly powerful cores that tackle tasks irrespective of complexity. We weren’t afforded the opportunity to benchmark the X Compact, but assuming the results line up with Antutu’s most recent meta-analysis of CPU scores, the X Compact should deliver around half the raw computational power of the XZ.

Aside from the processor, the X Compact’s internals are nearly indistinguishable from the XZ. It has the same 3GB of RAM, same 32GB of internal storage, and the same sensors — e.g., a gyroscope and accelerometers. In terms of connectivity, it sports dual-band Wi-Fi, a Cat. 6 LTE antenna (versus the XZ’s Cat. 9) and support for the near-field communication (NFC) tech leveraged by Android Pay and other contactless payment platforms.

And like the XZ, it lacks a fingerprint sensor.

Supplying juice to all those components is a smaller battery than the XZ’s pack. It’s 2,700mAh in capacity, or 200mAh smaller than the XZ’s 2,900mAh pack, but supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 (same as the XZ), which should translate to relatively short recharge sessions. And given that the X Compact features the same Stamina, Ulta Stamina power-saving modes, and energy-optimizing Qnovo software as the XZ, we expect the handset’s pack to last just as long, if not longer, than the XZ — about a day and a half of light usage.

It runs Android Marshmallow

The X Compact and XZ have their hardware differences, but in terms of software, they’re in theory identical — Sony said the two handsets share operating system-level customizations and app suites in common.

The X Compact’s running a tweaked version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the newest version of Google mobile operating system behind the recently finalized Android Nougat, but with a few tweaks here and there. The default keyboard’s been replaced with SwiftKey. There’s a theming engine that lets you swap the X Compact’s color palate, icons, and animations for one of several preinstalled or downloadable ones. And a Device Connection setting lets you mirror the handset’s screen to a compatible TV or PC.

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In terms of apps, Sony’s proprietary launcher, Xperia Home, is the most visible. It takes the place of Android’s default home screen, and it’s comparable in terms of functionality: you can reorganize apps by tapping and dragging, quickly create folders by dragging one icon over another, and easily plop widgets by pressing and holding on the home screen. And Sony’s added touches of its own, like a “double tap” gesture that powers off the X Compact’s display.

sony-xperia-x-compact-with-other-xperias
Malarie Gokey

Sony refrained from filling the X Compact with bloatware, thankfully, and the apps it has chosen to include are useful, more or less. There’s Lifelog, an all-in-one wellness hub that aggregates your daily physical activity and progress toward fitness goals. There’s the Xperia Lounge, a promotional hub for Sony corporate various media enterprises (e.g., Sony Music, PlayStation, and Sony Pictures). There’s Movie Creator, which automatically generates clips from pics and videos you’ve captured. And there’s the PlayStation app, a software companion that lets you manage (and play games from, if you’re on a local network) a PlayStation 4 console.

Warranty and availability

Sony offers a normal one-year limited warranty that covers manufacturer defects, but not issues caused by dropping damaging the phone yourself.

The X Compact, as you might expect, comes in the same three colors as the XZ: black, white, and blue. It was released in the United Kingdom on September 8, and has initially been made available for free or for a small up-front payment on monthly contracts under 30 pounds at O2, EE, giffgaff, Carphone Warehouse, and Mobiles.co.uk.

Aside from the processor, the X Compact’s internals are nearly indistinguishable from the XZ.

The device is also now available in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg for 449 euros. It’s available in black, white, and light blue.

For those of us in the U.S., the Xperia X Compact is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com. Interested buyers can choose from Blue, Black, and White options, each of which are $500. But wait — Amazon is offering a $50 credit at checkout, which means you’ll only be paying $450.

An important note for American buyers, however, is that the Xperia X Compact in the U.S. won’t come with a fingerprint scanner. If you want one of those babies, you’ll have to buy the Compact from another market.

Conclusion

The X Compact is tough to quantify. Couched in terms of a mid-range, affordable alternative to the XZ, it’s a relative bargain. You sacrifice a few megapixels, a bit of screen resolution, and some raw processing power for a reasonably powerful handset that delivers much the same experience as a far pricier handset.

But positioned against the competition, it’s a tougher call. Sony has yet to announce pricing for the X Compact, but assuming it’s in line with last year’s Z5 Compact — $500 — you can do far better for less, these days. ZTE’s Axon 7 Mini, for instance, retails for less than $300 and packs an octa-core processor, 1080p processor, and some of the best-sounding smartphone speakers we’ve ever heard. And the $250 Moto G4 Plus pairs a capable processor with 4GB of RAM and a camera that bests handsets far above its price point.

Whether or not you should consider the X Compact, then, ultimately comes down to how highly you value Sony’s imaging and software expertise over others. A top-of-the-line camera sensor and proprietary software suite is compelling, and may be enough to seal the deal for some of you. But in our estimation, most everything everything else the X Compact does well, cheaper competition does better.

The embattled Sony, it’s safe to say, has its work cut out for it.

Highs

  • Vivid display
  • Fantastic image stabilization
  • Compact size
  • Very comparable to Sony’s larger phones

Lows

  • Comparatively cheap body
  • Weak processor
  • Downgraded front camera
  • No fingerprint sensor

Article originally published on 09-01-2016 by Kyle Wiggers. 

Updated on 09-12-2016 by Julian Chokkattu: Added report of X Compact release in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Updated on 09-19-2016 by Lulu Chang: Added report of pre-order availability on Amazon.com.