Sony Xperia X Compact review: A small step backwards


The Sony Xperia X Compact took me a little by surprise, and sadly not in a good way.

You see, for years when people have asked me what “normal-sized” phone they should get, my answer has been simple: “Get a Sony”. While some manufacturers like to advertise compact versions of their flagship while secretly scrimping on the innards, Sony’s compact models tend to be the real deal: pint-sized powerhouses that offered flagship performance with less risk of hand cramp.

With the Sony Xperia X Compact, well… it’s complicated.

Sony has released two smartphones recently: the Sony Xperia X and the Sony Xperia XZ. Ignoring the linguistic abomination of a double-X in their titles, these are targeting the mid-range and high-end markets respectively. The Xperia X Compact pinches bits from both of them, making it harder to define and a tough old sell. And it’s an even tougher sell than usual, because Sony’s pricing structure remains as optimistic as ever for a company struggling to stay relevant in the global smartphone race.

Sony Xperia X Compact: Design

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At first glance, the Xperia X Compact doesn’t even look like it’s chasing “mini-flagship” status. Well, not in the year 2016 anyway. While it has the slab-like rectangle aesthetic that Sony have persisted with for years, this is a handset framed by glossy plastic rather than the frosted-glass stylings of old. It’s not a good change, to be blunt, bringing to mind the fashion of smartphones some six years ago.

Or at least that would be the case, were it not for the USB Type-C port it charges through. That’s right: you’re going to be upgrading your cables. It manages to keep the dedicated camera button and fingerprint reader on the side – a good move, as the Z5 Compact’s was the best I’ve used – but somehow loses its dust- and water-resistant status along the way.

(Update: It seems that while the fingerprint reader is present and correct on the UK version of the Xperia X Compact, it’s missing across the pond in America. Weirdly, the technology seems to be present, but disabled via software. The reasoning for this isn’t clear: could be down to privacy issues, it could be down to patents in the US. Whatever the reason, it’s not there in America, and that’s a great shame, as it’s one of the best I’ve used.)

This is baffling as Sony was among the first company to champion the advantages of a waterproof phone, going as far as to base all their Z3 marketing on underwater photography, but it has removed it just as the feature achieved mainstream traction, with Samsung and Apple installing it in their latest flagships.

It’s not an ugly smartphone by any means, but neither does it feel like it should cost £360. Realistic pricing has never exactly been Sony’s strong suit, but it’s all the more keenly felt in an age where you can grab Alphr’s favourite smartphone – the OnePlus 3 – for £31 less.

Sony Xperia X Compact review: Screen

Traditionally, Sony’s compact phones have matched their smaller screen sizes with a lower resolution, and that tradition is continued here. The Xperia X Compact packs a resolution of 1,280 x 720 into its 4.6in IPS display, giving it a pixel density of around 319 pixels per inch. To be honest, that’s absolutely fine for a display of this size, and although I took some flack in the comments of last year’s Xperia Z5 Premium for saying 4K on a phone screen was effectively like selling “magic beans”, it’s telling that Sony hasn’t pulled the same trick in 2016, and is maintaining more sensible screen resolutions across its range.

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We don’t just look at resolution when judging a screen, of course, with brightness, contrast and colour accuracy arguably more important. I’ve put the Xperia X Compact in a table with phones in the same price bracket, as well as last year’s Z5 Compact, to give you an idea of how it stacks up.

Resolution Brightness sRGB gamut coverage Contrast
Sony Xperia X Compact 1,280 x 768 (319 ppi) 535cd/m2 99.2% 1,211:1
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact 1,280 x 768 (319 ppi) 461cd/m2 98.8% 1,161:1
OnePlus 3 1,920 x 1080 (420 ppi) 415cd/m2 100% Perfect
Huawei Nova 1,920 x 1080 (441 ppi) 424cm/m2 100% 1,494:1
Samsung Galaxy A5 1,920 x 1080 (424 ppi) 400cd/m2 100% Perfect

The Xperia X Compact’s screen is – as you can see – unfortunate to be up against some very strong opposition in the £300-£360 price bracket. But even then it holds its own pretty well, proving to be the brightest screen of the lot, with very good sRGB coverage and strong contrast. The Samsung and OnePlus models in the list use OLED displays, hence their perfect contrast. Displays using OLEDs technology also tend to fare worse on brightness tests, so take those stats with a pinch of salt.

So a great screen, and an improvement on last year’s model. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for its performance.

Sony Xperia X Compact review: Performance

Earlier, I mentioned that the Xperia X Compact took elements of the Xperia X and other parts of the superior ZX. For its internals, it’s all about the weaker model, meaning that the Sony Xperia X Compact inherits the hexa-core Snapdragon 650, rather than the blisteringly fast Snapdragon 820 and its Adreno 530 GPU.

For the most part that isn’t a problem, possibly aided by the wise decision to put in a 720p screen, reducing the amount of power required for graphics-intensive tasks. Thus, the handset feels snappy and responsive in day-to-day tasks, and even intensive games such as Sky Force Reloaded trundle along quite happily, albeit at 720p.

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The problem comes when you benchmark it and see that not only is the X Compact no better than last year’s pint-sized Sony handset… it has actually managed to go backwards.

Geekbench single core Geekbench multi core GFXBench Onscreen (native) GFXBench Offscreen (1080p)
Sony Xperia X Compact 1,445 3,778 32fps 15fps
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact 1,369 3,794 47fps 25fps
OnePlus 3 2,371 5,416 47fps 47fps
Huawei Nova 843 2,982 10fps 9.8fps
Samsung Galaxy A5 727 3,558 4.7fps 4.7fps

This suggests that the Adreno 510 graphics chip running the show isn’t as hot as the chip in the Z5 Compact. That said, these tests sometimes throw up irregularities, and it’s worth noting that by this metric, the Xperia X Compact offers better graphical performance than the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.

In any case, it’s kind of a moot point: if you want raw power, the OnePlus 3 wipes the floor with both of them and comes in cheaper to boot. In fairness, the OnePlus 3 does that with a lot of phones.

Battery life – always a strong suit in Sony handsets – is strong as ever here. In our usual test – a never-ending 720p movie clip in Airplane mode and 170cd/m2 brightness – the Xperia X Compact gave up after 14hrs 41mins. That’s well above average, and over an hour longer than the Z5 Compact, but once again the cheaper OnePlus 3 has it licked, lasting an even better 16hrs 56mins.

Sony Xperia X Compact review: Camera

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While the Xperia X takes the processor and GPU from the weaker Xperia X, its camera comes from the Xperia XZ, and it shows. It’s broadly the same (very good) 23-megapixel snapper as was in the Xperia Z5 Compact, but with two nice new additions: laser-assisted infrared autofocus and a colour sensor. The former allows the camera to focus more accurately in low-light conditions, while the latter delivers a more natural colour balance, even in unusual lighting conditions.

Both function well. In fact, the colour sensor delivered better colouring under our office lighting than the mighty S7 Edge’s camera.

However, it’s not without its weak spots. For starters, you’re only getting the full 23-megapixel images in manual mode, and even then some detail is lost to nasty grain and JPEG compression. In addition, the 24mm lens is a mixed blessing. Most phone cameras have a 28mm lens, and Sony’s smaller lens means it can fit in a wider image. The trouble is that this wider image leads to a little optical distortion along the way. In other words, straight lines at the edge of your photographs will sometimes appear to be warped and bent.

Despite this, overall, the camera is a solid improvement on last year’s decent effort, so photography buffs should be satisfied. And its smaller frame is arguably better for photographers used to wrestling with a bulkier handset, too.

Sony Xperia X Compact: Verdict

The Sony Xperia X Compact isn’t a bad phone, but it’s one I find very difficult to endorse. Chiefly that’s due to the handset putting the squeeze on all smartphones in the mid-range to high-end space: the OnePlus 3.

At £329, but with comparable performance to the industry’s big hitters, it’s a real headache for smartphone manufacturers, and Sony, with its optimistic price structure, suffers the most. Simply put: the Sony Xperia X fails to beat the OnePlus 3 in any single metric, but Sony still has the audacity to charge £31 more.

Weaker on every metric, except one, perhaps: its size. It’s true that smaller smartphones are hard to come by, and this would be the best out there… except it’s actually a step back from last year’s Xperia Z5 Compact in terms of performance, and aesthetic. Now, in Sony’s defence, the X Compact launches at £90 cheaper than last year’s handset, but a year is a long time in smartphones, and they now come in at roughly the same price.

Sony once had the “pint-sized flagship” market cornered, but it’s finally been bested. By itself in 2015.

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