Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact Review: Deceptively tiny

Sony’s latest compact flagship device is powerful and pretty, but not that different from last year’s XZ1

The Pros

  • Perfect for one-handed use
  • Incredible performance
  • Runs a near-stock version of Android

The Cons

  • Screen doesn't truly stand out
  • Adequate camera performance
  • Stock Android is still better

Sony’s Xperia XZ2 Compact is almost everything a modern compact premium-tier Android flagship should be.

It features nearly the same internal specs as its larger sibling, the Sony Xperia XZ2, with the single caveat being that the XZ2 Compact has a smaller screen and a smaller overall footprint.

Granted, the XZ2 Compact is far from a perfect smartphone. Instead, it’s a device that’s a marked improvement over its predecessor — 2017’s Xperia XZ1 — that features almost everything that one would expect from a 2018 flagship device.

Redesigning that same Sony standard

In my review of the Xperia XZ1, I made a point of highlighting the fact that the Japanese company’s smartphone design hadn’t really changed since 2010.

For those hoping that Sony would redefine itself in the era of near bezel-less smartphones with notched displays, the XZ2 Compact will no doubt serve as an example of the fact that the company isn’t completely stuck in the past.

Gone are the gaudy forehead and chin bezels that have defined and plagued Sony for years. In their place are slimmer top and bottom bezels that flank a 5-inch screen with an 18:9 aspect ratio. I wouldn’t say that the XZ2 Compact’s frame is bezel-less or nearly bezel-less, but the fact that Sony is slowly working on redesigning its smartphones is a promising sign nonetheless.

That being said, the HDR Full HD+ IPS LCD 1080 x 2160 pixel panel produces sharp, vivid images that are still dull for a 2018 flagship device. It’s a screen that doesn’t hold a candle to something that you’d find on the Samsung Galaxy S9 or S9+, and doesn’t even compare to what you’d find on the Essential Phone, OnePlus 5T or the Pixel 2. Certainly, the XZ2 Compact’s screen is incredibly weak in comparison to something like the iPhone X or the Pixel 2 XL — even with the latter device’s screen issues.

Users have the option of adjusting the screen’s colour gamut and contrast, being able to activate a greyer screen through ‘Professional Mode,’ a more saturated screen through ‘Super-vivid mode’ and a ‘Standard mode’ that takes advantage of the device’s Triluminos Display. However, these are clearly software tweaks.

The device’s redesign extends to the back of the phone, where the device’s fingerprint sensor sits in a curved back panel. The poly-carbonate back’s curves are part of what the company has dubbed its ‘Ambient Flow’ design language.

According to Sony, the goal is to use premium materials so that the device’s curves and arches flow more smoothly and naturally. To Sony’s credit, the phone’s curved back and the company new design language make the the XZ2 Compact one of the most comfortable smartphones I’ve ever had the pleasure of holding. The XZ2 Compact is easy to use with one or two hands, and the curved back fits almost perfectly into the palm of one’s hand.

In fact, the XZ2 Compact was so comfortable and natural to use that, even after having only used the device for a week, I found that a smartphone like the Google Pixel 2 — itself a device with a 5-inch screen — was a little unwieldy.

Oh, and the XZ2 Compact is also IP65/68 water-resistant, which is a welcome feature on any smartphone.

In a lot of ways, the XZ2 Compact’s design reminds me of something like the Infobar and Infobar 2 — Japanese cell phones that never made their way to Canada, but that were nonetheless praised for their usability and overall comfort.

Granted, that curved back also means that the XZ2 Compact is an incredibly thick smartphone. At its thickest point, the XZ2 Compact measures in at 12.1mm. In contrast, the Pixel 2 and Essential Phone are 7.8mm thick, the iPhone 8 is 7.3mm thick and the Samsung Galaxy S9 is 8.5mm thick.

For reasons that boggle the mind, Sony has also chosen to eschew the presence of a 3.5mm headphone jack on the XZ2 Compact. I understand that complaining about a missing headphone jack is no longer cool in 2018, but the point stands: there’s no reason for the XZ2 Compact to lack a headphone jack, especially since it’s such a thick phone in the first place.

In all fairness to Sony, the company has provided an explanation for why the 2018 XZ2 siblings don’t have a headphone jack.

“This is part of the shift to our new Ambient Flow design language,” reads an excerpt from a Sony FAQ page. “In order to create the beautiful seamless design, our designers needed to remove the headphone jack. Plus, we’re aware of the major market trend toward wireless headphones over wired headphones.”

In a lot of ways, it’s difficult to compare the XZ2 Compact to similarly small phones, simply because there aren’t very many phones that are as small as the XZ2 Compact but that are also as specced out. Take, for instance, the aforementioned Galaxy S9. With a 5.8-inch display, the S9 is undeniably a small phone for the modern smartphone market, yet it’s a veritable behemoth when compared to the XZ2 Compact.

Even the Pixel 2 — an unfair comparison since it’s a phone from 2017 — feels larger than the XZ2 Compact, simply due to the Google phone’s large top and bottom bezels and the phone’s 16:9 aspect ratio.

As such, it’s fair to say that the XZ2 Compact stands in a class of its own. It’s not that there aren’t modern phones with a similar screen size — the iPhone 8, for example, has a 4.7-inch screen — but even phones that have a 5-inch screen still feel larger than the XZ2 Compact just because the compact Sony flagship features an 18:9 aspect ratio.

Average battery, powerful processor and minimally skinned Android

When I first began using the XZ2 Compact, I was more than prepared to criticize the device for what I initially called a sub-par 2,870mAh battery.

However, a simply question from a MobileSyrup editor, “What phones feature a better battery?” made me rethink my criticisms entirely.

There are phones that are technically in the same class as the XZ2 Compact that feature bigger batteries. The S9 has a 3,000mAh battery; the Pixel 2 features 2,700mAh battery; and the iPhone 8 has a comparably tiny 1,821mAh power source. Of course, those devices don’t completely compare with the XZ2 Compact at all. As previously mentioned, those might be thinner devices, but they’re also devices that feel much bigger.

More importantly, what all of those devices prove is that battery size doesn’t provide a complete picture of battery performance. Rather, it’s how the phone regulates processor performance to optimize battery life that truly matters.

In that respect, it’s tough to criticize the XZ2 Compact’s battery performance at all. In my testing, I was able to get about five hours of screen-on time using the phone at 50 percent brightness to watch Netflix and YouTube, and I could push out a solid day of use overall.

As I’ve stated in previous reviews, I typically start my day around 7am and I’m back home around 7:30pm. In that time, the XZ2 has consistently gotten me home with approximately 40 percent of battery charge remaining. Once again, the XZ2 Compact is a relatively small, but extremely thick, device and the battery echoes this fact. It’s quite clear that most of the phone’s considerable heft comes from packing in that 2,870mAh battery in such a tiny frame.

It’s also wrong to say that the XZ2 Compact isn’t for power users, because its performance challenges such a statement. The XZ2 Compact is powered by a Snapdragon 845 processor, with 4GB of RAM backing that up. As a result, the device is an absolute joy to use. The phone is capable of doing everything from photo editing to 3D gaming with absolute ease, and Qualcomm truly must be praised for its latest chipset and Sony’s implementation of the processor in this particular device.

There still aren’t that many smartphones that feature a Snapdragon 845 — the S9/S9+ immediately comes to mind — so it’s tough to draw a major comparison to how other manufacturers have optimized the processor for their devices. However, there’s no denying that this is one of the fastest smartphones I’ve had the pleasure of using. When compared to the Xperia XZ1, the XZ2 Compact is a clear and worthy successor to Sony’s 2017 flagship.

Additionally, for anyone worried that 4GB of RAM won’t be enough, I’ve yet to find a circumstance in which typical use was able to throttle the XZ2 Compact’s performance. The device never stuttered or lagged during regular use, even when I had multiple apps performing multiple tasks at the same time.

Granted, Sony should also be praised for its minimalist take on Android. It’s true that the XZ2 Compact runs a skin of Android 8.0 Oreo that ships with duplicates of most of the apps in the Google Apps suite, but it’s also true that the skin needlessly burden Android with unnecessary quirks and tweaks.

It should be mentioned that there’s no firm promise on when the device will get an Android 9.0 update or if the phone will even get an Android 8.1 update. Sony has been good about pushing out monthly security updates, but the company hasn’t been so keen about updating its devices with Android version updates.

Additionally, the XZ2 Compact comes with quite a bit of annoying bloatware that’s impossible to delete, including a Facebook, Amazon Kindle, Amazon Shopping and Prime Photos app, as well as the aforementioned Sony duplicates of the Google Apps suite. Most of the world uses Facebook and a significant chunk of the planet also uses Amazon’s services, but the inability to delete these apps is not a positive sign at all.

Unlocked phones really shouldn’t ship with any apps that can’t be uninstalled.

A serviceable camera that doesn’t quite compete

In another strange twist of fate, Sony — a company that’s behind some of the best cameras in the world — has built yet another phone with an average shooter. The 19-megapixel rear-facing sensor performs admirably in bright conditions and performs acceptably in low-light conditions.

However, the XZ2 Compact doesn’t take photos that are as pretty as those captured by the 2017 Pixel twins, the Galaxy S8/S8+ or the Galaxy S9/S9+, but it can certainly take photos that will more than impress your friends on social media.

The device is also capable of capturing 4K HDR video, as well as 1080p Full HD or regular HD 960 frames-per-second super slow motion feature. In use, I found that recording 4K HDR video was more trouble than it was worth. The recordings were a little laggy, and the phone itself doesn’t actually have a display of projecting 4K HDR video anyway. Granted, Full HD video was smooth and crisp. If you’re hoping to begin a burgeoning career as a filmmaker who creates 4K works of art using smartphones, the XZ2 Compact most likely won’t be your tool of choice.

Returning from the Xperia XZ1 is the ‘3D Creator’ feature that allows users to create 3D models of faces, food and other objects. It works about as well as it did on the XZ1, though the feature is certainly aided by the XZ2’s Snapdragon 845. 3D Creator still isn’t a reason to purchase the XZ2 or the XZ2 Compact, but it’s an interesting gimmick nonetheless.

The XZ2 Compact’s camera also carries a number of visual effects features, including ‘Bokeh,’ which creates a digitally produced background blur; ‘AR effect,’ which allows users to take photos of augmented reality (AR) dinosaurs and other fantastical creatures, while also adding Snapchat like filters to photos taken with the selfie camera. As you can see below, Sony’s still working on perfecting its AR technology.

Excellent audio quality yet again

Returning to the XZ2 Compact are S-Force Front Surround Sound stereo front-facing speakers, DSEE HX hi-resolution audio, Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth audio streaming technology, and Qualcomm’s aptX HD Bluetooth audio streaming software.

The Xperia XZ1 was a smartphone with some of the best audio prowess in a mobile device, and this year’s XZ2 Compact carries on that proud heritage.

The XZ2 Compact delivers crisp, clear audio whether you’re listening to wired or wireless audio or whether you’re watching a YouTube video or listening to a song through Google Play Music.

Addressing the issue of availability

Having used an Xperia XZ2 Compact with a Telus SIM in Ontario — and having achieved speeds exceeding 300Mbps through speed tests — I can say with certainty that it’s disappointing that this phone is only available to Videotron customers.

Additionally, the device’s $699.95 CAD price tag no doubt seems egregious, especially when compared to the OnePlus 5T and the Essential Phone, which cost $659 CAD and $460 CAD, respectively. However, the XZ2 Compact also represents something quite interesting — a small phone that packs more than enough processing and battery power to comfortably meet the needs of almost all users.

A bit of a victory lap, a bit of an apology tour

Make no mistake, the Xperia XZ2 Compact represents a positive step forward for Sony’s portfolio of mobile devices. It’s a powerful, polished, pretty smartphone that combines modern design philosophy while keeping one foot placed firmly in the past.

However, it’s difficult not to view the phone as a minor improvement over the Xperia XZ1. In fact, in hindsight, it’s tough not to view the XZ2 -- and the XZ2 Compact -- as what the XZ1 should have been in the first place.

Sony ported almost all of the XZ1’s features to the XZ2, including audio and screen effects, as well as most of the key camera features, including 3D Creator. The company increased the device’s screen size for the XZ2, reduced the screen size for the XZ2 Compact, while also packing in a bigger battery in both devices. Interestingly enough, the XZ2, XZ2 Compact and the XZ1 all have the same 4GB of RAM.

Of course, it's also important to note that the XZ1 costs $1,000, whereas the XZ2 Compact costs a relatively affordable $699.95. If you're comfortable with a smaller device, then the XZ2 Compact is the clear choice.

"A capable, modern smartphone with a surprisingly affordable price."