Review: Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

I seem to continually have dalliances with the Android world. Last year I bought (then sold) a Sony Xperia Z3, then later purchased/returned an LG Nexus 5X. I always seem to end up going back to my trusty iPhone 5, though. There are just enough dealbreakers with any Android phone that make them tough to live with as a daily driver.

Earlier this spring, I was revamping a few of my iOS apps, and figured that since they’re written using JavaScript and published as “apps” in a Cordova wrapper, I might as well try publishing on Google Play as well. I’d returned my Nexus 5X long ago, so started trolling Swappa for a used Android phone. I’d had my eye on the Xperia Z3 compact for a while: its stylish design, coupled with a large screen inside a small(-ish) chassis had me itching to try one out. I grabbed one for a decent price, released my apps to absolutely zero downloads, and then tried using it as my main phone for a bit.

The thing that I love the best about the Z3 Compact is its screen-to-body ratio. The whole device is just slightly larger than my iPhone 5, but the screen is about 33% larger. Watching videos and reading books is much more enjoyable. Plus, since the overall phone size is manageable, you can use it without resorting to the “smartphone claw grip of death.” The body of the phone looks pretty classy as well – I got the black version, which is like the prototypical black slab that all other smartphones descend from. Unfortunately, Sony never evolved its industrial design past the iPhone 4 era: the phone is all glass, save for the plastic sides. I always treated it fairly gingerly, as I was never sure how hard I could set it down without cracking the back.

Unfortunately, the software front is where most Android phones fall down for me. While most of Google’s software is on point (Chrome, Gmail), the Android messaging scene is pretty fragmented. What I want is a Google-endorsed messenger that piggybacks on top of SMS, similar to Apple’s iMessage. The app that might have fit that category (Hangouts) is deprecated, and users are advised to use a standalone SMS app. Rather than double down on Hangouts, Google instead is promoting two new messengers, Allo and Duo, that you’ll have to get all your friends to download in order for them to be useful at all. Blah. At that point I’d rather use Facebook Messenger, which at least most people have installed.

Sony also tries to include a lot of “value-added” software, which is mostly worthless. They have all sorts of extra media apps, but without a compelling syncing solution for my Mac, I didn’t load any music or videos onto the phone’s internal storage. A few bloatware-type apps (AR Fun, wtf) were immediately disabled (can’t delete these apps, of course). I could sign up for a “My Xperia” accout, but it’s not immediately apparent what benefit it would give me, aside from yet another set of account details to remember (cursory internet research tells me it’s similar to Apple’s Find My iPhone).

Dispite these annoyances, the phone was a pleasure to use, once I disabled/ uninstalled offending Sony software. Since I mostly rely on very basic smartphone apps (Maps, Email, Browser, Books), I don’t mind missing out on the hottest new iOS microtransaction bandit, errrr, game.

However, I ended up getting rid of the phone. Since my wife has an iPhone, the lack of iMessage is a real killer. She’d try to send me a video of the kids, and it would be sent as a hyper-compressed MMS. Static images would fare no better. Rather a minor thing, but messaging is the core of my smartphone use.

The other unfortunate thing is that the Z3 Compact has no upgrade path. It shipped with Android 4.4, and has been (slowly) upgraded through Android 6, but it’s anyone’s guess how much longer it will receive updates. While my iPhone 5 is nearing the end of its update life (4 years!), I know that I can buy a new phone with updated internals in the exact same form factor, and have it be supported for another 3+ years. The Z3 Compact has no obvious successor. Sony released the Z5 Compact last year, but it uses the problematic Snapdragon 810 processor, and the US version has its fingerprint sensor disabled(!). The Z5 Compact’s design is also a bit more stodgy. And the Z5 series is the last of the Z’s – Sony’s recent crop of X-series phones are about as forgettable as they come. I don’t want to get too attached to a dying phone.

I guess I’ll appreciate the Z3 Compact for what it was at the time, and hope that one day Apple will release an iPhone 5-sized device with an iPhone 6-sized screen.