Testmodo Challenge #1: Three Readers Put the Sony Xperia™ Z5 Compact Design to the Test

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We shone out the Testmodo bat signal, and you gadget-hungry Giz readers started sweeping into our inbox like some sort of smartphone-addicted rodent superhero. Our inbox was flooded with hundreds upon hundreds of applicants for the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact Testmodo season, and we've now got our three lucky testers. Give a big Gizmodo welcome to Gary Coughlan, Kate Watson and Iain Buchanan, who will be putting the slick little Sony through its paces.

As ever, though our Testmoders get to take home and keep one of the handsets, they first have to give us a full report on what they think of the smartphone. Their first task? Digging deep down into the design of Sony's new compact phone. Here's what they thought.

It’s 4am, you’re crawling bleary-eyed into bed, and what you wouldn’t give for a lounge chair in the Maldives. You’d settle for something that might make your life a little less painful right now. For a new mum of a three month old, a smartphone could possibly be the best mini break alternative for getting through these early days (who am I kidding; book me a spa treatment already!). Could Sony’s new Xperia Z5 Compact make me one badass mother?

My first smartphone was an Android but I’ve been an iPhoner since 2011. And by that, I mean I’ve had the same phone for four years. *The crowd gasps*. The iPhone 4s is a great size for my hand and pocket (forget the handbag, which has been usurped by a Poppins-esque nappy bag best kept to baby paraphernalia); can I really find a powerful smartphone that still fits the bill, physically?

Sony’s Xperia Z5 Compact mightn’t have the sleek structural lines of its competition, but there’s something so retro (in tech years) that I love about that. With its solid profile framed handsomely in a metallic casing (in my case, a fine-looking pink), the Xperia Z5 Compact’s size and weight compare nicely to my 4s — albeit a touch longer and wider. Lightweight but with a substantial heft, the phone is pretty effortless to hold for calls (although are people still calling people anymore?), and just peeks over the top of my back pocket.

I was surprised that 12mm of extra length on the phone has changed the balance point enough to make typing one handed pretty tough. It’s nice to hold, but getting my fingers around the screen while maintaining a solid grip with one hand is awkward. Coupled with a silky smooth screen (brilliant for scrolling web pages flawlessly), it didn’t take much for some tiny flailing baby arms to knock the phone out of my hand, or for it to slip from grasp as I walk-tweeted.

Intrigued by the fingerprint sensor security (surely the start of the ‘future’ I was promised in the 1980s), I was quick to set up my thumb print. The instructions seemed clear, but, in a fog of ‘baby brain’, I didn't get it the first time that you should imprint different parts of your thumb or finger. I also didn't make the connection that the five available scans were for your various digits to give more options for unlocking the phone. I wish the phone had pointed that out to me somewhere in its instructions. Lucky I had fellow reviewer, Gary, on hand via Twitter to put me right.

It’s still not a guaranteed unlock first time, but I think it’s just a case of ‘it’s not you; it’s me’. I would really love it if the sensor were one-touch, rather than two steps to unlock, but I think I’m going to quickly adapt to this new technology.

My first impressions when I took the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact out of its box were, unsurprisingly, focussed on the size of the phone. I knew it was going to be compact but I was a little surprised by how small it is, or at least how small a 4.6-inch screen feels now that I’ve spent the last year with an iPhone 6 Plus. My previous phone was the HTC One M7 and the iPhone 4 before that, I’m very objective regarding operating systems, which should make for a balanced review as the weeks progress.

In a world where bigger is better and budget Android phones tend to be smaller, I thought that the Z5 Compact was going to feel tacky and cheap. This is not the case at all. In fact, far from it.

The Z5 Compact has a luxurious feel to it thanks to the materials that it’s made of. The back utilises a polycarbonate that’s very smooth and almost frictionless to the touch, whilst the front glass is extra slick; swiping photos or flicking through pages is effortless in a way I’ve not experienced in any of my previous phones. Around the edge there is a pearl-like plastic edging that visually ties the front and back together.

Now, this isn’t all good news. The reason I personally have progressed in phone size is that, being 6’6” tall, my hands are very large and whilst the phone may feel great, the smooth back and slick front do make the phone harder to hold and more likely to drop, as I have on a few occasions (don’t worry Sony, your handset is still in good condition!). Also the screen is über reflective – not an issue at home but in the sunlight and at work it’s very noticeable.

The phone itself is curiously square and blocky, somewhat surprising as phone design tends to be edging towards the smooth corners and soft bezels. The edge of the Xperia Z5 Compact also has an unexpected lip, only half a millimetre or so. This may be a design point to aid those of us who are a bit clumsier than the rest, but added to the sharp corners and flat front and back, it does make this phone feel very different.

The best design element of the Xperia Z5 Compact has to be the power button. It’s in the perfect position for your thumb (sorry lefties, it’s a right handed world and you need to just deal with that) and houses the fingerprint sensor, which you don’t even notice until you try to use the phone with your left hand or one of your other fingers – it works that well!

Overall the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact feels like the kind of quality product that you would expect from the Sony of old. The overall design is compelling, though a little odd at first, and the form factor is understandable when you take into account that the world in general is not as big as me!

You just can’t beat the excitement of opening a box to be greeted by a shiny new phone. The anticipation of lifting the lid, sliding the phone out of its compartment, peeling off the plastic covers, or not, depending on your preference (it's going to peel off eventually – get it over with!). This is my first time getting my hands on a Sony phone since the K800i. I don’t count looking in a phone shop or using someone else’s, it’s not the same.

A quick look before powering it up and I liked what I saw – its Graphite Black, a decent size, subtle but effective branding. I wasn't blown away by the thickness. It’s not thin. Aren’t smartphones supposed to be getting thinner all the time? Isn’t that the point? Not a problem for me though. If the battery life is as good as I’ve read then I’m willing to look past it. On closer inspection though it’s a trick of the eye. The case-like trim around the outside, which I’ve now grown to really like, makes the sideways view of the phone appear a bit chunky but importantly it doesn’t feel that way.

After getting the initial setup tasks out of the way, it was time to get up to speed with using the side placement for the lock/power/fingerprint sensor. I set it to my right hand thumb, a natural position for how I hold the phone. A click and a swipe from the top and it takes you straight into notifications. It's not much of a stretch and I love that I don’t need to reposition the phone in my hand to do this. For me both are within reach. I added a couple of more digits to the scanner for ease of use, particularly when the USB cable is plugged in or if it’s flat on a table. The scanner is fast, and very reliable. The volume buttons are below the scanner. I don’t like this position – I would prefer if they were above the scanner or maybe on the other side of the phone.

I can’t help looking through old photographs on this screen. At 4.6in and 720p it’s an excellent display. Photos that I’ve looked at on a range of phones/tablets/monitors and in print look great on it. Denser PPI or bigger phones might top this screen on paper, but for its size the Xperia Z5 Compact is great and I have the added bonus of not feeling self-conscious in public taking photos or on calls with it, as I have felt in the past with some monster flagship phones.

It’s solid, and well made. I don’t feel like it needs a case to protect it in my pocket during work. I spend time in a mechanical workshop; the dust and water protection will certainly give me piece of mind.

A couple of days down in this Testmodo challenge and I like what I see. The Xperia Z5 Compact looks and feels great. I don’t get the impression it’s the cheap (or cheaper phone) of the Z5 range. The build quality is solid and for me there is no compromise on the design.

Check back for the next Testmodo challenge on October 29th, and follow our Testmodo winners' tweets using the hashtag #TestmodoZ5Compact