7 Jun 2016

June Musings

Hail readers!

You may be wondering what I’ve been up to these past couple of days. My numerous posts on the European Union so far would have you think that the Magical Realm is a politics blog, when in fact it is still very much a fantasy-oriented writing blog.

Ironically, however, this post will not be about writing. This is due to a simple fact: I have my philosophy exam in two days’ time, and more exams after that. At this stage, I do not have the time or the energy to be working on my current project (the Ark). My revision plan is multiple pages in length; I would crudely estimate that it would take a good 20 hours to implement the changes mentioned in there.

Instead, I will get down to what I’ve been intending to do since I bought my new phone some months ago. I will be reviewing the Xperia Z3 Compact.

Why, Alex, Why?

You may be in doubt as to my qualifications to be reviewing tech, but rest assured that I know more about technology than most people. Being familiar with the physics and maths behind tech, as well with HTML, CSS, and Python, are examples of this.

So without further ado, let me begin.

What is the Sony Xperia Z3C?

The phone is a 4.6” Android handset. The size is important: most Android phones, and even some iPhones, come in sizes of 5” and above. That little extra diagonal length makes a significant difference to screen area, and the overall feel of the phone.

A bit of math may illustrate my point:

The exact calculations I used to obtain this formula is beyond the remit of this post, but basically the equation shows that the area of a screen in the 16:9 aspect ratio (like my phone’s screen) has an area proportional to the square of its diagonal. This means that your typical 5.5” phablet has a screen area that is about 40% larger than my phone’s screen.

This makes a big difference. Yes, you can see more on a phablet; but this comes at the cost of ergonomics. Phablets are big—they don’t fit in my hand comfortably, and probably not anyone’s unless they have unusually large hands. You can’t use a phablet one-handed; you can (just about) use the Z3C one-handed.

So: I like the size. What I don’t like? The aspect ratio. At 16:9, the screen is 1.777 times taller than it is wide. There’s not enough horizontal space for my liking (and in landscape mode, not enough height). In portrait mode, the vertical space is more than adequate; going up to phablet size would make its height unwiedly.

Sadly, the industry is wedded to 16:9 screens due to some rather modest cost savings (16:9 is the ratio used on TVs, so there are economies of scale at play). But my conclusion is that big phones are misguided—they address one problem (lack of horizontal space) but bring in another (bad ergonomics).

The screen’s pixel count is 1280x720. This makes for a resolution of 319 ppi (pixels per inch). In layman’s terms, this means the screen is pretty sharp: as good as printed paper.

Nonetheless, perhaps due to my excellent eyesight, the screen looks a bit fuzzy to me when I’m up close to it, such as in bed. I don’t notice this on my colleague’s QHD phablet (resolution around 480ppi). Going up to a higher resolution would require more pixels, which would decrease battery life.

But, speaking of battery life, that’s a compromise I can live with. The phone has excellent battery life: it lasts as much as three days with light usage, and typically around two if I do some web-browsing, look at emails, take photos, etc.

Other Aspects of the Phone

The phone has a now outdated quad-core Qualcomm chip running at a maximum of 2.5GHz; in practice this results in generally smooth operation, although occasionally it can be fooled into stuttering. The phone also has 2GB of RAM, which is a lot for a phone—it can run a few applications in parallel.

New flagship phones post more impressive specifications, but I fail to see the value. Why spend more for a phone when a lesser-equipped phone will do just fine 90% or more of the time?

Where do I wish for improvement is in the camera. Sony’s 20MP 1/2.3” EXMOR sensor looks impressive on paper: it has cutting-edge tech and a substantial resolution. In practice, it isn’t so impressive.

The first photo is one I took near my home. It was a beautiful, bright, sunny day. But even in such ideal conditions, the phone’s software does some pretty horrible noise-reduction to the image. The tree next to the river is badly smeared: a lot of detail has been blotched out by the NR algorithm. Same goes for the rivulets of the river.

Despite that, the image—in bright daylight, with some pretty heavy-handed noise reduction—still retains noise: just zoom in on the sky.

After upgrading to Android 6, there seem to have been some improvements.

The noise reduction seems less fanatical here, preserving more detail of the green field. There is some noise, but it’s pretty controlled and not noticeable at normal viewing (though to my inexperienced eye, it still seems a bit excessive considering the relatively bright conditions).

Nonetheless, the camera doesn’t blow me away. Some of it is to do with the small sensor (a feature common to all phones, though some phones do manage to squeeze larger sensors) but a lot of it is to do with software. I’m not pleased with the phone’s image processing, and nor am I pleased by the fact that the camera app won’t let me shoot raw—a file format without noise reduction, compression artifacts, and a format that is highly flexible for post-processing with my desktop software.

There are also no settings for custom white balance that I can find; this means that the camera sometimes takes photos with an unnatural tinge, particularly in artificial lighting. It’s harder to correct, even on my desktop, because the camera doesn’t shoot raw.

The camera app also doesn’t let me select shooting speed, and sometimes picks a speed that is too slow, resulting in some rather blurry images.

As for the front selfie camera, it’s awful. It produces a huge amount of noise in interior lighting, making it hopeless as a selfie cam. The photos are also rather fuzzy, perhaps due to its 2MP sensor.

Design and Construction

The final thing I will address in my (I admit) somewhat rambling review is the design. The phone has an orange glass back, which looks quite nice. The sides are metal, but covered in plastic; it’s not the most premium finish, but it does make the phone easier to hold.

I like the design, but it’s not practical.

The glass back will shatter if I drop it—which is why I bought a thick, black case for it. It makes the phone much less likely to shatter, but it damages the aesthetics somewhat.

The screen also picks up fingerprints like crazy. I’ve bought a screen protector for it, which sadly is only marginally better at not picking up prints.

Finally: the reflections. The screen picks up reflections even inside, and outside it’s very difficult to see in bright sunlight. Suffice to say I’m not impressed.

Conclusion

Do I like my phone? I guess I do. It has excellent battery life, connectivity (4G, NFC, fast Wi-Fi, a pretty decent GPS), some nice aesthetic elements, it’s quick and the screen isn’t bad in the way of resolution, contrast etc.

However, it’s let down by a glossy, fingerprint-prone screen and a camera that seems at best average in its class. I also wish Sony would have gone for a wider aspect screen, though that for the time being is a pipe dream.

Overall, I guess it’s a pretty decent phone. At £250 it was quite a bit cheaper than some of the flagships out there. For that, I give it four stars.

Of course, this is my experience; I admit I don’t have a huge amount of familiarity with other phones, especially when it comes to their cameras.

Anyway! That’s it for the review. Keep the following the Magical Realm, for I will have some more, eh, literary topics on hand.

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