The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact camera uses the same custom-built Exmor RS sensor as the big Z1. It's the highest resolution available on an Android smartphone and matches Lumia 1520 latest 20MP PureView camera (without the optical stabilization though).
As part of the Sony Exmor RS family it's a backside illuminated (BSI) sensor, plus it has a wide F/2.0 aperture. These are all good things for low-light photography, though the flash is only a small, single LED.
The Xperia Z1 Compact uses a wide-angle (27mm) Sony G Lens camera with a Sony BIONZ image processor. Sony has literally equipped the Xperia Z1 Compact with all the latest tech they have on tap, and that's just the hardware, the Z1 Compact is very impressive on the software end, too.
One thing that immediately makes an impression is how smooth the image is in the viewfinder - it looks like they are using a high refresh rate.
The camera interface, however, is a little old-fashioned and confusing at times. It consists of two columns, the right one holds four virtual buttons - a shortcut to the gallery, shutter keys for the camcorder and the still camera, and a shooting mode button. Depending on the shooting mode you're in, the video shutter key may be replaced by a still/video mode toggle.
The column on the left changes more substantially. Here you get a flash mode toggle, front/back camera toggle and the settings button, which brings out a panel with some settings. These settings will change for the different shooting modes, allowing you to tune more or fewer stuff.
Also, in Manual mode you also get a "manual controls" shortcut here, which sounds more impressive than it really is. There's an exposure compensation slider and a white balance selector. You can also control the ISO, metering and focus modes, but those are buried in the settings menu. And that's all - with a name like that we were hoping for some manual focus, or at least a way to tune contrast, saturation, sharpness and so on. Those are, you know, the settings normal Android phones get even without buzz words like "manual mode."
The Superior Auto shooting mode proved to be somewhat frustrating, too - it limits photos to 8MP resolution and 16:9 aspect ratio. We guess this is Sony's answer to Nokia's super sampling tech (a.k.a. PureView mode), but with such a resolution drop you may feel like you are not getting what you paid for. Especially since unlike the Lumia 1020 you can't keep both the full resolution shot and the down sampled shot (the 1020 saves both a 38MP and a 5MP image). That of course, is not entirely true. As our tests have showed, the 8MP shot have excellent levels of detail and have less noise than the 20MP shots. But you'll see more about that further down.
The difference between the Superior auto mode and the Manual mode when everything is set to Auto (yup, you can set the Manual mode to Auto) is supposedly that the Superior Auto tries to guess what kind of a scene you are trying to capture and adjusts all image parameters accordingly. This includes color saturation, contrast, metering mode.
The virtual shutter keys are nice, but the Xperia Z1 Compact also has a hardware shutter key. It's quite tiny and many people would probably find it uncomfortable. The good thing about it is that you can set it up to unlock the phone and starts the camera. It can also snap a photo or start capturing video immediately. This might come in handy for those occasions when you want to capture something fast.
Moving on, the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact camera offers a plethora of built-in features but we found that some are missing and others are hard to find. The available options include face detection, smile shutter, geo-tagging, touch capture (with Burst option) and tracking auto-focus. You can't manually select a scene - you hope Superior Auto lives up to its name and that's it.
Manual and Superior Auto aside, the Xperia Z1 Compact offers several more interesting shooting modes.
There's Sweep panorama, which, unfortunately, is not quite user-friendly. You have to move the phone at just the right speed, not too fast, not too slow. This caused the Xperia Z1 Compact to abort the panorama several times just because after pressing the shutter key we hesitated for a second to begin the sweep. Also, panoramas come out with 5MP resolution and the file size clocks in at under a lousy megabyte. Both the iPhone (5, 5c, 5s you name it) and the Galaxy S4 shoot panoramas with tens of megapixels resolution, so the Z1 Compact panorama is... let's just say, underwhelming.
Then, there are the Augmented Reality effects, which stamp one of several virtual worlds over your scene and you can even move around in this world thanks to some intriguing motion tracking effect (note that it needs visual cues to track your motion).
Children will love this mode, but us bitter adults are unimpressed - the resolution drops to 1080p and the graphics are unbecoming of a Snapdragon 800 chipset.
The Info-eye feature is similar to Google's Goggles app. It can recognize text, business cards, QR and barcodes, landmarks, bottles of wine and even book covers, too. Sony has partnered with leading companies in the respective fields to provide info (e.g. Amazon for books, Vino for wines, etc.).
It works quite well and provides enough at-a-glance info and if you scroll down, you get a wealth of further information. Sony has utilized the Google Now card design, which helps organize info in an easy, digestable manner.
Other modes include the regular Picture effect mode, which creates a 3 x 3 grid that shows all the available effects in real time. Sony has also included a mode called Social streaming, which can live-stream the video feed from your camera directly on your Facebook profile. That's certainly not something you see every day.
Timeshift replaces the regular burst mode, it captures 61 shots in just 2 seconds. The intriguing thing is it starts shooting even before you've pressed the shutter button.