What is the Sony Xperia Z5?

Sitting between the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact and Sony Xperia Z5 Premium, the regular Z5 might seem like the least interesting of the trio. It doesn’t have the small, yet powerful nature of the Compact or the 4K display of the Premium.

But, if you spend some time with the Xperia Z5 you'll realise it's a great phone; with an ace camera, vibrant display and plenty of power tucked underneath its frosted glass back.

It rights many of the wrongs caused by the awful Z3+ and, while it's still far from perfect, it’s probably the best Xperia currently on the market.

Sony Xperia Z5 review – Screen

Sony uses a lot of buzzwords when talking about Xperias' Triluminous and Bravia Mobile Engine screen technology. Most of the time it's marketing drivel so I'm not going to bore you with it. All you need to know is the screen on the Xperia Z5 is fantastic, in pretty much every way. It’s bright, vibrant, accurate at representing colours and packed with detail.

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Sony says quad-HD doesn’t really add anything to _phone_ screens of this size and for the most part I agree with them. This is why I'm not bothered by the fact that, unlike Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and Motorola’s Moto X Style, it doesn’t include a pixel-dense quad-HD panel.

I can’t pick out individual pixels on its 1080p screen and the IPS LCD panel displays colours with fantastic amounts of accuracy. Whites are bright, yellows and reds are vivid without becoming oversaturated and if you don’t jack the brightness up too high, blacks are deep and inky.

Viewing angles are also fantastic and it’s surprisingly useable in bright light, with glare rarely becoming an issue.

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Sony Xperia Z5 review – Design

Sony clearly believes it’s on to a winner with the overall look of the Xperia series, because its phones' designs have barely changed at all over the past four years. I would have liked to see a bit of a refresh this time around, but there’s no doubting that Sony has made a sleek smartphone. The straight sides blend seamlessly into rounded corners and both the front and back are covered in Gorilla Glass.

Generally, I’m not a fan of phones with glass backs. The glass attracts smudges and they’re far too easy to crack. I must have gone through at least four iPhone 4s and even the strengthened glass on the back of my Samsung Galaxy S6 cracked after a drop from barely a foot.

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My first issue is solved by the frosted glass used here. It stays completely smudge free and has a lovely matte finish. I didn’t even think it was glass when I took the Xperia Z5 out of the box, as it feels more like plastic to the touch.

As I haven’t dropped it yet – thankfully – I can’t say whether or not it’ll be forever damaged after a meeting with a concrete slab, but my instinct says that it would.

This time around, Sony has ditched the circular metal power button that was present on all other Xperia devices and replaced it with a flatter, longer version.

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There’s good reason for the change, as it now has a fingerprint sensor baked in. Fingerprint readers on Android have hit the big time, but no one is really sure yet where the best place for them to go is. On the back below the camera? On the front? Nope. Sony’s side-mounted version is the best yet.

Putting the sensor into the button you always use to unlock the device just makes sense and Sony’s interpretation is fast and accurate. Out of twenty tries, the scanner worked flawlessly every time.

I do have a few issues with the Xperia Z5’s design, however. The biggest being the placement of the volume keys. They’re situated just on the lower right hand side and I find myself constantly hitting them accidentally when I reach for the power button.

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I also really dislike how the rim ever so slightly juts out past the glass back. It makes the _phone_ uncomfortable to hold, with it digging into my palms.

Unlike the Xperia Z5 Compact, which is a little on the chunky side, the vanilla Z5 is slim, measuring 7.3mm.

Like previous Xperia Z phones, the Z5 is waterproof and holds an IP68 rating. With it being waterproof you’d expect to be able to use it in, you know, water? But Sony thinks otherwise. It doesn’t want you actually using it like a GoPro in the swimming pool or shower. Instead it’s there to protect from an accidental drop in your cup of tea or being left out in the rain.

Thankfully, just like the Z3 and Z3+, there aren’t any pesky flaps covering up the ports. No one like flaps covering up those vital ports, do they?

Sony Xperia Z5 review – Performance

A lot of the problems that plagued the Xperia Z3+ stemmed from Sony's choice of components. It was powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810, a chip that notoriously ran hot. So, it might seem odd to layman that, on the surface, the Xperia Z5 looks to be using the exact same chip.

But the 810 in the Xperia Z5 is a slightly upgraded version that supposedly solves the overheating problems. From my time with the Xperia Z5 I'm not convinced this is the case.

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During bouts of gaming, even with titles that I don’t class as graphically intense, the phone gets hot below the camera. The heating issue gets worse when I fire up Asphalt 8 or Lara Croft Go. I wouldn’t be as fussed if it was only a minor temperature hike, but the Z5 got hot to the point I hat to move by fingers on several occsaions. The phone even gets hot when playing Spotify, which is odd.

The other major problem with the Xperia Z3+ was that its 4K recording was basically unusable. Capturing footage for longer than a few minutes caused the device to spew up a worrying overheating message and then crash. Thankfully, this problem seems to have been fixed on the Z5.

As a test, I left the camera recording a 4K video for half an hour. Aside from eating though almost half of my available storage, it didn’t crash or make the phone hot. Discounting the gaming bits I mentioned earlier, performance and stability on the Z5 are great. Switching through apps is fast, Chrome never feels sluggish and lag is non-existent. It’s a great performer

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But, for a flagship device costing £539, packing a high-power processor and 3GB RAM, I expect this.

The powerful chip produces impressive benchmarking scores too. With a 4,720 result on the multi-core GeekBench 3 test it outmuscles the LG G4 (3,260) and HTC One M9 (3,952), but just falls short of toppling Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Edge+ (5,014). On AnTuTu, it scores 53,155, putting it above the Nexus 6 (51,855) and Moto X Style (51,350), but below the iPhone 6S (59,069).

To be completely honest, I’d still have preferred Sony to go with the Snapdragon 808. The small losses in performance are easily made up for by the better heat control.

You get 32GB of onboard storage, though this can be supplemented by a microSD card. These cards are about to get a whole lot more useful in Marshmallow, as the OS will let you use them for proper system storage.

The dual front-facing speakers are well positioned, but they fall into many of the same traps as other phones. Volume is loud enough, but audio is tinny and lacks any sort of oomph. It’s fine for YouTube, but not really for music.

Call quality on 3’s UK network, and also a network in Taiwan, was on par with just about every other phone I’ve used this year. No one ever complained they couldn't hear me, which is the important thing.

Sony Xperia Z5 review – Software

Testing the Z5 I couldn't help but thing, "come on Sony, it’s time to ditch your Android skin". Running atop Android 5.1.1 (Sony has already announced the Marshmallow update is coming), the custom UI certainly isn’t as heavy as say Huawei’s awful EMUI, but it still takes away from the OS' user experience experience.

It lacks the modern look of Lollipop, with ugly default icons, fonts and widgets. There are also some annoying apps pre-installed – Kobo books (I don’t know anyone who uses this) and AVG Protection – that shouldn’t be there.

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I do however like how you can rearrange, add and take away icons in the drop-down settings menu. So thumbs up for including that Sony.

Like other recent Sony phones, the Xperia Z5 comes with a suite of Playstation apps. There’s PS Video, PS Music – this is just Spotify, not sure why it’s renamed here – and PSN. The main draw of these is the Remote Play app. This lets you stream games from your PS4 to the phone, and pair up a Dualshock 4 controller so there’s no fiddling about with on-screen controls. It works well, but I don’t really have a desire to use it, aside from for demo purposes. PS4 games are designed for the big screen, not a 5.2-inch phone display.

The overview multitasking pane has been altered slightly, with mini apps that can be popped out and used at the same time as other apps. The feature is restricted to Sony apps though, so if you tend to replace all the native apps with Google’s alternatives this feature won’t be of much use.

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There’s also support for high-res audio files and Digital Noise Cancelling, so if you’ve got the relevant files and some decent headphones you can enjoy noticeably better audio quality on the Z5.

Sony Xperia Z5 review – Camera

This is an area where Sony really should crush its competitors – given how it makes the sensors for some of the best mobile cameras around.

The Xperia Z5 is equipped with a Sony Exmor sensor and its the first of this line to come packing 23-megapixels. It’s also exclusive to the Z5, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up on other phones next year.

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While Sony classes it as a 23-megapixel camera, you need to manually enable the resolution in the phone's settings. If you just start shooting out of the box, it’ll only capture 8MP stills. That’s odd, and slightly misleading, as I doubt the majority of people will delve into the settings to alter the resolution.

But, what really counts is how the pictures look and shots do look really good. It’s an adaptable camera too, that takes fantastic pictures that aren’t dependant on you being in perfectly lit surroundings.

Daylight shots are, predictably the best. Detail is immense – just look at the delectable picture of the sweet potato fries – colours are vivid and accurate and dynamic range is on point. Macro shots produce lovely looking blurry backgrounds, while skin tones in portraits are reproduced with exceptional quality.

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Unlike the majority of other phones I’ve tried, the pictures captured don’t suddenly deteriorate when the conditions do – which might come as a surprise as there’s no optical image stabilisation at play.

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Instead, Sony uses its own SteadyShot software to reduce blurriness and ensure shots are straight.

Night-time shots look really good. The camera doesn’t fall into the trap of over-exposing lights and there’s still plenty of detail in captured images. When you zoom in noise becomes apparent around the edges and it shots take in low light do have the tendency to look a little fake, but that’s only a minor issue that won't become apparent in day-to-day use.

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The auto-focus is fantastic too, locking onto target in a matter of milliseconds. Again, it doesn’t struggle to find focus even when the lights are turned off. Sony uses a mixture of phase detection and contrast detection (it calls this a hybrid focusing system), instead of the laser focusing system employed by LG and a few others, to achieve these speeds.

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It’s not perfect though. But the majority of issues come from the camera app. Sony is clearly trying to push everyone into using the Superior Auto mode, which is on by default. This takes away pretty much all the options and gives you a simplistic, easy way to shoot photos.

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It’s fine, but if you want even the slightest bit of control you’ll have to jump into the Manual mode. Here you can alter HDR, play about with the white balance and pick from a load of scene options.

The app seems a little rough around the edges. There is often a momentary freeze after you take a picture, which is noticeable and annoying, and Sony has tried to cram too many utterly pointless AR and useless novelty modes in.

4K video recording is supported, and looks fantastic, and the 5.1MP front-facing camera takes adequate, if not mind-blowing, selfies.

Oh, and the shutter button is a welcome feature. Letting you jump straight into picture mode without fiddling about with unlocking. More phones should have one of these.

Sony Xperia Z5 review – Battery life

Sony tends to make lofty claims about its phones' battery lives, that ring true to begin with and then slowly decrease over time. Take the Z3 for example, it lasts a strong two days for about a year and then drops off to the point it barely gets through a day.

For the Z5, Sony has again claimed you’ll be able to be go two days without reaching for the charger. I haven’t managed to get this much life out of the Z5 once.

Unplugging the Z5 at 8.30am and using it constantly throughout the day for pulling emails, browsing the web and all the other bits we do on our phones it’ll comfortably make it past the working day and on average be at about 30% when you go to bed. That’s ok, and if you left it unplugged all night it would make it too just after lunch before it conks out.

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Streaming an episode of House of Cards in HD on Netflix eats through around 9%, which is what I expect to see.

Yes, if you enable Sony’s very impressive battery saver Stamina mode then you can eke out two days. But that does alter performance quite a lot, so it’s best saved for emergencies.

I tend to get between 3-3.5 hours of screen on time from the 2,900 mAh cell, which doesn’t quite match the Moto X Play, but far outweighs the Huawei Mate S.

There’s Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0 tech on board, so even when you hit the red it won’t take long to juice it up again.

It will be interesting to see how well the battery lasts over time, though.

Should you buy the Sony Xperia Z5?

With the Xperia Z5, Sony has righted many of the wrongs that crippled the Xperia Z3+. And the result is a really good Android phone, with a great camera and one of the best 1080p displays I have ever used on a smartphones. Yet, it falls into the same trap of so many phones in that it’s too safe.

Sony isn’t pushing any boundaries here, instead it’s made a phone that can battle it out with the big boys, but not overtake them. I’d have loved to see more innovative features, like the fantastic fingerprint scanner, used and I still don’t believe the improved performance in the Snapdragon 810 chip is worth the heat that comes off it.

With Motorola offering a truly high-end experience with the Moto X Style at £350, Samsung’s Galaxy S6 now being sold for below £400 and the OnePlus 2 coming at under £300 (if you have an invitation to buy one) the £539 price-tag Sony is asking for is also a little on high-side. Maybe Sony’s only way to really make a dent in the smartphone industry is to create a cracking phone at a more affordable price.

The Xperia Z5 is Sony’s best phone yet. And it’s a great buy if you’re coming from an older Xperia or Android device, but it’s far from the best phone out there.

Verdict

A major step-forward from the Z3+, Sony’s latest Xperia has an excellent camera and a fast fingerprint scanner, yet it struggles to stand out from the crowd.

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