Sony releases expensive phones at a rate of knots. It seems only a few months since we reviewed the Xperia Z3+ because, heck, it was. Just three months on Sony gives us the Sony Xperia Z5. The Z3+ is already old news. If you bought one, we feel your pain.
Where’s the Z4? The Xperia Z3+ was released as the ‘Z4’ in Japan: the name’s already taken.
Unsurprisingly, there’s no grand innovation with the Xperia Z5. Sony is gunning for that with the even more expensive Xperia Z5 Premium and its 4K screen, which hardly ever renders at 4K resolution. Oops.
This more sensible mobile doesn’t hit us like the Samsung Galaxy S6, which was as refreshing as a morning dip in an ice pool. However, it’s a decent choice if you can’t stand the thought of siding with Samsung.
A glassy affair
Sony can’t seem to stand by a phone for much longer than it takes to make a cup of tea, but it still loves the metal and glass boxy design it has been touting since the Xperia Z series began in 2013. You get glass on the back and front, metal on the sides and little bungs of plastic on the corners, so any impacts don’t head straight to the glass on the back and turn it into a fractured spider’s web.
It’d be a shame if that happened too, because the Sony Xperia Z5’s back glass in particular is quite lovely. It has a frosted finish unlike the earlier Z-series glossier phones, which both feels more refined and avoids any scratches becoming too apparent.
The Xperia Z5 I’m checking out has a dark green finish, but you can also get it with gold or black back and sides.
It’s a good look, but the feel of the phone isn’t best-in-class. The sides of the Xperia Z5 actually stick out from the glass back just a fraction, and it’s enough to give the rear a kinda sharp feel. It doesn’t have anything like the smoothness of the HTC One M9 or Samsung Galaxy S6.
We’re even at the stage where a 7.3mm-thick phone like this can feel slightly chunky, because that thickness extends across the whole width of the phone. The Huawei Mate S makes it feels like a pork pie fan by comparison. A teeny-tiny bit fat and a bit sharp isn’t the best combo for a £550 phone.
As ever with this sort of thing: try to get your hands on the Xperia Z5 and the competition if you can.
Extras? No extra ££
There are some great side bits to compensate you, though. Unlike the top Samsungs or the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the Xperia Z5 has a memory card slot. With 128GB cards available for under £50 and 64GB less than £20, it’s a media hoarder’s delight. There’s 32GB storage built-in too.
The Xperia Z5 is also waterproof. There’s been quite a bit of fuss recently about Sony saying you shouldn’t really submerge its phones, even though it has been showing them off hanging out in fishbowls for years. “We recommend not submerge our Xperia Z5 in water,” is the official line.
Why? Waterproofing is provided by little rubbery seals, not magic. And tiny little bits of rubber are fallible. Some have gone as far as to suggest overheating has caused bits of the seals to melt but… we’re not even going to go there.
If you want to take photos of the small grey fish you’re likely to see while snorkeling on your hols, get a GoPro with a waterproof case rather than an Xperia Z5.
The phone's most notable new hardware feature can be found on its side. What looks like an oversized power button is also a fingerprint scanner. Right now it doesn’t do much beyond unlocking the phone, but it works very well. It’s neat that Sony has managed to make it not feel like a 100 per cent ‘me too’ job as well, in bunging it on the side.
A front-loaded scanner is still a bit more convenient because it keeps you thumb even closer to the screen. And I have found myself using the passcode instead at times as a result. But it’s still a good scanner.
LCD to the Max
This standard version of the Xperia Z5 doesn’t show too much progress on the display front. Like the Xperia Z3+, you get a great 5.2in Full HD LCD screen using a bunch of different Sony display technologies that nab you nice ’n’ vivid colour without the tone looking unnatural. Plenty of pop, no image quality flops.
If you want a phone screen you can really show off you might want to check out the Z5 Premium, which has a bonkers 4K display. I wouldn’t bother, though: it only displays in 4K when looking at photos or watching 4K video. That’s a bit silly when it’s only really ultra-tiny text that might show off the difference between the 4K phone and its QHD rivals.
This ‘ordinary’ Xperia Z5 screen is perfectly good, though. The blacks are nice and deep given it’s an LCD screen with a backlight rather than an OLED, and at 5.2in 1080p resolution is enough to make everything look pretty sharp.
There are a few different colour profile modes that let you pick how saturated your colours are. All are better than something like the oversaturated Nexus 6, also pipping the HTC One M9 for general image quality. However, none quite reach the accuracy heights of the Samsung Galaxy S6 or Galaxy Note 5, or their just-about-perfect contrast. This screen is about punchiness, not accuracy.
Outdoors visibility isn’t the very best either. I took the Z5 out on a cloudy-but-bright day and it doesn’t put in the sort of extreme measures some of the rivals can.
A sharp software suit
Still, it’s a nice-looking screen and Sony gets the most out of it by holding onto its famously classy custom Android UI, newly tweaked for late 2015/2016. The Sony Xperia Z5 runs Android 5.1 Lollipop at launch, rather than the brand new Marshmallow, and the interface laid on top is dead simple, simpler even than vanilla Android M in some respects.
There’s just the array of home screens and the apps menu, and as much as possible the space is given over to your apps and shortcuts, or left blank. Not bloaty interface bits here. Sounds good, right?
It is. But after coming from checking out Android M 6.0, the Sony Xperia Z5’s look does feel a little bit stiff. Why so serious, Sony? Still, if you like a nice pared-back UI, Sony’s is better than LG’s or HTC’s right now.
The phone comes with a whole bunch of extra apps installed, most of which you probably won’t use, but unlike some phones you can get rid of most of them. Don’t fancy tracking your every move with Lifelog? Bin it. The only ones that can’t be scrapped are, as usual, the Google suite and the core Sony Music/Album/Video apps. There are also apps menu folders to let you organise what’s left after the grand cull even further.
One neat extra PS4 owners might not want to get rid of is Remote Play, which lets you stream full-on console games to your phone. You’ll need a good internet connection to make it work well, but it’s pretty sweet, right?
Feel the Heat
Being a phone with a Snapdragon 810 CPU, the Sony Xperia Z5 can handle pretty much anything you throw at it. It has an eight-core processor, with four power cores clocked at 2GHz and four lower-key ones at 1.5GHz.
With 3GB RAM backing things up, the Android software feels pretty snappy. On occasion there is perhaps the tiniest bit of slow-down after taking the phone out of sleep, but nothing to get too angry about. It’s only the ultra-intense camera modes that make the phone lag-tastic: more on those later.
However, the Xperia Z5’s setup isn’t quite top of the tree for a few reasons. First, the Snapdragon 810 isn’t a highlight of Qualcomm’s long mobile CPU heritage. It may have been through tweaks and changes since it first arrived in the LG G Flex 2 in early 2015, but it still gets hot at the slightest whiff of pressure in most phones. Some use super-aggressive throttling to keep it at bay, like the OnePlus 2, but the Xperia Z5 just gets flat-out warm a lot.
Just walking around listening to a pre-downloaded podcast (so not causing a constant 3G/4G download stream), the phone’s back got a little toasty. Not ‘cripes my pants are burning up’ hot, but warmer than I’d like. I’ve been spoilt by the relatively cool Samsung Galaxy phones and the iPhone 6 Plus, you see.
It gets hotter still when charging and when actively browsing for a while using mobile internet. Just like its predecessors then, really. The heat tends to stay in the upper part of the phone’s rear, where its brains sit, and so is mostly away from your fingers, but it’s not perfect.
The Sony Xperia Z5 is a bit of a case of ‘more strain, less gain’ than some rivals too. While dead powerful it’s not quite a match for the latest Exynos and Apple CPUs, although given how rarely anything I do really maxes-out a phone’s CPU, these days I care more about a phone brain being efficient and cool than raw power. At least at the top-end where all phones have more than enough grunt anyway.
Other parts of the Xperia Z5 are a mite lesser-grade than some of the competition too. The RAM in this phone is ‘just’ DDR3 rather than DDR4, able to juggle data at around 5000MB/s rather than 7000-8000MB/s, and the 32GB storage can only hack about 45MB/s write speeds where the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus manages around 170MB/s.
Does it matter? Unless you’re a real tech-head, probably not. But these days if you’re not one of those you should at least consider a cheaper phone than this one. Unless you just can’t stop thinking about its glassy backside, I guess.
One area where the Sony Xperia Z5 does have a chance of flattening everyone is the camera. After all, Sony makes most of the top phone camera sensors, and it has packed a new and (for now) exclusive 23-megapixel sensor into the Xperia Z5 family phones. That’s a whole lot of pixels.
What sensor exactly? We don’t know its name as no 23-megapixel model is detailed in the Sony Exmor sensor library. Our best bet is that it’s a modified take on the IMX230 used in the Moto X Play and its siblings.
DXOMark has called this the best phone camera in the world right now: big words. I don’t quite agree, but it’s pretty darn good.
The way it works is much like the Sony Xperia Z phones of old. The Xperia Z5 has an incredibly mode-rich app, but it generally banks on most people using the Superior Auto mode most of the time, which these days lets you pick the focus point, colour tone and brightness but handles the rest. It gets you pretty much all the control I’m after for general shooting, apart from an HDR switch.
It’ll auto-switch to HDR when it thinks it needs it, but compared with most rivals, the LG G4, Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6S, the Xperia Z5 is quite slow when shooting high-dynamic range shots. At other times it’s fast, but I found the variance in shooting speed to be a bit annoying at times. You can afford to be pretty picky with phone cameras these days, after all.
A megapixel con?
As with its brothers, the Sony Xperia Z5 is also only really designed to shoot 8-megapixel photos rather than 23-megapixel ones. Sony sells this as a way to let you use digital zoom ‘losslessly’, but it’s not quite that simple.
You see, the raw 23-megapixel images look quite scratchy and fizzy down at pixel level. The Sony Xperia Z5 really shoots 8-megapixel photos as standard because it lets the image processor use oversampling to cut down on image noise.
At full resolution, phones like the iPhone 6s, S6 and G4 will look a lot cleaner. Even in bright daylight shots can look somewhat noisy. So don’t buy this because of its increased image detail. The Sony Xperia Z5 also lacks proper optical image stabilisation, which is what makes getting good low-light photos with a phone possible. It moves the sensor to match your movements, letting a phone use longer exposures without image blur. This in turn means it can use lower ISO sensitivity, resulting in less noise. Simple.
I’ve squeezed pretty sharp images out of phones like the Huawei Mate S using shutter speeds as super-slow as 1/4 of a second. Believe me, your hand isn’t staying still for that long. The Sony Xperia Z5 only goes down to 1/16 of a second exposure in Superior Auto, and fine detail isn’t quite up there with the best in night shots. It’s not bad, though.
Let’s not forget that the Xperia Z5 still has a 1/2.3-inch sensor, the same size as your average dedicated compact. And the f/2 lens lets you get that eye-charming blurry background effect that works so well for close-ups too.
Another kind of hybrid
Other than top resolution, the Xperia Z5 camera’s calling card is its hybrid focusing system, using both phase detection and contrast detection. Phase detection is the sort of focusing using by DSLRs, and tends to be faster than standard contrast detection, which just involves looking at what the sensor sees and working out what ‘looks’ sharpest as the autofocus moves back and forth. There are a grand 192 phase detection points across the sensor, and sure enough focusing is very fast.
It’s so fast that the Xperia Z5 can focus after you hit the shutter button every time and not seem slow. Thanks to the PD focusing you also get much better object tracking than most, making action shots that bit easier. I imagine only about 1 per cent of buyers will even find this mode, though.
In trying to make things simple in the camera app, Sony has made it hard to notice some of the best bits. Macro focusing isn’t great either: it just doesn’t focus that close-up, and the Z5’s app doesn’t relay to you anywhere near clearly enough whether the focus is successfully locked or not.
I don’t think the camera quite matches the best. I’d rather use an iPhone 6s or one of the latest Samsung Galaxy top dogs. Even when using the Backlight mode (the Superior Auto take on HDR), your foregrounds can end up looking a bit dull and underexposed next to a bright-but-cloudy sky. And the phone’s display can be a terrible judge of what the photo colours actually look like unless you turn off all the screen enhancements too. They may look good on the Xperia Z5’s screen, but you’ll only be disappointed when you look at them on your laptop.
If you care more about having a bit of fun with the camera than staring at photos close-up, there’s plenty to like. The classic Xperia AR mode returns in the Xperia Z5, letting you paste T-Rexs onto the camera view to impress the kids, or don an augmented reality mask to… impress the kids. This also makes this one of the best selfie cameras, though, and its 5-megapixel sensor can take some decent portraits.
Funnily enough, it’s these bits of froth that seem to challenge the phone the most, causing a rapid heating-up of the back and some obvious laggy chug as the app works out where it needs to superimpose the 3D mask.
Despite all the heat, the Sony Xperia Z5 doesn’t do too bad in a video run-down battery test. It lasts for 11 hours 40 minutes when playing a 720p MP4 video on loop, which is better than the LG G4 and HTC One M9, but not close to the Samsung Galaxy S6 and its brothers, which last at least three hours longer.
The Snapdragon 810 doesn’t seem to have done the Sony Xperia Z series’ legendary battery life any favours. I got a good few more hours out of the old Xperia Z3. Having a smaller battery will not help either. The Z5 has a 2900mAh unit, the lowest-capacity unit since the original Xperia Z back in 2013.
In general use, the Sony Xperia Z5’s stamina is decent but not up to that of some of the older Zs. I found that unless you use the Power Saving mode, it is very easy to drain within a day, just like the LG G4. Stream a bit of Spotify — and I’m not talking all-day listening — and you can drain the battery by dinner time. Switch on battery-saving and watch your background tasks and you should be able to get a day and a half, but it’s a slightly disappointing result from a series renowned for its stamina.
Anything else to consider? Well the Xperia Z5 has extremely neat little front-facing stereo speakers on the front. They’re perfectly placed, but the sound quality is only decent, not great. It’s not as beefy as the best. It also causes the phone’s back to vibrate a lot at max volume, which feels a bit weird.
Sony Xperia Z5 Verdict
Do a higher-megapixel camera and fingerprint scanner revitalise the Sony Xperia Z series, and see it rise up to the top of the Android broth? Not quite. This is a very good phone, but it’s launching at a significantly higher price than any of its direct rivals are now available for.
This makes it hard to recommend the Xperia Z5 too strongly when it has no killer feature to offer over any of the other recent Android kings. It’s also just not as comfortable to hold as some of them. That sounds like a slight issue, but it matters much more than a few hundred points on a benchmark test.
Let the price settle down a bit, though, and the fair battery life and decent camera make it a good alternative flagship.