[highlight color=#336699 ]Introduction[/highlight]
The mid-phone in Sony’s flagship Xperia Z line looks a little bit similar on paper. Can it do enough to differentiate itself from its predecessor?
When Sony announced their three new smartphone devices at IFA this year, the response was a little muted. Not only did they look the same, they also didn’t seem all that different inside either. Aside from some gimmicky features such as the Z5 Premium’s ludicrous 4K screen, there was little to really make them sand out against the competition. Now that we’ve actually got one in our hands, things feel a little different and I’m actually noticing that there’s been some significant upgrades in the areas that count. Still, will it be enough to warrant the high asking price?
OS Android 5.1.1 Lollipop (upgradable to 6.0)
Processor Snapdragon 810 (1.5GHz Quad-core + 2GHz Quad-core)
Screen 5.2 inches
Resolution 1080 x 1920 pixels (428 ppi)
Memory 3 GB RAM
Micro SD compatible Yes, up to 200GB
Rear camera 23MP
Front camera 5.1MP
Connectivity 3G, 4G LTE
Dimensions 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm
Whether it looks similar to the Z3+ or not, you can hardly argue that the device was already an attractive smartphone to begin with. Blink and you’ll miss it but the Sony Xperia Z5 has undergone a subtle redesign over its predecessor, the Z3+. It now features a slightly squarer design, with edges that are a little sharper. The glass rear remains, which was always a major stress point for cracks and smashes. One thing we noticed was a lack of any noticeable antennas on the outside of the device; this helps to give it a much sleeker appearance than previous iterations. On the front, the stereo speakers have been moved to the very edges of the device, with only a subtle grille peering over the edge of each bezel. There’s still a decent amount of dead space above and below the panel, with the 5.2-inch screen only taking up around 69% of the front fascia. On the side, the buttons have been notably shrunk down so
they no longer protrude and the power button itself now has a completely new design which integrates a fingerprint sensor. The dedicated two-phase camera shutter has been carried over, allowing snappers to get some physical feedback when they take their pics. Measuring 142 x 72mm, it manages to be exactly the same size as the Xperia Z3+. The only difference in physical dimensions is the thickness, with the new Z5 being slightly chunkier at 7.3 vs 6.9mm. While we can’t say for sure why this is the case, it may be a vain effort to fix the overheating woes felt on previous Z series handsets. In terms of connectivity, on the rear we have a handy slot for attaching a carry strap and a micro USB port – sadly this device doesn’t ship with the newer USB-C. On the left side is a plastic flap which conceals the sim card and microSD trays, while the top houses a lonely headphone jack aligned to the left.
Sony is now the largest supplier of camera sensors in the mobile device market, so it’s no surprise that their expertise has been rewarded in the Xperia Z5. It uses their newest 23 megapixel Exmor RS IMX300 sensor, packing in some serious upgrades when compared with the previous generation IMX220. Even Samsung wants in on part of the action, with rumours that they’re planning to implement the same sensor into the upcoming Galaxy S7. One thing worth bearing in mind is that the camera is set to 8 megapixel by default, so you’ll want to head into the settings and change it for best possible image resolution. That said, at 8 megapixels the phone will employ a form of oversampling to get in theory a better quality image than using each individual pixel for the output image. Essentially, this is something you’ll have to weigh up as the photographer. At 4:3, it supports the full 23 megapixels of the sensor, while at 16:9 you’ll have to settle for just 20 megapixels (oh the horror).
Straight off the bat, picture quality is definitely something special. The new phase focus is seriously fast, nearing DSLR speed at times. Colours are incredibly dynamic and dripping with vibrancy and saturation, yet still manage to come across as natural. Auto settings generally do very well on even the more difficult images, with exposure and contrast well adjusted for the scene. There’s also an incredible amount of detail to be had from the images, with no evidence of any obvious over-sharpening. When viewed up close, there is some crosstalk noise due to the astronomically high number of pixels which they’ve managed to cram into the sensor but it doesn’t detract from the viewing experience at normal levels. We’re always of the opinion that a bit of extra noise in order to retain those fine details is much preferred, as enthusiast photographers can easily clean the image up later on in post-production. Low-light results are highly dependent on the scene but do have the potential to produce some very clean images. Sony has employed area-specific noise reduction in an attempt to only clean up the areas which are darkest, thereby leaving the detail on lighter areas intact. It mostly works in practice, though there were some occasions where the results came out a little soft.
For a phone with such a great camera, I was somewhat disappointed to find a lack of manual features on-board. While there is ‘sort of’ a manual mode, the implementation feels a bit backwards. Some of the key settings such as exposure and white balance are easy to reach, while others such as ISO are totally buried away in the settings. The lack of optical image stabilisation is also surprising for such an impressive sensor, though the digital variant is better than nothing. Still, it does come with plenty of fun modes that at least add the experience. My personal favourite is the AR effect, which has been available on previous Z series devices in the past. After pointing the camera at a flat surface, the GPU will render an awesome 3D landscape composed of various objects. The Jurassic one in particular was very cool and even included a full 3D T-Rex stomping around!
The 5 megapixel front camera won’t win any awards for picture quality, though it is perfectly usable for selfies. Noise and grain are always apparent, with edges veering on the soft side. That said, colour is vivid and well defined, helping to enhance your (hopefully) flawless skin tone.
The Sony Xperia Z5 has a 5.2-inch 1080p panel with a pixel density of 428ppi. It may not have the 4K panel that its bigger brother possesses but it’s likely that you won’t care anyway, since such a high resolution is mostly useless to the average user. One thing I noticed immediately was how white the display was, with no noticeable hue at all. The Triluminos display technology employed in the panel aims to enhance the colour gamut and extend colour reproduction, though we found it made images unnaturally vivid at times. Still, it definitely helped to make the image pop and gave an almost ‘larger than life’ feel to some video content.
Contrast on the panel is generally excellent, with plenty of detail across the spectrum that shows when viewing images. After calibration, there was very little difference aside from the expected subtle blue hue. Viewing angles are also brilliant, with the high screen brightness meaning that it’s possible to read things on the panel at near 180-degrees.
This continues with outdoor readability, in which the Sony Xperia Z5 is quite possibly the brightest panel we’ve ever tested. It was perfectly viewable under direct sunlight and even easier to read indoors, meaning users should have no trouble with this device in the warm summer sun.
Using a top-end Snapdragon 810, the Xperia Z5 performs just about as good as any similarly equipped flagship device. Benchmark scores were generally very high, if a little mixed. We had to conduct way more tests than normal on this device as it was difficult at first to discern whether the results were spurious or a result of the device itself. Some were in the low 3000’s for multi-core, others dipped into the mid 2000’s. Then we had the more expected ones which reached into the low 4000’s. After numerous attempts, we drew an average of 3961 for muti-core and 1223 for single-core. This is a slightly disappointing result that puts it at the bottom end of the snapdragon 810 powered devices. Quite why this is the case we’re not completely sure, though it’s likely something to do with the heat bottlenecking.
Sony still hasn’t fixed the heating issues which plagued the original Z3 and Z3+, with the device getting pretty toasty after extended gaming sessions. After a flawless thirty minutes playing Asphalt 8: Airborne, the phone quite literally felt hot to the touch. If I’d used the device for any longer, I hate to think what effect it could’ve had on the internal components. While it didn’t seem to impact gaming performance, I can foresee some instances where the phone could grind to a halt as a result. For general UI swiping and web browsing, things are mostly smooth and quick, though we can’t help but feel a little disappointed. With a few apps open in the background, it was a little stunning to see applications showing the spinning ellipsis and taking around a half second to load. For a flagship phone, this is not something you would typically expect to see. The 3GB RAM definitely helps for multitasking duties, though the absence of faster DDR4 memory is a bit of a disappointment for a flagship.
The Sony Xperia Z5 uses the newest iteration of the Xperia UI, which is based on Android 5.1.1. The result is an interface which is far more stripped back and dare we say it, closer to the stock Android experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it should mean that the performance is a lot speedier. Err¦ Not quite as we discovered earlier, though the general experience is still fluid. Customisation options lean on the side of subtle, with the ability to do things such as altering the quick buttons in the notification panel and having access to a quick launch bar when viewing background applications. Bloatware is a mix, with some useful apps and some useless ones. Sony has included a few apps for people to use but none of them feel cheap or throwaway. The included Movie Creator is a decent video editor for splicing together clips but things like PS Video just feel like a cheeky attempt at trying to draw you into their ecosystem.
The 2,900mAh battery included in the Z5 is slightly less than the Z3+, thought the difference is so marginal that we’ll let it pass. The Geekbench 3 battery test was a little off this time round so we put it through the paces in an intense gaming session of Asphalt 8: Airborne. After 30 minutes of constant gaming, the device lost around 15% charge, which is an average result if a little underwhelming. As I said earlier, it’s also worth noting that this thing gets pretty damn hot, so expect this to impact on your overall battery lifespan pretty substantially in the long-term. The included quick-charge 2.0 function allows you to charge the device from 0-100% in under 2 hours, which almost makes up for the non-removable battery.
[highlight color=#336699 ]Conclusion[/highlight]
We really wanted to love the Sony Xperia Z5 simply because of the brilliant camera quality but it’s incredibly difficult to do so when the performance is so mixed. There’s also still a serious heating issue that makes me seriously question the long term reliability of the device and will no doubt make performance even worse in the long term. You were so close Sony, so very close¦