Sony Xperia Z5 review

No wonder James Bond didn't want Sony's Xperia Z5

Competent and handsome, Sony’s Xperia Z5 still struggles to stand out.
Competent and handsome, Sony’s Xperia Z5 still struggles to stand out.
Competent and handsome, Sony’s Xperia Z5 still struggles to stand out.

Highs

  • Waterproof design
  • Frosted glass back
  • Good camera performance
  • Great battery life

Lows

  • Fingerprint sensor has problems
  • Hard to buy in the U.S.
  • Bloatware needs to go

DT Editors' Rating

Home > Product Reviews > Phone Reviews > Sony Xperia Z5 review

Should James Bond use a Sony phone? Daniel Craig certainly didn’t think so, he reportedly turned down $5 million to use the Xperia Z5, as part of a proposed product placement deal. Given the plethora of other options and resources available at MI5, one would assume he’d go with something that had no label at all.

But movies like Spectre are very expensive to make, and product placement defrays costs; the Xperia Z5 did become the official phone of Bond, though it never made the final cut (it only appeared in a short film series of ads featuring Moneypenny). That deal may not have had the desired effect of spurring interest in Sony’s latest flagship, but this is still a phone built with a purpose.

Unlike some competitors who had high hopes for their handsets in 2015, it’s hard to tell what Sony’s true business goals were for this one. The company’s mobile division continues to hemorrhage cash, yet there is little sign that it’s looking to pack it in and call it a day. The Xperia Z5 doesn’t come out under any real uncertainty, though it has a hard time grabbing the spotlight in the crowded smartphone market.

Unapologetically Sony

To give Sony credit, it doesn’t venture too far from its design philosophy. Where distinctly rounded edges are the order of the day for just about everyone else, Sony maintains more of a rectangular form factor, and the corners are rounded just enough to make the Xperia Z5 easier to handle.

The best design tweak is the frosted glass back, which doesn’t pick up fingerprints.

The Xperia Z line has been around for years, and looking back, the various models don’t deviate a great deal from each other. Sony was the first to make a waterproof flagship right out of the box, and has long supported high-resolution audio file formats like WAV and FLAC. The company also offers PlayStation cross-platform compatibility, content casting with Sony TVs, and various other features meant to keep it all in the family.

Back in the ‘90s, Sony’s strategy would’ve been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but today, it’s a walled garden that doesn’t necessarily need walls.

Even so, this is a well-crafted smartphone that’s somewhat overshadowed by the larger Xperia Z5 Premium. The 5.2-inch 1080p IPS display is vibrant and sharp, though the best design tweak is the frosted glass back. It is far less of a fingerprint magnet than its predecessors’ glossy glass back panels were. Sony also smartly integrated the nano SIM and Micro SD card tray under one flap instead of separating them.

Then there’s the power button, with volume keys and a dedicated camera button below. Sony opted to put a fingerprint sensor in the power button for quicker unlocking, though it annoyingly requires pressing the button first to wake up the phone. Luckily, holding down the shutter button launches the camera, even when the screen is locked.

Related: Xperia Z5 Premium goes on sale in the UK today for £600 off contract

Under the hood, the phone has a respectable amount of power, led by the 2.0GHz/1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor and 3GB of RAM. There’s 32GB of internal storage, a large 2,900mAh battery, 23-megapixel-rear camera, and IP68 certification for dust and water resistance. Waterproofing is a great feature that’s been on most Xperia phones, and it’s one we wish were offered on more flagship smartphones. Sony’s commitment to water protection is refreshing and smart.

Familiar territory

There is something about Sony’s software design that makes it inherently different from other Android handsets. The specific layout, icons, fonts, and app drawer are all a departure from the increasingly restrained approach other manufacturers have taken to Android this year. To please the crowd, Sony should have reigned in its design language and adopted a more vanilla version of Android.

Instead, Sony insists on pushing users to its various apps or services. As bloatware goes, Sony is quickly moving into a league of its own when other makers are retreating and doing more with less. Doubling up on Google’s own apps isn’t really a sound strategy, it makes us wonder if some of the preloaded apps make a big difference when the Google Play Store is chock full of alternatives and just a tap away. I haven’t used TrackID, because Shazam and Soundhound are at my disposal. I wouldn’t flip through Socialife for news, either, because I have a vast array of other options that do it better.

Related: Sony to leave the mobile market if new Xperia phones fail to sell?

Xperia Lounge is one big repository for all things Sony or Sony-sponsored. The premise hasn’t changed here, with various offers, contests, and freebies accessible when signing in. The catch is that the Lounge is a central point, where opting in for something usually means being redirected to another app — sometimes to download. It’s a hands-on methodology that feels like an anachronism, especially when fewer Android devices nowadays present such a self-serving offering.

To be fair, Sony didn’t shove Xperia Lounge in my face, and I could ignore it easily, much like I could Samsung’s Galaxy Apps storefront on its devices. Still, it’s pretty pointless at this stage of the game.

The Xperia Z5 runs Android 5.1.1 out of the box, and Sony has promised that it will bring 6.0 Marshmallow to it “soon,” whenever that is. The company isn’t known for getting quick Android updates, which is a major downside for security-conscious users. As more crippling bugs and cyber attacks target Android phones, access to quick updates are of the utmost importance.

Working hard

Qualcomm may have felt the pinch earlier this year over the heating issues related to the Snapdragon 810, but those fears have largely subsided by now. The Xperia Z5 is a solid performer, and miles ahead of the crash-prone handsets of the past. Indeed, this may be the most consistent and robust marriage of hardware and software I’ve seen from the company to date.

Sony’s commitment to water protection is refreshing and smart.

Everything felt fluid, and in spite of getting a little toasty when I pushed it really hard, the phone never felt too hot to touch. The only time things got overly warm was when I played PlayStation 4 games with Remote Play. It’s obvious just how much power the processor expends with Remote Play, whereas casual gaming doesn’t really raise the temperature of the device a great deal.

I will call out the fingerprint sensor for being difficult to use. Recognition is simply not on par with the sensor found on the iPhone, Samsung phones like the Galaxy S6 or Note 5, the Nexus 6P and 5X, or the HTC One A9. I thought I had as much of my thumb covered as possible, but I often had to touch it two or three times for the sensor to finally register my print. To make matters worse, I grew to hate having to press the power button first to wake up the phone. You have to do the same thing on the iPhone, which is the main reason why I don’t use TouchID, either.

Camera Redux

Sony doesn’t get the credit it deserves for the camera performance and features its Xperia phones offer. Unfortunately, the accolades will be harder to come by this year, because Sony’s competitors like Samsung, LG, and Huawei have made big advancements in smartphone photography this year.

Another key takeaway with the Xperia Z5’s camera is the context of how the sensor works. Yes, it is 23-megapixels, but only in manual mode. In Superior Auto, which automatically selects the proper scene mode, the quality goes down to 8 megapixels. Such a big drop would seem like a crippling drawback, but that’s not the case. Using something called oversampling, the camera takes the added detail captured in a 23-megapixel image and puts it into an 8-megapixel one, ostensibly resulting in better overall composition.

With software stabilization in place of optical image stabilization, low light and night shooting become an interesting exercise. Superior Auto was superb at knowing what I was shooting, and adjusting the scene accordingly. The lack of optical stabilization didn’t deter me, and I found shooting in low-light conditions was as good as it has been on previous Sony phones. That’s not to say noise doesn’t creep in. It does, and I did notice some purple in the fringes of certain shots — an issue that dogged a few previous Xperia handsets, too. It wasn’t as prevalent in this case, but seeing it again did surprise me.

Overall quality is good, but the sensor’s tendency to push too much into an image sometimes leads to a situation where detail is mixed with noise. The reasonably wide f/2.0 aperture does a good job of taking in light, but I would have been really curious to see what kind of output the Xperia Z5 would be capable of with a wider aperture and optical image stabilization.

I often had to touch the fingerprint sensor two or three times for it to finally register my print.

The manual mode is decent, though I was disappointed to see that shutter speed and focusing weren’t adjustable. Instead, I had white balance, ISO, and exposure to work with. Not bad, but not good enough when those three settings could tilt a photo too far. Too high an ISO, and noise seeps in. Too low an exposure, and not enough detail comes through. Being able to shift the shutter can make a big difference in balancing things, particularly for more challenging shots.

LG’s manual mode offers much more control, and Sony needs to step up its game to compete with the Korean company – especially now that others like Huawei are starting to offer manual controls, too.

Related: Xperia Z5 Premium vs. Xperia Z5 vs. Xperia Z5 Compact: Which Sony phone is right for you?

Then there’s the litany of camera apps available through the main Camera app. Sony has long touted these as add-ons, and they can be useful or gimmicky, depending on your tastes. However you view it, there is plenty to choose from, though not all of the apps are free. Some take you straight to the Google Play Store to download.

Shooting video in 4K isn’t new for Sony, but it’s nice to have on the Xperia Z5, and fits well with the company’s 4K TVs. The only problem is that 4K footage hogs a lot of space. A minute of 4K video can take up to 400MB, so repeated shooting completely eats away at the phone’s internal storage. That’s probably why Sony set a five-minute limit per recording.

Battery life

Sony also has a somewhat unheralded pedigree for getting battery life right. Its clever use of battery-saving modes like Stamina, really help eke out more life when there’s little juice left. This year, most smartphones struggled to make it through a full day, but the battery-saving mode helps a great deal. It may help even more once Marshmallow rolls out and Doze mode comes into play.

The Xperia Z5 can easily last a full 24 hours or more on light usage. When tasks like 4K recording, PS4 gaming, and other intense processes push the Z5, the phone can chug the battery, whittling it down faster. During testing, I didn’t have much to complain about, and even without wireless charging support, I could still charge it quickly using a Quick Charge adapter.

Warranty information

Sony offers a 1-year manufacturer’s warranty from the date of purchase through the retailer or directly from the company itself. Outside North America, some countries benefit from a 2-year term, making the phone a good deal with two years of coverage for those living abroad.

Note that the warranty covers incidental damage, like the phone not turning on, battery failure, or something else that had no direct causation. Shattered screens, scratches, and other structural damage isn’t covered.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia Z5 isn’t a flagship phone, and is also too expensive to be considered a true mid-range handset. It sits in something of a no-man’s land, yet has the goods to be more than serviceable. The issue is that the device doesn’t do enough to stand out in a crowded market, especially in a year where a number of good smartphones have been released. The Xperia Z5 Premium bests this model with its larger 4K display and more power under the hood.

At the time of this review, none of the U.S. carriers offered the phone, though it can work with AT&T and T-Mobile. Sony was also not selling it through its own channels in the U.S. Unlocked models have been available through online retailer, Expansys, which is selling it for $560. A dual-SIM version is $580.

Amazon is also selling unlocked models from international stock with no warranty. The Xperia Z5 Premium is about $100 more, and we’d recommend it over the regular Z5. When it comes down to it, Sony’s phones aren’t worth the extra effort to buy in the U.S. You’re better off getting the Nexus 6P, one of Samsung’s new Galaxy phones, or the LG G4 or V10 – all of which offer most of the same specs for about the same price or slightly more.

LG’s phones are the best contenders for your attention, if you’re really interested in the photography powers of the Xperia Z5, but don’t want to buy the Sony phone. Both the G4 and the V10 offer manual camera modes, a 16-megapixel sensor, and 4K video recording. Unfortunately, Sony’s Xperia Z5 just isn’t different enough, powerful enough, or beautiful enough to convince U.S. buyers to put in the extra effort and money to buy one.

Highs

  • Waterproof design
  • Frosted glass back
  • Good camera performance
  • Great battery life

Lows

  • Fingerprint sensor has problems
  • Hard to buy in the U.S.
  • Bloatware needs to go