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Featured Review: Sony Xperia Z5 Premium

December 23, 2015 - Written By Tom Dawson

For a good few years now, Sony has been producing their absolute best smartphones and releasing them under the Xperia Z name. We’re now into our fifth lineup of Xperia Z smartphones and if you put them all side-by-side you would struggle to pick out the newest from such a lineup. The Xperia Z5 Premium however, aims to be a step above not only its predecessors but the majority of most other smartphones out there. That’s because Sony have crammed a 5.5-inch 4K Ultra HD display into this beast. That gives the Xperia Z5 Premium a resolution of 3840 x 2160 and a pixel density of 806 pixels per inch. There are a number of Quad HD displays, that being 2560 x 1440, which gives the 5.5-inch LG G4 from earlier this year a pixel density of “just” 538 pixels per inch. All of these are nice, impressive numbers, but the Xperia Z5 Premium isn’t a 4K smartphone all of the time and what we need to find out is this latest and greatest from Sony more than just a pretty screen and a fun party trick? Let’s try and find out, shall we?

Specs

Numbers are essentially what the Xperia Z5 Premium is all about, and numbers are both appealing as well as a good indication of whether something is good or not. We took a full look at what’s under-the-hood here, but we’ll go through some headlining features here, as well. The Xperia Z5 Premium is a 5.5-inch device that measures 154.4 x 75.8 x 7.8 mm which is 6.08 x 2.98 x 0.31 in inches. A small phone, this isn’t and weighing in at 180g or 6.35 ounces, it’s not the lightest out there, either. With that larger footprint comes a Snapdragon 810 64-bit octa-core CPU backed up with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. There’s the usual accompaniments of Bluetooth, dual-band WiFi, GPS and GLONASS here, but the fancy numbers are in the cameras. The rear-facing camera here is the same 23.0-megapixel camera used in the Xperia Z5 and Xperia Z5 Compact and there’s an impressive, but not industry-leading, 5.1-megapixel camera taking up front-facing camera duties. Running the show is a sizeable 3,430 mAh battery, which is larger than the Xperia Z5’s by quite a bit, for those wondering. Just like previous Xperia Z devices, the Z5 Premium is IP58 dust and water-resistant, making it able to withstand water down so far as 1.5 meters for 30 minutes, which is a neat party trick if nothing else. One more party trick for the Z5 Premium would be the fingerprint sensor which Sony is understandably proud of (more on that later).

Display

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Xperia Z smartphones aren’t uncommon these days, and there are three of them to choose from, each sharing common DNA in more than just their looks. They share the same beating heart, the same excellent camera and the same sort of battery life. As such, the display of the Xperia Z5 Premium is certainly the star of the show. At 5.5-inches with a pixel density of 806 pixels per inch, this has all the right numbers, but what do translate to?

First of all, let’s clear up the whole ‘4K smartphone’ thing. The Xperia Z5 Premium does not run a resolution of 3840 x 2160 all of the time, and in fact most of the time it runs a Full HD display, just like the Xperia Z5. That equates to 1920 x 1080, similar to devices like the OnePlus 2. The Xperia Z5 Premium is a 4K smartphone only when it needs to be and only when it chooses to be.

Before we get too into pixel talk, let’s talk quality. The display used here is a very nice panel, it’s bright, crisp and very easy to see in sunlight (depending on where you are in the world, naturally). Viewing angles are great, and the only thing you lose when looking at it off-axis would be some light. Color reproduction is excellent, it’s accurate without being lackluster, and it’s punchy when the source material requires it to be. Blacks are nice and deep and no matter how bright you have the display, colors or text never appears washed-out. Speaking of which, text looks really nice on the Z5 Premium. I read a lot with my devices, and browsing the web and reading was a real treat with a larger display as well as some sharp text and smooth motion when scrolling through my favorite pages.

Tackling the 4K question with this phone is well, a pain in the rear. Where can I get 4K content from, to watch on this 4K screen? YouTube doesn’t stream 4K on Android, neither does Netflix and there were only two or three sample videos in 4K from Sony on the phone when I went looking for them. So, I downloaded a soccer sample video and the 007: Spectre trailer, both in 4K. VLC was unable to play them, and the phone got quite hot while it was trying, but the Video app from Sony managed to just fine. The movie trailer was smooth, sharp and it looked good, but I wasn’t blown away. The soccer sample – of Athletico Madrid vs Barcelona – however, was very impressive. Color really popped and looked great, the reactions and looks on players’ faces were sharper than anything else I’ve seen on a phone and it all came together nicely. I tried out some more 4K samples, but I’m unconvinced, to really get the most out of all those pixels you have to pull the phone closer to your face, which just feels unnatural and if I can’t instantly choose some YouTube or Netflix (two of the few services that offer up 4K elsewhere) on a 4K smartphone, then what’s the point?

Ultimately, the Xperia Z5 Premium has a great display. No ifs, no buts, it’s great. However, the 4K part of that great equation is nowhere near as important as Sony want you to think it is and ultimately that’s a real shame. Are Sony to blame here, or are they trying to force the industry’s hand to make 4K a bigger deal than it is currently? Only time will answer that question definitively, but right now it is little more than a fairly impressive party trick.

Design and Build

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This is the fourth Xperia Z smartphone that I have reviewed in 2015. If that sounds a little strange to you, it should. With the Xperia Z3+, the Xperia Z5, the Xperia Z5 Compact and now the Xperia Z5 Premium Sony have certainly made good use of their omnibalance design throughout 2015. Frankly, things are beginning to look more than a little samey at this point. However, if we’re to take the Xperia Z5 Premium as its own device, and ignore previous Xperia Z devices and it’s easy to see why Sony gave it the name ‘Premium’.

Sat on my desk right now, the Xperia Z5 Premium looks like a smug, classy smartphone that knows it’s a looker. More seriously though, this is a minimal and classic design, it’s not shouty like the colors of the Galaxy S6 or curvy like the Moto X and LG G4. Instead, the Xperia Z5 Premium is understated and minimal. There’s nothing on the front, save the Sony logo and all the buttons (of which there are three) are on one side. There’s a simple flap that pulls out for the SIM and SD cards, and there are 3.5mm and microUSB ports top and bottom, respectively. Everything has its place and the layout is standard, but classic. It’s not the thinnest device out there, but it’s a far way from chunky, either.

Flipping back to colors for a second, there’s a distinct lack of it in the model Sony sent to me. I do not have a smartphone sat on my desk as I write this, but a mirror. The mirror finish on the Xperia Z5 Premium is both infuriating and intoxicating, sometimes more of one, other times a lot more of the former. Let me tell you this phone was a nightmare to photograph, but it’s also a ridiculous fingerprint magnet. The glass back is glossy as it is, but by making it super-reflective you can practically use this to take prints for investigations with. It’s undeniable that this color choice is reminiscent of the tagline ‘Premium’ and it will sure turn some heads, mostly because it’s different, more than a good idea. Perhaps this is too much of my personal preference here, but the fact I have been using a smartphone that looks like the Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 car has put a smile on my face, even if the fingerprints had me cleaning it like a madman.

Camera

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The Xperia Z5 Premium ships with a 5.1-megapixel front-facing camera and a 23-megapixel rear-facing camera. This has a G Series lens from Sony themselves, and it has an aperture of f/2.0 and is a 1/2.3″ sensor size. Impressive numbers, and a bump from the 20-megapixel camera that has been used in Xperia Z devices for years now. So, how good is the camera on a device with a tagline of ‘Premium’? As it turns, really quite good overall.

Color is nice and accurate when shooting in sunlight, but Superior Auto seems to take over a little bit too much and wash photos out. It’s almost as if the camera is trying just a little too hard, but it ends up washing an image out a lot of the time. Using Manual mode with a step or so above or below in Exposure is a quick way of getting some pretty excellent pictures. I’d go so far as to say that this was digital camera good, and considering that there’s a camera button on the side of the phone, it’s pretty easy to use it as a digital camera as well. The camera software seems to have been given something of an upgrade since the Xperia Z5 launched, and it’s a little more modern in its approach, but just as simple to use.

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We like to let the photos do the talking here, so as usual you can take a look at the Flickr gallery of shots from the Xperia Z5 Premium by clicking the image below.

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Overall, the Xperia Z5 Premium takes excellent photos in all situations other than low light. Here, noise creeps in and essentially makes things look quite soft and more than a little muddied, which is a shame, but not unexpected due to the small size of these smartphone sensors. There’s not much else to say about the Xperia Z5 Premium’s camera, other than it’s one of the best out there, the size of the phone is nice to take photos with, and the overall experience is pleasant with quality results delivered every time.

Performance and Memory

The Xperia Z5 Premium has the same Snapdragon 810 and 3GB of RAM that many other flagship devices have launched with throughout 2015. Considering that it’s also running Android 5.1.1 as many other devices, you would expect similar performance. This turns out to be true, and while the Z5 Premium is nothing special in the performance stakes, it does have something a little extra to give. That would be stability. One thing that has always been true of the Xperia Z devices is that the software rarely – if ever – crashes and there are few hiccups or stutters in apps or games, the Z5 Premium upholds that tradition nicely.

Everyday performance is great, apps load nice and quickly, transitions are smooth and web browsing is immediate and responsive. Speaking of which, touch response here is a nice surprise, as it’s super-precise and speedy, making for an excellent all-round experience no matter what you’re doing. One of the few things that it seems to struggle with is playing back 4K video and indeed recording 4K video in the first place.

Benchmarks

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Benchmarks are not an instant way of figuring out whether or not a phone is quick or not, but they can certainly give us a good idea of how good a performer a device is. We put the Xperia Z5 Premium through the ringer with the usual suite of Benchmarks and tests, and the Xperia Z5 Premium performed well. While it certainly didn’t break any records or raise any eyebrows it was a solid performer. Those interested in these numbers can find screenshots in the gallery below.

Fingerprint Sensor

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2015 has seen more smartphones with fingerprint sensors than ever before, and Sony finally joined the party with the Xperia Z5 line. In each of the Xperia Z5 devices I’ve reviewed, the fingerprint sensor has been excellent, and the Premium is no exception. Firstly, there’s the placement of the fingerprint sensor itself, which is pretty much exactly where the power button has been on every previous Xperia Z smartphone. This makes it easy for loyal users and those familiar with previous versions to adopt a new feature with ease. For those new to the Xperia Z series, they’ll end up with a quality addition that’s in an excellent place, it feels natural to use with a thumb, and it’s extremely quick as well.

Setting up your fingerprint – or fingerprints – is nice and easy, and while it does take a little longer than most, what’s an extra 45 seconds or so to set up a feature like this? The software is thoughtfully worked in to the settings of the phone, and it doesn’t feel like an afterthought at all. Speedy is the operative word when talking about its performance overall, and while you can’t just rest your thumb on it like you can with the OnePlus 2 for instance, you can push and hold for it to read your print and let you in. As of writing, the Xperia Z5 Premium was running Android 5.1.1 Lollipop which means that the fingerprint sensor isn’t good for much beyond authentication, but with a sensor this good the new features in Marshmallow should work great.

Call and Sound Quality

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Sony devices have always had what it takes to be great phones where sound is concerned, the Xperia Z5 Premium is more of the same. The stereo speakers on the front of the device sound great, and have some good volume to them as well as a quality punch, too. They won’t fill a room, but they do sound very loud and proud and have some real presence to them.

As for call quality, well we’re looking at the same sort of performance as other Xperia Z devices, which is to say that everything is crisp and clear, but with an added warmth that you don’t hear with other devices. Callers said I was nice and clear, and there was no background noise that crept in, not that most devices suffer from this sort of thing any more these days.

Playing back music on the Xperia Z5 series has been great, but the Z5 Premium, was the first time I really felt like the added sprinkles on top made much of a difference. For critical listening I played CHVRCHES new album from top to bottom, with and without DSEE HX (Sony’s party trick of “upgrading” lossy audio to 24-bit ‘Hi-Res’ audio) and there was quite a bit of a difference. How sure I am this will make a difference on standard headphones is hard to say, but for me songs sounder fuller and deeper. Turning DSEE HX off led to some lackluster reproductions of my favorite songs, but it’s by no means a disaster without it turned on.

Elsewhere however, and there’s the option to use sound effects to add more bass with Clear Bass or adjust each frequency across a five-band equalizer individually. Clear Bass continues to impress me on Xperia Z devices, as it adds warmth and punch to the low end without bloating it and running the rest of the track. All-in-all, this is a great device for those that want to listen to music, as well as those looking to have a good natter on the phone.

Battery Life

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With a 3,430 mAh battery you would be expecting good things from the Xperia Z5 Premium in terms of battery life. Readers that have paid attention to Sony devices over the years will know that they often produce some respectable results where longevity day-to-day is concerned. How I use my phone is different to how you use yours, so comparing use cases always gets a little messy. As such, we use PCMark’s Battery Life benchmark to get an idea for how good a device is in terms of battery life. With the display as close to 50% brightness as I can get it, the Xperia Z5 Premium scored over 7 hours. That takes the battery down to 20% during a test that represents typical usage constantly. This is a pretty damn good score to be honest, but I was surprised to see a sizeable battery like this not last a little longer.

Using the Xperia Z5 Premium for a day and then some won’t be an issue for a lot of people, but it is clear that display adds some added strain to the overall workload for the 3,430 mAh battery here. Watching video or browsing the web and scrolling or swapping from page-to-page for hours at a time seems to have a massive effect on how long the Z5 Premium keeps on chugging for. Still, this is another great effort from Sony, and if you want a device to get beyond a day’s use on full whack, this is that device.

Final Thoughts

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This is the third Xperia Z5 smartphone I have reviewed this year, and it is undoubtedly the best yet, making it arguably the best Xperia smartphone Sony have ever made. It’s a good-looking phone, if not a little polarizing with its faux-chrome aesthetic and the minimal design is certainly tried and tested at this point, but still a winner for those that have yet to be exposed to it, or have always enjoyed it. The problem with the Xperia Z5 Premium is not that it isn’t a good phone, is that it’s just trying too hard to be an incredible phone.

The 4K display is little more than a party trick, and no matter how good it looks, that resolution is rarely achieved outside of difficult to find sample videos. It’s too much trouble than its worth, and while it’s cool to tell people you have a 4K smartphone, the same problem that 4K TVs have with a lack of content is even worse here. The fact that it runs at Full HD, instead of Quad HD is also something of a head-scratcher as well, and I have to wonder just why Sony made that decision.

With all of this said, the Xperia Z5 Premium is a sort of proof of concept from Sony, just as much as it is a chest-beater for their mobile division. The fact Sony can produce such a display in a phone is impressive, regardless of whether or not it was a good idea. It’s an excellent smartphone, with an excellent camera, great battery life and a solid all-round experience, it’s just a shame that the headlining feature simply cannot be experienced at its best right now.