Featured Review: Sony Xperia Z5

For some time now, Sony have been producing Android smartphones that represent the best of Sony under the Xperia Z name and the Xperia Z5 is their latest. Following the same underlying design language that we've become used to since 2012's original Xperia Z, the Xperia Z5 is packed full of features, specs and a decent overall experience. These are things that can be said of every Xperia Z smartphone for the past couple of years, and considering Sony ends up releasing two of these every year, it's easy to get these mixed up. With few changes since the Xperia Z3+, and perhaps even 2014's Xperia Z3, have Sony created yet another compelling smartphone for those looking for an excellent all-round experience, or is just more of the same? Does a fingerprint sensor and a slightly improved camera make for a genuine upgrade this time around? Let's find out.

Specs

Running the show inside of the Xperia Z5 is a Snapdragon 810, the very same octa-core CPU found in the Xperia Z3+ and many other flagships from 2015. It's backed up by 3GB of RAM and keeping everything chugging is a 2,900 mAh battery and Sony is once again claiming a two-day battery life. There's a 5.2-inch Full HD display (that's 1902 x 1080) and the device measures 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm (5.75 x 2.83 x 0.29 in) and weighs in at 154g (5.4 Oz). NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, GLONASS and all the usual suspects are account for here, as is WiFi 802.11/n/ac in single and dual-band flavors. As for the cameras here, this is where the Xperia Z5 excels, with its rear-facing camera coming in at 23-megapixels with an aperture of f/2.0 and the ability to record 4K at 30fps, Full HD at 60fps and 720p HD at 120fps. Around the front is a 5.1-megapixel camera which is also capable of 1080p video. This is not a USB Type-C smartphone, and instead sports a MicroUSB 2.0 port that supports Qualcomm's QuickCharge 2.0 as well.

As an added bonus, and a trademark of Sony's Xperia Z line, the Z5 is IP68 water-resistant. Sony is calling this "waterproof" but the two terms get mixed up a lot. Long story short, the Xperia Z5 is not afraid to get wet and it can be submerged in shallow water for roughly 20 - 30 minutes or so. It is not invincible however. It's also got an IP65 rating for dust protection, which should mean trips to the beach won't faze this smartphone one bit.

Display


The 5.2-inch display used here is yet another Full HD affair at 1920 x 1080, which gives the Xperia Z5 a pixel density of 417 pixels per inch. While this is dense enough for the majority of users, it would have been nice to see Sony finally embrace a Quad HD display such as Samsung and LG have been doing for a couple of years now. Sony would of course like me to tell you that the Xperia Z5 Premium has a 4K display, and indeed it does, but that's not the point. Regardless of the yesteryear spec where resolution is concerned, this is an excellent display. In terms of viewing angles, there's nothing at all to complain about here. Brightness is good, and while it could be a little brighter at times, the display never feels washed out.

Color reproduction is accurate, with just a little hint of 'fun' in there as well. It's the kind of accurate that you really want in a display like this. Black text on white backgrounds is glorious to read, and where a color is definitely saturated in its source, it's represented here well, and when it's not it's just reproduced clearly and pleasantly. Looking through my photo library, many of which are taken with my Fujifilm X30 using film simulation, I can see the green colors which are often oversaturated are oversaturated on the Z5's display. Elsewhere however, and everything is as it should be.

Refresh rate is just fine, 60fps videos on YouTube of gameplay was smooth and watching movie trailers and video in general on this is a real joy. Nothing is overblown and if you just want a display that is honest, without boring then this is a good option for you. Another highpoint here is just how close the Xperia Z5's display feels to your fingers when in use. This is one of the better touchscreen experiences I've had from Sony, and it really makes this is a nice experience for reading lots of text or playing games.

It might be 'just' a 1080p display, but the Xperia Z5 has an excellent look and feel to it, and it should please the vast majority of users looking for an accurate, yet fun smartphone display.

Design and Build

It's 2015 and this is the 11th Xperia Z smartphone (counting Compact and Premium options) that has sported this same design. That statement isn't entirely fair to Sony, as they've changed and refined things a little over the years, and the Xperia Z5 is now a frosted affair, rather than a glossy one as per the Xperia Z3+, Xperia Z3 and Xperia Z2. Make no mistake though, this will be familiar to anyone that has ever held or owned an Xperia Z smartphone, whether or not that's a bad thing is up to you, we suppose.

Taking the Xperia Z5 as its own phone however, and it's easy to say this is an elegant and clean piece of hardware. With nothing but the microSD and SIM card slot on the left-hand side, a headphone jack at the top, microUSB at the bottom and all the other buttons on the right-hand side everything has it's place here. Speacking of placement, I do wish they hadn't moved the volume rocker as they have done, as it now sits quite a bit below the power button (which now doubles as a fingerprint sensor) and it just feels unnatural to crook your thumb so much to change the volume when the rest of the phone feels so nice in your hand. The camera button is still here, and I have no idea why more manufacturers don't put these into their devices as this changes the whole experience of taking photos a whole lot more than you'd think.

The Xperia Z5 is light (much lighter in the hand than previous versions) and comfortable to hold. The design is a sort of mix of the Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z3 designs, where the speakers are now set further back into the edges of the phone, and while the sides of the device are still rounded, they're more square than they were on the Xperia Z3. Despite being water-resistant, there is just one flap here, covering the microSD and SIMcard slots, with the headphone jack and microUSB port exposed. This is a big deal, as it means the Xperia Z5 feels and behaves like any other phone, despite being able to withstand an attack from a spilt drink.

Personally, I enjoy the frosted back of the green version we were sent from Sony, and it feels very nice in the hand. Bottom line, the Xperia Z line is still a little large for a 5.2-inch smartphone, but it's not as bad as it used to be, and for those looking for a classy, understated smartphone this is the sort of design that will suit them nicely.

Camera

Sony have been shipping sensors in their Xperia Z line of devices with 20+ megapixel resolutions for some time now, and the Xperia Z5 is its first real upgrade in 3 years. The 23-megapixel rear-facing camera here is an excellent inclusion, and if you're a little patient with it, you can get some excellent shots with it. Where I am in Middle England, the weather has been pretty horrible during my testing of this, so I had to deal with a Wet English Autumn (sorry, Fall) to put the Z5 through its paces. If I had to sum it up in a few words it would be this; don't use Intelligent Auto.

I'm not sure what it is with Intelligent Auto and Sony Xperia smartphones, but it constantly wants to wash everything out, and just generally throw away detail. This isn't the case all of the time however, it's pretty good for occasional shots, but in general it's more of a hinderance than it is a help, which is a shame. Using the Manual mode however, allows you to change the exposure up or down and it makes a massive, massive difference in terms of overall quality. A lot of the time you might end up with a 'darker' image, but there's more detail to work with, and it's always easy to add light to a photo after the fact than it is to take it away. The interface here is pretty simple and easy to use, for the most part.

Changing settings such as these and the scene mode is all nice and easy, and I absolute love the camera button. Seriously, other manufacturers should take note, having a two-step (yes, two-step) camera button on a smartphone with this good a sensor makes it feel like a camera first and a phone second. Unless of course, you have a secure lock method, that is. You see, if you take advantage of that fingerprint sensor - and why wouldn't you - you can still press and hold the camera button when locked to take a photo quickly, but should you want to change modes you are greeted with this:

This makes no sense. At all. If this really is a security measure (which it isn't, because you have to unlock the phone should you want to go home or whatever) then what is it Sony is protecting? I can still take a photo, the only difference here would be that I could take a better photo of something the phone is going to let me take a photo of.

Nevertheless, the Xperia Z5 has an excellent camera, The Intelligent Auto mode is still infuriatingly backward as every "scene" it selects seems to overexpose for no apparent reason, but if you change just one or two settings you can end up with images that rival a mid-tier point and shoot camera. Low-light performance is fine as well, but there is noise to be had, as any small sensor will produce. Macro performance is pleasant and despite little to no improvements to the overall UI or software performance from last year's Xperia Z3, this is easily one of the best cameras found in any 2015 smartphone. We'll let the camera samples speak for themselves in the below Flickr gallery.

Performance and Memory

As we covered in the specs part of the review the Xperia Z5 is packing a Snapdragon 810 clocked at around 1.56 Ghz (according to CPU-Z) with 3GB of RAM. Now, despite all the hoo-ha about the Snapdragon 810 not being that good a processor, any octa-core CPU using a 64-bit ARM design is going to be at least half-decent.

And so it is in the Xperia Z5, everything runs well here, and everyday performance is excellent. Swapping between apps is smooth and snappy, browsing the web is a joy and touch response is excellent. When connected to a decent network, the Xperia Z5 is just speedy all round, and as usual with a Sony smartphone, the Xperia Z5 is super-stable as well. I never experienced a single crash or lockup during my testing and I never experienced the big chug that other Snapdragon 810 and 808 devices suffer after having a lot apps open for a long time.

Now, as for gaming, I fired up my go-to game, Colin McCrae Rally and it performed wonderfully. Granted, this is an older game and the graphics aren't all that taxing, but I know the game well and it represents a nice midpoint between high-end and casual 3D gaming. It sounded great, touch response was excellent and the frame rate was high and consistent throughout. The same can be said for Modern Combat 5, the graphically-intensive game ran just great on the Xperia Z5, and there were no slowdowns or signs that the phone was struggling.

Network performance was similarly good, and as long as you have an okay or better signal the Xperia Z5 churns through megabytes with no issue at all. Pages load quickly, apps and games appeared from the Play Store in no time, and YouTube videos loaded quickly as well.

Benchmarks

We covered how well the Xperia Z5 performs day-to-day and in games in the section above, but for those that want to see hard figures, we have put the Xperia Z5 through some benchmarks. Scores here are basically inline with what we'd have expected from other Snapdragon 810 devices, and it scored favorably compared to the latest devices such as the Galaxy Note 5 and others.

Call and Sound Quality

As we've come to expect from a brand like Sony, the Xperia Z5 sounds great when on a call. Callers told me that I seemed clear and crisp and there was little background noise to be heard, even when I had some music or the TV on. On my end, callers sounded warm and nautral, and even though GSM calls leave something to be desired these days, they sounded good even over 2G with the Xperia Z5. WiFi calling was much, much better of course, and usiong WhatsApp I felt this was a much better way to enjoy a quick call with the Xperia Z5. As for LTE and 3G coverage, you can take a look at the full list of bands it supports in our detailed specs post, but this is a GSM phone and the majority of users will be to take full advantage of the phone.

As for sound quality when listening to music, Sony have another winner on their hands. I mostly spent time listening to Tidal's Lossless HiFi Quality with the Xperia Z5, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Throw in a decent pair of headphones, and this is a real treat to your ears. Out-of-the-box everything sounds warm, yet neutral. Everything is represented as it should be, but the sound doesn't come across as clinical or dry.

Head on over to the 'Sound Effects' menu and you'll find a five-band equalizer that's great for adjusting the sound. There are a number of presets here, but a five-band equalizer is pretty easy to figure out on your own, low is bass and high is treble, giving you a lot of freedom to create your own sound. The Clear Bass effect however, is amazing. For those times when you just wish there was a little more bass, but you don't want to mess up the overall sound, this is the setting for that. It creates tight and pleasant bass, rather than the muddy and boomy bass that other such settings can inevitably end up creating.

The Xperia Z5 is a great phone for music fans, even DSEE HX which can upscale MP4 to 24-bit Hi-Res audio is worth trying out. The adjustments and effects are system-wide and they genuinely make a welcome difference, rather than striving for gimmick status.

Battery Life

One aspect of Sony Xperia Z smartphones that continues to impress is battery life. In the interest of fairness, we put the Xperia Z5 through the same PCMark Battery Benchmark as we do with a lot of other phones and it scored little shy than 5 Hours. of course, this is from 100% to 20% running the same video over and over, so it's not an exact test of everyday workload. As with other Sony devices however, the software here just sips away at battery life, and idea time is excellent, you can leave this overnight without charging and wake up with very little drain at all. This will definitely get the vast majority of users through day or so plus, but whether or not it will reach two days is down to the user, ultimately.

Fingerprint Sensor

The fingerprint sensor in the Xperia Z5 is perhaps the best and most subtle fingerprint reader we've seen all year. Where Samsung devices already had a fingerprint sensor that pulled double-duty as a home button, devices like the HTC One A9, OnePlus Two and new Nexus phones had to add more to the design. Here, Sony have simply swapped out there power button for a button come fingerprint reader. It works really well, it's in just the right position for your right thumb, and it's extremely accurate and quick. Setting it up is really nice and easy, although the prompts could be a little more interesting.

All-in-all, this is a valuable introduction to the Xperia Z line, it doesn't get in the way of your overall experience, and does exactly what it was designed to do. The "clickiness" of the unit I have isn't the most reassuring of clicks, but it seems sturdy nonetheless. Quick, easy to use, there's not much else to say here, it's exactly what a fingerprint sensor should be and it's in one of the most obvious and natural places you'd want it.

Software

Following on from the fingerprint sensor, the rest of the software on the Xperia Z5 is pleasantly subtle and simple. Even more so than before, the Xperia Z5, which is running on Android 5.1.1 by the way, feels like a themed version of stock Android. In reality, the only things Sony have changed is the launcher - which still behaves much like the stock Google launcher - some coloring here and there and the icons used throughout the system. Other than that however, this is as close to Google's vision for Android as you can get outside of Nexus and Motorola land. It's a refreshing take on things, and the screenshots below should serve as an example of how the overall system looks and feels on the Xperia Z5.

It is refreshing to write a phone review from a manufacturer that isn't Motorola that gets Android doesn't need to be messed with. You can install themes and play around with the overall look and feel of the Z5, and there's some excellent inclusions like the sound settings covered above.

Final Thoughts

It's 2015 and this is the same style and design of smartphone that Sony have been calling the Xperia Z for three years now. Is that a bad thing? Well, that's up to you. When Samsung, LG and Motorola are offering up compelling upgrades with new and improved hardware, rather than just iterating on previous smartphones however, it does make this design and feature set feel tired. This is so similar to last year's Xperia Z3 for instance that it is difficult to recommend this as an upgrade, the same can be said of the Xperia Z2. Consider the gap from the Galaxy S5 to Galaxy S6 and it's easy to think that Sony have been resting on their laurels.

Take the Xperia Z5 as its own phone however, without comparing it to previous versions, and you have an excellent smartphone to close out 2015 with. Yes, the screen could be higher-resolution, but it still looks great and the camera experience here is excellent. The fingerprint sensor is the most thoughtful implementation I've seen in a device this year, and it feels great in the hand. An elegant piece of hardware with great battery life and an excellent camera, the Xperia Z5 is a good phone. Compared to how the rest of the pack have evolved over the past 12 - 18 months however, and it's clear Sony is still in need of some fresh blood where their mobile offerings are concerned. For now though, this represents the absolute best Xperia Z smartphone so far, and even though it's taken them countless versions before it, the Xperia Z5 has the best elements of Sony's brand rolled into one smartphone.

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About the Author
2015/07/IMG_20140924_130551.jpg

Tom Dawson

Former Editor-in-Chief
For years now I've had a heavy interest in technology, growing up with 8-bit computers and gaming consoles has fed into an addiction to everything that beeps. Android saved me from the boredom of iOS years ago and I love watching the platform grow. As an avid reader and writer nothing pleases me more than to write about the exciting world of Android, Google and mobile technology as a whole.