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Back with a vengeance or a whimper?


Twice a year every year, Sony issues a new flagship Android smartphone. This rapid pace has propelled us from 2013’s Xperia Z to today’s Xperia Z5, across five generations of what’s been fundamentally the same formula: distinctive design, long battery life, the latest Qualcomm processor, and a great camera sensor. Every new iteration has chiseled away a few imperfections, and Sony has also brought out an Xperia Z Compact, which maintains all those flagship qualities but fits them within a smaller size. It’s a great story of gradual evolution and refinement, but if you’re in the United States, it might as well not be happening at all.

Ever since AT&T’s unhappy experience with the Xperia Ion in 2012, US carriers have been reluctant to invest much time and effort into Sony products. Even after all these years, we only get token efforts like Verizon’s Xperia Z4v, which was canceled a few days ago after a protracted delay. Sony is absent from the mainstream US smartphone market, which is a calamitous situation given the quality of its smartphones.

Last year’s Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact were among the best Android devices introduced by any manufacturer, and this year’s Z5 family promises even more. The new handsets are fully loaded with the latest technology — including a fast fingerprint sensor built into the power button — and they introduce the first new imaging sensor to the Z series since the original. Sony’s bumped the resolution up by 15 percent to 23 megapixels and is proclaiming the new Z5 camera the best mobile camera that it has ever made. Plus it’s done it without adding an unsightly camera bump like everyone else is doing this year.

Sony’s new Xperias share an almost identical spec sheet, diverging only in the dimensions of the display and the size of the battery, which is why I’m reviewing the 5.2-inch Xperia Z5 and 4.6-inch Z5 Compact together. The other member of the family is the 5.5-inch Xperia Z5 Premium, which will be available later in the year with a 4K display.

My first impressions of Sony’s new phones were overwhelmingly positive, and I doubt anyone else could react any differently. Sony has persisted with its OmniBalance design — even while endlessly tweaking the internals and the positioning of expansion ports around the sides — because it gives the company’s phones a beautiful and timeless look. One solid piece of glass on the front, one solid piece of glass on the back, and a strong metal frame holding them together. It’s simple and strikingly elegant. It’s also waterproof.

Every Xperia Z that Sony creates is a minor engineering miracle

Sony never gets enough credit for this, so I’m going to reiterate it: the Xperia Z phones are, by far, the most attractive waterproof devices out there. Whether you’re looking at the Z5 or Z5 Compact, you get a slim, efficiently made smartphone that makes no aesthetic compromises for its added water resistance. Among the biggest changes from the original Xperia Z is the fact that the headphone jack and charging port are now out in the open, no longer needing a flappy cover to ensure the phone remains waterproof. Those changes were present in 2014’s Z3 generation, but now Sony’s made another improvement by also dropping the dock connector that’s been puncturing the sides of its phones for years. Sony’s proprietary docks are expensive and rarely used, so it’s no great loss to anyone, and it gives the Z5 devices smoother sides that are friendlier to the touch.

A significant alteration to the sides of the new Xperias is in the shape of the power button, which is now oblong (rather than round) in order to accommodate the new fingerprint sensor. I initially thought that this positioning would be ideal for a fingerprint sensor, however Sony’s implementation has left me preferring the front-mounted version favored by Apple and Samsung or the rear-located option that Huawei uses on devices like the Mate S. The side is just too thin to fit a full-sized sensor into, resulting in the phone seeing only a thin sliver of my thumbprint and therefore producing a lot of failed readings. When the sensor does identify me correctly, it’s almost too fast — a complaint shared by owners of the new iPhone 6S series — unlocking the phone when all I want to do is check the lock screen notifications.

I find myself conflicted about the subtle changes in the shape of the Xperia Z5 relative to its predecessors. The Z3 had rounder, softer sides, which made it more comfortable in the hand, but also easier to mishandle. The new Z5 returns to the flatter, harder sides of earlier Z devices, and it even has a distinct edge that sticks out slightly above its rear pane of glass. I don’t know why that’s there, and I’m not a huge fan of it, but it’s true that I’ve found the Xperia Z5 easier to grip reliably, so maybe it helps in that respect. The new form of the flagship 5.2-inch device now matches up perfectly with the blocky 4.6-inch Z5 Compact, with Sony opting to make the two practically identical.

The Z5 Compact offers a truly unique combination of power and pocketability

Compared to other leading Android smartphones, the Xperia Z5 feels angular and rough. I prefer the smoother, softer shape of the Samsung Galaxy S6 or, alternatively, the more refined lines of the HTC One M9. Neither of them gives me a waterproof phone, but there’s something to be said about wanting to pick up and play with a smartphone, and Sony’s new Xperia just doesn’t do that for me. It feels too workmanlike and functional. It still looks elegant, but it doesn’t feel as pleasant as it looks. That being said, the smaller Xperia Z5 Compact has a definite advantage over all other Android smartphones, which stems from its unique combination of power and size. It has almost everything (a 1080p display would be nice) you could ask for from a modern flagship phone, but fits it into the most unobtrusive dimensions. The Compact also has thinner bezels than the regular Z5, making its compactness all the more pronounced.

Having reviewed all previous iterations in Sony’s Xperia Z line, I thought highly of their durability, however my experience with the Z5 has given me cause for concern. At some unidentifiable point during my review of the new device, I managed to crack its frosted glass back. It wasn’t due to some big drop or otherwise obvious bump. What worries me more, though, is the outpouring of stories from current and former Xperia Z owners saying that they’ve had similar problems. Cracked or shattered glass backs are actually a recurring issue with Sony’s devices, and the only reason we haven’t heard more about them, I imagine, is the relatively low sales volume of these handsets and their absence from the most demanding US market. This problem could also be part of the reason why Sony’s phones are absent from the US. A case or some other protective measure would seem advisable for future Xperia Z5 owners.

Easily Sony’s best mobile camera and one of the best on any smartphone

The big reason for why you’d want to be an Xperia Z5 owner is the camera. I’m not going to waste time with any preamble: this is easily Sony’s best mobile camera and absolutely one of the best on any smartphone. The new camera has surprised me in different ways: from its ability to focus in low light, to its image stabilization ensuring steady shots, to the quality and detail of its final output. I’m discovering intricate details like the thinnest of spider webs — unnoticeable to the naked eye — when I zoom in on the full-size 23-megapixel photos. Sony defaults to capturing 8-megapixel stills in a 16:9 format, which use the full resolution of the imaging sensor to algorithmically improve the quality and cleanliness of the final, smaller image. Basically, shoot the lower resolution for the best possible quality or the full resolution for the most pixels.

Sony Xperia Z5 camera sample photos

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Sony’s camera is supremely capable, but alas, its software is slow and unresponsive. Having a fast lens and fast autofocus doesn’t mean much when the camera app takes up to three seconds to load. Nor am I thrilled to have to wait two, three, sometimes even four seconds for the album app to let me review my photos. In the world of mobile technology, these delays are small, unforgivable eternities. I could easily see the Xperia Z5 Compact as the perfect tool for discreet photographers, combining high-powered imaging with unnoticeably small size. But when I’m stuttering around the place, waiting for my photos to show up to make sure I had the shot and framing I wanted, I find that dream unfortunately out of reach. I’m reminded of Nokia’s 808 PureView and Lumia cameraphones when using the Z5: excellent imaging, let down by sluggish software.

Sluggish software spoils the splendor

Sony was among the first companies to offer 4K video recording on its smartphones, so of course the Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact support it. 4K is still not a must-have, however, and it’s not really the reason to want to record video with the Z5. As with the new iPhone 6S, video shot with the Xperia Z5 is attractive because of the camera’s underlying strengths — its optics and image sensor — and being able to record it in 4K is just a nice bonus. The odds are good that you’ll be on your next smartphone before you have enough 4K displays around your home to justify transitioning all your movie recording to the higher resolution (and larger file sizes).

xperia z5 review

You can’t really have a good mobile camera without a good display to pair it with, and Sony’s done a decent job with the Xperia Z5 displays. I say decent, because there are a couple of foibles that left me troubled. Firstly, a distracting color shift becomes apparent when tilting the phone in any direction. This is especially noticeable with white or light sections of an image and makes the screen feel inorganic. The other issue is one of inconsistency: the Xperia Z5 Compact has a cooler color balance, making everything appear slightly bluer than on the Z5. I’m not sure that either phone nails a perfectly neutral white, but am favoring the Compact’s cooler rendering at the moment. Still, I’d have prefered a consistent, and more importantly, accurate color reproduction across two devices intended to appeal to serious mobile photography lovers.

The displays could be better, but Sony's restraint helps extend battery life

The Xperia Z5’s display has significantly better viewing angles than the Compact’s, though both perform well in terms of contrast and saturation. The resolution of both phones strikes the right balance between image sharpness, which demands more pixels, and battery life, which prefers a lighter load on the processor. 1080p at 5.2 inches, as with the Z5 and many other smartphones in its class, is the sweet spot for most people, and I see no loss in clarity or detail when moving to the lower-resolution, but also smaller Xperia Z5 Compact. Its 4.6-inch display is one of the last remaining 720p panels on the market, but there’s good reason for its existence: it gets the job done.

The similarities between Sony’s two new phones are extended by what you see when you turn them on. The interface is identical, running atop Android 5.1, and looking at them side by side actually betrays just how little benefit there is to the larger phone’s display. Whether I’m on the home screen, or in Gmail, Twitter, Slack, or any other messaging client, I usually see just as much information on the Compact handset as I do on the bigger one. If text density were as high on the larger Xperia as it is on the smaller one, I’d be able to justify the flagship Z5’s size, but as things stand, I’d readily choose the Compact over its larger sibling. I very rarely find myself lacking anything when using the Compact, and when I do — such as wanting to watch a longer video or a movie — I’m inclined to move all the way up to a tablet like the Nexus 9 rather than to another phone.

The other significant advantage of the Xperia Z5 Compact is a familiar one: battery life. This smartphone lasts for amusingly, ridiculously long stretches of time. Two days on a single charge is the norm, not the exception, and that includes me doing battery-intensive things like finding my way in the dark with the Z5 Compact’s flashlight, streaming online radio through its speakers, and photographing random things at a 23-megapixel resolution. Instead of marketing fast or wireless charging, Sony just stuck a massive (for the phone’s size) 2,700mAh battery inside the Compact and challenged everyone to try and drain it. With a larger, higher-resolution display and only slightly bigger battery (2,900mAh), the Xperia Z5 obviously can’t keep up with its smaller sibling, but it also performs well. I was able to go a day and a half with the Z5 on a consistent basis, so Sony’s established leadership in terms of smartphone battery life remains a strength. The company’s Stamina mode — which acts like the new Doze feature in Android 6.0 Marshmallow — can also help extend the battery’s usefulness by disabling background processes and turning off network connections when the phone’s not in use.

For all their power, these phones are maddeningly slow and stuttery

The launch of Android 6.0 coincided almost perfectly with the retail availability of Sony’s Xperia Z5 devices, but when the two shall meet is anyone’s guess. Sony again finds itself in the unenviable position of shipping an Android flagship without the latest software, but given how mature the operating system is, that shouldn’t preclude a fast and enjoyable user experience. After all, I’d rather have an awesomely speedy Android 5.1 than a buggy and unpolished 6.0. Regrettably, Sony has combined the worst of both worlds, delivering sluggish responsiveness on software that should really be smooth as butter by now. Google literally had an initiative called Project Butter designed to address this very issue. And yet, years later, Sony is releasing flagship devices with stuttery animations, epic app-loading delays, and a general sense of friction where there should be smooth and fluid interactions.

Android is extremely flexible and customizable, and the old terror of awful phone manufacturer skins isn’t so scary with a diversity of theming utilities like Nova Launcher available. The look of Android can always be bent to your will. The performance, however, is another matter. Unless you are well versed in the dark arts of installing custom ROMs, your experience of an Android smartphone is left entirely up to the maker of that phone. And this is where Sony failed. I can’t sugar-coat it.

Sony is selling premium, top-tier devices, powering them with a chip famous for being so powerful that it overheats, and throwing all of its engineering might behind that project. It’s still hugely impressive to think that phones as thin and as elegant as the Xperia Z5s can be both waterproof and as long-lasting as they are. But the bow that needs to be tied at the end of it all is one of integration: making the software and hardware work together in harmony and delivering an experience inside the phone that’s as attractive as the aesthetics outside the phone.

Twice a year every year, I review Sony’s new flagship Android smartphone and am left disappointed. This is the company that gave us the Walkman, the Trinitron TV, and the PlayStation, and dammit, we should have high expectations of it. The Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact do embody some of that proud legacy of innovation that defines Sony in the public eye. These new phones have excellent cameras, long battery life, and the added reassurance of being waterproof. But they also carry on many of the less positive, more recent habits developed by Sony, such as slow software development and a suboptimal user experience. I still think US carriers are wrong not to offer Sony’s phones in their stores, but today, more than ever, I can see the flaws holding them back from embracing Sony.

The Xperia Z5 is a phone without a home. It’s comfortably beaten by Samsung’s Galaxy S6, whether you’re talking design, ergonomics, performance, or price. I’d also prefer to buy an LG G4, if camera performance is paramount, or an iPhone 6 or 6S, if the fluidity of the user experience is the primary objective. The Xperia Z5 Compact, on the other hand, is truly a unique creation. It’s a tier below the typical flagship pricing, but offers better battery life than any comparable smartphone and still has that excellent camera inside it. With good software on board, this would be one of the best smartphones out there.

Instead, it’s yet another near miss from a company that used to be known for knocking things out of the park.

Verge Video: Sony Xperia Z5 hands on

The Breakdown

More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.

  • Design 7
  • Display 7
  • Camera(s) 9
  • Reception / call quality 9
  • Performance 5
  • Software 7
  • Battery life 9
  • Ecosystem 9

The Breakdown

More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.

  • Design 8
  • Display 7
  • Camera(s) 9
  • Reception / call quality 9
  • Performance 5
  • Software 7
  • Battery life 10
  • Ecosystem 9

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