There has always been something a little special about Sony’s Xperia Z line-up. The smartphones have always exuded style, both in terms of hardware design and the work Sony has done to create an excellent and user-friendly user interface on top of Android.
With the latest incarnation in the series, the Xperia Z5, the Japanese consumer electronics giant has taken a great product and added a number of refinements that make it one of the very best smartphones available in late 2015.
In the Z5, Sony has fixed the biggest gripe we had with its predecessor, the Z3 — the need to remove a finicky flap every time you want to charge it while still retaining the device’s waterproofing.
But there’s much more that Sony has done to make the Z5 the smartphone to beat in the coming holiday season, not least its class-leading 23-megapixel primary camera.
To be honest, our love affair with the Z5 began the moment we took it out of its box. The rear of our review unit was encased in the most gorgeous colour we’ve seen on a smartphone — a deep green frosted glass. It also comes in gold, white and black, but we’d pick the green any day. Second choice? The gold — don’t worry, it’s not too bling.
Where to start this review?
Let’s begin with the design. This is where Z3 owners will notice the biggest — and arguably most important — differences.
Our biggest problem with the Z3 was the fact that you had to remove a flap to access the micro USB data and charging port. Apart from being a nuisance to have to open and close it every day to charge the phone, it was also a potential point of failure. Many Z3 owners have reported wear and tear taking its toll. One option was to cut if off with a pair of scissors, but then the phone would no longer be waterproof.
Thankfully, this has changed with the Z5. Although there’s still a flap covering the microSD card and Sim card slots, this is hardly an issue since one seldom has to access these. The microSD port has been moved to a much more sensible place, at the bottom of the phone, and it’s waterproofed internally, meaning it doesn’t require a flap.
The other big design change involves the on/off button, which now incorporates a (very good) fingerprint reader. It’s located halfway down the right side of the phone, ideally positioned for users’ thumbs. Admittedly, this is not so great for the minority of left-handed users, although they could use the middle finger on their left hands to press the button.
Unlocking the Z5 using a thumb press is simply brilliant. Hold it down for a fraction of a second and the phone unlocks. We prefer it to the iPhone’s implementation of the fingerprint reader in the home button at the bottom of the screen and expect more smartphone makers to emulate Sony’s lead here.
The Z5 has a 1080p, 5,2-inch display — the same as on the older model — delivering a 428ppi pixel density. Frankly, that’s more than enough on a screen this size. Putting a 2K screen on a 5-inch phone achieves little more than creating a bigger drain on the battery. If you insist on a higher resolution screen, then check out the Z5 Premium, launching around the end of the year — it has an insane 5,7-inch, 4K display (although it’s been reported that it’s not in 4K mode during normal operation, presumably in order to conserve power).
Battery life on the Z5 is good, although — and this is a great disappointment — it’s not as good as the Z3’s. And when using the built-in, front-facing speaker, the juice goes down noticeably quickly. Still, among high-end smartphones, the Z5’s battery drain from the non-removable 2 900mAh battery is quite respectable — it’ll get through a day’s heavy use. It’s just that it could have been better if Sony had used a slightly bigger battery.
The new Sony has all the hardware you’d expect in a high-end phone in 2015. Key specs include a Snapdragon 810 chipset with two quad-core processors (1,5GHz Cortex-A53 and 2GHz Cortex A-57) that make for an incredibly snappy Android experience. There’s an Adreno 430 GPU for games and graphics-intensive apps and the phone is powered by a generous 3GB of RAM.
Storage space of 32GB is on the low side on a modern smartphone — we’d certainly have preferred 64GB given the large images that can be taken with the phone’s excellent 23-megapixel rear camera (more on that a little later in the review). Of course, you can always plug in a microSD card, with sizes of up to 200GB supported (you read that correctly).
There’s Wi-Fi up to the speedy 802.11ac variety plus support for LTE at up to 300Mbit/s (in theory only, of course). However, we found the LTE reception to be quite a bit weaker than other smartphones in places where coverage wasn’t great (like our office).
The phone also supports three satellite navigation systems, GPS (American), Glonass (Russian) and BeiDou (Chinese). BeiDou won’t work in South Africa as it currently only covers Asia-Pacific.
Now, about that camera
The primary camera in the Xperia Z5 is something quite special. Sony’s going as far as to describe it as the best camera in a smartphone. Not only does it have a 23-megapixel sensor (up from 20 before), it is remarkably good in low-light conditions. Our test photos looked gorgeous on our 40-inch 4K Philips desktop monitor.
The speedy autofocus is what steals the show here, though. It can focus and snap a photo in just 0,03 seconds. Coupled with the optical image stabilisation, it means you’re going to get great photos more often. As long as you have the camera app already open, you have much less chance of missing that action shot. Letting it down, though, is that the app itself takes too long to start up.
The phone will let you shoot 4K video, too, though that’s only useful if you’re going to copy the footage off the phone and watch it on a 4K display. Here’s where the Z5 Premium, with its 4K display, will come into its own. The Z5 will take 1080p video at 60fps and 720p at an amazing 120fps — great if you want to create slow-motion videos.
Unlike the latest iPhones, the camera is flush with the back of the phone. One wonders why Apple coudn’t get that one right.
Is the Z5’s camera better than all other smartphone cameras on the market? We’ll leave that to the photography experts to decide. What we can say is that this is the best camera we’ve used in a Sony phone.
Lastly, the front-facing camera isn’t to be sneezed at either. It’s a 5,1-megapixel affair, which is more than enough for Skype video calls and those vanity shots for Facebook or Instagram.
The Z5 ships with Android 5.1, though Sony has promised that 6.0 (Marshmallow) will be available soon after launch — no more than a couple of months, company representatives promise.
Some reviewers have criticised Sony for bucking the trend of some of its rivals, which have started providing a more “native” Android experience, but we really like the way that the firm has chosen to skin the operating system on the Z5.
Although many of the bundled apps are undoubtedly bloatware, some of them are also quite useful.
The photo editing software is excellent, for example, and PlayStation owners will appreciate the integration with their phones.
And it’s clear that Sony has employed people on its team who have an eye for style. The software is refined in a way that its rivals in China and Korea have not been able to achieve. In fact, the subtle design touches all through the software are only matched by Apple’s iOS.
From its hardware to its software, the Z5 feels like a classy product.
The camera will attract many users to the Xperia Z5, but ultimately it’s the refinement and class that this phone exudes that will attract buyers. There’s nothing crass about it.
For the fashion conscious, it competes head-on with the latest iPhone. Happily, it also happens technically to be one of the best smartphones of this generation.
Did we mention it comes in green? — © 2015 NewsCentral Media
- The Xperia Z5 has a recommend retail price of R14 000, but shop around online for deals