Why have just one flagship when you can have two or three?

This is the situation we find ourselves in with Sony's 2015 fall line up. Making its debut at IFA this past September in Berlin we now have the Xperia Z5, the Xperia Z5 Compact and the Xperia Z5 Premium.

The Premium is still to come but the 'regular' Z5 and its smaller sibling are now available in some regions. On the face of it we're looking at yet another iterative update from Sony with a mostly similar design, similar internals and a not necessarily cheap price tag to go with it.

But the sum of the parts often outweigh the numbers on a piece of paper where it matters. Actually owning and using the phones. And with the Z5 and the Z5 Compact what we're looking at is a consistent experience across two form factors.

And so here we are. Two phones, two sizes, one review. Are either a must see or has Sony skipped a beat? There's only one way to find out.

The quick take

Here's the deal. It's so easy to want to love the Xperia Z5 in any of its forms. Sony is one of those names we want to see do well because we're all well aware of how capable it can be. It can be said that both the Z5 and the Z5 Compact are good phones, because they are. Generally. And they have very good cameras. But we're still waiting for that 'wow' factor. For Sony to do something to blow us away. Maybe that'll be the Z5 Premium, maybe it won't be.

Of the two, unless you want the larger display, the Z5 Compact is probably the one to go for. Smaller, cheaper and yet still packed with top-end hardware, Sony is catering to a market few others pay attention to.

The good

  • High-end hardware in a choice of sizes
  • Excellent camera
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Super fast fingerprint scanner
  • Dedicated camera button

The bad

  • The larger phone is awkward to hold
  • The volume button placement is just odd
  • Fingerprint scanner almost forces right handed use

About this review

This review has been written using UK retail devices of both the Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact kindly supplied by Clove and Unlocked Mobiles respectively. Both have been used on EE across both LTE and HSPA and received the latest software updates during the review period, detailed here.

You can pick up an Xperia Z5 from Clove here for £529.99 and a Z5 Compact from Unlocked Mobiles here from £414.98

Facts and figures

Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact Specs

Category Xperia Z5 Xperia Z5 Compact
Operating System Android 5.1 (Lollipop) Android 5.1 (Lollipop)
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core 64 bit processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core 64 bit processor
GPU Adreno 430 Adreno 430
Display Resolution 5.2-inch 1920x1080 resolution (428 ppi), IPS display 4.6-inch 1280x720 resolution (323 ppi), IPS display
Glass panel Chemical tempered glass + Anti-fingerprint coating Chemical tempered glass + Anti-fingerprint coating
Display Technology TRILUMINOS display with X-Reality TRILUMINOS display with X-Reality
Rear camera 23MP Exmor RS sensor
4K video
24 mm wide-angle G Lens
HDR photo and video
ISO12800 Photo / 4000 Video
SteadyShot with Intelligent Active Mode
23MP Exmor RS sensor
4K video
24 mm wide-angle G Lens
HDR photo and video
ISO12800 Photo / 4000 Video
SteadyShot with Intelligent Active Mode
Front camera 5MP Exmor R sensor
Full HD 1080p for video chat
25 mm wide-angle lens
SteadyShot with Intelligent
Active Mode
Superior Auto
5MP Exmor R sensor
Full HD 1080p for video chat
25 mm wide-angle lens
SteadyShot with Intelligent
Active Mode
Superior Auto
Storage Up to 32GB
microSD™ card, up to 200GB (SDXC supported)
Up to 32GB
microSD™ card, up to 200GB (SDXC supported)
Fingerprint sensor Side-mounted, in power key Side-mounted, in power key
Battery 2900 mAh 2700 mAh
Quick Charge Yes Yes
SIM Card Nano SIM Nano SIM
Design IP65 / IP68 dust-tight & waterproof
Capless USB
IP65 / IP68 dust-tight & waterproof
Capless USB
Networks LTE (4G), LTE Cat6, GSM GPRS/EDGE (2G), UMTS HSPA+ (3G) LTE (4G), LTE Cat6, GSM GPRS/EDGE (2G), UMTS HSPA+ (3G)
Size 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm 127 x 65 x 8.9 mm
Weight 154 g 138 g
Colors White, Graphite Black, Gold, Green White, Graphite Black, Yellow, Coral

There really, really isn't much to choose between the two. Check the link below for a brief comparison on what's actually different.

What's the difference between the Sony Xperia Z5 and Xperia Z5 Compact?

Sony Xperia Z5

Gettin' physical

Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact Hardware

That Sony makes great hardware is no secret nor surprise. It's one of the things we love the most about it and the reputation is strong. How many people would love to see Sony make a Nexus phone? So color us straight faced when saying that both the Z5 and the Z5 Compact are generally excellent.

As soon as you take either one out of the box you know you're holding a quality product. Gone is the glossy glass or plastic backs of old, replaced by a matte finish, in an understated graphite color on our review units. Not only are the Z5 phones instantly less fingerprinty on the back, they're also much more pleasant to hold in your hands. There's no slimyness as oils and moisture builds up on the rear of the phone.

Both follow Sony's Omnibalance design principles that have been around since the early days of the Xperia Z range. While it's evolved over the years you're still unmistakeably looking at a Sony smartphone. Flat front, flat back, squared off edges. On the larger Z5 the frame is metal, on the Compact it's plastic. Both subtly embossed with the Xperia logo and colored the same as the back panel.

All of the physical buttons reside on the right hand side of the phone. You've got power, volume and a dedicated camera button. Throwing it out there right now: More Android phones should have a dedicated camera button. It's fantastic. But more on that later.

Beneath the power button is where you'll find the Z5's fingerprint scanner. This is the first phone to ship with this sort of configuration (Though the Nexbit Robin will soon offer something similar). On one hand it ensures the design of the phone isn't compromised by the necessity of sticking an extra piece of hardware on it. But on the other hand Sony is practically mandating right-handed use of the phone in order to actually put it to work. Unless you have big hands or long fingers, curling around to use it with your left hand is too awkward to even think about doing.

More Android phones should have a physical camera button. It's fantastic.

Though it's less of an issue on the Compact. Because, smaller.

When you do use it though, wow. It's right up there with the best of them. It does require a button press to turn the screen on first, but after that it's so nippy you'll barely notice the lockscreen flash past. Some will prefer the single tap approach the likes of Huawei and the new Nexus phones take, but given the setup on the Z5 we're getting the best we could. It's only useful (outside the U.S.) for unlocking the phone, but as Android Pay rolls out it'll come into its own.

For more on the set up and use of the Z5 fingerprint scanner, direct your digits to the link below.

All about the Sony Xperia Z5 fingerprint scanner

Sony Xperia Z5

If there's one minor gripe it's that the power button is slightly recessed from the frame of the phone. It's not a major issue but it just feels like you're pressing further to turn the screen on. But as far as the appearance, it's probably one of the best looking power buttons you'll see anywhere. And yes, I did just say that.

It's probably one of the best looking power buttons you'll see anywhere.

Below the power button is where the volume rocker resides, just above the camera button. Again, due to the size, this isn't much of an inconvenience on the Compact. But on the larger one it's just weird. It's tough to hit with one hand unless you stretch your pinky and honestly, why not just put it where it usually goes on most other phones?

Head around the front and you're presented with one of the few differences between the Z5 and the Z5 Compact: The display.

On the Xperia Z5 you're getting a 5.2-inch 1080p panel. On the Z5 Compact that shrinks to 4.6-inches and 720p resolution. And there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. Both pack the Triluminos technology and X Reality for mobile. What that means in non-jargon is that they look good. Both panels are a pleasure to look at. Just be prepared to smear them both with your fingerprints.

For while the rear of the new phones remains smudge free the front isn't so fortunate. And on the larger Z5, the gap along the top of the display is a serious magnet for pocket lint. The earpiece runs along the very edge but for whatever reason there's a sizeable gap between the glass and the frame. And it'll fill up nice and fast. Thankfully the Z5 Compact isn't the same.

Oh, and Sony still likes its screen protectors. Though fortunately it isn't pre-installed on the phone, and is instead in the box. Where it stayed.

Does the Xperia Z5 get hot? Yes. Well, warm.

All that's on the outside, of course. Inside both the Z5 and the Z5 Compact are packing the best of the best. The Compact has a slightly smaller battery and 1GB less RAM but both boast Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 CPU and an Adreno 430 GPU. And immediately some of the more savvy will hear the alarm bells ringing in their heads. It's fair to say the Snapdragon 810 hasn't been the most well received high-end CPU Qualcomm ever released.

So, does the Xperia Z5 get hot? Yes. Yes it does. Well, warm, maybe. But compared to its predecessor it's not quite so serious. Some things will still present an on screen message warning that apps will shut down if the heat rises too much, and shooting 4K video is one of them.

This is where things get more complicated. There's a good argument to say that this just shouldn't be a thing. If you're including a feature on a phone that makes the damn thing overheat to these levels, why is it a feature? 4K video shooting might not be on everyone's to-do list, but it's a feature on the phone so people will, and should be able to use it.

The heat takes a while to get too much during 4K video at least, and depending on the task you'll get a varying acceleration of temperature. Start streaming a game to Twitch and you'll feel it very quickly, albeit not to the point where it's literally too hot to handle.

The Z5 seems to be better equipped to deal with the heat than its predecessor. It's still and issue, and an unwelcome one, but it's not as bad as it could have been. It takes a fair amount to get it to properly overheat and most of the time it's what you'd call "a bit toasty." Maybe don't shoot 4K video while you're roaming, though. I speak from experience.

Does the Xperia Z5 get too hot?

The previous Sony Xperia, the Z3+, also packed a Snapdragon 810 CPU and overheating was something of a problem. To see if things were improved for the Z5 we broke out a thermometer and got to work.

From what we can see, most of the time both the Z5 and Z5 Compact are running on five of eight cores. When things get warmer that drops down to four. Performance is generally good, though. Occasionally you'll run into some janky, laggy moments, but most of the time it seems fast and smooth.

We're dealing with the highest end internals available so it shouldn't come as any surprise. Whatever you throw at the Z5 it'll handle, including the latest, most graphically intense games. And you can stream those to Twitch as well, if you so wish.

Minor annoyances aside it's another case of sound hardware from Sony. Both are nice phones, but it would be nice, one day, to see something new on the design front. We've had the same basic look for a few years now. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's lacking a "wow" factor. And that stupid flap to cover the SIM tray. Seriously, don't open it much. Just feels like it's ready to snap off every time you do.

Sony Xperia Z5

More of the same

Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact Software

If we'd say Sony is just iterating on the hardware, we'd have to say the same on the software. But that's really not a bad thing. As far as manufacturers' takes on Android, Sony's is one of the better ones. That wasn't always the case but we're now at a point in time where it's very pleasant to use on a daily basis in the form it comes out of the box. If you went back and read our review of the Xperia Z3+ you'd find most of the words applicable here.

You've got a mixture of regular Lollipop elements, like the notification shade and the task switcher, blended together seamlessly with Sony's launcher and custom applications. Speaking of, many of the pre-loaded applications, or bloat as we often refer to them, can be removed really easily. PlayStation fans are well catered for and naturally Sony has preloaded its own music and video services, too.

Uninstall (nearly) all the bloat you want

You can still alter the size of the icons on the home screen and still theme things up as wild as you like with a selection available out of the box and a bunch more available through the Play Store. If you sign in to the Xperia Lounge app on the phone (Sony's exclusive content offers app) you'll also get special ones highlighted from time to time. Like the theme recently based upon the Until Dawn PS4 game. Plenty to choose from.

Underneath it's now based on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, and Sony has already been pretty forthcoming with plans to update it to Android 6.0 Marshmallow. We've no idea when that'll happen, but with trials taking place already we've good reason to hope the wait won't be too long. As with its predecessor, Sony has done a good job at the design work on its own apps, with a 'Material-ish' feel all round with that unmistakable Sony hint.

A few other quick takes:

  • The small apps we've seen before on previous Xperias make a return for the Z5. And they still reside at the bottom of the task switching window taking up too much space. But a few of them are pretty useful so they're also worth checking out.
  • There are a few ways to take screenshots on the Xperia Z5. Given the button placement on the phone the most accessible is to hold down the power button as if you were turning the phone off, then hitting the screenshot option when it pops up in the box.
  • As well as screenshots you can also record your screen. Quick access is available by holding down the power button until you see the box appear on screen with the option you seek.
  • You can do more than just record your screen as well. If you're into gaming you can broadcast to Twitch and YouTube without the need for any third-party apps. More on that here
  • The fingerprint scanner itself may be lightning fast, but setting it up certainly is not. Expect to have to touch the sensor anything up to 18 times to fully register a print. Compare that to half a dozen on the new Nexus phones and others like the Huawei Mate S. Not a deal breaker by any means but still frustrating.

Slight frustrations from the Z3+ carry over here, too. Like the cobbled together feel of the dialler app. But on the whole what Sony has is a visually appealing user interface that keeps just enough of Google around for Android purists, while keeping it bright and friendly for the more casual buyers.

Sony Xperia Z5

So. Many. Pixels.

Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact Cameras

Until the Xperia Z5, Sony has been using the same camera sensor for a while on its top end phones. This time out there's finally a change and we're up to 23MP sitting behind Sony's customary G Lens. And some big claims come with it. But here's the kicker. There's still no OIS. And in the current market we'd hope to see it in a flagship smartphone.

Actually, hope isn't strong enough in this case. Sony also makes cameras. Pretty damn good cameras. The Xperia Z5 should definitely have OIS. LG has it in the G4 and Samsung has it in the Note 5 and Galaxy S6. And that's the competition right now when it comes to Android. Apple also includes it on the iPhone 6S Plus if you're also tallying up competing platforms. Even Microsoft on its forthcoming high-end Lumias. You probably see where I'm going.

The Xperia Z5 should definitely have OIS

It's hard to take Sony completely seriously when you see advertising boasting of the camera prowess when it's missing a feature that you'd now start to expect a high-end phone to have.

Anyway, enough complaining about what we don't get. How good actually is what we do get? Very. Well, most of the time.

Sony Xperia Z5 camera tips and tricks

If you're looking for a few quick tips and tricks to get yourself up and running with the camera on your new Xperia Z5, you're in luck. We've pulled together a quick five to get you going in the right direction.

Sony still provides the default shooting mode as 8MP, oversampled images from that 23MP sensor. What you get from this is better capacity to zoom in and not lose details as well as create clearer, less noisy images all round. Slap it in Superior Auto and just snap away and you'll be pretty happy. When you're in more challenging lighting situations though you'll probably notice some blurry spots around the edges of features. Over exposure problems in bright daylight don't seem as much of an issue as they have been on past phones but it's still too easy to come away with a washed out look in an overcast scene.

Superior Auto still does an excellent job though of trying to match the scene and shoot with the right presets accordingly. Though document does come up a little too often when you're not shooting documents for some reason. If you want a little more creative control you have Manual mode available and the decision to go up to the full 23MP resolution images.

Sony's camera app still has its different mini-apps available, with more on offer from Google Play to expand your experience even further. These include 4K video and a bunch of AR effects. But seriously, don't use the AR effects. It might be fun to see little cutesy characters spread themselves all over the scene in front of you but the punishing truth is that its a dog. The phone will slow up ridiculously, start to get warm and, well it's just not worth it.

The same could be said of 4K video as well. While the phone won't spontaneously combust in your hands it will start to warm up. More importantly your battery will drain much faster than the temperature will rise. Just ask yourself, do you really need those pixels? If yes, then go for it and be happy. The quality seems pretty good. I say seems, because I don't have any equipment on hand capable of viewing at 4K resolution.

It's probably a better feature on the forthcoming Xperia Z5 Premium. Because you can actually view the content as it should be viewed.

Sony Xperia Z5

More like one full day

Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact Battery life

While Sony used to be all about actual two day battery life, truth now is it's about up to two day battery life. In truth you should comfortably make it through a day so long as you stay away from things like 4K video and streaming to Twitch. Expect around 4 hours screen on time in that, maybe more depending on your use, which isn't horrible.

The Compact is the stronger of the two phones, though. The battery isn't much smaller than that on the bigger phone and with only a 4.6-inch 720p display to light things just don't suck as much juice. If you're looking for longevity it edges out its bigger brother.

Screen on time and how long the phone has been awake is all well and good, but it also doesn't translate that well into real world use. There's nothing really wrong with the battery life on either of these two phones, considering how much hardware is squeezed into a slim or small package depending which you're looking at.

If you're looking for longevity, the Compact edges out its bigger brother

What's more exciting is all the good stuff Sony includes to help you maximize your time away from an outlet. The first of those is Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0 for super speedy top-ups. You'll have to pony up for a compatible charger, though frankly any high output one should do the trick. I've been using both phones with an Anker 5 USB charging brick at home and both have charged up in what I'd call "damn fast" time. An extra bonus is that if you pick up a QuickCharge compatible external battery pack you can take those super speedy top ups on the go with you. Check out some of our favorites here.

On the software front Sony has brought Stamina mode back for the Xperia Z5 phones. It's with this that they're putting some credence behind that "up to two day" battery life claim. In short it has a series of user defined presets that will change how your phone behaves while away from the charger. But the truth seems more that you can comfortably make it through even a tough day of use before you'll need to charge up at night. Getting to two days will require compromise on your part. And you shouldn't really have to do that.

But sadly compromise is something we've had to do just by picking the phone up. Sony was the battery life champ of old, packing big batteries and proper two day life into its high end phones. In the fashionable pursuit of slimmer devices with bigger displays something has to give. It's just a shame it's the battery that has to make way.

Sony Xperia Z5

Wrapping up

Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact Bottom line

If you're in that upgrade cycle where it's been a couple of years since your last new Xperia phone, the Z5 or Z5 Compact will be a worthy upgrade. Sure, there are frustrations aplenty throughout the hardware and software, but there's nothing inherently wrong with either of them. The Omnibalance based design has been refined over each generation of new phone and the Z5 is the best example yet. The Z5 is a handsome phone. But I'd be lying if I didn't say the lack of anything truly new on this front disappoints.

And that's probably where the conclusion finds itself. Neither of these two phones presents a real wow factor. They're very good, but very good doesn't cut it anymore. With such competition as the Galaxy S6 and Note 5, LG G4, the new Huawei Nexus 6P and an increasingly strong mid-range category, Sony's in a tough place to sell phones. Serious photogs will lament the lack of OIS, others the downturn in battery life over past devices.

But all that aside, Sony has done a good job. Over the course of this review the Xperia Z5 grew on me. I'm not afraid to admit my first few days out of the box with it were filled with frustrated cries to Alex Dobie, our regular Sony expert. If you want a high-end Android phone, sure, consider the Xperia Z5 or Z5 Compact when making your decision. Not perfect, but given what they've done with what they had to work with, it's a job well done.

Should you buy the Xperia Z5? Go for the Compact

Sony continues to cater to a market that other manufacturers ignore. If you want a high end phone without a large display and the form factor to go with it, you go Sony. And if you're interested in an Xperia Z5 at all, the Compact is the one to go for. It's cheaper while offering the same experience as the larger phone in a package that's virtually identical. Just smaller.

You should ask yourself how important the extra half an inch of display really is. In the UK it translates to around £100. That's a lot extra to pay for basically the same phone.

The Z5 Compact carries on the tradition of being one of our favorite phones. Just because it exists. It has its flaws, but we're better off for it existing.