Sony Xperia Z5 U.S. review: A great camera can't save a compromised phone

Quick take

The Sony Xperia Z5 has a sleek look, designed with a metal frame and tempered fingerprint-resistant glass over the display. It delivers a decent display and a solid processor, with a battery that will definitely get you through the day. The real feature is the camera, and the ability to capture 4K video at a tap. But in the U.S. the Z5 is a lesser phone than overseas, and at its current price point is a hard sell.

The good

  • Awesome camera
  • Great battery life
  • Just updated to Marshmallow
  • Dedicated camera button

The bad

  • Feels fragile in your hand
  • Weird button placement
  • No stabilization for the camera
  • Fingerprint sensor removed

About this review

This is a review of the U.S. version of the Sony Xperia Z5 — we reviewed the European version in November 2015. I (Jen Karner) used the Sony Xperia Z5 on the T-Mobile network in Halethorpe, Md. It was used in the greater Baltimore area with good signal throughout. I was using the silver 32GB model running Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, Build 32.0.A.6.209, for a week. During the review period it was paired with a 2015 Honda Fit, and with a Samsung Gear Circle Headset.

On March 14, 2016, an over-the-air update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow was received and installed.


Lots of unrefined power

Sony Xperia Z5 Hardware

Category | Features --- | --- Display | 5.2-inch 1920x1080 IPS HD Processor | Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core 64 bit processor Storage | 32GB on device, 200GB expandable RAM | 3GB Rear Camera | 23MP with Exmor RS, Steadyshot with Intelligent Active Mode Front Camera | 5MP Speakers | S-Force Front surround Stereo speakers Waterproofing ] IP65 / IP68 dust-tight & waterproof Battery | 2900 mAh Size | 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm

154 g

The first thing you noticed when picking up the Xperia Z5 for the first time was how light and fragile it feels. Even though it's a metal frame with tempered glass, it doesn't feel solid. It's almost plastic-like. The desire to grab a case for it as soon as you pick it up is strong, more so than many other phones available right now. This 5.2-inch rectangular slab looks gorgeous when it's on the table, it just doesn't feel the same way when it's in your hand.

It's rocking a 5.2-inch 1080p IPS display that doesn't quite take up the whole front of the phone. It does the job quite well though, being easy to see in bright light, although there were some occasional issues with reflection even with the brightness jacked up to 100 percent. Indoors you get bright and vibrant colors that weren't oversaturated, which is a welcomed departure from current AMOLED experiences.

The display is surrounded by a white glass border on all sides; speaker cut outs are located at both the top and bottom of the front of the phone are small and discrete, but they definitely put out some serious sound. Some minor Sony branding sits directly over the display, flanked by the front facing camera and sensors. This is a Sony phone, instantly recognizable by the design language they've been relying on for years — even without the old round power button on the side.

There's a volume rocker, and then a dedicated camera button, all on the lower right side of the phone. The power button is flush to the phone, followed by the rocker, with the camera button at the bottom, so it's easy to navigate between your buttons by touch. However, if you're trying to use the Xperia Z5 one-handed it can be a weird stretch to try and hit the camera button. Putting that awesome camera button so far down that you can barely reach continues to be a weird choice for Sony.

You'll find a headphone jack on the top of the phone, and a micro-USB charging port at the bottom of the phone. On the upper right side is a pop-out panel for your SIM and microSD cards, along with some discrete Xperia branding near the bottom of the phone. On the back of you'll again find some fairly minimal branding with "Sony" across the middle, Xperia across the bottom. All of the branding on the Xperia Z5 is a metallic silver, and isn't actually too noticeable when you are out and about. The rear-facing camera is mounted flush to the phone on the top left.

It was strange to see that they didn't include a fingerprint sensor.

The Snapdragon 810 processor is generally able to take everything you threw at it. There was some lag initially while using Google Now, but otherwise there aren't any noticeable problems. Sony has clearly done some work to optimize this processor a little better than the early efforts with the UK release of the phone. The Xperia Z5 is also rated dust and waterproof which is a fantastic feature, especially if you've ever known the horror of dropping your phone in a pet's water bowl. Which I have, repeatedly.

It was strange however to see that they didn't include a fingerprint sensor in the U.S. model of Z5, especially since it was included in the European release. Fingerprint sensors are a nearly a must-have feature at this point, and to go out of their way to remove it from the U.S. release is just a really weird choice. Unless the fingerprint sensor wasn't working correctly, it seems counter intuitive to remove a feature that's available from their competition. The really unfortunate part is that a fingerprint sensor would have really helped to round the phone's features out a bit more, and even more so now that it's running Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

Streamlined and simple

Sony Xperia Z5 Software

This review initially started while the Xperia Z5 was running Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. But the phone received an over-the-air update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow during the review process, which was awesome to see. While running Lollipop isn't a deal-breaker for some, plenty of people want the most up-to-date software possible on their phones. Sony includes several of their own apps on the phone, most of which could be uninstalled.

Most of the software didn't exactly knock me out of the water with must-have features, but everything worked quite smoothly and without any noticeable lag. Sony's interface hasn't had any dramatic changes recently, and for the most it part stays out of the way of Google's design decisions. Since this is a Sony phone, there is an added benefit for any gamers enjoying their PlayStation 4. The Xperia Z5 comes preloaded with PlayStation Network apps, letting you access your system even when you aren't at home.

You can connect to your PS4 with remote play, see your notifications, and purchase new games.

In addition to the main PSN app, the Xperia Z5 also packs PlayStation Video and PlayStation Music. You can connect to your PlayStation 4 with remote play, see your notifications, and purchase new games. You can also see your PSN wall and notifications, amongst other things. The integration makes it easier for us console gamers to have games downloaded, even if we aren't at home or by a computer to give them a whirl. Just keep in mind that remote play is only available if you are using your phone on the same Wi-Fi network as your PlayStation 4.

While the Snapdragon 810 processor easily handled everything thrown at it performance-wise, we did notice that prolonged use made the entire phone heat up. This wasn't until we had been playing games for upwards of 40 minutes, but it got bad enough that just about anyone would have to put the phone down to rest, which was unfortunate. That said, it never actually produced an overheating alert, so the casing was doing its job in dissipating that heat. If the phone wasn't built so thin and light, it's possible the heat would never get to bother the user.


Beautiful shots day, or night

Sony Xperia Z5 camera

When it comes to the camera and its many options, it's very easy to see that this where Sony spent a lot of their energy. The focus is quick so that you can grab photos in the moment, and despite the lack of optical image stabilization you aren't likely to encounter issues getting a clear photo with the rear facing camera. Taking a steady selfie was a bigger problem, but still not unheard of considering the size of the Xperia Z5. The rear camera packs a 23MP sensor with incredibly fast autofocus, paired up with a 5MP front-facing camera for all your selfie needs.

Whether you're a casual photographer, or you like to have control over every aspect of your photos, Sony has you covered. The default mode is Superior Auto, and for all of your daylight pictures it has you covered pretty well without always delivering the absolute best photo available. Manual mode gets you access to all the bells and whistles from white balance to color saturation.

While the Xperia Z5 does have the capacity for 4K video, it isn't your default. Instead the initial default is 30fps, although you can adjust that up to 60fps from the settings. To record 4K video, you'll need to use one of the camera apps that Sony throws at you, and booting that up will warn you about overheating your phone.

4K video isn't the only app available either. There are nearly a dozen camera apps on your phone by default, covering features like AR effects and panorama shots. Each app is built around one specific feature, so they're not all really worth your time, but they can become a fun distraction. Some of them are pretty processor intensive, so they may give you heat warnings when you launch them.

Now Sony did a fair bit of boasting about this camera, and it isn't at all unwarranted. When it came to taking low light photos, the camera pulls in a surprising amount of light. It doesn't have the best low-light performance around, but it runs with the vast majority of smartphones in its capabilities there. And the photos you take won't always be particularly high quality, but when choosing between grain and blurry or no photo at all, it's easy to see which direction Sony went. The low light pictures in the gallery above were taken well after midnight on the East Coast, with next to no useful light. Obviously, these pictures weren't as crystal clear as daylight photos, but that's understandable considering the difference in available lighting. Even the front-facing camera managed to catch some decent shots in low light, which was surprising.

Just a few of the wacky one-off camera app options on the Sony Xperia Z5.

Just a few of the wacky one-off camera app options on the Sony Xperia Z5.

The photos taken in full daylight are absolutely gorgeous. They're sharp and clear without any issues of oversaturation on the display. You also have access to specific options for each mode of shooting. These include the normal bits like whether you want to activate the flash, or the resolution that you shoot in. You can also play with color levels and brightness. If you know what you're doing it's easy to get lost playing with the camera for an hour or two as you find all of its quirks and features.

This may not be the best smartphone camera out there, but it's a contender. Sony's efforts in photography have always been exceptional, and it's great to see this phone continue to reflect that.

Battery stats

Powering the workday and beyond

Sony Xperia Z5 Battery life

You can have the best camera the world, or the fastest processor, or an incredible display, but it won't make much of a difference if your battery can't go the distance. While you won't find a massive hulk of a battery inside the slim frame, it will get you where you need to go. The Xperia Z5 has a 2900 mAh battery that easily got me through the day without needing to top off or charge up. On average, this phone would get upwards of 16 hours with four or more hours of screen on time. On a day of relatively low use, that was stretched to 30 hours with no problems.

This phone also charges quickly, though not because the charger in the box supports Quick Charge. You'll need a third-party charger to get those rapid charging times, but watching the phone go from 10 percent to 70 percent in under an hour is impressive all the same.

Bottom Line

Fun, but maybe not for you

Sony Xperia Z5: Bottom line

If you've been looking for a good phone rocking a fantastic camera, then you should definitely take a look at the Sony Xperia Z5. It's got a beautiful display, a long-lasting battery, and a design that's easy on the eyes — even if it doesn't always feel solid in your hand. The processor should easily handle anything you throw at it, both today and into the future.

With a $599 price point it's getting very close to competing with the new Galaxy S7, which starts at $649, and in that contest it falls behind. It has a smaller battery, arguably not as nice of external hardware, and lacks a fingerprint sensor in the U.S., but definitely has a leg up with its tamer software. The Sony Xperia Z5 has plenty of features from a crisp display that sweet, sweet, camera to expandable storage with an SD Card, and a battery that will get you through the day.

Should you buy it

Should you buy it? Do it for the camera

As usual, it comes down to the features that matter the most to you. The processor, display, and battery are all really solid, but it's the camera that really makes the Sony Xperia Z5 worth the price. With 32GB of onboard storage, expandable storage and the fresh upgrade to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, this phone is a competitor. It's really just a give and take, what you want out of a phone versus what you're willing to sacrifice. With all of that in mind, we definitely suggest taking some time to decide what the most important features to you are.

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Jen Karner

Jen is a staff writer who spends her time researching the products you didn't know you needed. She's also a fantasy novelist and has a serious Civ VI addiction. You can follow her on Twitter.