Reviews

Sony Xperia 5 Review: Falls short of flagship quality

In early 2019, Sony launched the flagship Xperia 1 with a large 4K cinema-wide display. In September, it gave consumers the smaller Xperia 5.

The Xperia 5 is considered by Sony to be a flagship, and at £700 it is certainly priced like one.

The only problem is that it doesn’t really look and feel like one, and I think this is indicative of the problems Sony is facing of late.

With so much history behind the Sony name, the company naturally thinks people will pay top dollar for a phone, as if Sony is still up there with the likes of Samsung, Huawei and Apple.

Maybe I can’t see the ‘bigger picture’ but with sales in a constant state of decline, I’m quietly confident I am not the only person to hold this view.

Perhaps as I work through the phone and its features, I’ll get to see that it is worthy of such a high price and help convince you too. Or not.

Design & Build

From the second I removed the Xperia 5 from its box, I felt I was holding something you might expect from any number of Chinese manufacturers for around £200-300.

Honor, Realme, Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo.. the list goes on. They could all make a phone like this without breaking a sweat.

Everyone can build a phone with glass front and back, and bezels are always getting thinner too.

The Xperia 5 looks rather ordinary, with nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd. It’s a slippery beast too.

Low to mid-range phones are increasingly coming with near bezel-less displays, cool tech like pop-up cameras, fingerprint sensors embedded within the display, and two, three or even four cameras.

More manufacturers are realising battery life plays a big part of someone’s buying decision too, which is a memo that Sony (and Google) seem to have missed.

(In)security issues?

Years ago there was a problem relating to the use of a combined power button with integrated fingerprint sensor for Xperia models sold in the US.

It resulted in US-bound Xperia phones losing the fingerprint sensor altogether.

Later on, Sony put the sensor on the back of the phone (albeit in a silly place that resulted in the camera being touched instead).

Sony Xperia 5

It would seem Sony still has this problem, but rather make two different versions it has put the fingerprint sensor on the side once more, but with a separate power button.

It’s a rather silly bodge and leaves the right-hand side of the phone full of buttons and sensors.

That’s not to say I’m unhappy to still see the two-stage shutter release, which has adorned almost every Xperia phone over the years.

A rear-mounted sensor would have worked far better, or perhaps Sony could have invested in a display with embedded sensor.

It is a £700 phone after all.

Sony Xperia 5

Display, Audio & Internals

The Xperia 5 comes with a beautiful 6.1-inch AMOLED HDR display, with a 1080×2520 pixel resolution (449 PPI) and protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 6. On top of this comes Sony’s X-Reality Engine and Triluminous display technology.

Audio wise, the phone can play stereo sound from a base-mounted speaker and through the earpiece. It’s clear and punchy, so I have no complaints about the screen quality, or sound.

If you’re into watching movies (and Sony must think every Sony customer is) then the 21:9 ratio display is perfect for watching movies ‘as the director intended’.

For other content, cropping to fit the screen will result in the top and bottom of the video being chopped off. This applies to video and photos.

A lot of video content will be shown with large borders on the side

If you’re so into watching films then you’d probably be better off with the larger 6.5-inch 4K-resolution display on the Xperia 1. Having been on sale for longer, chances are you’ll find better deals on it too.

The size difference between the Xperia 1 and the 5 is small, which begs the question why Sony felt it needed to make this phone at all.

Sony Xperia 5
Split screen working benefits from a taller screen

In portrait mode, a taller screen brings benefits to things like web browsing or split-screen applications, but the narrow format makes it feel smaller than it is.

The reduced width also impacts on the on-screen keyboard, requiring better accuracy on your part, or a keyboard with more intelligent error correction.

The display can be further enhanced by Sony’s own software to bring the best out of whatever content you’re displaying – detecting if you’re watching video or being creative.

One other thing to mention is the ambient display mode that keeps the time and date on-screen, as well as notification icons, plus the option to show a preset graphic or any photograph from your gallery.

On the hardware side, the Xperia’s Snapdragon 855 SoC puts it up amongst the best performing handsets on sale currently (beatn only by Snapdragon 855 Plus launched on some handsets a month after this was announced).

The phone has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage (with a memory card slot), Bluetooth 5, 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, but only has Android Pie (9) installed out of the box.


Camera

The camera configuration on the Xperia 5 is a triple-camera setup with LED flash. All three cameras are 12-megapixel in resolution and made up of the following:

  1. 12-megapixel f/1.6 primary camera with 5-axis optical image stabilisation.
  2. 12-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto camera (2x zoom) with 5-axis OIS.
  3. 12-megapixel f/2.4 ultra wide-angle camera
Sony Xperia 5

On the video side, the Xperia 5 can record at 4K 30fps maximum (as well as 24fps for wannabe movie directors).

A 30fps limit might be considered a little disappointing, but manageable, but far worse is the message that comes up when you select it.

In 2019, Sony is still warning people the phone may get so hot that the app will shut down during recording (and then reassures you that the video will be safely saved, even though it might cut at a time that totally ruins your recording).

I cannot think of any other phone that still has such issues recording 4K video. Some impose a time limit, but at least that’s transparent and something you can work around with no nasty surprises.

This goes back to the era of the Xperia Z3 that used to get red hot even when doing almost nothing, making it hard to even take photos on a hot day.

That was 2014. In 2019 nobody should be seeing such messages.

It’s ironic therefore that Sony bundles various creative tools to work with video you record, including a Cinema Pro app that looks extremely professional and promises great things – but where the phone can’t match expectations.

Sony Xperia Cinema Pro
Sony Xperia 5 Cinema Pro

But let’s get back to the camera itself, and it’s here that Sony once again disappoints alongside its many counterparts using Sony cameras.

The camera interface is relatively clunky by modern standards, and hard to operate with a firm and accurate press on the screen required to change zoom level.

While I wasn’t blessed with any bright sunny days to take photos, the exposure levels were still poor even in dull, grey and cloudy environments.

The night mode is also, frankly, awful for a camera in this price range.

Many of the photos below are good, but what smartphone can’t take good photos these days?

That’s the real problem I have with this phone.

Another bugbear is that with such a wide display, the viewfinder in 4:3 or 16:9 ratio only gets to use a small part of the display, and is very small as a result.

All that emphasis on playing cinema-wide movies really impacts on so much of the phone for other day-to-day operation.


Opinion: Sony just can’t get the best from its own cameras

Sony is still struggling to get the most from its camera technology. This is a problem that goes back years, and with every new model there’s an expectation things will improve. They must, right?

Despite Sony introducing improvements on image stabilisation, and the Eye AF feature that improves focusing accuracy, the overall quality of the photos is average.

So much of the competition is using Sony sensors (2019 has been the year of the 48-megapixel IMX586 sensor), with their own lenses and image processing software built around them.

Indeed, it’s a highly successful and profitable part of Sony’s overall business and one that continues to grow.

Sadly Sony is still lacking the ability to compete with rivals who simply know how to get the most from the hardware.



Battery

When it comes to batteries on Xperia phones, there’s a long history of favouring thinness over performance.

The Xperia 5 is no exception, with a 3,140mAh battery on a phone running a flagship chipset and designed for watching films on a bright screen, recording your own cinema masterpieces (before the phone overheats), and playing games.

The battery is around 25% smaller than many rivals, and it got me seriously worried about my battery anxiety issues returning with a vengeance.

As it turns out, the battery didn’t perform as bad as I feared, but it did still drain noticeably quicker than phones with larger batteries and you’ll be lucky to get more than around 4 and a half hours of screen on time, meaning you can’t be a heavy user and expect to get away without packing a charger of some kind with you.

Compared to handsets like the Huawei P30 Pro or the Oppo Reno 2 (two handsets utilising Sony image sensors for what it’s worth), the Xperia 5 is seriously lacking.

Sony Xperia 5

Sony’s Stamina mode has existed some time and allows you to sacrifice certain features and performance to get extra time from the phone, and you can control when some power saving features kick in so you don’t need to limit yourself the whole time.

This includes things like turning off video enhancement, dynamic vibration (a feature that gives haptic feedback when watching video and playing games), background data synchronisation, as well as the ambient display (aka always-on display).

I found fewer options than on earlier Xperia models, so you cannot reduce the CPU performance, for example.

There is some level of control when playing games, with the option to limit the frame rate to no more than 40 frames-per-second.

I appreciate having control over the performance of a device, but for the most part I want to be able to use the phone without compromise, and the way to do that is pretty simple – include a decent size battery in the first place!


Final thoughts

I found it rather hard to get to like the Xperia 5, even after a couple of weeks of usage.

Pretty much the only time I appreciated the tall narrow screen was watching a film on Netflix, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t a massive percentage of the overall usage.

Most videos are 16:9 so have to be cropped quite heavily, so I am not even convinced the trade-off is worth it.

The retail price always remained in the back of my mind. It’s easy to have a review unit that I’ve not paid for and forget that this will be a significant investment for a lot of people, whether you get a free PS4 bundled or not (this along makes me wonder why Sony doesn’t just cut its pricing instead of throwing in other Sony products).

Good and bad

The screen is great. The phone is loud too. It’s fast and supports fast 4G, so the lack of 5G isn’t a massive issue.

But the camera is nothing special, and the battery is as dumb a move for Sony as the Pixel 4 series is for Google. Nobody should need to turn features off to comfortably get through a whole day.

Even the pre-installed wallpapers lack inspiration. If that sounds petty, Sony’s marketing materials all feature this drab imagery that hardly does much to promote the display.

When Sony introduced the XZ2 and XZ3, I liked the changes to the design language that seemed to be sending Sony in a new direction.

Ironically, the XZ3 had a larger capacity battery, plus wireless charging support. This is something else you’d expect on a flagship phone.

All of a sudden Sony decided 21:9 ratio displays were the future, and now we’ve now had the Xperia 1, 5 and 10 models.

I hope Sony has already worked out this isn’t working and comes up with something better in 2020.

These screen images on Sony’s marketing materials hardly inspire the imagination

The Xperia 5 isn’t a Sony TV. It isn’t PlayStation. It isn’t an Alpha camera. It’s an average smartphone not worth £700.

As a long-time Sony fan, with the privilege of reviewing the vast majority of phones released since the 1990s, I don’t write this review out of spite. Nor is it click-bait.

I write it because I don’t want to sit back and let Sony churn out more phones like this until it has no choice but to axe the smartphone division.

Sony needs to pause and look at what the competition is doing, and how they are doing things for a lot less money, before they make any more mistakes.


Opinion: Less bundles, more discounts

With Sony bundling a PlayStation 4 with FIFA 20, I have to wonder just how much profit margin Sony has to play with.

That’s perhaps why the phone is down to £549.99 for Black Friday, but even that’s too expensive.

Sony has a history of bundling other Sony products with its phones, whether a game console, headphones or even TVs.

I am convinced most people just want to pay less in the first place.

The Xperia 5 has a flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, but it doesn’t really need it. A 7-series chipset would have been ample, and allowed a lower price to boot.

Going with an AMOLED display and improved cameras is a good thing that sets it apart from the Xperia 10 series, but the Xperia 10 and Xperia 10 Plus can now be picked up for as little as £20 and £250 respectively.

There’s no way the Xperia 5 is worth £450 more.


What do you think? Have you bought or owned a recent Sony smartphone? Would you buy this or anything else Sony is making these days?

Share your thoughts below.

Sony Xperia 5

£699
6.1

Features

7.5/10

Performance

5.5/10

Camera

6.5/10

Value

5.0/10

Pros

  • Bright HDR AMOLED display perfect for movie watching
  • Feels nice in the hand
  • Nice ambient mode display option
  • Stereo audio is clear and loud

Cons

  • Very overpriced for lacklustre features
  • Battery too small for premium chipset
  • Sony just can't get the best from its own cameras
  • Messy button/sensor arrangement
  • Doesn't feel like a premium product
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