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Sony Xperia Z5 review: An attractive flagship that lacks excitement

Sony's Xperia Z5 has decent specs for a flagship, but its familiar design means it doesn't have the excitement of its rivals.

Andrew Lanxon headshot
Andrew Lanxon
Andrew Lanxon headshot

Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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12 min read

Sony's flagship Xperia Z5 is stuffed with a lot of the top tech we expect from a high-end phone. It's got a full HD display, tons of power and a meaty 23-megapixel camera. Mix in its minimalist, waterproof design and you've got yourself the phone of the year, right?

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7.4

Sony Xperia Z5

The Good

The Sony Xperia Z5 looks good, has plenty of power, its camera can take some great snaps and it won't die when you spill your drink on it.

The Bad

Only minor updates from its predecessor means it lacks the excitement of its rivals. Its waterproofing no longer allows for full submersion, meaning it can't be used for underwater photography.

The Bottom Line

Even with strong specs befitting a high-end phone, the Sony Xperia Z5 adds little over its predecessor to make it an exciting option over rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.

Well, not quite. The mobile phone landscape has changed dramatically in the past year with Samsung really shaking things up with its Galaxy S6 Edge. By totally redesigning its flagship handset with metal and curving glass, Samsung managed to inject some much-needed excitement into its products. LG, meanwhile, made a curved phone and wrapped its devices in real leather.

By contrast, Sony is doing little to push the boat out in its flagship refreshes. The Xperia Z5 is very much a revision of last year's Xperia Z3, with an identical display, mildly tweaked key specs and a similar design. By itself that might be fine, but the Z3 was only a refresh of the Z2 before it, which itself wasn't much of a leap over the Z1. What's more, both Samsung and LG have also equipped their flagships with ultra high-definition displays -- something you won't find on the Z5. If you want that, you'll need to splash some more cash on the 4K Xperia Z5 Premium.

The Sony Xperia Z5 has a waterproof body that is ready for the rain. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's not that there's anything wrong with the Z5: It looks perfectly fine, and it's got a solid lineup of specs. But its £549 asking price puts it squarely in the elite category, right up against the Galaxy S6 Edge. For that price, "fine" just doesn't cut it. It needs to be amazing, and side-by-side against the Edge, the Z5 is not the phone I'd award the title "amazing."

The Xperia Z5 is available now in the UK for £549, and is up for preorder in Australia starting at AU$999. It'll cost $600 unlocked in the US; sales start February 7, 2016.

Design

  • 146x72x7.3mm
  • 154g

Even a passing glance at the Z5 is enough to notice it's from the same family as the Z3 and Z2. It keeps the glass front and back, with a metal edge and minimal Sony branding. Still, it shows a few small changes: the rear glass panel is frosted, which I personally prefer over the glossy panel on the previous model.

The metal edging is now flat, rather than rounded, which gives the phone a blocky look and feel. The metal edges also protrude slightly away from the glass back, making the Z5 feel slightly sharp when I held it. Whether this is an intentional move or not, I can't say, but it does give the phone an unrefined feel. At 7.3mm thick, it's a touch chubbier than some of its rivals too.

The power button also functions as a fingerprint reader. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Another tweak to the new model is the power button on the side. Sony's replaced its almost iconic sticking-out dimple of a button with a long, flat one. It's not just a cosmetic change -- the power button now functions as a fingerprint reader, and it's the first time Sony has included one on its phones.

I find its side position comfortable to use as it's where my thumb naturally sits when I hold it in my right hand. Left-handers among you may consider it less convenient, though. If it's lying flat on a table, however, it's easier to just type in the PIN -- something that's less of an issue with the iPhone's front-mounted fingerprint scanner. It's quick to set up and accurate, rarely failing to recognise my prints.

While I like the stark, minimalist approach Sony takes with its phone design, the Z5 is (as I said) very much a refresh of what we've seen before, rather than a total overhaul. It also doesn't look as luxurious a device as Samsung's curving Galaxy S6 Edge. Personal preference will no doubt come into play a lot here so I recommend going hands on in a shop before making your mind up.

The Xperia Z5 has an IP68 level of waterproofing, but Sony does not recommend dunking it fully underwater. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Waterproofing

Sony's website states that the Xperia Z5, like its predecessor, has an IP68 level of waterproofing, which technically states (again, on Sony's own website) that it's submersible in water over 1-metre in depth for 30 minutes. However the fine print on the specific product page for the Z5 says that it should not be submerged in water, unlike the Z3 and Z2 before it which were both advertised as underwater phones.

All the while, Sony has rather downplayed the significance of the waterproofing in its marketing materials for the phone. While the Z2 and Z3 were both shown plunging into water and taking photos of people in swimming pools, the Z5 is shown only in the rain -- not fully underwater.

I asked Sony to clarify and a company rep explained, "The recent changes to guidance we provide to our customers are designed to more clearly illustrate the best ways to protect devices in day-to-day usage. We communicate necessary precautions, and the specific parameters of ingress protection ratings, to help customers to protect their smartphones and tablets in line with the applicable warranty we provide. We have also recently updated our marketing visuals to better advocate sensible usage of our devices." OK, then.

The Xperia Z5 is 7.3mm thick. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

What that means for you is this phone is not for underwater use. Instead, its waterproofing is designed to keep it safe from accidentally spilled drinks and to let you take calls in the rain. It may be able to survive a drop in the toilet, but don't keep dunking it in your pint to show off to your mates in the pub. If underwater photography is your thing, you'll need to look at rugged compact cameras which can survive full submersion in the ocean for extended periods of time.

Display

  • 5.2-inches
  • Full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) resolution

The Z5's display hasn't really changed much from the older Xperia Z3. At 5.2-inches, it's the same size and it has the same full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) resolution, giving it the same pixel density. It's sharp, with fine text and clear images. Although the display looks admittedly perfectly crisp, I'd have liked to see a higher resolution panel. Both the Galaxy S6 and LG G4 (both of which can be bought for less than the Z5) have ultra HD screens, so Sony isn't doing much to keep up with its rivals here. It's the Z5 Premium that packs the 4K display, as well as an even higher price tag.

The screen has the same full HD resolution as the Xperia Z3. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Sony boasts that the display uses much of the same tech it whacks into its TVs -- the meaningless word "Triluminous" features in the Z5's marketing materials -- which is a convoluted way of saying "it looks good." To its credit, it does. Black levels are deep, resulting in rich colours with good contrast. You can tweak the colour and vibrance settings, too, if it gets a bit much.

It's a great screen for flicking through your pictures, gaming or watching Netflix at home, but it's not super-bright making outdoor use a little more difficult. Even under a cloudy Sussex sky, I found the screen to be a bit dim to read, so those of you who are lucky enough to live in perpetually sunny climates might struggle here.

Android software

  • Android 5.1 Lollipop
  • Sony custom interface

The Z5 comes with Android 5.1 Lollipop on board, which is the most recent version of Google's software that's currently available. Android 6.0 Marshmallow has recently debuted on Google's new line of Nexus phones, but as the Z5 was launched back in September, I can't expect it to have it on board already.

On its official blog, Sony confirmed that the Z5, along with the Z5 Compact and Z5 Premium, would receive the update to Marshmallow, although it gave no indication as to timings (I've asked Sony to provide more information). Yet, I wouldn't get your hopes up for it arriving any time soon however as Sony previously has been slow to update its phones -- even the flagships -- to the latest Android releases. Don't buy the Z5 if you're desperate to be among the first to play with Marshmallow. I will of course update this review when we hear any information about the Marshmallow upgrade.

The Xperia Z5 ships with Android 5.1 Lollipop, with plans to update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow in the future. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

One reason Sony takes so long to update its phones is that it heavily customises the Android interface. When a new version of Android comes along, its engineers have to work hard to apply the skin over the software. Plus each version of Android requires a whole new approach.

Sony's skin isn't too bad though, so you shouldn't be in any rush to get rid of it. It looks fairly neat, it's easy to learn, and some features like the ability to quickly arrange app icons in the app tray by most used or alphabetical order are more intuitive than some of its rivals.

There are quite a few pre-loaded apps which clutter things up, but mercifully you can uninstall most of them. I recommend a full clear out of all superfluous apps and home screen widgets before you do anything with your new phone.

Processor performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor
  • 3GB RAM

The Z5's engine is a Qualcomm 810 octa-core chip, with 3GB of RAM backing it up. It's a potent piece of silicon, but this chip has had issues with overheating in the past. Most notably on Sony's own Xperia Z3+, which I found would regularly force close apps due to increased core temperature.

Sony's Android skin looks fairly neat. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Whether by tweaking the software or simply by throttling the power of the chip, Sony has kept the 810 under control on the Z5 as I found no problems with the handset overheating. Sure, it gets a touch warm around the top of the phone (where the processor sits), but it didn't become uncomfortably hot like the Z3+ and at no point did apps force close. I received a warning when shooting 4K video that the camera app may close if it warms up too much, but even after five minutes of filming, it was working fine.

It's certainly a powerful chip as the Z5 is very smooth to use. There are no unpleasant delays when swiping around the Android interface, with apps and menus loading quickly. Gaming too is handled with aplomb with both Angry Birds 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas playing with high frame rates.

It achieved a multi core score of 2,926 on the Geekbench 3 benchmark test, putting it alongside the LG G4 (2,981), although a significant step down from the Samsung Galaxy S6 (4,608). On the 3D Mark Ice Storm: Unlimited graphics test however, the Z5 racked up a score of 26,885, putting it far above the Galaxy S6 (20,778), the LG G4 (18,611) and the Galaxy S6 Edge+ (24,737). The Z5 then is an extremely powerful device, with more than enough juice to tackle anything you'll want to throw at it.

Camera

Sony has given the Z5's camera a load of tweaks to improve it over the Z3. For one, its 1/2.3" size sensor now delivers a whopping 23-megapixel resolution. The resulting images are very large, clocking in at 5,520x4,140-pixels, and in file sizes, with most shots being around 8-10mb per image at full resolution.

The extra resolution give you some flexibility to digitally zoom into a scene or crop into an image after it's been shot, without losing too much detail. The images themselves though are no crisper than on most phones, and actually rather suffer from compression artifacts when viewed up close.

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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This shot of a country fence when viewing at full screen looks good, with plenty of detail to see what's going on.

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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test, cropped in for detail (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Zoom in, however, and fine details on the trees and on the fence are lost, making the scene look almost like a watercolour painting, rather than a photograph. You can easily crop into shots and still have them look good on Facebook, but the extra resolution here did not result in pin-sharp details.

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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Still, the camera is capable of taking some really nice shots. This colourful street scene has a great exposure balance with good contrast too.

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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The colours on these flowers and berries are rich and vibrant, and exposure has again been kept well under control.

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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

These shots of St Paul's Cathedral and a windmill are both vibrant, with natural colour tones. There's plenty of detail to make the scenes look crisp at full screen, but when you zoom in, details are again quite fuzzy.

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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test, low light (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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iPhone 6S Plus low light comparison photo (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Z5 captured a bright shot here, despite the low light conditions of the scene. Colours are accurate, as well, but the image suffers from noise, resulting in details on the petals being very fuzzy when you zoom in. By comparison, the same shot on the iPhone 6S Plus is both a touch brighter and suffers less from image noise.

The camera uses a method of focussing called phase detection, which is more commonly found on pricier DSLRs. All it really means is that the Z5's camera focusses very quickly. I found it noticeably quicker to lock on than on the Z3+, although whether it beats the LG G4, which also focusses extraordinarily quickly, I can't say. It's also accurate, which means it's a good camera for taking quick action shots.

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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The camera was able to quickly lock onto me as I jumped gracefully through the frame. As the phone remained still however, my motion has come out blurred in the image.

The camera interface is fairly straightforward to use, with the camera loading the most basic intelligent auto mode when you press and hold the shutter button. It automatically selects the best settings for the shot, but it's easy to switch into manual mode if you'd rather to take control of white balance and exposure.

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Sony Xperia Z5 camera test with an augmented reality dinosaur (click to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

You also can take advantage of a variety of other modes, like panorama, or even put a dinosaur into the scene with the augmented reality feature.

Battery life

Powering the Xperia Z5 is a 2,900mAh battery, which is a touch smaller than the Z3's battery (3,100mAh), although Sony still reckons you can squeeze up to two days from it. That's a big boast, and not one that's particularly realistic.

In our two battery rundown tests, the Z5 lasted 9 hours 36 minutes and 9 hours 49 minutes -- a bit below the Galaxy S6's 12.4 hours and far below the Motorola Moto X Play's 16 hours. Our rundown test is quite brutal however, so day to day battery life will vary depend on how demanding you are of the phone.

Sony has given the Z5's camera a load of tweaks to improve it over the Z3. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It actually holds its charge well in standby mode, so if you tend to listen to a bit of music on your morning commute, leaving it mostly untouched at work, then enjoy a podcast on the way home, you shouldn't struggle to get a day from the Z5. If, however, you keep the screen on most of the day, sending and receiving messages, streaming music and gaming then you'll probably find the juice running out some time in the evening. You'd have to be extremely careful in how you use the phone if you hope to achieve Sony's boast of two days of battery life.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia Z5 isn't a bad phone by any means, it just doesn't do much to stand out anymore. Its blocky design remains too similar to past generations to really generate much excitement, and its display and processor are pretty much unchanged from its predecessor. That Sony no longer lets you take it for a swim means the device also lost the one major feature that consistently set the Z series phones apart from its rivals -- the ability to take underwater photos.

It performs well though, wielding as it does sufficient power for intense gaming, and its camera can take some great shots. It's a decent phone all-round, but it lacks the real wow factor I expect to see on a new flagship. At a time when its main Android rival Samsung has overhauled the design of its flagship with a stunning curving glass and metal design, being simply 'fine' doesn't really cut it. This is the year that Sony needed to pull out all the stops and it just hasn't with the Z5.

I'm looking forward then to the Xperia Z5 Premium. Its larger, 4K display may not be entirely necessary for everyday tasks, but it's at least something to get a bit excited about. If you already have the Xperia Z3, the Z5 does not offer enough to justify an upgrade. I'd certainly recommend waiting to check out the Z5 Premium, but I'd also suggest looking toward the Galaxy S6 Edge or LG's leather G4 -- both of which are available for less than the Z5 and come with a long list of high-end specs.

Want to save even more money? Motorola's Moto X Play features a full HD display, a water-resistant design and a 23-megapixel camera. It runs vanilla Android too, and comes with a much lower £279 price tag. In Australia the phone is a Vodafone exclusive costing AU$5 per month on the AU$40 plan over two years, with a minimum cost of AU$1,080. The X Play does not have launch plans in the US yet, but its price coverts to about $435. While it doesn't have the same raw processing power as the Z5, it's almost half the price.

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7.4

Sony Xperia Z5

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8Camera 8Battery 7
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