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Sony Xperia Z5 review: An attractive flagship that lacks excitement

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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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