Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review: a 4K display to brag about
We spent quite some time thinking before sitting down to build this review: what’s the reason behind the Xperia Z5’s existence, since it packs the exact same internals as the Z3+/Z4 before it? Aside from the fingerprint scanner embedded in the side-mounted button and a slightly improved camera (on paper), we couldn’t find any. Well, maybe a better take on the Snapdragon 810, which managed to heat up the Z3+/Z4 pretty badly (it manages, to a certain degree, to do the same inside the Z5 Premium too. More on this later).
Luckily, this isn’t the Xperia Z5 review, as we’re looking at the Xperia Z5 Premium, and, in this case, it is somewhat easier. Yes, it packs the same internals as the Z5 (and the Z3+/Z4), but in the Premium’s case, there’s a 4K display –the world’s first on a smartphone– as well as a form factor that Sony so dearly missed. It’s the largest Sony Xperia to date, if you don’t count the now-extinct 6.4-inch Xperia Z Ultra.
But 4K on a smartphone isn’t as simple as the headline (or the company’s marketing) makes it look. Sony’s asking a pretty hefty sum for this phone compared to the rest of the line-up. So is the Premium worth the premium? That’s what we’re here to find out, in our Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review.
Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance
When it comes to the looks of the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium, this story, too, has two sides. It’s the same design philosophy that’s led to every Sony Xperia since the original Xperia Z. OmniBalance is what Sony’s been calling it, with an aluminum frame and chassis sandwiched between glass on the front and back. Whether you like it or not is totally up to you and your personal taste, but this is what defines Sony’s smartphones. Of course, it has slightly evolved to accommodate some of the new features, like the embedded fingerprint scanner and the reinforced corners, but you can instantly recognise it as a Sony phone, and that’s not a bad thing after all.
Just like previous Xperia Z phones, the Z5 Premium is rated IP 65/68, making it waterproof and dust tight. However, this time around, this particular specification is not being called out on the box itself, and a nasty Sony disclaimer makes you think twice before taking the phone for a swim (something you didn’t care about with previous models): “You should not: put the device completely underwater; or expose it to seawater, salt water, chlorinated water or liquids such as drinks. Abuse and improper use of device will invalidate warranty”.
Build quality and materials are top notch, as you’d expect. The phone feels incredibly good in the hand, despite its rather large dimensions. Measuring 154.4 x 76.0 x 7.8 mm and 181 grams, it is comparable with the Samsung Galaxy Note5 in almost every aspect, give or take a millimeter and 10 grams in its favor.
Being an all-glass phone on the front and back has its downsides though. Aside from an elevated risk of breaking should you drop it on concrete, asphalt or tile, it is slippery. It will slip or move on most surfaces you’re going to place it on, and it will be slippery in your hands as well, despite Sony’s attempt to sharpen its far edges for a better grip.
As opposed to the other phones in the Z5 family, which are matte, the Z5 Premium has a shiny/glossy finish on the back. It looks good, especially the signature chrome/mirror version seen in this review – but if you want to keep it looking good you’ll have to clean it very often.
The world’s first 4K display on a smartphone dominates most of the device’s front, with the signature thick bezels at the top and bottom, and not the thinnest side bezels on a 2015 smartphone. Measuring 5.5-inches in diagonal, this 4K UHD screen has a resolution of 3840×2160 and a resulting insane 806PPI resolution. The panel utilizes Sony’s TRILUMINOS technology, in addition to other image enhancing engines like X-Reality for mobile, and Sony’s Dynamic Contrast Enhancer.
If you can’t get used to the slightly cool color temperature, you can always tweak it from the settings. The panel is bright enough (and is capable of being dim enough) to accommodate most user needs, and side-angle visibility is top notch. While the panel doesn’t display any color distortion when viewed from an acute angle, it loses some of its brightness, but that’s no deal-breaker. Colors are vivid, blacks are deep, and the X-Reality engine does a great job at constantly adjusting both of these attributes on the fly, in addition to applying scene-dependent sharpening.
But what about that 4K resolution? The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium is a 4K smartphone … but not really. Whether it’s because the lack of 4K support in the Android 5.1.1 Lollipop version that’s powering the phone, Sony’s decision to conserve battery life, or both, the Z5 Premium barely runs in native 4K resolution. According to Sony itself, the company’s Movie and Album applications are the only ones that trigger 4K resolution (sometimes upscaled), for displaying high-resolution pictures, or 4K content that’s either been shot with the device itself or side loaded.
In all other scenarios (home screen, apps, etc.), the Xperia Z5 Premium runs in 1080p Full HD or lower resolution. Sony claims it’s “to simply optimize performance, power consumption and battery stamina”. Screenshots are also saved in 1080p resolution.
However, there’s a built-in upscaling algorithm for photos and movies that will boost the resolution of your content. It’s not simple pixel doubling, it’s a tad more complicated, and Sony’s calling it “pixel complementing” that adds pixels to the original source. All that fancy hocus pocus results in sharp upscaled images and movies.
But will you see a difference, say, compared to a Quad HD screen? The short answer is “no”. Regardless of how good your eyesight is, unless you’re using a magnifying glass (or microscope) you won’t be able to tell the difference between Quad HD and 4K on a screen of this size. You will see a slight improvement, however, over a Full HD display.
Whether or not you believe it’s just a bragging right is totally up to you, but, in any case, Sony deserves the praise for developing and implementing (with the limitations explained above and below) a 4K display, for the first time, on a smartphone.
You can find more details about Sony’s 4K display implementation on the Xperia Z5 Premium in the video below:
You’ll find familiar specs under that fancy screen. There’s little improvement over the previous model, the Xperia Z3+/Z4. A fingerprint scanner embedded in the side-mounted power button represents Sony’s first take on smartphone biometric security (with the Z5 line-up). It’s placement on the side, too, is a two-sided story. Right-handed users will find it ergonomic, lefties not so much, unless they register an index or middle finger. Unlocking the phone while placed on a table is difficult though.
Sony is to be commended for pioneering a different approach than the “classic” front or back-mounted solution, but, then again, the company, thanks to its design language and its limitations, didn’t really have a choice.
We found fingerprint scanner performance to be a hit or miss. When it works, it works well and fairly quickly; when its own mind takes over, it really doesn’t. We hoped this was a problem unique to our unit, but found other users complaining about it on Twitter, YouTube, and even Sony’s own support blog. Hopefully it can be fixed via a software patch. The sensor, however, has to be really clean (and your fingers as well), in order for it to function. Moisture in general (water, steam, sweat, condensation) will render it unusable until wiped clean. Simply touching the button doesn’t wake and unlock the device. You have to press the power button to wake the device, and either keep your finger on it for a while, or remove and re-tap, in order for the device to unlock.
Below the power button lies the volume rocker. Its placement generated some controversy in that same Twittersphere, but it’s not uncomfortable once you’ve gotten used to it.
The camera is an improvement over its predecessor, at least on paper. It now packs a 1/2.3” 23MP mobile Sony Exmor RS sensor, with the same ISO sensitivity of 12800 for stills and 3200 for video. Hybrid auto focus ensures quick and sharp results. There’s a wide-angle 24mm lens, and a new, 5x Clear Image Zoom feature that didn’t impress us much. Its front-side counterpart is a five-megapixel unit. More on the camera and its performance in the dedicated segment below. However, we need to mention this up front: we’re big fans of the two-stage dedicated camera focus/shutter button which comes in handy not only when shooting underwater pictures (not recommended by Sony), but in everyday use as well. Every phone should have it.
That about wraps up the differences between the Z5 Premium (Z5) and the predecessor. The battery is, of course, larger at 3430 mAh, and Sony claims it’s good for up to two days of operation. Our findings aren’t far from the manufacturer’s claim, but you can find more details in the “performance” section below. Despite not supplying a quick charger out of the box, the phone is QuickCharge 2.0 capable, collecting about 1% charge per minute.
A 64-bit octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 (MSM8994) processor, together with the Adreno 430 GPU, is at the heart of the Z5 premium. It’s the same SoC Sony employed on the Z3+/Z4, this time with thermal paste applied and dual heat pipes to counter the overheating issues that plagued those earlier phones. Despite all of that, the Z5 Premium gets hot too; not to the point of crippling operation or shutting down apps (or the phone), but enough to notice, and sometimes for the phone to lower the brightness in consequence.
The 3GB of RAM ensure buttery smooth performance and multi-tasking, and the 32GB of on-board storage (about 26GB user-accessible) can be augmented with the help of a microSD card of up to 200GB, sharing a tray with the Nano SIM behind the single flap on the left edge. Thankfully, all the other ports/holes (headphone, microUSB and lanyard) are open, with an internal water-resistant coating taking care of the immersion protection.
Radio offers a wide 2G/3G/4G/LTE band compatibility (depending on regions though), as well as aGPS, Bluetooth 4.1, DLNA capabilities, Wi-Fi MIMO, and NFC, in addition to MHL 3.0 support.
The front-firing speakers placed at the top and bottom extremities are something we’re by now used to with Sony phones. While they offer a more immersive listening experience than a back or side-mounted speaker thanks to the stereo effect, the sound quality (and overall volume) isn’t going to wow you. However, the phone supports High-Resolution Audio and the headphone output is top notch in terms of quality, though the headphone volume is still too low for our taste, and we had to use a dedicated headphone amp and DAC to unleash its full potential.
Android Lollipop powers the Xperia Z5 Premium, with the usual Sony custom UI on top of it. It’s not extensive, not super light, but decent, and thankfully it doesn’t impact performance at all. Being an unlocked phone, bloatware is kept at its minimum, and, if you don’t mind the colorful Sony app icons and Settings page, your experience will be a pleasant one.
As previously mentioned, Sony’s own Album application is custom built to enable display of 4K/upscaled content, as well as playback of 4K videos. Aside from that, it’s your typical Sony Album that’s good looking, fast, and fluid. Same goes for the Music app, but then again every manufacturer is striving to find the perfect balance between looks, usability, and performance.
Not much is going on with notification shade and the quick settings, where you can customize the commands and icons that are shown. The Settings menu however has been adapted to suit Sony’s needs, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps things fluid and consistent.
Google Now can be accessed by long tapping on the home virtual button, and the multitasking icon to its right brings up a card-like representation of your running apps, in addition to the button that will close them all. This is also the place where you can access your “small apps”, which are windows floating on top of everything else. Available choices included are represented in the screenshot below, with the option of either downloading new ones from the Play store, or turning a Widget into a small app.
There are some pre-installed Sony apps ranging from ones that allow you to access content and services, to those that enable you to either control your TV, access PlayStation functionality, or recognize music and TV shows.
Overall, Sony’s software has matured to become stable and fast enough to live with it as it is, and the colorful icons aren’t too intrusive. Android 6.0 Marshmallow will be available for the Z5 Premium (and other Sony devices as well), but an exact timeframe hasn’t been made public yet. Among many other things, it will bring battery life improvements, but Sony is already doing a tremendous job in this department with basic optimizations, in addition to its own Power Management options that include STAMINA mode, Ultra STAMINA mode, and low battery mode.
The Camera application has been updated to a new version. Even if your phone comes with the previous version out of the box, it will be updated to a fresh, minimalistic UI, with the mode selector on the left, together with the flash toggle and camera selector; settings, shutter button and most recent thumbnail take up the right edge.
The default mode is Sony’s Superior Auto, which does a pretty good job at recognizing your shooting environment and adapting to it for best results. The manual mode, however, is where you’ll be able to select scenes, and play with white balance, exposure levels, ISO. (Keep in mind, however, that none of these are available if you’re shooting in 23MP, as they’re confined to 8MP modes.) Additionally, you have the option of selecting a preloaded camera app or installing your own, ranging from various fun modes that involve AR, to the standard Panorama or 4K video modes. All of these are there to unleash your creativity and enable you to generate good looking stills and video.
Under optimal shooting conditions the results are good. Focus is fast, even though it won’t always focus on what you’d want it to focus on, colors are true-to-life, and noise, while present, is acceptable. The resulting images are sharp (when in focus) and look good on the Z5 Premium’s screen. Similar conditions yield different results, depending on whether you use Superior Auto –and let it choose the shooting mode– or manually instruct the camera to treat a scene according to your settings. As with everything, there’s a learning curve, and a lot of trial and error, but once you get to know the camera, you’ll be generally satisfied with the results.
The problems start appearing, as always, when you remove the light from the equation. The Xperia Z5 Premium would really benefit from optical image stabilization. The software solution Sony is employing does the job at the basic level, but, when you really want to capture that night scene you need to either a) rely on Superior Auto, which produces inferior results, or b) select the night mode in manual, in which case you simply can’t go handheld without inducing blur. If you can prop the phone against something or use a tripod, though, that another story.
There’s a lot of noise in low light, something Sony could fix (or improve) via a software update, to fine-tune the resulting image. Sometimes images look like pastels painted in watercolor and sometimes they’re acceptable, but we wouldn’t recommend the Z5 Premium as the first option for low-light photography. It is simply not reliable and consistent enough; we found ourselves often taking three-to-five stills of the same scene, to capture the memory, just to get back home to see the results on the computer, and delete most if not all instances. Sony can no longer get away with no OIS, and we think it’s time the company took that seriously — not to mention that Sony’s IMX 240 sensor does a better job on the Note 5 than the IMX 300 sensor inside the Z5 Premium (or its implementation).
The same applies when shooting video. Software stabilization (SteadyShot) can be manually selected: options include off, Standard, and a more aggressive Intelligent Active, which isn’t available in 4K mode. Similarly, shooting in 4K or Full HD 60FPS disables scene selection options, but these are available in 30FPS.
Launching a dedicated camera app is required for shooting 4K video, with customizable white balance and exposure options available to the user. Fortunately, shooting 4K video doesn’t seem to bog down the Xperia Z5 Premium, as in the case of other smartphones like the Droid Turbo 2, which uses the same processor, with the same amount of RAM. Still, the phone does indeed heat up after about ten minutes of recording.
In general, just as with stills, colors are true to life and videos are sharp and usually in focus (though focus is slower than in still mode) with decent contrast and noise levels. That is, until your scene changes to low light, at which point you’ll see a helluva lot of noise.
On the whole, we wouldn’t say that the camera on the Xperia Z5 Premium is the best out there (there’s serious competition from the Galaxy S6/edge/edge+, Note5, G4, V10, iPhone 6s/Plus, etc.), but it’s definitely a good shooter, that could become even better if Sony could further tweak it.
We’ve used the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium over the course of two full weeks in Romania and Hungary, enough time for a thorough analysis of all aspects.
Day to day activities, like calls, texts, social media, chats, emails, music and video streaming are buttery smooth, and the phone managed to also cope nicely with demanding game titles like Asphalt 8, without any problem (or extreme heat) whatsoever.
Sony’s bundled Video Editor crashed every time we triggered it, rendering it unusable – which is really a pity, since the app enables you to save a frame from a 4K video to a crisp and clear 8MP photograph (according to the official materials, as we couldn’t test it out thanks to the constant app crash).
Network operation was surprisingly good. In areas with good 3G and LTE coverage, the phone delivered as expected, but in areas where other phones barely managed to hold on to a single bar of LTE signal, the Xperia Z5 Premium displayed two bars with consistent internet speeds.
We didn’t run into anything negative worth mentioning in terms of call quality, on either end of the line.
The built-in 3,430mAh battery did indeed perform as advertised and we managed to get up to two days of battery life with moderate use. Our screen-on times varied from almost four hours to four-and-a-half, which is the best we’ve managed to squeeze out of it. We expected around five hours to be honest, but there is still hope once the Marshmallow update becomes available. You can always enable some power saving features to dramatically extend battery life, of course, at the cost of some features and performance. However, we believe that, even with heavier loads, the Z5 Premium’s battery will last you until the end of the day.
+ 4K screen (even if only for bragging rights, at the moment)
+ beautiful screen
+ snappy performance
+ good battery life
+ chrome finish will turn heads
+ excellent build quality and materials
+ IP 65/68 rating
– really expensive
– fingerprint scanner isn’t as reliable as competitors’
– camera could be better
– low headphone volume
– mediocre speaker performance
– some bundled apps crash
– chrome unit is a fingerprint magnet
– no headphones bundled (region dependent)
Pricing and Availability
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium is, at press time, not yet available through US carriers. However, those in North America can grab one from Amazon or eBay for pricing ranging from $700-$800, which isn’t that much if you compare it with the $720 Motorola is asking for its 32GB Droid Turbo 2. Still expensive though.
If you are in Europe, you can get it from e-tailers like Clove, where it goes for £600 (inc. VAT).
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium isn’t for everyone. We wouldn’t recommend getting it for the 4K screen alone, as chances are you will not see a difference between the Z5P and a similar-sized QuadHD phone. If, however, you wanted a larger Xperia, the Z5 Premium won’t disappoint.
If you only want an Xperia smartphone, but don’t care about 4K or the extra size, the Xperia Z5 would be a better (and cheaper) option, not to mention that the Z3+/Z4 offers the same internals, sans the fingerprint scanner.
Those upgrading from an Xperia Z3 or older device should definitely check out the Xperia Z5 and Z5 Premium, but, if you’re currently rocking an Xperia Z3+/Z4, you’re not missing anything if you sit this one out.