The surprise of Sony's latest smartphone refresh is the Xperia Z5 Premium. It's a bold title for a device named to make a statement; it's a device that captured the imagination with its chrome mirrored finish and 4K display when we first saw it.
But is this the reality of the Z5 Premium? Does this handset match up to the top drawer aspirations that the name suggests, and does it help push Sony in a new direction?
Launched as a triplicate of handsets, the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium sits at the top of the pile, a new size and spec for Sony's Xperia Z family.
Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review: Design
The Xperia family all exhibit the same design language. It's a minor evolution from the Z3+ and previous devices, but sticks to the minimalist approach, sandwiching a metal frame with glass front and rear.
Known as OmniBalance, it's a design we're mostly all for. Sure, there's still some space above and below the display that feels a little underutilised, but on the whole, we've come to accept that this is how Sony is doing phones. The size makes it a little less manageable than the regular Z5, but if you've got large hands, it shouldn't pose too much of a problem.
If there's one comment, it would be that Sony's Premium handset isn't as premium as some others. The edges form a lip around the display and the back that feels a little too rough. It catches debris so we're forever cleaning it. It's a very minor point, but faced with accomplished rivals, it's the small things that matter.
The edges of the phone now are slightly flattened for a squarer profile and that probably accentuates the problem highlighted above. The Xperia Z5 Premium measures 154.4 x 75.8 x 7.8mm and it weighs 180g.
There are a number of finishes for the Z5 Premium and a surprising level of aesthetic difference between them. The chrome is easily the best looking, as the "normal" black model looks a little too much like a cheap plastic phone. The black we have on review has a glossy rear and glossy edges and lacks the wow factor of the chrome model. It also lacks the lovely anodisation and deep rear frosting of the regular Xperia Z5 and Compact models, which is slightly awkward.
The Z5 Premium is waterproof, with IP65 and IP68 ratings, with open Micro-USB and headphone sockets. There's a covered tray for the SIM and microSD card, supporting up to 200GB, a tray slot that's smaller than previous handsets, which again is a result of evolutionary design.
Overall, there isn't a sweeping change in design and it's easy to point at the Z5 Premium and see it as slightly conservative. It's offers some new technology, but unless you opt for the chrome version, you're getting a phone that's perhaps less interesting than the regular models. That said, if you've been waiting for a larger Xperia flagship, then you're covered.
Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review: Fingerprint scanner
There's also a fingerprint scanner, another reason for the flatter side design. It replaces the round power button that has adorned Xperia Z devices since their inception. The fingerprint scanner is FIDO compliant, so it's ready for payment services, as and when Android Pay expands its roll-out.
The Xperia Z5 Premium fingerprint scanner falls naturally under the thumb when you grip the phone. We'd now list a fingerprint scanner as one of the Android essentials in new handsets so it's great to find it here, but it's not as fast or smooth as the best out there.
We found the Z5 Premium fingerprint scanner failed to unlock the handset on occasion, especially if your fingers are even very slightly damp, and it isn't as fast and smooth as scanners we've seen on the likes of the HTC One A9 or the Nexus 6P. Still, it's a must have feature both for security and convenience, so its very welcome here.
Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review: Display
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium has a 5.5-inch LCD IPS display with a 3840 x 2160 pixel resolution. That resolution gives the Xperia Z5 Premium a pixel density of 806ppi, higher than anything we've seen before on a smartphone. What does this mean in reality? It means that the Z5 Premium has the ability to deliver fine detail more accurately than lesser devices, if the detail is there.
There are a number of considerations. Firstly, Sony has come forward and confirmed that the only time you're looking at native 4K content is in its Album or Video player. It uses upscaling on other video sources to improve the quality and the rest of the time, it's acting as a full HD display. That means that browser content, Gmail and all the rest of your apps look as they do elsewhere on other 5.5-inch devices.
Essentially, there is almost no 4K content to take advantage of this display, apart from that which you might capture or side-load yourself. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video don't (yet) stream UHD to smartphones, but Sony says it is upscaling this sort of content. We watched Marco Polo on the full HD Huawei Mate S (also 5.5 inches) side-by-side with the Xperia Z5 Premium and found that the Sony looked better. We also put it alongside the Nexus 6P (5.7 inches) and found it looked better once again on the Xperia, but remember that both are AMOLED to Sony's LCD.
There's a lot going on here: the contrast is better and the more delicate colours lead to more natural images in video, which is where this sort of device excels. Although we think the punch of more vibrant displays can make apps look better (a trait of AMOLED displays favoured by Samsung), we really liked the video offering from Sony. Firing up Gravity on Google Play, the Xperia Z5 Premium rewarded us with deeper blacks and brighter whites than the Nexus 6P, making it a much superior experience.
One other source of content is YouTube, with support for a higher resolutions with its 1440 setting. Sony has made a point of saying that there is no Quad HD content, but that's what YouTube is offering through its app. Yes, it's downscaled from 4K UHD that you'll get on desktop, but the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium doesn't support that in YouTube, it tops out at 1080p.
So, unlike the Samsung Galaxy S6 or Nexus 6P (both Quad HD displays), Sony is taking this 1080p content and upscaling it (reportedly) for a result that doesn't look much different to its rivals. X-Reality plays its part, restoring contrast and bite that other displays might lack, but where the app isn't letting you access all the detail, the phone is working to restore it again.
When it comes to photos, we threw some stunning high-res DSLR photos at a range of devices. When there's the resolution and the detail in the original file, you'll be able to see that on the Xperia. Good photos look great across all displays, but we could see the finer details rendered more sharply on the Xperia Z5 Premium, so the 4K message isn't all hot air.
Of course, for photos you take on a smartphone much of the fine detail is mush, so unless you have a penchant for looking at high resolution, high quality photos, the display's capabilities might be lost on you. Consider too that if you're viewing those pictures in Facebook or Instagram, you're looking at 1080p content as you would be anywhere else.
The question of course, is whether all this is worth it. Yes, the handling of movies looks good and that detail in those photos is impressive too, but we question whether anyone will actually need to scrutinise photos so closely on a display of this size. Technically, yes, you can see the difference on this display from similar sized rivals at lesser resolutions.
There is something of a conflict as we've mentioned, because when you skip out of this type of content, the advantage is lost. If you're the sort of person who spends most of the time emailing, shopping on Amazon or playing Crossy Road, you might then think that the vibrancy of rivals makes for a more exciting experience.
Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review: Specs and hardware
Aside from the display, you'll find that the specs are very much the same across the Z5 family. The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium houses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor with 3GB of RAM. There's 32GB of storage, but you'll need to take advantage of that microSD slot if you've any serious desire to watch 4K content you've recorded.
Unlike some previous Sony devices, we've found that the Xperia Z5 Premium doesn't get too hot in regular use. You'll get a warning when you fire-up 4K video capture and there's obviously some processor demands on some of the fancy AR functions that will cause the phone to heat up. Yes, intensive games will make it warm to the touch, as will charging, but we haven't found it to be a problem in regular use.
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium offers performance that's very close to that of the regular Z5, it's fast enough as there's plenty of power, but at times it feels as though the side is let down by Sony's software. The camera (which we'll discuss later) is a typical example of this, where the phone drags its heels when it really shouldn't, not when it's being pitched as the ultimate camera phone.
There's a 3430mAh battery and we were originally concerned that the 4K display might cause excessive drain, but it doesn't seem to. We've found the Xperia Z5 Premium to offer better stamina than the regular Z5, we suspect that simply comes down to battery capacity, as well as the switching to 1080p, rather than pushing all the pixels all the time.
Sony's Stamina mode certainly helps and we've found that the Xperia Z5 Premium has seen us through busy working days without needing a charger, but when the display is on, you're drawing a lot of data and snapping photos, you'll find it draining much faster.
Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review: Software woes
While Sony's hardware paints a pretty good picture, it's on the software front that Sony seems to struggle. That's an experience mirrored in the regular Z5 too, leading us to conclude that when it comes to software, Sony is its own worst enemy.
The Xperia Z5 Premium launches on Android Lollipop, with Sony's range of customisations layered over the top. Although Sony has drawn back a little from the state a few years back, it's still a comprehensive reworking, adding a lot of apps and features and changing things visually in many areas.
Again, this matches the rest of the Z5 family. There's some duplication of apps, but if you're interested in looking at 4K content, you'll need some of those apps in place, like the Albums, rather than using Google's Photos app. We're still a little turned off by the volume of other apps that are bundled in, like Sketch, TrackID, AVG Protection, OfficeSuite and so on, although some of these additions can be removed so it's no problem after a little housekeeping.
Regular apps run well enough, so for the most part you'll find that the Xperia Z5 Premium performs as a flagship handset should. But the camera software is a bit of a bugbear. The app has been updated recently to add some refinement to things, but it's too slow to preview images, too slow to open and too slow to deliver the flagship experience it deserves.
We're sure that much of this could be improved by software updating, but in cases of things like the calendar, messaging app and keyboard, Sony really isn't improving things. We've heard companies like HTC saying that they're drawing back from changing things if they can't improve it, and it feels like it's time for Sony to embrace Android's solid offering and reduce its tinkering.
Of course, there are additions that improve the media experience, such as PS4 Remote Play for gamers, as well as things like DLNA sharing that you won't find in a stock Android environment. Then you have Sony's battery management software and Stamina Mode, which we've long been fans of. It's worth noting that this well restrict the performance, including dropping the frame rate on video playback if that's what you're doing.
The granular approach to app management is still one of our favourite power saving features, although it will be interesting to see how Sony handles this feature when the Marshmallow update arrives, as some of this is done by the next version of Android natively.
Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review: Camera
From talking about the app we move neatly onto the cameras. There's a new camera module on the Xperia Z5 family. It's now a 23-megapixel Exmor RS for mobile sensor, paired with a new 6-element lens.
There's a lot new happening in this camera, addressing focusing speed, zoom, low light and handshake. The SteadyShot stabilisation in video is really impressive, smoothing out things like footsteps and hangover handshake. This also applies to 4K video, although not at the highest settings. We find it a little irritating that the option for 4K isn't in the video section: with all the talk of 4K around this device, to have it nestled in with the camera features like AR effect and Face in picture seems to do 4K an injustice.
There's a new Hybrid AF system, which claims a 0.03 second focusing time in good conditions. The aim here is to make sure you don't miss the action because the camera can't focus. Again, this applies to both photos and video, with fast continuous AF in video, although it slows down as the light drops.
The experience is very much the same from this camera as it is the regular Z5. There's an updated app, however, and you can now access a range of resolutions in the Superior Auto mode, where previously you were limited to the 8-megapixel default. If you want to shoot at 23-megapixels in Superior Auto, you now can.
To access options like HDR you have to hop over to Manual mode, and as before, if you select the top resolution, you lose the ability to control the ISO, something you'll want to do to keep the noise down in darker shots. You also lose the option to select the scene options at the top resolution. But, in reality, if scene selection is your thing, you can just leave it in Superior Auto and let the camera detect it for you.
Generally speaking the camera performance is good in good conditions, but increasing the resolution and making other enhancements doesn't make this the best camera out there. Low light performance slows down resulting in images that are soft, before the noise arrives when the ISO climbs. There also isn't a proper manual mode. Although you can tinker with the settings in Manual, you don't get direct control over things like shutter speed.
But none of that is the most irritating part of the Z5 Premium camera performance. Like the regular Z5, it's just too slow. It takes too long to preview images, shot-to-shot recycling is slower than you want it to be and launching the camera is slow too. That drags things down, undoing a lot of the good work.
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium is an interesting smartphone. It's launched with fanfare, but only really puts a higher resolution display on the front of the experience you'll get from the regular model. If you're after the Xperia experience in a larger format, if the 5.2-inch model isn't as big as you want, then the Z5 Premium might be perfect for you.
To really take advantage of the display you need to work quite hard. If you're a 4K video fan and you have lots of content, then yes, it's potent. But this isn't going to ramp up the resolution across all your Android apps, leaving things looking pretty much as they do elsewhere.
But that said, as larger devices go, the battery lasts well enough, there's the advantage of waterproofing and plenty more on the media front to keep you entertained.
Ultimately, the higher resolution display feels like Sony laying down a marker for the future. We're sure that 4K content will become more prevalent and that this device could then offer a lot more. However, at the moment, this is a pricy 5.5-incher, facing plenty of talented, big screened, more exciting, rivals.