(Pocket-lint) - Sony fell over its feet with the Xperia Z3+, a device that seemed to undo some of the great work laid down by the Xperia Z3 it replaced. With Sony seemingly sticking to unrelenting smartphone churn, however, the Z3+ is wiped away a mere four months after its release.
In its place is the face of a brand new flagship, the Xperia Z5. It brings a number of changes, introduces some new elements and makes changes to the Xperia family. It's even available in a trio of options, from the top-tier Z5 Premium, to smaller-scale Z5 Compact, and the "standard" Z5 as reviewed here.
But is the Xperia Z5 the handset that sees Sony return to form, or one where it fumbles?
Sony Xperia Z5 review: Design
We've long been fans of Sony's OmniBalance design. The Z1 had monolithic magnificence and we've seen a run of tweaks, little by little, trying to make this size of device more manageable. We've seen reinforced corners, we've seen curved sides, we've seen the removal of ports and flaps.
The Xperia Z5 takes a squarer profile to the edges rather than the curves of some previous devices. It's instantly recognisable as an Xperia Z handset, but we find that the lip now created around the edges of the display and the rear panel is sharper than it's been before, and prone to collecting pocket lint and other debris.
The Z5 measures 146 x 72 x 7.3mm, so it's slim, but those square edges mean it's not as comfortable to hold as something like the HTC One A9, with its rounded edges. We like Sony's progressive reduction of flaps, with Micro-USB and headphone sockets both being waterproofed, and the downsizing of the bay for the SIM and microSD into a neatly combined tray.
But the biggest real change in design comes with the accommodation of the fingerprint scanner, retiring the signature aluminium power button from the side of the phone. That perhaps explains the squared profile of this device, as Sony has had to accommodate the fingerprint scanner's width.
We should give Sony some praise for this achievement, because it's a unique approach and saves putting it on the front or back - but perhaps it's going to define future designs of Sony handsets because of the necessary size.
Finally turning to the rear, Sony has opted for a deep frosting finish. The Z5 comes in a range of colours, with the green we have on review probably the most unusual, but there's more regular black, white and gold options. The effect is really great, and feels lovely to the touch, the sort of finish you might normally associate with a company like HTC.
Overall, the Xperia Z5 delivers a good quality design and build, boosted by the IP68 rating that comes with it, so it won't mind being caught out in the rain either.
Sony Xperia Z5 review: Display
Sony talks about displays a lot, and that's not surprising for a company that has an extensive line-up of televisions. We've long seen cross-branding of technologies on these displays, with Sony saying it's a Triluminos display for Mobile. It's an LCD panel, 5.2-inches on the diagonal with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels (delivering a 423ppi density).
Some will immediately say that this is Sony failing to keep up with the likes of Samsung or LG, by not pushing the resolution of this display to 2560 x 1440 pixels. Sony's argument is that there's no native content available at that resolution, so it's not worth using. As this isn't a TV and you're more likely to spend more time glancing at Facebook or using Google Maps than watching movies, so it's a slightly hollow argument. Not forgetting that the Z5 Premium comes equipped with a 4K screen (3840 X 2160 pixels) which dominates the current flagship resolution lineup.
The resolution argument is one that's very current in smartphones and the number of pixels isn't the only factor - it's how good the display is. Look at the iPhone, for example, and their comparatively low resolutions that give great results. At the same time, the 5.1-inch Quad HD display of the SGS6 looks fantastic. The point is that resolution alone doesn't define the display experience.
Sure, at this resolution there are displays that can show finer details, but whether your eyes can discern the difference is open to debate. With larger devices, yes, it's easier to spot, but the point is that this Sony isn't necessarily lacking because it's stuck to Full HD resolution.
The colours of the Z5's display are punchy and, as before from the Z series, you have the option to make the display increasingly vivid, to the point of it looking artificial. We've stuck to X-Reality mode and generally you'll find that everything looks great, with contrast boosted in images and videos, and increased pop to colours. At times it looks a little forced: watching Hancock on Netflix was overly rich, a criticism of X-Reality we've had in the past. However the viewing angles are good.
But this isn't a perfect display; there are some flaws. Firstly, if you wear polarised glasses you'll find it blacks out completely in landscape orientation - so using the camera on the beach in your expensive glasses could be a challenge. We've also found the auto brightness can be a little indecisive. We've been reading text and found the brightness flickering up and down ever so slightly, which is irritating. Finally, we've found the display touch sensitivity to be a little too high - even without glove mode switched on, we've often found the display reacting through the pocket of our jeans (we tend not to try typing with our leg), so we've ended up having to make sure the phone is carried display-outwards to stop dialling emergency numbers from the lock screen.
Sony Xperia Z5 review: Hardware
The Sony Xperia Z5 sticks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 and 3GB RAM that was in the Z3+ - the same setup that caused us some concerns. Sony maintains that the chipset sticks within acceptable thermal limits, although that's not strictly true.
Fire-up the Z5 camera's fancy AR (augmented reality) features, and you're presented with a warning that the app will close if it gets too hot. And get hot it does, within just a few minutes of use. As we'll mention when we talk about the camera and software, you probably won't spend much time playing with the AR features, so perhaps that doesn't matter (but makes us wonder why such a feature exists).
In normal use, however, we found the Xperia Z5 to stay cool. So checking emails, maps, browsing the web and so on, isn't a cause for concern. Streaming movies raises no concern, but fire up some of the more intensive games and you'll find the Xperia Z5 heating up as you play. We never found it to get too hot to handle though.
The Z5 is fast enough around most apps, but there are some surprising delays at times. We don't think this is down to a lack of power (it doesn't happen on other SD810 devices), but down to software inefficiencies.
Sony Xperia Z5 review: Battery
There's a 2,900mAh battery in the Xperia Z5 - a slightly smaller capacity than previous models. Sony has long been the king of battery life, but times are changing and the Xperia Z5 doesn't do much to help Sony maintain its lead. The Xperia Z5 doesn't perform badly, but it doesn't last quite as well as previous devices.
There's the normal array of Stamina modes on board, and lots of software options to reduce battery drain from all quarters, but for whatever reason, the phone doesn't seem to have the endurance that it was once known for. You can opt to restrict the hardware, and have granular control over apps that can access data in the background, which all helps.
That will give you great standby life, or inactive life, but if you're a regular phone user then you'll find the Xperia Z5 drains fairly quickly when you pull it out of your pocket. We found that the Z5 would make it through the day, but this is no Moto X Play. We haven't managed to achieve the sort of endurance from the Z5 that we enjoyed with the Xperia Z3, where we got through a full day and much of the next.
It's worth considering that battery performance may well change if/when the Z5 is updated to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but exactly how Sony will accommodate Android's native power-saving features alongside its homebrew services remains to be seen.
Sony Xperia Z5 review: Fingerprint scanner
We've praised Sony for squeezing the fingerprint scanner into the side of the Z5. Sony claims that it falls into a natural place when gripping the phone and we agree, it's practical enough. However, we've had more errors with this scanner than some, but it's never been a complete failure.
We've seen front, back and now side fingerprint sensors and we'd think you'd be foolish to look at a new phone without one featured. On the Xperia Z5, the fingerprint scanner experience is very much as you'll find elsewhere: it's easy to setup security and fast to unlock, although we didn't find it quite as fast and reliable as the Huawei Mate S scanner, or that of the new HTC One A9.
Sony Xperia Z5 review: Software
We've dropped a number of hints along the path of this review that something isn't quite there with the Sony Xperia Z5 and now we'll hit that nail on the head.
Sony has reduced some of the surface level clutter on new Xperia models, so services like What's New are no longer so aggressively pushed as they were, but there's still a huge amount of modification that has taken place on top of Android 5.1.1 Lollipop (on which this phone launches).
Sony is still filling the phone with enhanced services, duplicating a lot that's available from stock Android along the way. Some things, like the music player, adds a lot of functionality that you wont get from the stock offering - enhancing media streaming and audio options - but you're still faced with lots of bloat when you start up the phone.
We think it's time that Sony took a long hard look at the apps that are actually useful. For example, do we need OfficeSuite when Google and Microsoft both offer free productivity apps that are universal?
We've also found that some of Sony's apps lack the snap you might expect. Switching from the camera app to viewing those photos is slow, and sharing those photos seems to generate a noticeable pause, much more noticeable than other Android devices. It's in these areas that the Sony Xperia Z5 feels a little more sluggish than it should – and slower than devices that are notionally on less powerful hardware. And this is a problem with Sony's software: install the stock Android camera, and it will open your preview instantly, with no delay.
When you fire up some of the camera's "fun" AR modes, it's here you'll find performance dropping off, as the phone gets overly hot by, say, trying to superimpose a cat's face over your own - at which point we can't help wondering why these features are even offered.
In other areas, there's plenty of good stuff. You can hook-up your Sony DualShock controller, you get the benefits of PS4 Remote Play, and we'll admit we like the slightly cleaner, simpler, look of the launcher - once we'd ditched the five pages of widgets anyway.
But compared to the finesse on the outside, it's at the core that this device feels like it stumbles, and arguably, it stumbles in areas where it could offer a better experience by doing a lot less.
Sony Xperia Z5 review: Calling, audio and speakers
The Sony Xperia Z5 is equipped with dual front-facing speakers, providing a degree of separation when it comes to playing music, games or movies. They're not quite as rich in sound quality as HTC's BoomSound speakers on the One family, but they also don't take up as much room within the phone's design.
There's wide audio support for advanced file formats too, with support for hi-res audio out of the box - again, something that Sony is keen to promote. This can be combined with noise-cancellation in the phone, when used with the right headphones. There are a range of technologies aiming to upscale your music, such as DSEE HX or ClearAudio+, with results differing depending on what you feed in. DSEE HX, we found, made no difference to Tidal tracks streaming in HiFi quality, but rebalanced Spotify in Extreme quality, suggesting it's doing something. Some of these things will only apply to audiophiles, however, and those who just want to listen to regular quality music on the move will be amply rewarded.
Sony Xperia Z5 review: Cameras
But when all is said and done, there's the feeling that the Xperia Z5 is little more than a vessel for a new camera. Photography was certainly the biggest area of discussion when the device launched and having drawn debate, praise and plenty of attention, that doesn't seem like it's going to change.
There's a new 1/2.3in 23-megapixel sensor on the rear of the Xperia Z5, offering a 24mm wide-angle lens and Hybrid AF, claiming speedy focusing with a combination of contrast- and phase-detection autofocusing.
Aside from the technicalities, there's a big nod to practicality with a button on the side of the Z5's body. This will quick launch, as well as offering focus and capture when using the camera. Focus is quickly confirmed with a reticule on the display and you're free to tap-to-meter and focus elsewhere.
We found autofocus to be generally very good, but when it comes to macro shots the reticule will often turn blue to confirm focus, whether it's focused or not. We've found that the minimum focusing distance is about 10cm, something to be aware of with those close-ups.
It's important to remember that Sony doesn't use that full 23MP resolution all the time. Whenever you're in the "Superior Auto" mode, you're taking 8-megapixel pictures. These are over-sampled to reduce image noise and offer the advantage of being smaller than the full-resolution versions, which is advantageous for sharing.
But you can shoot at higher resolutions if you flip over to the manual mode (which isn't fully manual). But again, there are limitations. In the top resolution, you lose control over many of the settings. If you turn on image stabilisation, you lose ISO control, and so on. So there's a lot of jumping through hoops with this camera and you have to play around a lot to figure out exactly what you're getting where.
The rear camera is very quick to automatically identify scenes - we've had it flash up things like "infant" at us - and while this scene detection is lovely, it's results that matter, rather than showing the working along the way. In good light the Sony Xperia Z5 will give you some lovely photos. We're impressed that it balances out highlights and shadows for a nice even scene on a bright but cloudy day. It's here that the Sony Xperia Z5 excels, returning wonderful colours that are natural and well balanced, as well as plenty of detail.
But there's also a lot going on when the light dips. Low-light images have their image noise processed away to the detriment of detail, and you'll still get handshake as the shutter speed slows, as you do elsewhere.
But that's where scene detection can help, because once it realises what you're doing, the auto settings will help you out. If you're handholding the shot, it bumps up the ISO sensitivity to make sure you get something; if the camera's perfectly stable then it shoots in tripod mode, with a lower ISO for a cleaner result with a longer exposure. If you're the sort of person who carries a tripod with you for smartphone photos, you'll be rewarded, but in reality, once you're handholding those photos, the Xperia Z5 isn't wildly different to many other phones.
The surprising thing, perhaps, is that it isn't a fast experience. Previewing photos is slow, as we mentioned above, suggesting that somewhere the software is leading things astray. As we also mentioned, there are a lot more modes in the camera, with many falling into the broad category of "novelty" - such as AR affect, AR mask, Style portrait, Sticker creator - but you can uninstall these camera apps if desired.
Video is offered up to 4K UHD resolution. As elsewhere, you lose some capture options at 4K, as well as receiving the warning about heat. We managed to capture about 20-minutes of 4K video before we got this warning, however, and we suspect that will be plenty for anyone. This is 4K captured at 30fps, with a data rate around 55Mbps.
Many will probably stick to Full HD (1920 x 1080), which gives lovely results, benefitting from some really effective stabilisation - that means those clunky walking videos will now be much smoother. We've tested the different levels of stabilisation, so you can see how smooth your Z5 video will be.
The front-facing 5-megapixel camera is pretty good too, offering things like HDR to improve your looks, as well as skin softening settings. It gives reasonable results on par with what you'd expect from most flagship smartphones of this calibre.
For all the posturing of the Sony Xperia Z5, there is something that's incremental about it. The design has progressed a tiny amount and for the most part we like it, but it's not a dramatic move like we've seen from Samsung, so will likely be perceived as much of the same. The Z5's hardware doesn't change hugely from the previous Z3+ either, so some of the experience is similar (and not always to its benefit).
But the real problem for us is that this Sony flagship seems to have lots its potency in some areas. The battery life isn't what it used to be, and while it will easily outlast the Samsung Galaxy S6 or the HTC One M9, it feels like Sony's grip has loosened.
As we motor forward to a time when Android is getting more sophisticated through Marshmallow, Samsung has refined TouchWiz, HTC is shaking up Sense, and it's Sony's software that's the Z5's biggest weakness. It's a little bit sluggish and that makes its additions not worth having.
The camera story is interesting, though, and a spotlight feature where the Sony Z5 stands out. But is it the best camera in a smartphone? No, because the experience is hampered, and for all the clever technology, sometimes you just want to get down to the business of taking good photos with minimal fuss.
All things considered and the Sony Xperia Z5 is a step forward over the Xperia Z3+, one that we'd happily recommend to Sony fans looking for an upgrade. But it lacks the panachewe're seeing elsewhere in Android, which makes us a little bit sad in wondering what could have been.