Having washed away the Xperia X and XZ devices, Sony has settled on numbers for its latest phones: the Xperia 1 becomes the flagship, the Xperia 10 a budget equivalent, and the Xperia 5, reviewed here, a sort-of compact version of the 1.

But this isn't quite the Xperia Compact of old: in fact, with a 6.1-inch display, the Xperia 5 is still a rather tall phone. That comes down its 21:9 aspect ratio, something that was great on the Xperia 1 for watching movies, but on the Xperia 5 results in a smaller device that's just rather narrow.

So is the Sony Xperia 5 nothing but an oddity, or a worthy phone for your pocket?

Design

  • Dimensions: 158 x 68 x 8.2mm / Weight: 164g
  • 21:9 aspect ratio screen means tall design
  • IP65/68 water- and dust-resistant

Shifting the aspect ratio on smartphone displays has become rather common in 2019. From 16:9 being the norm, we now have a glittering array of different aspects, all trying to give you more screen space on the front of your phone.

For Sony things are a little different. Rather than pushing the bezels back for an edge-to-edge effect, the Xperia 5 hangs on to a 'forehead and chin' bezel, but still opts for 21:9, making for a phone that's tall and not so wide.

Pocket-lintSony Xperia 5 image 6

There are advantages to this. It's pretty compact, so it's easy to grip, but at the same time, like the Xperia 1, it feels taller than it needs to be: many phones are the same height but a little wider, giving you more visible screen space.

The design itself is familiar Sony territory: flat glass front and back with a metal core curving to make the edges; there's a dedicated camera button and a fingerprint sensor on one side, rather than on the back or under the display.

The Xperia 5 also carries an IP68 rating, befitting its premium positioning, so overall it's a device that's well built and dust/water resistant too. In some ways, it's a practical phone, slipping easily into a pocket (which the Xperia 1 didn't always do) and there's undoubted appeal for those who want a smaller handset.

An unconventional display 

  • 6.1-inch OLED display, Full HD+ resolution (1080 x 2520)
  • HDR capable (high dynamic range)

As to the display itself, it's not a complete reproduction of the Xperia 1. That phone carried with it the distinction of offering a 4K resolution, whereas the Xperia 5 is Full HD+. While many will sit in the middle, Sony refuses to accept that 2K resolutions exist, and we can't say that's a huge deal as this phone still looks sharp enough.

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It's an OLED panel and Sony does give you some options for tuning the looks to get the colour balance to your preference. It also supports high dynamic range (HDR).

Once you've tuned the colour balance, fire up a movie and CineAlta Creator mode will swing in and take over, aiming to give you the colour balance that the director intended. Basically, when you press play on Netflix, the phone will make sure the content looks as it should - and we actually quite like that as a feature.

It's in movie watching that this display aspect ratio makes the most sense, as there are some 21:9 movies out there, but too often the source isn't a match and leaves black bars to the side and a smaller image than if you had a regular aspect ratio phone. Some services will let you pinch-to-zoom to fill the gaps (Netflix, YouTube) but others won't.

There are also some apps that don't support it so well, especially around loading screens or menus - Call of Duty Mobile being one example, which plays perfectly well, but on loading screens you'll find the edges are just full of mush.

Pocket-lintSony Xperia 5 image 12

Otherwise, the display is a little more natural than some when it comes to colour - it doesn't quite have the punch and vibrancy that's common on devices like the Samsung Galaxy S10, and whether you like that or not will come down to personal preference.

But our biggest concern about this phone is that it feels small. Where the Xperia 1 was expansive (at 6.5-inches), it felt much more immersive than the Xperia 5 does. Pull this smaller phone out on a long flight and you might feel you're missing out, unless you're really sticking to 21:9 movies.

Hardware and specs 

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, 6GB RAM
  • 128GB storage, microSD expansion
  • 3,140mAh battery 

Sitting on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform with 6GB RAM, this is a powerful phone. It's a fast to load apps and runs things perfectly smoothly. It's a true flagship experience.

Pocket-lintSony Xperia 5 image 8

The option to expand the 128GB storage cheaply via a microSD card is also welcome. However, there's no 3.5mm headphone socket - that's one legacy connection that Sony has dropped.

Instead you get decent speakers which purport to offer Dolby Atmos and have appreciable volume, backed up by Sony's Dynamic Vibration system. The latter has been available on the past few Sony phones, offering to match vibration to the audio to make things a little more immersive. You can change the levels, or turn it off if you find it's just adding vibration you don't want.

Where the Xperia 5 doesn't work so well is with the side-mounted fingerprint scanner. We've found the failure rate to be higher than just about any other device we've used this year, regularly having to resort to using a PIN or passcode instead. That's frustrating, because other fingerprint scanners work without a problem.

Pocket-lintSony Xperia 5 image 5

Fortunately, battery life is pretty good. It's not a huge capacity at 3,140mAh, but we've found it last the day easily enough, no doubt aided by Sony's reluctance to push the brightness too fiercely.

A camera system that struggles

  • Triple rear camera:
    • 12MP, 26mm equivalent, f/1.6, 5-axis stabilisation (OIS)
    • 12MP 2x tele, 52mm equiv., f/2.4, 5-axis OIS
    • 12MP wide-angle, 16mm equiv., f/2.4
  • Photography Advice, Eye Tracking AF 
  • 8MP front camera

Sony is one of the biggest names in camera sensors, providing most of the leading phones (and many cameras) with their core hardware. That gets a lot of people excited when Sony produces its own phones, with the Xperia 5 getting a triple system, comprised of three 12-megapixel cameras.

Those cameras cover normal, telephoto and wide applications, matching the feature set of everything from the latest Samsung phone through to the iPhone 11 Pro. It's great to have the options too, although Sony's arrangement of having to tap through the cameras is a little irritating. 

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That tap will take you from the '1x' view to 2x zoom and then again to the wide-angle (0.6x). Or you can pinch to zoom (and get to digital zoom) - although you can't pinch into the wide-angle, which seems counter intuitive. Instead, when you do start a pinch-zoom motion, a W appears at the bottom of the page giving you access to the wide camera. 

That's where this camera struggles overall. The software and app design just isn't competitive: it's a slow camera to launch, slow to preview and process images, and in some cases it falls well behind the leading devices. 

The front camera, for example, will take some nice photos, but it just doesn't seem to be as smart with things like the portrait mode, instead drawing a noticeable border around the subject; in low-light or trickier conditions this phone struggles to get the results you expect - blurry with lots of noise. In an indoor presentation, we had to switch from using the Xperia 5 to the Pixel 4 XL, because Sony's phone struggled to produce usable images.

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It all points to a camera system that's not as smart as the rivals. It doesn't feel like AI (artificial intelligence) is taking care of you and making everything better, which has been the real trend of devices recently. It feels like it's all slightly outdated, like the software isn't pulling its weight. 

The actual cameras themselves are capable in good light, but that's no longer the measure of a good camera - it's the ability to do something exceptional that really makes a phone camera stand out. Yes, there are some fun features on the Xperia 5, like the kaleidoscope mode, but overall it's an average experience. 

A mixed bag of software

  • Android 10 update incoming
  • Lots of bloatware 

Sony seems to have been slowly getting the message on software and reducing the bundled software (or giving you the option to opt-out when you setup the phone), meaning things are slowly getting a little cleaner.

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Despite that, there's still a number of apps and services like a duplicate Album and a collection of games, as well as some supporting service apps, like 3D Creator and CinemaPro. Some of the features of the camera run as camera apps rather than as camera modes, meaning you have to grant permissions for each app individually, which seems to just add inconvenience.

But overall, things are getting better across Sony devices, with fewer interface changes compared to Google's Android proper. And we like the audio support, giving you a little more customisation of the sound output.

Verdict

There are some parts of the Xperia 5 that let the experience down: the fingerprint scanner is irritating and the camera isn't competitive. Put those things to one side and you have a compact and powerful handset, something that will tackle the daily needs of a smartphone user in a respectable design that's not mammoth big.

But using a 21:9 aspect ratio screen does raise that question of what Sony is trying to achieve. Having a pocketable 21:9 4K experience on the Xperia 1 had some value in its irregularity, given that phone's larger screen size and higher resolution, but on the Xperia 5 we don't feel it has the same impact.

If you want a smaller-scale phone and can live with the design, then the Xperia 5 is a perfectly powerful phone, with a battery that lasts well enough. But weigh up everything above and, well, it's hard not to think of this phone as an oddity.

This article was originally published 6 September 2019 and has been updated to reflect its full review status

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