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Sony Xperia Z5 Review: Strong And Competent, But Not A Champion

Forbes logo Forbes 25-10-2015 Ewan Spence, Contributor

Sony’s trio of Xperia Z5 phones arrive at a curious time for the company. At the start of the year the Japanese company looked set to sell off or wind down its mobile division, while the Xperia Z4 launch and subsequent campaign was not without problems. I felt there was a lack of focus from all concerned. That changed at IFA Conference in Berlin in September with the reveal of the Xperia Z5, the Z5 Premium, and the Z5 Compact. I would argue that Sony managed to win the PR battle coming out of the conference.

Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)

Naturally this was thrown away as the CEO cast more doubt on the long-term life of the mobile division, which isn’t going to help consumer confidence. That is a shame because on first impressions the Sony Xperia Z5 has the potential to be a great smartphone. This isn’t going to be a full review of the handset (I’ll post that in the next few weeks), instead these are my snap thoughts and feelings after twenty-four hours with a review until supplied by Sony’s UK team.

The Xperia Z5 follows Sony’s omnibalance design language, and on first glance I can see echoes to previous handsets. The touchscreen dominates the front of the handset, with the left and right bezels made as small as possible. That packs the camera, speakers, and connectors above and below the screen. Around the edges you’ll find the power button, a dedicated camera shutter button, a tray for a MicroSD and SIM card, and a volume key that is low on the right hand side – which feels like it is in exactly the wrong place. Mobile conventions place volume keys near the top of the device. I’m not sure why Sony has bucked the trend, but it is disconcerting.

Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)

Sony has spent a lot of time and effort to retain a circular power button on all previous handsets to help with the visual design language, but that has been superseded by the drive for a smoother look and the need for a fingerprint scanner in the Z5. Sony has placed the fingerprint scanner in the power button on the edge of the device. You train the handset to learn one finger during the on-boarding process, and others can be added in the settings. So far I’ve found this to be accurate, although it sometimes requires a quick reposition of my finger as it curls around the handset. I’m getting better at a smooth pick-up, power on, press to recognise, and making all this happen in one movement.

I’m confident this will improve in a week of use and it will be a fast process to verify my ID every time I pick up the handset.

The glass that covers the front and back of the Xperia Z5 give the handset the same tactile feel as previous handsets, but the raised lips around the edges have an awkward feel in the hand. Yes, it stops the glass touching the surface you have placed it on, which should be good for protection, but feeling the long ridges in my hand makes the Z5 feel less pleasant than its predecessors. Countering that, a return to less-curved edges means the Xperia Z5 is easier to grip and feels more secure in my hand.

Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)

The Xperia ships with Android Lollipop, and my review handset is running v5.1.1. Android Marshmallow is out there in the Nexus devices, and the expectation is that a full release will happen in November. The geekerati will likely question how long it will take for Sony to update the Z5 range (which feeds back to the issue of confidence in Sony’s ongoing support). With a number of security issues the traditionally slow update pace from Sony could be a visible weakness over the next few months.

For now there’s a lot to like about Sony’s skinning of Android. The attitude of ‘change as little as possible’ gives the Xperia Z5 the feel of stock Android. Sony’s main additions are in applications added to the handset, with an alternative music player (which curiously drops the ‘Walkman’ branding), picture album viewer, one of the easiest to use video playing apps, and its PlayStation software to talk to the PlayStation music and video services and allow remote play from a PS4.

Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)

None of these have changed from previous versions on other handsets so I felt at home with them, although the duplication of capability (notably in music playback and viewing pictures) is still a potential point of confusion for new users. Given the rest of the OS feels accessible because of the stock nature, that weak point is more a point of differentiation than a major problem.

Differentiation is where Sony’s distribution of Android stands out. The almost stock Android in the Xperia Z5 still projects an image of Sony. It has the diagonal fold/wave in the wallpaper, it has the recognisable font and style in the clock widget on the home screen and the aforementioned suite of apps. This is how to take stock Android and still retain corporate identity.

Thoughts on the battery life will have to wait until the full review along with performance notes, but I would point out that I’ve not had to recharge the Z5 in the first day of use. This is likely down to the 2900 mAh battery, but Sony is known for its gentle use of the battery in older Android devices.

Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)

The use of the SnapDragon 810 system on chip is also going to need a careful examination. The early devices using Qualcomm’s 64-bit platform suffered from overheating, and previous Xperia devices have also had issues with heat dissipation. The handset has been getting warm under heavy user. At the moment it doesn’t feel excessive but it is something to investigate.

The camera has been upgraded to a twenty-three megapixel sensor. Processing the extra information may be affecting the shot-to-shot time, which feels sluggish. The time to focus on elements in a shot also feels slow. Sony’s camera hardware can be found in many smartphones, and I would have expected the Xperia camera to be one of the best. At first glance it’s not stunning, and the biggest issue is the lack of speed.

Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)© Provided by Forbes Sony Xperia Z5 (image: Ewan Spence)

The Sony Xperia Z5 continues the iterative design process of previous Xperia devices. It’s comfortable in the hand and the design cues all help give the handset a unique identity. It also retains the waterproofing seen in previous handsets without needing a rubberized flap to cover the USB port or the headphone jack. All this is perhaps the weak point of the Z5  derived from the Xperia’s six month update cycle. There’s nothing really new in the Z5.  It has a large battery, it has a well-known chip at its heart, and the specifications read like every other high-end smartphone out there. Yes the fingerprint scanner is here, but that’s becoming a default option in the same way that GPS and Wi-Fi are expected parts of a smartphone.

My first impressions are that Sony has matched the expectations of the market in the Xperia Z5 specification, but not really pushed the boat out. If that strategy is going to lead to sales, market share, and critical acclaim, then everything in the package is going to have to be as close to perfection as possible. I don’t think you’d be disappointed if you bought this handset, because it’s very easy to label the Xperia Z5 as strong and competent right now. What’s not clear if it has enough to be called a champion.

Ask me again in a few weeks…

Disclosure: Sony Mobile Communications provided a Sony Xperia Z5 for review purposes.

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