Sony Xperia 5 III review: a flawed diamond12
Don’t get me wrong, the Xperia 5 III is still a technology masterpiece. It’s pretty, fast, and comes packed full of features. The latest Snapdragon chipset? Check! A microSD card slot? Check! The list goes on and on - there’s a 3.5mm audio jack, an IP65/68 water and dust protection, a big 4,500mAh battery with fast charging, and of course, the most advanced camera system in a smartphone to date. The 6.1-inch 21:9 OLED display is as beautiful as they get and it also boasts a 120Hz refresh rate.
However, there are small hiccups here and there that spoil the flagship experience promised by the hefty price of the Xperia 5 III. Things like sudden restarts, fingerprint reader phantom activation, proximity sensor woes, flashlight turning on out of nowhere can get on the nerves of even the most loyal and patient Sony aficionados.
But let’s dive deep and find the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Sony Xperia 5 III.
In a land where you can’t tell smartphones from one another, Sony has created an instantly recognizable design for its Xperia lineup. The tall 21:9 aspect ratio makes the Xperia 5 III stand out in the smartphone crowd - literally and metaphorically. The specific curvature of the frame, the elongated camera bump, the notch-free display, everything screams Sony. It’s different and it’s (still) fresh.
The Xperia 5 III follows the design language of its predecessors, it has a painted aluminum frame, holding together two pieces of glass. The right side of the frame is pretty busy - it houses the volume rocker, the power/fingerprint button, and there are two additional clickers further down - a dedicated Google Assistant button, and a double-action camera shutter.
The SIM/microSD slot is on the left, and under a flap that you can easily pry open with your fingernails. It’s a brilliant solution that renders those annoying sim tray pins obsolete. The 3.5mm audio jack is on the top, and the USB-C port - on the bottom. No loudspeaker grill on the frame, because the Xperia 5 III features front-facing stereo speakers. Oh, and there’s a multi-color notification LED at the top right corner!
The build quality is awesome - everything is tight and there’s no creaking or squeaking when you grip the phone tight or try to twist it. I’ve always enjoyed the radius of the frame that Sony uses in its Xperia phones. It’s really comfortable in the hand, nothing digs into your palm, holding the Xperia 5 III is a gentle experience and the 21:9 aspect ratio helps as well. The Xperia 5 III is also really light, clocking at just 168g!
On the negative side, the glossy paint job of the aluminum frame, coupled with the glass on the front and back, makes the phone very, very slippery. And it’s also a fingerprint magnet. But you’ll forget all that the moment you light up the display…
Smartphone displays nowadays are amazingly good across flagship models. People often start blabbering about how they’re vivid, bright, and so responsive. The 6.1-inch OLED panel in the Xperia 5 III ticks all those boxes - it’s quite bright, the 1080x2520 resolution is more than enough to keep it crisp, and the 120Hz refresh rate makes it smooth as a man’s skin in a Gillette commercial.
There are two areas where this display excels over its equally awesome competitors. Calibration and customization. The Creator mode in the display settings will automatically give you a professional level of color calibration compatible with the BT.2020 color space and 10-bit HDR as well. It’s a set it and forget it mode that would please everyone with aspirations toward realistic colors.
You can use Standard mode, and toggle a switch that will automatically engage the Creator preset when a specific app is launched (such as Netflix, Photography Pro, Cinema Pro, etc.) There’s also video image enhancement courtesy of the X1 for mobile taken straight from Sony’s Bravia TVs.
The color temperature settings are even more detailed. You can choose between Warm, Medium, and Cool but the Custom setting will let you easily switch between different standardized color temperatures, such as D50 which is the daylight spectrum at a correlated color temperature of 5000 K.
There’s an Always-on mode as well, and you can customize it with different clock designs, stickers, and also choose when it activates. And that’s pretty much it! Watching a 21:9 movie on the Xperia 5 III is a real treat. It’s a flat display, so there’s no image distortion near the sides, and as already mentioned - no notch or an auspicious hole for the selfie camera. Just pure pleasure.
Performance and storage
As far as performance is concerned, the Xperia 5 III is no slouch. The Snapdragon 888 SoC, coupled with the FDH+ display resolution makes this phone exceptionally snappy and responsive. 8GB of RAM is just enough, and while the Xperia 1 III boasts 12GB, you won’t feel the difference.
Looking at the synthetic benchmarks, it’s obvious that the Xperia 5 III has some overheating/throttling issues. And you can feel it yourself - the phone gets quite hot every time you do something even remotely demanding with it. Compared to the Xperia 1 III, which has the same processor but a larger body and a 4K display, the Xperia 5 III kinda underperforms a bit.
Still, in real-life scenarios, you won’t notice any stutter or lag, just the heat. On the positive side, you can multitask with this phone and it’s a breeze, thanks to the tall aspect ratio. Opening two apps in split-screen mode is easy and you can actually get some work done.
The built-in storage is either 128 or 256GB but it doesn’t really matter that much because of the almighty and nearly extinct MicroSD card slot. You can expand your storage with up to 1TB, and you can also hot-swap SD cards - no tools required, just your fingernails.
Fingerprint reader, and other shenanigans
I decided to gather all the frustration under one subheading, and just get it over with. For starters, I’ve always liked and praised side-mounted capacitive fingerprint readers. They’re more intuitive, faster, and generally better than their more modern in-display counterparts. Sadly, that’s not the case with the Xperia 5 III.
The fingerprint reader, which doubles as a power button, is placed in a very comfortable position. Your thumb naturally lays over it when you pick up the phone. And that’s the main issue. A blessing and a curse, as they say. You can’t put the phone back in your pocket without triggering the fingerprint reader. And it’s not a case of “you’re holding it wrong.”
Every time I took the Xperia 5 III out of my pocket the fingerprint scanner was locked saying “too many attempts.” This makes me think that there’s some false activation going on. And even when it does work the way it’s supposed to, the fingerprint reader is quite slow and annoying. Let’s hope Sony can alleviate this with a software update soon.
Then there’s the proximity sensor situation. The one that turns off the screen when you’re on a call, holding the phone to your ear. Well, this one’s kinda bad at doing it - every time I was on a call I noticed the screen rapidly turning on and off, flickering in my peripheral vision. Adjusting the grip and pushing the phone tighter to my ear helped but not by much. More often than not, my ear was unintentionally swiping and activating apps, setting alarms and whatnot.
To top it all off, the phone restarted a couple of times for no obvious reason - mainly while browsing Google News or scrolling in Chrome, and the flashlight kept on turning on by itself from time to time. It was like the Xperia 5 III was possessed. None of these issues seem major but they can get under your skin, especially if you’ve just coughed up $1000 to get this baby. So, with all that out of the way, let’s move on.
Camera and audio
Now, back on the good stuff. The Xperia 5 III comes with a triple camera system on the back with a proverbial twist. The first periscope zoom camera on a Sony phone is also the most advanced one. It features a moving lens inside, allowing for two distinct focal lengths - 70mm and 105mm.
It’s not a real vario zoom per se, because you don’t get all the in-between focal lengths (yet) but it’s a feat in its own right. Sony said in an interview that they could’ve offered continuous zoom in the Mark III lineup but since the tech was first-gen, decided to play safe. The sensor behind this innovative system is Sony’s IMX 663 - boasting 12MP and dual PDAF.
The main camera utilizes a 1/1.7" 12 MP Sony IMX 557 sensor, while the ultra-wide uses another old friend of ours - the Sony IMX 363. Sony prefers to speak in focal lengths, which kinda makes sense, at least to photographers and enthusiasts alike, so in total, you’ve got four focal lengths to choose from - 16mm for the ultra-wide, 24mm for the main camera, and 70mm or 105mm for the periscope zoom camera.
Now, I’m not the kind of person who would start to tinker with all the Pro settings in the camera app, so I mainly used the Xperia 5 III as a point-and-shoot device. The Photography Pro app is great, though, even for laymen like me.
You can use it in BASIC mode and get the on-screen shutter button plus the zoom equivalents of the different lenses, or choose AUTO and shoot like a (semi-)pro with the dual-action shutter button and focal lengths in millimeters. You don’t need to tweak other settings, the algorithms will do that automatically for you.
One thing I noticed during my time with the Photography Pro is that when you lock and unlock the screen, the camera setting automatically returns to BASIC on the app. A bit annoying but nothing too bad. Let’s talk about images.
I quite liked the results of my photography endeavors - as little as I know about photography, I can tell the images were detailed and the colors - accurate. Many of you might miss the boosted colors of other flagship models from other brands (Sam-khm-sung) but I found the pictures taken with the Xperia 5 III pleasingly true-to-life.
The tonal quality between the different sensors is quite uniform too, which is not that surprising given they’re all Sony made. The difference between 70mm and 105mm is not that big, and one might argue that this periscope zoom system is just a gimmick, but in reality, images look great at both focal lengths and it’s like you have four cameras in the size of three.
It’s also interesting that you can hear and feel the lens moving inside the camera - there are little clicks and tiny vibrations when you operate the camera, quite similar to what you get in a dedicated point-and-shoot device.
There’s no dedicated macro camera, though and while you can get pretty close using the main shooter, don’t expect the macro world to suddenly come alive right in your face. It’s not that kind of a camera system.
Night shots are okay but you need a steady hand to avoid the blurry mess the algorithms can produce. There’s another argument to be had here, some people find night pictures taken with Xperia phones darker than what competitors are dishing out and that’s actually true. Thing is, the night shots I took with the Xperia 5 III look exactly like they should - dark. Not as if someone shone a 1000lm studio light on the scene.
To each their own, I guess, but if realism is what you seek, the Xperia 5 III is definitely an option. There’s little to no post-processing on the colors and night shots look like night shots. You can always tweak everything to your liking if you’re photo-savvy enough anyway.
The 8MP selfie camera lacks autofocus and uses a Samsung sensor. You can shoot Portrait selfies with it and images turn out okay-ish, but I’m not overly impressed with it. More so when competitors are doing dual selfie cameras with auto-focus, ultrawide lenses, true bokeh, etc.
The Xperia 5 III can shoot videos with up to 4K@120fps but you need to use the Cinema Pro app and tweak a lot of parameters to get things right. In Basic mode 4K tops at 30fps, and you also have the option to record 1080p at 60fps.
Colors are again pretty accurate at both settings and image stabilization is quite good as well. There is some choppiness from time to time and an occasional drop in overall detail but nothing too bad. The autofocus works well and pretty fast, too. The sun glares you can pick up in the sample videos can be taken both ways - as a defect or as an artistic tool.
The interesting thing is that you can’t switch between lenses while recording, at least when using BASIC mode. But on the other hand, you can record videos using each and every lens option. You can zoom while shooting but it’s the bad digital type of zoom and it shows, especially at 1080p.
The front-facing stereo speakers deserve a few words here. The sound they produce is quite detailed and clear, even at high volumes. Thing is, that “high” volumes are not so high. The Xperia 5 III is not quiet by any means, but it isn’t a vocal champion either. The good news is that the sound stays free of distortion even when the volume is maxed out. And you have the 3.5mm jack to quench your audiophile thirst anyway.
The Xperia 5 III runs Android 11 out of the box and it’s pretty clean. Sony has kept the bloatware to a minimum and you just get quality of life apps like Multi-window switch, Game Enhancer, and the awesome Photography Pro, and Cinema Pro.
Side Sense is one of the proprietary user interface ideas that Sony tries to coin for quite some time now, and it’s more of the same in the Xperia 5 III. The flat screen helps with Side Sense activation but launching apps and features by tapping on this hair-thin strip near the bezel is still a nerve-wracking experience.
Battery care is another neat idea that’s executed way better. Not only do you have all the Stamina modes and schedule options too, but you can also read about the different battery charge patterns and make an educated choice about when or whether to use the Battery care mode.
All in all the software experience is pure Android most of the time, and it contributes to the snappiness of the phone. Unlike other more cluttered UIs, Sony continues to keep things neat and tidy in its Xperia devices.
Battery and charging
The Xperia 5 III comes equipped with a hefty 4,500mAh battery. The same capacity can be found in its bigger and pricier sibling - the Xperia 1 III. The main difference is that 1 III has a 4K display that drains the battery like crazy, while the Xperia 5 III settles for FHD+ (1080x2520). And it does wonders to the battery life. The Xperia 5 III will last you a full day easily even if you put the phone through its paces.
Even in 120Hz mode, you can comfortably get 24 hours on a single charge, and our battery benchmark shows it too. The phone even rivals the 10 III which is a midrange endurance champion, and we’re talking about a flagship phone here.
Sadly, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. The fast-charging caps at 30W, and while you get the charger in the box (thanks, Sony!), a full charge takes exactly two hours. It’s a bit underwhelming when competitors from the Far East can charge a 4,500mAh battery in half an hour.
Another glaring omission is wireless charging. It’s nowhere to be found! I’m not gonna make a big deal out of it but if you’re used to charging your gadgets wirelessly, it can be a bummer.