Sony Xperia 5 Review: the best camera to fit in your pocket?
So, does the Xperia 5 deliver that flagship experience in its ergonomic shell? Let’s take a deep dive!
Sony loves its rectangular designs and so do its fans. The Xperia 5 stays true to that clean, elegant look while being thin and light enough to be wielded with absolutely no issue. One-hand operation is a breeze even when you need to reach for items at the top of the screen — it’s just very easy to shimmy that handset around your palm while keeping a solid grip on it. Still, it is the necessity to shimmy it along in the first place that may throw off compact phone fans.
Sony is sticking to the side-mounted fingerprint reader and it’s still not great. It’s a thin, elongated slit that’s about 2 mm wide – and I absolutely hate it. Despite the fact that I registered my fingers multiple times, it still fails, fails, and fails to scan and unlock from the first time.
Otherwise, the phone is a treat to hold and admire. It’s aesthetically pleasing, its frame feels just right in the hand, its buttons are nice and clicky, and it just oozes “flagship”. Yes, this word is also code for “there is no headphone jack”.
Sony has been using OLED panels on its flagships for a couple of years now and they are top notch, as long as you tinker with them a bit. Out of the box, the screen is cold, with a bluish cast, but you have a lot of options to quickly fix that. My favorite is choosing the “Creator” color profile from the Display Settings menu
The screen has a 6.1-inch diagonal, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the Xperia 5 is a huge phone. The display’s aspect ratio is 21:9, meaning it’s extra tall and not very wide. The added headroom makes for better split-screen experiences as the two apps you choose will have more real estate to stretch across. It’s sometimes hard to reach the top of the screen with just a thumb, but as mentioned in the design section — handling the phone and changing grip on the fly is easy.
The resolution is 1080 x 2520 pixels and that translates to a density of about 449 pixels per inch. In other words, the screen is very sharp and you won’t be making out individual pixels with a naked eye.
The screen’s brightness can go up to 636 nits, which sounds great on paper, but I found myself struggling while trying to use the camera on a sunny day. Perhaps the front glass is too reflective — it’s just not great under sunlight. At night, it can go down to 2 nits, which makes for comfortable bedtime reading, especially when combined with the blue-light-filtering Night Light mode.
Performance and battery life
The Xperia 5 packs the very same internals as its older sibling — the Xperia 1. A flagship-grade Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, 6 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of storage. Due to its smaller size, it did need to cut down on the battery, but just a little bit — the cell has a 3,140 mAh capacity.
How does all of that come together? Pretty nicely — the typical Sony interface is a very, very light Android reskin so there are no extra bells and whistles to bog the performance down. The Xperia 5 is a pleasure to use with no hiccups or lags to be observed.
Of course, I tested some heavy games — Call of Duty: Mobile just came out, too! Fun was had, headshots were made, this handset is a gamer’s portable friend.
There are, however, some ridiculous crashes. For example, the camera app crashing with a message “cannot open camera” while you are taking a picture. Or the Cinema Pro app informing you that the phone has gotten too hot and you need to let it cool off. Not a very pro experience if you need to set your tools down until they decide to work again.
These may or may not have been freak cases on a fresh device that needs an update to patch things up. I just found them ridiculous to occur on an $800 handset.
The battery life is pretty good — I wouldn’t say "two-day battery", but I was never feeling pressured by low battery levels. The handset was perfectly capable of taking me through a long, busy day.
This is where it is at — Sony has been working hard to fix the mediocre camera performance that its phones have been known for in the past. The Xperia 1 performed well in this department and since the Xperia 5 packs the same hardware and software — it is also great!
Photos come out with natural colors and realistic details, the dynamic range is generous, and the triple camera system (2x telephoto, wide-angle, ultra wide-angle) gives you a lot of flexibility.
Now, not everything is peachy all the time with the pictures. Sometimes, we get some weird noise issues, which reveal themselves when you zoom in on a photo. At other times, the noise reduction seems to play a bad joke on faces, making them look like we went crazy with a beautify filter. When in Auto mode, you don't have clear access to an HDR toggle and you have to hope for the phone to pick up that there's backlighting in the scene. In most cases, the pictures are realistic, a pleasure to look at, and ready for social media, yet the camera software is a bit cumbersome and sometimes frustrating to work with.
The Portrait Mode is not perfect either — it has more issues with edge detection than I would’ve liked to see. This year, everyone brings their A-game to portrait shots — even Motorola’s mid-range One Zoom phone is pretty good at isolating the subject without cutting an ear off. The Xperia 5… not so much.
In general, I can only praise the cameras. So, I’ll just stop here and let the samples do the talking:
The same can be said about video recording, of course. You can’t shoot 4K footage in 60 FPS — you’ll have to drop down to 1080p for that. But, on the flipside, you can record in HDR which lets you capture truly dynamic scenes without losing data in the highlights or shadows. Another small issue — you can not switch to the ultra-wide camera once video recording has started. If you want to shoot a clip with the 120-degree lens, you need to go into ultra-wide mode first and begin shooting after. So, you need to decide whether you want an ultra-wide or a regular video before you start recording.
What’s that? You want pro features?
Well, for one, the Camera app does have a manual mode, which gives you access to ISO, shutter speed, focus, and color balance. But there’s a more interesting app I’d like to point your attention to — Cinema Pro. Developed in collaboration with CineAlta, which is Sony’s professional imaging equipment branch, this app looks raw, complicated, and scary to the casual user. Don’t worry, it’s actually very straightforward. It’s there to help you record actual cinematic, 21:9 footage at 4K, 24 FPS and in HDR.
It’s what you do with this footage that is complicated — it needs to go through professional video editing software if you are to make the most of it.
It is here that I kind of wish Sony would’ve gone further. Cinema Pro has a few interesting features, like A-B focus presets, but the lack of focus peaking is maddening, especially when trying to record under direct sunlight and it’s tough to make out the image in the viewfinder. And the fact that there’s no app on board to help you edit a video on the fly (aside from trimming it down) kind of undermines the whole “pro” feel of the phone.
That said, I love playing with these cameras and enjoy editing clips taken with Cinema Pro. Here’s a short video I recorded with the app and edited in Final Cut:
Sony prefers to keep its phones clean of too many features or bloat… or so they say. The Xperia 5 banged me over the head with a pre-installed Fortnite downloader, Asphalt 9, the Sony Album picture gallery placed right next to the Google Photos gallery, Amazon Prime video, and Netflix. Yeah, you can disable the ones you don’t want, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.
Its stereo speakers are not exactly great. They are detailed and don’t distort too much, but they do lack bass, making them tinny and harsh. On the flip side, the Dolby Atmos software on board will let you really tweak and boost the quality of the sound when using headphones or a Bluetooth speaker.
Side Sense is back — you tap the very edge of the screen twice and you get a pop-up menu of your most-often-used or your favorite apps. Does it sound like it’s hard to activate? Let me guarantee you that 50% of the time, it works every time!
There’s a smart unlock feature, which will detect when you lift the phone in landscape and auto-open the camera. However, I’ve found that the dedicated camera shutter button is just more reliable. You press it and hold it while taking the phone out of your pocket and as soon as it’s in front of your eyes, you already have the camera open.
There’s a Face unlock that lets you fine-tune it by re-scanning your face in different conditions — different lighting, different facewear, different facial hair. Of course, it doesn’t work in the dark and it’s not super secure… but at least it let me unlock the phone much more reliably than the fingerprint scanner, absolutely saving me from going insane.
This is one of the more polarizing phones I’ve used in a while. On one hand, I absolutely love it — the design is beautiful, functional, and ergonomic. The cameras are fantastic and its software is fun to play with. On the other hand, that fingerprint scanner is maddening, some random crashes left me perplexed and disappointed, and the whole software user experience part needs a once-over by the programming team.
It’s a good phone, it really is. And we really do have limited options when it comes to an ergonomic phone that makes no compromise in camera or hardware. Is $800 too much for that device? Possibly, if we look at it in a vacuum. But let’s take a look at the broader picture.
I’d say that the Xperia 5’s closest alternative is the Samsung Galaxy S10 — a phone that is thin, light, easy to wield, and has amazing cameras itself. The Galaxy S10’s MSRP is $900 and the Xperia 5 launches for $800. Not only that, Sony’s phone will come bundled with the WF-1000XM3 wireless headphones in some markets. That’s a $230 value on top, so if you can secure this deal — I’d say it’s definitely worth it.
On the other hand, the iPhone 11 just dropped and is offering crazy value with its $700 price-tag. While I am not outright saying “buy an iPhone 11 instead of this”, it will be interesting to see how the competition will be responding over the next few months, as Apple’s new offering will definitely pressure them to give up on their dreams of selling super-priced phones.