Sony Xperia Z5 – First Impressions

Yesterday we got a chance to go down to Sony Singapore’s launch of their recently announced Xperia Z5 smartphones (except for the Z5 Premium – that’s launching slightly later) and see just what Sony has pulled out of the bag this time. For more information on the specifications, what’s new in the three devices and what’s not, you can also check out our article on the IFA launch of the Z5.

All three of the announced devices have practically the same specifications – all that really changes is the display size/resolution and the corresponding battery capacity. As such, the experience with all three devices should mostly be the same (except for how large/small they feel of course) so let’s have a look at the general strengths and shortcomings of the Z5 devices.

The Good

Matte Backing on the Z5 and Z5 Compact

We're not sure that purposely making the back of the Z5 Premium a mirror is a good decision though
Though we’re not sure that making the back of the Z5 Premium a mirror is a good idea

Gone is the pesky glass backing that contributed to unsightly fingerprints, or worse – cracked rear panels after a particularly nasty drop. In is a matte backing that feels extremely smooth to the touch, if still a bit slippery. However, the increased girth of the devices does make it easier to handle.

Fingerprint Sensor is pretty quick

While we didn’t bust out our stopwatches to time how quickly one could unlock the phone with the fingerprint sensor embedded into the power button, it seemed quick enough to rival Apple’s Touch ID. Finger recognition accuracy is also very good and did not require repeated attempts to unlock the device. Furthermore, the system works akin to Touch ID, where all you have to do is place your finger upon the sensor and press, which speeds up matters greatly.

23 MP resolution for Superior Auto unlocked

A minor bugbear since the days of the Xperia Z1, the Xperia Z5 now allows users to finally take advantage of the full camera resolution available in the Superior Auto mode. Previously limited to Manual mode, this unlock – which really should have come as soon as the Xperia Z2 – will make Superior Auto photos more detailed, though it also runs a risk of adding excessive noise.

Display is brighter than the Xperia Z3/Z3+

The Xperia Z5 (top) and the Z2 (bottom)
The Xperia Z5 (top) and the Z2 (bottom)

Visibility under the harsh afternoon sun should take a boost with the increased brightness of the Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact over the Z3. Users of the Xperia Z2 will see an even greater difference between their devices and the Z5, for the display of the Z2 was notoriously dim. In terms of colour and viewing angles, the IPS LCD is still top-class even if Samsung’s Super AMOLED panels are a step ahead.

No flaps on the charging port

Sony has always been big on waterproofing their devices since the Xperia Z, and this continues with the Xperia Z5. However, since the Z3+ any pesky micro-USB flap has been absent, which increases convenience while charging, and removes the risk of your device losing its waterproofing if a flap falls out.

The Bad

Volume rocker is too far down

The Xperia Z2 (top) and Z5 (bottom)
The Xperia Z2 (top) and Z5 (bottom)

The inclusion of the larger power button due to the integrated fingerprint sensor has seen the volume rocker in the Xperia Z5 get pushed down until it’s nearly touching the physical camera shutter key. While it certainly will contribute to easier zooming in and out in camera operation, it significantly increases the difficulty in increasing or decreasing the media volume. A better solution would have been to situate the volume rocker on the left of the device.

It’s still very slippery

Even if Sony has done away with the glass back seen in all previous Z-series smartphones, they still haven’t been able to make them less slippery. While it’s extremely nice to feel the smooth surface on your hands, there is always the danger of the phone simply sliding through your hands to embrace the floor below. A little rougher surface would have been perfectly fine.

RAW and manual camera settings are still missing

The manual settings on the HTC One (E8)
The manual settings on the HTC One (E8)

A feature now present in every single one of Sony’s competitors down from Google’s Nexus line to Samsung, LG and HTC (yes, even them), the implementation of the Camera2 API is still absent here in the Xperia Z5. Only in Sony’s offerings are you prevented from obtaining RAW images with far more detail than compressed JPGs, are denied the ability to choose your own shutter speed, focus distance and dial in a white balance number. Now, while this is already a pretty bad domain to be lagging behind your competitors in, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sony representatives at the launch event did say this functionality might come in a software update, but sounded far from optimistic.

There has been no improvement in the camera algorithm

While more in-depth testing with a review unit will reveal the extent to which the Superior Auto camera algorithm is still suffering, our initial usage of the Z5 camera shows that there is a ridiculous amount of noise reduction going on even under the bright lights at the launch event. Fine details were missing even in the 23 MP mode – zooming into faces more than 2 meters away yielded almost comically cartoonish features. This hasn’t really been an issue previously since the Manual mode of the previous Z-series devices has been very good, but now it seems to have regressed greatly.

The Ugly

The camera’s Manual Mode is now useless

Even without the Camera2 API, Sony previously allowed users to manually select the ISO at whichever resolution you fancied, so the shutter speed was forced to be reduced to bring in more light. This was perfect in those situations where you were confident of your steady hands or had a tripod to mount your phone upon, and didn’t want excessive noise in your images.

Well, it’s now gone. The Manual mode in the camera has just become utterly useless.

Welcome to the world's most restricted 'Manual' mode
Welcome to the world’s most restricted ‘Manual’ mode

Now, Sony forces you to limit your resolution to 8 MP if you want to manually set the ISO, denying you the ability to take advantage of the full 23 MP or even 20 MP the camera can use. With Sony’s perennial issues with the automatic camera algorithm (which has not even been rectified), you now get photos with truckloads of noise when you select a resolution above 8 MP as you’re forced to use Auto ISO.

This is even more grating when you realise that none of the Z5 predecessors had this inane limitation. An owner of an Xperia Z2 myself, I’m confident in my ability to keep the camera steady even with the low shutter speeds that come about with low ISO selections – it is Manual mode after all. But with the Z5 that opportunity has been snatched away.

When we asked the Sony representatives their reasoning behind this limitation, they were at a loss for words before stammering out a rather unbelievable excuse that the sensor could not handle manual ISO at 20 or 23 MP, even though it was no problem at 20.7 MP with the previous Xperia Z devices.

To call this padded box “Manual Mode” is an insult.

Low-light performance has regressed hugely, and lags miles behind competitors

Previously the crowning jewel of the Xperia series, the camera now seems to have taken a thousand-mile leap backwards. Not only has it failed to include improvements such as RAW and manual settings – features present as far back as in the HTC One (M8) – removed any possible reason to call Manual Mode what it is called, but its low-light processing has also become much worse.

Composite

The individual full-res images can be found here – Xperia Z2, Xperia Z5, LG G4.

To show-off the “superb” low-light performance of the Xperia Z5, we were invited to a dark room where two Xperia Z5s were mounted on top of tripods, aimed at these miniatures of the Eiffel Tower. Light really was scarce – you could barely see your hand in front of you. We tried out the photography of the Z5, my Z2 and Timothy’s LG G4 and were shocked to see the Z5 performing the worst out of the three.

The white balance was not perfect, detail was a hazy mess, and there was ridiculous amounts of purple fringing in the image produced by the Z5. Even the Xperia Z2, with an obviously worse white balance selection fared better but the LG G4 simply blew the Xperias away.

The reason for this is two-fold:

  • The Xperia Z2/Z5 is limited to 8 MP if you want to utilise the low-light scene, regardless if in Superior Auto or Manual mode. This is an obvious hit to the fine detail in the images.
  • Manual mode at 8 MP, low-light scene, and ISO 50 (to reduce noise) produces a pitch-black image. This clearly highlights the shortcomings of the Xperia Z5’s camera algorithm, which looks to have become worse than its predecessors.

For a device that is touting its camera as one of its main selling points, this is an absolute disaster. Not only do its rivals leave it to choke in their dust, but so do the older Z-series devices (or at least the Xperia Z2). I’ve no idea what has happened to Sony Mobile’s camera department with the Z5, but it’s sure to torpedo any sales from photography enthusiasts.

Pricing and Pre-order Bonuses

Product Model Price Availability Pre-order Bundles
Sony Xperia Z5 SGD$998 October 2015 Pre-order available from 24 Sep to 11 Oct 2015

Free Micro USB Charging Dock DK52 (RRP $58)

PWP promotion of the new High-Resolution Audio Headset MDR-NC750 at SGD$49

Sony Xperia Z5 Compact SGD$828 (Single SIM) October 2015
Sony Xperia Z5 Premium SGD$1098 (Single SIM) November 2015

Final Words

IMG-3

If you can’t be bothered with the quality of your photos from your phone and don’t do too much of low-light photography, then the Xperia Z5 should be perfectly fine for you. It should recover its legendary battery life that took a hit with the Xperia Z3+, and it still has a host of other strengths as listed above but if you find the restrictions and quality of images from the Z5 unacceptable, you’re better off looking at the LG G4 or Galaxy S6. Even the iPhone 6S is a better bet.

Even if you’re a Sony fan and are willing to turn a blind-eye to the camera’s shortcomings, I’d still hold off from pre-ordering the device until more professional and user reviews begin to roll in. The Xperia Z5 could have been the phone to get this winter, but it seems that Sony have shot themselves in the foot to deny any such possibility.

15 thoughts on “Sony Xperia Z5 – First Impressions

  1. Wow, one of the most manipulated reviews that I’ve read. Low light pictures (with the little Eiffel Tower) were taken at completely different settings, automatic/manual, long exposure/short exposure, hight ISO/low ISO. They’re completely uncomparable, it’s obvious that a picture taken with 30s exposure and 50 ISO would have much more details than a picture with 1/8s exposure and 12800 ISO. This comparison was rigged to bash the Z5.

    1. I’m one of Sony’s biggest fans, so much so my reviews of the Z1/2/3 were called biased. I’ve got no reason to rig a test against the Z5. And I’m really disappointed with how Sony has handled the camera. The low light pictures here were taken mounted on a tripod for all three phones. The G4, at 30s, with ISO 50. We tried the same with the Z2 and Z5 – Manual Mode, ISO 50, and as I wrote in the article, the image was pitch black. The Sony phones refused to realise that we wanted a long exposure because it was on a tripod. So to even get a working image we had to let the Z2 and Z5 do their things in Superior Auto. That’s an issue with the Sony algorithm – they do not allow manual shutter speed selection with the stock app, and their automatic shutter selection refuses to go above speeds of 1/8s.

      This is a huge disadvantage the Xperia Z5 has against the Galaxy S6 and LG G4, not to mention it does worse compared to its own predecessor the Z2.

      1. Everithing you said still doesn’t makes any sense on why you using different setting for the camera comparison.
        Did you ever see any professional reviewer do that?

        It also can be misleading because most people still have no idea about shutter speed or ISO and thanks to your preview maybe some of clueless G4 users think that they can get the same result by simply point & shot.
        And you also need to remmember most of us never carry or even don’t have tripod.

        You need to learn on how to do a fair comparison.

        But i agree with you that Sony should provide manual control to fully unlocked the true potential of the Xperia camera.
        So the so called wanna be photographers can stop whinning about their Xperia camera.

        1. My points are clearly stated in the article regarding the nature of the comparison. If you feel otherwise, I do not mind if you could help me highlight the area which you felt was unclear and I’d clear it up further.

          If some G4 photographers get overexcited and fail to read it properly, I feel it is their fault for assuming such. The comparison was done to see which phone could produce the best image in low-light under tripod conditions. In that, the Z5 finished dead last behind the Z2 and G4. This is not a test we carried out entirely of our own volition. The dark room and tripods were set up for us by Sony themselves. Therefore we did a tripod comparison. I understand that not everyone carries tripods but that’s the test we decided to do in that situation, and we made it clear in the article. (Now this is my opinion, but in the light conditions that were in the room, you’d be foolish not to use a tripod if you want to take pictures.)

          It is not purely an image quality comparison. It is a comparison of the best images each phone can produce in low-light given the same external conditions. Here, the Z5’s and Z2’s best are not as good as the G4. That is the aim of the comparison.

          1. I know you clearly stated in the article regarding the nature of the comparison, but the way you do the comparison by manually set the shutter speed to 30s makes your points not valid.
            If its a fair comparison you’ll show us 2 samples from G4 first the one with auto mode or at least set the maximum ISO available with the same shutter speed as the Z2 and Z5.
            The other one is with manual setting.
            Just like some guy in the past when he test Xperia Z2 vs iPhone 5s vs Lumia 1520 low light performance.

            Even if the The dark room and tripods were set up by Sony themselves that doesn’t means you can use manual setting.
            Because it makes the comparison is not fair and as far as i know Sony only bragging about their Superior Auto Mode.
            So it will be fair if you comparing phone with auto setting.

            (Now this is my opinion, but in the light conditions that were in the room, you’d be foolish not to use a tripod if you want to take pictures.)
            Okay now you sounds very irrational because in low light i can take better pictures with the tiny flash on Xperia than what you can get with G4 using long exposure time.

            So next time if you want to do some comparison make sure your test reflect the real world scenario when most people just point & shot.
            I’m fine if you want to show the advantages of manual controls but you need to keep it fair by providing both auto & manual modes.

            And i’m also sure you already know that in low light the slow shutter speed will be useless if you shooting moving subjects or handheld.

          2. You make fair points, and we’ll keep your suggestions in mind for the future, though I am going to reiterate that the comparison between the Z2 and Z5 was done with both in Superior Auto, and saw the Z2 come out top.

            However, I must stress that the lighting in the room was bad enough that even with ISO 12800 the Z5 was using a speed of 1/8s, which means in that situation you cannot be shooting moving subjects anyway. As such there is no reason not to use a tripod if you want the best picture possible in that situation. Furthermore, flash effectiveness decreases sharply with increasing distance, so you cannot be shooting landscapes at night with the flash. This is not an irrational mind, but an experienced photographer speaking. You’re not getting useable pictures in that kind of lighting for moving subjects, and you’re not going to be able to use the flash for landscapes.

          3. Give it up dude… Really… I have a Z2. It’s not biased, it’s just the facts. I am finding the camera decent, but lacking… Period… End of story… If someone is looking for particular features to achieve a better end result, they will find Sony sorely lacking… Maybe you could write to Sony and ask them why they are killing off their own product, instead of bashing a fair review of products available…

  2. Bullcrap comparison.
    You just can’t compare 100 ISO and 30sec exposure and 12800 ISO with 1/8 sec exposure. Even on super profi camera. Biased cr..p here.
    Just compare on auto all of them or don’t do it.
    And of course, with ISO 50 VERY camera would give black image with fast shutter speed.
    C’mon. Ridiculous.

    1. The point of the comparison was to show the upper extremes of the capabilities of each camera. My Z2 and the Z5 clearly top out very early compared to what the G4 can do. The aim of the comparison is not a pure IQ comparison.

      1. Than your test is even more idiotic since G4 and Sony have camera settings which are on the complete oposition.
        I understand you’re one of these guys who will bash one product no matter what it takes to prove the silly point.
        What you do is NOT a comparison. It’s like comparing Golf TDI with Range Rover…. Pointless.
        Take all of them with full Auto, that’s a comparison. Other than that it’s just a biased junk.
        P.S.
        I even trust this less seeing the relation between Z2 and Z5. You must have been working hard to manipulate the result.
        Each comparison I saw between Z5 and Z2 shows a big advantage in favour of Z5.
        And here is the real thing, not yor manipulation:

  3. Everyone uses sony sensors and obtains better results, except sony themselves. Xperia’s are clearly struggling for existence in the smartphone market. I understand the point of review here was to obtain the best possible result in low light, and the G4 can in manual settings. That’s a perk of G4, so why not to show it, G4 owners will brag about the same. Sony superior auto mode are all non sense. S6 and G4 are far more superior and also the Iphone 6s. Dont worry Z5 is not going to dethrone s6 edge or g4 in Dxo mark ratings any time soon. Superb review by Sikhar Gupta.
    http://www.allaboutsymbian.com/features/item/20671_Nokia_808_2012_vs_LG_G4_2015_c.php

    Steve Litchfield compared Lg G4 with the great Lumia 808

  4. G4 vs S6 vs Z3+ vs 808
    Take a look
    http://smartcam.club/node/3306

    Sony fans always dream for top of the line camera in their each and every flagships. Guys, it is time to sober up and understand main fact, that with such stupid programmers, Sony smartphones always will be the worst, of all competitors

  5. I’m going to skip the “apple to apple : comparison issue”. I would like to thanks to the author for pointing out that the manual mode is now lacking of manual ISO selection and some what handicapped. When I use my Z3 compact in manual mode, I always adjust the ISO accordingly to the scene (bright sunny day/ gloomy day – monsoon time /indoor). So far, I am always impressed with the 20.7mp output in favourable lighting condition. The Manual ISO is going to be a miss if I am getting the Z5 in the future.

    sorry if I miss something in this review, but can someone tell me ” is the superior auto mode shoots in full resolution 23mp? “

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