Sony Xperia Z5 Premium Review – P for Perfect?

Overview

When Sony announced their new flagship Z5 series, it was done with much fanfare for the three devices launched – the Z5, Z5 Compact and Z5 Premium. At the launch event we were invited to have a look at the former two, with only wall-mounted units of the Z5 Premium available to play around with. It was, then, with much excitement we received our review set of the Z5P – the first in its class to house a 4K resolution display. How was it, then? 

Pros:

  • The 5.5″ screen is great for watching media
  • Fingerprint sensor is fast
  • Waterproofing has improved
  • Front-facing speakers are great

Cons:

  • Its size means it gets caught in jeans pockets
  • The gloss (especially on the corners) is gaudy to many
  • Battery life is a large step down from the Z3
  • Camera has made zero progress
  • Camera shuts down after barely a minute-and-a-half of just 1080p/60 FPS video recording

Introduction

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Upon announcement of the Z5 Premium, many were confused at the reasoning behind the inclusion of a 4K resolution display. Some speculated it was just a move to show-off (after all, it has been quite a while since Sony was the first to do anything), while others were more patient in passing judgement. Others also wondered its place in the smartphone hierarchy – why didn’t they release a Z Ultra successor instead? Regardless of intention, Sony truly made headlines with the Z5 Premium. Now, it’s time to find out how much of the acclaim, and how much of the criticism was justified.

But first, let’s have a look at the specifications.

  Sony Xperia Z5 Premium
Display 5.5”, 4K (2160p) display
Camera 23 MP, 1/2.3 inch sensor
Video Recording 4K/30 FPS, 1080p/60 FPS, 1080p/30 FPS
Processor 64-bit, 1.5 and 2 GHz Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
GPU Adreno 430
RAM 3 GB
Storage 32 GB, micro-SD expandable
Battery 3430 mAh, STAMINA mode
Other IP68 (dust and waterproof), FM radio, front-facing speakers, NFC, LTE

Unboxing, Design and Build Quality

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Opening up the box you are presented with the device, first and foremost. Taking the Z5 Premium out you find the charging plug, earphones, micro-USB to USB cable, and the manuals included in individual boxes.

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In the continuation of the OmniBalance design philosophy that was instituted with the Xperia Z in 2013, the Z5 Premium is a rectangular slab with glass panels at the front and the rear. The main chassis is an aluminium unibody, and the Z5 Premium has the periphery of the device slathered with gloss so much so you can use it as a mirror (Sony even advertises it so).

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I was sent the Xperia Z5 in the golden colour, but it is also available in cobalt and silver. I did, however, find the gold especially distasteful this time, as compared to previously with the Xperia Z3, for the gloss made it gleam gaudily. Otherwise, I felt the Z5 Premium looks very good, just like its predecessors. However, this is down to personal choice after all, so I’d recommend having a better look at the device in-stores to judge it for yourself.

Compared with the previous iteration, the Z3+, there has been practically no change in the design of the device. The micro-USB port is located the bottom and since the Z3+ there has been no pesky flap covering it. The notification light is located at the top left of the device, although I strongly preferred the method used in the Z1 and Z2 where it was house in the top speaker grille instead. There is only one flap in the whole device, used to hide the combined microSD and nano-SIM card slots.

The volume rocker is too far down for comfortable operation
The volume rocker is too far down for comfortable operation

The only major change in the physical design of the Z5 Premium (and the Z5 itself) has been the shift of the volume rocker down towards the physical camera shutter key to accomodate the fingerprint sensor integrated into the power button. Gone is the iconic Sony circle, now replaced by a rectangular button.

Similar to the previous iterations, the Z5 Premium is also IP68 rated, making it capable of surviving a 1.5m dunk in freshwater for half an hour. Its build quality also seems robust, in the sense that while it may collect dents and scratches if it falls, it will not damage the internals of the device.

Handling

The Z5 Premium and Nexus 5X/6P fingerprint sensor placements are the best I have seen
The Z5 Premium and Nexus 5X/6P fingerprint sensor placements are the best I have seen

The Z5 Premium, like the other Z5 models, has a fingerprint sensor embedded into the rectangular power button. The beauty of the placement of the power button is that your index finger (left-handed use) or your thumb (right-handed use) are almost always resting on it when you pick it up, and the TouchID/Nexus Imprint style mechanism means that all you have to do is press the button and keep your registered fingers placed on it until it unlocks. Which is very fast – faster than TouchID, and just as quick as Imprint. This design (unlike Samsung’s which requires a swipe on the home button) means that unlocking your device can be done in under half a second from picking it up.

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Yup, I typed this while it was wet

What’s more, the waterproofing has been improved to a huge extent. Previously, when your phone got wet all you could do without your screen going haywire was record a video or take a picture using the physical shutter key. Now, however, I found I could easily type a perfectly coherent text message while walking through the rain. There is one drawback however – the waterproofing is terrible for the fingerprint sensor. If your finger has even a thin sheen of sweat or oil, you’re not going to be able to unlock the phone without entering the PIN.

However, in the handling is where there is quite a bit of an issue when trying to use the Z5 Premium. Already very large at a 5.5″ display, handling is made even more difficult due to the slippery glass and sides. Resting it upright or even leaning it slightly against the wall is made extremely difficult unlike previous iterations. With the Z3, I had sufficient peace of mind to make the following statement:

In the hand, the Z3 feels incredibly smooth, but not so much so that it makes you doubt if it’s going to find itself a shortcut to the ground.

Unfortunately with the Z5 Premium, I don’t have the confidence to make the same statement. Every time I pull the device out of my pockets, I feel the urge to slip it right back inside lest it decide the ground was more inviting than my hands.

One handed operation is a stressful experience with the Z5 Premium
One handed operation is a stressful experience with the Z5 Premium

Speaking of pockets, the device is an annoyingly tight fit anytime you feel like wearing a fashionable pair of jeans. Sometimes it juts out of the pocket, other times it decides to launch an attack on your thigh by pressing its corner with all its 180g might.

The next issue there is with the Z5 Premium is that the lowly placed volume rocker makes it extremely awkward to use. Contorting my fingers all over the place often results in a situation where I nearly drop the device or get dangerously close to cramping my fingers up. It is also an issue in the pocket, where the long length of the device means that you often end up groping around blindly and trigger the fingerprint sensor or camera instead.

In short, while the fingerprint sensor and improved waterproofing make your life much easier, the story is different when you focus on the physical act of holding or pocketing the device. If you’re those who operate without a case, you might want to rethink your decision to keep the Z5 Premium in its birthday suit, and if you’re not one with long fingers, you might not end up enjoying the physical feel of the Z5 Premium.

Display

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Long having practically perfected the 1080p IPS LCD panel (just a year actually), Sony decided it was time to play a trump card. While preliminary leaks were indicating the Z5 Premium would be Sony’s entry into the 2K resolution display, such claims were squarely quashed by Sony representatives who felt 2K was not enough a step above.

Enter 4K. What Sony has done is included a 4K panel, but it normally operates only at 1080p, but when you view media it switches to 4K mode. This switch happens in various media focused apps, such as Album (the Gallery), YouTube, and Video (and MX Player), but surprisingly not in Chrome, Firefox or any games (even those that claimed 4K compatibility).

The Z5 Premium is the first smartphone to have this insanely high resolution display, a title most expected Samsung or LG to secure instead of Sony. But when Sony had promised to go big, they went humongous. With the inclusion of such a high-resolution display now in a smartphone, it is almost certain other manufactures will begin to follow suit with the next generation of smartphones.

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As has been since the Z3, the brightness is high enough to withstand the Singaporean afternoon sun but you hardly realise when the panel switches to 4K mode – the resolution jump simply isn’t noticeable with your bare eyes. The good part of that is that 1080p looks as good as 4K. The bad part is that… 4K looks like 1080p.

Nevertheless, I had no problems with the quality of the display – it worked as intended, and gave me no issues whenever I walked outside as you can see in the sunlight contrast ratios below, even if it did have a worse score than the Z3+. While it cannot compete with the AMOLED displays in the S6 and Nexus 6, it does pretty well for an LCD.

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All in all, the display is still pretty damn great. Colours are reproduced largely accurately, viewing angles and brightness are sufficient for all situations, and you get to brag to your friends about having the first 4K smartphone.

User Interface, Apps and Audio

Perhaps my second favourite aspect of Sony smartphones is the fact that their user interface is always close to stock Android. It allow you to enjoy the feel of Android as pure as it was meant to be, but also with valuable additions that actually make sense (rather than adding every feature in the book and then some). The Z5 Premium is no exception in that aspect. It comes with Android 5.1 Lollipop right out of the box, with a 6.0 Marshmallow update on the way.

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With the jump from KitKat to Lollipop, face recognition was removed as a security option (it was really easy to fool). What is left is the following – swipe (unsecured), pattern lock, PIN or password. And now, on the Z5 Premium, fingerprint recognition. As always, laying the device face down for 5 seconds turns off the display and locks the phone.

You also get a maximum of 7 homescreen panes, and adding stuff on the homescreen is easy, as is the customization. You can set various live and static wallpapers, add widgets and shortcut, or change the UI theme.

The notification area, too, follows stock Android almost to a T. A single swipe (or a one-fingered swipe) shows you the time, date, connectivity statuses and your signed-in user. A second swipe (or a two-fingered swipe) brings down the whole notification area, where you can access the settings quickly as well as the quick toggles. The pencil symbol allows you to change the toggles displayed.

The app drawer is laid out horizontally (the vertical scrolling we see in HTC devices, and now Nexus devices has not taken effect yet) and can be arranged manually, alphabetically, by the most used or most recently installed.

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The task switcher is also stock Android, assembling the running apps in a card fashion that allows you to side-swipe them away to kill the apps. You can also tap the ‘kill all’ button (the one that is the three horizontal lines) that closes all running apps.

Pressing on the task switch button also allows you to open the small apps from a drawer lying just above the navigation buttons. These small apps pop up tiny widget-like applications on your homescreen, which you can move around and use without having to open the full-fledged app. These are pretty useful and readily accessible, and can also be minimised when you want to temporarily stop using them.

A swipe up from the navigation buttons also allows you to launch the ever-useful Google Now. While it has no personality like Cortana or Siri, it is by far the most accurate and useful in providing you with information. For example, it learns my preferred route to work and home quickly and intuitively and selects each for each situation. What’s more, it can also display my favoured sports teams’ matches live scores and timings in my local time-zone, saving me the hassle of adding or subtracting hours.

All in all, Sony has done everything right when skinning their version of Lollipop. It is so close to how stock looks like that you are allowed to take full advantage of the streamlined experience that unadulterated Android.

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See them yet? Sony has smartly hidden the speakers at the top (above the logo) and bottom of the device

The Z5 Premium, like all the devices since the Z2, carries on the tradition of twin front-facing speakers which are very loud and clear. While not on the level of HTC’s BoomSound speakers, they do pretty well compared to their rivals. The design of the Z5 Premium is such that you can even lie the device face down, with minimal muffling of the audio.

Audiophiles will also be delighted to know that the Z5 Premium arrives with Sony’s Music (previously known as Walkman) app as seen on the Xperia Z3+, as well as many new augmented reality camera features and built-in noise cancellation technologies to help block out background sound while listening to music. However this only works with select Sony earphones, such as the MDR-NC750 and MDR-NC31EM, so do your homework on these before pulling the trigger.

Battery Life

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This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the whole device. As an owner of an Xperia Z2 myself and having reviewed the Z1, 2 and 3, I have associated a Sony device with one cutting edge over all its rivals – battery life. When I hear Sony claim a 48 hour battery life, I tend to believe them as our tests have come pretty close.

Not with the Z5 Premium. Even though it has a large 3430 mAh battery capacity, it has terrible battery life (and this is not just in comparison with other Sony smartphones). We let loose our daily usage test on the Z5 Premium, and it finished with a dismal showing.

battery-life

We used the device in the following situations:

  • 1 hour LTE web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi YouTube video streaming (720p)
  • 30 minutes gaming (Asphalt 8)
  • 2 hour 1080p movie
  • Standby idling under STAMINA mode

Unfortunately, this time of an 18 hour usage with a 6 hour screen-on-time is reminiscent of smartphones released over a year ago – not something that came out in 2015. My first suspect for this poor showing would be the 4K resolution, with the second being the unstable Snapdragon 810 SoC (even with the v2.1 upgrade).

If Sony is to persist with the 4K resolution, they either need to squeeze in a larger battery life or go back to the drawing board and have a look at why their previous devices had such great performance in this aspect.

Performance and Benchmarks

Even with the issues we saw with the Snapdragon 810 in the Xperia Z3+, it has been largely rectified (at least in general usage) so that there is no more noticeable lag or stuttering even under high-stress situations. As such, I have been a long proponent of taking these benchmarks with a metric ton of salt – these flagships are still going to be pretty powerful three years down the line.

Let’s see how the Snapdragon 810 v2.1 handled the tests.

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Make no mistake, the Z5 Premium is a powerful smartphone. In the comprehensive AnTuTu benchmark, which is a measure of overall performance of the device, the Z5 Premium comes out top, beating out all its 2015 rivals. It also makes up for the huge misstep that was the Xperia Z3+ by snatching top spot from the Galaxy S6.

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In BrowserMark 2.1, which measures how good your device is at web browsing, the Z5 Premium also did very well. It fell short of the Galaxy S6’s 2718 points, but it still comfortably beat out the Nexus 6 and LG G4.

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The story was a bit different in Vellamo Metal, which measures a device’s single-operation performance. Here, the Z5 Premium was dead last, although not too far behind all its rivals. It certainly was a curious placing, but repeated testing did not better the 2212 points score.

All in all, the benchmarks serve nothing but to affirm the feeling you get when operating the device in your hand – it’s a fast phone, and will remain so for the years to come. Synthetic benchmarks, are after all, synthetic and do not always reflect real-world usage.

Camera Interface

The Z5 Premium came out of the box with the old style of the Camera app, as has been shipping with since the Xperia Z1. However, almost immediately there was an update available to the new version. I have to admit, I’m not a fan. It adds unnecessary complications when you wish to switch to and from the Superior Auto, Manual and normal 1080p Video mode.

To switch modes, you have to swipe around the left side of the screen. Theoretically, this should work fine. After all, Google used this to great effect in their old stock camera app. However, Sony inexplicably mucks it up. Swipes are often not recognised the first time, requiring you to repeat the action multiple times. You also cannot ‘jump’ modes – i.e. you cannot directly switch from Manual to Video mode without making a stop at Superior Auto first.

The various camera modes
The various camera modes

You can also select other recording modes by further swiping up to the grid, which brings up a menu option allowing you to choose between other modes which are technically their own apps (this is revealed when you switch tasks) – they simply use the camera to do their jobs. Very curiously, slow-motion and 4K video are classified as their own modes, rather than in settings under video recording which makes no sense.

Nevertheless, the user interface is still pretty decent even if it is worse than the older interface – it’s not a disaster by any means. What is a disaster is the actual camera performance, as you can read on.

Camera Performance

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Sony decided with the Z5 series, they were going to up the pixel count to 23 MP, while at the same time including a lens with a wider focal length (24mm vs 25mm in the Z3+). It is no secret that Sony is the king of image sensors – LG, HTC, Apple in the smartphone arena and Nikon in the photography arena all use Sony manufactured sensors. However, Sony Mobile simply seems it can’t get the image processing side right, propelling its competitors far ahead. What’s more, they are also the only OEM not to have included RAW support that was enabled with the Camera2 API. Shame on you, Sony.

What is far worse is the manual mode, however. 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 useless "Manual" mode - note the greyed out ISO option
Welcome to the world’s most useless “Manual” mode – note the greyed out ISO option

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 have not even been rectified), you now get photos with truckloads of noise when you select a resolution above 8 MP, simply because 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.

What this, and the lack of RAW support, means is that the camera simply isn’t very good. Have a look at the sample images.

Still Image Quality:

Day Samples:

Night Samples:

As is evident, imaging quality has absolutely tanked. It doesn’t matter if you are shooting at 8 MP or 23 MP – any wide landscape images will be smudged yet still grainy. While close-ups are still decent in the day (sufficient for Facebook sharing), the situation just gets worse at night. Lens flare and noise is rampant across the images, and the noise reduction failing at trying to salvage a useable image from it. What’s more, Superior Auto gets decidedly un-superior when the light falls, being unable to meter accurately for majority of the images.

Video Quality:

Day (4K/2160p):

Day (1080p, 60 FPS):

Night (4K/2160p):

Night (1080p, 60 FPS):

In the day, the 4K video quality is absolutely top notch, rivaling some compact cameras. Fine detail is present and clear, colours are accurately reproduced and the sound recording is also great. The only thing that’s not great is the 30 FPS limitation, but then no smartphone has it yet, so that’s not Sony’s fault. Switch to 1080p, though, and video quality takes a massive hit. While it is true that you are shooting at quarter resolution compared to 4K, the lack of fine detail is absolutely astounding and reminds me of my 2012 Galaxy SII instead. The 60 FPS is a very nice inclusion, nonetheless, and colours and sound are still accurately captured.

At night though, the story is flipped on its head. There are simply too many pixels in the 4K recording to give a clean image, and as a result, there is an egregious amount of noise all across the video. Lens flare is also very pronounced at this resolution. Switching modes back to 1080p, 60 FPS gives you a much better video. The video recording is clean (free of noise), and you get to enjoy the smoother 60 FPS. The only downside is that there is an increased flickering brought about by the streetlamps when shooting at 60 FPS which the Z5 Premium could not correct.

What I did find annoying was that if recording in the day (especially due to the hot sun), recording video even at 1080p, 60 FPS generated so much heat that the camera could only record a minute and 48 seconds of footage before it had to shut down the app. 4K video fares even worse in the day depending on ambient conditions. The situation is somewhat mitigated at night, but it is still very disappointing to still see this error pop up more than a year after Sony introduced 4K video recording in their phones.

Conclusion

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At $1098, you’re going to seriously wonder whether the Z5 Premium is actually worth the money. The famed 2-day Sony battery life last barely three-quarters of one day, the design is very good looking but does not work well in the hand, and the camera quality is the worst compared to rival devices. So why then would you purchase a Z5 Premium? Those who will want this smartphone will be those who aren’t on their phones all the time and can do with the short battery life. Those who want a large display, combined with the arguably good looks of the phone and its waterproofing (and the ability to brag about the 4K display) will find this device more than adequate for their needs.

If you’re like me, however, and absolutely need your device to keep itself powered throughout the day (or for 2 weeks in BMT), you’re honestly better off with Sony’s own Z5 instead. Of note is the fact that both devices share the camera, so if you are looking for the best camera available now, the LG G4 is your best bet. But if you’re a display snob or find the Z5 Premium’s display far too reflective under the sun, the Samsung Galaxy S6 will be your best bet.

So what do you think of the Z5 Premium. P for Perfect, or P for Poor?

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