Small premium phones went through a kind of mini-renaissance recently, but one OEM has been squeezing the flagship power into a compact form factor for years. Sony’s beloved Compact smartphone series skipped the Xperia XZ3 generation. When Sony half-booted its smartphone brand with the Xperia 1 without its smaller counterpart, it looked like curtains for Compact fans. Step into the Xperia 5 – a spiritual successor to the extended Xperia Compact family with almost all the same features and specifications we saw on Sony’s latest tent model. This is our Sony Xperia 5 Review.
Sony Xperia 5 Review – Design
- 158 x 68 x 8.2mm, 164g
- Gorilla Glass 6
You might think the most obvious equation is the bigger sibling, the Xperia 1. But it’s a little more interesting to compare the Xperia 5 with the swan song of the Compact line, the Xperia XZ2 Compact. The Sony Xperia 5 is almost 4mm thinner, but a bit wider and much higher (23mm extra to be precise).
This places the Xperia 5 in a bizarre situation where you have a thin phone that is incredibly easy to grab in the palm of your hand but is annoyingly lean when you try to call up the notification bar with the tip of your outstretched thumb. Just like the equally clumsy Xperia 10, this is another small phone that essentially requires two hands. At that moment, slim construction becomes an obstacle. It’s nice to have a smartphone that doesn’t overload your pockets, but unless they are quite deep, it will probably peek out of the top.
What you shouldn’t complain about is the build quality. The polished, slightly curved metal frame is shiny, smooth, and a satisfying filling for the glass sandwich panels – made of Gorilla Glass 6 – on the front and back. We are a long way from the sharp square edges of the Xperia phones. Elsewhere, the design is almost identical to Xperia 1. There are an acceptably small forehead, an even smaller chin, and wafer-thin bezels on either side of the display, but I’d personally take all that with me over a punch hole or notch.
The only noticeable change is the camera hump that has migrated to the top left of the back panel compared to the Xperia 1’s central module. I’m not sure why Sony chose to take over, but you have much less chance of covering the lens with a supporting finger if you take a picture now. Speaking of photography, on the right bottom of the Xperia 5, there is a special two-layer camera button that works like a charm. It’s also a handy way to access the camera from the lock screen quickly.
Above the camera’s button is the power button, followed by a side-mounted fingerprint sensor and finally a volume rocker switch. That’s a lot of buttons. It’s too many. The on/off key is a fraction too low. I found myself dumped back into the lock screen a few times after I had unconsciously pressed it with my handbag (I had to look it up) when I reached the top of the screen. The separate fingerprint sensor is to blame because it is located where you expect the on/off button to be on a regular phone.
I’m not sure why Sony couldn’t double the functionality to a single button/sensor as we saw on the Honor 20 Pro. The in-display scanners have also improved a lot since the launch of the Xperia 1, so it is a pity that Sony lags with a semi-premium phone. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Xperia 5’s fingerprint scanner is inexcusably poor. Just like the phone itself, it is long and thin, which is a nightmare for people with fat thumbs. Much more often, it takes three or four times to find the elusive sweet spot.
Worse, there’s none-to-zero haptic or on-screen feedback for failed unlock attempts unless you wake the phone first. I can’t tell you how angry it is to be blocked after reaching the maximum number of failed attempts and have no idea that that’s the case. This needs a patch as soon as possible, but just like the fingerprint scanner, it is simply not fit for purpose.
Sony Xperia 5 Review – Display
- 6.1-inch OLED
- 2,520 by 1,080 pixels, 449ppi
- 21:9 CinemaWide aspect ratio
- HDR BT.2020
It was inevitable that the transition from the Xperia 1 to the smaller, cheaper Xperia 5 had to take place. One of those things was the 4K display of the first one. But don’t worry, you don’t need it. Sony’s descent for delivering excellent display panels shines through here. Even with a 1080p panel, the Xperia 5 still has pixels left, and the OLED panel is pretty spicy. It is enhanced by proprietary Sony tech (“Triluminos,” “X-Reality,” “X1 for mobile”).
An optional Creator Mode, which produces the BT.2020 color gamut, allowing you to experience the “creator’s intended vision” when watching movies and TV shows (compatible). Even with the reduced property, Xperia 5 is a dream for movie lovers, especially when viewing 21:9 compatible Netflix content using the full CinemaWide display in glossy HDR. However, the same can’t be said of random YouTube clips, as the black bars of doom that plague all high telephones are an inevitable threat.
- Bluetooth 5 with aptX HD
- Dolby Atmos
- Stereo speakers
So if Sony can’t deliver its imaging power on a smartphone, can it at least preserve its heritage as an audio pioneer? Well, yeah, unless you want a 3.5mm headphone jack. The missing port will sting audiophiles, and that can hurt even more if you notice that Xperia 5 comes with a pair (cheap feeling, but good for a freebie) of earphones in the box with a 3.5 mm jack. You need to use the bundled USB-C adapter to use them.
Bluetooth connections get to benefit from aptX HD, and if you want to go even deeper, there’s a DSEE HX upscaler and Dolby Atmos app. Between the two, you have a lot of EQ sliders and profiles to play along with for music and movies. One of Sony’s more bizarre innovations is dynamic vibration, which is designed to align the phone’s vibration motor with whatever you’re watching or listening to. The haptics is good, but at higher volumes, the timing is a bit questionable.
- Android 9 Pie
Sony’s take on Android OS is one of the lighter OEM skins out there. The fonts, colors, icons, and app tray all have a bit of Sony taste, but everything else is pretty close to Android’s stock. The Xperia 5 runs Android 9.0 Pie out of the box but can be updated to Android 10 as of December 5. In recent years, Sony has been one of the better OEMs for rolling out core Android updates, so it’s great to see that trend continues here. When revising Xperia 5, it was saddled with Pie’s splitting “pill” gestures, or an option to return to the three-button navigation bar of old.
Now there’s the option for Android 10’s iOS-like gestures, although even those aren’t perfect. Side Sense gives you a different input method by double-tapping or swiping along the phone’s edges. The effect changes depending on the app you’re using. Unfortunately, it always takes several attempts to find the sweet spot along the edge of the phone. The whole gimmick is pretty unreliable, especially the swipe that almost always saw me swipe the screen. Sony has made optimal use of the CinemaWide screen when modifying the software and apps.
Multitasking benefits from the increased vertical space, as does scrolling through Chrome or Twitter, because you generally need fewer swipes to get to the content you want to see. There’s also a handy one-handed mode that gives your tired thumbs some respite from the elongated screen. The down part is that there are millions of apps in the Play Store that are not optimized for the 21:9 aspect ratio. You can’t escape the black bars of Xperia 5 for long, no matter what you do.
Overall, the Xperia experience is almost functional but a bit inconspicuous. It’s in a tricky middle ground that’s not as clinical and pure as the standard Android or as adaptable and versatile as the best Android skins like OxygenOS and One UI.
Sony Xperia 5 Review – Hardware and Performance
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
- Adreno 640
- 6GB RAM
- 128GB storage
I encountered zero performance issues while using the Sony Xperia 5, which is exactly what you would expect from a phone with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chipset, complemented by an abundant 6GB of RAM. The Xperia 5 has passed all our performance tests across the board. In particular, the phone hit 60fps on both GFXBench T-Rex and Manhattan in multiple tests. Our overall performance test score paired the Xperia 5 with the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus, Asus Zenfone 6, and the recently released Huawei Mate 30 Pro.
Although it couldn’t challenge the top performers with the Snapdragon 855 Plus, we still managed to beat the Xperia 1, suggesting that Sony managed to get a little more power out of the Snapdragon 855 SoC. Gaming is also a breeze, even if you completely avoid the pre-installed Game Enhancer app. Xperia 5 also comes with 128GB internal ROM and an optional microSD slot (up to 1TB), so even storage is no problem if you have a lot of big 3D games.
Sony Xperia 5 Review – Camera
- 12MP wide-angle, f/1.6, OIS
- 12MP telephoto, f/2.4, OIS
- 12MP super-wide lens, f/2.4
- 8MP, f/2.0
Sony has a legendary history as a photo and image giant, also in the mobile space, but its smartphones have always flattered to cheat. If you’ve read our Xperia 1 review, you’ll know that in the end, we’re disappointed with the overall performance of the triple-lens camera. Xperia 5 features identical hardware setup, and results are just as weak. The problems start with the camera app itself. Sony graciously reversed some of its recording modes that blew up the app in previous iterations but managed to obscure crucial circuits and options.
This also applies to the bokeh mode, which, for some reason, is identified as two overlapping circles in the top bar. For reasons that I cannot possibly understand, Sony has made it impossible to disable the AI Cam function that adjusts contrast, white balance, and other settings based on object and scene recognition. The only way to get rid of it is to switch to Pro mode, which is also the only place where you can control HDR (on or off, no car).
Also, the phone’s night mode is purely contextual and can often not be activated in a dark environment, which is a shame because when it is activated, the phone takes acceptable shots in low light. This would almost all be forgiving if the AI Cam wasn’t so wildly inconsistent. Color rendering trends towards a more realistic look (although the white balance is a bit yellow) and close-up shots are detailed, but the dynamic range is everywhere at greater distances.
There is also something missing with focus detection. This is especially true for landscape shots or any scene with different distances between objects, as the camera has difficulty balancing the focus between the foreground and background. As a result, the processing software overshadows the background details such as trees and other foliage to compensate, but there are also cases where the foreground descends to mush.
Even though the camera still struggles to focus, it increases slightly with the telephoto lens, which takes detailed shots at 2x optical zoom. I am less pleased with the wide-angle camera because the decision to go more comprehensive than the competition with a huge 137 degrees FOV adds an unpleasant fish-eye curvature to the images. The portrait mode has a few hiccups with edge detection but is mostly usable. Meanwhile, the selfie camera performs well, although it occasionally stumbles indoors, where it sometimes misjudges colors, including skin tones.
On the video front, Xperia 5 can capture 4K in 30fps or 1080p at up to 60fps. Results are usually beautiful, although stabilization is excellent. If you want even more video recording possibilities, Sony has a CineAlta app called Cinema Pro, which allows you to adjust the shutter speed, ISO, focus, and color profile. Since Sony’s camera sensors are the basis of some of the best camera phones on the market at the moment, it is frankly baffling that the best Xperia phones have such mediocre cameras from top to bottom.
Sony Xperia 5 Review – Battery Life
- 3,140mAh Lithium-ion
- Xperia Adaptive Charging
- Stamina and Ultra Stamina mode
- USB Power Delivery
In addition to the display, the battery is the only other core aspect of Xperia 5 that has been downgraded from Xperia 1. Although, again, it’s less of a problem than you’d expect. Xperia 5 has a fairly inconspicuous 3,140mAh battery. Compared to other flagships, however, it’s essentially on par with the Galaxy S10e, is only a small drop for the Xperia 1’s surprisingly small 3,330mAh cell, and is still much larger than the Google Pixel 4’s drizzly 2,800mAh cell. It also doesn’t have to take into account the significant power consumption of the Xperia 1’s 4K display.
This allows Xperia 5 to go much longer and faster. I usually managed to get on the screen about 7 hours on time with relatively heavy use (an hour or so of Twitch/YouTube, half an hour of gaming, capturing photos and videos, besides general use). There is also a plethora of energy-saving options, including the Endurance Mode and Ultra Stamina Mode, which provides more juice at the expense of disabling various functions.
The lack of wireless charging is a bit of a head scraper for a phone in this price range, but the 18W wired charging does a great job of charging your charge in no time. It takes about two hours to reach full charge, although the first 50% only takes half an hour. Although it does not have the highest endurance that we have seen in 2019, the performance of the Xperia 5 battery is a welcome improvement over the recent efforts of Sony.
Price and Box Contents
- 18W Power Delivery USB-C charger
- USB-C to USB-C cable
- USB-C to 3.5mm adapter
- 3.5mm earphones
Sony Xperia 5 with 6GB RAM, 128GB storage: $799 (US). Unpacking a Sony phone has always been a relatively substandard affair, and that still applies to the Xperia 5. The box itself feels cheap, and besides a pair of wired earphones, there are an 18W USB-C Power Delivery plug, a fairly solid USB-C cable, and a 3.5mm headphone jack adapter.
Sony Xperia 5 Review – Conclusion
The Xperia 1 was an admirable attempt by Sony to get out of a creative rut. That same ambition lives on in the Sony Xperia 5, which nobly takes up the torch of the now-defunct Compact line while retaining the power and style of Sony’s revamped flagship series. The result is an identity crisis that Xperia 5 is hard to reconcile. It’s not small enough to be a valid compact phone, and, while unique, tall smartphone displays aren’t practical for everyday use, both in terms of ergonomics and functionality.
For a phone that costs more than the best affordable flagships of 2019, Xperia 5 has too many pain points. The glossy camera, the awful fingerprint scanner, the insipid software, the clumsy design – to thoroughly recommend it to anyone except die-hard movie lovers with limited pocket/pocket space who want to watch supported movies in 21:9.
Who knows where the Xperia brand will go (numerically speaking, we’ll get some overlap if it stays with current naming). But if Sony can improve its strong fundamentals – display quality, strong audio, smooth performance – and a way to work in its imaging expertise, then the only way to go is up.
There are some bright spots with the display quality and overall performance, but its clumsy design and a mediocre triple camera make Sony Xperia 5 struggle in finding a sweet spot.
- Top-tier performance
- Stylish hardware
- Bright, vibrant display
- Decent battery life
- Comprehensive audio suite
- Too tall
- Disappointing cameras
- No headphone jack