Writing an unbiased review is a lot easier said than done. Every reviewer, myself included, has their own preferences, opinions, and experiences that will in some way affect his or her attitudes and conclusions. So rather than pretend that I am an unbiased reviewer, I will begin by telling you a little about the phones I have owned for the last few years. My hope is that this information will lend you greater insight into my thoughts and feelings regarding the Sony Z5.

I like Sony phones. I've owned every generation of the Sony Z series that T-Mobile has sold in the US, including the Z, Z1, and Z3. Before you call me a biased Sony fanboy, let me also explain that in the last three years I have also owned an HTC One M7 and M8, a Samsung Galaxy S4, an LG Nexus 4 and G2, and a Nokia Lumia 925.

I have owned a lot of phones over the past few years because I worked for T-Mobile as a sales rep while earning my second degree. Each one of the devices I listed was either won in a contest, or purchased at a discount, with the exception of the Sony Z3. I bought that device at full price after I left T-Mobile, because I felt it was the best device of its generation. I was sold on the phone by features such as build quality, camera, battery life, and waterproofing. I also was quite smitten by the M8 and its attractive aluminum body, but the poor camera and lackluster battery life were too much to overlook.

I come into this review with respect for what Sony has done in the past, but I'm not blind to the current competitive field. When the Z3 launched, Android's big boys, Samsung and LG, were still making plastic backed phones. The Z3 looked and felt like a far more premium device in my consideration.

The landscape has shifted considerably since then. Samsung, LG, Motorola, and HTC are all producing devices ensconced with premium materials. Sony no longer outclasses the bulk of other Android manufacturers in build quality. The Z5 is in my eyes, a beautiful phone. But on outward appearance alone, it looks an awful lot like every other flagship Sony has produced in the last 3 years. Are the differences inside enough to tempt away loyalists of other manufacturers? Are they enough to keep Sony's own fans content? Let's dive in and find out.

Specs

Display 5.2in 1080p IPS LCD
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
RAM 3GB
Camera 23MP rear facing, 5MP front facing
Storage 32GB with MicroSD slot
Ports MicroUSB, 3.5mm Audio
Dimensions 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm (5.75 x 2.83 x 0.29 in), 154 g (5.43 oz)
Battery 2,900mAh (non-removable)
OS Android 5.1.1
Available Colors White, Black, Green, Gold
Price $639.99

The Good

Fingerprint Reader The position of the reader is exactly where the thumb on my right hand sits and it works 90% of the time. Having it integrated with the power button is a smart move.
Camera Sony's new image sensor and recently updated camera app work together to create stunning images when there is ample light.
Front-Facing Speakers A touch louder and clearer than the speakers on the Z3, they make media consumption more immersive.
Water and Dust Resistance It's wonderful not having to worry about destroying your phone by getting it wet. Having the charging port accessible without a fiddly cap or flap makes it even better.
Battery Life The Z5 gets me through a day of use with 15-20 percent left in the tank. For a heavy user like myself, the promise of two day battery life is laughable, but it gets the job done.

The Not So Good

Volume Rocker Placement The placement of the volume rocker on the lower third of the device makes for awkward use.
Sharp Edges The front and rear of the Z5 are bordered by a thin protrusion of material that just passes the edge of the screen. It doesn't feel great on the hand, and feels awful on the ear when talking on the phone.
Camera Low light photography on the Z5 is very poor. The camera also struggles with motion blur on any moving subject in all but the brightest of lighting conditions.
No Wireless Charging For the premium price Sony charges for this device, this should absolutely be a standard feature.
Snapdragon 810 It still gets quite hot during heavy use, which delivers a major hit to battery life.

Hardware

Design and Build Quality

Have you seen a Sony Z1, or Z2, or perhaps a Z3? Well, then you won't have any trouble recognizing that the Z5 is part of the Sony family. However, if you aren't a Sony loyalist, you might have a hard time distinguishing the new device from the previous generation. The phone is still a monolithic rectangular slab of glass and metal. While it is definitely standard Sony design, there are a few subtle changes.

The edges were the first difference I noticed. The sides are now flat, with a rounded off edge instead of completely curved as they were with the Sony Z3. The sides of the Z5 are aluminum and the corners retain the silicone bumpers introduced with the Z3. The edges, however, protrude slightly from the front and rear of the phone, creating a rather sharp edge. While the raised edges on the rear make holding the phone a little uncomfortable, the more pronounced lip surrounding the front of the device makes talking on the phone a very unpleasant experience. The edge at the top feels particularity sharp when held against the ear.

The lip was probably designed to protect the glass from scratches, or to keep the device from sliding on smooth surfaces, but I'm really not a fan. Personally, I prefer the slippery smoothness of my Z3 over this new uncomfortable design element. The good news is that it would be a non-factor with a case on the phone, which I would recommend as it is covered front and rear with glass.

lip

The front sports Sony's typical large top and and bottom bezels, the only adornments being the front-facing 5 Megapixel camera in the upper left and a sensor cluster to the right with a tastefully small Sony logo in between. The stereo front-facing speakers sit behind minuscule slits cut into the glass at the extreme edges of the phone, making them easy to miss if you weren't looking for them.

The signature glass back of the Xperia line has been frosted on the Z5, with the exception of the Sony logo. The smooth, matte surface of the back feels very premium. It isn't a smudge and finger print magnet like every other Sony flagship to date. The camera and single LED flash module are found in the upper left corner. An NFC location indicator, along with the brand names Sony and Xperia, runs down the back.

At the top lies the 3.5mm headphone jack, which sits at the far left side. An exposed MicroUSB port is centered at the base of the phone. Both the location and lack of waterproofing flaps are welcome changes to me after using the Z3 for the better part of the year. To the left of the charging port is a lanyard hole, which I'm glad to see. I've actually used the lanyard on my Z3 during vacations and I find it rather handy.

bottom

The left side is rather barren, save for the flap near the top covering the SIM and MicroSD card slots. Fans of Sony's charging docks will be sad to see that the pogo pins on the side of the device are gone. The fact that the charging port no longer requires an annoying cover softens the blow some, but I would have loved to see wireless charging on the Z5 to replace the feature.

other side

The right side of the Z5 has a lot going on, and most of it is good. Near the center, the iconic circular power button that graced previous phones in the Z line is gone in favor of a pill shaped button recessed into the side of the phone. The reason for the recessed design is that the power button now doubles as a fingerprint reader. The button depresses nicely, and the finderprint reader has worked well in my limited experience with the device. It worked about 90 percent of the time on the first try, which is good enough for me.

The volume rocker sits on the lower third of the device, nearly an inch below the power button. I really don't care for the placement of the button. Being positioned so far down the device, I have to contort my thumb to adjust the volume, or re-position the device much lower in my hand. The awkward placement has caused me to drop the phone more than once in the couple weeks I've used it. Awkward placement aside, the feedback of the volume rocker is much improved over the squishy, vague rocker on the Z3.

side of phone

Just above the bottom of the right side, you'll find the two-stage camera shutter button. This, unlike the volume rocker, is just where it should be. Long pressing the button launches the camera app, whether the screen is on or not. The two stages are well distinguished and the addition of the button refines the camera experience on the Z5.

All told, the device is sleek and modern looking, even if Sony's OmniBalance design is starting to feel more than a little stale. The fact that the phone is waterproof, even with an exposed headphone jack and MicroUSB plug, is a testament to the design chops of the engineers over at Sony.

However, I do feel compelled to mention that the waterproof feature now bears an asterisks. You see, while the device has an IP68 rating, Sony no longer recommends purposefully placing the device in water. That's a pretty big about-face from the Sony Z3 marketing that showed the device getting doused, splashed, and dunked. I suspect that some people have abused this feature, leading to headaches for Sony's warranty department, which may have led to the new guidelines. Nevertheless, labeling a device as waterproof and then telling consumers to avoid getting it wet makes for a very confusing marketing message.

Display

Sony, unlike almost every other major Android manufacturer, has taken the road less traveled when it comes to screen resolution on the Z5. While other companies upped the screen resolution on their flagship devices to 2K, Sony determined that 1920 by 1080 was plenty for the Z5. Frankly, I quite agree. The gains in clarity and sharpness on a 5 inch device when moving to a 2K panel are hardly worth the cost in battery life and brightness. The difference in clarity is so small that it is completely indistinguishable to the vast majority of users.

display

I would commend Sony on sticking to their guns in the face of a stiff competitive wind, but they also happen to be the first company to stick a freaking 4K panel in their higher end flagship, the Z5 Premium. That's another rather confusing marketing message.

Resolution aside, the screen looks great. Colors are vibrant, images look sharp, and there's no noticeable light bleed. The LCD panel gets plenty bright for outdoor use, and I had no problem reading in even the most intense sunlight thanks to its 700 nits max brightness output. In case you are wondering, that's bright enough to make you see stars for half an hour if you look at the screen at max brightness during a midnight potty run.

Fortunately, the screen doesn't just do bright, it also can be quite dim, dropping as low as 4 nits. I love a screen that can do super dim, as I often read late at night and don't want to bother my wife. There is some loss in vibrancy and whites turn a bit grayish when the screen is that dim, but it's still completely legible.

My only wish for the screen is that black levels were a touch deeper, but that's only because I have been spoiled by the inky blacks of OLED screens on other mobile devices I've owned. In all but the darkest environments, the contrast levels are very good.

Audio - Speakers and Call Quality

While not as rich sounding as the speakers on the HTC One series, the dual front-facing speakers on the Z5 are pretty good. They aren't terribly loud, but their position at the front of the device helps project sound towards the user. While watching YouTube videos with coworkers in a noisy environment, no one seemed to have a hard time hearing the dialog. The speakers are loud enough to make a call on speakerphone in a running car.

Speaking of calls, the phone sounds just fine for use as, well, a phone. I had no complaints from people on the other end of the line and their voices sounded loud and clear. As I mentioned previously, the thin bezel surrounding the screen makes holding the device against my head an unpleasant experience. However, I'm sure a protective case would resolve the issues.

Battery

Battery life is always a difficult thing to quantify on cell phones since it is based so much on individual usage habits. I am, admittedly, a very heavy user. A typical day for me includes 3-4 hours of screen on time, 1-2 hours of Bluetooth audio streaming, 20-30 minutes of gaming, 5-10 minutes of image or video capturing, 10-15 minutes of video consumption, and dozens of short encounters to use Hangouts, Hipchat, Gmail, or check Amazon sales for our family business.

My definition of a phone with good battery life is one that lasts me from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed (about 16 hours). The Z5, with its 2800 2900 mAh battery got the job done most days. In fact, if I were to cut the 20-30 minutes of gaming and 5-10 minutes of camera usage, it probably would have lasted until bedtime every day.

These were the only two activities that seemed to tax the Snapdragon 810 that powers the Sony Z5. Unfortunately, when pushed, the device can get quite warm, particularly the upper third at the back of the device. The back of the phone was never hot enough to be painful, but it did get warm enough to make my palms sweat and make carrying it in my pocket a bit uncomfortable (except for on cold days, then it was kinda nice).

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Processor straining activities not only produce heat on the Z5, but also deliver a massive blow to battery life. A half hour of gaming during a lunch break often drained the battery as much as 20-30 percent. I imagine that if I had a case on the device that this could be even worse as heat would be trapped by the added insulation.

It's also important to note that I purposefully avoided charging 'top offs' during the first week of testing. I normally charge my phone while driving and during my lunch break at work. When I resumed these habits, I returned home every night with well over 50 percent battery life remaining.

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Overall, battery life is pretty decent. Even a heavy user should be able to make it through a day's use with the phone. Light users may even be able to get closer to the two days of battery life that Sony advertises, particularly if you engage the battery saving Stamina Mode that Sony has bundled into the device. I must say that I am disappointed and puzzled by Sony's decision to put a smaller capacity battery in the Z5 than the Z3, as battery life is just not as strong in the new flagship.

Camera

The camera on the Z5 is a strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In ample lighting, the 23MP snapper on the Z5 is perhaps the best cell phone camera I've ever used. Just take a look at these sample images.

The images, as you can see, are beautiful. Colors are vibrant and striking, contrast levels are nearly perfect, bokeh is gorgeous, and the amount of detail captured is remarkable. As advertised, the camera does focus extremely fast, and most of the time it does a pretty good job of figuring out which subject you want to focus on. For macro photography or shooting in a scene with objects at multiple depths, I found it easiest to use the touch-to-focus option to guide the camera to the point of interest.

Really, I only have a couple of complaints with the pictures I took in good lighting conditions. One is that there was a small amount of blurring near the edges of some photos, which is most noticeable in landscape photography. The other complaint is more with the camera app itself than the images it produces. For some reason, HDR mode is not included in Sony's Intelligent Auto mode, which is the default shooting profile. To engage it, you have to switch to manual mode and then select a specific HDR profile. That's just silly.

4K and slow motion video are also not options when shooting in normal video mode. You have to switch to dedicated 4K and slow motion video modes to use those features, which is kind of a hassle. Also, don't expect to shoot your kid's ballet in 4K on your Z5. Shooting times out after just a few minutes to prevent the device from overheating.

Screenshot_2015-12-01-08-51-15 (1)

The (short) 4K videos I did capture are great. The ability to zoom in while watching captured footage without losing any clarity is a pretty cool feature. Sony's digital image stabilization also does a great job at dampening camera movement when capturing video while moving.

Now for the dark side (literally) of the Sony Z5 camera. There is no nice way to say this; in low light, the camera is just plain bad. I'm really quite disappointed with its performance, especially considering that this was an area I consider to be a strength on the Z3. I'll let the images do the talking.

Yuck. As you can see, the images are a noisy, grainy mess. Colors are muted and all the photos have a weird halo effect at the edges, most noticeable in the photo of the trees strung with Christmas lights. There is really very little that is redeemable about these images.

These are actually the best of the images I captured while testing the low light capabilities of the camera. The slightest bit of motion from the shooter or subject produces images so blurry they are completely unusable.

The images above were all captured at night, or in fairly dim environments, but the camera also has its struggles in moderate lighting with the slightest amount of motion.

All the images in the gallery above were taken in indirect sunlight or in a well lit room. The camera can produce a decent still shot in these conditions, but a moving subject is nearly impossible to capture. I want to note that my two year old son is walking in the images on the trampoline, not jumping, and I was stationary. Having to take multiple images to find one that is borderline usable is just not acceptable.

The still images in bright light that this camera produces are stunning, but the struggles it has in low light and while shooting a moving subject in anything other than the brightest light make this a difficult camera to love. As a fan of Sony's phones, that is really disappointing, especially after the high scores the Z5 had on DxOMark and I hope this is something that can be addressed with a software patch, because it's a real Achilles heel in its current state. It's actually bad enough to make me wonder if the camera on my review unit is somehow defective.

Software And Performance

Sony's skin of Android is very close to a stock Android experience. The Dual-Sim international review unit I am using currently runs Android 5.1.1 and as far as manufacturer skins go, I'm really quite pleased with it. There are no weird changes to the UI and almost half of the pre-installed apps (non-essentials such as Sony's news app, an office suite, and Playstation app) can be uninstalled if the user doesn't want them.

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Sony's Small Apps, introduced a few generations back, are still here and represent one of the few additions unique to the manufacturer. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Small Apps are floating applications, such as a calculator and calendar, that can can be used on top of another full screen application. On a five-inch screen, I don't find most of them particularly useful, but the calculator has come in handy a couple of times.

Sony's Smart Connect, which is kind of like a simplified Tasker, also makes a return. Using the app, you can choose different actions that are initiated by either the time of day or when connected to a certain device. For example, you can choose to launch Audible every time you connect to your noise canceling Bluetooth headphones. It's a nice little feature if you want to use it, and easily ignored if you don't.

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The only other Sony apps I enjoyed using were the gallery and video editing apps. Both are attractive and functional enough that I didn't feel the need to download a third party app to replace either one. Neither provides super deep editing options, but they work for a quick photo edit or video crop on the go. The stock keyboard is also pretty good with generally accurate suggestions and the option to swipe, instead of type, your words.

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The Snapdragon 810 and 3GB of RAM powering the device do just fine powering the 1080P screen on the Z5. Apps open quickly, transitions and animations are smooth and, even when toasty warm after capturing video or playing a game, I never noticed any appreciable lag. You can read more about what happens to the Snapdragon 810 when it is running warm in Ryan's review of the Z5C.

The heat the 810 produces is concerning to me, as processor-heavy tasks do take a substantial toll on daily battery life and may also affect the longevity of the battery as well. It's something to be aware of if you use your phone frequently for gaming or taking videos.

Conclusion

The Sony Z5 is a very good device. However, it enters the market at a time when there are a myriad of very good handsets, and several excellent ones, many of which cost less than the Z5. It's also very difficult to purchase a Z5 in the US, as no carriers have opted to sell the phone.

Looking at it side by side with my Sony Z3, I can't find a compelling reason, other than the fingerprint reader, to upgrade to the Z5. Sure, it takes better photos in bright lighting, but it performs worse than the Z3 in poor lighting. Battery life on the Z5 is good, but the Z3 with its larger battery and less demanding processor lasts longer. The charging port no longer has a flap covering it, but the device is less comfortable to hold and the volume rocker is poorly placed. Apps open faster than they do on the Z3, but it also runs hotter. For every improvement there is a new detriment.

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If anything, I appreciate my Z3 more after spending three weeks with the Z5. If my Z3 broke tomorrow, I would rather buy a gently used Z3 for $350 than spend twice as much on the Z5. That's assuming that I stick with Sony at all. Samsung, Motorola, LG, HTC, and Google's Nexus division have all released devices in the past few months that meet or exceed the Z5 in nearly every regard. I don't think the Android platform has ever had such an impressive array of top tier devices.

At the core of it, I believe that's Sony's problem with the Z5. Their unique selling proposition for the past few years has been that they build premium devices that are a cut above other Android manufacturers in materials and build quality. Well, that's no longer the case. With that difference and advantage gone, there's not much about the Z5 that is unique enough to set it apart from the crowd.

Sony has proven that they are competent at crafting a well built flagship. However, I don't think this latest flagship is innovative or exciting enough to maintain the attention of Sony loyalists or attract new customers coming from other brands. That's my take on the matter; let me hear your thoughts in the comments below.

As a concluding note, modern smartphones are capable of doing so many things that it would be impossible to write about them all in a review shorter than an Alexandre Dumas novel. If you have specific questions about my experience using the Sony Z5, please ask them in the comment section and I will do my best to answer them.

We would also like to thank our friends at Expansys USA for loaning us the Sony Z5 used for this review.