Less than a decade ago, Sony was one of the biggest phone manufacturers in the world, but its icy relationship with US carriers and a failed marketing strategy have caused the Xperia brand to all but disappear from the US. The company’s latest flagship, the Xperia 5 ($699), aims to change this. From an updated display (and aspect ratio) to the integration of Sony Alpha camera software, it’s geared toward creative professionals and smartphone shutterbugs. It offers excellent performance and build quality, but falls short on battery life, camera quality, and software, making a Sony comeback unlikely.
Design, Display, and Durability
It’s safe to say the Xperia 5 stands out in a crowd. Its slim, long design is rather boxy and looks dated compared with other modern flagships. It measures 6.2 by 2.7 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs in at 5.8 ounces. While the look isn’t for everyone, it feels great in the hand.
The front of the phone is home to a 6.1-inch display with fairly chunky bezels. On the back you’ll find a triple camera stack that sits at the top left, the Sony logo dead center, and Xperia branding at the bottom.
The top of the phone is bare, while the bottom is home to a USB-C charging port and speaker. On the left, you’ll find a SIM slot that can easily be opened without a key. The right is busy with a volume rocker, a fingerprint sensor, and power and camera buttons.
While all the buttons on the right are easy to reach and responsive, it’s possible to tap the wrong button simply because they’re all crammed in one spot. And in addition to being poorly placed for lefties, the fingerprint sensor also doesn’t work that well. An in-display or rear sensor would make much more sense.
The front of the phone is dominated by a crisp 6.1-inch OLED with a 21:9 aspect ratio. Resolution comes in at 2,520-by-1,080, for a pixel density of 449ppi. Like most OLED panels, the Xperia 5’s boasts rich, velvety colors contrasted with deep, inky blacks. Color accuracy is slightly cool, but it doesn’t affect the overall viewing experience. Our biggest complaint is the Xperia 5’s increasingly common aspect ratio. While 21:9 is fine for regular phone tasks and many movies, it’s not ideal for watching YouTube videos or TV shows. Since these are typically broadcast in 16:9, you’ll have to make a choice to either watch them with giant black bars, or with the image stretched to fit the screen. If you choose the latter, the cropping is so severe that characters in tight shots will likely be headless.
While the Xperia 5 features an all-glass body over an aluminum frame, it’s surprisingly durable. The front and back of the phone are constructed of Gorilla Glass 6. Theoretically, Gorilla Glass 6 should be able to weather drops without breaking, but is more likely to scratch since it’s less brittle than older versions of the glass. In practice, however, we carried the phone in a backpack for several weeks and dropped it half a dozen times, and it still looks perfectly new.
It also has an IP65/68 rating, meaning it can not only withstand a drop in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes, but can also survive a direct contact with low-pressure spray like a showerhead for up to five minutes.
Audio, Call, and Network Quality
The Xperia 5 ships unlocked and works with all major US carriers. It supports LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/19/20/25/26/28/29/32/34/38/39/40/41/46/66, though we’re disappointed at the omission of band 71 for T-Mobile rural customers.
We tested the phone in Brooklyn on Verizon’s network and recorded solid results, with averages of 81.2Mbps down and 28.4Mbps up. While these speeds aren’t as fast as those recorded on a Google Pixel 4 XL at the same time (101.8Mbps down, 25.7Mbps up), they’re nothing to sneeze at.
Call quality is also good. With 83dB peak earpiece volume, it’s easy to hear calls on busy streets, and noise cancellation worked well in testing.
The Xperia 5 sports stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos. In our tests, peak volume came in at 88dB, and music sounds full and bright. Even at high volumes, there’s a hint of bass.
The phone also supports 2.5GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi, NFC, and Bluetooth 5.
There are three camera sensors on the back of the phone. The primary lens has an f/1.6 aperture, while the ultra-wide and telephoto lenses come in at f/2.4. The front-facing lens clocks in at 8MP with an f/2.0 aperture.
Sony has also incorporated some of its Alpha digital camera software into the Xperia 5, including Eye Autofocus, a feature that tracks a subject’s eye movement to maintain focus, and 10fps burst shooting with Auto Focus and Auto Exposure. Eye Autofocus worked well in our tests, while the burst shooting mode yielded mixed results.
In general, the cameras perform well in daylight. Test shots showed excellent depth of field and color accuracy. We noticed some background blurring, however, and several test shots with the ultrawide lens were distorted around the edges.
Low-light photos don’t fare as well. Our test shots feature noticeable background blurring and noise around the edges, and more pronounced distortion with the ultrawide lens. While the photos are fine for social media sharing, they’re definitely not the “pro” quality Sony is promising.
The front-facing camera tells a similar story. In daylight, the camera performed well overall, with solid color accuracy and crisp foreground details, tempered by minor noise and slight background blurring. Low-light photos are again disappointing, with shots looking muddy and flat, with significant edge noise and blurry foreground details.
When it comes to video, the Xperia 5 shoots in 4K at 30fps or 1080p at 60fps. There’s also gyroscopic video stabilization onboard, as well as Sony’s Cinema Pro app that offers more granular control over settings.
With good light, the Xperia 5 shoots solid 4K video, though we encountered a few skipped frames when panning, and video stabilization worked best with a very steady hand. Quality declined significantly when shooting in 1080p, with background noise, intermittent pixelation, and lots of skipped frames when panning.
Specs and Benchmarks
The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset along with 6GB of RAM. Storage comes in at 128GB, with 112GB available out of the box. You can add up to an additional 512GB of storage with a microSD card.
Overall, performance is excellent. The Xperia 5 can easily handles multiple tasks with ease, and we used more than a dozen apps without any noticeable lag in testing. Mobile gaming is also solid. In addition to an excellent chipset and plenty of RAM, the phone also features a Game Enhancer mode that tweaks settings and stops notifications. We tested the phone with Asphalt 8 and PUBG: Mobile for over an hour in performance and battery modes, and didn’t experience any lag or dropped frames in either.
On PCMark 2.0, a suite of benchmark tests that emulate common smartphone tasks, the Xperia 5 scored 9,268 to the Pixel 4’s 9,621 and the Galaxy S10e’s 9,677. Put the three phones side by side and you’ll be hard-pressed to notice a difference in performance.
A 3,140mAh battery powers the Xperia 5. While that’s about the same size as the one in the Galaxy S10e, it lasted just 7 hours and 48 minutes while streaming HD video over Wi-Fi at full brightness, compared with 11 hours and 42 minutes on the S10e. With more conservative use you should be able to make it through the day on a single charge. The Xperia 5 offers fast charging with the included adapter, but not wireless charging.
Software and Special Features
The Xperia 5 ships with Android 9 and Sony’s Xperia UI overlay. An update to Android 10 is available over the air. Sony’s Xperia UI skin takes a heavy-handed approach. From icons to the navigation bar, just about everything looks a little different compared with stock Android.
In addition to Sony’s custom UI, you’ll also find a handful of custom Sony apps. Some, like Game Enhancer and Cinema Pro, are welcome additions, but others, like Album and Music are just duplicates of what you already get with Android. We’re also disappointed to see Sony add several bloatware apps like Booking.com, Facebook, and Netflix, none of which can be uninstalled.
There are a few special software features worth noting. Side Sense lets you swipe and tap the side of the display to quickly access frequently used apps and enable multi-window mode. While it sounds great in theory, we found it to be nearly impossible to use. Fortunately, with the Android 10 update Sony added an app called 21:9 Multi-Window as a workaround to the gesture.
Cinema Pro, on the other hand, is a nice addition. It allows you to create custom video projects directly on the phone. In addition to editing features, Cinema Pro lets you manually tweak camera settings like ISO, white balance, shutter speed, and monitor audio. The app is clearly made for video enthusiasts and creative professionals, and there’s a steep learning curve, but it yields excellent results.
There’s no word as to whether the Xperia 5 will receive future Android updates. Of course, Google has yet to announce Android 11, so it would be premature for Sony to make such a commitment. That said, while Sony tends to be slow to update its smartphones, it does have a history of offering updates for at least a few years.
While the Sony Xperia 5 features flagship-level hardware and build quality, it doesn’t feel like a complete package. The display is too small for the 21:9 aspect ratio, battery life is just okay, and its marquee feature, the camera, doesn’t compare with other similarly priced phones. For the price, the Google Pixel 4 or Samsung Galay S10e offer a lot more bang for your buck, and with a Pixel 5 on the horizon, the Xperia 5 simply doesn’t offer enough to put Sony back in the smartphone conversation.