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A return to excellence: Sony’s Xperia Z5 Premium reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 9:55 am 24/12/2015

It’s the end of the year and Sony has arrived with its last big phone of the year, and this one is big, packing in a number of impressive features. Could this be the best phone of the year?

Specs

Sony’s third take on the flagship smartphone sector this year borrows from the other two flagships, and packs it into a body that might look and feel a little more premium than other flagships, which we suspect is the general idea.

Inside this handset, you’ll find basically a mirror image of what’s in the Sony Xperia Z5, with Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 eight-core processor paired with 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, the latter of which can be easily upgraded thanks to a microSD slot found in the unit.

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Google’s Android 5.1 “Lollipop” is found on this phone out of the box, just like the Z5, and again like it you’ll find a 23 megapixel camera on the back with support for 4K Ultra HD video as well as a 5 megapixel camera up front.

Connections are the same, too with a Category 6 4G LTE modem providing download speeds as fast as 300Mbps, while home and work networks can be picked up with 802.11ac/a/b/g/n technologies, and other devices can latch on using Bluetooth 4.1 with A2DP. You’ll also find GPS and A-GPS here, as well as Near-Field Communication (NFC), while wired connections are handled over a 3.5mm headset jack and a microUSB connection.

This technology is encased in between two plates of glass and a frame of coloured metal, with the front glass being scratch-resistant and protecting a 5.5 inch LCD, and this is a special LCD.

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For this display, you’ll find some special Sony sauce, with a 4K Ultra HD screen — the world’s first mobile 4K screen, in fact — delivering 3840×2160 on a Triluminos screen.

This screen is unsurprisingly a touchscreen, offering ten points of touch if need be, with the buttons for Android applied as virtual soft buttons.

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Other buttons can be found on the right edge, with a power button hiding a fingerprint sensor, with this sitting above a volume rocker and a physical camera button.

A few ports can be found on this phone, with a 3.5mm headset jack up top, a water-resistant microUSB down at the bottom, and a door on the left side hiding a tray for both the nanoSIM and microSD cards, which this phone can take both of.

The battery is fixed, however, with the 3430mAh battery not able to be removed from the unit.

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Design

The monolith design has sure been something Sony has liked for a while now, and this year, we’ve even seen that play on phone form tightened up a bit, as Sony keeps its simple and minimalistic shape in check.

Not far off what we’ve already seen from the company’s 2015 efforts, the Z5 Premium is slightly more refined, softening the flattened rectangular prism’s edges while still affording it a solid grip thanks to edges that are neither too thin nor too thick.

Button placement is quite good on this model, because while phablets normally orient buttons to the top, this device sends the buttons to the bottom end, with the power button and its fingerprint sensor sitting in the middle edge, with the volume rocker just beneath this and the Xperia staple physical camera button close to the bottom along the right edge.

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This bottom heavy design helps to cement the idea that you’ll be using the phone where your hand traditionally holds the phone, super handy given you don’t have to keep reorienting your position to the top and risk letting the phone fall out of your grip.

Materials also help the Sony Z5 Premium in its design, and if the word “premium” didn’t inform you of just how high end the device was, the fact that this is pretty much two pieces of glass held in place by a metal frame should, with all the innards inside.

That’s essentially what this phone is, with metal and glass all the way, and that’s what we like to see.

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We even like the finish, which is more gold in our review unit than we’d have otherwise liked, though it’s still pretty, almost like someone flattened a gold bar and then made a phone out of it.

Two other variants exist too, with a black option and something chrome, you know, in case you like the liquid metal look from “Terminator 2”.

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Performance

Switch the phone on and you can get stuck into the performance, which despite having the same processor and set of specs as its normal sized sibling, the Xperia Z5, seems to handle itself far better.

Synthetic benchmarks put the Z5 almost 10,000 points higher, which doesn’t make much sense given they should be identical, so we’re putting it down to tweaks and performance problems of the previous model.

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Read through our Z5 review and you’ll find performance problems abound, and yet the Z5 Premium didn’t feel nearly as bad.

In fact, one might say that the Z5 Premium felt good, offering little lag and an overall system performance that made it operate less like a slug and more like a cheetah, which is always a good thing.

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The look of Android hasn’t changed much either, and while Sony does run its own take on the Google operating system here — complete with Android 5.1 “Lollipop” found on this model and not the latest 6.0 “Marshmallow” edition of the OS — it’s fairly minimalist, with a flattened skin, multiple home screens, widgets, and an app menu system that you can easily uninstall apps from.

Getting around this is fairly easy, and the on-screen soft buttons of Android help, allowing you to focus on the system itself, which every so often reveals a bug or two and a crashed app, but generally is fairly efficient, much like what we saw on the Z5 Compact.

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Mobile performance is also good, and the Category 6 modem in the phone revealed speeds as high as 188Mbps in our tests in Sydney’s CBD on the Telstra 4GX network, though given that the maximum of a Cat 6 network is 300Mbps, it’s clear you can get a little more speed out of this phone if need be.

Just be careful how much you push the Z5 Premium, as it can get a wee bit toasty. Depending on how much you drive the processor, you may find the back of the Z5 Premium gets a little hot, almost to the point where you wonder if a heater has been included in its feature list (it hasn’t).

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That 4K screen

One of the major parts and probably the raison d’être to consider the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium over other smartphones is the screen.

There have been some pretty monumental screen changes this year, and now that Quad HD’s 2560×1440 resolution is on more than a handful of devices, it’s hard to imagine how we went this long without super sharp screens.

Still, the display on the Z5 Premium is something different again, bringing a blistering Ultra HD resolution to a smartphone.

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To put that into perspective, the 5.5 inch screen on this smartphone delivers an astonishing 3840×2160 pixels, making it sharper than anything else out on the market.

Indeed, no phone can match what Sony has offered here, and no other screen in general. This is the smallest 4K display on the planet, delivering an insane 806 pixels per inch, over 500 higher than Apple’s so-called “Retina” concept where eyes apparently stop noticing screen difference, and almost 300 higher than LG’s suggestion that art print books are sharper again and the human eye can spot up to a little over 500 pixels per inch.

If the numbers and stats are getting you down, know this: Sony’s Xperia Z5 Premium is the sharpest display we’ve ever seen.

It’s also fairly bright, offers outstanding colour, with solid viewing angles across the board. Almost every staffer held this one in their hands and just gazed at it, commenting on the quality as if it was a game changer.

And it’s not far off.

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Indeed, it’s so sharp, sometimes you notice the screen hasn’t been super optimised necessarily for what has appeared on screen to the point where it feels you might cut your finger on the information (you won’t).

There are some catches to this clarity, however, because you don’t always see the 4K resolution, which is probably a good thing. Aside for being superfluous, firing up this many pixels would be a huge grain on the 3430mAh battery, even with Sony’s special sauce Stamina mode included.

To get around this, Sony instead fires the 5.5 inch display at Full HD’s 1920×1080 most of the time, delivering closer to 400ppi, which is still good enough for most of your activities and spot on with what the Apple iPhone 6S Plus delivers. No one has complained about the screen quality there, so we can imagine Sony is cool with this.

So when do you get that 4K goodness?

Doing regular Android stuff? Your 4K screens runs at 1080p Full HD.

Doing regular Android stuff? Your 4K screens runs at 1080p Full HD.

Why when you have something 4K to show on the screen, like say an image shot at 8 megapixels or higher, or when you have a 4K video to show off.

Luckily, you have something that does both of those.

Camera

Just like the other major Sony phones released at the back half of this year, the Z5 Premium features a 23 megapixel camera with one of the Exmor sensors taken from Sony’s camera range.

That’s one of the neat things worth remembering, because while some companies have to work hard to get its various modules up to scratch, Sony can employ the teams working in its other areas to make technology for its phones.

Since around the time of the Xperia Z2, that’s exactly what Sony has been doing, tapping the resources of its digital camera section and using the talent found within to improve the technology of its phones.

This year, that technology comes not from Sony’s compact division, but its Alpha mirrorless camera division, delivering low-light sensitivity as high as 12800, an f/2.0 aperture, and support for 4K video capture.

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In practice, you’ll find the camera can perform, though it still offers up similar performance issues to its Z5 and Z5 Compact siblings.

First, though, the image quality can handle its own in some areas, with daylight revealing a camera that shines, delivering crisp colour, excellent contrast, and the ability to control the image the way you want with both automatic and manual modes provided for.

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Night time, however, and the 23 megapixel camera doesn’t feel like much of an improvement on last year’s Z3, and in some ways, manages to feel close to the same if not all that much different.

It’s not bad, either, just not as industry leading as we had hoped, feeling like Sony’s image stacking often provides less than desirable noise control. In our time with the Z5 Premium’s camera, we felt ourselves wanting the power of the camera in the Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge, as well as the other Galaxy phones from 2015.

Image test from the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium's camera

Image test from the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium’s camera

You won’t likely be unhappy, but you may feel like things can be better, and that’s certainly true of the camera app speed.

We’re still not quite sure why the speed on this phone feels slower for the camera, but just like on the Z5 and Z5 Compact, firing up that camera doesn’t really feel like it’s going home to the keeper in an efficient manner.

Further testing reveals a solid three to five second time for the physical camera button to fire up the camera app, which is far longer than we’d like, and pretty much spot on with what the other Xperia phones have offered this year.

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At least the app has changed, and now you have a controller on the left side to let you quickly get around the settings of the camera, which we’re sure some people will find handy.

Strangely, Sony has still left the 8 megapixel mode on by default when you first start using the Z5 Premium, an issue which afflicted the Z5 and Z5 Compact and appears to still be a minor issue here, though something you’ll want to switch away from all the same.

At least the front-facing camera feels like it’s a decent option, with a 5.1 megapixel module letting you get some decently lit selfies when the time comes.

Image from the Sony's Xperia Z5 Premium's front-facing camera, with the left image being the whole and the right image being a 100 percent crop.

Image from the Sony’s Xperia Z5 Premium’s front-facing camera, with the left image being the whole and the right image being a 100 percent crop.

Battery life

Fortunately, battery life manages to raise the overall quality of the Xperia Z5 Premium, with the 3430mAh battery and an optimised edition of Android allowing Sony to push the phablet past many of the other large screen devices we’ve seen this year from Sony’s biggest competitor, Samsung.

In fact, with wired headphones and no smartwatch connected, our Sony Xperia Z5 boasted a solid day and a half of life, while wireless mode with Bluetooth headphones and a smartwatch pushed that back to a day, though we didn’t need to charge until we headed off to sleep.

Battery life on wired headphones.

Battery life on wired headphones.

We didn’t get the chance to push Stamina mode on this review, something we’ve had experience with in the past that tends to under-clock and pull back on resource usage for the phone.

Based on previous tests, it’s not unreasonable to expect that with Stamina mode applied and wired headphones used, the Xperia Z5 Premium could easily nab the two days of battery life Sony’s advertisements suggest are possible.

Battery life with wireless headphones and a smartwatch.

Battery life with wireless headphones and a smartwatch.

Extra features

There are also some extra features worth mentioning about the Z5 Premium, because while many companies just push the phone in all its glory, Sony likes to up the ante, essentially sweetening the pot to bring people back to the Sony camp, or in some cases over to the Sony camp for their first outing.

We’ve seen that on pretty much every flagship Xperia phone in recent years, and the Z5 Premium is no different, delivering the same impressive set of extra bits and bobs that its Z5 and Z5 Compact siblings received.

As such, you’ll find support for Sony’s PlayStation 4 here, allowing you to log on in your own home and play the PS4 remotely. Called “Remote Play”, it’s basically what it sounds like, with an app that not only supports the PlayStation 4 over a network, but also a PS4 DualShock controller. Hey, Sony even makes a mount to connect the phone to a game pad, if you’re into that.

Sony's fingerprint sensor is in a great location.

Sony’s fingerprint sensor is in a great location.

A fingerprint sensor is also found in the phone, in the very convenient spot of being under the power button along the right edge, and it is — just like on the Z5 and Z5 Compact where it first appeared — very good, especially for a first effort.

We found you could not just map the fingertip, but the joins of the finger, meaning that if you naturally grip the phone, this grip can be turned into a form of security, with your first and second finger grip bringing the phone out of lock. It’s very impressive, and one of the more useful fingerprint sensors and locations we’ve ever experienced.

The fingerprint sensor won’t be too thrilled with you using it when you have wet hands, though, but that’s an issue every fingerprint sensor tends to struggle with.

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You can also expect support for high resolution audio here, delivering 24-bit playback across audio files as high as 192kHz, meaning any FLAC files you buy from big websites should technically be supported, though you may need some new headphones to hear the complexity in those tracks.

Sony has also included one new feature in the 2015 Z5 models, and that is in-built noise cancellation technology, relying on the phone to talk to special headphones to reduce wind and transit engine noise, though you do need specialised headphones to make this work.

It’s a good thing, though, that Sony’s Z5 Premium arrives with those headphones, the one phone in the Z5 range to do so.

Yes, you should find a pair of Sony’s noise-cancelling MDR-NC31EM in the Z5 Premium pack, sweeting the pot just one more bit.

We're also big fans of the upgradeable storage, a feature that feels like it is beginning to disappear on mobiles.

We’re also big fans of the upgradeable storage, a feature that feels like it is beginning to disappear on mobiles.

Testing these, we found the sound quality to be fairly balanced if not a little weak on the mids, while the cancellation was decent, even if it did cut out with every song end, almost as if the end of the track had to restart the noise cancellation technology in the phone.

Still, cancelling in-earphones for free is one step better than paying for them, and you can always go better with an upgrade to a better pair later on if need be.

Beyond these “extra features”, the Xperia Z5 Premium still arrives with a neat trick, and it’s something no other flagship phablet offers. Quite literally, this one feature is something the Z5 Premium gets all to itself: water-resistance.

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Yes, just like like the Z5 and Z5 Compact, you can run this phone under water and go taking photos thanks to that physical camera button. You can spill beer on it and dip the phone in water almost like a magic trick for all your friends.

Don’t worry about that exposed 3.5mm headset jack or open USB port, either, because this port is waterproof.

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Go ahead, pour your water in, just make sure the door for the nanoSIM and microSD are closed. If they are, you’re good.

And while the IP65/68 protection is rated for freshwater only, you should still be able to take a dive in the pool or a swim in the ocean with this phone and wash it off under a tap when you’re done to at least continue to verify its water-resistance.

Frankly, we like knowing that if we’re ever taking photos of friends at the beach and we (or the phone) inadvertently goes in, it’s not going to need a bag of rice or silica gel to fix it, not to mention the amount of screaming, over-obsessive worrying, and potential loss of money that a dead phone tends to cause.

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Conclusion

Easily Sony’s best phone of the year, the Z5 Premium may make it into the list for the best phone of the year, offering a solid version of Android, a ton of features, and one of the most lovely screens you’ll ever see. Simply put, this phone is a return to excellence for Sony, offering a truly high-end experience.

If an iPhone isn’t on the cards and you’re after the best Android around, it would be hard to go past Sony’s beautiful and upgradeable Xperia Z5 Premium. Highly recommended.

Price (RRP)

$1149

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Great specs; Feels excellent in the hands; One of the best mobile screens you’ll ever see; Upgradeable storage; Pretty much water-proof; Arrives with a pair of noise-cancelling in-earphones; Can play high-resolution audio; Able to control a PlayStation 4 console; Fast 4G speeds; Decent battery life;

Product Cons

Still the odd bug slowing it down; Camera still loads slowly; Camera performance could be a little better in low-light; Gets very toasty to hold;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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