Budget phablets tend to attract attention, and Sony’s C5 Ultra is certainly doing that, boasting a lovely 6 inch screen and 4G for just over $500. So what’s wrong with the phone?
Features and performance
The idea of a big phone is one quite a few people can get behind, and while at least one manufacturer said it would never work, it eventually ate its words as Samsung pioneered what would become an industry leading part of the market.
Big phones are now a thing, and they’re a constant thing as people realise that they want to see more of the web with them at all times. It’s not just the web, but bigger pictures, a bigger camera viewfinder, and the opportunity to watch movies and TV shows from a phone in a big window that still conveniently fits in your pocket.
But big phones can carry a big price, and so Sony is attempting to deliver on a middle ground option, coming in the form of the Xperia C5 Ultra, a six inch smartphone delivering the size people want in an easy to grip form-factor and a price that positively places the phone in the middle ground.
We’ve seen some great value propositions from Sony before, so can this one live up to expectations?
One of the stand-out features of the C5 Ultra will be noticed pretty much the moment you take the phone out of the box and try to use it, and that’s the screen.
Prepare yourself for a massive screen, because in the C5 Ultra, you’re basically seeing the spiritual successor to the Xperia Z Ultra, with a bigger-than-big 6 inch Full HD display that practically stretches from edge to edge, offering some of the slimmest framing we’ve ever seen, and one of the prettiest edge framed screens out there.
It isn’t the sharpest display on the block, because while we’ve seen Sony adopt the world’s first 4K smartphone screen, the C5 Ultra relies on another Full HD 1920×1080 panel, which means you’ll get around 367 pixels per inch.
That’s higher than the “Retina” count of the Apple iPhone 6S, but lower than that of the 6S Plus, and while it’s sharp, the C5 Ultra display isn’t as razor pin-prick sharp as others available.
But that might not matter for the price point it sits in, and to help out with some of that excess size, even Sony’s trademark top and bottom bezels have been slimmed down, leaving you with a smartphone that while big doesn’t feel totally enormous, which is a nice change.
The curvature of the body also changes, and while Sony’s regular Xperia design is to often release a thin and edgy brick, this harks back to a day when Sony was still sitting in its Sony Ericsson roots and commands a bit of the styling of the Vivaz, a handset that curved into the palm as you held it.
That’s what you’ll experience here, and while we like Sony’s rectangular flattened bricks in the Z series, the C5 Ultra is comfortable too, even with its massive size. The plastic body surely helps this, and while its 187 gram weight isn’t light, it’s still comfortable enough, and ideal for people who want a massive screen.
There’s no waterproofing on this model like some of the other Sony models, so don’t go in expect to be able to drown the phone, as that will just break things.
Also, it is a bit of a fingerprint magnet, so while it would have been nice to clean it with immersion in water, don’t because it will break, and it will be better for everyone (support included) if you just carry a cloth.
Inside this phone, though, you’ll find technology you’d expect out of a flagship, though not necessarily of the same ilk.
For instance, Sony has provided an eight-core processor, but it’s not the same eight-core processor we see in the Xperia Z5 series. And Sony has delivered WiFi, but it’s just your standard old 802.11 a/b/g/n, none of that new 802.11ac.
And that’s where you know that the C5 Ultra isn’t flagship, and isn’t really close: it’s mid-range with a big screen, offering what appears to be value for people who want that massive screen over, say, a tablet purchase.
There’s nothing wrong with this attempt, and the 2GB RAM accompanying the 16GB storage is a totally fine mid-range effort, even if it’s a little down on the memory, as Android tends to prefer 3GB for the sweet spot. That said we are happy Sony has kept a microSD slot available, allowing anyone to expand the storage considerably.
Likewise, Android 5.0 is here out of the box, and just like we’ve seen in other smartphones from Sony this year, it’s a pretty easy experience to adapt to, with a light skin on top of the Google design language of version 5.0 “Marshmallow”, complete with multiple homescreens, Google’s drop-down notification bar, and a way of uninstalling apps straight from the menu quickly and easily.
Even elements of the software are the same, offering Sony’s album for images, and the Xperia theming, and even Sony’s music player, though this lacks the high-res audio support of the other phones, which in the C5 Ultra will load FLAC files but won’t recognise them as HD audio.
Buttons are pretty much spot on, too, with the same reliance of on-screen buttons Android typically takes, and three physical buttons on the right edge, offering power, volume, and then a camera button.
Using the phone, you’ll find 4G performance is stellar, offering 4G LTE at speeds ranging from 20Mbps all the way up to 100Mbps, network dependent of course.
That’s not bad at all, and fairly par for the course, which will be great for people keen to use the C5 Ultra as a portable YouTube machine when they’re out and about.
At 6 inches, it’s totally conceivable that you might want to watch all the cat videos every day on the bus, but please do everyone a favour and bring some headphones.
Battery life is about average for this, though at least it is on par with not just Sony’s flagships, but pretty much every other flagship.
We found throughout the course of time with the C5 Ultra that it would manage roughly a day of life, either with Bluetooth switched on or without, so you’ll want to charge this one daily.
But if there’s one thing stopping the C5 Ultra from being a fantastic mid-range bargain, it’s the system performance.
It’s not that the eight-core processor is mediocre — it’s that, too — but it’s more the stability Sony has provided for the not-so-expensive phablet.
In fact, after the phone crashed several times throughout two days and decided to restart itself a couple of other times, we have a hard time saying good things about its performance in general.
Aside for these rather curious performance glitches, and they’re pretty severe, it’s an adequately performing smartphone, with the eight-core processor allowing you to jump from app to app fairly easily usually with half a second of day, though some apps and features — like the camera — can certainly take their time to load.
We need to stress that mediocre performance isn’t the C5 Ultra’s main problem, though, because for the most part it is overall decent experience.
It’s the crashing that really kills it.
All of a sudden, your phone will just reset. You’ll turn to it and voila, it’s going through the Sony Xperia start-up, and you’ll wonder why that’s happening.
Other times, the crash is more severe, and you’ll be browsing a webpage or trying to use the phone and it will just stop. The screen will stay on and you’ll feel like you’re using the device, and yet it will be doing nothing.
Less than nothing, actually, because it has stopped, and requires you to hold down the power button and volume up to force it to reset, you know since the battery is built in and you can’t just give it a good whack to cut the power.
And much like the recent Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact, our time with the C5 Ultra revealed a camera that required at least five seconds to load. Yeesh.
That camera performance wasn’t the best we’ve ever seen, either, despite the C5 Ultra rocking more megapixels on the front, sitting at 13 megapixels, which is more than the 5 megapixels than either of the current flagships.
But just like we expect out of a good analogy, you can’t expect more megapixels to instantly equal more quality, because the 13 megapixel camera comes with flaws.
First of all, it’s not the best camera on the planet, because while it’s a totally acceptable camera, it doesn’t rival the flagships in the slightest.
It also lacks the ability to control the megapixels from the camera software, which is a first for us on a Sony camera. Normally, this is fairly easy, requiring a settings change, but on the C5 Ultra, your selection of megapixels amidst aspect ratios has been reduced to merely an aspect ratio: do you want 4:3 or 16:9?
That’s your selection, and you’ll find it spits out a 13 megapixel image in 4:3 and a little over 8 megapixels in 16:9, but it doesn’t tell you that, and you only find out when you take the photos and multiply the dimensions yourself.
We’re not sure why Sony has taken this route — surely megapixel sizes aren’t that difficult to understand and pick between? — but it’s what exists on the camera.
And the camera, which we’ve said isn’t the best on the planet and is acceptable, is okay, but it’s not great. Images tend to lack detail, especially up close, and at night, the image quality just feels altogether blurry and soft.
Daylight is fine, while indoors, the automatic white balance doesn’t feel like it’s doing the best job.
Really, the one thing really going for the camera is that it can get really close and sharpen up nicely, allowing us to take some nice shots of the dogs from the front-facing camera.
Compared to last year, there hasn’t been a lot of movement in the phablet space, and we’ve even seen people in marketing pull away from that term “phablet” of late.
That’s a good thing, because the idea of a phablet or a “tablet-sized phone” has just kind of become the norm. Now that Apple has joined in, a phablet is just a phone because big phones are totally normal.
Now that they’re normal, so too is the reduction in price on the big phones.
And six inches is definitely big. Offering a six inch screen, the Sony Xperia C5 Ultra is definitely one of the larger phones we’ve seen this year, bordering on being a tablet, not just because of its size, but because even Sony’s tablet software looks and performs just like one of its phones.
In essence, the C5 Ultra is a small tablet, and yet it’s also a very big phone, offering the best of both worlds for someone who wants just that.
Despite the excellent price, Sony hasn’t delivered the masterpiece you might expect, because the model Australians will be seeing just seems to lack the polished software you might expect