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Sony Xperia Z5 Premium REVIEW: Is a 4K smartphone worth it?

by Brandon Russell | December 2, 2015December 2, 2015 6:30 pm PDT

When Sony’s Z5 Premium was announced, it stirred a lot of debate. A phone with a 4K screen? Why?

At a time when people can barely find stuff to watch on a 4K TV, was a smartphone with a 4K display even necessary? Maybe not, but that didn’t deter Sony, which is hoping to set the pace for a display war in the coming years. Say good-bye to your Quad HD display, because that beauty has already been surpassed.

After having spent a couple weeks using the Z5 Premium, is a 4K smartphone really all it’s cracked up to be? Find out below.

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When a device bills itself as premium, you expect a certain level of quality and finish. Unfortunately, the Z5 Premium invokes a certain je ne sais pas. The right components are there: glass front and back, polished metal frame. But the opulence and grace of previous Sony devices no longer leaves a lasting impact. Despite being a familiar—clean aesthetics, monolithic design—the phone feels cumbersome and weirdly pieced together.

The lack of polish is a disappointment because I quite enjoyed previous Sony designs. The angular corners make it feel bulky, and it has a surprising heft. Meanwhile, the polished metal frame and abundance of glass makes the Z5 Premium feel slippery, a feeling that’s exacerbated by the device’s gargantuan footprint. Think Nexus 6 big.

When compared to a phone like the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, which is about the same height, there’s an obvious disparity between fit and finish. Samsung’s device is built in a way that doesn’t make it feel overly large; Sony’s Z5 Premium feels like a phone that hit an unexpected and awkward growth spurt. And those top and bottom bezels? Well, you can see from the pictures that they’re not exactly small.

I also wasn’t digging the volume rocker, which is sandwiched between the power button and dedicated camera button. I don’t have an issue with how the volume rocker necessarily feels, but it’s awkwardly located, especially if you’re holding the Z5 Premium with one hand. Not the biggest deal in the world, but an annoyance to be sure.

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It sounds like I absolutely abhor the Z5 Premium’s design, but I really don’t. Design is a subjective thing, so don’t fret just because I haven’t fallen in love.

On the positive side, the device is water resistant, and it sports front-facing stereo speakers, which sound great. You can also use it with your PlayStation—a nice perk—and it supports expandable storage, which is something that’s becoming more and more scarce. Finally, the Z5 Premium sports a thoughtfully placed power button midway on the right that also doubles as a fingerprint sensor.

I was skeptical about a fingerprint sensor being located on the side, thinking it wouldn’t be as accurate as what we’ve seen from Apple or in the latest Nexus devices, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only did the side fingerprint sensor work well, but I didn’t run into a single instance where it messed up. (Mark, however, ran into quite a few issues.) The sensor is quick, too; just place your thumb on the button and you’re up and running.

However, its placement means it’s relatively limited. Placing it on the right side of the phone means you’ll have to hold the device right your right hand, which is a bummer for lefties; it also means the sensor isn’t quite as flexible as Touch ID, or even Nexus Imprint, because you can really only use one finger. I like where Sony’s head is at putting the sensor in a different location, but usability winds up being stifled. You win some, you lose some.

The design isn’t really the focus here, though, is it? The entire point of the Z5 Premium is for Sony to prove to the world that it can make a smartphone with a 4K screen. This is purely a vehicle for the Japanese company to show off, to flaunt its engineering prowess in front of the competition. Who needs Quad HD screens when you can push the resolution even further? Packed into a 5.5-inch IPS panel, the Z5 Premium sports an insane pixel density of 806ppi, which would have been unfathomable just a few years ago.

So does the 4K screen live up to the hype? Sort of.

Soon after the Z5 Premium was announced, there was a lot of confusion as to how the 4K screen actually worked. As it turned out, there were a number of pretty big caveats, the biggest being that about 99 percent of content you’ll see on a daily basis (apps and Web browsing) is displayed at 1080p, which means the 4K-ness of the Z5 Premium is pretty much moot.

Sony said that the homescreen and apps are rendered in Full HD, which was done in order to optimize performance, power consumption, and battery. Ok, fine, makes sense. But it means you won’t really get to enjoy the device’s 4K superpowers. Oh sure, Sony has integrated an “automatic upscaling feature,” and it’s nice to zoom in on high resolution pictures and pick out the finer details. But during day-to-day use, I found that the higher resolution screen made no tangible difference. It looks nice, yeah, but it’s not life changing.

The only way to view 4K content is through Sony’s own built-in apps. You can’t watch 4K video on YouTube or Netflix—or anywhere else for that matter. Heck, you can’t even watch YouTube content in Quad HD. Because everything is rendered in 1080p (and then upscaled), where you’d expect to find 4K content isn’t natively supported by the software. You’ll have to wait for Marshmallow and a slew of updates for that.

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“We feel we’ve created a future-proof device for the imaginations, developers and apps of the future,” Sony explained soon after the Z5 Premium’s announcement. The company went on to say that it created a 4K display in a smartphone because, according to Sony’s research, “brightness and color is linked with memory in the human mind.” A more vibrant display, “the brighter we remember it.” Whether there’s actual science behind Sony’s claims I do not know.

What I do know is that, no, the Z5 Premium’s 4K display doesn’t offer a tangible benefit, much like a Quad HD screen doesn’t offer a huge benefit over 1080p (though it is noticeable). The difference might look nice, but because there is virtually no 4K content to watch on your smartphone, you’d be buying the Z5 Premium for no other reason than to brag to friends. If you have your heart set on buying into Sony’s Z family, you’re much better off going with the regular Z5, which sports the same specs, but with a more manageable 5.2-inch 1080p screen.

Sony says it’s building some virtual reality stuff internally that can take advantage of the Z5 Premium’s display, but nothing is available just yet. That’ll be an area where the high resolution screen is very noticeable, so we’ll be sure to update our thoughts once Sony releases something.

Now here’s the question of the day: Does the battery take a hit as a result of Sony’s 4K antics? Somewhat. During the week I spent using the Z5 Premium, the device’s 3430mAh battery pushed through a day’s worth of heavy use, but just barely. That’s a far cry from Sony’s promise of two full days. Like all devices, your mileage will vary based on how hard you push your phone. My days typically consist of browsing social media, light gaming, email, YouTube, and messaging, leaving me with about 15-20 percent when it was bedtime. That’s not amazing, but not bad all things considered.

It’s worth noting that the screen can work against the battery life. Because Sony used an LCD display, every time you check the device, the entire screen lights up; in a device like the OnePlus X, the AMOLED display only lights up some pixels at any given time, helping to save on battery life.

Luckily Sony includes a number of different power modes, including STAMINA, Ultra stamina (only basic functions), and lower battery (disables functions in order to save power), which means you probably won’t run into many instances when the Z5 Premium is completely dead. If it does run out of battery, there’s always the fallback of Quick Charge 2.0, which is becoming an increasingly integral part of the smartphone experience.

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Overall, the Z5 Premium was a solid performer—something you’d expect from a device with 3GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 810 chip. I didn’t run into any real glaring issues during day-to-day use, though I wasn’t blown away by the device’s speed. There was the occasional slowdown, and I noticed more than a few instances when the phone would hesitate before opening an application. Oh, and I did notice that the phone can get warm.

I attribute much of the slowdown to Sony’s Android skin, which has never felt like the most optimized piece of software. Although it’s relatively tame in the looks department, I’ve always noticed Sony’s UI to exhibit a slugishness, and it’s disappointing that Sony still can’t get it right. That said, the company does include some neat software enhancements, like a handy favorites bar in the multi-tasking menu, and the ability to set themes. But you’d get a much better experience just using a third-party launcher.

While much of the focus will be on the Z5 Premium’s 4K screen, we have to remember that Sony still bestowed the device with a pretty killer camera sensor—one that has been heralded as the best of the best. So how does it fare?

In our experience, the 23-megapixel shooter is great, but it doesn’t quite take the crown as today’s best mobile shooter. (That’s a debate for another time, but we think Samsung may have everyone beat.)

Our biggest issue with the Z5 Premium’s camera is its inconsistent performance. As we showed in our post of camera samples, shots can look downright stunning. But it suffered from too much noise, over-processing, and details were often lost in more complex scenes. You can especially see this in the landscape shots, where finer details in the grass are pretty much non-existent. These are gripes most people won’t even notice, but worth pointing out.

In lower light, the Z5 Premium was just OK. What’s great is that you can go all the way up to 12800 ISO, making the sensor incredibly sensitive to light. But I wouldn’t say the results I got were any better or worse than the top shooters out there—about on a par for what you’d expect from a mobile shooter. Low light photography is often the achilles heel of every top smartphone, and the Z5 Premium didn’t perform any miracles.

I also found that autofocus was a bit finicky, though there was no real rhyme or reason behind it. In most situations, the device was accurate and quick with focus. Other times, it would hunt, and hunt, and hunt, which is a major annoyance when you’re trying to snap a quick photo. Luckily Sony makes taking pictures easy thanks to the dedicated camera button, which can also be half-pressed to focus.

The camera UI is pretty straightforward and minimal—swipe left and right to easily switch between different shooting modes—and it’s a pleasant experience overall. I mostly stuck to Superior Auto, but Sony also offers a manual mode, which can be used to tweak white balance and ISO. It’s not as powerful as the manual mode offered by LG, but it’s still very solid, and offers just the right amount of control.

Also worth pointing out is how wide the lens is, allowing users to capture more of a scene. And you can switch images between 4:3 and 16:9, too, depending on your preference. Being able to capture a wider scene just means you can more easily crop in on the images you capture, which I recommend you do because the edges can sometimes look distorted due to how wide the lens is.

Rating: Buy/Wait

The Xperia Z5 Premium’s 4K display looks nice, but it offers no tangible benefit.


The big question here is whether we think you should buy the Z5 Premium. If you don’t mind paying a little more for that 4K screen, I’d say go for it. Even if we took the 4K screen out of the equation, Sony’s Z5 Premium is still a good phone. Perhaps the best thing to do is wait and see how this plays out with the next version, or the one after that.

As it stands, the 4K screen, while beautiful, offers no real tangible benefit, so it’s not something you really need; the experience isn’t improved by that higher resolution display. It’s like seeing an original Rembrandt next to a copy. Sure, you might notice a slight difference, but to most people it’s all the same. That said, how cool would it be to own a phone with a 4K screen?

I’m not crazy about the Z5 Premium’s design, and it’s certainly pricier than some of today’s other big flagships. But it offers a solid overall experience, and owns bragging rights as the only smartphone with a 4K display. If that’s something you value, then Sony’s device is worth consideration.

PROS

  • Great screen
  • Helpful software tweaks
  • Fast, accurate fingerprint sensor

CONS

  • 4K screen doesn’t make much of a difference
  • Camera could be improved

Disclaimer: Brandon used the Xperia Z5 Premium for five days before beginning his review. Mark used the Xperia Z5 Premium for seven days before filming his review.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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