Sony Xperia 5 review: The next evolution of the XZ1/XZ2 Compact line, and I love it

…and why it replaced the Pixel 3A in my pocket

I have to share this story before I start, which explains why I gave Sony the next chance to be my daily driver phone:

When my son’s old Nexus 5X broke earlier this year, I decided to give him my old Xperia XA2 phone. He is only 13 and forgetful, and of course managed to lose track of the phone awhile back. We looked everywhere for this phone, trying to call his number. It would continue to ring for three days; it did not start going to voicemail, indicating the phone had died. In an of itself this was already a decent achievement of great standby battery life.

What was truly amazing about all this was that the phone had turned out to be outside in a wet pile of leaves, and it survived outside over the course of 3 days of on and off (mostly on) rain. To be clear about this, the Xperia XA2 is not even IP certified and it survived 3 days outside in the cold, wet, autumn New England weather! Upon finding it, the phone was completely unharmed and has continued to work flawlessly for several weeks since then. Based on this, I knew that I had to give Sony phones a second look.

Anyway, after my struggle with physically holding wider phones, and based on the above experience, the Xperia 5 was the logical next choice to try out. A bit smaller than their “flagship” Xperia 1, this phone is the default successor to the Xperia Compact line, a series of phones I really loved given their easy to hold form factors but with flagship-level specs for the era.

Hardware: not just more of the same

Notification LED

To start, the Xperia 5 has some things which are almost non-existent on modern phones these days. First: how about a notification LED! It’s nice and not too blindingly bright, and has only basic functions, including steady orange for charging, flashing red for low battery, and flashing white for a new SMS message. Still a lovely feature to see in 2019.

21:9 AMOLED screen and CPU

If you hadn’t heard it elsewhere, this new Xperia 1/5/10 line has a 21:9 ratio screen, meaning you get a thinner, easier to hold phone, while also providing a very cinema-friendly display. I loved being able to multi-task watching a YouTube video or Twitch stream, while also browsing reddit or just a random web site with Firefox, and having as much real estate for just the text content as it would in full-screen on another phone. It’s like getting the video for free! Er, kinda.

While not all content is yet produced in 21:9 ratio, it’s clear things are headed in that direction, and it’s nice to be ahead of the curve if you want to keep your phone for years to come. Though I don’t normally consume video in this format, nor do I watch whole movies on my phone that often, I did fire up Disney+ and start watching Avengers: Endgame on the X5 in 21:9 and it did look incredible. For a brief moment it made me consider being one of those movie-on-phone people.

I also loved the fact that even after a full day of walking around and holding my phone, texting, watching videos, browsing, and etc, my thumb didn’t feel like it was screaming in agony. I’m not even that much of a texter, but for some reason most other “average” (in modern terms anyway) sized phones always end up making my thumb sore. At the same time, somehow the diminished width on the X5 allowed me to reach the elongated top of the phone to pull down the notification panel without any sense that I might be close to dropping it. This phone does have a “one handed mode” in order to temporarily make frequent taps on the top of the screen easier, but as I said before, I consider these things to be a hack and won’t use them. Fortunately with the Xperia 5 this mode is not actually necessary unless you hands are tiny.

The Snapdragon 855 CPU is more than enough for any gaming needs, and the AMOLED screen is just lovely to stare at, and helps with the great battery life. One day I was disappointed that I had about 20% charge left at 6PM, but then I remembered I hadn’t charged the phone the night before. So yeah, with moderate use this thing is going to easily last more than a day for many folks, though probably not 2 days, unless you’re really miserly with gaming and web browsing.

Hardware camera button

Another thing which is almost unheard of nowadays is a dedicated camera button. How nice is it to have a button you can just press to call up and activate the camera app, and snap pics when pulling your phone out of your pocket?! These also used to be much more commonplace, but nowadays phone companies are striving to take away as many physical buttons as possible. Now to be fair, Sony may have gone a bit overboard in the other direction, but read on for more about that…

Main, Wide-Angle and 2X Telephoto Camera

Here’s where things get a little dicey. This camera is not going to win any low light records. Almost all of my pics that I really care about are of my kids or my very goofy French Bulldog, usually in less than ideal lighting conditions. As you can see in the side-by-side comparison here, the Xperia has some great color reproduction, but really blows out the detail in the window behind my pupper in order to give him a proper amount of light.

The Pixel 3A, while it looks a bit more dull in some of the yellows especially, did a much better job of capturing the varying light conditions in the scene. The Xperia 5’s picture looks fine on its own, but next to the Pixel you can see that the nice warm color doesn’t really make up for the blown out lighting and subsequent loss of detail in the background.

The Xperia 5 also has a 2x telephoto camera, but I think it’s best used in outdoor scenes. Whenever I attempted to use it for a quick doggy photo indoors, it seemed like my subject (who isn’t that energetic as to be the cause of blurry photos) always seemed a tad out of focus. What this does highlight by comparison is how incredible pictures can look in decent light with the standard 1x camera.

I’m not going to go over the wide-angle camera because again I don’t really use it much. Likewise the selfie camera seems to produce nice crisp images, but again I’m not much of a selfie taker. It does do the job well in my limited testing.

IP68 Water Resistance

Another thing that’s really nice to have is water resistance for phones. While chlorine and saltwater are pretty toxic to all phones, I do really like knowing that my phone won’t die if it gets splashed while I’m in the shower or, I don’t know, a foot plus of snow drops in less than 24 hours, necessitating two hours of shoveling and getting soaked from head to toe. It’s just a really nice thing to have and the Xperia 5 has it.

Misc (SIM and expandable storage tray)

One other little thing which I really loved to find was that the SIM tray doesn’t need a paperclip or other proprietary tool to open! Just use your fingernail and pull that bad boy out when you need to swap out your SIM or even an SD card. Yes, that’s right, a flagship phone in 2019 that has expandable storage. It’s not all roses naturally, as the tray is a little finicky and the SIM seems to want to slide around a little too easily, but I’ll take the trade-off nonetheless. Which leads us to…

Nitpicks

So aside from the nearly-perfect camera, there are some other nitpicks I have about the phone. While I love the side-mounted fingerprint and think all phones should use this positioning, for some oddball reason this phone also has a separate power button which is right below the fingerprint sensor. This causes an issue when you have the phone in your pocket and then take it out to try to unlock the screen by just pushing on the fingerprint sensor. For some reason, the phone thinks there have been too many attempts and it refuses to let you unlock. So you have to find and hit the separate power button, swipe up, and then enter your unlock code.

However, other times I’ll pull the phone out and everything is fine. The scanner is so sensitive that I don’t even try to unlock it sometimes and it is already opening the phone screen by the time it’s out of my pocket, which is neat. But the inconsistency here is a little aggravating when on the go.

Finally, the phone does lack one other thing I really like, namely a 3.5mm headphone jack. It includes an adapter in the box, but it’s just a needless thing to remove on what otherwise is a lovely swiss army knife of a phone. I already carry only USB-C and Bluetooth headphones, but this phone would have been an absolute slam dunk of a recommendation if they hadn’t axed the headphone jack.

Final thoughts

But at the end of the day, why did the Xperia 5 replace the Pixel 3A for me? Honestly it’s because the phone does everything really well, even if it doesn’t do one thing perfectly. I adored the Xperia XZ1 compact and if this is the successor to it, I’m perfectly happy with that; it certainly has the feel of that phone, even if the screen is, following the trend of every other manufacturer, much bigger than that wonderful little device had.

Everything about this phone is good, it boasts a lot of features that other manufacturers have already eschewed, and based on the experience I had with the XA2, the long term reliability is probably unbeatable.

I also happened to score a really good deal on eBay for a new in-box model. For the full retail price of $799 I would never say you should run out and buy this, unless money is no object. Even though it lacks water resistance, the Pixel 3A is an outstanding value and has a headphone jack, which the X5 lacks. But if you can get it on sale for $600 or less, I can easily recommend the Xperia 5, especially if you’ve had good experiences with Sony phones in the past. This one won’t let you down either, even if you leave it out in the leaves for days.

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