Small premium phones have seen a mini-renaissance of sorts in 2019, but one OEM has been cramming flagship power into a reduced form factor for years.
Sony’s beloved Compact series skipped the Xperia XZ3 generation and when Sony semi-rebooted its smartphone brand with the Xperia 1 with no smaller counterpart, it looked like curtains for Compact fans.
Enter the Xperia 5 — a spiritual successor to the extended Xperia Compact family with almost all of the same features and specs we saw on Sony’s last marquee handset.
Is it a miniaturized marvel or a diminutive disaster? Find out in our Xperia 5 review!
Sony Xperia 5 review: The big picture
Sony’s long overdue rebrand of its Xperia smartphone brand kicked off in earnest with the launch of the Xperia 1 and the mid-to-entry-level Xperia 10 and 10 Plus in 2018. Instead of a new premium phone, Sony took a detour at IFA 2019 with the reveal of the Xperia 5.
While it numerically sits in the middle ground between the Xperia 1 and 10 series, it’s essentially a shrunken version of the former with many of the same elite specs and features, but with a few tweaks to suit the reduced size.
Priced at $799, the Xperia 5 is competing with other modestly-sized flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S10e and iPhone 11. Unlike those phones though, the Xperia 5 sticks with Sony’s trend of pushing elongated, 21:9 “CinemaWide” aspect ratio displays, meaning it’s as lean as its pocket-friendly rivals, but actually a tiny bit taller than the Galaxy S10 Plus.
We got our hands on the phone just in time for its debut in Europe in early October. A US release date is scheduled for November 5.
What’s in the box
- 18W Power Delivery USB-C charger
- USB-C to USB-C cable
- USB-C to 3.5mm adapter
- 3.5mm earphones
Unboxing a Sony phone has always been a relatively underwhelming affair and that’s still true of the Xperia 5.
The box itself feels cheap and aside from a pair of wired earphones, the only other accessories are an 18W USB-C Power Delivery plug, a fairly sturdy USB-C cable, and a 3.5mm headphone jack adapter (spoiler: this phone doesn’t have a headphone jack).
- 158 x 68 x 8.2mm, 164g
- Gorilla Glass 6
I could almost write “the Xperia 1 but smaller” and happily move on, but there are a few things we should address. Plus I’m a professional, honestly.
First up, let’s talk size. You might think that the most obvious comparison is its larger sibling, the Xperia 1. But it’s a little more interesting to pit the Xperia 5 against the Compact line’s swansong, the Xperia XZ2 Compact. The Xperia 5 is almost 4mm thinner, but a tiny bit wider, and a lot taller (23mm extra to be exact).
This puts the Xperia 5 in a bizarre situation where you’ve got a thin phone that’s incredibly easy to grip in the palm of your hand, but annoyingly lanky when you’re trying to summon forth the notification bar with the tip of your outstretched thumb.
Like the equally unwieldy Xperia 10, this is another small-yet-tall phone that you’re essentially forced to use two-handed a lot of the time. At that point the slender build actually becomes a hindrance. It’s nice to have a phone that doesn’t overburden your pockets, but unless they’re quite deep it’ll likely peek out of the top.
What you can’t complain about is the build quality. The polished, lightly curved metal frame is glossy, smooth, and a satisfying filling for the glass sandwich panels — made from Gorilla Glass 6 — on the front and back. We’re a long way away from the sharp square edges of past Xperia phones. Hallelujah.
Elsewhere, the design is almost identical to the Xperia 1. There’s an acceptably small forehead bezel, an even smaller chin, and razor thin bars either side of the screen, but I’d personally take all of that over a punch hole or notch — your mileage may vary.
The only obvious change is the camera bump that’s migrated to the top left of the rear panel compared to the Xperia 1’s central module. I’m not sure why Sony opted to budge it over, but you’re far less likely to cover the lens with a supporting finger when taking a photo now.
Speaking of photography, there’s a dedicated, two-tier camera button on the bottom right side of the Xperia 5 and it works like a charm. It’s also a handy way to quickly access the camera from the lock screen, though it did take a few shots of the inside of my pocket thanks to some accidental presses.
Above the camera button sits the power button followed by a side-mounted fingerprint sensor and finally a volume rocker. That’s a lot of buttons. In fact, it’s too many.
The power key is a fraction too low. I found myself dumped back to the lock screen several times after unwittingly pressing it with my purlicue (I had to look that up) when reaching for the top of the display.
The separate fingerprint sensor is to blame as it sits where you’d expect the power button to be on a normal phone. I’m not sure why Sony couldn’t double up the functionality into a single button/sensor like we saw on the Honor 20 Pro. In-display scanners have also improved dramatically since the Xperia 1 launched, so it’s a shame to see Sony lag behind with a semi-premium phone.
The fingerprint scanner simply isn’t fit for purpose.
This is made even worse by the fact that the Xperia 5’s fingerprint scanner is inexcusably terrible. Like the phone itself, it’s long and thin, which is nightmare for those with chunky thumbs. When the stars and moon align you might get a first time unlock, but far more often its takes three or four tries to find the elusive sweet spot.
Even worse, there’s zero haptic or on-screen feedback for unsuccessful unlock attempts unless you wake the phone first. I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to be blocked out after reaching the maximum number of unsuccessful attempts and having no idea that’s the case. This needs a patch ASAP, but as is the fingerprint scanner simply isn’t fit for purpose.
- 6.1-inch OLED
- 2,520 by 1,080 pixels, 449ppi
- 21:9 CinemaWide aspect ratio
- HDR BT.2020
Things inevitably had to give transitioning from the Xperia 1 to the smaller, cheaper Xperia 5. One of those things was the former’s celebrated 4K display. But don’t worry, you really don’t need it.
Sony’s pedigree for delivering excellent displays shines through here. Even with the drop from 4K to 1080p, the Xperia 5 has pixels to spare and the OLED panel is suitably punchy.
The black bars of doom that plague all 21:9 phones are a menace.
It’s boosted by a smorgasbord of pompously-named proprietary Sony tech (“Triluminos,” “X-Reality,” “X1 for mobile”) and an optional Creator Mode, which reproduces the BT.2020 color gamut so you can experience the “creator’s intended vision” when watching compatible movies and TV shows.
Even with the reduced real estate, the Xperia 5 is a dream for movie lovers, especially if you’re watching 21:9-compatible Netflix content that takes advantage of the full CinemaWide display in gleaming HDR.
The same can’t be said for random YouTube clips, however, as the black bars of doom that plague all tall phones are an unavoidable menace.
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
- Adreno 640
- 6GB RAM
- 128GB storage
I encountered zero performance hiccups while using the Sony Xperia 5, which is exactly what you’d expect from a phone with Qualcomm’s almost-top-tier Snapdragon 855 chipset complimented by a plentiful 6GB of RAM.
The Xperia 5 aced all our performance tests across the board. Notably, the phone hit 60fps on both GFXBench T-Rex and Manhattan tests across multiple tries.
Our overall performance testing score tied the Xperia 5 with the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus, Asus Zenfone 6, and the newly released Huawei Mate 30 Pro. While it couldn’t challenge the top performers running the Snapdragon 855 Plus, it still managed to narrowly beat the Xperia 1 which suggests Sony has managed to eke a little more power out of the regular 855 SoC.
Gaming is also a breeze even if you avoid the pre-installed Game Enhancer app completely. The Xperia 5 also comes with 128GB of internal ROM and an optional microSD slot (up to 1TB), so storage isn’t an issue either if you’ve got a bunch of hefty 3D games.
- 3,140mAh Lithium-ion
- Xperia Adaptive Charging
- Stamina and Ultra Stamina mode
- USB Power Delivery
Aside from the display, the battery is the only other core aspect of the Xperia 5 that’s been downgraded from the Xperia 1. Though, again, it’s less of an issue then you might expect.
The Xperia 5 has a fairly unremarkable 3,140mAh battery. Compared to other small flagships, however, it’s essentially on par with the Galaxy S10e, and it’s still only a minor drop for the Xperia 1’s surprisingly small 3,330mAh cell. It also doesn’t have to factor in the significant power drain from the Xperia 1’s 4K display.
As a result, the Xperia 5 can go a lot longer and harder. I typically managed around 7 hours screen on time with relatively heavy usage (an hour or so of Twitch/YouTube, half an hour of gaming, capturing photos and video, in addition to general use). There’s also an abundance of power saving options including Stamina Mode and Ultra Stamina Mode which provides more juice at the cost of disabling various functions.
Related: The best Android smartphones with the best battery life
The lack of wireless charging is a bit of a head scratcher for a phone in this price range, but the 18W Power Delivery wired charging does a great job topping up your charge in a pinch. It takes around two hours to reach full charge, though the first 50% takes just half an hour.
While it doesn’t have the highest endurance levels we’ve seen from some of 2019’s best, the Xperia 5’s battery performance is a welcome improvement over Sony’s recent efforts.
- 12MP wide-angle, f/1.6, OIS
- 12MP telephoto, f/2.4, OIS
- 12MP super-wide lens, f/2.4
- 8MP, f/2.0
Sony has a storied history as a photography and imaging giant, including in the mobile space, but its own smartphones have always flattered to deceive.
If you’ve read our Xperia 1 camera review you’ll know we were ultimately disappointed by the triple-lens camera’s overall performance. The Xperia 5 carries an identical hardware setup and the results are just as underwhelming.
The problems start with the camera app itself. Sony has mercifully stripped back some of its shooting modes that bloated the app in previous iterations, but in doing so it’s managed to obfuscate crucial toggles and options. This includes the bokeh mode, which for some reason is identified as two overlapping circles in the top bar.
For reasons that I can’t possibly understand, Sony has apparently made it impossible to turn off the AI Cam feature which adapts contrast, white balance, and other settings based on object and scene recognition.
The only way to be rid of it is switching to Pro mode, which is also the only place you can control HDR (either on or off, no auto). Likewise, the phone’s night mode is purely contextual and often fails to trigger in dark environments, which is a shame as those times it does activate it actually delivers acceptable low light shots.
This would almost all be forgivable if the AI Cam wasn’t so wildly inconsistent. Color reproduction trends towards a more realistic look (though the white balance is a little yellow) and close-up shots are detailed, but the dynamic range is all over the place at further distances.
There’s also something way off with focus detection. This is especially true for landscape shots or any scene with varied distances between objects as the camera struggles to balance focus between the foreground and background. This leads to the processing software oversharpening background detail like trees and other foliage to compensate, but there are also instances where the foreground descends into mush.
Despite still suffering from wonky focus, things pick up a little with the telephoto lens which captures detailed shots at 2x optical zoom. I’m less taken with the wide-angle camera as the decision to go wider than the competition with a huge 137-degree FOV adds an unpleasant fish eye-like curvature to images.
Portrait mode has a few hiccups with edge detection, but is mostly serviceable. Meanwhile, the selfie camera performs well, though it occasionally stumbles indoors where it sometimes misjudges colors, including skin tones.
On the video front, the Xperia 5 can capture 4K in 30fps or 1080p at up to 60fps. The results are mostly fine, though the stabilization is so-so. If you want even more video capture options Sony has a CineAlta-branded app called Cinema Pro where you can adjust shutter speed, ISO, focus, and tweak the color profile.
Considering Sony’s camera sensors are the foundation of some of the best camera phones on the market right now, it’s frankly bewildering that the best Xperia phones have such mediocre cameras from top to bottom.
You can judge the results for yourselves by checking out full-resolution sample photos here.
- Android 9 Pie
Sony’s take on Android is one of the lighter OEM skins out there. The fonts, colors, icons, and app drawer all have a bit of Sony flavor, but everything else is fairly close to stock Android.
The Xperia 5 runs Android 9 Pie out of the box and that’s still the case even after installing a few updates. In recent years, Sony has been one of the better OEMs for rolling out core Android updates, so hopefully we’ll hear about its Android 10 plans soon.
Until then, the Xperia 5 is saddled with the Pie’s divisive “pill” gestures, or you can revert back to three-button navigation bar of old. Side Sense gives you another input method by double tapping or swiping along the phone’s frame. The effect changes depending on the app you’re using. Unfortunately it always takes several attempts to find the sweet spot along the phone’s edge. The whole gimmick is quite unreliable, especially the swipe motion which almost always saw me swiping the screen instead.
Sony has taken full advantage of the CinemaWide display when adapting its software and apps. Multitasking benefits greatly from the increased vertical space, as does simply scrolling through Chrome or Twitter as you’ll generally need less swipes to get to the content you want to see. There’s also a useful one handed mode that gives your tired thumbs some respite from the elongated screen.
The downside is that there are millions of apps on the Play Store that aren’t optimized for the 21:9 aspect ratio. You can’t escape black bars on the Xperia 5 for very long no matter what you’re doing.
Read more: The many flavors of Android: a look at the major Android skins
Speaking of apps, the Xperia 5 I tested came pre-loaded with a bunch of Sony apps, most of which are serviceable if you really don’t like Google apps, as well as some bloatware like Booking.com, Asphalt 9, and Fortnite Installer. Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video also came pre-installed.
Aside from the aforementioned Cinema Pro app, the only other Sony app worth touching on is Game Enhancer which is an undercooked game launcher with an irritating floating logo and some huge banner ads for Fortnite and Asphalt 9 at the top.
Overall, the Xperia experience is perfectly functional, but a little unremarkable. It sits in an awkward middle ground that isn’t as clinical and pure as stock Android or as customizable and versatile as the best Android skins like OxygenOS and One UI.
- Bluetooth 5 with aptX HD
- Dolby Atmos
- Stereo speakers
So if Sony can’t deliver on its imaging prowess on a smartphone, can it at least preserve its heritage as an audio pioneer? Well, yes, unless you want a headphone jack.
The loss of the port will sting for audiophiles and that hurt may rapidly switch to anger when you notice that the Xperia 5 comes with a pair of (cheap feeling, but alright for a freebie) earphones in the box with a 3.5mm connector. You have to use the bundled USB-C adapter to use them.
That utter ridiculousness aside, the Xperia 5 sounds pretty great either via the stereo speakers or rigged up to a pair of decent cans. Bluetooth connections benefit from aptX HD and if you want to go even deeper there’s a DSEE HX upscaler and Dolby Atmos. Between the two you’ve got a raft of EQ sliders and profiles to play around with for music and movies.
One of Sony’s more bizarre innovations is dynamic vibration which is meant to align the phone’s vibration motor with whatever you’re watching or listening to. The haptics are decent, but at higher volumes the timing is a bit questionable. I turned it off pretty quickly.
|Sony Xperia 5|
|Display||6.1-inch HDR OLED|
2,520 x 1,080 resolution
21:9 aspect ratio
X1 for mobile
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Mobile Platform|
MicroSD expansion up to 1TB
Primary: 12MP, f/1.6, 26mm, 1.4µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS/EIS
Telephoto: 12MP, f/2.4, 52mm, 1.0µm, 2x optical zoom, OIS/EIS
Super-wide angle: 12MP, f/2.4, 16mm, 1.4µm
USB Power Delivery
|Audio||Dolby Atmos Hi-res Audio|
Stereo sound recording
Dynamic Vibration system
|Durability||Corning Gorilla Glass 6|
|Biometrics||Fingerprint sensor (side)|
|Network||J820: LTE(4G) Cat19/Cat13|
Wi-Fi IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n(2.4GHz)/n(5GHz)/ac
A-GNSS (GPS + GLONASS)
Ambient light sensor
Game rotation vector
Geomagnetic rotation vector
Significant motion detector
|Software||Android 9 Pie|
|Dimensions and weight||158 x 68 x 8.2mm|
|Colors||Black, Blue, Gray|
Value for the money
- Sony Xperia 5 with 6GB of RAM, 128GB storage: $799 (U.S.), £699 (U.K.)
Pre-orders for the Sony Xperia 5 are already open in the UK and Europe ahead of its early October shipping estimate. Those in the US have to wait a bit longer for the November 5 release date.
With the underwhelming camera and the quirky, yet impractical tall design in mind, the Xperia 5’s $799 price tag takes it well out of the “no-brainer” category. There are huge caveats that come with recommending this phone and I’d implore potential buyers to give it a try before dropping your dollars.
Small premium phones had been teetering on the brink of extinction until a few notable exceptions hit the market in 2019. There’s still not a huge amount of choice, but what there is represents strong competition for Sony’s not-so-compact phone
Related: Best small Android phones
The most high profile rival is the Samsung Galaxy S10e which starts at $749 and has recently dropped to as low as $549 in sales via US carriers. The biggest trade-off is the lack of a zoom lens, but if that’s not a priority the S10e represents a better all-round package.
The Google Pixel 3 can often be picked up for less than $500 these days, or you can go even cheaper with the Pixel 3a. Both phones aren’t even close to beating the Xperia 5 on performance, but again, if photography is important to you Google’s phones blow Sony’s efforts out of the water. If the inevitable Pixel 4 is priced around the $800 mark that’ll also be worth strong consideration.
Go a little larger and the competition really hots up.
If you can stomach the thought of jumping to the dark side, there’s also the iPhone 11. It’s not Android, of course, but from what we’ve seen so far Apple’s latest is a least worth a look.
That’s just the small phones too. Go a little larger (well, thicker, the Xperia 5 is already tall enough) and you’ve got the OnePlus 7T (and OnePlus 7 Pro), Asus Zenfone 6, Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro, Honor 20 Pro, and other affordable flagships that are available in the Xperia 5’s launch regions that cost less (in some cases dramatically so) than the Xperia 5’s asking price.
Sony Xperia 5 review: The verdict
The Xperia 1 was an admirable attempt from Sony to get itself out of a creative rut. That same ambition lives on in the Xperia 5 which nobly attempts to pick up the torch for the now defunct Compact line while retaining the power and style of Sony’s retooled flagship series.
The result is an identity crisis that the Xperia 5 has a hard time reconciling. It’s not small enough to be a truly compact phone and, while unique, tall smartphone displays just aren’t practical for day-to-day both in terms of ergonomics and functionality.
The Xperia 5 has too many pain points.
For a phone that still costs more than 2019’s best affordable flagships, the Xperia 5 has too many pain points — the lackluster camera, awful fingerprint scanner, bland software, awkward design — to fully recommend it to anyone but die-hard movie lovers with limited pocket/bag space who want to watch supported movies in 21:9 on the go.
Who knows where the Xperia brand goes next (numerically we’ll get some overlap if it sticks with the current naming scheme), but if Sony can improve on the strong fundamentals — display quality, stellar audio, smooth performance — and find a way to work in its imaging expertise then the only way is up.
Just take a little off the top along the way, please.
That’s it for our Sony Xperia 5 review! Let us know your thoughts on the Compact successor in the comments.
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