Friday 1 May 2020

Sony Xperia 5

Regular readers of my thoughts on tech gear will know that I am wow'd by Sony equipment until it comes to phones. I then enter a love/hate relationship! Wanting so much to love them but become annoyed at how Sony have layered their identity through software over the top of Android. Will this 2019 Sony little brother of the Xperia 1 break the pattern for me, I wonder.

Many thanks to Andy Moon for the loan of this phone which retains the £699 price even six months after launch (in mainstream UK outlets). There are Sony sales at various retailers now and then, but nothing like the same regularity of sales for various other makes and models. It seems that to some degree Sony do much like Apple and keep prices high (at least) until the next model appears. Talking of which, there is an Xperia 5 Mk.II on the horizon, but nothing announced at time of writing in April 2020.

In the Box
As usual with Sony in the UK, there's no TPU case in the box, so you really have to get one. Very first impressions are that it's a very, very slippery glass and aluminium sandwich which you will drop! Otherwise, there's a 3-pin plug, USB-C to USB-C cable to go into it, a nasty-looking set of inner-ear earphones with a simple pause/play/next track Google Assistant button in-line and a 3.5mm to USB-C adapter. Interesting that they continue to supply 3.5mm 'phones and adapter rather than a USB-C set. And the phone! And lifting the phone supplied my tiny brain with that Sony 'Wow' factor, once again!

Sony Design
It's about design for me with Sony. We'll come to practicalities later, but it feels like such a premium slice of tech when handled. It's smooth and the surround is beautifully 'rounded' to meet the flat Gorilla Glass 6 on both sides. I so want to not use the case, but I know I can't - so will enjoy the moment a little longer! We'll come to the screen later but for now, it's a tall - very tall - phone, following the cinema-centric target which Sony are looking towards. So yes, tall and thin. In actual fact, when it's held up against other modern phones from Motorola and Nokia, it really isn't much taller, just a tad, but because of that 21:9 screen ratio it feels taller. An odd illusion. At the top of the front I can see a selfie-cam in the forehead next to an earpiece speaker. The body is IP65/IP68 dust/water resistant (up to 1.5m for 30 mins), so well covered against many elements and surprisingly light at only 164g - way behind many of the other Android 2019 releases for weight. This does not, however, make it feel any less premium.

Fit & Finish
On the left is a pull-out (no pokey-tool needed) SIM Card and microSD Card Tray, down the bottom a microphone, USB-C port and classy-looking speaker with a metal-looking grille over it. Up top another microphone and on the right side from top to bottom, a smallish volume rocker, side-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner, power button and shutter release button. Only from Sony! On the back, we have Sony and Xperia logos and top-left (looking in portrait) three camera lenses, an LED flash and one other sensor. The fit and finish is superb, as you'd expect at this price. No wobbly buttons or anything less than premium look, feel and style. Love it.

Kudos to Sony for not following the herd in a number of ways. Firstly, retaining a capacitive fingerprint scanner, which I'll come to later, and a Notification LED on the forehead, but for now, the screen. Not afraid to keep a small chin and forehead which you could argue makes the 21:9 even taller than it could be, but I like it. Nothing in the way of cinema-viewing in terms of a selfie - and somewhere for the thumb to swipe-up from at the bottom instead of bumping into the case. Quick note about the SIM Card/microSD Card tray - it's horribly plastic in construction but does offer hybrid options of dual-SIM or SIM and Storage. In the usual Sony way, when you open the tray, the phone is powered off. Pros and cons!

The fingerprint scanner is on the side and is capacitive and doesn't do anything other than scan your fingerprint! The power button is separate alongside and unlike most reviewers, it seems, I'm OK with this. It is quick to register and works well - as long as it doesn't get too greasy. I have to, now and again, particularly on hot sweaty days, wipe it before placing my finger, but to be fair, as soon as that is done, quick wipe, it's functioning again normally. Yes, it's a bit odd, but give me this over under-glass scanners anytime! There's no FaceID nor even Face Unlock (since Google seems to have stripped it out of Smart Lock options now), so use of that fingerprint scanner will be critical to user-adoption or rejection.

The screen is a Triluminos 6.1" OLED 1080p panel returning 449ppi and that brave 21:9 aspect ratio for watching films. With no notch, remember! I have a number of 'proper' cinema-ratio films in my stock of .mp4 files and if you're the kind of person who lives for all things film, cinema and TV, it's a wonderful wide experience. How many people are like me - happy to watch films on their phone, however, is another matter! As we expect from OLED and especially Sony, the blacks are very black, colours saturated and brightness peaked. They've gone to town on the available options and tech for the screen, integrating what they're calling Creator Mode in Gamut and Contrast settings. This is supposed to "provide a faithful reproduction of the creator's intended vision through high definition display and specially developed image processing compatible with BT.2020 colour gamut and 10-bit colour of HDR specification". Phew! Well, call me shallow, but I can't see the difference between the two! But maybe in time the appreciation will come out. Only certain apps will support this so it would be a case of tracking down those which do.

X1 for Mobile
If you switch back to Standard Mode, you still get a wonderful experience, according to Sony, and you can auto-set the above to kick in when the supporting apps are used if you want - and enhance video capture using X1 for mobile technology. You can run an example sequence here which shows the difference with/without, for photos and video, which yes, do show a difference - rich saturation mainly - but whether or not anyone would notice away from direct comparison, I'm not sure. Manual White Balance is supplied with pixel-perfect sliders and pre-sets, before you get to the usual Display settings supplied by Android.

Consuming Media
The benefit to us mere mortals is that the screen looks fabulous, bright, colourful, adjustable and great for consuming media if you're OK with the size. The 6.1" screen in real terms means about 5.5" high x 2.3" wide. There are pros and cons to the tall aspect ratio outside of consuming media, when the user is trying hard to use the phone for all the other stuff we do. Not so great for width as the keyboard is pretty narrow in portrait (and near-unusable in landscape, taking up most of the screen) and reaching up to the top of the screen is a long way with one hand. Good, in the sense that scrolling through feeds is great. Loads of content can be seen in the one view whilst the thumb moves the panes up and down for more. Having said all that, I guess it's also a case of what you get used to using and muscle memory.

Really Always On!
The other thing I need to make a fuss about is that this is the first Sony that I've used with a proper Always on Display! Hurrah! At last. They've had displays before which need to be tapped, lifted or bumped to wake up and show the time, date, weather, music playing information (with album art - and not just from the Sony Music App but others too), battery % and Notifications, but not a display that actually stays on, should the user wish. The Xperia 1 and 5 now have this and it ticks a box for sure. Apart from it staying on, it seems like it is pretty much the same as the XZ-range, showing the aforementioned data and a choice of analogue and digital clocks. The analogue one is particularly attractive, with the date inside the clock-numbers ring. Options are Always On, Smart Activation (like taking out of a pocket or moving it or just when lifted) or off. You can also assign a photo to the screen if you really want to eat away at the battery. Options.

Data Exchange
This is also the first Sony I've used which has 128GB of storage built-in. They went from 32GB to 64GB and stayed there for what seemed like forever, whilst others were leap-frogging. 128GB is great, alongside that microSD Card. I have my 512GB card in there and it's playing nicely. Tested with my 2TB Extreme SSD plugged into the USB-C, no problem. Reads and writes, as fast as a Samsung - in fact it may be a tad faster. My other test is the HDMI-Out and again, passed. No problem at all getting content to my TV, sweet as a nut! I don't have the means to test at this point whether or not pass-through charging works as my dongle for the purpose is locked down in another location and I can't get to it! However, I have every confidence that it will work, like the XZ2 and XZ3 which I have tested in the past. UFS 2.1 is present here for the 128GB Storage and this jumps up read/write times significantly over 2.0, apparently! In practical terms, I really don't see a difference for the stuff I do, so test-bench needed! Having 128GB onboard means it's so easy to switch and swap microSD Cards with different data on them, knowing that the core 'static' data that I want to keep on the phone at all times is safe and available. Once again, I declare that 128GB should be the minimum for phones these days. Call quality is good and strong. I have had various calls on the phone and all without fault on Vodafone. The WiFi aerial appears to be good, tested in corners known to be dodgy, and GPS seems to get a quick lock on Google Maps, no trouble. I'd say it all feels much like a Motorola in these respects with good components.

Power Up
Powering the Xperia 5 is the SnapDragon 855 chipset supported by 6GB RAM and it flies in every department. Not a stutter anywhere and although I'm no Gamer, the one pre-installed here (I'll come to that later) is Asphalt 9 and that absolutely flies too! Gameplay is as smooth as silk and the super bright and colourful screen make for quite an experience! Maybe I do like Gaming, after all! The RAM makes multi-tasking a breeze and supports split-screen and other features excellently. App-switching is instant and the 6GB holds plenty in memory. This unit has Android 10 installed, but it was running 9 (Pie) on release in Autumn of last year. The system has been updated to April 2020 Google Security and you do get the feeling, as with Samsung these days, that keeping things up to date is important for the firm, to keep punters happy.

Sony also provide a pretty clean version of Android, following the protocols of Android 10 very nicely with Home Screen Settings, Google App Cards to the left of Home and full screen Gesture controls, which work beautifully, both sides for Back, the full height of the screen. The Notification Shade is pure Android 10 too with a colour theme to fit. Useful additions include a switch to remove the Google Search Bar from the foot of the Home Screen. (Hurrah! Who wants that, Google!) One-handed mode can be selected to shrink the screen into a corner and has full resizing. Smart lighting control, which knows when the phone is in the hand so brightens things up, Google Assistant can be assigned to the Power button, double-press, or to launch the camera (which seems a bit pointless when the shutter button does it) or just behave as a power button. Double Tap To Wake is present for those who don't want AoD, as is Sony's own Side Sense.

Side Sense
Side Sense is a kind-of copy of what Samsung have been doing for years, placing a panel of selectable shortcuts and Apps which you can invoke by (adjustable speed) double-tapping (or adjustable length) sliding up the very top of the edge of the two front sides, but it's very difficult to execute in my testing here and needs learning - and impossible with a TPU case attached. The case just covers where you're supposed to tap/slide! I now have a 'Sony Slide Cover View' where the edges are left clear for this to work, but it's a 'flip' case, so has other functional quirks of course - and it's quite expensive. Very classy for those who like flip-cases and works in tandem with the phone's software to glow the AoD through the front transparent flap. But that's a review for another day. Anyway, the panel is just a replication of the Apps Drawer really, except that it also has controls to quickly invoke that One-Handed mode (for those who have selected Gesture Navigation), Notifications (which you can just swipe down the top of the screen for anyway) and the slightly more useful 21:9 Multi-Window. With this you can assign 'pairs' of apps to run half-screen each (which it learns from your use and offers three likely pairings) or just manually drag apps into the placeholder on offer for top/bottom. We've seen this for a long time, of course, where a person could have their email at the bottom, working away and YouTube, for example up the top running a video. Pairings are limitless, and I guess it makes good use of the extra-tall screen for those who are likely to use it. The system can also be set to put Apps in the panel based on frequent use, rather than just being set as they might be on your Home Screen. Gimmick? Maybe. But why not!

Simple Life Please!
I always said that Sony, with their pots of cash, don't need to 'do deals' with software firms and pre-install loads of bloat, but they continue to do it to some degree. It feels like they actually believe that their customers want this stuff, no question, so they make it simpler for them. One change since I last used a Sony is that, much like Samsung, many of the Apps can be rejected during the setup process, by unticking boxes and never being installed at all. Good! However, a bunch remain - and the ones which can be Force Closed and Disabled, removing them from the Apps List are 3D Creator, Album, Asphalt 9,, Cinema Pro, Facebook and Fortnite. Annoying. But yes, they can be got rid of out of sight. Some are useful, however, and I give a pass to Sony's own Music App, for example, which is a welcome and capable Player. The Game Enhancer App enables the user to control incoming Notifications during gameplay and provides a dedicated front-end for all the games that have been installed. There are also loads of Apps made by Sony available in the Play Store which can be installed, to control other Sony gear and add functionality to the camera, which I'll come to later.

System-Wide Dolby
I was pleased to see a further 'enhanced' version of Dolby Atmos available to the user here, system-wide to support the stereo speakers and headphone output. This is not very far away from the all-bells-and-whistles version which was available on the Razer Phone. Many phones offer half-baked versions of Dolby this and Dolby that, but none reach the heights of the Razer experience. First to the speakers though and no, it's not 'proper' stereo but the one that we have come to dub 'faux' with deeper frequencies coming from the speaker at the bottom, bottom-firing, and others from the top earpiece speaker assembly. The sound coming from the phone is very, very good. Loud enough and with enough quality for most people, but doesn't reach the highs of the market-leaders now and certainly not the Razer. It's not as bass'y as some others out there, but start playing with the equaliser via Dolby (either with the range of pre-sets or going it manual with frequency-sliders), drop the volume to 75% instead of 100 and it sounds fabulous. Stereo separation is excellent and on test with YouTube videos exploiting 'surround' it does the job admirably even 18" from the face. The Dynamic Vibration (same as the XZ range) makes a real difference to the 'feel' of the music either when held in-hand or placed on a flat surface. It's more than good enough for my purposes and, I suspect, 98% of potential users.

Plugged In, Kind Of...
The Xperia 5 is able to produce 24-bit/192kHz audio and I'm testing here with the supplied nasty in-ear 'phones, which are functional and OK, but nothing special in terms of reproduction. Shame on you Sony for charging £700 for a phone and skimping on rubbish earphones. However, put on my AKG K701 set and put up against various Nokia/Moto models I have here which have basic headphone output, there is a marked difference in volume and quality. Even to me, who is normally wow'd by even the lowliest of output! It really sounds gorgeous with far-too punchy a bass for me. I can't slide the volume past 50% and the tweaks and fiddles in Dolby Atmos make things even more flexible. I'm no audiophile, but this sounds super - loud and great quality! Bluetooth 5 bells and whistles are present in the form of A2DP, aptX HD, LE et al. It is quick to pair and maintains a connection pretty much over the same yardage as the iPhone X using AirPods which I tested the other day.

No Qi
Wireless charging is another corner cut here by Sony. At this price, again, it might be reasonable to expect that. The phone is supplied with a built-in 3140mAh battery and 18W Fast Charging via the USB-C port which is also USB PD 2.0 compliant. In my usual 10% reading test I am getting statistic-defying results of 1 hour 40 minutes, which for the size of this battery is remarkable, based on my standard testing against the same conditions with all devices, some with even bigger batteries. Maybe it's something to do with Android 10 efficiencies or perhaps just Sony's Adaptive Charging (Battery Care). This system "intelligently measures battery health in real-time and continuously adjusts battery charging to provide a longer lifespan, more daily use and faster charging". After a few days I've turned off Battery Care though as it doesn't seem to be learning fast enough and I keep waking up and the battery is not 100% but rather 80/90%. Maybe it needs longer to get to know me. On my average day tests I'm getting 26-30 hours between charges with 5-7 hours of Screen On Time, adaptive battery and brightness engaged. Great results all round and a far cry from what I found testing the Xperia XZ3 with an OLED screen - more like back to the performance of the LCD XZ2. What we have in terms of connectivity is NFC for Google Pay and all the aerials seem to do a fine job. Phone calls are clear and loud and don't drop out on Vodafone here, WiFi is strong and feels solid, GPS locks on quickly and Google Maps relocates instantly.

Xperia Companion
A quick word here for the old Windows/Mac Programme Xperia Companion available via Sony's website. It feels a bit like a step back in time with everyone now living in the cloud, but sometimes this kind of thing feels like a comfy old pair of slippers. Use the Cable to plug the phone into your computer, run the old Nokia-like software and you get a simple but pleasing front-end with graphical displays for Battery and Storage levels of the phone and buttons for updating the phone's software (instead of doing it on-phone), Software Repair (factory reset - which can also be done on the phone), Browse the phone (which you can do in Windows or on the phone anyway), Music to Xperia (iTunes, Spotify - ditto) and Backup/Restore/Xperia Transfer to Sony's cloud. Some of these don't work with Android 10 so only with older models. Yeah, I know, there are other solutions out there which are much more universal and don't need a computer - but much like enjoyment gained from using iTunes for my iPhone, I really like this - and won't be uninstalling it anytime soon!

Camera and Photos
I have to admit that this is the point at which I hand over to Steve Litchfield for a summary of what the phone's camera is capable of, but on this occasion that has not been possible. So I have sent him some shots and video which I have taken to invite his appraisal of what he has found. But before I reveal that, I'll tell you what I see and find - what I think of what's in front of me.

Basics first and Yay! A shutter button, like a proper camera. Sony have stuck with this and it's great. Yes, I know that screens can be tapped but this makes it feel much more like the unit is indeed a capable compact camera. Supported by Sony's look and feel in the software. The shutter button can be long-pressed to fire up the camera even if the screen is locked. It then acts as a two-stage button, just like a real camera, half press to confirm focus, continue down to fire the shutter. Bliss! Furthermore, when you're shooting the camera tell you when you're too close to focus - unlike many systems which don't confirm in any way and let you go ahead and shoot. When I'm using this, it feels like a feature which is worth the money for the phone alone!

We have a triple camera setup here with a main 12MP f/1.6 unit with OIS, a second 12MP f/2.4 one with 2x Optical Zoom and OIS again and a third 12MP f/2.4 camera for wide-angle shots. Round the front there's an 8MP f/2 Selfie-cam. There's no way to shoot photos in 21:9 in the camera app, it seems - best is 16:9, which seems a bit odd. The Cinema Pro app allows it (and presumably other 3rd party camera apps), but I got totally lost using that as it seems to be for Pro video creators, not the likes of me! Back in the phone's Display settings there's an option to switch on Creator Mode. If that's turned on, then the system uses all that BT.2020 and 10-bit colour malarkey to which I referred earlier. I'm not even going to attempt to decipher Cinema Pro. Instead I'm going to point you at the GSMArena Cinema Pro Review and ask you to forgive me not wanting to tackle this complicated beast myself. They seem to think that it's more of a toy than a serious tool for filmmakers anyway and I can't ever see myself using it!

Safe Ground
So, back to more comfortable territory and a look at what the built-in camera app brings. In the lower part of the screen there's a 1x, 2x and W (wide) button which cycles through and changes the camera in use (fairly slowly) for shooting different aspects. Below that is a Photo/Video switch and under that, a Mode button, shutter button and review (which can be assigned to Sony's Album or Google Photos). Panorama mode works in the usual way, sweeping across a scene and trusting the OIS to deal with shake, which it does very well and produces pleasing results. Note to self. Must do more of this. Creative effects supplies a bunch of filters on-the-fly. Slow motion lets you shoot a video then make a section of it slow motion, just when your son actually takes the penalty, at 120fps! Google Lens cleverness, we know well and is built-in. Have you used it lately? It's very smart these days. Portrait Selfie is fun with various effects on-the-fly including making people's skin look soft or brighter, faces more slender or even eyes bigger! But the actual Bokeh is the one to visit here with a slider for how narrow you want to set depth of field. Works very nicely. And then Manual mode, in which you can change focus, shutter speed, ISO, EV or white balance. All works as it should for when you want to override the clever AI. AI which, if you let it, gives you tips and advice all over the place and thinks it knows what you're shooting most of the time and setting the camera to get you the best shot. We've seen all this before, but done very well here and, as I say, can be shut off! Predictive Capture shoots when it sees a smile or with action, just before you shoot - the usual stuff. There are other Apps in the Play Store by Sony to plug into the camera, so a bit of a playground! The camera app feels like a lot of fun and much like a compact camera in use, especially with that shutter button.

Steve's Conclusion
So, Steve's had a look at the photos and video I sent over to him and concludes that "the story is the same as with Sony’s camera phones for the last decade. Great sensors, decent specs but spoilt by underwhelming image processing. There’s just no care taken down at the pixel level to ensure purity - so nature is smudged and straight lines become jaggies. This is no Google Pixel or iPhone competitor in terms of care and attention to good photography. Sorry, Sony. Having said all that, it’s perfectly competent for shooting accurate photos for social media and personal enjoyment - colours are lifelike, lighting looks as if it matches reality rather than being hyper-real. The camera system is indeed…. competent." Thanks Steve!

My Verdict
You will have got the impression by now that this phone has shuffled up to the top of my current list and grabs my SIM Card. It's not particularly the best at anything. It's just that for me, the package is pretty close to what I'm looking for and what makes it a winner. I'd like to add Qi Charging, chop the one or two remaining 'system apps' which are not and put in a 3.5mm audio-out socket, but beyond that I really can't complain. There's a very clean version of Android, bang up to date support for that, a gorgeous screen, excellent battery defying the size, very good (if not quite the best) stereo speakers, great headphone sound, Always on Display, 128GB, microSD, weather-proofing and as far as I'm concerned, excellent camera setup with great auto-results. Yes, it's expensive at £699 (still) but let us not forget, that although there's bigger a brother out there in the Xperia 1, it's really only physically bigger - the Xperia 5 is just as much a flagship and arguably better for being smaller in the hand and pocket. If this were priced at £499, which it might be eventually, I'd highly, highly recommend it. As it is, I just highly recommend it!

1 comment:

  1. Good to see 3.5mm return and i think qi coming in the 10 ii (with a radio?!) and the 1 ii ()no radio


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