Monday 11 March 2024

Sony Xperia 5 Mk.V

Sony evolve their design for Xperia smartphones, a little like others have begun to do these days, including Samsung. Exciting leaps and changes seem to be a thing of a decade ago, making way for a settled, consistent look/feel for manufacturers' hardware. This can be argued as a good thing of course, encouraging people not to change their device as soon, so eco-friendly, a result of much marketing research and feedback, but also, for people who review phones, less spills and thrills to highlight and focus on!

For those like me who prefer the smaller smartphone with true one-handed use available without fancy software screen-shrinking modes, the Xperia 5-series is certainly a contender - and for those who simply value the Sony brand and quality equipment, there's no choice. As we'll find out later, some of the advantages the 1-Series have now been implemented very effectively in the latest 5-Series too, so fewer compromises than last year, for sure.

I have my trusty Sony Xperia 5 Mk.IV here to compare these two units, the Mk.V having been sent over by SonyUK PR for us to look at and assess here at PSC Towers. My colleague Steve Litchfield has already had a look in his YouTube Shorts coverage, which can be tracked down in his channel there. We're both big fans of what Sony are doing, that nobody else seems to be (at least in the flagship space) and are always happy to look at new releases, small changes as they might have.

The Sony Xperia 5 Mk.V was released in September 2023, a year after my Mk.IV, so it'll be interesting to see how far those (small) changes go. The box is pretty much the same as it was the previous year, small, eco-friendly and with nothing inside it apart from the phone and a few legal papers. Bring your own charger, cable, earphones, the lot - a far cry from the days of old. Fortunately I have all of those so can get up and running in no time!

The first thing that strikes me compared to my Mk.IV is that it's fatter. Thicker. Technically, it's only 0.4mm but it a remarkable change in the hand and holding my older phone, I really prefer the dimensions of the elder. The Mk.IV is sleeker, with the same battery, and feels much more friendly, somehow, in the hand. Don't get me wrong, the Mk.V is also very dinky and someone coming to it without a Mk.IV in the other hand would think nothing more than how cute and small it is, compared to the giants most are used to, as time goes on.

The extra thickness comes from a new level of 'ridge' on the edges, which is much more minimalist with the older unit. It's not really a problem, it's just slightly fatter. The other dimensions are very similar to the old. 
Laying that aside, the blue coloured unit I have here is equally as premium in look/feel/design as the older phone, just a bit different. I do much prefer the look of this blue colour over my black older one. The buttons are all in exactly the same places, including that unique camera shutter button and the Corning Gorilla Glass upgraded from Victus to Victus 2 for better scratch/smash protection, sandwiching the aluminium frame. Added to this we retain the IP65/IP68 water/dust rating, which is excellent.

The NFC logo has gone from the back glass and the camera island now houses two lenses instead of one, which we'll come to later, but otherwise this side is equally pleasing - if not more so. We continue with the fingernail-eject SIM Card/microSD Card tray on the bottom, along with the USB-C port and 3.5mm audio-out socket up top. Yay! Depending on your region, you can expect a Dual Sim set up and/or nanoSIM and eSIM. Dual physical SIMs will clearly mean that there's no space for the microSD Card, as it's on the flip-side.

The flat, front panel is the same OLED one, both phones displaying a super bright, colourful and vibrant output. They are 6.1" screens, 1080p, producing 449ppi, refreshing at up to 120Hz and that signature 21:9 cinemagraphic aspect ratio. Tall, yes, but in landscape for compliant media, unbeatable. No complaints about the screen, then, the same as last year's with all the Sony smarts thrown in as mentioned in my previous review such as Creator Mode, BT.2020 gamut and 10-bit HDR for great colours and brightness. Again, no complaints, but pretty much the same as before - chin and forehead which others try to eradicate, perfectly alright by me. Perhaps it's the same panel with the same software.

Sony remain tight-lipped about how long they will support their phones with OS updates and security. Now and then there's a leaked conversation I stumble on via some Sony Rep. or other at some show or other who says this or that about it, but like Motorola to some degree, they don't seem to have a hard and fast policy for people to hold them to. What appears to be happening is that the Xperia devices get 2 OS updates and 3 years of security, which is a really poor show when others are now offering 4 and 5, 5 and 7 and even 7 and 8. These are not cheap phones and Sony really should do better than this. But then I guess they figure they don't need to as they have a small but dedicated (and apparently wealthy) fanbase who will upgrade their hardware with Sony before it becomes an issue.

The Mk.IV arrived with Android 12, has now updated to 13 and 14, so I'm not expecting more. It is now in the 3rd year of getting security updates, which, so far, it is. Promptly. So the expectation for the Mk.V will be that as it arrived on Android 13, it will get 14 and 15, then security updates to autumn 2026. Fingers crossed, don't hold your breath for more.

What we do have here is the latest (at the time of release) SnapDragon chipset, 8 Gen 2, against the 8 Gen 1 of last year's model. The more recent processor as seen on other devices has a reputation for super battery efficiency over last year's and that does indeed come to fruition here with even longer run and standby times than the Mk.IV. The Mk.IV was excellent already, but this, even better. Unless you're watching YouTube videos all day, a videographer, musician or photographer, caning the device, there's very little chance of not getting to the end of a long day with it. In fact, for my middling use, it's a two-day phone, no question.

It has the same battery, too, making all this even more impressive. It's the same 5000mAh unit which they somehow stuff into the small frame alongside all the other hardware. I have got two and a half to three hours of screen-on time during my 10% Reading Test, which is pretty much up there with the best. Sony thankfully continue with Qi Wireless Charging (and reverse too, if you need it), slow as it may be, at least it's there - perfectly fine for overnight/bedstand, and also 30W wired charging, good to half-fill the battery in an half-hour. So not the fastest charging facilities in the world, but certainly good enough, particularly with that long-lasting battery to begin with.

There were many complaints about the phone/battery heating up during load with Xperia phones and to some degree that is true - when pushed with gaming, setup installation of over 100 apps or shooting video for extended times, it certainly can get warm, but like the previous models, I really don't think this is a huge issue. Some were seeing throttling during gaming, slowdown inefficiencies, but I can't say that I have. Maybe I don't play games that are demanding enough, in a very hot country, to make it happen, but it all feels within normal bounds for me.

The car racing games that I have tried here run beautifully smoothly, not a hitch, jutter or stutter. The Game Enhancer software from last year is present with swipe-in controls and information during play, Dynamic Vibration kicks in as needed and the whole experience is immersive and entertaining. The phone has 8GB RAM to support multiple tasks and does so very smoothly, again, nothing's changed with that - and sadly something else has not changed... The 128GB Storage onboard. I really thought they'd match the 1-Series and up that to 256GB this year, but no. There is, apparently, a 256GB version in the Japanese market, but I've never actually seen one for sale anywhere in the west.

Anyway, with a microSD Card (support up 512GB - and I've tried a quality-make 1TB one which it won't play ball with, even after much support/discussion/formatting etc.) the user can get plenty of additional storage - but there's nothing like fast, onboard storage in my opinion. Samsung, at time of writing, have announced a super-fast microSD Card coming soon, so maybe that will help. I constantly have a problem with microSD Cards during setup with Google Photos - it hunts and hunts to set up for days-on-end as it appears to be reading (very slowly) the whole card. I have now learnt to remove the SD Card during setup of the phone, get it all done, especially Google Photos, then put the card in after. It seems to work that way much better. I'm not saying this is Sony's fault - more likely Google's software.

Talking of software, again, there's between little and no difference between the two devices in this respect. Everything seems to work exactly the same, the two or three pre-installed, unremovable apps/services are baked in (thanks Sony!) and have to be Force Stopped/Disabled - I still fail to see why they have to do this at this price-point - the same suite of Sony's add-on applications - Photography Pro, Cinema Pro, Videography Pro and Music Pro, same launcher, front-end, UI and so on.

The same missing features that we have come to expect by now, like Face Unlock, Lift to Wake, Double Tap to Wake - why do Sony continue to miss out the basics that everyone else is including in order to make the Android experience more attractive to use, I wonder. To top it all, comparing with my Mk.IV, they've also now stripped out the LED Notification light from the top of the front display and re-worked the Always on Display so that it no longer shows AlbumArt - a distinctive and uniquely Sony feature all this time. This can't be blamed on Android 14 either, because it's still working (though in a diminished refreshing capacity) on my Mk.IV which is now also on Android 14. Shocking. Put it back as it was Sony!

Moving away from the negative bits, the version of Android is indeed very 'vanilla' just like Google's older implementation and somewhat akin to AndroidOne (where that survives now - mostly with Nokia phones), so that's a good thing. As I say, some of their own software has been added to support their hardware features, which is fair enough - nay, required - but it doesn't get in the way of what Google offers for the platform. There's no needless doubling-up of core applications - they're all Google's, and what you generally get is a clean experience without everything being bogged down with bloat or background activity.

Similarly, the ongoing inclusion of the hardware camera shutter button is great. Makes it much more like a camera-user's experience and I'm sure that's the idea, with lots of crossover to Alpha camera functionality making their imaging customers right at home. The side-mounted, capacitive fingerprint scanner is just about perfect. Right technology. Right place. Right size. It just works. First time, every time.

One thing that has changed since last year's model is the output from the speakers. Whether that's hardware of software I don't know but the speakers' output is now right up there with the 1-Series Xperia phones. Up until this 5th Generation, there was a difference - the 1-Series was always a step ahead - but now, not. They are just as good and give out the same excellent sound, volume and quality, as their bigger brother's. Same is true of the Dynamic Vibration which I mentioned earlier in relation to gaming. Right up there with the 1-Series, up to now, always coming in second-best in the Xperia line. The sound and DV was still very good on the 5-Series, don't get me wrong, but now, no longer slightly behind.

The audio experience is excellent all round and, along with the cameras, this is clearly what Sony are after in the Xperia line. Some other phones might be louder, but they don't have the fine-tuned quality that these Sony devices have (and certainly don't have DV). Put up against any test device I have here, Dolby Atmos engaged or not, 360 Reality Audio/Upmix tinkered with or not, DSEE/AI dabbled with or not, it comes out tops for all but those wanting a bit more volume. I'd trade volume for quality every time. Playing music or using the 21:9 for video, front-facing stereo speakers, DV engaged, wide stereo, makes for a much better watching/listening experience than any other phone on the planet!

Then there's Bluetooth v5.3 and Sony's excellent headphone/speaker support with LDAC and/or 3.5mm audio-out for a cabled-up set with 24-bit High-Res audio. Paired up (in both senses of the phrase) with my Sony WH-1000XM4 headset and the sound, functionality and overall experience is second-to-none. A deep-rooted voyage into the world of Sony audio and it's very impressive indeed. Same is true for peripheral speakers - you just seem to get the most out of all this if you use their own gear. Of course, it works with other hardware and Sony's supporting Headphones App is available for any smartphone, but it feels to me as though with their own combination of gear, it's just the best. But then I'm a long-time Sony fan, so would say that!

Connectivity
seems to be as good as the Mk.IV was with all aerials connecting efficiently and holding on when needed. GPS with mapping and other apps/services, WiFi (6e for those who can get it) is solid, NFC for connecting to other gear is spot on (especially other Sony gear) and executing payments at terminals and so forth - all good, strong and confidence-inducing. I was pleased to see that the USB-C 3.2 OTG continues to support HDMI-out to other screens. It maybe not be Samsung's DeX or Motorola's Ready For, but it allow the user to send media to bigger screens on other devices as well as hook into the Alpha system for use with other photographic gear.

Next, we come to photography and Sony's main emphasis, as mentioned earlier, appealing to the owners and fans of their Alpha line of 'proper' cameras. They will feel right at home here, as they did with last year's model, but this time they've taken away one of the cameras from the mix! Last year we had three 12MP sensors (normal, telephoto and wide-angle) and this time, two - a 48MP f1.9 main shooter with OIS and a 12MP f2.2 wide-angle. Sony claim that with their new sensor tech, the results are better, not worse, even though that 2.5x zoom has gone. Cropping in on the more powerful sensor produces even better results.

To prove all this I'm going to link out to my colleague's YouTube Shorts again as Steve trails through the ins and out of how that works and how impressed he is. Imaging Examples, Who Needs a Telephoto? and GSMArena for a deep-dive, charts, comparisons and data starting here and continuing through to those specialist apps and services, Photography Pro, Cinema Pro and Videography Pro. Otherwise not huge changes including the ongoing use of Zeiss optics with T* lens coating and a 12MP f2 Selfie. All who have reviewed agree that the Xperia line remains niche and special in the world of creating photos and video, also support for musicians with the Music Pro app, which I spoke about in my previous review and doesn't appear to have changed. The recording of multi-layered audio is still capped at 10 minutes per event. I was hoping that this would be extended/lifted this year so us podcasters could get in on the action.

The phone is available in black, blue or platinum silver, costs currently £799 - which is actually a £100 drop since the previous model. People are reflecting on the notion that Sony were trying hard to place the 5-series somewhere more like in the middle of the flagship 5-series and mid-range 10-series and that drop does pretty much that. So yes, a little bit more financially accessible for more people, though still 'premium' pricing.

It's a super little device which sits in a kind of niche place in the smartphone world. Dinky, small, one-handed use, pocketable - the number of devices in this range seems to reduce as we go forward - and that's a shame. So kudos to Sony and the other few who keep that alive. It continues to feel like a 'specialist' smartphone, designed very clearly for the creator crowd, Alpha hardware users (even maybe some professionals when they don't have their pro gear with them), musicians and photographers who are happy to spend more time treating their phone like a 'proper' camera in order to retain control and create images/video/music in a way no other smartphone seems to match.

It's all very impressive. It may not be a huge update from last year's model, and I don't feel the need personally to upgrade this year, but no doubt many will and I could well join the band when the Mk.VI arrives, presumably this autumn.

Very highly recommended for the right user, who appreciated good audio - but not the point-and-shoot AI-driven camera brigade - they will be better served elsewhere, but good luck finding all that in such a classy, small and beautifully made device.

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