More than any other smartphone I’ve used this year, the Sony Xperia 5 II seems like a tool. Not only does it have a very understated design (though it certainly plays a part), it is Sony’s whole strategy is to give you as much control over the phone as possible. Control its appearance, and sound, and take pictures and videos.
However, like any tool, you get more than the Xperia 5 II when you are ready to put more. A good worker does not blame their tools, after all. But I would bet that most people who pay $ 949 (£ 799 / € 899) for a phone are probably looking for a device that is ready to meet them at half, and can handle most jobs default or automatic settings. That’s what I want to see if the Xperia 5 II can do that.
The Xperia 5 II will go on sale on December 4th in the US, and will be available in Europe from this week.
I can’t say how much I like the design of the Xperia 5 II. Sony’s trademark 21: 9 ratio combination with a slightly smaller 6.1-inch display compared to the larger Xperia 1, makes for a pleasant narrow phone that fits snugly in the hand without feel tight to use. This screen is only 1080p at this time, but at this size I don’t think you are left wanting too much resolution.
At the top and bottom of the display you’ll see bezels that are a bit larger than many other flagships that have opted in these days, and that means there are no notches or hole-punch cutouts to talk about. You get a pair of stereo capable front-facing speakers that sound lower than their competitors downhill.
At the top you will find a headphone jack, which is a great combination and barely audible on a premium priced smartphone these days, and at the back there is a small camera that bulges housing the main telephone, ultrawide, and telephoto lenses. If you want a phone guaranteed on no turn the head then it probably it. Like I said, this is a tool.
As well as volume controls and a side-mounted combo button and fingerprint sensor, there is both a dedicated camera shutter and Google Assistant buttons on the side of the phone. Due to Sony’s photo ambitions for the 5 II, I will allow it to control the physical shutter, but the Google Assistant button feels unnecessary – especially in a position too low to be convenient to press.
The screen aspect ratio of the Xperia 5 II makes it hard to reach the top of the screen when using it with one hand, but you get more useful screen real estate in many apps like Twitter or Gmail. Personally, I want to give myself enough space to split-screen my Aeropress recipe generator app with a stopwatch app for making coffee, but I’m probably the only one making it. Beyond its aspect ratio, the HDR compatible OLED screen is bright, colorful, and fun to watch videos, and the 120Hz refresh rate means smooth and responsive to use.
Internally, in addition to the ever-expanding expansion of microSD storage, you can find a typical range of specs for the price, including a Snapdragon 865 processor, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage (there is also a 256GB version, but it is exclusive to Asia), and a 4,000mAh battery. There is no support for wireless charging, an annoying shortcoming at this price, and if you buy a phone in the US then there is also no support for 5G (in Europe you get sub-6GHz support, but no millimeter waves).
Due to the current state of 5G coverage, our advice is often not worth paying extra for 5G if a cheaper phone otherwise fits your needs. But on the flip side, if you pay $ 949 for a phone by this point in 2020, it seems pretty ridiculous for it not to support 5G. The phone has specs to handle most of the jobs you will need for now, but there is no 5G in the US which means it may catch on soon.
I did not encounter any battery problems on the Xperia 5 II. I easily get a phone in a day working from home featuring a lot of use on Twitter, Slack, Gmail, and YouTube, with 40 to 50 percent of the charge remaining when I plug it in at night.
Sony’s take on Android 10 has been hampered, and largely consists of giving you additional settings to tweak. (The company has not confirmed if an update might come in Android 11.) Sony gives you a wild control over the phone’s white balance settings, for example, and there is a Dolby Atmos EQ menu in the settings if you want to tune how the phone audio sounds. There are many you can customize to make the Xperia 5 II the right tool for your needs.
I’m not a fan of the number of apps preinstalled on the phone, however. This includes apps like LinkedIn that can be disabled but not easily uninstalled. This is especially annoying when most Xperia 5 II is designed to put control in your hands.
Sony’s approach to smartphone photography is twofold. First, when left on its own devices, it more often prioritizes accuracy than vivid, colorful images. This often results in a less punch image look than you get from most phones, but you can always tweak the editing image after the fact.
If you really want to do things your own way, Sony is also willing to allow you. This pro mode mode gives you a lot of control over how you take photos, giving you an experience modeled after these standalone mirrorless Alpha cameras. There are plenty of controls to dig if you want them, but they may feel too involved for someone who just wants to point their phone at a group of friends and get a good picture.
However, first, let’s talk about hardware. The Xperia 5 II includes three rear cameras; a main camera with a large 1 / 1.7-inch sensor, an ultrawide camera with a 124-degree viewing field, and a telephoto with 3x optical zoom. The nice thing here is that they all have the same resolution, 12 megapixels, which means you don’t see a marked change in detail when you switch between them.
In broad daylight you can get detailed photos, but they can sometimes look a little flat. Accuracy over chaos. Hardly, the exception here seems to be people, where Sony handsets seem to want to brighten your skin and smooth it out, even if the camera’s “Soft Skin Effect” option is off. Even if you use the standard camera app, you still get a responsive auto-focus system of the eye, and explode shooting up to 10fps. I found the combination of fast eye-tracking autofocus and photo explosion great for pet photography.
Low light photography is where Sony’s approach to photography is most obvious. By default, the camera app will not brighten up your night shots as much as they took in daylight. Instead, you get accurate photos that the camera spends momentarily to process each time. Very different experience from a phone like the Pixel 4, where you can tap the shutter button and instantly get a clear, bright picture, even at night.
Switch to advanced photography mode and unlock a whole wealth of options. There are plenty of white balance, auto-focus, exposure, shooting, flash, and HDR settings, letting you control almost every aspect of your photography. Enough you can get almost any look for your photos if you are willing to put in the work, including making night shots that look clear during the day. But the whole process can be a little involved, and frustrating if you are someone who just wants to whip their phone and reliably get a crisp, clear shot every time.
You get a similar level of control when it comes to video filming, where you have the option to record up to 120fps slow motion in 4K. I particularly admire the focus pulling settings, which are fun to play. However, for the most part, I think most people will be happy with video recording with the regular camera app.
You can get beautiful photos from Sony Xperia 5 II, but you have to work sometimes to see them the way you want. Its cameras are very powerful tools, but they will not do the job for you.
Sony has a specific idea about the type of phone it wants to be Xperia 5 II. Although it matches many of its flagship competitors in terms of specification, these most interesting features surround the amount of control it gives you. There are advanced camera features and audio visual mode to really tailor the experience to your needs.
But I think you need to like these advanced settings to justify the price of the Xperia 5 II in the US. At that price it should really include 5G support as well as wireless charging. These trade-offs may be more profitable at a lower price, but not at a near-thousand-dollar price tag. In Europe I think the price of € 899 / £ 799 makes sense that you are given 5G support, but the lack of wireless charging will remain.
Sony’s Xperia 5 II feels like a very capable tool, but it is expensive and sometimes enables you to make the most of it. This makes it the right tool for many jobs, but not the right tool for a smartphone’s work
Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge