Sony Xperia 5 ii
Pros: Innovative, easy to hold, physically stands apart from rivals
Cons: Screen brightness dimmer than rivals, software not as fluid as competitors
When it comes to phones, is Sony an innovative genius or a misfiring eccentric?
As long as I’ve been reviewing Sony handsets, there has always been at least one feature that was ahead of rivals. At one point, it was the sheer quality of its on-board camera modules. At another, it was its design.
But it has also almost always left something wanting compared to rivals, whether it’s software implementation, battery life or software fluency.
The Xperia 5 ii carries this grand tradition on. It has some class-leading touches that might appeal to a select group of enthusiasts, such as next-level audio capabilities and 4K video at 120 frames per second. It’s also distinctive and somewhat innovative, continuing with its ‘skinny’ form factor that doubles up as a form-fitting movie specialist display.
On the other hand, despite its smooth 120hz screen and ultra-fast 240hz touch response rate, there are still hints of friction within its user interface that still leave it lacking compared to major rivals. Its camera system, too, isn’t really what it should be, given Sony’s dominance in camera sensors.
Given that it costs the same as the iPhone 12 and Samsung’s Galaxy S20, where does it stand?
I’ll get to features such as its cameras further down.
But the most distinctive feature of the Xperia 5 ii is still that ‘skinny’ shape.
As is typical of almost all of Sony’s phones now, this 6.1-inch handset has noticeably less width than other phones of the same length.
This makes the phone easier to wrap your hand around and, in theory, might lead to less thumb strain for those who stretch their primary digit across the screen too much.
While there are positive and negative ergonomic effects from this, it’s not actually the reason that Sony says it is making these skinny phones. Instead, this form factor has been chosen purportedly to make it seem like a more perfect fit for movies that now use a 21:9 aspect ratio. This size, which is more like a ‘letterbox’ format than the squarer formats we used to watch on our tellies years ago, apparently amounts to around 70pc of new films on Netflix.
(But not television series, which are still mostly made to fit a slightly boxier 16:9 or 18:9 format.)
So Sony, which has been trying to reposition its smartphones as higher-class audio-visual accessories rather than simply Android slabs, continues its mission of positioning the Xperia 5 ii as something of a cinephile’s tool of choice.
While this works well for some content, the 21:9 letterbox shape is a gamble. For those movies filmed in that format, you do get a larger picture than almost any other phone. But when you try to look at a YouTube video or a television series or movie not filmed in 21:9, the picture is actually considerably smaller than almost any other phone as two fat black pillarbox shapes encroach at the side of the video.
So a large part of whether you consider this phone will depend on just how often you watch a movie on your phone.
Sensibly, Sony pulled back from giving the Xperia 5 ii the 4K display that adorns the marque’s flagship model, the Xperia 1 ii. When I reviewed that model, I found that it made little real difference.
Screen brightness is a problem here, though. Like the flagship Xperia 1 ii, this phone just isn’t as bright at maximum levels as almost any other I’ve reviewed recently. This isn’t an issue indoors most of the time, but it is outdoors on a sunny day. I’m not sure why Sony keeps limiting its screen brightness, but it could be as mitigation for battery drain.
All that said, the Xperia 5 ii physically stands out from rivals: it is a distinctive design.
It’s all glass front and back, which means it’s a little slippier than most phones unless you put a case on it. It’s also slightly unusual for a 2020 flagship to be all glass, but it’s a premium effect nevertheless.
The Xperia 5 ii has three decent 12-megapixel rear cameras, incorporating ultra-wide (16mm), wide (24mm) and telephoto (70mm or 3x) lenses.
There’s also a dedicated camera button on the side of the phone, an old Sony speciality that’s still very handy for those who want to be able to take a shot quickly. (Although it does also lead to some accidental shots.)
The quality of all three cameras is good — I like that Sony has resisted the vanity of 30 or 40 megapixel cameras, which bring as many downsides (in low light, particularly) as upsides on a phone camera.
On the other hand, the photo quality isn’t as good as Sony’s dominance of camera sensors should mean.
For those who are unaware, Sony rules phone camera componentry, to the point where other brands boast about the Sony sensor they’ve loaded with their own models.
But where marques such as Apple, Samsung and Huawei have set new smartphone photography standards, Sony hasn’t really kept pace, either on this Xperia’s 5 ii or even on its flagship Xperia 1 ii. This is almost certainly an integration and software issue; most of the camera advances in the latest iPhone 12 are unrelated to the actual sensors or the lenses, which are almost identical to those in the iPhone 11.
But while it has the hardware engineering to match the very best, Sony can’t quite make the computational photography element of it hum in the same way or with the same results.
For a very small number of camera aficionados, there’s a ‘pro’ mode that lets you make far more manual adjustments than you could in almost any other major camera brand. While this is interesting (and sometimes fun), I didn’t find it improved the photography output much: no smartphone has enough latitude, with its tiny sensors and lenses, to really profit from too much manual settings.
To be fair, some of its settings are ahead of what you can do on most rivals. It records video at up 120 frames per second in 4K, for example. No other mainstream phone at this price level does that.
In terms of power and storage, the Xperia 5 ii acquits itself well. It has a Snapdragon 865 chip and 8GB of Ram memory, making everything feel snappy and fast. This is a 5G-enabled phone, too, so if you can find a signal, you’ll get connectivity even faster.
It has 128GB of storage, a reasonable amount for a mid-flagship device.
Thanks to its 4,000mAh battery, it also gave me fairly reliable all day performance.
True to its audiophile origins, Sony retains a 3.5mm audio jack, one of the very few premium phones to do so.
Another small design highlight is the sim card tray — you don’t need one of those small metal prongs to open it up. For those who are travelling and want to take advantage of a second sim card in its dual sim tray, this is a nice feature.
There’s a fingerprint reader on the side power button that works quite well.
One niggle I have is Sony’s software overlay on top of the base Android operating system. I find it slightly slower and clunkier than other phones. There are more mistaps, especially when using the camera.
So what should we make, overall, of the Xperia 5 ii?
Overall, I’m a Sony fan.
Its sales pitch — a company catering for creators and lovers of quality — has more than a bit of authenticity to it, given its superb heritage in cameras, video equipment, monitors and audiovisual tools, generally.
So every time I pick up a new Xperia model, I want it to show me that it could be my potential next phone.
But it still struggles to combine all of its impressive component parts into a smartphone that really rivals its similarly-priced competitors from Samsung and Apple.
In an era when OnePlus, Motorola, Google and Oppo are now bringing out compelling mid-flagship handsets at €100 to €300 cheaper, this is a tough sell.