The Sony Xperia 5 II is probably 2020/21's most underrated phone

Quirky but excellent, the Xperia 5 II will evoke marmite reactions.

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The Sony Xperia 5 II left a good impression on us because of its unique identity, so we took it back to see how it was like in day-to-day use.

For starters, we can’t emphasise enough how sleek this phone is. Most of it is down to its unorthodox 21:9 aspect ratio, which makes the phone very comfortable to hold despite the large 6.1" display. In spite of the slick, glossy finish (I mean, depends on how you see it), it looks classy rather than tacky. However, that also means that it is a fingerprint magnet, and in my case, I found it rather slippery to hold and I would probably get a case for it. Your mileage may vary.

Too many buttons

Maybe it’s personal, but I think the Sony Xperia 5 II has way too many buttons on one side.
Maybe it's personal, but I think the phone has way too many buttons on one side.

Sony has always marched to the beat of its drum and the Xperia 5 II seems to suggest that this is a trait that won’t go away. Aside from the cinematic display, the Xperia also has a dedicated camera shutter button. It’s a nice touch, given how camera-centric this phone is – more on that later. But wait, there’s more. There’s a Google Assistant button too. And unlike most phone manufacturers, Sony has opted to integrate the fingerprint sensor onto the power button on the side. What I’m saying is, the right side of the phone is overcrowded with buttons, dammit. Here, I have a svelte phone that I want to wrap my fingers around, but the phone keeps wanting to push my thumb to the side. Oh well. I’m grumbling, but in truth, it’s not an actual problem in practice. However, I can imagine that they can be quite annoying depending on our individual idiosyncrasies.

Rolls Royce multimedia experience

The Xperia 5 II sports a flagship-class processor in the 865, and paired with 8GB of RAM and a 120Hz-capable display with 240Hz polling support. The long and the short of it is that the resulting output onscreen is silky smooth. Coupled with the cinematic aspect ratio, this phone is perfect for movie and video buffs. The vibrant OLED display is rich in colour, although it can get kind of dark at times when watching HDR content. It’s kind of odd, but I think this is kind of a look that Sony was going for. Not a fan, but this is a matter of taste I suppose.

The speakers are quite powerful insofar as good as speakers on a phone can be; they’re Dolby Atmos-certified and they have a tremendous presence. Sony takes the audio elements seriously on this phone and included a headphone jack as well. It won’t beat a dedicated audiophile-grade amplifier, but it’s pretty good and if you find a nice pair of earphones that match well – I don’t see why you need to carry an extra amplifier on the move. Other audio-related amenities include Sony’s DSEE enhancement for lower-resolution audio files, LDAC for Bluetooth, and 360 Reality Audio for improved spatial positioning. I don’t see any audiophile wanting all of those features, but they do improve the audio experience for most users.

And to complete the trifecta Sony implemented Dynamic Vibration a la force feedback on a Playstation controller. I have mixed feelings about this. At best, it does add a sense of exhilaration to explosive visual sequences, but at worst, it makes me feel as if the side of my hand is constantly tapping on the edge of the screen and is threatening to pull up a menu if I don’t let go. It’s annoying. Eventually, I left it on a low setting, which is a nice compromise. This is probably going to be a marmite one, but I would choose to leave it on.

Although I wasn’t expecting it, the Xperia 5 II has a Game Enhancer mode that seems over-engineered for a non-gaming phone (that’s a compliment). You get options to control notifications as well as other inputs that may disrupt your game, such as disabling the camera shutter button, while a simulated 240Hz display certainly makes the gaming experience ridiculously smooth (though admittedly 120Hz is enough to do the trick). The 240Hz polling rate is the more underrated feature, and when combined, gives a responsive experience comparable with the best gaming phones. The only thing that detracts from this experience is its quirky aspect ratio – I often found it a little cramped. There’s even a setting that lets you power up the phone through USB and turn off the battery charging to reduce heat build-up; I mean, wow. A surprisingly good effort.

I cannot understate how glossy the Sony Xperia 5 II is. It exists between gorgeous or greasy.
I cannot understate how glossy this phone is. It exists between gorgeous or greasy.

You probably wouldn’t have thought it, but the battery life is actually decent given that it uses a 4,000 mAh cell. Standby life is pretty good and can stretch to days, but with regular use, one and a half days is doable. It’s good at sipping power but under load, the middling battery size gets found out. Charging speed is average at best, a fact which is made all the more apparent when its peers are lightning quick.

Understated camera

Sony’s approach is quite unlike what the rest have done and the Xperia 5 II almost seems devoid of any computational photography hijinks. Unfortunately, I’m sure most people prefer a camera that’s more of a no-brainer. Sony treats their camera like it was a mini Alpha, even giving you the requisite camera focal lengths that photographers use a lot of the time: 16mm for wide-angle, 24mm for general, and 70mm for telephoto. There are aspects that I like – for example, all cameras shoot at the same resolution so switching focal lengths won’t result in a drop of image quality (that’s on you now), and others that made me appreciate other phones more. Sony’s camera takes pictures that more natural if that’s your kind of thing. The photos seem to have quite nice contrast and are punchy, which could be down to the Zeiss coatings on the lens. But you can’t be careless in the way you take your pics because there’s no AI assist to save your ass.

That’s not to say that the cameras are devoid of any tech – the Real-time Eye AF, which is a hand-me-down from the Alpha line, works really well in grabbing focus on the face really quickly. Couple that with the 20fps burst shooting and you’re golden – this is great for portraits of people in motion (or as good as it can be) or your pet that refuses to sit still. It seems like overkill but in truth, it helps me more often than I’d care to admit. What about 4K HDR 120fps slow-motion? Borderline unnecessary, but it’s cool to have all the same – they placed that option in the Cinema Pro app, so you would think about using it only when you really need to.

Sony also added two apps – Photo Pro and Cinema Pro – that support more advanced controls for their cameras. These are clearly borrowed from their Alpha series, and hence, Alpha camera users will find themselves at home when using this. Sony could easily have just said, use a third-party app if you want RAW photography and expanded controls, but they wanted to control the whole experience. Some benefits include the addition of colour settings that emulate the look on Sony’s professional cameras like the VENICE CS.

If I’m honest, I can’t say that I’d rather have these over a smartphone camera that can take care of everything for me. But I can appreciate the level of control that Sony cedes to you out of the box. That said, photographers will probably love this more than I do.

Conclusion

The colour palette of the Sony Xperia 5 II is rather understated.
The colour palette is rather understated.

How do you evaluate a phone that doesn’t seem to operate in the same headspace as everyone else? Its strength is also its weakness. There’s nothing quite like it in the market to compare to, and at the same time, it’s either you like it or you don’t.

Do you need wireless charging? The specs race says yes; personally, I hate it but it’s OK, I can compartmentalise. But the Xperia 5 II omits that from its feature set. It is water-resistant, however, and fulfils the IPX65/68 requirement. Between the two, the choice is clear. I’ll take water resistance any day. But omitting a rather unexciting yet somewhat useful feature is bound to raise eyebrows. (Don’t forget the anaemic charging speed too).

By Sony’s standards, this is one of their less quirky creations and I think their off-the-beaten-track approach has actually produced a sleeper hit.

Would I recommend the Xperia 5 II? I would, but at the same time, I would also have to ask a few questions – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Most smartphones today try to be all things to everyone, but Xperia 5 II is for people who are very particular about every aspect of what they do with the phone. It sounds silly, but this is a phone with a personality. If that resonates with you, then congratulations, you might have found your next smartphone. At $1,349, this is nowhere near competitively priced. But you sure do get a premium experience for the features you appreciate.

Sony Xperia 5 II

  Features - 8/10

  Value Proposition - 8/10

  Performance - 8/10

  Design & Build Quality - 8/10

  Overall - 8/10

  Verdict

Nobody saw it coming but this is probably the closest thing we can have to a sleeper hit, provided people get in on this. Sony's unusual decision-making has led to a phone that is unexpectedly different and more importantly, good.

Specifications

Price $1,349

OS Android 10
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 5G
RAM 8GB
Storage 256GB
External storage microSDXC support (up to 1TB)
SIM Dual SIM hybrid (Nano SIM)
Display 6.1" 21:9 FHD+ HDR OLED (2520x1080) with 120Hz Refresh rate, 240Hz Motion blur reduction, 240Hz Touch scanning rate, DCI-P3 100%, REC.2020, Illuminant D65 White point, 10 bit tonal gradation, X1 for mobile

Rear cameras [24mm] 12MP, F1.7, 1/1.7" Exmor RS for mobile
[16mm] 12MP, F2.2, 1/2.55" Exmor RS for mobile
[70mm] 12MP, F2.4, 1/3.4"
Rear camera features
ZEISS lenses with ZEISS T Coating, Up to 20fps AF/AE, Up to 60 times per second continuous AF/AE calculation, Real-time Eye AF for humans and animals, Dual photodiode, RGB-IR, OIS and EIS (video), Cinematography Pro “powered by CineAlta”, Up to 4K HDR recording 24, 25, 30, 60, and 120fps slow-motion, Optical SteadyShot (hybrid OIS/EIS video stabilization) and SteadyShot with Intelligent Active Mode (5-axis stabilization), Intelligent wind filter
Front camera 8MP, F2.0, 1/4" with HDR, 5-axis stabilization, Portrait selfie, Display flash, Hand and Smile Shutter

Connectivity 3G, 4G/LTE, dual Wi-Fi abgn/ac/ax, A-GPS, A-GLONASS, Beidou, Galileo, QZSS28, Bluetooth 5.1, USB Type-C Vv3.1, Smart connectivity, Google Cast, NFC, Output video/image via Display Port support Type-C Cable or USB-C to HDMI Adapter Cable (Display Port 4K 60fps), 3.5 mm audio jack

Audio features 360 Reality Audio, 360 Reality Audio hardware decoding, True front stereo speakers, Dolby Atmos 20, DSEE Ultimate, Stereo Recording, Qualcomm aptX HD audio
Other features PS4 Remote Play, DUALSHOCK 4 Control compatibility, Game Enhancer, Dynamic Vibration System

Water-resistance IP65/68
Battery 4000mAh, USB Power Delivery (USB PD) fast charging, Xperia Adaptive Charging, Battery Care, STAMINA Mode
Dimensions 158 x 68 x 8 mm
Weight 163 g