Sony’s 2020 flagship — the ultra-premium Xperia 1 II — has many strengths, but is ultimately a hard sell with its colossal $1,199/£1,099 price tag. The Xperia 5 range forms Sony’s more sensibly priced flagship tier, with the new Xperia 5 II coming in at a much more reasonable $949/£799. It’s been well received by critics too. In our review, we called it, “perhaps Sony’s best phone ever.”
I wasn’t enamored with the expensive Xperia 1 II, but I agree that Sony is definitely onto something with the 5 II. The handset provides exceptional hardware and a bewildering selection of Sony’s latest and greatest software features. There are still lingering issues and it doesn’t represent the absolute best value for money on the market right now. But the phone is a really promising sign of things to come from Sony.
The full Android Authority verdict: Sony Xperia 5 II review — perhaps Sony’s best phone ever
Hardware as good as any other
Sony’s Xperia design still comes with the usual caveats. The tall 21:9 display aspect ratio definitely isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re used to wider phones. Although the slimmer design has grown on me very quickly. Likewise, the 6.1-inch phone is still a bit too big to be considered a compact phone in the historical sense of the Xperia Compact line. Still, those aren’t so much serious complaints as points of preference.
Sony’s core hardware package includes everything you’d expect from a flagship phone, including a blazing fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, a crisp 120Hz display, triple camera setup, and colossal battery life. Of course, if you only care about raw specs, there are plenty of cheaper Chinese brands to choose from like OnePlus, Realme, and plenty more.
Sony takes a more practical approach to hardware design with the 5 II.
Instead, the Xperia 5 II is a more nuanced hardware package, more along the lines of what keeps Apple and Samsung fans coming back to their respective brands. But you really have to dig deeper to figure out what Sony is doing differently, which can make it hard to get the message across.
For instance, the 12MP camera isn’t the absolute best around, but Sony’s choice of a lower resolution sensor allows it to do things like 20fps constant image capture, fast 10ms image readouts, and 4K 120fps video capture. These are certainly niche features in the modern age of point and click simplicity, but play well to Sony’s media enthusiast audience. The pictures look pretty great too, especially when it comes to color accuracy. Check out our in-depth shootout to see the Xperia 5 II holding its own against some of the best Android camera phones, including the Google Pixel 5.
Likewise, the Xperia 5 II offers 240Hz touch response, a 240Hz software-upscale display mode, a new graphene CPU cooling system, and heat suppression power controls (bypassing battery charging) for more serious mobile gamers. Not forgetting its gaming software features, including voice chat optimizations over the 3.5mm headphone jack, game capture, and other Game Enhancer software features. Sony is finally leaning into its gaming legacy, but it still leaves us wanting more. For example, why is Sony’s xCloud rival, PlayStation Now, still limited to consoles and PC?
Gaming features leave us hoping for tighter Playstation integration in the future.
Audio enthusiasts aren’t left out of this media extravaganza. LDAC Bluetooth audio, DSEE Ultimate music upscaling, Dolby Atmos tuning, 360 Reality Audio, and the aforementioned headphone jack offer everything an audiophile could want.
Sony’s Xperia series is carving out an identity as the ultimate multimedia smartphone and the Xperia 5 II keeps the package under the dreaded $1,000 price mark. Sensible compromises, like ditching the 4K display, wireless charging, and a Time-of-Flight camera, are easy to live with given the rest of the hardware on offer.
Ironing out the software ideas
With such solid hardware, what’s the catch? Well, the software execution could still use some refinement.
For example, the Photo Pro and Cinema Pro apps are a little too complex for the typical user, yet the default camera app is missing a bunch of standard features. Pinch zoom doesn’t automatically change lenses as it does on every other phone, there’s no HDR toggle, and no dedicated low light photography feature. Sony’s camera apps are caught between overly complex and underbaked, with nothing in the middle for the typical consumer. I experienced all these same issues with the Xperia 1 II — check out my deeper dive into the situation in the article below.
Likewise, the new gaming features, while useful, are tucked away in a labyrinth of menus and settings. Turning on the 240Hz display mode, for example, requires you to open the Game Enhancer or launch the game directly, click the setting icon, click game mode, click custom, click the settings icon, and then set the slider to 240Hz. Hardly making it easy to find for one of the phone’s headline features. Also, while it’s great to be able to save unique settings for each game, some universal settings would save on this laborious configuration time.
It’s the same situation to enable heat suppression power control, which draws power straight from the charger instead of the battery, helping to keep the phone’s temperature down. This is disabled by default and has to be switched on for each game by again navigating the sprawling menu. Why isn’t there a quick settings button like there is for Stamina Battery mode? It’s not an awful setup, but it’s just not obvious where everything is. Obscurity means that only a few more savvy users will make use of the handset’s better ideas.
In the same vein, Sony also has separate apps to download for managing PlayStation controllers and setting up Sony headphones. It would be nicer to have a single menu to configure all your branded accessories from one place. Preferably with a guided setup out of the box. Sony’s ecosystem is certainly big enough to accommodate better support for its own products.
This is a rare occasion where I feel deeper OS integration would help complete Sony's vision and enhance the user experience.
Sony’s software setup still feels a little disjointed in places. The Android side is sleek and essentially stock, but then there’s a catalog of individual apps you might need. Some of them are well integrated, such as the music app which shares some audio options with the mains settings menu, while others aren’t. It feels minimalistic and yet can easily become bloated at the same time as you move between different apps, each with their own design and layout. I can’t help but feel that integrating at least some of its extras deeper into the OS would help to refine Sony’s multimedia vision.
I’m conscious that a transition away from stock might alienate customers who aren’t embedded into Sony’s broader product ecosystem. But given Sony’s current market share and my own experiences with Xperia enthusiasts, Sony fans are far and away the biggest target audience for Xperia smartphones right now. Why not make it a quintessentially Sony experience?
Still a little too expensive
Many of those gripes may sound petty, but premium products should be near flawless. The Sony Xperia 5 II is a very serviceable phone and it’s cheaper than the Xperia 1 II while offering many of its best features. However, when you look at other big players in the space, the Xperia 5 II still falls just a little short at this price point.
For example, entry into Apple’s landscaped walled-garden costs $799/£799 for the iPhone 12. The 5G Samsung Galaxy S20 FE costs just $699/£699 compared to the Xperia 5 II’s $949/£799 price tag. These two premium brands are not only cheaper, but are also that little bit more refined in the software department. Consumers like the “just works mentality” and you need to mess around with the Xperia 5 II a little too much to get the best out of it. Not forgetting that Sony doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to software updates, which should be on everyone’s mind when spending this kind of money.
That said, the Xperia 5 II is still the best pick for Sony fans right now and it’s a very promising sign for next year’s iterations. Patching up the camera app(s) and simplifying some of its software idiosyncrasies are easily addressable.
Sony is tantalizing close to offering the best multimedia phone around. Throw in some integration with the PlayStation 5 and I’d be very tempted to permanently setup in Sony’s camp.
The Sony Xperia 5 II is up for pre-order from today is expected to start shipping in the US from December 4. Let us know your thoughts on the phone in the poll above, or grab yours below!