Sony Xperia 5 III review

(January 30, 2022)

After three years with my Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact, I got myself a new phone, and again it’s made by Sony: an Xperia 5 III (pronounced »Xperia five mark three«), the smallest version of Sony’s current high-end offerings. Here’s my first impressions after using it daily for a few weeks.

Context

This is my third Sony phone in a row, but I’m not at all a Sony fanboy. If there’s any part of Sony Corporation I really like, it would be the camera division, and even these guys are beginning to drop the ball. As far as their phones are concerned, I end up buying them simply because Sony used to be almost the only manufacturer of high-end smartphones that are not obnoxiously big. (Technically speaking, there is another company that sells small smartphones with very good technical specs, but they have a truly horrible operating system and ecosystem around it. You know who I’m talking about.) Back when I made the decision which phone to buy, there were only two worthy contenders: The almost three-year-old Samsung S10e and the not fully matured Asus Zenfone 8. Everything else on the market was inadequate in some way or, in most cases, just too damn big. Also, I kinda wanted a telephoto lens, which left the Xperia 5 III as the only option, even though it’s very expensive and its dimensions are absolutely borderline.

Design & Handling

So, let’s make one thing clear: This phone is huge! The width is somewhat okay at 68 mm; I can grab it with one hand just fine, but I’m not sure how people with smaller hands would fare here. The more problematic aspect (literally!) is the sheer height of 157 mm due to the 21:9 screen. Reaching every point on the diplay with the thumb of the hand holding the device is absolutely impossible without changing grip all the time. It’s absolutely beyond my grasp why anyone would voluntarily use anything that’s even one millimeter larger than that.

Unfortunately, the ergonomics issues don’t stop there. The whole phone is made out of glass and aluminum, which makes it so extremely slippery that you can’t lay it flat on any surface (it’ll just slide around) and you’re in constant fear of dropping it while using it. Getting some kind of case or silicone sleeve is mandatory, and it’s in fact something I ordered the next day after unboxing. Apart from solving the slipperyness issue, this also provides a bit extra protection for the camera bump.

Speaking of which: The general thinness of the device and the resulting camera bump is the only questionable element of contemporary phone design that Sony indulged in. In all other aspects, the Xperia 5 III (like most other Xperia models) is a masterclass how to do things properly. No unsightly notch or hole defiles the screen; the screen itself does not bend around any corners; there is a dedicated headphone jack (ridiculous that I even need to mention that!); the fingerprint sensor is at a place where it actually makes sense; heck, even the camera bump I just ranted about, while a bad idea in and of itself, at least looks beautiful! There are a few concessions to be made, though: The notchless screen necessitates a few millimeters of black space above and below it, but it’s really minimal and doesn’t diminish the classy overall look of the phone.

Along the right side of the device, there’s a total of five of physical buttons: a volume rocker, the power switch with built-in fingerprint reader, a (fortunately recessed) »assistent« button which you can’t assign a useful function to, and the Sony-typical camera shutter button, which is of even more importance this time than it was in my previous phones; more on that later. The fingerprint reader works quite well, but unfortunately, it already does so even without pressing the button down. As a result, the phone is very prone to unlock itself when you just wanted to pick it up and stash it in your pocket. Even after it arrived in said pocket, it tends to mysteriously reactivate itself. Fortunately, the Sony engineers seen to have noticed this kind of issue during testing and implemented a mitigation that prevents activation when the proximity sensor detects that the phone is in a closed space. If that happens, sometimes the phone tells me upfront, but sometimes it simply doesn’t accept unlocking by fingerprints. Strange.

Software

Compared to their earlier phones, Sony cut down the number of custom apps a lot: While my XZ1 Compact had a custom app for just about everything, on the Xperia 5 III it’s just a music player and a game launcher. That’s good in principle, but the omission of Sonys own photo gallery app (which was actually pretty decent) hurts, because its replacement, Google Photos, is just horrible. It’s not even possible to rotate images with that pile of cr…ude code! (Yes, I know, you can install other gallery apps. That’s what I did of course. You can’t change the default gallery that opens when reviewing photos taken with the camera though, and that sucks.)

When it comes to the operating system itself, Sony keeps refreshingly close to the Google standard as well. There are no major deviations from the stock Google look&feel, and when there is, it’s usually for the better. For example, Sony doesn’t seem to follow Googles unholy crusade against SD cards, because I can access the SD card just fine with any old app; that’s something which, according to a co-worker who happens to develop Android apps, isn’t supposed to work from Android 11 on. Another slight, but welcome deviation from pure Android is that Sony didn’t completely switch over to Android 12’s horrible new UI theming: While the garish rounded buttons and notifications are there, and the non-transparent notification drawer and application switcher survived too, they at least didn’t incorporate that »we pick some random ass color from your wallpaper and use that for all focused elements« nonsense.

Camera: Features and UX

Even though Sony as a corporation is the market leader in image sensors and has a very competent camera division, for many years they failed to capitalize on that in their mobile phones. This time has finally come to an end; instead, they now go »all in&alquo; on camera specs: The Xperia PRO-I, for example, uses a sensor taken straight out of their large sensor compact product line (and then uses only a 60% crop from that sensor, but hey, the marketing sure works!). The Mark III series, which is what we’re dealing with here, has a more conventional loadout of three 12-megapixel sensors, ostensibly all with dual-pixel PDAF, and with OIS on the main and telephoto cameras. The differentiating feature is that the periscope-based telephoto camera actually has a variable optical zoom ratio. For reasons I don’t understand, it’s not a continuous smooth zoom and instead only locks (silently and without any noticeable delay, BTW) into two discrete positions; nevertheless, it’s still a very welcome feature. All options combined, there’s a choice of four »native« focal lengths of 16, 24, 70 and 105 mm (full-frame equivalent). Further zooming up to 300 mm (equiv.) can be done digitally using a decent AI-based upscaler, for a total of 12.5x zoom compared to the base wide lens.

The default camera app, boldly named »Photography Pro«, is a Janus-headed affair: In so-called »Basic« mode, it works just like a standard smartphone camera app, i.e. in fully automatic mode with only limited options. The other, quite different, UI can be reached with a virtual P/S/M mode dial like on a »real« camera. (»A« is of course absent because all cameras in the phone have a fixed aperture.) In that mode, the app borrows many UI elements from Sonys Alpha line of cameras and makes perfect use of the phone’s ultra-wide aspect ratio by displaying a detailed settings UI next to the preview window. You’d be tempted to use that UI all the time (and there’s in fact an option to facilitate that), but there are caveats: While it’s possible to turn on an auto-HDR feature (under the »DRO« moniker used by other Sony cameras), but (again, true to other cameras) it doesn’t show a live preview of the HDR effect, while Basic mode does. Furthermore, all multi-frame image processing functionality is also only available in Basic mode, and so is access to the front camera and video recording.

Speaking of video, there’s an additional »Cinema Pro« app that, frankly, looks like a marketing demo. It’s strictly video-centric, can only shoot 21:9, its UX is very austere (to put it mildly), but it does have some interesting features like 24p capture, various color grading LUTs, exposure time setting in units of shutter angle, and automatic focus pulling. It’s also the only way to capture 4Kp60 video, but it’s limited to the main (24 mm equiv.) camera and to 3840×1644 pixels instead of 3840×2160.

Another general limitation of video is frame rate: In contrast to the XZ1 series, which could go up to 960 fps, the hard limit here is 120 fps, and it’s again only available on the main camera.

The front camera is relatively basic, possibly as a result of the constrained space above the screen: At just 8 megapixels, it’s a bit low-spec by today’s standards, but it still turns in decent photos, so I won’t complain.

One thing I really don’t like about the camera UI is the lack of a »tap to shoot« option. Tapping the screen activates focus tracking, which is … useful, I guess, in some specific scenarios, but most of the time, I just want to shoot a photo with focus on some part of the image. The Basic UI (but only that) has an on-screen shutter button instead, but in the end the most practical option is the hardware shutter button: It’s placed quite sensibly, it works with all camera modes, and it has a half-press feature to verify if the automatic AF field detection is okay or whether manual intervention is required. As an additional bonus, it can be configured so that a long-press on that button starts the camera at any time, which is extremely convenient.

Camera: Image Quality

With my previous Sony phones, the issue always was that the images looked fine overall, but when viewed 1:1 on a real screen, horrible artifacts or noise became apparent. Now, I’m very happy (and relieved) to report that the Xperia 5 III’s photos pass my pixel-level scrutiny exams with flying colors. Noise is very well-controlled, there’s only very mild oversharpening, and there seem to be no artificial structures. If anything, I could complain that the images are a bit soft and lose fine detail in some places, but that’s really it.

Pixel-peeping aside, overall quality is also fine: White balance is just perfect and I’ve yet to see it fail. Exposure control in general works flawlessly too, but the auto-HDR feature is a too eager and reduces contrast a tad too much for my taste; it also introduces some mild halo artefacts. It’s not really bad, but it ain’t perfect either. Focus is good in most cases, and the OIS does a pretty good job.

That’s not to say there aren’t any issues. The AE algorithm tends to use pretty long exposure times, and to make matters worse, the multi-frame noise reduction algorithm (a.k.a. »night mode«) kicks in pretty randomly when shooting in Basic mode, making the effective exposure time even longer. The result is lots of undesired motion blur.

Another issue, this time on pixel level again, is botched processing of the telephoto images. These frequently show 2×2-pixel blocks, as if they were in fact just 3 megapixels and then upscaled again to 12 megapixels without interpolation. That’s not what happens though, because there are some full-res details, it’s just not all of them. Multi-frame technology as employed by Basic mode helps a bit, but it doesn’t completely fix the problem.
Initially, I thought that this would be an issue with the sensor itself; some modified color pattern to help with phase-detect AF or somesuch. But no, it’s really a pure processing issue: I shot a photo in RAW+JPEG mode, and there’s no blocking effect to be seen in the DNG file at all. There is an awful lot of noise in the raw image though, which makes me appreciate the noise reduction algorithms used to produce the JPEGs even more, but if does so by working (mostly) in 2×2-pixel blocks, I’m not sure whether that’s a price worth paying for noise-free images.

Comparison between JPEG (left) and Raw (right) of the telephoto camera. Both have the same resolution, yet the JPEG appears very blocky. This is a low-light scene, but it happens in bright light too. Admittedly, other than the blockiness issue, the phone’s image processing does a stellar job here.

Miscellaneous

Performance: No complaints here. I’m not a heavy user who runs many resource-intensive apps or games, but just as a data point: In Speedometer, it’s 25% faster than my 11-year-old desktop that runs on a Core i7-2600; that should be plenty!

Display: A notchless 6.1-inch OLED with 2520×1080 pixels. Despite the large size, pixel density is just high enough that the nasty OLED-typical PenTile pattern with its frayed edges only becomes obvious when looking at it very closely. The display is capable of some HDR, but in order to enjoy standard sRGB colors, that needs to be turned off; there doesn’t seem to be an option to switch between sRGB and BT.2020 mode automatically. The display is also capable of a 120–Hz refresh rate, but I don’t see any purpose in that, so I keep that disabled (which is already is by default).
One slightly disconcerting thing is that I see more banding artefacts in fine gradients than I did on any other phone. This might be a software issue, because sometimes, said banding just disappears, and I have no idea why.

WiFi: Is present, works fine, feels like it has slightly better reception than my previous phone.

NFC: Is also present, as expected by any phone today. I’m just mentioning it here because somebody at Sony or Google (I don’t know which) decided that removing the NFC toggle from the quick settings menu is a good idea. To whom it may concern: no, it’s not. I want my NFC off most of the time, but I don’t want to dig three hierarchy levels deep into the settings menu to enable it for the few seconds per year I actually do use it!

GPS: I was a bit disappointed from the XZ1 Compact in this regard, but the Xperia 5 III turns in a flawless performance here. GPS, GLONASS, Beidou, Galileo … it uses any viable flavor of GNSS and it does so quickly.

Battery: Battery consumption is traditionally a strong suit of Sony’s phones, and just like all the other models I had, it’s good for two consecutive days of regular use without charging, or even three if only used very occasionally. From experience, that reduces to 1-2 days over the course of three years, but it’s fine. What isn’t fine, though, is the lack of wireless charging.

Summary

So, what do I think about the phone? It’s tough. If it wasn’t for the borderline unusable form factor, I would be very happy, even though there are many small papercuts here and there that could be solved better. As it currently is, I can say that I’m not dissatisfied, but I’m not sure whether I would feel more at home with a Zenfone 8 either – even without a telephoto lens.

Here’s my bullet list, Ars Technica style:

The good

  • no-nonsense design that avoids the failings of most other models on the market: notchless display, headphone jack, sensibly-placed fingerprint reader
  • finally a decent camera in a Sony phone
  • good battery life

The bad

  • questionable ergonomics in both hardware and software
  • while I said above that the camera is good, it’s still far from perfect
  • no wireless charging
  • hefty price tag

The ugly

  • that this huge behemoth of a phone is one of the smallest on the market

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