Home » Sony Xperia 5 III review: A more balanced take on the Xperia 1 III

Sony Xperia 5 III review: A more balanced take on the Xperia 1 III

Sony Xperia 5 III review: A more balanced take on the Xperia 1 III

The Sony Xperia 5 III packs nearly all of the Xperia 1 III’s goodies into a smaller package.


Patrick Holland/CNET

The Sony Xperia 5 III is further proof that the Tokyo-based company is on the right track, delivering utilitarian phones with amenities best appreciated by photographers, audiophiles, filmmakers and creative types. None of Sony’s phones fold or bend. They don’t have trendy finishes or a menagerie of colors — the Xperia 5 III comes in black and green, which is as wild as Sony gets — but I swoon when a white Sony Xperia box crosses my review desk.

When Sony decided to bring its Alpha mirrorless camera team’s smarts to the Xperia line, many wondered if the audience for such a phone would be too niche. People asked similar questions about gaming phones like the Asus ROG Phone 5, and about foldable phones like the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Motorola Razr (2020). Instead of watering down its approach to appeal to more people, the Xperia 5 III is a third-gen phone that’s the closest Sony has come to nailing what its audience wants.

For all intents and purposes the Xperia 5 III is a smaller, more affordable version of the Xperia 1 III. Both phones were announced in April 2021, but until now only the Xperia 1 III has been available to buy in the US. Because the phones are so similar, I want to focus on the differences between the two and explain why I think the Xperia 5 III succeeds where the Xperia 1 III falls short. If you want the full scoop on all the major features, check out my in-depth review of the Xperia 1 III.

Like

  • One of the last truly small Android phones
  • Great dual-telephoto lens
  • Android 12 is a delight on the Xperia 5 III
  • Battery life is much better than Xperia 1 III

Don’t Like

  • Price is still high for what you get
  • Display could be brighter
  • Lacks wireless charging
  • Selfie camera feels forgotten

The Xperia 5 III’s $1,000 price (£899, which converts roughly to AU$1,390) puts it in direct competition with the iPhone 13 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro which costs $100 less. Even though I adore the Xperia 5 III, I think more people would do better with the iPhone or Pixel. If you’re a photographer or videographer, and can deal with the mixed low-light results from the Xperia, consider the Xperia 5 III. If you use Sony’s Alpha cameras, the Xperia 5 III is worth considering just for the consistency of shooting experience, especially if you find it discounted.

Speaking of discounts, Sony is offering a bundled discount: Buy an Xperia 5 III before Feb. 27, 2022 and get a pair of Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless noise cancelling earbuds (a $200 value) and 43,200 Call of Duty: Mobile CP Points (a $500 value) for free.

The Xperia 5 III’s cameras vs. the iPhone 13 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro

When I look at how small the Xperia 5 III, I’m astonished by Sony’s technical achievements. The slim phone houses a horizontal telephoto camera with actual lens elements that move. It can switch between the full-frame equivalent of a 70mm lens (2.9x optical zoom) and a 105mm lens (4.4x optical zoom).

Photos across all of the rear cameras look good. I’m especially surprised by how “film-like” pictures from the telephoto camera appear. The image quality looks natural compared to the clinically rendered photos taken by computational reliant phones like the iPhone 13 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro. Sony’s color is accurate and gorgeously rendered.

Sony Xperia 5 III

This was taken with the main rear camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

Taken at 1x optical zoom with the main rear camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

Taken at 2.9x optical zoom with the telephoto camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

The top of Salesforce Tower in San Francisco taken with the telephoto camera at 4.9x optical zoom.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

An office building taken at 1x optical zoom with the main rear camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

Taken with the main rear camera.


Mikela Cortopassi

Sony Xperia 5 III

The Bay Bridge taken at 1x optical zoom with the main rear camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

The Bay Bridge taken at 2.9x optical zoom with the telephoto camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

The Bay Bridge taken at 4.4x optical zoom with the telephoto camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

Taken at 1x optical zoom with the main rear camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

Grace Church in Greenville, South Carolina, taken through a window at 4.4x optical zoom on the telephoto camera.


Patrick Holland/CNET

All of this comes from Sony’s approach at incorporating the hardware and sensor know-how of its successful Alpha line of mirrorless cameras. And the Xperia 5 III stands in stark contrast to the machine learning and artificial intelligence used by Apple and Google to power their computational images. The iPhone and Pixel have a point-and-shoot simplicity that will serve more people better. But every year Sony gets closer to what Apple and Google can do while offering a far richer capture experience.

It’s in medium and low light where the Xperia 5 III hits a wall. There isn’t a dedicated Night Mode that combines multiple exposures to create a brighter, sharper photo. Sony is doing a bit of processing but nowhere on the level of Apple and Google. I wonder what kind of near-perfect phone camera could be born if Sony combined its stellar lenses and sensors with even half the computational photography chops of the iPhone or the Pixel.

iPhone 13 Pro

Here is a Night mode photo taken with an iPhone 13 Pro.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Sony Xperia 5 III

Here’s the same house taken at the same time with the Sony Xperia 5 III.

Xperia 5 III vs. Xperia 1 III: The differences

Let’s start with price. The $1,300 Xperia 1 III is $300 more than the Xperia 5 III. Physically, the Xperia 5 III is smaller and lighter. On the back, both phones have Gorilla Glass 6, though the Xperia 1 III has a matte finish, which I prefer. Both phones support 5G, and both have an IP68 rating for dust- and water-resistance and a headphone jack — the latter is especially unusual for most high-end phones.

The Xperia 1 III supports wireless charging which is absent on the Xperia 5 III. And, most notably, the Xperia 1 III has a larger 6.5-inch 4K display with a 120Hz refresh rate. The Xperia 5 III has a 6.1-inch 1,080p display with a 120Hz refresh rate. I believe the screen resolution difference and smaller size benefits the Xperia 5 III. I can already hear people saying, “Are you crazy? 4K is a higher resolution and better than HD!”

Sony Xperia 1 III and Xperia 5 III

On the left is the Sony Xperia 5 III and in the middle is the Xperia 1 III.


Sony

The 4K display on the Xperia 1 III is lovely, but I’d say the same for the FHD screen on the Xperia 5 III — especially considering the smaller size. The true benefit is in the battery life. The Xperia 1 III has a less-than-average battery life and a lot of this is because its 4K display is locked in at either 60Hz or 120Hz. 

The Xperia 5 III’s lower resolution allows it to handle 120Hz better, so its battery life is much better. But to put things in perspective, the Xperia 5 III’s battery life is good but not great. I also wish the Xperia 5 III’s screen was brighter. There were a few times when I was out in the sun trying to take a photo and had trouble making out what was on the screen.

I wish the Xperia 1 III and 5 III had an adjustable refresh rate as an option. It’d be even better if they had LTPO screens, like the ones found on the iPhone 13 Pro, Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra. I realize Sony is pushing boundaries, especially with the Xperia 1 III having the first 4K 120Hz display, so maybe I’m wishing for things that aren’t technically possible yet.


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Both phones have a Snapdragon 888 processor, but the Xperia 5 III has 8GB of RAM while the 1 III has 12GB. In use, the Xperia 5 III doesn’t get as hot as the Xperia 1 III. (But for context, I tested the Xperia 1 III in South Carolina in July whereas I tested the Xperia 5 III in San Francisco in January.)

Both phones have identical cameras, including a less-than-stellar selfie camera. On the Xperia Pro-I, Sony had an optional tiny magnetic monitor accessory that allowed you to use the back cameras for selfies and videos. On the next generation of Xperia phones, a better front-facing camera would be welcome, especially for video calls and chats.

Android 12 is wonderful on the Xperia 5 III

In October, Sony launched the Xperia Pro-I. One of my favorite features was the inclusion of the new Video Pro app which offered advanced video controls that were more friendly than the ones in the Cinema Pro app. Sony won’t be adding the Video Pro app to the Xperia 1 III or 5 III, which is a shame. It’s an app I used much more than the Cinema Pro app when I tested the $1,700 Xperia Pro-I.

In terms of the Xperia 5 III, I can either record video with the Cinema Pro app or in Basic mode in the Photo Pro app.

Sony Xperia 5 III

My review unit had Android 12 which I found to be a great fit for the Xperia 5 III.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Aside from that omission, the Xperia 5 III comes with Android 11. My review unit had Android 12, which was fantastic. I’m not saying Android 11 and Sony’s light customizations were boring, but Android 12 with its big button-friendly interface are a better balance to Sony’s utilitarian hardware. In my time with the Xperia 5 III, apps and animations were smooth and any bugs were largely nonexistent.

The Xperia 5 III is good for the right person

At the end of the day, I like the Xperia 5 III. The 5-series phones from Sony are almost always some of my favorites. And if you want a solid Android phone that offers a professional level of control when it comes to capturing photos and videos, you can’t do much better.