Shootout: The best flagship smartphone of 2015

By Chester Labaco & James Lu - 7 Jan 2016

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Sony Xperia Z5 Premium

Samsung Galaxy Note 5

2015 was the start of a new era for Samsung, one that marked a new attention to aesthetics and build quality that is second to none. Starting with the Galaxy S6 back in April, Samsung followed up with the Note 5 and S6 Edge+ in August, and then the very well designed Gear S2 smartwatch in September.

Samsung also broke up with Qualcomm and proved that it can build better processors on its own with its Exynos 7420 easily matching or exceed the Snapdragon 810 in most benchmarks. For the record, throughout all of our testing with Samsung's Exynos 7420 devices, none of them ever felt warm, something we can't say for the Snapdragon 810-equipped devices. And Samsung has finally gotten its software right too, stripping out bloatware and fixing problems that have plagued Samsung phones for years. Yes, Samsung also got rid of the SD card slot and removable battery, and admittedly, that's a real shame, but it would be a mistake to dismiss these phones based solely on these missing factors. Easy alternatives are available to address them such as carrying around a powerbank and maybe investing in some good Cloud storage.

We chose the Note 5 for this shootout because, while it may not have the flashy curved design of the S6 Edge and Edge+, it is probably Samsung's most useful device. The large 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display is one of Samsung's best ever and it's a productivity beast thanks to its unique S Pen stylus, which has been improved with thoughtful new features like Screen Off Memo and Scroll Capture.


Sony Xperia Z5 Premium

Sony’s Xperia Z5 range consists of three models: the Z5 Compact (4.6-inch), the Z5 (5.2-inch) and the Z5 Premium (5.5-inch). But an extra 0.3-inches isn’t all that sets the Z5 Premium apart from its siblings. It also has a shinier finish and amazingly, a UHD (4K) resolution display.

Design-wise, the Z series has had only marginal changes over the years, and that remains true with the Z5 Premium. The minimalist, boxy design is back with front and rear panels made of Gorilla Glass 4 and a metal frame with plastic corners. Why the plastic? Well if you accidentally drop the phone, the corners will absorb the impact rather than directing the pressure inwards (like metal), which would shatter the screen or rear glass.

Like all previous Z series smartphones, the Z5 boasts a waterproof design, which is now rated IP68 – the highest rating a device can get. That means it’s completely impervious to both dust and water, even when continuously submerged. In recent months Sony has gone from saying you can dunk its Xperia phones as much as you like to recommending you don’t submerge them in water, but based on its IP rating, it shouldn’t be a problem. Another nice upgrade is that there’s no more fiddly flaps on the Z5 Premium. Even the exposed micro-USB port is internally water sealed.

A new addition on the Z5 Premium is a fingerprint scanner. Gone is Sony’s signature round power button, and in its place is an oblong power button that doesn’t look as stylish, but does double up as an extremely fast and accurate fingerprint scanner. Its position on the side of the phone lets you grab it out of your pocket and already have it unlocked by the time you’re looking at the display.

Sony Xperia Z5 Premium side profile.

The Z5 Premium’s standout feature is its 3,840 x 2,160 pixels display. That’s over eight million pixels in total, and 806 pixels per inch, which, for a 5.5-inch phone is quite honestly ridiculous. Sony has been billing the Z5 Premium as the first phone with a 4K display, but technically speaking, it’s actually UHD, as it has a slightly lower resolution than what's officially deemed to be 4K. Close enough though.

Of course, at this size, it’s completely impossible to tell the difference between a QHD (or even Full HD) display and the Z5 Premium’s UHD display. On top of which, most of your video content is likely to be Full HD resolution at best anyway. While there’s loads of 4K content on YouTube, the YouTube app itself only lets you select up to 1080p because the app itself is only running at 1080p. Obviously you can load your own 4K content onto the phone, but the file sizes are ridiculous – a one and a half hour movie is around 100GB. In fact, even Sony’s own video store only lets you buy 1080p HD movies on the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium. So what this means is you’re only really going to get native resolution content on the display when you’re looking at still images – and even then, they’re going to look identical to Full HD displays anyway.

Ridiculous resolution aside, the Z5 Premium’s display is still pretty great. For an LCD display, the blacks are deep and the colors are vivid and bright, although they’re nowhere near as good as the Note 5 or Nexus 6P’s AMOLED panels. As with other Xperia phones, the white balance is a bit on the cool side by default, but you can tweak this with the RGB sliders in the Settings menu. Viewing angles are quite decent too.

The Z5 Premium is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor with 3GB RAM. It has 32GB internal storage and a microSD slot that supports cards up to 200GB in capacity.

Sony's Z line of smartphones has gone through three updates (Z3, Z3+ and now Z5) in the past year alone so we can understand when consumers say they are wary of buying a new Sony smartphone ("is it going to be obsolete in a few months?"). Having said that, the Z5 Premium is probably about as good as the range is going to get thanks to its flapless IP68 design, stereo speakers, 23-megapixel camera and ridiculous 4K display. There's pretty much nothing Sony can do to improve on it, and we expect that 2016 will be the start of a completely re-designed flagship range from Sony.