Sony launched the Xperia Z Ultra in India today and it promises to be one heck of a smartphone thanks to the groundbreaking specs. The Z Ultra, Sony’s first phablet, could manage to sway some of the buyers looking at the Note 3 or the LG Optimus G Pro. More importantly, it could be the high-margin device that brings Sony right back into action in terms of market share and revenue. There are other devices on the anvil too. The Japanese giant is making all the right moves, but does that mean it’s ready to take on Samsung and others in the smartphone market now? Let’s throw the floor open.
Sony's Xperia line-up of Android smartphones have not set the market on fire
Having seen some of the Sony smartphone efforts this year up close, I have to say there are things that impress and things that overshadow these good impressions. In the past couple of years, the company has stepped up its Android game immensely. By embracing developers, listening to criticism and creating a design language, Sony has made the right noises. Now is the time to back it up with the right combination of specs, quality and price. The first and the third have always been the company's strengths ever since the Sony Ericsson days and one only needs to look at the specs and pricing of the Xperia smartphones to see that it has continued. However, the quality of some of the components leaves much to be desired.
In particular, Sony's TFT LCD displays have lacked the punch and vivacity that defines Super AMOLED and IPS LCD panels. They also suffer from poor viewing angles and greyish blacks. As you can imagine, the display dictates most of the experience in a modern smartphone and a poor screen brings down Sony's efforts. They say the new Triluminos panel goes a long way towards eliminating these issues and it's being used in the very exciting Xperia Z Ultra.
Another area where Sony has lagged behind the competition is the image quality. While HTC has gone the UltraPixel way and Samsung has endowed its very good camera with some software enhancements, Sony's flagship Exmor RS sensor (see the camera section of our Xperia Z review) has proved to be quite incompetent indoors, whereas outdoor performance is on par with the competition. The much-rumoured Sony Honami i1 with a major focus on imaging and photography is seen as the answer. Another phone up Sony’s sleeve is the Xperia C with a MediaTek MT6589 quad-core processor. This could be the budget phone to propel Sony’s market share.
To summarize, Sony is looking good to be a market force to be reckoned with, but there's still plenty of improvements needed. Sony better start fixing soon because the competition is gaining ground by the minute.
There's a line from the classic On The Waterfront, where Marlon Brando, a failed boxer, laments, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” It is a line filled with pathos, of a man realising that every opportunity that he blew pulled him deeper into the pit of mediocrity. It is a pit Sony finds itself in today—a bit player in a fragmented smartphone market, with global market share of less than one percent.
Sony, like Nokia, is a brand with a great legacy and yet despite the break away from Ericsson, the company has not been able to leverage the aura of 'It’s a Sony' in the smartphone market. The most common complaints about a Sony smartphone are a washed-out display and a weak camera. This is surprising from a company that dominated the television market, the only screen that most people had, for decades. Display and imaging technology should've been Sony's forte and yet when it comes to smartphones, it is their Achilles heel. If you look at a Sony smartphone, you'd realise that Sony is not playing to its strengths at all. Gaming, audio technology and content, the other pillars that hold all of Sony aloft, are never its key selling points anymore. Instead, what we see is Sony trying to out-Samsung Samsung by releasing hardware-themed phones across price segments.
Xperia Z Ultra, Sony's latest and greatest
What made Sony great was not the technology in itself, but its ability to enrich the human life with the use of technology. The Sony Walkman made the morning jog or the long travel an experience for millions. Sony's Trinitron TVs turned living rooms across the world into theatres and yet the best it can conjure up with the Xperia is a band that lights up in different colours. As far as mobile phones go, it seems that Sony's last great hurrah were the “Walkman” series phones. Yes, the Xperia range is great to look at. Yes, spec-for-spec they sit alongside the rest of the brands in the market. But the question Sony needs to ask itself, if it wants to be a serious contender, which it currently is not, is what is it that the company should do to its smartphone to make “it a Sony”? Is there something that it can create to enrich our lives once again?
Sony has definitely grown a lot since its initial batch of phones without the Ericsson badge. We've had some pretty memorable handsets since then, namely, the Xperia Go, Xperia Sola and the most recent, the Xperia Z. Sony's latest announcement, the Z Ultra, is its preemptive strike against Samsung's Note 3, which we all know is coming sooner or later. The Z Ultra will match or even beat the Note 3 in terms of display size and, probably, even raw performance, so Samsung better have something really good to show other than gimmicky software tricks.
If Sony is serious about going after Samsung, then the two areas that need re-enforcing are displays and the camera. Its current range of smartphones really lack the vividness of Samsung's AMOLED displays or even the sharpness and colour accuracy of LG's. I'm really hoping that Sony's new Triluminos panel is more than just a fancy marketing name. The second area is imaging. The Xperia Z and ZL had pretty poor sensors despite being 13MP. I don't mind the 8MP snapper on the Z Ultra, as long as it gives me very good low-light performance.
The Xperia Z Ultra is going to be a beast of a phone in every possible way, but I really hope Sony doesn't get caught up in the madness like Samsung and launch more phones that are larger than your hand. I would love to see a Google Edition of an Xperia phone, for instance, or a mid-range phone with a QWERTY keyboard. I feel Sony needs more variety in terms of its smartphone design and not take the lazy route of iterating after its flagship model.
Have your say. What do you think of Sony’s chances?
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