Sony is the brand that just won’t go away. Every time Apple, Samsung or Huawei releases a new phone that threatens to sweep away all the minnows of the smartphone market, Sony Mobile pops up with a device that says, “We’re still here.”
So it was that the annual showcase of the latest in gadgetry, Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, saw the brand muscle in amid the big unveils, like the new Nokia 3310 and Huawei P10.
To rise above the noise at an event like that – close to 100 000 people attend, and more than 2 000 exhibitors push the hype to a frenzy – a product has to have something special.
Sony came up with a new flagship phone called the Xperia XZ Premium, but if it had been merely “its most ground-breaking smartphone to date”, as a press release bizarrely crowed at the time, it would have vanished along with every other brand’s most ground-breaking hype.
Rather, it had one of the best differentiators of the show. To quote Sony Mobile: “a camera so advanced it captures motion that the human eye can’t see”.
The Sony camera heritage has been a hallmark of the Xperia range for some time, always positioning the top-of-the-range models among the best camera phones in the world. Gradually, the phone is catching up to the capabilities of dedicated compact cameras, like the Sony ‘α’ and Cyber-shot models, by embedding the technology used in those devices.
The result is the new Motion Eye camera system, which features the Exmor RS sensor built into premium compact cameras. The more conventional benefits are that it provides five times faster image scanning and data transfer, but that alone would not be enough to differentiate it.
The highlight of the device is that it records video in 960 frames per second, and combines this with an ultra-slow motion video playback function that it claims to be four times slower than other smartphones. This means that, in ideal conditions, the phone can capture high-speed action, and then freeze individual frames of movement that would not have been visible with the naked eye.
Not many phones cam make a virtue of being both the fastest and the slowest.
“It’s a first of its kind,” says Sony Mobile country manager for South Africa, Christian Haghofer. “It shows Sony’s technology leadership, its innovation leadership, and its ability to be first in the market. Being able to perform that on a mobile phone, and see things never seen before on a phone, means it is getting very close to professional cameras.”
The still camera is almost as impressive, with a feature called Plus Predictive Capture that automatically starts buffering images when it detects motion before the user presses the button. That means that if one, for example, missed the baby’s smile by a micro-second, one could find that moment from a selection of four shots taken a second before the button was clicked.
The camera has a 19 megapixel high-resolution sensor and, claims Sony, 19% larger pixels, “to capture more light and provides exceptional detail and sharp images even in low-light and backlit conditions”. If that’s not enough, the
Xperia XZ Premium is the first smartphone with a 4K HDR (High Dynamic Range, 2160 x 3840) 5.5” display.
It draws on technologies developed for Sony’s Bravia TVs – sadly no longer available in South African appliance stores. Aside from 4K HDR, it also uses Sony’s Triluminos Display technology, X-Reality for mobile, and Dynamic Contrast Enhancer. While these may sound like marketing padding, each represents an enhancement over traditional imaging technology.
The phone is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, so that it is potentially able to support virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, as well as LTE mobile broadband of up to 1Gbps – if that ever arrives in South Africa.
The device is also water resistant and dust-proof, and uses Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on both the front and back to reduce scratching and extend its physical life.
It doesn’t come cheap, at a recommended retail price of R15 000. However, that puts it on a par with the flagship devices from Samsung and Apple, and sends the message that it intends to compete directly with them.
It doesn’t mean Sony has abandoned the mid-market or even entry-level smartphone users, says Haghofer:
“For those who can’t afford the Premium, we have launched the XA1 Ultra, which has the same camera as the previous flagship, the Xperia Z5: a 23Mp rear and 16Mp front camera, positioned as a high-quality selfie camera. We’re targeting the urban mass market at a price of R6999 for a phone that is equivalent to the premium handset of two years ago and is now mid-market.
“We’ve extended the lifecycle of entry products, the E5 and XA, bringing that to the market at R1999 and R2999. It’s a critical move from us. We see a decline in disposable income and people spending less money on smartphones, and we want to address that.”
His parting shot is a warning to the dominant brands: “We are going to regain relevance in terms of volume share.”