By Leo Kelion
Sony’s latest top-end smartphone vibrates in time with movie and TV action scenes and video games.
The Xperia XZ2’s rumble tech adapts a feature originally developed for the firm’s PlayStation controllers. It also records “super-slow-mo” videos at a higher resolution than Samsung’s Galaxy S9. Sony has, however, pioneered other phone innovations in the past – including a 4K screen and waterproofing – only to see its sales still struggle. In 2017, it was only ranked the 15th best-selling smartphone manufacturer, according to research firm IDC, with a 0.94% share of the market. Sony’s senior manager Adam Marsh acknowledged:
It is very frustrating when we bring something out to the market first, and maybe the competition comes a year later and does kind of the same thing and gets more buzz around it. We will definitely be improving how we go to market with the product this time to really ensure the consumers understand the experiences that we can offer.
But analysts question both the appeal of the new features and also whether the firm is willing to spend enough to market them. “The rumble tech is a bit of a gimmick,” commented Ben Stanton from the consultancy Canalys.
I’ve tried it. It does make gaming more immersive, but I don’t think it works very well in a video context. And I don’t think it adds the value that consumers are looking for in a smartphone these days.
CCS Insight’s Ben Wood added that he thought the phone’s new industrial design was a major improvement on the past, but that he also had doubts about the new flagship’s prospects. “Success often comes down to marketing dollars and brand,” he said. “Taking on Apple and Samsung requires eye-watering investment that Sony is always going to struggle with.”
The XZ2’s other new features centre on its camera. Last year’s model was the first phone to be able to stretch out 0.2 seconds’ worth of action to create six seconds of footage, in 720p resolution. Samsung made much fanfare of adding a similar feature to its new phones on Sunday. But Sony has now trumped that by delivering its 960 frames-per-second footage in 1080p – twice the resolution that its South Korean competitor offers. It said it had achieved this by using a customised version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 chip that features its own image signal processor technology. The potential problem for the firm, however, is that early reports indicate Samsung’s version is much easier to use.
“Sony hasn’t done much to tweak the user interface since last year’s model, where it was pretty poorly executed and very difficult to capture the key moment,” said Mr Stanton. “And Samsung has done some brilliant work with AI and image recognition to capture the fast moments as they happen – it’s actually learned from Sony’s mistakes to launch something better, even though technically it’s not to as high a standard.” Another new camera technology in the XZ2 is the ability to record 4K videos in both a high dynamic range format – meaning images should appear more vibrant and realistic when played back on a compatible screen – as well as in 10-bit colour. The latter feat means that users will be able to tweak the colour of the resulting footage with less risk of causing banding and other visual artifacts. While this is likely to only appeal to a relatively small number of film-makers, it is significant as the firm has yet to offer the facility to many of its high-end cameras.
Not for sale
Sony’s mobile division was the only part of the company to report a loss in its last financial quarter and there has been speculation that the business might be shut down or sold off. The firm is about to change its chief executive, and the new boss – Kenichiro Yoshida – was previously responsible for selling off its Vaio PC business and cutting the budget of the mobile division. Sony has, however, denied that it is actively considering spinning off or shutting down the unit. Marketing chief Hideyuki Furumi told the BBC:
As you can see from our announcements and presence at Mobile World Congress, we are fully committed to the mobile sector. As long as Sony remains committed to the electronics business, mobile will be of strategic significance due to its R&D prospects for delivering numerous cutting-edge technologies such as 5G networks, the internet-of-things and 3D-sensing.