It was difficult not to be impressed with Sony at CES. In fact, it’s hard not to be impressed with the company now. It didn’t necessarily steal the show in Las Vegas this year, but it was definitely among the several companies that made some rather large waves at the trade show that is less and less about mobile technology each year. At CES 2013, Sony unveiled a host of new consumer electronics. Among those new products were two new phones, the Sony Xperia Z and Xperia ZL, both of which quickly turned some heads.
The two flagships from Sony offered all of the best specifications every other high-end smartphone announced at the event offered – 2GB RAM, 5-inch 1080p display, quad-core processor and LTE. And the Xperia Z had a nice, unique feature of its own: IP55 and IP57 dust and waterproofing.
The two devices were also a sign of better mobile hardware from the second-rate manufacturer. The Xperia Z boasted expansive glass slabs on both the front and back of the device, and a high-quality build and in-hand feel. The Xperia ZL, while not quite as luxurious or executive-esque as the Z, also had an impressive design, with the highest screen to bezel ratio to date and a textured rear that offered a solid grip and quality feel.
However, neither device ever stood a chance at being the true contenders.
Sure, they perform on a similar level as practically any other flagship currently available; the cameras are on par with most other 13-megapixel cameras; they offer expandable storage; and their design and build are arguably better than even the Galaxy S 4. But, as I’ve had to say a lot lately, there’s more to a phone than specifications or hardware. Just because a company can design a great phone, pack it with impressive specifications and slap a lightweight skin atop Android, doesn’t mean the phone will be a hit.
There’s a reason HTC and Samsung are regarded as the two most popular and notable Android OEMs around.
A successful smartphone, we’ve learned, requires an impressive amount of tender loving care, the kind of nurturing Samsung gives all its high-profile smartphones, such as the Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note II and the Galaxy S 4, or the kind of care given to the One by HTC. There is also a need for great carrier relationships (especially here in the States) – having a carrier push a device alongside OEM marketing only increases its chances of being a glaring success.
There’s also value proposition to consider. Why should anyone buy a Sony smartphone over, say, an LG phone? HTC? Samsung? What differentiation does Sony bring to the table that none of the other manufacturers do? And is it relevant?
Our answers and Sony’s answers to those questions would differ … drastically. Sony would tell you the value proposition is the Sony experience – PlayStation certification, Mobile Bravia Engine 2 and other marketing buzzwords paired with PR jargon. We say the only thing the Xperia Z and Xperia ZL have going for them are the near-stock Android experience – although its rather bland and arguably worse than pure Android – and great build quality.
Neither of those things are something that can’t be found elsewhere with better implementations.
One redeeming factor for the Xperia Z and Sony is the addition of the Xperia Z source to AOSP. This is meant to encourage third-party development and appease developers. It’s a nice gesture from Sony, especially in light of other manufacturers and carriers locking devices down of late. But I can’t imagine source code alone will sell a device.
None of this is to say the Xperia Z isn’t a great smartphone. I found the device refreshing to use during my time with the device (though it would have been much more enjoyable, had I not been stuck on EDGE the entire time). And its performance in Sony’s homeland, Japan, is a testament to that.
But the global launch at the end of February and beginning of March was almost completely silent. No U.S. carriers officially announced availability following the launch either, but a T-Mobile variant has recently passed through the FCC. I’m willing to bet that launch will slip by with little hubbub, too.
It’s as if Sony doesn’t understand the mobile market, what makes the clock tick or what mobile consumers truly want. It offers the some of the best features, hardware-wise, but can’t seem to tie it all together with compelling software or useful features. And it doesn’t seem to understand that hype isn’t going to come if it keeps pushing through silent launches. Marketing, especially in the mobile industry, is vital.
The Xperia Z is a great phone. Like any other, it has its fair share of faults, but I rated it highly in our review. But I’d be hard pressed to suggest it to anyone for the simple fact that there are better products out there, made by companies that at least seem thrilled by their own smartphones and proud of their work.
For most, likely including Sony, the Xperia Z has already slipped into the shadows of newer, more important products. And unless you find an awesome deal, I can’t imagine why anyone would choose the Xperia Z over something like the One or Galaxy S 4.