By Stephen Schenck | May 8, 2013 7:05 AM
Of all the major Android players looking to raise their own profiles and give Samsung a run for its money – a group made up of a select few like LG and HTC – I think Sony has the most potential. Now clearly, the company has yet to adequately rise to the challenge, but look at what it’s working with: fantastic brand recognition – especially when it comes to portable electronics, a huge base of gamers (and potential smartphone users) under its belt, and boatloads of media at its disposal. I could spend all day talking about where Sony’s steered itself wrong over the years and failed to capitalize on all its opportunities, but today I want to talk about what it has the power to do right – where it can start working to improve its smartphone fortunes: Sony needs to position itself as the Android camera king.
So why Sony, and why cameras? Well, Sony’s already a big name in stand-alone digital cameras, and even with smartphones it’s always been flirting with the idea of handsets featuring great cameras. It was smart enough to be one of the early OEMs to introduce branding in the form of its Exmos R (and now Exymos RS) sensors, a great way to build customer demand for a phone’s imaging systems and a decision we’ve since seen taken up by Nokia with PureView and HTC with UltraPixel.
The problem is, for all its branding and talk of advanced imaging technologies, the results just weren’t that impressive. Don’t get me wrong – Sony makes some smartphones with fine cameras – but as we most recently noticed with our review of the Xperia ZL, they’re just not leading the pack. As our Jaime Rivera remarked of the ZL’s shooter, “it’s a good camera; it’s just not better than what it competes with.”
Obviously, that’s a major problem, because as good a game as you can talk, people are going to stop listening if you can’t deliver in the end. Sony needs more than camera hype; it needs some dominant hardware.
But what could Sony do differently in order to really up its camera game? It’s clearly trying to have impressive cameras, but coming up a little short. We may just have seen the answer in the form of a rumor from earlier this month.
Supposedly, a Sony model under development as codename Honami could have a 1/1.6-inch image sensor. Now, we still don’t know if this is true or not, but when I read that detail a little light bulb went on over my head: THIS is what Sony needs to be doing differently.
For all the talk of megapixels, HDR imaging, shutter speeds, and aperture, there’s little else that directly contributes more to image quality than size: specifically, lens and sensor sizes. Photography is all about light, so you want a big lens to let as much light as possible into the camera, and then a big-old sensor in order to let the camera sample as much of that light as possible. That’s why pictures taken on a 35mm film look so much better than those on smaller 110 film, and pros use larger film yet. In the digital age, sensor size is analogous to film size.
Nokia is already embracing big sensors with cameras like its 808 Pure View and its massive 1/1.2-inch component. If this is true about Honami, Sony could be setting itself up to give even Nokia a serious run for its money.
No Free Lunch
The problem is, using a big sensor isn’t quite as simple as it may seem. Honestly, if it were a cheap, easy, and convenient solution, everyone would be doing it. Instead, it introduces a litany of new problems: larger sensors are more expensive, and though it should go without saying, they’re simply bigger.
Space is clearly tight in smartphones, and camera packages are generally some of the bulkier parts already. After all, when you see a smartphone with an odd bulge, it’s not because it’s happy to see you; it’s just packing some sizable camera hardware. Bigger sensors are going to want to be farther away from other lens elements, everything else being equal, which is just a recipe for comically thick smartphones.
That could be a problem for Sony, because this is a company that takes pride in slim, aesthetically pleasing designs. That doesn’t need to be deal-breaker, though. If it refocuses (no pun intended) some of its efforts on mitigating the problems of large sensors, it could see a big payoff, even if that leads to somewhat bulkier phones.
We’re getting to a point in the Android world where flagship phones are evening-out a bit. The differences between the top handful of phones are getting harder and harder to see, and with everyone rocking the latest SoCs and 1080p screens, they need another way to stand out. There’s already a palpable sense that cameras could be the next big selling point, and if this large sensor road is one Sony can really commit to going down, I’m optimistic that it could quickly become an imaging leader. What do you think, Sony? You up to it?