Waking up to news that there’s a new Sony Xperia phone in town - the Xperia XZ2 Premium - is going to leave a lot of people scratching their heads.
This is the phone that should have been launched in Barcelona in February. It’s got the 4K HDR screen and dual camera sensor on the rear that’s capable of some incredible low-light video - it’s easily the most powerful phone Sony’s ever created.
So potential buyers must be confused over why this is happening now - what’s the reason for having a massive phone unveiling, bringing out two phones that don’t really add a lot to the market… and then saving what should be the big reveal for nearly two months later?
And on top of that, why on earth is it not coming to places like the UK, and yet is being sold in the US, where there’s less of a fanbase for Sony Xperia handsets?
The phone Sony fans will want
The Sony Xperia XZ2 Premium is, unsurprisingly, the follow up to the Xperia XZ Premium - one of the top phones of 2017. That phone offered super slow motion video for the first time on a phone, a superb 4K screen and the same mix of Sony tech that’s seen it win fans from around the world.
It suffered from a few things though: the camera was - again - not quite up to the level of rivals’, in terms of everyday use, it had a bezel-heavy front where Samsung and LG were pushing screens to the edge of the phone with the Galaxy S8 and G6, and it was pretty darn expensive.
That last point shouldn’t matter too much given most flagship phones are charging a hefty premium these days, and Sony was offering some premium technology in the mix.
So when the time came for the new phone launch in 2018, most people expected to see a reboot of this phone - Sony’s strategy of showing prowess in technology was its strongest hand. That perception might be based on the older generation always believing that Sony just naturally stood for good quality, but it’s brand awareness nonetheless.
But what we got was confusing: the Sony Xperia XZ2, a phone that finally brought the 18:9 screen format with fewer bezels and a powerful new chipset running things. But also a single-sensor camera where most rivals were chucking out two on their phones, and a Full HD screen.
It’s… a fine phone. But it feels like the base model - the iPhone 8, the Samsung Galaxy S9. Both of those had a bigger, more expensive sibling (the iPhone 8 Plus and the Galaxy S9 Plus), and it felt like Sony was missing a part of the puzzle.
Things got more confusing when Sony unveiled a sensor at MWC too, a dual camera that was capable of fantastic video quality in low light and much-improved image quality. The mystery deepened.
Why do this now?
It was really tough to see why Sony would do this: unveil a new phone, and then spend time talking about how the next one was going to be even better. Was it actively trying to put off potential buyers? No, as it turned out. It was trying to be honest and build brand loyalty.
“We wanted to be honest to our customers,” Tomokazu ‘Kaz’ Tajima, Senior VP at Sony Mobile told me at MWC this year. “If we hide [the sensor] and then just focus on sales [of the XZ2], that’s fine, but if after that we introduce a special camera with a super IOS level - a really special product - we have a certain segment that will be disappointed.
“We’re being honest and giving them a choice. It’s clear ISO 51200 is a monster spec and if that’s the reason they buy then we wanted to give them the right option. If they want that monster spec, please wait, but if you want a balanced product then buy the [Xperia XZ2].”
There was a lot of debate within Sony over whether to even show off the sensor at MWC this year, mindful of the fact it might cannibalize the lustre and excitement around the XZ2 - and especially as it knew that the XZ2 Premium was just around the corner.
But the performance of the sensor, in low-light video especially, was remarkable and it’s clear that this was camera technology Sony had been working on for a while.
The performance of the new sensor on show at MWC was very, very impressive for low-light video.
It's not clear which phone it was being compared to, but the vibrancy was unquestionable.
This is a still image of the same scene taken with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.
Sony didn’t want to just join put a dual-sensor camera on the back of its smartphones for the sake of it, Hideyuki Furumi, EVP, Global Sales & Marketing, Sony Mobile told me at MWC.
He called some of the dual sensors a ‘gimmick’ and that Sony was more interested in ‘pushing the boundaries’ of what could be done.
That makes sense - but when rivals are thrusting phones like the iPhone X and Galaxy S9 Plus in consumers’ faces, it’s hard to see why the Xperia XZ2 Premium wasn’t displayed as proof that Sony was still capable of such technological prowess.
One thing that’s worth mentioning is that even if a brand has all the necessary elements to make a top smartphone, it doesn’t mean that it can do so cost-effectively, and that’s a key part of strategy.
Any smartphone manufacturer, whether it’s LG, HTC, Huawei, Samsung or Apple, could make a one-off phone that has technology so dizzying that consumers would be confused as to why they don’t just sell that and blow the competition away.
But making a phone requires far more than just assembling the parts. It needs to have a bundle of power in an ever-slimmer frame, which means a high engineering cost to miniaturize components and runs the risk of failure (just ask Samsung about the Note 7 debacle).
It needs to be rigorously tested in terms of camera, battery and CPU performance. Months need to be spent ironing out bugs, finding optimizations to software… and this is all to the backdrop of new Android updates and more powerful chipsets spewing out all the time.
Even if all of that is achieved, a certain portion of the development budget has to be given to marketing, so people actually get to hear about these high-end phones and consider them for purchase.
It’s no secret that Sony has not been having the best time in terms of smartphone sales - there are small shoots of recovery thanks to a reorganization of the business, but it’s hard to see how it would have the clout in the market to invest heavily in the next generation of smartphone creation, which would explain why it seems to bring out phones with technology we’d seen the year before.
Indeed even Tomokazu Tajima, Senior VP at Sony Mobile, confirmed to me in 2016, at a journalist’s round table in Tokyo, that Sony struggled to take on the might of Samsung and Apple, stating that the company didn’t want a ‘direct fight’ with those two industry behemoths.
It’s less that the company doesn’t want the fight, but more that it doesn’t have the sales figures to go after Apple and Samsung, so it needs to rely on the technology to do the talking - which is a tough sell when you’ve got Apple ramming the home its camera messaging, Samsung spending big on talking up how it’s new phone is the same as the human eye and Huawei aggressively spending to try and crack the premium market.
One thing this low-key unveiling of the Xperia XZ2 Premium does show is that MWC is a terrible time to be launching phones for some brands. The new phones that emerge don’t come out at a time when consumers are upgrading, and thus the lustre of the ‘flashy new model’ is slightly lost.
But for those that feel Sony should have just shown off XZ2 Premium in Barcelona last month anyway, to whet appetites, consider that it’s not going to be on sale for three or four months, which means what would have been on the stand would be a half-shell of a phone… that’s not good PR.
You almost wish that Sony would skip MWC and do its own launch event to own the narrative, but having so many industry heads and journalists around in Barcelona is too tempting for the brand, it seems.
There is one final thing that’s confusing over the Xperia XZ2 Premium - while being sold ‘globally’, it’s not coming to the UAE or the UK, two pretty useful markets for any smartphone manufacturer and one where premium phones are well-received.
You’d think that the opportunity to sell the phone to as many as possible would make sense, but we don’t have the sales figures for 2017’s Xperia XZ Premium, so it’s hard to say whether those markets really want a 4K screen on their phone.
It’s a shame because - finally - we have 4K content to watch on it. Last year’s Premium was a joy to use when watching 4K HDR footage, and with Amazon and Netflix both streaming said content to your handset it’s a message consumers could have got on board with.
We really need to get our hands on the Sony Xperia XZ2 Premium before making any judgements - and don’t forget, it’s got the older-style 16:9 aspect ratio, meaning big ol’ bezels, and the same inexplicably-poor placement of the fingerprint scanner on the back as the XZ2.
Perhaps this is a halfway ground, and there’s a stunning Sony smartphone coming at IFA later this year. Sony might be small fry in the mobile game compared to the behemoth it once was, but it’s still got a legion of fans and they’ll be hoping that the brand makes some bold decisions soon and starts putting the technology it’s so proud of into a phone that’s truly impressive… and everyone can buy.