When you think about the race to the top of the 'Best Smartphone' list over the last few years, you'll see names like Apple, Samsung, Google, LG, OnePlus, and maybe Huawei pop up time and time again. Back in the day, those lists would also include HTC and Sony, and while HTC seems to have been trying quite hard to keep itself up at the top, it's never felt like Sony was putting in a significant amount of effort.
While some people feel that the newly-announced Xperia XZ2 and XZ 2 Compact both show Sony is willing to take the smartphone business seriously, to me it feels as though they're not even trying to take on the big dogs of the industry.
Don't get me wrong, I've had chance to use both phones at Sony's booth in Barcelona, but honestly they don't feel all that special. It certainly doesn't help that Sony's avoided giving us pricing information, so you can't really figure out where its ambitions lie. Price changes the way we see what a phone is supposed to be, and there's a huge amount of difference between what to expect from phones that cost £100 and those that are closer to £1,000.
The XZ2 is clearly not designed to be a budget handset, but there's also no way it could compete with the Galaxy S9 or the iPhone X. There's a good chance that Sony is more focused on the mid-range market (which unfortunately seems to be the £400-£500 price range these days), but the biggest problem is that we just don't know.
But more to the point, there's nothing inherently special about the XZ2 and its mini-me. The specs are decent enough, and both 960FPS slow-mo at Full HD and 4K HDR video recording are nice, but they're not actually that exciting. I'm more interested in the fact that the Samsung Galaxy S9 offers a better live-translation feature than Google, or even that the iPhone X seems to have started a facial recognition trend. The Xz2 is... fine. It's a bland smartphone for the latest generation of bland smartphones, and what differences it does have aren't particularly useful.
Maybe I'm different to most people, but if I wanted to film in 4K HDR I wouldn't use a smartphone. In fact filming on my phone is a simple case of it being the only thing within reach - any other time I use a dedicated camera that has more to offer.
It's no secret these days that smartphones are kind of in a rut. We've not seen a massive amount of innovation in what they can and can't do, despite what Tim Cook might go and tell everyone on stage. Updates have been incremental at best, while phone makers try and find the new hit-feature they can use to get people excited about what they have to offer. Sony's latest attempt is adding a 'feel' factor to the XZ2, with an advanced haptic feedback engine that vibrates when you're consuming some sort of media content - be it music, games, or video.
I had the chance to give it a try, admittedly under the controlled conditions of Sony's demo room, but honestly it seemed a bit shit. Not only is it one of the most gimmicky gimmicks I've ever seen in a phone (close to, but not quite worse than, 3D cameras), it also didn't seem to be working properly. The idea seems to be a more immersive feel to go with the XZ2's surround sound system, but during my demo it just seemed to be vibrating at random. When playing the very first level of Angry Birds (their choice, not mine), the phone was vibrating while the bird was being flung through the air but not when it actually made contact with the any of the destructive elements of the environment.
Similarly when watching the trailer for the new Jumanji film (corporate synergy in motion), the phone felt like it was buzzing whenever it damn well felt like it - not in time with the audio or what was happening on screen. For starters I probably don't need haptic feedback like this in my phone. I could be wrong, after all I wasn't too keen on the idea of fingerprint scanning when Apple announced TouchID back in the day, but it feels like the kind of thing someone hoped would drum up excitement without actually bothering to check what people want out of their phones. It's certainly not the kind of feature I can see being copied by the likes of Samsung or Apple, the latter of which already has an advanced haptic feedback component that's put to good use.
Similarly if it doesn't appear to be working properly, why bother? There's a chance I misunderstood what the vibration is supposed to be doing, but then again if I misunderstood then I imagine a lot of other people will as well.
Perhaps Sony has milder aspirations than to try and take on Apple and Samsung head on, which is what I assume led them to scale down on the production of premium flagship devices in the first place. It doesn’t look like it’s trying to compete with the big names because it’s not, it’s just trying to stave off competition from less known brands who can undercut them on price. It feels like it’s not trying to compete because that’s exactly what it’s doing.
But the Xperia XZ2 is just there. It’s not inherently special on its own, even if Sony claims that it’s the first smartphone capable of 4K HDR filming.It’s just there, another unremarkable phone in a sea of unremarkable phones It damn well better have the price to reflect that, too.
Gizmodo UK is in Barcelona at MWC! Keep up with all the latest announcements from the show floor right here.