In the bloody, lawless gang-brawl that is the modern smartphone market, Google's Android operating system is quickly becoming the weapon of choice. While Apple continues to hoard the vast majority of profit in the mobile world, dozens of other companies have resorted to Google's free software in order to build Android-powered competitors. And even though Android is plagued by fragmentation issues – a new version seems to come out every other week – and nobody appears to be making much money with it, the operating system now constitutes the fastest-growing segment of the smartphone industry.
Of the myriad companies betting billions on Android, Sony is one of the most interesting. Unlike many of its competitors, the sprawling company has built a reputation for being a premium brand – or, in other words, slapping a Sony logo on a TV suddenly adds a couple grand to the price tag. But in recent years, the company has had a very hard time recreating that aura of high-priced exclusivity in the fast-growing mobile device market.
Now, with a brand new smartphone, it's trying again.
Sony's Xperia S smartphone ($100 with a contract, $500 without) went on sale this week at Sony Stores. For the past few days, we've been playing around with the phone. The short verdict? It boasts an amazing screen, and is certainly worth buying if you're primarily looking to watch video.
But Sony doesn't just want you to buy this phone, they want it to be a gateway drug of a product, enticing you to start buying other entertainment hardware and software from the same source – much like Apple has done with the iPhone, iTunes and other products. That, however, is going to be a much tougher sell.
For the past couple of years, Sony has been trying to leverage the company's massive store of music, movies and hardware in a way that entices customers to spend all their entertainment dollars in one place. That means building TVs with online movie rental stores that access Sony's movie library, or cloud-based media that users can watch on their phone, laptop, desktop or TV. The company's gaming division, for example, has done this sort of thing extremely well, mostly by letting players seamlessly run games on the Playstation console and the mobile PS Vita.
The Xperia is a cog in this wheel. It's designed specifically to work best when synced up with a Sony TV or computer (or even a prototype Sony wristwatch). Who's going to go out and by a $5,000 Sony TV because they have a $500 Sony phone? Nobody. But somebody who already has the TV might want to buy the phone.
The Xperia comes pre-loaded with Sony's Music and Video Unlimited services. These are basically online rental stores that let you access Sony's huge piles of content for a monthly fee. It's cloud-based, so you can watch or listen to your rentals on just about every Web-connected device you own.
Both the music and video services cost money, but you can try them out for "free." I tried getting a free one-month trial account, but immediately stopped when the site asked for a credit card number and informed me I would be charged the regular amount automatically at the end of the month if I didn't cancel the trial account before then.
(Let's be clear about why companies do this: so that when your free trial runs out and you forget to cancel the account, they can start charging you for the full service. It's a furiously underhanded way of getting money out of consumers' pockets. Sony is by no means the only tech company that does this sort of thing, but that doesn't make it right).
Getting media on the phone is straightforward. You simply plug the phone in to your computer and drag and drop various movies and songs into the folders on the device. It's not as good as Motorola's software, which lets you copy playlists from iTunes, but at least it doesn't require you to install all kinds of third-party software to get your own files on your own phone.
The Xperia's music player is perhaps the best media app on the phone. It's incredibly easy to use, and lets you create playlists on the fly. When a song is playing, a little infinity symbol appears on the screen. Clicking the symbol lets you quickly look up lyrics, band info and music videos on-line.
Some of the music player's features are less useful, but interesting nonetheless. It comes with a virtual equalizer, complete with those pop, rock and other assorted presets that don't ever seem to have much of an effect. There's also the option to change the way the music sounds on headphones. I tried this, clicking on the option to make the music sound as though I were hearing it in a "Club." I'm not entirely sure what kind of clubs Sony's engineers have been frequenting, but I suspect they're largely subterranean. Later I switched to "Studio" mode – the difference was like night and night.
As far as looks go, the Xperia is quite pretty, if unadventurous. Ever since Apple launched the iPhone, there's been a kind of design consolidation in the phone industry. Basically, just about every smartphone-maker in the world today has developed or is developing a single-glass-slab phone. And, to be honest, there really isn't much you can do to differentiate your single-glass-slab from somebody else's single-glass-slab.
My favourite aesthetic flourish is the Xperia's little jade-green Sony-Ericsson logo on the back of the phone, if only because it adds a little bit of colour to an otherwise chromatically impotent device. For some reason, it seems that a whole slew of smartphone-makers are engaged in a Spinal Tap-ish contest to see who can make the blacker phone.
Other than that, Xperia bears a few more minor styling quirks, such as the lightly curved back, or the sliver of transparent plastic at the bottom of the phone, into which are etched the icons for the home, back and settings buttons (one of the annoying things about this plastic bar is that it doesn't actually contain buttons, just icons. The buttons are above the bar, but you'll probably find yourself hitting the plastic icons instead).
Under the hood, the Xperia sports a powerful engine. It comes with a 1.5-gigahertz dual-core processor, 32-gigs of flash storage and a 12-megapixel back-facing camera capable of shooting video at 1080p (there's also a front-facing camera that shoots at 720p). It also supports Near-Field Communications, a wireless technology that is mostly useless right now but could have neat applications in the future, such as enabling phone-based wallets.
The 4.3-inch retina display is gorgeous, possibly the best I've seen on any phone. Sony is pushing the Xperia as an HD-playing monster, and with good reason. High-def video runs smoothly on the phone itself, and with an HDMI cable, the Xperia quickly becomes a mobile media mini-hub for your TV. The phone can also show media on TVs and other devices running on the same wireless network.
The phone runs on a now-dated version of Android (Gingerbread), but is upgradeable to 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Because of that there's a lot of this phone that isn't all that remarkable. The browser, phone call features and general layout are all pretty much what you'd expect from a high-end Android phone (call quality – assuming you still use your phone to make phone calls – is perfectly adequate). Sony does try to make the home screens a little prettier with animated backgrounds, and offers the kind of all-in-one social media feed capabilities that most other manufacturers have started building into their phones. You can share pretty much everything with a couple of taps.
One of the cooler and sillier features of the Xperia is its hyper-fast camera. Even when the phone is locked, you can hold a physical button on the side for less than a second, and the device will come to life, focus on whatever you're pointing it at, and snap a photo. The results aren't always great, but I can see how such a feature would be useful, given that a lot of smartphone users end up snapping shots of things that happen without warning all around them. If you've ever fallen victim to the pocket dial you can expect your Xperia is going to take some pocket pictures.
Sony's new Xperia S is one of the better high-end Android phones out there, and probably the best one if you're primarily buying a phone to watch high-definition movies.
The whole world of Android phones seems to be particularly chaotic right now. Some companies (e.g. Samsung) have managed to make some money off their Android offerings, while others (e.g. HTC) started strong but are now kind of rudderless.
Is the Xperia going to buck that trend and help Sony convince customers to buy the rest of their entertainment hardware and software from the company? Probably not, but it can't hurt.