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Sony is betting the Xperia XZ and X Compact on an unconvincing camera

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I tried Sony's revolutionary new camera system and was left disappointed

I know it’s true of every modern phone, but it’s especially true of Sony’s new pair of Xperia handsets: the camera will be the most important factor in deciding the fortunes of the Xperia XZ and Xperia X Compact. Introduced at IFA 2016 in Berlin today, Sony’s Xperia XZ triples down on camera technology with a new laser autofocus, RGBC-IR white balance sensor, and its traditionally strong 23-megapixel imaging sensor. The Japanese company’s new flagship even has a dedicated shutter button. And the Xperia X Compact is a smaller, less powerful vessel for that same upgraded camera system.

One of the reasons the camera is going to be so pivotal is that the rest of the specs are not all that impressive: the Xperia XZ has the Snapdragon 820, which is hard to beat, but it only offers 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and 1080p resolution alongside that chip. The 2,900mAh battery is outmatched by 3,000mAh cells in thinner and lighter phones like the Huawei P9. The X Compact steps down to a Snapdragon 650 with 720p, which admittedly is probably sufficient for its 4.6-inch size, but it’s definitely not cutting edge. And the same is true of the Android Marshmallow OS version: not bad, but not the latest, and not distinct from other flagship phones you could’ve bought at the start of the year.

The camera is practically everything for these phones, but my first time with it was not a happy one.

My initial reaction to the dry facts about these phones was disappointment, even if I did find consensus among Verge staff that the new Forest Blue shade for the Xperia XZ is quite attractive. But this is why we come to trade shows like IFA — to feel the warmth of the hot new thing for ourselves — and having these Xperias in my hands definitely reminded me that Sony knows how to do great design. Not great in a practical sense, because the Xperia XZ still feels too sharp and angular compared to something like Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7, but amazing in terms of making you feel like you own something precious and timeless. The X Compact also extends Sony’s record of excellent ergonomics on a smaller phone.

Classic Sony: lovely phones, questionable camera software

The way I interpret Sony’s design decisions with these phones is that the company moved away from pushing hard specs in order to focus on creating a more alluring aesthetic and improving the one key spec that is the camera. I think Sony has succeeded in the former case, as my qualms about things like the big bezels and middling resolution were offset by great viewing angles and built-in stereo speakers.

But can Sony nail down the critical task of crafting an outstanding camera? As good as its sensors have been over the years, Sony has always managed to screw something up along the way, whether it’s been uneven autofocus, camera software lag, or excessive sharpening and over-processing. It might seem a little premature to judge the new Xperias on the basis of the camera software aboard the demo units at IFA, but other publications have already posted entire reviews of pre-production devices by this point, so I’m guessing Sony won’t mind.

In my brief testing, the Xperia XZ’s focus was off as often as it was on point. Fine detail like forearm hair was blotched out, and exposure was typically too high. That being said, I flipped to manual mode, dropped the exposure to a minimum (it’s a sunny day in Berlin), and I got a fantastically sharp and accurate shot of a Canon lens cap. It was awesome enough to be convincingly presented as the product of a professional DSLR, but that suggests to me that Sony’s still got its old problems. Earlier Xperias also had terrific camera sensors allied to iffy software. I found this behavior consistent across multiple Xperia XZ units and a couple of Xperia X Compacts. None of them was especially fast to process images, either, though speed issues are more forgivable in devices that might not be running the final retail software.

Sony has all the hardware for an amazing camera, but needs to put the pieces together

I’d love to be able to convey happier news, but Sony’s camera software looks like it’s still far from the polished, finished article that it needs to be to boost the Xperia XZ and X Compact to the heights of competing against Samsung or Apple’s best. And knowing Sony, neither of these phones will be cheap to acquire.

The circle of life in Sony’s world seems to always be this way: excitement-stirring design, great camera innovation, and a chronic failure to put all the pieces together the right way.

Read more: Sony throws all its mobile eggs into the camera basket with new Xperia XZ flagship