Sony is putting effort into its smartphones again. The company’s new XZ2 and XZ2 Compact shrink down the chunky bezels of their predecessors (to an extent) and feature the same taller, slimmer displays that helped Samsung, LG, and other companies roundly outclass Sony’s smartphone design last year. Both new Sony phones are powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 processor, the latest and greatest silicon that will be inside most of 2018’s Android flagships. They’re scheduled to ship this spring, with pricing to be announced later.
This time around, Sony isn’t overdoing it with a gimmicky 4K screen. The XZ2’s 5.7-inch, FHD+ (2160 x 1080) display has a 2:1 aspect ratio. The top and bottom bezels have been significantly downsized. There’s still enough room for Sony to put its name at the bottom of the phone, so the company isn’t quite at par with Samsung, LG, or OnePlus. But this is certainly an improvement. The screen supports HDR and Sony says it automatically up-converts SDR content to look more colorful and vibrant. And the XZ2 has stereo speakers, as well.
Sony refers to the XZ2’s overall design as “ambient flow.” That makes a bit more sense when you flip it over and examine the back, which is quite a departure from recent Sony handsets. The back nicely slopes into the aluminum rail at each side, and Sony has moved the camera position so that it’s now center-aligned. And beneath it is a new standalone fingerprint reader. For a long time, Sony made the side power button of its Xperia phones double as a fingerprint scanner, but the company always disabled that functionality in the United States. Now, everyone gets a fingerprint reader — and it’s in the right spot. The XZ2’s rear aesthetic strikes me as very HTC, but I’m in favor of this change over the rectangular, blocky feel of previous Xperias. This one is much more comfortable to grip.
What you won’t find anywhere on the XZ2 is a headphone jack. Sony is following the herd and getting rid of it this year. That’s disappointing to see from a company that prides itself on supporting hi-fi audio. The phone supports AptX HD and LDAC codecs for high-quality Bluetooth audio, if that’s any consolation.
The XZ2’s hardware still includes a dedicated camera shutter button, and like last year’s XZ Premium, it has a 19-megapixel sensor inside. When shooting 4K video, the camera is now capable of capturing HDR color, and the ultra slo-mo mode can record 960fps footage at a higher 1080p resolution. That’s pretty cool and bests what Samsung is doing with the Galaxy S9, but you’ll need to have a subject in good lighting if you want usable footage. And for fans of Sony’s fun 3D Creator face-scanning app, that now works with the front-facing selfie camera. (Previously you had to use the primary camera.)
Inside the XZ2 is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage (with microSD slot), and all the cellular networking hardware necessary for gigabit data speeds. The 845 made the XZ2 feel very snappy in my brief time using it. (Sony’s lightweight, stock-ish Android 8.0 Oreo software also helps matters there.)
But there will be a lot of phones with that same chip inside this year, so to help differentiate its own flagship, Sony came up with something else to add: rumble feedback. The new Dynamic Vibration System in the XZ2 makes your phone rumble along with media (movies, music, trailers, etc.) and games. Sony’s tagline for the feature is that it helps you “feel your media.”
An algorithm analyzes audio in music and videos and tells the XZ2 when to vibrate. App developers can also add support. A demo of old standby Angry Birds had a variety of haptics; pulling back the slingshot felt and crashing into the wooden crates felt noticeably different. You can adjust the vibration intensity for individual apps, so you can leave it off for YouTube but turn up the vibration power for Netflix, for example. The vibration system also adds subtle feedback in other areas, like when you’re setting a timer. I don’t know how much of a phone seller this will be — and it didn’t feel quite as impressive as the iPhone’s Haptic engine — but it’s among the XZ2’s headline features. The XZ2 will be available in black, silver, green (which looks rather blue, as you can see above), or pink. Pricing and release date will come later.
For those who prefer smaller smartphones, Sony is introducing the XZ2 Compact with a 5-inch screen. It shares many hardware specs with the flagship phone: you get the Snapdragon 845 and same camera capabilities. But you lose the Dynamic Vibration System, and the back of the XZ2 Compact is plastic instead of glass. Unfortunately, the smaller model lacks wireless charging altogether, and the battery is smaller (2870mAh vs. 3180mAh in the regular model).
So Sony has new phones with a bit of design spark and powerful internals. But there’s no telling whether that will be enough to reverse the company’s ailing mobile situation — especially in the US, where carriers like Verizon and AT&T stopped carrying Sony’s devices years ago. Oddly, Sony says the XZ2 Compact will be certified for use on Verizon when it launches, but the same doesn’t seem to be true of the flagship. (Both phones will support AT&T and T-Mobile.)
If the plan is to once again exclusively sell the XZ2 unlocked, it won’t have much hope against the flagship smartphones you can walk into a carrier store and buy. It’s good to finally see a revamped look, but there’s little that makes Sony stand out versus the Galaxy S9.