I often like to make comparisons between smartphones and the auto industry. The two industries seem very analogous as they are both industries that have become necessities to many people but also have a luxury element to them as well. The contrast of luxury purchasing in addition to necessity has always been fascinating to me. The intersection of these two varying points of use creates some confusion in the smartphone space where a consumer-focused device is being compared directly to a more niche device. In automotive terms, this would be like comparing a fully-loaded midsize sedan to a sports car that is priced similarly despite fulfilling two very different sets of needs. This is the dilemma that Sony’s mobile division faces with their new Sony Xperia Mark II. A phone that is incredibly powerful, yet so wildly misunderstood.
Playing in Samsung’s Playground
The commentary on smartphones is funny. Any Android phone that costs $1000 or above that is not made by Samsung immediately seems to elicit the same response from the smartphone reviewing collective. “What is x company thinking by charging this much for their new phone? The marketing team is delusional”. Immediately the commentary shifts to the price before even opening the box, not even considering who the core target of the device is. This makes high-end phones made from companies like Sony, Google, LG, and Motorola dead on arrival. It is in this environment where Sony has launched the 1 Mark II, at an entry price of $1200.
Right on schedule, the comments online immediately attacked the starting price and how Sony’s new phone is not competitive with Samsung’s Galaxy S20 lineup. At launch, the Sony device is right in line with the launch price of the Galaxy S20+. Despite being the same price, the phones are aimed at two very different customer types. Samsung makes mainstream consumer devices, whereas this Xperia has a much smaller niche that it caters to. Sony’s phone is catered to those that take mobile photography and videography seriously. So what does that mean?
What this means is that Samsung makes devices that fit into the mass population’s needs. A point and shoot camera, a very bright and saturated display, and enough cutting edge features like reverse power share to intrigue the buying public. Samsung is very aware of how its devices are positioned and market them accordingly. It is this marketing machine that makes contributes to the company’s tremendous success here in the United States. Sony, by contrast, has no such marketing push or carrier relationships. While the company enjoys a good amount of sales and relationships in its home market of Japan, it is largely silent here in the United States. Suffocated by the marketing machines that are Samsung and Apple, the company is being overlooked yet again when it has released its most compelling device in years.
The High-End Users Phone
Earlier I mentioned that this new Xperia has been designed and positioned for a very certain niche of photographers and videographers. It is not an easy task to make a phone for this section of the market for a couple of reasons. The first being that content creators are very demanding and expect a lot of options and performance from their cameras, and this applies to their phones in addition to professional camera equipment. Secondly, phone cameras have gotten incredibly good and capable in the last few years. What can Sony possibly add to the smartphone experience that these high-level users weren’t already getting from a Samsung, iPhone, or Pixel device? The answer is quite a lot.
The element of a smartphone that we interact with the most is the screen, and this is where Sony starts its high-end approach. Sony has outfitted its latest flagship with an OLED screen with 4K resolution that uses the display technology from the companies flagship TV lineup. This screen is a higher resolution than the newest Galaxy and iPhone devices. In addition to this, Sony has for the past few years included phones with a 21:9 aspect ratio, the same aspect ratio used in cinema. While the company was openly mocked for doing this, newer flagships have come around to this trend and have shipped phones with 20:9 and 20.5:9 aspect ratios. The difference here is that Sony has done this for a purpose: a cinema-quality experience on the go.
Moving to the camera, like many smartphones released this year the Xperia 1 Mark II has a multiple camera array. The company has included a standard wide, telephoto, and ultrawide lens all at 12 MegaPixels. They have also added time of flight sensor for enhanced depth mode shots. This by itself is not remarkable, but what is interesting about these cameras for content creators is the hardware and software combinations.
The company has included a hardware shutter button on their phone, designed to focus and shoot much like a digital camera with multi-stage shutter controls. On the software side, Sony includes three different camera apps on their phone. There is the standard Xperia camera app that is for the casual shooting situation designed to be done in the full automatic shooting of photos and videos. Then there are two Pro applications named Cinema Pro and Camera Pro. These apps add too many professional settings to list. A full-featured set of modes and options that camera professionals need and rely on daily. All of these advances have been made due to the decision that Sony made to incorporate the company’s Alpha technology onto its mobile division. This phone is the result of this partnership.
The last part of the high-end equation that Sony has addressed is audio. The company has brought back the 3.5mm headphone jack with High-Resolution Audio and Dolby Atmos tech while having headphones plugged in via the jack. The company has also included similar optimizations for listening through audio on Bluetooth and audio transmitted through USB C. Sony has always been an audio pioneer since the Walkman days and it is refreshing to see the company return to form after a couple of years of neglect.
All in all, these are features that are not found on many phones that are available today. This is a phone for creating audio and video content and consuming that same content at a very high level. A phone that is an ideal companion for a professional vlogger. Ultimately, this is not a phone for the mass population. But rather a phone that fully understand creating content and how to maximize on the potential of camera hardware when the right software is used. Sony is catering to this customer and is being misrepresented and misunderstood in the process.
The Abnormality of Rationality
Sony has made the decision that high-end phones should be used for professional purposes. The Xperia 1 Mark II is designed for people that take content creation seriously. The even more expensive and niche Xperia Pro is designed as a companion device for professional video camera crews. These are devices designed for the extreme minority of the population.
The company views its Xperia 10 lineup as the device for the “average consumer”. A mid-range device that handles the day to day uses of snapping quick photos, using communication apps, and playing some mobile games. This is not a phone trying to be more than it is, it is a focused effort for people that do not use their phones for professional purposes. As a result of this focus, the Xperia 10 lineup still offers capable cameras and a good looking screen that will be enough for the mass market.
There is a level of clarity and understanding of what features to market to certain demographics, a statement by Sony that $1000+ phones should be reserved for professionals. Samsung is speaking a different language here, and the West has seemed to side with Samsung. Samsung markets the Galaxy S20 line and eventually the Note 20 line as the pinnacle of consumer-focused tech. Sony is arguing that this pinnacle should not exist. Sony’s argument is that high-end features and hardware should be for people that are looking to maximize the hardware and software combination.
As a lover of consumer tech, I am torn as to which company is correct. There something compelling about Samsung’s hardware approach, that just feels like the apex of smartphones. However, knowing my usage patterns, I have to say that Sony’s approach is the more rational one. Looking at the company’s Xperia 10 Mark II, which will launch at a price of around $399, that device would satisfy my needs and the needs of many people that I know. I do not know many people that utilize advanced camera features, which is a reason why I have recommended the Pixel 3a to so many people in the last year.
The narrative will always be the narrative. And the narrative around the Xperia 1 Mark II is that it is an overpriced phone. The reality is that it is a phone that is highly competitive at the very top of the pricing structure. It is not a phone for most people, a 5% phone if you will. But the missing point that most tech reviewers and enthusiasts will gloss over is that all phones in this price range are overkill for most of us. The difference is that Sony has positioned this phone for those that will appreciate the additions that it has focused on. The Xperia 1 Mark II is a compelling device that more than justifies its price, and it is a shame that what the company did here will be overlooked and misunderstood.
Learn more about the Sony Xperia 1 Mark II here: