Sony’s Emergence in The Middle: Is The Price Right?
Sony’s Electronics Division is not in its best days, and its smartphone products are seemingly an important cause of this. The Japanese giant’s Xperia line has been on the decline in terms of sales, and these past few months have been particularly damaging to the company due to the Xperia Z4’s market performance. Sony’s Q1 results were also not favorable, as its mobile division lost $184 million and sales slumped 16% year-on-year.
Not too long ago we featured a look at an interview with Sony CEO Hiroki Totoki, and much of Sony’s newer tactics make more sense now, just a few weeks later. In the interview, Sony discussed globalization and how it affected their past few years of global sales. It is no secret that one of Sony’s biggest interests is supplying for Japan, its home turf. Despite its efforts, the company lost its leading position in 2014, and it fell behind companies like Sharp and Fujitsu. Totoki’s statements implied Sony is looking to reap the fruits of globalization by focusing on emerging markets, and their new devices seem to do just that. What do they have to offer, and most importantly, should we care?
Traditional & Premium to New & Cheap
Yesterday, two new Sony devices were announced: the Xperia M5 and the C5 Ultra. We are all too used to the Xperia Z flagship line, and these devices are clearly aimed at the mid-range. Most importantly, though, they are aimed at emerging markets. While Sony’s market presence in countries like the UK is nothing to scoff at, it is clear that in order to tackle the globalized market and expand to new frontiers, Sony must play the game that everyone seems to have moved towards (at least in part), and what better way to do this than by releasing mid-range devices?
There are some interesting aspects about these two phones. First of all, both feature good camera specifications, at least on paper and considering they compete in the $300-$400 price-range. The Xperia C5 Ultra features 13MP cameras on both the front and rear, while the M5 features a 13MP front-facing shooter and a 21.5MP one on the back. Something worth noting is that the C series is known for its selfie-capabilities, and the C5 Ultra once again brings flash to the front. Sony’s camera sensors are remarkable, and in fact, its area of business that sells smartphone camera sensors saw a 164 percent boost to $244 million last quarter, making those some of Sony’s biggest strengths.
Sony is smart for not only cashing-in on their own technology (even if, as we’ve seen, their software does not make the best use of it), but also for doing so in their new attempts at expanding inside emerging markets. Considering that Sony’s M5 is competing within the $400 bracket, those camera specifications look more than apt. But, on the other hand, Motorola’s Moto X Style features a 21MP camera for the same price, and the resulting experience is in DxOMark’s top smartphone cameras. Something worth noting is that the Moto X Style uses Sony’s own IMX230 CMOS camera sensor, the same one featured in the new M5. This alone suggests that it is possible for Sony to offer an equally impressive experience. Considering Motorola was able to improve upon their camera software so dramatically in a single iteration, it’d be silly to assume Sony is not capable of similar results with their own sensor (at least, if they truly tried).
Another aspect about these phones that is worth noting is their new chipsets: Sony opted out of the Snapdragon family for these two phones, and in turn they have joined the MediaTek crew. Before going into the undesired consequences, I wish to point out that, in terms of mid-range devices, Sony does not have as many options as one would think. While devices like the Moto X Play, which we still have not seen tested, opt for the Snapdragon 615, it might be wise to skip Qualcomm in this mid-ranger for a better bang-per-buck.
The Snapdragon 615 has been featured in devices like the Mi 4i and the YU Yureka, and the former was notorious for release-date overheating complaints which got addressed in a software update, while the latter can seemingly get up to 52° Celsius (in the back) while gaming. The Helio X10 in the M9+, however, looks to be significantly cooler, but variations may occur in both chips depending on the device that hosts it. If Sony wants to avoid more controversy after their Snapdragon 810 fiascos with the camera and stores, though, another chip from another company would be the place to start.
But this poses a big question regarding development. Sony is one of the most developer-friendly OEMs out there, and they support various efforts regarding custom software on their devices. Xperia phones see plenty of development in our forums, including very healthy cross-device tweaks and projects. MediaTek, however, is not exactly known for its GPL compliance nor developer friendliness, something which some already fear will become an issue when it comes to the device’s longevity. Sony has not been the fastest with updates either, particularly for non-flagship devices, but they have shown themselves to be willing to provide various software alternatives for Xperia devices. However, the very name “MediaTek” by itself carries a stigma that cannot be overlooked, and it could ultimately prevent power users from buying into this phone.
As for the chipset’s performance, we can only judge from what we’ve seen of it in other devices. The MediaTek Helio X10 found in the Xperia M5 has been featured on various devices, including the HTC One M9+ and the Meizu MX5. On paper, the Helio X10 is not a bad chipset, and by some metrics it is even ahead of the Snapdragon 805. However, a strikingly obvious downside of the SoC is its GPU. When Meizu announced their MX5 they had the nerve of showing an AnTuTu benchmark score of the Helio X10 at their event (pictured), but breakdowns show that the PowerVR G6200 GPU is actually rather weak (for 2015 standards), as revealed by their preferred benchmark (comparison below).
The problem comes when you consider that this is still a 1080p display, and the (still) high-resolution benefits from good GPU performance. To give you an idea, the shown GPU score of the PowerVR G6200 is around that of a Snapdragon 800’s Adreno 330. When it comes to the GPU, the Helio X10 is not very impressive.
On a last note, I want to address the fact that these mid-rangers are meant to compete in emerging markets, not in countries like the United States. This means that Sony is putting itself up against the new conquerors and their affordable phones. The ZenFone 2, OnePlus 2, both Motorola’s new Moto X devices, and the latest from Alcatel, Meizu, and Xiaomi are all notable competitors that Sony would have to out-manoeuver. To be quite frank, I believe these phones are not quite enough to break into the segment in the way Sony would ultimately need. The C5 Ultra has a very nice design with small bezels, and the M5’s metal edges make the phone borrow slightly from the Z line. However, when you look at the build quality of the phones mentioned above (with the exception, perhaps, of Alcatel’s and Asus’), it is clear Sony could have done more, as its competition has achieved very impressive quality inside and out for a very similar price.
If Sony wants to begin expanding in developing countries, these phones can prove to be a good initiative. The fact that the company seems to be putting so much emphasis on one of their biggest strengths – that is, their camera sensors – should be refreshing for those that want good camera phones. But on objective terms, this seems to be one of the only definitive advantages Sony’s mid-rangers seem to be offering. In a sense, this is mostly a matter of pricing. It is not too little, but it is not enough in a global context where competitors are putting out such amazing smartphone deals. The fact that performance and perhaps development are held back by the MediaTek chip and will most likely not be up to par with the best of the bracket (like the Moto X Style and the OnePlus 2) could be the nail in the coffin for power users.
Sony is the OEM we want to save, and while these phones might not be the saviors we were expecting, there is a lot more to expect around the corner. Sony is shutting down its online store on August 28, something which many enthusiasts saw as a sign of decline. I see it as the opposite: Sony made it very clear to us that it will not exit the mobile industry, and they have said that they will “soon unveil a new online product showcase and more ways to shop”. This and their September 2 IFA 2015 press conference make me believe that Sony is looking to reinvent itself, or at least its mobile business. We know that Sony has put out great, balanced and quality products in the past, and we are eager to see how they can bring that level of polish to whatever new direction they take. Sony could finally be waking up, and we could see some very good phones out of that.
What do you think about Sony’s mid-range devices? Sound off below!