The History of Flagships: Part I – Sony
Every OEM aspiring to conquer the mobile world undoubtedly releases its take on the so-called “flagship device”. Phones or tablets described as flagship are premium-class devices with top hardware specifications and usually run the newest version of the Android OS and their custom UI modifications. Since the initial version of Android, brands like Sony, Samsung, HTC, and Motorola have released quite a few premium devices. We thought it would be a good to take a moment to review some of them and reminisce.
The Xperia line is Sony’s only Android device line. Before this Japanese brand’s smartphones were branded just Sony, it had an agreement with Ericsson that lasted for quite a long time. The first top-tier Android device from Sony Ericsson was the Xperia X10, announced in November 2009 and released four months later. The X10 was shipped with 4” 480×854 capacitive touchscreen, Qualcomm QSD8250 1GHz CPU, Adreno 200 GPU, 384 MB RAM and 1 GB of internal storage. It also boasted a pretty impressive 8 MP camera, Sony’s heavily skinned Timescape/Mediascape UI, and ran Android 1.6 Donut. The X10 was later updated to Android 2.1 Eclair and later, after a long battle with users, to Android 2.3 Gingerbread which was the last OS version released for this phone. Thanks to the FreeXperia Project, now known as FXP, this phone has received quite a few unofficial updates and is still in use by some XDA members. The Xperia X10 was really a beautiful device with useful hardware buttons, a sleek shape, and quite a unique user experience.
The X10’s successor was the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc announced in January 2011 and released two months later. The Arc was quite similar to its predecessor in that it had a 4.2” screen with the same resolution, slightly updated Qualcomm MSM8255 CPU, 512 RAM and 1 GB of internal storage (from which 320 MB was available for users). Alongside this phone’s release, Sony introduced the Best Resolution Audio Visual Integrated Architecture (BRAVIA) engine. BRAVIA has become a standard in most mid- and high-end phones released by Sony (Ericsson). Xperia Arc was released with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and subsequently upgradeable to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Right before the announcement, the Xperia Arc had been rumored to be called Xperia X12, but the numeration used in previous models (Xperia X2, Xperia X8 etc.) was dropped and replaced by more catchy names for this and future devices. Later in 2011, Sony Ericcson announced the Arc S – a slightly upgraded Arc. Differences were minimal, hence it’s really hard to call that phone a flagship.
2012 was a very important for Sony. The main company in Japan decided to cut ties with Ericsson and bought out their stake in the company. As a result we had a chance to see the Sony Xperia S, the first Android flagship from Sony Mobile released under the new name. The Xperia S was announced in February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, with this phone being a huge improvement compared to the Arc. For the first time, Sony’s flagship used a dual core Qualcomm MSM8260 Snapdragon CPU with an updated Adreno 220 responsible for the graphics and game performance. Sony packed up 1 GB of RAM and 32 gigs of internal storage, which had no option to be expanded with microSD card, and a 720P resolution screen. The Xperia S was released with Android 2.3 (4.0.3 at this time was already available via the Galaxy Nexus, which the S was based on), and Sony officially updated it to Android 4.1.2 before discontinuing firmware support. Previously the Japanese OEM had problems with updating its handsets, even the most premium ones, but the Xperia S differed greatly from previously released flagship Xperia’s. Sony decided to put a transparent LED bar responsible for every notification, charging, etc. The UI of the system was also overhauled and became much similar to their previously used overlay. Sony Xperia S was also able to display its screen on external devices thanks to the microHDMI port which was introduced with Xperia Arc. The Xperia S also set the bar high in terms of openness by an OEM (and as yet unduplicated by any other OEM) when they began their AOSP project.
In August 2012 Sony introduced James Bond’s phone, the Sony Xperia T, the first model from a Japanese OEM to support LTE connectivity (some models). The Xperia T had a 4.55” screen, dual core Qualcomm MSM8260A Snapdragon CPU, Adreno 225 GPU, 1 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of internal storage expandable with a microSD card. Surprisingly Sony decided to drop the LED bar and take a more classical approach of notification handling. The Xperia T was shipped with Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich and was later upgraded to Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. Sony had been investigating if the device’s hardware could run Android 4.4 KitKat smoothly but decided not to update the Xperia T, SP and many other handsets to the newest Android revision of that time. This decision was far from reasonable, because those devices had been running bug-free custom ROMs based on KitKat for a long time.
The next flagship smartphone from Sony’s forge was the Sony Xperia Z, the first smartphone from the Z family. Announced at CES 2013 and released on 9 February, it almost instantly became a big hit. The first water-proof Android flagship released by Sony was shipped with a Full HD 5” screen covered by Gorilla Glass, quad-core Qualcomm APQ8064 CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, 16 GB of internal storage, microSD card slot, and 2 GB of RAM. The Xperia Z had been initially shipped with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Been but got updates to Android 4.2, 4.3 and finally Android 4.4 KitKat. Android 5.0 Lollipop is standing in the queue and is planned to be launched early next year. The Xperia Z was one of the most impressive phones of early 2013 and was a commercial success for Sony. The handset had a twin brother, the Xperia ZL, which was pretty much the same device but without water and dust resistance. Starting with the Xperia Z, Sony announced that they would release a new flagship device every six months…
… and this is how the Xperia Z1 was announced on 4 September 2013. Once again Sony used top hardware during the production process. The Honami was shipped with 5” Triluminos screen with Gorilla Glass and Full HD resolution with X-Reality Engine, quad-core Snapdagon 800, Adreno 320, 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage, microSD card slot and a massive 20.7 MP camera, in an aluminum frame to boot. The device is water and dust resistant like its predecessor. It shipped with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, received updates to 4.4, and now is waiting for Lollipop to be rolled out. Xperia Z1’s firmware introduced a few interesting camera features like Social Live, Info Eye, Timeshift-burst, AR Effect, Creative Effect, Sweep Panorama, AR Fun, Time Lapse, background defocus and more. The device was also released in a smaller variant, the Z1 Compact, which was “only” 4.3”.
In April 2014, we had the pleasure to see the release of the Xperia Z2 codenamed Sirius. Like its predecessor, the Xperia Z2 is water and dust proof with an IP rating of IP55 and IP58. The phone features a new display (measuring a whopping 0.2″ bigger than the Z1) , a Snapdragon 801 CPU and the ability to record 4K videos. Sony used the newest Adreno 330, 3 GB of RAM and 16 GB of internal storage expandable with SD card. The Z2 was the official smartphone of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and in some countries was sold with a Sony SmartBand. Overall, the Z2 wasn’t a big improvement over the Z1, though battery life was noticeably better.
The latest flagship of Sony is the Xperia Z3 unveiled on September 2014. For the second time, Sony decided to release a flagship model in two different sizes: The Z3 with a 5.2-inch screen, while the Z3 Compact is “only” 4.6 inches. The hardware specs for the Z3 are pretty much the same as the Xperia Z2, making the newest Xperia just a minor upgrade over its predecessor(s). It’s still a good phone and if you’re looking for a high end device, you should definitely consider getting this smartphone.
In addition to smartphones, Sony has also released four tablets that could be considered flagship-level. The first was unveiled in August 2012 (alongside the Xperia T premiere). The Sony Xperia Tablet S was given a 9.4” screen, quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and came in different versions with 16/32/64 gigs of internal storage that were also expandable with a microSD card. The tablet shipped with Android 4.0.3 and was upgraded to Android 4.1 few months later.
Three other tablets were released as part of Xperia Z family. The Xperia Tablet Z was launched in May 2013 and had a screen that was slightly bigger than its predecessor at 10.1″. The Tablet Z display resolution was 1280 x 1920 resolution and had the same hardware specification as the Xperia Z. The only difference between the devices were the camera and an optional 32 GB model.
The next tablet in Sony’s arsenal was the Xperia Z2 Tablet. It was made available in two variants, LTE and Wi-Fi, and once again the hardware used in the tab matched the one from phone. The screen and camera were the same as those from the Tablet Z.
The most recent tablet from Sony is the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact. Other than the extraordinarily long name and very similar specs to the Xperia Z2 tablet, this tablet has a 8” screen and is IP68 certified, so you can watch your favorite cat movies under the water.
As we have seen, Sony has a long and quite successful line of devices. Prior to the Xperia Z line, it was pretty exciting when developers discovered how to crack the bootloader, root the device, and do other things with the 2009/2010 devices. Since the release of the Xperia Z, the line has become pretty stagnant with iterative releases and we shouldn’t expect doubled CPU speed and tripled performance on each successive generation. In fact, it’s very difficult for OEMs to produce a device that will bring something fresh to the Android world, as we’ve seen most things before. Sony is one of these OEMs that now cares about developers by giving the ability to unlock the bootloader and provide the required kernel source code for its devices. It’s also worth mentioning that XDA Senior Recognized Developer jerpelea is the same person who was hacking the Qualcomm libraries back in the X10 days.
In the next episodes of our nostalgic journey we will focus on the biggest Android OEM, Samsung. Stay tuned!