Sony on Monday launched its latest flagship smartphone, the Xperia XZ2, with the ability to record 4K high-definition video and a vibration feature borrowed from the PlayStation, as it looks for ways to compete with the likes of Samsung and Apple.
The launch follows a day after Samsung’s hotly anticipated launch of its Galaxy S9 and S9+ flagship models, which add better cameras and social networking features such as improved slow-motion video capture and selfie emojis.
Industry observers said the new models from Sony and Samsung confirm a broader trend that’s seeing design innovation shift to more incremental changes.
That trend has been accompanied by a dramatic slowdown in smartphone sales growth worldwide, with gains of only 1 percent in 2017, and the industry’s first-ever decline in the fourth quarter.
Sony and Samsung, like Nokia and others, chose the Mobile World Congress (MWC) gadget expo in Barcelona to launch their new devices.
Analysts said the XZ2 has improved industrial design to go with its more advanced video and camera features, which could help boost sales.
But they questioned whether Sony is willing to spend enough on marketing to make a dent in the smartphone market, where it ranked only 15th worldwide last year, according to IDC.
The XZ2 features Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on both front and back, with a longer 18:9-ratio display that reduces the size of the bezels at the top and bottom of the screen.
It records video in 4K HDR, a feature previously only available in high-end camcorders. Slow-motion video recording is now captured in 1080p, twice the resolution available in Samsung’s new S9.
The XZ2 also uses 10-bit colour, which improves the ability to adjust image colour. Sony only offers the feature in a few of its top-of-the-range camcorders.
Sony said the smartphone uses a customised version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 with Sony’s own image signal processor. The Qualcomm chip is also used in the S9 and other flagship devices.
Sony’z XZ2 also vibrates during movie action scenes and video games, like the rumble feature in PlayStation controllers.
But Sony has introduced other smartphone firsts, including a 4K screen and waterproofing, that haven’t translated into sales gains.
While the S9’s slow-motion feature arrives a year after its introduction in last year’s Sony XZ Premium, early users say Samsung’s version is easier to use. Sony’s interface for the feature was criticised last year and analysts said the company hasn’t made many changes to usability since then.
The S9 uses an artificial intelligence (AI) feature that automatically begins slow-mo capture when motion is detected in a designated part of the frame, while Sony’s phone requires capture to be triggered manually.
Analyst Ben Wood of CCS Insight said the XZ2’s success may come down to “marketing dollars and brand”.
“Taking on Apple and Samsung requires eye-watering investment that Sony is always going to struggle with,” he wrote in a research note.
Samsung, in the S9 launch on Sunday, said it is focusing on “visual communication” as the key feature for smartphones today.
The phone’s design is similar to that of last year’s successful S8, with slightly smaller bezels at the top and bottom and a repositioned fingerprint sensor on the back.
The larger S9+ now includes two camera lenses on the back, allowing for photo backgrounds to be digitally blurred.
The cameras now feature a variable aperture, with a setting for low-light conditions that offers a shallower focus.
The S9 now takes 12 images in succession to help create low-light images, up from the three taken by the S8.
Samsung’s concept of AR Emojis, which add imagery to the user’s selfies, is similar to the iPhone X’s Animojis, but Samsung said its version is more personal.
The phone adds Bixby artificial intelligence features including image recognition that can identify foods and estimate how many calories they contain.
Bixby can now translate text the camera is pointed at, displaying the results on the screen. But it relies on cloud processing to do so, unlike Huawei’s latest phones, which include on-board AI processing.
Samsung said the phone combines iris and facial recognition data to make authentication more reliable. Reviewers said the iris recognition in the S8 was difficult to use compared with the facial recognition in the iPhone X.
The S9 is priced at €849 (£750) and the S9+ at €949 (£838), 50 more than last year’s models.
Samsung is facing stiff competition from Chinese handset makers such as Huawei and Xiaomi, which gained ground in markets such as India, China and Western Europe in the fourth quarter.
At MWC, Huawei showed a new notebook PC and two Android tablets, but is waiting until a standalone event in Paris next month to launch the P20, its new flagship smartphone.
At a press event following its MWC launch, Huawei said its smartphone business grew by around 30 percent last year. The company said it’s aiming to become the No. 2 smartphone maker this year or next, and eventually to lead the market.
The company currently has about 10 percent of the market, according to analysts, and is third behind Samsung and Apple.
Richard Yu, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business group, told reporters Chinese handset manufacturers are consolidating rapidly and that he believes only three or four smartphone makers will be able to remain in the market.
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