Is style alone enough to sell Sony smartphones?

The new Sony Xperia NXT handsets sure make a bold design statement, but phone shoppers will want more.

Stunning looks alone may not be enough to attract buyers to Sony's NXT series phones. Sony

I bet chances are good you haven't owned a Sony smartphone in a dog's age. In fact if you live in the U.S. you may have never purchased one of the company's mobile communication devices, let alone fallen in love with one.

This isn't an enviable position to be in for any electronics manufacturer, especially one that harbors aspirations to regain its footing in the U.S. phone market. To turn things around, Sony killed its disappointing 10-year partnership with Swedish telecom giant Ericsson. It also announced plans for multiple new handsets running Android both at CES in January and recently at Mobile World Congress.

Beauty that's skin deep
These phones, branded under its NXT (next-generation) series consist of the Xperia S , Xperia P, and Xperia U . All three are drop-dead gorgeous, with curved black lines more akin to majestic Easter Island carvings than mere plastic smartphones.

Sony's Xperia P
Sony's Xperia P Kent German/CNET

The final touch is a clear band that splits each monolithic device near its bottom end and subtly glows when system alerts occur. Frankly it lends a hyper-futuristic yet classy look to these phones, eye-candy that's right up my alley. But is stunning design enough to attract new and loyal smartphone users to the Sony banner? Judging from the NXT series specs alone, Android experts won't be impressed.

The Xperia S, P, and U all lack Google's most modern software (Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich), and run Gingerbread instead. Also a massive bummer is they'll be powered by dual-core not quad-core processors.

Losing the mobile arms race?
To be fair, there's not a lot of tasks I can name that explicitly require the power of four fire-breathing mobile CPUs. Well, none comes to mind actually. Still compared with other phone makers such as HTC , LG , and even little-known Huawei announcing quad-core handsets at MWC, Sony's latest phones seem out gunned.

Now there are other capabilities that set smartphones apart: soft power, if you will. These come down to intangibles like smooth operation and menu navigation. Smugness of fanboys aside, it's hard not to appreciate the iPhone's buttery, responsive feel. HTC has taken steps here, too, touting the nimbleness of the cameras on its new One series . Sony does something similar saying its mobile Bravia graphics, Exmor R image sensor, and WhiteMagic display add up to a fantastic experience. I'll reserve judgement until I spend quality time with one of these suckers.

Dazed and confused
Frankly Sony looks to me like a firm in crisis, and by that I mean identity. Is it a media company? Entertainment? Electronics? Take for instance the tale of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play . Apparently the only Sony handset currently sold by American carriers, this hybrid device tried to fuse PSP-like gaming with Android. The results were underwhelming at best and a far cry from ever becoming even remotely popular like the PlayStation Vita.

Make no mistake, this wasn't an accident. Sony deliberately crippled the Xperia Play's appeal by not giving it access to true PSP games but blah "PlayStation Certified" titles instead. Sure one could make the case that Sony's fear of cannibalizing the PSP franchise was strictly subconscious and not calculated. At the height of the PSPs popularity, a PlayStation/phone combo sounded as good as chocolate and peanut butter--or Nutella and waffles, for you Euro-types.

These days a Vita phone could work, but it remains to be seen how much of a hit the Vita will become. While Sony says it sold 1.2 million Vita units worldwide, sales on Japanese home turf appear to have been less than stellar .

Sony's task ahead
What does all this boil down to? Well, mega crunch time for Sony. If it wants to lure phone shoppers away from the likes of Apple, Samsung, and HTC, it'll have to really bring it with some truly lust-worthy hardware, the best components, combined with deliciously slick software, be it pure Android or deviously cool skins. The Sony NXT devices are a step in the right direction but may not cut the mustard.

 

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