Sony, your phones keep on breaking my heart

This American can't resist the siren song of Xperia smartphones despite knowing better.

Sony Xperia
Sony smartphones in the US could be awesome, but they're not there yet. Sarah Tew/CNET

For as long as I can remember, I've had a particular weakness for Sony mobile devices. I mean I still get misty-eyed when I recall my adolescent crush, the Walkman WM-150. She truly was a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, Sony's legendary gadget-making chops have yet to fully cross over into minting world-class smartphones -- at least not for models sold in the good old US of A.

Don't get me wrong, Sony's handsets have come quite a long way in recent years. The current Xperia Z1S on T-Mobile gets a lot right, including a powerful processor and a camera that snaps amazing photos. I'm also a big fan of Sony's dedication to waterproof designs, which in today's age of constant communication is a no-brainer. The trouble is even the Z1S' compelling abilities aren't enough to spark within me irresistible gadget love.

And despite my many letdowns concerning Sony smartphones tailor-made for American airwaves, and they have been numerous, I have faith the once-unstoppable king of portable electronics can thrill me again. Here's a rundown of how Sony devices have recently teased me, then spurned my affection, and what the company needs to do to win me back.

Xperia P
The Xperia P's looks really stand out even now, years after its launch. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design it right
A huge part of Sony's manufacturing ethos is crafting products with distinctive flair, and I respect that since so many Android devices look identical. For a few years now Sony's Xperia handsets have flaunted some very wild, dare I say inspiring, designs. The Xperia NXT line of phones, including the Xperia S and Xperia P, really turned some heads. They melded futuristic angular edges, smartly curved lines, and eye-catching colors into smartphones that looked like nothing that had come before. And who could forget about that clear bar running through their bottom edges -- sheer genius. Sadly, those lookers never made it to my neck of the woods since US carriers (and perhaps customers) can't handle that much flash.

Current Xperias are a magnet for reflections and fingerprints. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony's newest approach, reflected in the Xperia Z, Z1, Z1S, and Z Ultra, has crossed the pond. I admit I do like the jet-black color scheme and sophisticated glass materials of these fresh Xperias. That said, this design cuts both ways. The gadgets' smooth surfaces, while sleek and sexy, are far too reflective and fingerprint-prone to be practical. And in the case of the Xperia Z Ultra, the massive handset is so thin I can barely pick it up when it's lying flat on my desk. OK, perhaps that's due to having thick fingers on my part, but I still think it's an oversight.

Don't skimp on the screen
The single most heartbreaking issue I have with the latest Sony US flagship smartphone, the Xperia Z1S, is its lackluster screen. Sure the phone's display has a full HD resolution (1,920x1,080 pixels) with lots of pixels to push around. All that pretty much comes to naught if merely tilting the phone slightly off-angle results in severe dimming and washed-out colors.

It's the primary reason I crave an American or at least unlocked LTE version of the Xperia Z1 Compact. The Compact shoehorns all the power of the Z1S into a highly portable package, plus uses a superior IPS LCD screen -- the Z1S' Achilles heel.

The Xperia Z1 Compact is the best Sony phone yet, but Americans can't buy it. CNET UK

Software, music, and movies
While I don't find Sony's custom overlay onto Android too distracting, it is annoying that the company's handset software lacks freshness. It sounds a little demanding but I would like to see the latest version of Android that Google has dropped onto the world. If that means doing away with tricked-out app trays and forked photo galleries then so be it.

Another major pain is Sony's aggressive pimping of its music and movie stores. For instance, on all of Sony's Xperia models, the default music app is the Music Unlimited application. The same is true of video, which is handled by the Video Unlimited app. Hey, I know Sony owns the rights to a vast selection of media, the classic movie "The Apartment" is a perfect example (excellent flick and tough to find). Still that doesn't mean I need to be beaten over the head with that fact each time I want to enjoy personal content. Also, if Sony really wants to hook me into its ecosystem, it'll have to streamline the entire shopping and downloading process. Right now it's a confusing mess with conflicting rules depending on whether you want to enjoy tunes or movies, and if you plan to rent, own, or stream your entertainment.

Keep up the CPU pressure
The Xperia Z1, Z1S, Z1 Compact, and Z1 Ultra fortunately boast the best mobile processor money can buy, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800. As a result all three handsets have the power to churn through apps, menus, and games like butter. This wasn't always the case. The Xperia NXT devices used weak NovaThor chips while the Xperia Z used a Snapdragon S4 Pro, which put it one generation behind the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 when it launched. To even be mentioned in the same breadth as the biggest, baddest from HTC and Samsung, the next Sony superphone better have a processor to match.

Sony Xperia Z
Fast-moving kids have been prone to blur on Sony phones. Brian Bennett/CNET

Camera
Here lies my largest confusion with Sony smartphone performance. Picture taking shouldn't merely be these handsets' wheelhouse, it should be their ace in the hole, their tour de force. By all accounts Sony image sensors and hardware are what drives the iPhone's impressive camera. Sony also makes powerful digital cameras, so it's clear the electronics giant knows a thing or two about photography. My suggestion is to lose those quirky virtual animations and objects and focus (pun intended) on speeding up shot-to-shot time. A big piece of the puzzle would be kicking a few ounces of nitro into the autofocus system's low-light sensitivity.

Xperia Z1S
Adding walking dinos to photos is fun, but I'd rather take pictures faster. Brian Bennett/CNET
About the author

Brian Bennett is senior editor for appliances at CNET and reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from microwave ovens, blenders, ranges and coffee makers to personal weather stations. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he dreams of someday owning the sparkling house of the future.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

HOT ON CNET

See the world with Smithsonian Channel iOS app

Watch free videos and full episodes of original series and documentaries with the new app.