Monday 2 October 2023

The Dynamic Draw of Sony

The Sony Xperia phones are expensive, but packed full of features that someone really into photography, video or audio creation might be able to justify the outlay for - making good use of them. This is a personal piece for me, dissatisfied with most phones which come through my hands for various reasons, pondering on why I so often return to Sony.

The truth is that I gave up photography in the 1990's. Back in the film SLR days it was my primary hobby and I created some wonderful art (if I say so myself) alongside the people in my various groups. I think that things shifted for me with the growth of the internet, mobile phones, cameras switching to digital (which I never really understood like I did film), tablets, smart devices and computers.

I started to spend a great deal of the time that I used to out with my cameras (very knowledgeable about them, the latest models and innovations - in a way that I like to think I probably do so now about computing gear), in front of my PC, playing with phones and other tech gear - as I drifted further and further away from creating photos myself.

We have made the point on The Phones Show Chat Podcast that 'there is nothing left to photograph' and 'someone will have already done that' - so much so that instead of taking a photo oneself, one can just Google one up, quite possibly much better than anything one could have taken anyway. Head for the Eiffel Tower. Can you really take a photo that's not been taken 1,000+ times before?

Of course, this is not strictly true when it comes to works of art and specific 'people' shots that nobody will have taken before, but you get the point. And further musings reflect the futility of doing this anyway... Who is it for? Who is going to appreciate it? How long will anyone be interested, especially in casual family shots?

A long way round, but I think I got back to the point that all the imaging-related functions on the Xperia phones is a bit wasted on me - unlikely as I am anytime soon to start creating works of art again. And even if I did, without manual control over aperture settings, for me, it's not 'proper' photography anyway - however fancy the phone's software claims to be with AI. But for some, that's the challenge - learning how to use these tools without the full set of functions that 'traditional' photography would have afforded the user and an understanding of light.

So, for me, that's the Photography Pro, Cinema Pro, Videography Pro apps rendered defunct! How about Music Pro, then? You create podcasts, if nothing else, you cry! Well, yes I do and at first I thought this would at least give me a good 'recording' backup function, but then discovered that each recording is capped at 10 minutes in Music Pro, which rendered this also defunct, for me. I guess this is aimed at musicians who are creating 'snippets' at 'jam' sessions, not someone creating a 90-minute podcast or wanting to record a local band down at the pub.

This all sounds very negative towards what Sony have created here. I do wonder how many 'professional' (or even amateur) photographers, cinematographers or musicians are going to use this gear over the (no doubt) professionally-based gear they likely already have and will make for a better job. So who is for, then? TikTok, YouTube/Shorts creators/influencers? People starting out before they can afford 'pro' gear? (Well, don't forget that this gear ain't cheap, either!) Phone reviewers, on test?! Kids (wealthy ones) in bedrooms testing out for the future? Someone who knows how Sony Alpha cameras work, maybe, so 'might as well' have a phone in their pocket that works in a similar way, if they're going to have a phone.

Where on earth are you going with this? I hear you cry again, tapping your foot! Fair enough. And the point of my piece here is to justify to myself, taking away all those fancy so-called 'pro' apps, having bought in last-year's Xperia second-hand at a good price, if there's still enough left to favour the phone (underused in the above ways as it might be) over 1,001 other options out there. What does it bring to the table for me, the rounded-package, that I can't get elsewhere - at least, not in the same device? That's where I'm going!

Let's start with the side-mounted, capacitive fingerprint scanner - that works first time, every time. It's the perfect place for it, particularly, as with Sony, where there's no Face Unlock on offer. This is a feature that had been dwindling away (certainly in anything near flagship models from any OEM) before seeing a resurgence, but only then with mid-tier phones and cheaper, generally. Second best to this is the Samsung Ultrasonic (though your mileage may vary) with optical bringing up the rear, it's generally accepted. Getting better over time, I'll admit, but Sony sticking with the old tried-and-tested is a great feature.

The Xperia 5-series is also thin, light and narrow, which makes it perfect for one-handed use. Some may say that it's too tall, but the argument only really survives on the 5-series when compared to 'most' phones out there (which have bigger screens anyway). When considered in isolation, it only 'feels' tall in relation to itself and its width. It's only a tad taller than the dinky Samsung Galaxy S23 - and much, much less tall than pretty much any 6.7" phone out there! Some may say that it's too narrow to type on the keyboard efficiently. Well, yes, OK - but as it's Android you have access to 101 other keyboards, many innovative to assist with typing - or, if the user still thinks of it as 'tall' then make gBoard taller and use more of the screen going up the way!

The Xperia devices are beautifully made, nobody can deny. Take off the TPU case and look at the metal, the glass - the class! The finest materials which yes, one could argue is more prone to being drop-damaged, but in a safe environment at least I can look, feel and enjoy the object of delight/desire! Don't forget that we have Gorilla Glass Victus (on more recent models) and IP6/8 which at least, for those going naked, lends a little more peace of mind!

The screen is next - and what a cracker it is. Beautifully bright (well, unless you engage Adaptive Brightness!) and colourful with rich hues and deep blacks. I always think that the LG pOLED screens are probably my favourite, but this is just as good and certainly super-bright with fast refresh rates now (for those who can tell). It is tall for a reason of course and even for those not watching 21:9 cinema releases on the screen, there's no doubt that you get more packed in. At the top of the screen, you also get (possibly the last generation) LED Notification light. You know, that pin-prick one - which is incredibly bright, changes colour to suit alert and is visible across the room, catching the eye. (What a shame that it appears to have disappeared on the 5th generation Xperia phones.)

The chipsets on the Xperia devices are always bang up-to-date - the latest as I write being the SnapDragon 8 Gen 2, providing amazing speed across the UI and great battery efficiencies. Sony roll out a new version of the 1, 5 and 10 series devices every year and it seems that they're determined to ensure that with each iteration, they keep up with the latest processors for each.

The battery ticks another box for me and another reason to meander back to Sony. I have used mainly 10 and 5-series Xperia phones across recent years, so can't speak for the 1-series with its higher resolution display, but the 10 and 5 have been very, very battery efficient. All day and well into the second, no problem at all. In fact with the 10 Mk.V users can expect up to 3 days with moderate use.

The 5 and 1 series also now have Qi Charging (a first for the 5-series) and that makes for a great, steady, overnight charge most days without having to plug in (there's also reverse Qi charging). If you do have to plug in, you get 30W wired charging, which is perfectly good for my use, grabs me 50% from flat in about half an hour and a full charge in just over an hour. No, of course, it's not anything like the 125W charging of the Motorola Edge 30 Ultra, but who knows (for regular use) what damage is being done by employing such extremes. At time of writing, I think the latest/greatest is actually 240W from one of the Chinese-based brands!

I'm not sure any more that having a microSD Card slot makes it to my shortlist of useful features any longer. With the upscaling of amazing connectivity speeds and reliability, even in backwaters like mine in the UK, I'm beginning to think that actually, I might rather have faster read/writes built-into 256GB of storage than 128GB and a slot for a card. But I change my mind when I plug in my 1TB card and realise that I then have 1,128GB at my disposal for carrying as much media with me as I could possibly use - even on the longest of trips! So perhaps it does make the list after all!

This brings me to the way in which I often use such amounts of storage - the 5 and 1 series Xperia phones support HDMI-Out via USB-C 3+, which means that I can cable up to a telly (or any monitor with an HDMI port) and get my media out to a bigger screen. I used to do this a lot more before connectivity was so good/reliable, but still do sometimes and it remains a great feature to have, rather than to not!

A double-edged sword here is Sony's commitment to software updates. They, like Motorola (until recently) just don't say how long they will support their releases for Android OS updates or Google Security patches. Users can only go by what they have done before and what they appear to be currently doing. Various commentators claim to have inside information on the alleged promise, but there's no official word from Sony that I've ever seen. Recent confidence (at least for the 1 and 5 series) seems to be 2/3 OS and maybe 3/4 years of Security updates. Sony need to be more specific about this, particularly when charging so much for the hardware.

The other side, however, is that Sony do, generally, push out updates fairly regularly and don't fall behind too much like many others. I don't remember ever seeing a 'red flag' (remember those from the Android Settings pages?) on an Xperia, which means that they're never 3 months behind Google. In fact, the usual pattern for OS updates is 3 months after Google and security, either before month-end or during the following month at worst. So, another partial box-tick for me!

I've talked about cameras and photography, above, but a couple of points here still to make. The best one is the continued supply of a physical shutter button (on the 1 and 5 series) on the side of the device, just where the finger lands - as if it were a 'proper' camera. Now I know that some people are not so sold on this, feeling that pressing down on the button is more likely to invoke camera-shake than touching the screen, but I counter-claim, suggesting that anyone coming from a similar two-stage shutter release on a 'proper' camera will be alert to this and not let it happen. The advantages clearly outweigh the risks here for me.

Furthermore, in most camera modes, the user gets a green focus-confirmation readout, again, just like a 'proper' camera. This is incredibly rare (and maybe even unique) with built-in camera apps from OEMs. I have reviewed a lot of phones over recent years and I don't remember anyone else doing this, certainly recently. And it's a camera-killer-feature for me. Why doesn't everyone do it?! I guess because they are more interested in AI features and automated-everything. Which brings me to one missing feature (in the 4th generation units). Some sort of point-and-shoot algorithmic-based, post-shot processing mode for quick and easy snapshots (Pixel style) which many people often want to take - though maybe not the 'pro' users that Sony are after here. Anyway, I meandered there into the negative rather than the box-ticking! The good thing is that I understand this has been fixed and supplied (at least) on the 1-series 5th generation (in some modes).

The Always On Display not only stays on, if that's what you want, but it displays AlbumArt of the playing music - and looks great on the screen for quick reference etc. That's the great news. The not-so-great news is that apparently it's been taken away from the 5th Generation 1 and 5 series phones. What a shame. I think they're messing with the 'ambient' arrangements to keep up with what Google are doing with the forthcoming Android 14 and, my best guess, is that this won't comply with what they do. Samsung have, ironically, just added this feature, but via the 'back door' of GoodLock, not the main UI. But I guess if they can do it, so could Sony (continue to). Anyway, the AoD has a choice of clocks and seems to remain brighter in use than many others. Again, Samsung lead the way in this respect, knocking spots off the whole competition.

The flavour of Android here is very clean. It sits there with some others who lean towards AOSP/AndroidOne implementation with a limited 'skin' over what Google offer, adding some useful apps/services but not blathered in them like some other OEMs do (looking more like an attempt to create a walled-garden environment of their own). Yes, you can miss out on some rich features (like the aforementioned GoodLock stuff) but generally, that's a ticked-box for me. You know where you are. You know where to find stuff. You know how stuff works. Without having to go to night-school for classes! (See my recent Is Life Too Complicated Already? Blog Post.)

Lastly, I come to the best part, which is the sound the device creates! So not audio-creation, as above, but the No.1 feature I think that keeps me coming back. The front-firing, proper stereo speakers which sound great on the 5 Mk.IV and (according to Steve Litchfield) even better on the latest 1-series. (The 10-series lags behind here, sadly.) But yes, the speakers may not produce the loudest sound of any phone out there, but you get a certain Sony quality that's hard to define. It just sounds great! There's the full suite of Dolby Atmos for those who want to adjust it further, but as-is, is also just fine. I think I prefer the phone's sound (overall) to anything else out there (that I have tried).

This is also supported by (what is for now) Sony's unique Dynamic Vibration. It makes the phone vibrate (at different user-adjustable levels) to the various frequencies of sounds coming from your media, music, video or gaming. And it has to be experienced for anyone to realise how great it is - how immersive it makes the viewing/listening/gaming experience. We've spoken about it so much and get the impression that outside of Phones Show Chat Towers others are not so bowled over by it, but we're sold on it, hook, line and sinker. Try it if you can. Most people who 'shrug' over it tend to be those who have not! (I said 'for now' there because there is evidence that Google could bake in some sort of DV to Android sometime in the future, so watch that space.)

The other part of the audio is simply being a part of the Sony 'system'. For example, I have a pair of Sony XM4 headphones which work beautifully with the phone in every way, via their app and auto-hookup, in liaison with the Google Assistant. It's joined-up thinking and execution. Similarly with some Sony Bluetooth speakers I have - it just all works (in an Apple kinda way). There's all the LDAC Sony goodness in the mix, more tools and toys to play with regarding 360 Reality Audio and hooking up with various services with that content, DSEE, Upmixing/scaling to make crap audio sound better and a bunch of other stuff - even before you get anywhere near the aforementioned Dolby! So yes, feeling like one is a part of the Sony 'thing' is all-embracing, for me.

I almost forgot, there's a 3.5mm audio-out socket! How could I?! Yes, use an old-fashioned cable to connect and get the benefits of the wonderful 24-bit sound output to other devices (speakers as well as headphones) in the traditional way. Don't get me wrong, Bluetooth these days sounds fabulous and you can't beat being able to walk around, cable-free and still listen, without a snag between your head and pocket - but it's great to have the choice. An oasis amongst the near-100% of other flagship phones that retains this function.

A meandering bunch of thoughts this may have been, but hopefully you've hung on in there and have been able to get a flavour of what I've been bangin' on about! The point for me is about the reasons why I keep coming back to my dinky Sony. It's about size, build quality, the fingerprint scanner, the physical shutter-release button, the screen, the chipset, battery with Qi, microSD, LED Notification Light, the HDMI support, the green focus-confirmation light, Always on Display, clean version of Android, feeling like I'm part of the Sony setup, the music output, speakers, sound and the jewel in the crown - the Dynamic Vibration. Try it!

This is why I keep coming back!

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