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Sony pauses for breath, coughs up two more Xperia mobes

But will need more than Hollywood magic to kickstart Android line

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MWC 2012 Two new Android phones – and one re-announced one – are not the real story from Sony, however hard it tries to make it so. When Sony and Ericsson hooked up there was a pause as the two companies tried to make the strange marriage work. But while the parting of ways seems completely harmonious, there are clearly some things to sort out.

The new phones look nice, but they are not that special. Even the day before Mobile World Congress there are wall-to-wall Android announcements. By Tuesday it will be very “meh”.

The new Sony handsets are the Xperia P and Xperia U, which join the CES-announced Xperia S in the Xperia NXT series. The S goes on sale in Barcelona this week, where it will no doubt be bought by lots of rivals who want to take a look inside, and will spread across Europe in April. Sony Mobile Communications, and its chief marketing officer Steve Walker in particular, are very good at understanding mobile operators' price point strategies and the new phones have been designed to play to this.

The Xperia P has an extra bright 4in screen that uses Sony's “WhiteMagic” display technology. In addition to a red, green and blue sub-pixel for each pixel, there's a hole that either blocks or lets through the backlight. This combined with clever software gives a brighter display - Sony claims twice as bright - and better battery life. LG has a similar technology called IPS.

The Xperia P has an eight-megapixel camera, HDMI and a smart dock which together with a wireless keyboard and mouse does a great impression of a computer.

The Xperia U is the cheaper offering with a five-megapixel camera, 3.5in screen and an audio feature Sony calls xLoud.

All the Xperia phones have a clear band running around the phone, which incorporates some transparent antenna elements; in the Xperia U there is an added lighting feature that makes the band glow a colour which is sympathetic to the picture being displayed, much like a feature on Philips televisions called Ambilight. The U also has an exchangeable plastic cap to give it that extra bit of differentiation. In the old model the P would have been a Cybershot and the U a Walkman.

Both the P and the U have near-field communications - the wireless tech that makes things like pay-by-wave possible with a mobile phone at a suitable till. Since there is very little you can do with NFC at the moment, there is a system called SmartTags, which are little stickers you can buy and program with settings and instructions to fire at your phone when they are placed nearby. Samsung did something similar with its NFC Tocco.

Sony lets you pre-define profiles and assign them to SmartTags – such as selecting ringtone volumes, turning GPS and Bluetooth on or off, and running apps. Perhaps you might like to leave one of these tokens by your bedside so that when you set your mobile down next to your pillow at night, it'll pick up alarm settings for the morning and turn off your ringtone.

It feels a lot like a technology looking for a need but is probably there in case any operator and financial institution gets their stuff together to roll out a meaningful NFC business case.

So we have two quite nice looking, quite ordinary phones with some limitations. Neither has removable memory and, like the Xperia S, they run the Gingerbread build of Android; Ice Cream Sandwich is something that is too far away to be given a date.

Sony knows what it needs is more differentiation - yet it's in the wonderful position of having Sony Music and Sony Pictures on hand to provide the content to make its gear stand out. There are subscription services available and there is also a good collection of brands. The handsets' launch was flanked by PlayStation, Viao and Bravia products, and these will all be attached to the phones. One name missing was Alpha, Sony's rather rather good camera brand.

Bringing the phones into the warm bosom of the Sony family was touted as a benefit - but what wasn’t shouted about was chipsets. All the phones use dual-core processors and the Xperia S runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon, but the P and U are on ST-Ericsson chips and a polished Ice Cream Sandwich port for these is a little further behind.

You can expect that Sony will want all future phones to migrate to ST-Ericsson silicon and it will need to get ahead of the curve to avoid its products looking old when they are launched. With a content play and, most of all, the support of the rest of the Sony family, there's a brighter future for the Japanese electronics titan - but the new offerings aren’t as innovative as the X10 or Xperia Play. The announcements the day before MWC 2013 will be very interesting. ®

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