Opinion: Is Sony's 4K HDR phone a stroke of genius or a sign of madness?

The Premium puts stunning pictures in your palm - but, says Chris Rowlands, what’s the point?

Smartphones should push the boundaries of technology - of that there’s no doubt.

But should they do it just for the sake of doing it? As in, should Sony really stick 4K HDR in a phone just because it can?

Sure, 4K HDR does look astounding on the Premium's 5.5in LCD - the kind of nice that’ll have fellow commuters reaching out to touch your phablet. But its very existence raises a few questions.

"Who’s it for?" is the first one. The answer? Sony, probably. See, the Japanese manufacturer has lost out in a big way to Apple and Samsung over the last decade and, while its smartphones still sell, its numbers are a long way off its rival flagships.

Its answer is to make incredible, relatively expensive phones that aren't necessarily aimed at the mass market, where the price tags are justified by features that for some people - those who just want a great camera, build and battery life in an affordable package - will be overkill.

Is 4K HDR on the XZ Premium any different?

The future of phone resolutions

Sony’s Z5 Premium was the first phone to squeeze 4K into a phone, in 2015, but the world wasn't ready for it back then. 4K content was almost non-existent at the time, and most people merely shrugged and decided to wait until Samsung or Apple did the same thing a couple of years later.

4K HDR is surely the future for phones, offering both incredibly sharp screen resolutions and a vast contrast range, delivering brighter highlights and deeper, darker blacks. We first saw mobile HDR on the Samsung Galaxy Note 7’s 2K AMOLED display - and boy was it nice.

Double the resolution and it stands to reason that things will look even nicer, still. It might not match the astounding contrast and saturation of a 4K HDR TV, but 4K HDR on a smartphone is still something that’s likely to blow you away - especially compared to phones from just a year or two ago.

The thing is, in my opinion Sony’s doing it with the XZ Premium feels like an exercise in achievement. An “us first”, if you like. Where the Note 7 - while expensive, and then explosive - was a phone many people bought, Sony’s high-end handsets simply don’t have that kind of pull.

If Sony really wants to get people buying its phones in mass numbers again, they'd be better off making either a very good phone at a cheap price point a la OnePlus or innovating in a more mainstream area than 4K HDR.

I'm still excited - here's why

I'm a sucker for new tech, even if it won't necessarily make a big impact in my daily life, and I can't stand being just another face in the crowd when it comes to gadgets.

The Xperia XZ Premium ticks both these boxes: I don't expect to spend all day watching 4K HDR video on my phone, but I'll be damn sure to use it when I can, and I can bet you won't see anywhere near as many of these babies out in public as you will the next iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.

Will you be able to tell the difference between 4K and the more common QHD on such a tiny screen? Debateable. But when it comes to pure tech spec oneupmanship, Sony has definitely ended up Top Trumps here.

Content to wait?

That's because the other question, of course, is what’s the point of 4K HDR on a phone anyway. Is there any content out there to make use of it?

Well, some. Amazon’s Prime streaming service is the first to offer mobile HDR content, while Netflix is almost certainly going to follow suit too. YouTube also has a dedicated 4K HDR app coming soon - and it’ll definitely look good. 

All the same, it feels like Sony’s jumped in before anyone is really ready. The XZ Premium is a smartphone made for the people who bought the first 4K TV and downloaded MacOS before any fix updates - rather than wait for a more useable, more sensible and more reasonable solution to come along.

Should you be excited about 4K HDR on your mobile? Absolutely. Should you be excited about 4K HDR on the XZ Premium? Yes, but only if you're not more excited about the LG G6's amazing bezel-less screen, or the Huawei P10's clever camera zoom, or whatever Samsung does with the Galaxy S8. 

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned battery life.