Sony’s water-resistant Xperia ZR shows why now is a great time for Android hardware

Xperia ZR water

Has there ever been a better time to choose among the newest Android handsets? I think not. Yes, there have been several standouts from different manufacturers over the past few years, but the stars are aligning — or maybe it’s just the competition heating up — to raise the bar for many of the major Android phone makers.

Take the new Sony Xperia ZR, for example, which is a smaller version of the company’s flagship Xperia Z. This 4.6-inch 720p device is not only safe from accidental drops in water, but it can be used to capture full HD video while submerged. Don’t get all Jacques Cousteau with it though: The Xperia ZR is only rated for depths of 1.5 meters for up to 30 minutes. Still, it’s an amazing design feature and shows just how far smartphone hardware is maturing in general.

The current market isn’t just about features though. Nearly every flagship phone released this year to date shares most, if not all of the same hardware components. With 1080p displays, Qualcomm Snapdragon S600 processors, and the latest wireless technologies supported, purchasing choices could be influenced more by phone design. Sure, there are also Android skins and services to consider, but I can’t think of any time in history when nearly every flagship phone had such smart design.

HTC OneTake the HTC One, for example. With it’s curved metal body and super build quality, it’s a sure standout from the many plastic phones on the market. My colleague, Om Malik — an iPhone user that never met an Android phone he liked — actually for the first time considered buying Android phone after seeing the One. (Don’t worry Apple fans, Om hasn’t defected: He still doesn’t own an Android!).

Need more examples? Sony’s Xperia Z — the big brother of the new ZR — is stunning as well with a 5-inch full HD screen and no hardware buttons on the front face. The side-mounted power button is a design stand-out as is the 7.9 millimeter thinness. It too impressed Om.

Samsung’s new Galaxy S 4 is arguably a hardware let-down for many, yet it still impresses me that the company could cram a larger, high-resolution panel in a phone that looks like the Galaxy S 3, but is essentially a smaller device. LG’s Optimus G Pro shares similar features and components with all of the above yet feels and looks like a much-improved Galaxy Note 2. All of these are light-years better than my original ugly duckling — the Nexus One — when it comes to design.

I’m not suggesting that any of these phones is “best” or that you should opt for a flagship device over a lower-priced smartphone. Instead, my point is this: With so few top-tier hardware component suppliers, most high-end handsets share a similar feature-set. There may be subtle differences — which has a better camera sensor or maybe support for that new 802.11ac Wi-Fi — but most of these phones offer similar experiences.

Up to this point, hardware makers put more effort to differentiate with Android skins, services or other software functions. These days, design is becoming more prominent. For consumers looking for their next flagship Android phone, that’s a great problem to have.

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