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Xperia ray: A design story

When a device manufacturer takes you to a faraway land just so you can meet the designers, engineers and marketeers who are behind their products, you know that they really want to make an impression. And that’s exactly what Sony Ericsson did.

We were flown to Japan recently to get a deeper understanding of the product story behind the Sony Ericsson Xperia ray. Sony Ericsson organised for us to meet up with the people who were directly involved in designing the Xperia ray and to learn from them the reason why the product was created and the inspiration behind the design of the device.

Not just a smaller Xperia arc
When the Xperia ray made its debut in Singapore in June this year, we concluded that the device was simply a smaller version of Sony Ericsson’s flagship device, the Xperia arc. That in itself is not a bad thing. The Xperia arc remains one of the most stylish Android smartphones in the market. Yes, the single-core processed is a little dated for a flagship device but the arc is as accomplished as any other top-end Android in the market. It is still a good device.

Back to the Xperia ray, when we first laid our hands on the device, we surmised that it was a smaller arc but what we didn’t understand was why Sony Ericsson chose to go smaller when all other manufacturers were going ever bigger.

What did Sony Ericsson hope to achieve in designing a smaller smartphone? Why did it decide to go against the grain? What is the story behind the Xperia ray?

It turns out, the Xperia ray was designed for a purpose and it is not to be just a smaller Xperia arc. Granted, the hardware specs are identical. Just like in the Xperia arc, you get a 1GHz processor with 512MB of RAM and 1GB of on-board storage. The 8.1MP camera sensor is the same unit that is used in the arc and just like the arc, the Xperia ray comes equipped with Sony’s Exmor R technology to offer enhanced low-light photo taking performance.

In terms of display, the Xperia ray is equipped with the same Mobile Bravia Engine enhanced, zero-air gap Reality Display as the Xperia arc. Even the screen resolution – at 854×480 pixels – is identical. Though with a smaller 3.3-inch screen (to the Xperia arc’s 4.2-inch screen), the Xperia ray has a higher pixel density (about 297ppi) and hence produces sharper images.

A major challenge in creating the Xperia ray lies in packing all this hardware into such a small frame. The Xperia ray is probably one of the smallest smartphones with such a specification. Specifically, the Xperia ray represents a 31% reduction in volume compared to the Xperia arc and packaging all that tech into the body of the Xperia ray represents a significant engineering challenge.

Because it is not possible to miniaturise most of the parts carried over from the Xperia arc to the Xperia ray, Sony Ericsson engineers had to look at other areas where they could save on size. Not a single component on the device was overlooked. Miniaturisation is such a big part of the Xperia ray that even the screws used are extra small. If you’re counting, a typical smartphone uses M1.4 screws, in the Xperia ray, the engineers had to use the really tiny M0.8 screws – similar to the ones used in wrist watches. By our count, these screws that hold the Xperia ray together are probably the smallest fasteners ever used in a smartphone.

Engineering challenges aside, why the need to go smaller?

Size, the new differentiator
The Android device ecosystem is a thriving one with multiple manufacturers making a variety of Android devices. But it would seem that this variety is just an illusion, to an extent. As much as there is a selection of Android devices out there, everything – fundamentally – looks the same and while going big is definitely the prevalent trend when it comes to smartphones that doesn’t mean that everyone wants a bigger smartphone. This is where Sony Ericsson sets the Xperia ray apart, size is the new differentiator.

The Xperia ray is small for a reason – not all Android users are alike. While some like the big screen real estate for multimedia consumption, there are others who would like their device to be a practical communicator, one that they can use comfortably with just one hand.

At the same time, these users are not willing to compromise on features, style and quality. They want a smartphone to look and feel just as good as it functions. This is who the sleek, stylish and diminutive Xperia ray is designed to appeal to and judging by the reaction we’ve gotten from those who we’ve shown the ray to, it appears that Sony Ericsson has discovered a potentially large untapped market here.

A premium user experience centred on a human-centric design
With the market is inundated with Android smartphones that are continuously increasing in screen size, it is easy to assume that devices with smaller screens are reserved for the cheaper entry level segment of the market.

With the Xperia ray however, this is not the case. The design brief for the device is simple, Sony Ericsson wanted to create a smartphone that is all premium and fits right into the palm of your hand.
The Xperia ray features a premium design with a 9.4mm slim (the same thickness as the iPhone 4) parallelogram body, premium metal frame accent and a clear deep black glass that dominates the front of the device.

Its zero-gap 3.3-inch Mobile Bravia Engine enhanced Reality Display is 25% brighter and a considerable amount sharper than the Xperia arc’s. Its 8.1MP camera with Exmor R is one of the best in the market at the moment and its 1Ghz processor, despite being a single-core unit, delivers a snappy and responsive user experience.

Key to the Xperia ray’s design brief is packaging all these features and performance into a form-factor that is extremely comfortable and practical to use with just one hand, and they’ve done this quite remarkably.

To use the Xperia ray with just one hand is refreshing and immediately intuitive. At the same time, the device has an elite upmarket feel to it. The Xperia ray has tremendous presence and you feel stylish just holding it. It makes you feel good. Certainly, in this instance being small is a very good thing indeed. The Xperia ray exudes quality and class that most other Android smartphones cannot deliver. Comparing the Xperia ray against more expensive dual-core Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy S II, we dare say that the ray feels more premium and well-built. Even next to the all-glass iPhone 4, the ray generates more interest and attraction, this despite being smaller than both.

Sony Ericsson achieves this high level of sophistication with the Xperia ray through great attention to detail. Every single aspect of the device is designed to serve a purpose. The materials used in the Xperia ray were all carefully chosen to ensure that it delivers a high degree of tactile pleasure to the user. The material textures, colours and geometric design of the body itself – derived from the shape of parallelogram – all combine to exude dynamism and sophistication.

At the end of the day
Despite its recycled underpinning s, the Xperia ray is a refreshing approach towards smartphone design philosophy. Like a thoroughbred Italian sports car, the Xperia ray is a beautifully designed instrument that performs every bit as well as it looks.

We’ve been using the Xperia ray for some time now and there is not much wrong we can find with it. On occasion, the small screen can be a challenge and Sony Ericsson’s overly simplified UX skin is not as sophisticated or deeply integrated as that of HTC’s Sense or Samsung’s TouchWhiz but it does the job. And despite the rather 1,500mAh battery, the Xperia ray does sometime require trickle charging to keep it running all day long. And we’ll be honest, the small screen and single-core processor will turn some people off but in no way do these points disadvantage the Xperia ray.

At the end of the day, the Xperia ray shines through. From the bright, vibrant screen, to the highly detailed camera, speedy performance and exceptional call quality (one of the best we’ve experienced from a dual-mic phone), everything that we liked about the Xperia arc is perfectly emulated in the Xperia ray. Combine this with an enticingly attractive price point and Sony Ericsson has another winner in the bag.