Bring it on Tony Stark, we’re inching closer to touchscreen surfaces, one intriguing prototype at a time. The Sony Xperia Touch is the first one to come to market in South Africa, and — more importantly — the first to arrive on our desks for testing. The Xperia Touch generated plenty of hype when it was teased a few years back, and the eventual commercial version has some nifty features… but it’s not very practical, bright or cheap. More on that later.
The Xperia Touch is unlike any Android device you’ve ever seen, and disguises itself as a smart speaker which also happens to project an Android Nougat (7.1) interface onto desktops or walls. By monitoring your finger movements with an infrared sensor, it effectively turns your tabletop or wall into a virtual, 10-point multitouch display. Alternatively, place it at the foot of a wall and the interface can be scaled up to a massive 80in… on paper at least.
We commend Sony for attempting something so novel, but the Touch feels very much like first-generation tech, which also means it costs too much and will punish early adopters with its outdated operating system, snag-ridden interface and frustrating user experience.
Design: The not-so-portable princess
The Xperia Touch doesn’t look like a standard projector, or a standard smart speaker for that matter. Most of its body is wrapped in a speaker grille, with a sleek glass front panel that houses the projector and sensors. The back is made of grippy, rubberised plastic and has a microSD card slot. A plastic panel at the bottom can be removed to give you easier access to the USB-C port used to power it. The cable is only about a metre log, which is frustrating as you can’t use any USB-C with it, you need one with the requisite power throughput.
Trust Sony to make a beautiful piece of hardware that’ll impress anyone at first sight, though. But, contrary to the bold claims of the accompanying marketing material, the Touch isn’t as portable as Sony suggests, or as we’d like it to be. Perhaps our review unit is old and the battery is knackered, but we could only get it to last a few minutes, even with a full charge. So, you’re going to need a power point. Then there’s the scale of the thing. It’ll fit in a backpack, sure, but a jacket pocket or laptop bag is out of the question. It is, however, small enough to carry from room to room, so if it’s gone missing, its probably in the children’s bedroom hooked up to the PS4 for ceiling games.
Performance: Interacting through time and space
Setting up the Xperia Touch is the same as any Android tablet, except your primary point of interaction is through the infrared-sensor driven, 10-point multitouch interface, and you’re going to need a flat, smooth surface. The Touch doesn’t work well when you try it on textured surfaces. The interface is incredibly cool to use — you pretty quickly forget you’re just running your finger across a table top and not a big screen. It’s also surprisingly accurate — which it would have to if you want to use it as a virtual piano. We can’t imagine with the lack of physical feedback many musicians will be ditching their keyboards for an Xperia Touch any time soon, but a virtual piano is a great way to show off what the device is capable of, and it’s great for single-touch games.
Move the Xperia Touch and after a few seconds the automatic keystone correction kicks in. Place it with the black strip with the power and volume buttons on it pointing up at the ceiling to project down onto a tabletop, or tip it on its back with the black bar facing you to project against a wall. Frustratingly, we couldn’t get the touch interface to work when projecting onto a wall, not even if we put the Touch flush with the wall (and sacrificed image size in the process, but recreated the tabletop arrangement).
In terms of specs, the Touch is on par with most mid-range Android phones and tablets. You can easily play games like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds without any lag. It was even able to run PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on low graphics settings, though the controls aren’t very responsive so it’s not recommended unless you want to break a table, or pull your hair out.
The touch also offers a full range of Xperia-flavoured Android features. It supports both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, has a micro-HDMI output, built-in stereo speakers and even a 13-megapixel camera. The biggest problem, though, is it’s running Android 7.1, with no sign of an incoming update. That makes for a weird experience — the hardware looks modern, but using it makes it feel thoroughly antiquated. The idea is great, considering you can take it to work for an impromptu presentation, or set it up as a kitchen assistant without having to worry about getting mucky fingers on the ‘touchscreen’.
Hardware: A pretty dim sight
The motion-detection hardware is nowhere near as reliable or responsive as a real touchscreen, especially in wall-projection mode (where it almost never works) and on surfaces that aren’t smooth to touch or white enough to make out the visuals clearly. That makes the Xperia Touch pretty useless for casual use, and extremely maddening for gaming.
Try out the claimed 80in projection and not only can you not use the touch interface, but resolution and brightness get poor very fast. You’re going to need to use the Touch in a very dim room for it to be of any use. And that’s unacceptable when you’re paying so much more than you would for a more compact, albeit touch-interface-less, projector.
Smart speaker: Or not-so-smart?
As a smart speaker, you can issue voice commands for the Xperia Touch to access your calendar, set alarms, launch apps, and tell you the weather. It’s always listening, so you can just say, “Hi Xperia,” as the trigger word, then issue a command.
With just a single pinhole mic, however, it often couldn’t pick up voices with background noise, and doesn’t work well when yelling from the room next door. On the plus side, you can replace Sony’s default Voice Control with Google Assistant. While it won’t fix the microphone, it does give you more voice functionality.
The audio quality is decent, has good depth, and doesn’t sound tinny. It won’t come near a dedicated smart speaker or hi-fi system, though. If you’re using it to watch YouTube or Netflix, you might want to connect it to a louder Bluetooth speaker. In short, it’s a middling speaker, and a poor smart speaker. Google Assistant, Alexa and even Siri don’t have much to worry about here.
Sony Xperia Touch Verdict
Before buying the Xperia Touch, ask yourself these questions: Do you have a suitable expanse of white surface? Is it comfortable to tap and swipe on? Is it resistant to fingerprints? Does it offer a suitable mounting-point for a projector? Does any of that matter to you? The more you think about it, the more problems will likely become apparent.
It’s really a noble attempt from Sony at creating the ultimate home multimedia device. It can serve as a 23-inch tablet on any smooth, light surface in your house, is a passable speaker (with some low-level smarts), and a tolerable 80in wall projector… assuming you have something to hold it in exactly the right place and decent curtains.
The real problem is that the Touch doesn’t do anything in its feature set well enough to justify its massive R24,000 price. An Android tablet will give you a sharper display and more responsive touch controls, and you can get a decent 4K TV in that price range if you’re looking for on-the-wall entertainment, or you can buy a smart speaker and a projector and use the change for a carry bag for them.
When Sony first unveiled the Xperia Touch is was a bold and exciting concept… but, sadly, today’s commercial version doesn’t appear to have added or refined anything we saw in the prototype. It’s still a great idea, it just needs to be far better executed.