It's been over five months since we first saw Sony's Xperia ion for AT&T, an Android device with LTE and a lot to prove. The Xperia line hasn't had much success here in the US, thanks in no small part to delayed launches and underwhelming hardware. The Xperia ion continues that late-launch trend, but the hardware has specs that indicate that Sony is aiming a little higher than your standard mid-range Android phone, including a 720p display, 12-megapixel camera, and the aforementioned LTE. In a more perfect world. Sony's Xperia ion would complete a trifecta of flagship AT&T Android phones, taking on the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III.
The problem with that storyline is twofold: first, in the long months since Sony announced the Xperia ion, both HTC and Samsung have announced and shippedtheir top-tier Android smartphones, each with significant advantages. Second, the software here is one-generation behind, running Android 2.3.7 instead of Ice Cream Sandwich. The Xperia ion has some very stiff competition — can it measure up?
The best word to describe the Xperia ion is "substantial." While it's certainly a far cry from the gargantuan Samsung Galaxy Note, there's no getting around the fact that a 4.6-inch screen will mean that the phone feels quite large in the hand. Unfortunately (and unlike some other recent large-screened phones), the Xperia ion also feels big in the pocket. It's 0.46 inches at its thickest point, which is right in the center of the phone and runs from top to bottom thanks to its domed design.
The substance also comes from the Xperia ion's weight (4.9 ounces) and overall aesthetic, which is more industrial and aggressive than most any other phone on the market. The soul of the Xperia ion is the black, brushed aluminum, curved rear-panel. What would otherwise be a perfect symmetry around the center line of the camera, flash, speaker, and logo is artfully broken up on the left and right side by long rail to house the buttons and the port cover (under which you'll find the microUSB and HDMI ports).
The top and bottom of the rear of the phone are plastic, the former slides up and off to reveal the SIM card slot and the microSD card slot. The edges of the phone angle slightly inward towards the perfectly flat, glass front. Up top is a centered 3.5mm headset jack, while all of the buttons are on the right side -- power, volume rockers, and a dedicated camera button.
The physical buttons are small but easy to find and press, but the same can't be said of the soft buttons on the front. Unfortunately, the touch targets for the menu, home, back, and search buttons are very small, situated between small horizontal lights and the screen. This makes for very small targets and, what's worse, you need to tap above the smal horizontal lights instead of directly on them. The buttons are also not backlit, so you will need to memorize their positions to hit them in the dark.
The Xperia ion's display is a 4.6-inch, 720p (1280 x 720) LCD panel. As is Sony's wont, it has thrown a couple of branded terms on the display, calling it an "HD Reality Display" and adding in the "Mobile BRAVIA Engine." The former is a catch-all term for the pixel density (342ppi) and the closeness of said pixels to the surface, while the latter refers to the various filters and color management tweaks Sony applies to images and video.
I certainly don't have any major gripes with the screen — in fact it's easily amongst the best phone screens I've seen. It has excellent viewing angles, sharp text, and great color fidelity. My main complaint is that whites are a little too bright, making some images look a little washed-out at even medium-low brightness. The natural fix is to ratchet that brightness down, which does the job but also reveals the curious decision to forego an "auto" setting.
Toggling the Bravia Engine setting on (though it's on by default) does result in nicer looking images and video in the gallery app. Primarily, it appears to crank up the contrast and sharpness — it might seem like a gimmick, but at least its a gimmick that makes media look slightly better to the average user.
So while there's a lot to like and nothing major to complain about with the Xperia ion's screen, it's also (and this will be a theme I'll be returning to over and over) stacked up against competition like the iPhone 4S and the HTC One X. Each of those phones bests the Xperia ion's screen by slim margins, though to be fair it's simply because they're best-of-breed in the smartphone world. That's not a knock against the Xperia ion, but it does reveal that it takes more than a well-executed screen to stand out right now and compared to those phones, the Xperia ion doesn't.
And now we've come to it: the reason you should not, unless it gets updated, purchase the Sony Xperia ion. At launch, it is running Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread instead of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. In June 2012 (and less than a week away from the presumed announcement of the next version of Android), that's simply unacceptable. If Sony's excuse is that it needs to take the time to update its skin for ICS, well, I'm afraid that dog doesn't really hunt. Other Xperia phones outside the US have already received an ICS update and, frankly, Sony's skin here is lightweight enough for it to be properly called a "skin" (as compared to Sense or TouchWiz, which go much deeper into the OS).
Sony has been much more public with its ICS upgrade plans than most other manufacturers, going to far as to post beta builds for other phones. With any luck, that trend will continue and the Xperia ion will receive an upgrade to Android 4.0 in short order (Sony called the Xperia ion "ICS upgradable). However, whatever Sony's best intentions are, the state of Android is still such that you shouldn't buy a phone with the expectation of timely updates to the latest OS. What's even more crazy-making about the situation is that Sony unveiled the Xperia ion in January, nearly six months ago.
Setting that deal-breaker aside, the Xperia ion's software is mostly innocuous, though it does still have a few poorly-thought-out changes. Like other smartphone OEMs, Sony has learned its lesson when it comes to overbearing skins and pared back the customizations to a few aesthetic tweaks and custom software enhancements. The homescreen isn't much different from stock Gingerbread, with some specialized Sony widgets and a pinch-to-toggle overview that floats your widgets on a single screen.
Sony has also included something called "Liveware manager" which allows you to launch apps based on accessory actions like plugging in a charger or a headset. It's a very bare-bones kind of automation, but the ability to automatically launch the clock when plugging in the charger is convenient enough to make me wonder why it isn't a stock feature. There's also the Timescape app and widget, which is a social aggregation tool with a floating, "river of tiles" look that's blessedly siloed into this single app instead of covering the entire skin. Sony has also baked in some basic Facebook integration.
As far as software from AT&T is concerned, it's present in the form of the half-dozen usual apps like "AT&T FamilyMap," "Live TV," "AT&T Navigator," and a couple recent entries into the carrier's ecosystem. The first is "AT&T Ready2Go," which attempts to help you set up your phone over the web browser on your desktop instead of on the phone itself. In my testing I wasn't able to get it to work properly, but that may simply be because the phone wasn't officially out yet. The second app is "Messages," which is something like Google Voice but simply for your AT&T number, combining SMS, voicemail, and your call log into an app that can be mirrored into a website you can visit from your desktop. It's a little strange to see AT&T essentially re-inventing the phone wheel here, but fortunately it (like most of the rest of AT&T's software) can be easily ignored or uninstalled.
Getting into the PIM apps, Sony took a pretty good thing and ruined it simply for the sake of making changes. AT&T inserts itself into Contacts by making Yellow Pages Local Search the first item on your list. Sony customized the stock Android calendar, but to what end I'm unable to fathom. A moderately busy calendar (such as mine) becomes both unreadable and unusable — anytime you have more than four all-day events, the text identifying them disappears and you're left trying to tap the thinnest touch-targets imaginable to see what you're missing.
On the positive side, the Xperia ion is PlayStation Certified, though I wasn't able to test the limited PlayStation library on my review unit. You should also have access to Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services, if you are the rare person who's bought into those ecosystems. Plugging the Xperia ion into a Bravia TV via an HDMI cable will also unlock a TV launcher.
Performance /Battery Life
The Xperia ion is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM, but unlike most other LTE phones in the market it's using an MSM8260 Qualcomm S3 processor instead of the S4. That said, I didn't have much to complain about with the speed of the device, it's no screamer but presented less than the average Gingerbread phone in the way of lag or even poor scrolling performance. The only problems I had shooting bad guys in Shadowgun, for example, were borne of my own gaming deficiencies, not of any problem with performance. The benchmarks bear this out, matching my experience that the Xperia ion performs decently given its last-generation processor but still doesn't compare to the top-tier on the market today.
The Xperia ion also surprised me with its battery life. The non-removable 1,900mAh battery comported itself well-enough to last me through a day of moderate usage, though with heavy LTE usage I was reaching for the charger as the sun went down. That's pretty much par for the course these days, but I expected worse given the processor and power-hungry LTE.
Sony incudes a "Power Saver" app that lets you quickly toggle off radios and data, toggle yet again when you reach 25 percent, and also toggle settings depending on a timer. I'd like to report that none of it will be necessary, but the non-removable battery likely means that some power-management will be in your future if you purchase this phone.
Sony's Xperia ion has a 12-megapixel camera around back and a 720p front-facing camera. If you are still holding on to the quaint idea that "megapixels" are an accurate metric of a camera's quality, let the sample images from the Xperia ion disabuse you of that notion once and for all.
Although I'm far from an expert on camera sensors, it seems fairly clear that Sony has simply tried to pack too much into too small of a space — the 12-megapixel sensor handles itself decently in good light, but in low light there's enough grain to fill a small beach. Even in bright sunlight, there's some noticeable noise, though with a steady hand you can get some good shots.
On the other hand, colors are accurate and vibrant — I never had to bother digging into the menu to adjust the white balance. Close-up shots (again, with good light) also appear to come out much better than landscapes. To be fair, it's probably best to consider the Xperia ion to be a mid-range phone and in that context I find the camera to be acceptable. It's simply an aggravating oversight considering that the Sony Xperia P's 8-megapixel camera is a sterling example of how to do a camera on a mid-range phone.
The camera button is a two-stage button, and it also can launch the camera directly from the lock screen. You can turn on tap-to-focus if you like, as well as adjust metering, exposure, image stabilization, and more. The interace requires tapping the menu button to toggle most options, but once you get your bearings there's a remarkable amount of control available.
The front camera is quite good as far as front-facing cameras go, and the 1080p video is passable if not brilliant. As you can see in the sample footage below, the stabilization is not as forgiving as I apparently need.
It might be a little unfair to compare the Sony Xperia ion to current flagships on AT&T, namely the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III. Both of those phones cost twice as much on-contract as Sony's offering. However, over the life of a two-year contract that $100 difference looks much less enticing. Even so, for the same $99.99 you can get a Nokia Lumia 900 or a Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket, both of which offer LTE and better cameras (albeit with lower screen resolutions and equally dated software).
The Xperia ion feels very much like it could have been a flagship phone had it been released earlier, but instead it is solidly in the mid-range. Mid-range phones are all about compromise, and the Xperia ion is definitely compromised. It's hard to escape the thought that the compromise Sony made here was cutting the price because it couldn't release what might have been a flagship phone in its original "Spring" timeline. Even if that's not the case, it's simply not a good bet to buy a brand-new Android phone with Gingerbread as the base OS. There are enough good parts to the Xperia ion to make me believe that Sony has the ability to seriously compete in the high-end smartphone market — but it certainly hasn't done so here.