Hardware

Sony Xperia Ion Review: Punching Above Its Weight Class

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Short Version:

It’s been a long time since Sony released a smartphone in the U.S. market that had a chance of hitting it off with customers — too many of their recent releases have either been meant for niche markets (the Xperia Play 4G) or were expensive and unlocked (nearly all of these things).

That said, they’re looking to give it another go with the new Xperia ion, and it certainly looks like it could go all the way. It’s the company’s first LTE-enabled phone to land in the United States, it packs a much touted camera, and it’ll only set AT&T customers back $99. What’s not to like?

Read on for all the juicy details.

Features:

  • 4.6-inch 720p Reality Display and Mobile Bravia engine
  • Runs Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread
  • 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S3 processor
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 16GB of onboard storage, can take up to an additional 32GB microSD card
  • NFC
  • 12MP rear-facing camera (records video in 1080p) with Exmor R sensor
  • 1.3MP front-facing camera
  • Runs on AT&T’s 4G LTE and HSPA+ networks
  • MSRP: $99 with a two-year contract, available June 24

Pros:

  • Rock-solid camera
  • Impressive 4.6-inch display
  • Aggressive price point

Cons:

  • Why does this thing run Gingerbread?
  • Finicky capacitive Android buttons
  • Peculiar button placement on the Ion’s side puts form ahead of function

Long Version

Hardware & Design:

Looking at the Ion dead-on doesn’t leave you with much of an impression — the Ion’s face is clad in black, and is dominated by the 4.6-inch Reality Display. A terribly small speaker grill is nestled right along the device’s top edge, and a row of small capacitive Android buttons (more on them later) sit just above the Sony logo on the Ion’s chin.

In short, it’s not much of a looker from the front, and it lacks the quirky characteristics (think the color palette of the Xperia U and the nifty transparent sliver of the Xperia P) that helped some of its recent predecessors stand out in a crowd. Lack of style isn’t my only issue with the device’s face; that row of capacitive buttons took quite a bit of getting used to.

I’m not sure if it’s just because I have weird thumbs or what, but it can be a real struggle at times to register a touch on those buttons. They’re rather small (which doesn’t help things at all), and it often takes a more concerted press than one would expect to make things work the way they should. It may seem like a minor thing to get worked up over, but the effect is cumulative — having to touch the same button two or three times to make the device bend to my will for a few days isn’t too taxing, but it could make for some real headaches for people who actually take a chance and buy the thing.

Things get a little better upon turning the device over, which reveals a similarly understated design. Strangely though, I think this is where the Ion actually shines a bit. A handsome dark metal backplate (that’s sadly prone to attracting smudges) takes up most of the Ion’s rear end and is bound on the top and bottom by a pair of removable plastic caps that hide both a microSD and a micro-SIM slot. The only bit of branding back there is the iconic green Sony orb plopped right above the Xperia logo, and I frankly like it that way.

The other thing to note about the Xperia’s back is that it gently curves to fit your hand, something that helps hide its 11.68mm waistline. That curve coupled with that metallic backplate imbues the Ion with a sturdy, comforting feel in spite of the fact that it weighs in at only 4.9 ounces. That said, I take some issue with the way Sony crafted the sides of the device — the edges were designed in such a way that the power, volume, and camera buttons are mounted at an angle. The buttons themselves aren’t any harder to physically press, but their angled placement means they’re not quite where your fingers expect them to be.

This is especially prominent when trying to use the two-stage camera shutter button — my finger naturally gravitates to the highest point on the edge of the device, which often tricks me into applying pressure exactly where the shutter button isn’t. Again, it may seem like a minor thing to get worked up over (and users may get used to it in time even if I didn’t), but it’s annoying to see how Sony’s sense of aesthetics have made it slightly more difficult to use the phone the way I want to.

Software:

Gingerbread, I wish Sony knew how to quit you.

Perhaps I’m a bit jaded — after having used an Ice Cream Sandwich device as my daily driver for the past few months, going back to a lightly-tweaked take on Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread for nearly a week didn’t seem like a tempting proposition. Sony maintains that the device will gets its Ice Cream Sandwich update in due course (the Xperia S just got its own ICS update a few days ago), but really — it’s the middle of 2012 and Ice Cream Sandwich first hit the scene toward the end of last year.

It may just be one of the pitfalls that needs to be dealt with when mid-range devices are concerned, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that a solid handset isn’t quite living up to its potential because of Sony’s decision on this front.

Anyway, I’m not going to get too caught up in pondering the sort of device the Ion might have been, and Sony has done their part to try and freshen up this stale cookie. Longtime readers may know that I’m no great fan of what manufacturers do to the stock Android experience, but Sony thankfully hasn’t gone too crazy with their custom UI — save for a few particularly heinous widgets (Timescape and the large, love-em-or-hate-em Tools widgets in particular) I actually found myself enjoying some of what Sony came up with.

The app launcher in particular seemed nice and clean, with apps being arranged on multiple horizontal scrolling pages a la Ice Cream Sandwich. What made the whole thing even better was the fact that Sony didn’t completely load the device up with bloatware or plugs for their myriad media services — Sony only preloaded a few apps and at least some of them are rather useful.

Sony’s LiveWare manager app for instance is a scaled down version of Tasker, which prompts user-defined apps to spring to life when accessories like headphones or power cables are connected to the Ion. And just like clockwork, Sony’s Timescape social app makes yet another appearance here. The app pulls in tweets, Foursquare check-ins, Facebook status updates, and LinkedIn updates into a vertical stream of social information that’s at the same time visually striking and super smooth to scroll through. Just do yourself a favor and stay away from the fugly widget.

Of course, since AT&T is selling this thing, you can expect the full complement of carrier bloatware apps to round out the package. All the usual suspects are present and accounted for (I’m looking at you especially, Yellow Pages), but to my great relief, tapping a small grid icon in the bottom right corner of the app launcher lets you delete most of them quickly and without prejudice. Kudos to Sony for making that process dead-simple.

Camera:

One of the Ion’s biggest claims to fame is its 12-megapixel rear-facing camera, which makes the device second only to HTC’s Titan II for the title of “beefiest cameraphone” on AT&T’s store shelves. Thankfully, I’m pleased to report that Sony’s claims aren’t just marketing fluff — this is one of the nicer smartphone cameras I’ve used in quite a while.

But first, let’s address some of the mechanical bits. Holding down the two-stage shutter button while the phone is locked lets users jump straight into the camera app while the device is locked, which sounds great except for one thing — by default the camera app is set to snap a picture as soon as someone uses the shutter button to unlock it. That’s right, it just takes a picture as soon as the phone wakes up, which means that you’ll have no clue how well you’ve framed the shot or if the camera focused on the right subject until it’s too late.

Thankfully all that requires is a quick settings tweak, and the rest of the camera experience is quite solid. The process of auto-focusing and actually snapping a photo was awfully quick — just under three seconds to focus, shoot, and return to standby mode. Once inside the camera app proper, users can select from a number of different scene modes (though the default scene recognition mode is smart enough to accurately handle most situations) and shoot panoramas to boot, but there isn’t much in the way of manual controls outside exposure and metering settings.

Of course, all that would mean nothing if the photos didn’t turn out well. Fortunately, colors were bright and vibrant, though perhaps to the point of being slightly over-saturated at times (more on that in a moment). Low-light performance wasn’t too shabby either, but the Ion’s Exmor R sensor isn’t a miracle worker — there was still quite a bit of grain present in shots taken in darker locales. C’est la vie.

The Ion can also record 1080p video at 30fps, and results were generally passable — test recordings generally displayed plenty of detail, and additional features like image stabilization and the ability to light up the LED flash came in quite handy. The process isn’t entirely flawless though, as the camera tends to take a few extra moments getting into focus when you’re ready to begin shooting and the image stabilization can occasionally be hit or miss.

Now, about that over-saturation issue I was talking about — it’s not entirely the camera’s fault. It’s worth noting that the images look extra vivid on the device itself thanks in part to Sony’s use of their Mobile Bravia engine, and that their level of vibrance will vary once you move those photos onto other devices. And speaking of which…

Display:

Since the Ion is the first Sony smartphone I’ve worked with in a while, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from its 4.6-inch, 720p Reality Display. As such, seeing the bright, crisp display come to life for the first time was actually a bit of a surprise — sure, it lacks the deep blacks seen on AMOLED displays but the LCD panel Sony’s using is no slouch (especially since at 342 ppi it beats the Galaxy S III and the iPhone 4S at the pixel density game). The display’s viewing angles are actually quite good, though prepare for the colors to wash out a bit the further you move away from dead center.

The screen’s performance in daylight seemed respectable at best. Since Sony doesn’t include an option to automatically set screen brightness, you’ll have to manage that yourself should you decide to venture into the outside world, and the screen tends to get overwhelmed unless brightness is cranked up full blast.

As I’ve mentioned before, Sony’s Mobile Bravia engine plays a significant role in how images and video appear on that sizable screen. With the Bravia option on (note: it’s on by default) colors were vibrant and vivid to the point of being slightly lurid at times — this was especially apparent in one of my test videos, where the Xperia ion tended to make a stage lit mostly in blue take on a notably purple cast.

It wasn’t necessarily a bad change (I actually think it gave the video some cinematic flair), but not everyone may enjoy the effects engine has. In addition to pumping up colors, the Bravia engine also sharpens the image, leading to the double-edged sword of slightly crisper images and video versus the potential annoyance of seeing more jaggies. Occasionally nuclear colors aside, I think leaving the Bravia engine on is generally a plus; it adds a bit of pop to the viewing experience, and it’s simple enough to shut down if it gets to be too much.

For a closer look at the difference, take a look at this image — the left side is a screenshot of a photo I took with the Bravia Engine off, and the right is a screenshot of same image with the Bravia Engine on (click to enlarge).

Performance:

The Ion’s spec sheet would’ve been considered top-tier just last year, but my how times have changed since then. We’ve since entered the age of the quad-core chipset (even though most of them don’t end up on U.S. soil), but the 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S3 processor nestled inside the Ion’s curved frame still has plenty of game. The device seemed plenty responsive when put to the usual gamut of daily tasks — swiping between menus was buttery smooth, as was pulling down the notification drawer and scrolling through my innumerable contacts. Similarly, I had no trouble at all watching Top Gear reruns on Netflix or building obtuse structures in Minecraft Pocket Edition.

If you want to break things down numerically, the Ion managed to squeeze out an average Quadrant score of 2872, which roundly put to shame my trusty Galaxy Nexus (average: 1812). It’s still a long ways off from HTC’s ostensibly mid-range One S (generally around 4-5000 depending on the circumstances), but the Ion certainly has enough horsepower to be a daily driver for all but the most demanding users.

In terms of network performance, I’m loath to admit that I couldn’t latch onto an LTE signal in my particular corner of New Jersey (a problem that I imagine isn’t unique to me considering AT&T’s LTE network is only live in 41 cities), but I managed to pull down an average of 7.3 Mbps down and 1.3 Mbps up. It doesn’t sound great, but the Ion actually performed slightly ahead of other AT&T devices — namely an iPhone 4S and an unlocked Galaxy Nexus — I tested alongside it.

Though one of the Xperia Ion’s main draws is going to be that nifty camera, Sony is positioning it as more than just a media creator — it’s also a media hub. As you might expect from a company that launched the working group behind it, the Ion is DLNA certified, and it was a snap to get it linked up with my DLNA-compatible LG smart television and media server. From there, I was able to fire up the included Connected Devices app and sling my media onto the big screen. Streaming videos from my media server proved to be a breeze too, and it didn’t take long before Plex was serving up (dorky) content to the Ion.

If you’ve got a micro-HDMI-to-HDMI cable handy, you can also connect the Ion directly to your television at which point something very interesting happens. Once the connection is in place, the Xperia swaps its stock launcher for an upscaled version meant to be displayed on a television, allowing users to fire up apps and pore through media on the phone.

Provided you’ve got an HDMI-CEC (or SIMPLINK, or Viera Link, or whatever) compatible television, you’ll also be able to control the Ion with your television remote. The ability to take any compatible television and effectively turn it into a smart television set certainly has its appeal, and while it’s gimmicky and it’s fun, it’s hardly the kind of thing I’d want to use for any extended period of time.

When it comes to sound, the Ion is actually sort of a mixed bag. Call quality was generally very clear, but even with the volume cranked all the way up, I still had trouble hearing the person on the other end of the line. The same goes for the Ion’s main rear-mounted speaker — for a device that’s so centered around media, you would think that Sony would have bothered to pop a better speaker in the thing. Even at maximum volume (which, again, doesn’t seem that loud) the speaker produces sound with muddy middles and almost non-existent lows. I’ll admit that I can’t be too surprised as it’s relatively rare to get an unabashedly good speaker in a smartphone, but I was a tad disappointed nonetheless.

Battery:

For better or worse (I usually lean toward the latter), Sony has opted to seal the Ion’s 1900 mAh battery under that black metallic plate I’m so fond of. Though the road warriors among you may miss the ability to swap out spare batteries as needed, the Ion does a fine job of chugging along throughout the day.

Since I started using the Ion as my go-to phone earlier this week, I’ve averaged about eight to nine hours of consistent use each day — checking my email, firing off text messages, watching the same clip of a tap dancing Broadway starlet over and and over — you know, my usual routine. If you’re not the sort to check your phone at every possible moment, you can expect to squeeze closer to 13 hours out of the thing before needing to juice up again.

If you’re planning to binge on some video content though, expect that figure to plummet to roughly six hours, and that’s if you’re mighty careful with all the rest of your settings.

Head-To-Head With The HTC One S And iPhone 4S:

Conclusion:

For all of the Ion’s foibles (and there are quite a few), there’s still plenty to like here. The Xperia Ion definitely leans to the more premium end of the mid-range spectrum, and it tries valiantly to punch above its weight with features like its solid camera, media functionality, and great display. Its price tag too makes a pretty compelling statement — there are far worse things you could get for $99.

Ah, but the real question is whether or not it’s worth your money. I was originally going to say that if you’re in the position where you really can’t justify spending an extra $100 on a top-of-the-line smartphone, then the Ion will do in a pinch. Now that I’ve thought about it a bit more, that’s selling the Ion a bit short.

Despite how harsh I may have been with some of my comments, I really do think the Ion is a good phone. The problem here is that like with many mid-range phones, the Ion straddles that very fine line between “good” and “great,” and it doesn’t seem to have quite enough oomph to push it over the edge. Strangely enough, this may well change down the line — with a few minor tweaks and perhaps a helping of Ice Cream Sandwich, the Xperia Ion may eventually grow to become a must-buy, but it’s not quite there yet.

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