Sony Xperia Ion Review: Punching Above Its Weight Class | TechCrunch

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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.

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:

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:

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