Playing it smart: the Sony Xperia Ion review A 12MP camera and great battery life are among the $99 phone’s strong points.
After Sony bought out the mobile portion of its longtime Sony-Ericsson partnership, the company decided to join the smartphone war in earnest. If we don’t count the niche Xperia Play, Sony is dreadfully late to the party, especially for a company that seeks to make as many of the screens a human being looks at the through the day as humanly possible.
While some aspects of the phone seem to express disdain for the need to remain au courant (releasing the handset with Android 2.3 Gingerbread rather than the latest Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, for instance), this is a solid entry at a mid-level $99 price point. Sony had prided itself in the past on occupying the high-end range of every product segment. But being new as it is to this space, it seems like it was a smarter choice for Sony to get its feet wet instead of trying to leap ahead to compete with the big names like Apple, Samsung, and HTC.
The XP has a curved, brushed metal back with angled sides. A trapdoor on the left side hides a microUSB port and microSD slot, and a small section of the back about the camera slides off for access to the SIM. Since it’s a Gingerbread phone, at least for now, there are four soft keys along the bottom of the screen: menu, home, back and search, from left to right. The icons are screened on underneath the glass, and small dash-shaped LEDs illuminate underneath them when they’re activated. The hardware buttons (sleep, volume rocker, and camera) are all on the right-hand side.
As for holding it, the body of the phone feels like it sits right on the edge of a comfortable width (2.7 inches). I don’t hold the phone in such a way that the curvature of the back came into play, so that was a non-starter; the angled sides were comfortable to hold, though.
Another interesting body-design grace note: when the Xperia Ion is resting face-up on the table, the only points touching are the bottom edge and the metal ring the encircles the camera. This may be a measure to both protect the camera lens as well as preserve the brushed metal back, which is susceptible to scratches.
The way the soft buttons respond to human touch is strange, unlike any Android phone I’ve ever used–that is, they seem unresponsive. When I first used the phone at CES, I guessed in my hands-on that I was just hitting them on the wrong spot, and should have been aiming for the lights, not the icons. As I used the phone more I found the problem wasn’t where I was tapping, but how. The Xperia Ion needs, not taps, but real presses, where your finger gets a good square centimeter of contact for maybe a quarter of a second.
This seems like an picky distinction, but it really did have an effect on my experience–I would tap, tap, tap, still nothing, tap the light, tap the icon, tap the light, and then finally remember to press, and the phone would do as I commanded. Being that I’ve never experienced this before, I assume it’s a software tweak from Sony, perhaps to mitigate the effect of accidental brushes against the buttons. But again in my experience, that’s never been an issue, so it’s solving a problem that doesn’t need solving. At best, this will take a practiced user of any other smartphone a bit of time to get used to.
Screen, camera, sound
The Xperia Ion has a 4.55-inch 1280×720 display, and it’s one of the better features of the phone. Everything, including text, looks very sharp. Color-wise, there’s a warm cast to it below 75 percent brightness or so, and colors tend to look brighter than on other screens.
One odd omission for the Xperia Ion: there’s no automatic brightness setting for the screen. There appears to be some kind of sensor under the glass next to the AT&T logo, but if it’s an ambient light sensor, Sony simply chose not to make use of it. Sony had not yet provided comment on this matter at the time of publication.
One of Sony’s big selling points for the Xperia Ion is its 12-megapixel camera. The company makes particular note of the fact that the phone can go from sleep to photo-ready in 1.5 seconds, and has a shot-to-shot time of less than one second. As with general performance, this is of note for this phone’s price bracket, but there are a handful of phones that are quicker, including the Galaxy Nexus and now Galaxy S III.
In fact, the 1.5-second photo-ready feature is too smart for its own good: the phone lets users hold down the hardware camera button, and once that second or so has elapsed the camera app pops up on the phone. Basically, you may find yourself saying: “Hmm, all 16GB of storage on my Xperia Ion is full. What happened? Oh look, four thousand pictures of my pocket.” There doesn’t appear to be a way to turn this relationship with the button off, and it remains on even when we set a security passcode (in this case, the rest of the phone’s features are inaccessible).
The quality of the camera is quite impressive, especially in up-close shots; the picture of flowers of above really impressed us. The flash seems to trigger a bit too easily in low light scenarios, though it’s less bright than most of the LED flashes we see on smartphones. Indoor shots were a little grainy, and as shown by the photo of the plant waving a bit in the breeze of a fan, the shutter is none too quick.
Phone calls sound adequate on the phone, nothing notable there; likewise, my conversation partners said I sounded like I was on a cell phone, but it wasn’t notably bad. The speaker on the back of the phone, though is terrible. Tragically bad, even at the highest volumes it sounds quiet (attention manufacturers: backwards-pointing speakers are probably the easiest from a design standpoint, but make zero sense for the consumer). This was decidedly a point of skimp, budget-wise. Expect nothing from this speaker, and you may still be somewhat disappointed.
A Qualcomm MSM8260 Snapdragon chipset powers the Xperia Ion, with a dual-core 1.5GHz processor and Adreno 220 GPU. The phone is able to access AT&T’s 4G LTE network, which still has fairly limited availability.
Running GLBenchmark 2.1.4 on Android 2.3 (Android 4.0 is promised at a nebulous future date), the Xperia Ion gets middling scores: it cracked 35fps on the Pro-Standard test, but only 17fps on Egypt-High. For comparison, the Galaxy Nexus, which now retails at $149 with a two-year contract on Verizon, got 41.2fps and 19.9fps, respectively, on the same tests. On Linpack, the Xperia Ion pumped out 53MFLOPS and 95MFLOPS in single- and multi-threaded processes (the GNex got 45 and 37MFLOPS). This isn’t bleeding-edge performance, but more than respectable for a $99 mid-range phone.
In subjective everyday use, we do occasionally see some of that animation stutter that was common in earlier Android phones, as if the visuals can’t move as quickly as the hardware wants it to. But this was usually when the phone was just waking up or upon return to the home screen after using an app; after a couple swipes, it seemed to be up to speed. Otherwise, the phone is fairly snappy all-around; the screen has none of the responsiveness issues that the buttons do.
How a phone picks up WiFi is usually not a point of note for our smartphone reviews, but we noticed that the WiFi signal on our Xperia Ion was quite low, even when two devices immediately next to it were picking it up perfectly. This could be due in part to the metal casing on the phone, a natural-born enemy of WiFi signal. We can’t say if this is a widespread problem based on our one device and WiFi setup, but it’s worth being wary of if you decide to check this phone out.
A sizeable 1900mAh battery powers the Xperia Ion, which Sony rates at 10 hours of talk time and 12 hours of music playback (whether WiFi/GPS is on and other such parameters are not specified). With WiFi, GPS, and 4G connections on, volume all the way up, we were able to get about seven and a half hours of battery life while playing video. In regular use with the same settings on, some light email, texting, photo-taking, a few app downloads and a bit of gaming, the phone was able to last a full day of use.
Sony without Ericsson still isn’t quite up to the task of competing with the big boys—an iPhone or Galaxy S III this is not, especially being so woefully behind as to still be running Android 2.3. Still, we came out impressed, especially given the reasonable price point—hopefully issues like the handling of the camera button and soft keys, can be fixed with software updates. The Xperia Ion arrives in AT&T’s online and retail outlets on June 24, priced at $99.99 with a two-year contract.
- Screen has excellent level of detail
- Body looks pretty nice, when the brushed metal back isn’t covered in fingerprints
- Overall performance, soft key interactions aside, is very fluid
- Camera takes great photos in good lighting situations.
- The soft keys. Why are they so difficult? Just accept my loving taps.
- Indoor photos, a bit meh for a 12-megapixel camera