Sony was the talk of town during CES 2012 back in January and the Xperia ion for AT&T was among the main reasons why. Launched alongside the Xperia S, the Sony Xperia ion took the great honor of being the company's first LTE smartphone. To make the matters even more epic, the smartphone marked Sony Mobile's grand return to the most lucrative segment of the US smartphone market - that of the high-end, tricked out handsets with spec sheets as long as a daily newspaper. In a nutshell, the Sony Xperia ion was a big deal anyway you looked at it.
Sony Xperia ion official photo
Arriving to the market six months after its announcement, the Sony Xperia ion has a different smartphone landscape to face. Samsung and HTC have already released their heavy hitters in the United States, packing better internals, and offering more up-to-date software experience. To put it mildly - arriving late to the party, the Sony Xperia ion now finds itself outgunned by the competition.
What makes this occurrence particularly frustrating is the fact that this wasn't the case at the smartphone's announcement six months ago. Back in January, the Xperia ion for AT&T could go have a go at any top-of-the-line Android smartphone on the market and emerge victorious.
To offset the massive delay, the Sony Xperia ion is priced quite aggressively. AT&T asks only $99.99 for the smartphone. Should you choose to pick one up directly from Sony though, you will only have to shell out $49.99 with a two-year contract. Cutting edge it might be not, but the Sony Xperia ion still offers you a lot of smartphone for the money. Here goes the list of its full talents.
Quad-band GSM /GPRS/EDGE support
Tri-band 3G with 21Mbps HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA
Category 3 LTE network connectivity
4.6" 16M-color capacitive LED-backlit LCD touchscreen of 720p resolution (720 x 1280 pixels) with Sony Mobile BRAVIA engine; Scratch-resistant glass
12 MP autofocus camera with LED flash and geo-tagging, Multi Angle shot
1080p video recording @ 30fps with continuous autofocus and stereo sound
1.3 MP front-facing camera, 720p video recording
Wi-Fi b/g/n and DLNA
GPS with A-GPS
16GB built-in storage; microSD card slot
microHDMI port, dedicated TV launcher
microUSB port (charging); stereo Bluetooth v2.1
Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
Stereo FM radio with RDS
Adobe Flash 11 support
Deep Facebook integration
Accelerometer and proximity sensor
Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread out of the box doesn't cut it for a high-end device this far into 2012
Display has sub-par side viewing angles
Underwhelming front touch buttons and side camera key
Non-user replaceable battery
As you have probably noticed above, the Sony Xperia ion for AT&T is rather closely related to the Xperia S, which came to be quite popular. In order to be more appealing to the US users however, the handset has seen its screen stretch up a bit. The microSD card slot is also a nice addition to the spec sheet - after all, the handset is made for consuming multimedia and playing videogames.
The biggest letdown about the Sony Xperia ion for AT&T is undoubtedly the lack of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich out of the box. Sony's customization of Android 2.3 Gingerbread is quite polished but still - it simply does not befit a mid-2012 high-end device. The battery life could have also been much better, given the handset's knack for multimedia.
Sony Xperia ion live photos
As always, we are going to kick things off with an unboxing of the Sony Xperia ion for AT&T, followed by a design and build quality inspection.
A retail box to match the price tag
Much like with the case of other $99 smartphones, the Sony Xperia ion for AT&T won't blow you away with its retail package. Inside the orange/white colored box, you will find a charger and a microUSB cable, along with the usual set of booklets.
Quite frankly, a set of headphones would have been much appreciated here, especially given Sony's own lineup of accessories. In the case of the AT&T flavored Xperia ion however, you will have to get one on your own dime.
Design and build quality
The Sony Xperia ion is a well-designed piece of hardware. The handset recently won a Red Dot award for its pleasantly understated looks. However, for every person who thinks that the Xperia ion is a looker, there's probably another who would brand the device as being dull. On our end, we can't help but note, that the transparent strip, found in the Xperia S would have added a welcome touch of character to the Xperia ion.
Build quality is superb. The Sony Xperia ion for AT&T is a blend of high-quality plastic and metal, while the handset's screen is scratch proof - even the pickiest user will have a hard time finding something to frown about.
The measures of the Sony Xperia ion are fairly acceptable for a device with such a massive screen. They are 133 x 68 x 10.8 mm, while its weight tips the scale at 144 grams. The only negative worth noting here is the handset's thickness, which is far from great. In any case, the Xperia ion won't tear a hole in your pocket.
The 4.55" screen of the device is truly great. Backed by Sony's BRAVIA engine, the display is sharp, offers great color reproduction, and good contrast. Its pixel density of 323ppi is not as high as the 342ppi found in the Sony Xperia S's unit, but it's well on par with a the latest iPhone Retina screens offer.
The Xperia ion's display is gorgeous
There is a lot going on above the display. There, you will find the ambient light and proximity sensors, the earpiece, an indicator light, as well as the 1.3MP front-facing camera. Below the screen is where the four capacitive buttons for navigating Android reside. Their sensitivity is far from the greatest we've encountered.
The view above and below the screen
The microUSB and microHDMI ports are neatly located under a cover on the left side of the phone. There is nothing else to be found there.
The microUSB and microHDMI ports on the left
Things get busier on the right side as it is the home of the power/lock key, the volume rocker, as well as the dedicated button for the 12MP snapper.
The view on the right
On top of the device, you will find the lonely 3.5mm audio jack sitting at the center. There's nothing but a mouthpiece at the bottom of the Xperia ion.
Viewing the Xperia ion's top and button
The 12MP camera and its LED flash light are located on the back. The loudspeaker grille can be found immediately below them. The green logo and Xperia letters at the bottom hark back to the Sony Ericsson heritage.
The view on the back
The SIM card slot and the microSD card slot are stealthily tucked in under a small cover, located right above the camera sensor. Removing it takes place by pressing with your thumbs on its sides and sliding up.
The home of the microSD and the SIM card slots
The 1900mAh non-removable battery of the Sony Xperia ion for AT&T achieved an endurance rating of 31 hours in our traditional battery test. This means that you can expect the Xperia ion to last you just a bit over a full day, should you use it for an hour each of telephony, web browsing, and video playback every daily.
You can find out all about the battery performance of the handset in this post.
Handling the Sony Xperia ion is relatively easy for its size. Even one handed operation is possible on most occasions. The curved back allows the device to fit comfortably in hand, and reduces the risk of drops.
Handling the Sony Xperia ion is relatively easy
Overall, we'll give excellent marks for build quality of the Sony Xperia ion. Design on the other hand is strictly a matter of personal perception. Battery life could have been much better, but we are not surprised by the Xperia ion's showing on this instance - the combination of Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 with HD screen and LTE is a well recorded energy hog by now.
Following next is a look at the (ageing) software of the Sony Xperia ion.
Gingerbread for now
The Sony Xperia ion for AT&T, like the rest of the NXT series, runs Android Gingerbread 2.3.7 with an ICS update coming up later on. We've seen the same UI combo on the Xperia S, the sola, the Xperia P, and Xperia U, so we'll cut straight to the demo video.
The Xperia ion has the usual five-pane homescreen (you can't add or delete panes), with four docked shortcuts (two on either side of the launcher shortcut). These are visible on all five homescreen panes and are user configurable: they can be either single icons or folders with multiple items in them.
The Sony Xperia ion UI
The homescreen does a neat trick called Overview mode. Pinch to zoom out on any of the 5 homescreen panes and a new screen opens up with a cool transition. All active widgets gather there for easy viewing and selection.
The Overview mode
The Xperia ion has some custom-made Sony widgets in addition to the standard set. Those include the Timescape widget (there's a dedicated app too) and a Mediascape-like widget for photos and videos (the actual app isn't there anymore, the standard gallery is back).
Widgets menu • Removing widget
The lockscreen shows notifications for Facebook events too. A cool new addition to the lockscreen, unseen in the old Xperia line, is the music player widget, which lets you control music playback without unlocking the phone - we'll get back to this further on.
The standard notification area and task switcher are of course present and accounted for - no custom touches to them.
The lockscreen • Lockscreen notifications • The standard notification area and task switcher
Color themes are also part of the Sony Xperia ion's user interface. There are several of them preinstalled.
Some of the preinstalled themes
The Sony Xperia ion for AT&T is powered by a dual-core Scorpion CPU clocked at 1.5 GHz and 1GB of RAM. Back at the time of the smartphone's announcement, those were as good as it could possibly get. These days however, they are considered mid-range.
We ran our usual round of benchmarks and compared the Xperia ion to a selection of popular upper-midrange competitors.
We'll start with Benchmark Pi, which measures the CPU computing power of the Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 chipset. The Xperia ion could have done much better here.
The Xperia ion is well-equipped to tackle routine tasks. It fails to match the speed and capacity of some of the competition, but that's something for the most demanding of power users to worry about. Android Ice Cream Sandwich would have surely bumped up some of the benchmark results, so hopefully the wait for it would not be too long.
The visually customized phonebook of the Xperia ion can store extensive information about all your contacts. A tabbed interface presents contact details, recent calls and info from social networking services.
The phonebook • The quick contacts can save you a click or two • The available options
The contact list can be sorted by either first or last name. There are two contact search options - a dedicated search field on top of the contact list, and an alphabet scroll to jump to names starting with a specific letter.
You can sync with multiple accounts, including Exchange and Facebook, and you can selectively show or hide contacts from some accounts (you can fine-sift specific groups from an account), or set the phonebook to display only contacts with phone numbers.
If a contact has accounts in multiple services, you can "join" their details to keep everything in one place. Their Facebook photos and interests (part of the Facebook integration) will show as extra tabs.
Quick contacts are enabled - a tap on the contact's photo brings up shortcuts for calling, texting or emailing the contact.
Each contact can have a variety of fields (and repeat fields of the same type), the + and x buttons let you add and remove fields as needed. The fields cover anything from names (including a field to write the name down phonetically) to addresses, nicknames and notes.
There is an option to redirect calls directly to voicemail. Custom ringtones are enabled too.
Editing a contact
You can "star" a contact, which puts it in the Favorites tab. In each Gmail account there's a special group called "Starred in Android" where these contacts go automatically.
Telephony has no smart dial
We had no problems making and receiving calls on the Xperia ion. Calls were loud and clear even in noisy environments.
Strangely, the Xperia ion does not offer smart dialing. We can't help but wonder why, as the feature is present on other Sony smartphones.
Smart dialing is not available
The call log is integrated in the dialer - it shows a list of recently dialed, received and missed calls in the top half of the screen and the keypad on the bottom half. You can also access detailed log information by tapping the arrow next to a number. Once you start typing though, the call log is replaced by the smart dial list.
There's a Favorite tab that displays starred contacts, but you can add other contacts to the list too. The tab displays a grid of contact photos with their first name underneath.
All texts and MMS are organized into threads. Each thread is laid out as an IM chat session, the latest message at the bottom. You can manage individual messages (forward, copy, delete) and even lock them against deletion.
Search is enabled to locate a specific message in all conversations and you can also activate delivery reports.
The messaging app • Starring a message • All starred messages • Adding multimedia to the message
Individual messages can be starred and you can find all of them in the Starred folder available in the context menu. This is a nice way to mark important messages that you'll need to find quickly later on.
Adding multimedia (photos, videos, sounds, etc.) will convert the message to an MMS.
Moving on to email, the Gmail app supports batch operations, which allow multiple emails to be archived, labeled or deleted. The app supports multiple Gmail accounts, but there's no unified inbox for other email services.
The Gmail app
The generic email app can do that however. It can handle multiple POP or IMAP accounts and you have access to the messages in the original folders that are created online.
A preview pane splits the screen in half - one side lists the emails, while the other shows the currently selected email.
This works both in portrait and landscape and you can easily drag the separator between the two areas to make one bigger.
The standard email app
Google Talk handles Instant Messaging. The GTalk network is compatible with a variety of popular clients like Pidgin, Kopete, iChat and Ovi Contacts
As for text input, the Xperia ion offers a customized on-screen full QWERTY keyboard. Even the portrait keyboard allows fairly precise two-thumb typing. The stock Gingerbread keyboard is at your disposal too.
The Xperia ion keyboards
Flipping the phone to landscape gives you even bigger, comfortably spaced buttons.
In terms of customizations, the Xperia ion keyboard features the so-called Gesture input. It works the same as Swype.
Plain vanilla gallery
The Xperia ion uses the traditional droid Gallery, which hasn't really seen much change in Gingerbread. It has good functionality, cool 3D looks and nice transition effects, and shows full resolution images.
The different albums and folders appear as piles of photos, which fall in neat grids once selected. If you have online albums over at Picasa those show up as separate stacks as well.
You should have noticed the two switches at the top by now. The first opens a different gallery section that stores your 3D panorama sshots, while the second opens the Sweep Multi Angle sshots section.
The standard Android gallery
To view the 3D panoramas in 3D, you need to connect your phone to a compatible 3DTV. Multi Angle sshots are harder to view outside the device as you need something with an accelerometer and the proper app - you best bet is another Xperia.
3D Panorama and Multi Angle shooting modes are available
Facebook and Picasa albums are distinguished by the small logo of the corresponding service. Facebook pictures can be "liked" with the thumbs up button in the upper right corner.
Liking photos is enabled for Facebook albums
Photos can be sorted by date with the help of a button in the top right corner, which switches between grid and timeline view.
You can use pinch zoom or the old-fashioned +/- buttons. If you pan past the edge of a photo, the gallery will load up the next (or previous) image.
Images can be cropped or rotated directly in the gallery. Quick sharing via Picasa, Email apps, Facebook, Bluetooth or MMS is also enabled.
The BRAVIA engine enhances contrast and colors by sharpening the image and reducing noise. These steps would normally lead to artefacts, but you'll have to look from really up close to notice. You can switch BRAVIA off, but we recommend keeping it on - it really improves the image quality.
Basic video player with good codec support
There is no dedicated video player app on the Xperia ion as in most of the droids out there. DivX, XviD and MKV videos are supported but the Xperia ion has a rather selective filtering and not all videos got through.
The Xperia ion managed to play every MP4 file we threw at it, even the 1080p videos. Most of the high-res DivX/XviD/MKV files did run too. Unfortunately, the Xperia ion has rather patchy audio codec support, most notably AC-3 is not on the list. So, some videos played without audio and some with unsupported bitrate didn't pass at all.
There is no subtitle support and there is no way you can see video information (file name, codec, size, etc.).
Watching a video on the Xperia ion
Rich music experience
The Xperia ion has the same music player that we liked on the Xperia S. You're welcomed to a Cover Flow-like interface and you can swipe left and right to skip tracks (complete with a smooth 3D effect).
This is the Playing tab, the second tab available is called My Music and it's where your music library is organized. Tracks are sorted by album, artist, playlist, all tracks, SensMe channel, and favorites. There's also a link to Sony's Music Unlimited service.
In the Now playing interface, there's the familiar Infinite button - it gives you quick options to find the music or karaoke videos on YouTube for the current song, look for more tracks on PlayNow, search Wikipedia for info on the artist or look for lyrics on Google. New features can be added to this menu with extensions available in the Play Store.
The music player • Music library
SensMe should be familiar from those old Sony Ericsson Walkman phones. In case you've missed it, SensMe filters songs by mood. By default, there are nine "channels" - daytime, energetic, relax, upbeat, mellow, lounge, emotional, dance and extreme.
You need to download SensMe data before you can use this feature. Luckily, you no longer have to use a PC Suite to tag songs - you just need an Internet connection, the phone will handle the rest.
Audiophiles will appreciate the rich selection of equalizer presets. There's a custom preset too - it lets you adjust five frequency bands and there's a Clear Bass slider too.
The More tab offers a Headphone surround option, which can be set to Studio, Club or Concert hall. If you're not using the headphones, you can turn the xLOUD feature on, which optimizes the sound for the Xperia ion loudspeaker.
A new feature is the track info and playback controls available on the lockscreen, which let you control the player without having to unlock the phone. The music controls replace the clock, which might be annoying if you just want to check the time. Still, the clock slides out of view, so you have about a second to see what time it is (or just look at the small clock in the upper right corner).
Music player controls on the lockscreen
FM radio with RDS
The Sony Xperia ion is equipped with an FM radio, which has a really neat and simple interface. It automatically scans the area for the available stations and places "notches" on the frequency dial for easier scrolling to the next station. There's a Force mono option to use in case of poor reception.
The FM radio app • TrackID
The TrackID service is also available and works within the radio app. You can even like a song on Facebook.
Poor stereo crosstalk damages the audio output
The Sony Xperia ion LTE audio quality turned out decent for the most part, but its high stereo crosstalk reading came as a huge surprise to us.
The new Sony flagship has faultless frequency response and very good signal-to-noise ration and dynamic range, but there seems to be a lot of leakage between the two channels. The distortion levels are kept well under control, too. Still, we wouldn't expect anything but faultless output from a flagship smartphone like this and the Xperia ion LTE falls a bit short of the mark.
Here go the results so you can see for yourselves.
IMD + Noise
Sony Xperia ion LTE
Sony Xperia S
Samsung Galaxy S III (US)
Samsung I9300 Galaxy S III
Samsung I9100 Galaxy S II
Samsung Galaxy Nexus
Apple iPhone 4S
Sony Xperia ion LTE frequency response
You can learn more about the whole testing process here.