For decades, the Sony brand has stood above the competition in consumer electronics. Sony was considered the gold standard by which everyone else was judged. While the company has fallen from its glory days and its market share has suffered significantly due to competition from Samsung and LG, Sony products still have a unique style which set them apart. Sony’s late entry into the Android game put the company at a huge disadvantage, but it seems its new Xperia ion may hold that unique spark which could allow it to compete head-to-head with some of the best phones of 2012.
1. Internal Hardware
Everyone buys a phone for a different reason, but we know that most of you focus mainly on the specs. Fortunately, Sony did everything it could to help the ion hang with the big boys. The handset features a 4.65-inch 1280×720 HD Reality display, a dual-core 1.5 GHz Snapdragon S3 processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, microSD card slot (up to 32GB), 12 megapixel Exmor-R rear-facing camera capable of capturing video at 1080p, and a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera with 720p video capture. Radio chips include Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, HSDPA 21.1 Mbps; HSUPA, 5.8 Mbps; LTE, FM radio, NFC and Bluetooth 2.1.
When the Sony Xperia ion was unveiled, it was at the top of its game. Yes, Sony took its time actually getting the phone to market, but it’s still one of the highest spec’d handsets currently available.
2. Hardware Design
While Samsung and Apple battle things about over design patents, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would confuse the Sony Xperia ion with any iOS device. The Xperia ion is graced with a bold and unique styling which features subtle cues of other Sony products.
The outside of the device is constructed of plastic and brushed aluminum which give the ion a solid feel. The choice of materials do make the phone quite heavy (4.9 ounces), but it’s not far off from its closest competitors. The front of the Xperia ion is dominated by the 4.65-inch display, four capacitive buttons, a small speaker grill and the front-facing camera. The left side of the device houses the microUSB and HDMI connections (tucked away behind a plastic flap) and the right side holds the power, volume and camera shutter buttons. The 3.5mm headphone jack is placed on the top edge of the phone with a slight bezel since the top and bottom edges of the device are set at a slight angle. The curved back panel of the device is covered mainly in brushed black aluminum with the camera, flash and logos all aligned in the center.
The Sony Xperia ion is pleasing to the eyes, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own issues. The straight edges of the phone create a stunning profile, but they also force you to hold the device differently since the bottom corners tend to dig into the palm of your hand.
3. Built Quality
The design of the Xperia ion may be top notch, but that doesn’t always translate into impeccable build quality. In the two short weeks we had with the device, I noticed that both the front and back of the device were extremely susceptible to scratches. The scratch-resistant mineral coating used by Sony does a great job of minimizing smudges and fingerprints, but the review unit we were sent has more than a dozen visible scratches on the glass and we managed to add a few more of our own when placing the handset in a pocket with our car keys (not that that is advisable). We also found that the capacitive buttons below the display are extremely capricious – reacting only when touched in the space between the button image and the edge of the screen.
The brushed aluminum along the back of the phone is also scratch and scuff prone, but it does bear battle scars with a little more dignity than the glass protecting the phone’s display. If you like a device with a little character, it’s not a big deal. But we’d suggest a protective case if you want to keep your phone looking new for more than a week or two.
If you like brands, the display on the Sony Xperia ion will certainly impress you. The 1280×720 4.65-inch Super LCD2 HD Reality Display is powered by Sony’s Mobile BRAVIA Engine. We’re not exactly sure what that all means, but we can say that it is one of the more beautiful screens we’re ever laid eyes on. Compared to the Super AMOLED Plus display on the Samsung Galaxy S III, the Xperia ion is a clear winner, but we’re pretty sure that the Super LCD2 from the HTC One X has a slight edge.
The colors on the ion’s display are vivid and text is extremely sharp. The only complaint we could muster is that the contrast ratio washes the pixels out when displaying whites and grays.
All of us here agree that custom skins are the devil. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I can say that Sony’s custom software actually makes the Xperia ion a much better phone. The reason for this? The Xperia ion is still running on Android 2.3. That’s right, more than six months after Google released Ice Cream Sandwich, Sony went ahead and launched a flagship phone running on software that’s as outdated as the HTC EVO 4G.
To Sony’s credit, they have created a minimalistic UI which enhances the stock Android experience in almost every way. The UI is quick with snappy widget animations which make interacting with the device more enjoyable. Android purists may scoff at the idea that an OEM could produce a refined UI, but I’d encourage you to spend some quality time with the device (that means more than 15 minutes playing with it at your local Best Buy) before passing judgment on it.
How powerful does a phone need to be? As long as you can browse the web, play a few games and watch your HD movies, most consumers will be happy. The Sony Xperia ion does exactly that. We used the device to tear through games like Temple Run, Dead Space, Shadowgun and NBA Jam, but don’t expect the Snapdragon S3 processor to keep the frame rates running at 60 frames per second when you purchase that new 3D shooter in 3-6 months. In day-to-day usage, the Xperia ion can keep up with most other high-end phones, but benchmark scores show that the device simply isn’t capable of running with the elite when pushed to the limit.
Sony Xperia ion benchmark scores
GLB 2.1 Egyps (720): 30fps
The ion may not stand a chance when competing against the HTC One X, One S or the Samsung Galaxy S III, but it’s a half step ahead of last year’s Samsung Galaxy S II and the HTC Vivid.
7. Call Quality
Though the Sony Xperia ion can do some amazing things, at its roots, it’s still a phone. Call quality on the device isn’t as remarkable as the crystal clear HD Voice feature on the HTC EVO 4G LTE, but it is on par with other Android phones currently on the market. Calls come through loud and clear for both callers and the speakerphone on the back of the ion is actually better than most devices we have tested recently.
Taking pictures on the Sony Xperia ion was probably the most enjoyable aspect of this review. We’ve all used our Android phones to take pictures, but the Xperia ion takes things to the next level by delivering a 12 megapixel imaging sensor with Sony’s new Fast Capture technology.
So what does that mean for consumers? Simple. Pull the phone out of your pocked, hold down the camera shutter button and the Xperia ion automagically turns the device on and snaps a picture in 1.5 seconds. The features can be turned off or changed to only launch the camera app without taking a picture.
If you’re not in a hurry to snap a picture, you can play around with a variety of features like 3D Sweep Panorama, Sweep Multi Angle and Sweep Panorama along with pre-set scenes which help improve the quality of your pictures.
- 3D Sweep Panorama: Panoramic image sweep which converts the captured image into 3D. Unfortunately, a 3D-enabled TV is required to view the images in their full glory.
- Sweep Multi Angle: Panoramic setting which recreated a 3D representation which can be viewed on the phone by rotating the device left and right.
- Sweep Panorama: Your traditional panoramic setting which captures sweeping wide angle images.
Sony has done a great job of making the camera on the Xperia ion extremely simple to use, but the one issue we have is that the 12 megapixel sensor is overshadowed by the extremely high IOS which is visible even when pictures are captured in direct sunlight. We’re not sure if this is an issue with the chip or something that’s caused by software compression, but we hope Sony can find a way to improve the image quality with a future software update.
Sony Xperia ion sample pictures
A big phone with a big HD display should come with a big battery. The non-removable 1900 mAh lithium ion battery in the Xperia ion isn’t going to win any award for size or longevity, but it does hold enough power to keep most users powered up for a typical work day. Since the phone is powered by an S3 chip which is typically not known to have great power consumption numbers, we were actually shocked when we made it through multiple 10-12 hour days without the need for a mid-day charge. Power users will still be able to drain the batter in less than 5 hours with constant gaming, video watching and browsing, but the Motorola RAZR MAXX is the phone that can take that kind of abuse without putting up too much of a fuss.
10. NFC & Smart Tags
NFC has been around for a while, but Sony was the first OEM to present a meaningful reason for consumers to care about the feature. Sony’s NFC Smart Tags are paired with a system app on the Xperia ion which allow them to control actions when activated by specific NFC chips. S
If you’re constantly changing your handset’s settings or launching specific applications for certain events, Sony’s Smart Tags can make your life a whole lot easier. Simply set up an action and you’re ready to go. While using the Xperia ion, I set up a Smart Tag for my bike (which I have been using to commute to work). Tapping the tag I have connected to my bike turns off my WiFi, turns on GPS, opens Play Music and Endomondo Pro - all settings and apps which I would normally have to configure manually every time I get on my bike.
The configuration options are limited, but with a little creativity you could set up a half dozen Smart Tag actions based on different events throughout your day. The Sony Xperia ion comes with one Smart Tag in the box, but you can find an assortment of NFC tag sets on Amazon for around $15.
The Sony Xperia ion was one of the best devices we saw at CES. It had an inspired design, amazing display and a camera which was ahead of its competition. The big issues we have with the Xperia ion don’t really have anything to do with the device, but with the amount of time it took Sony and AT&T to bring it to market. To put things into perspective, the HTC One S and One X were announced 6 weeks after the Xperia ion, but HTC somehow managed to get them both to market 1-2 months ahead of the ion. To compensate for this long delay, the price of the ion was set at $99.99 with a new two-year contract. It is really affordable ($29.99) if you buy through Best Buy, however, (thanks for the tip, Wolf0491). Despite that price, we’re still more enthusiastic to recommend the HTC One X.