Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sony Xperia Ion Review

When we last took a look at a Sony device, it was still a joint partnership with Ericsson. Today we look at Sony's first foray into the Android world as a single company, the Xperia Ion. While this is the first Sony branded phone we get to review, we are certain it will not be the last. The Xperia Ion is a curious device sporting some decent specs on paper but has stiff competition from Samsung and HTC in Rogers' LTE lineup of phones. We'll see just how it stacks up in our review of the Sony Xperia Ion.

Overall Construction
If there is any series that can match up historically with a known brand name like the iPhone or the Galaxy S series, it might as well be the Xperia line. The name carried by just about every Sony/Sony Ericsson phone is one of the few lines of phones that has maintained continuity in a volatile market.

With this lineage comes a design language that is distinctly Sony, from the very attractive Xperia Arc/Arc S to the Xperia Play and now the Xperia Ion, there is a familiar continuation in design language amongst all those devices.

This is not to say that there hasn't been any improvement or evolution from a design standpoint as the Xperia Ion is a pretty attractive piece of hardware. There has been significant improvement and a generally unique feel to the latest Xperia phones. While it doesn't have the unique quirks of the Xperia S or Xperia S, there is something about the stealthy fighter jet design of the Ion.

At 10.6mm thick and 144g heavy, the Xperia Ion is certainly a hefty and thicker device, especially at the 4.6 inch screen range of devices. When encroaching on these hummer phone sizes, thinness is especially important for overall ergonomics. While it felt okay in the pocket, it certainly felt quite substantial in the hand and not really in the good way. The expansive screen was significantly more difficult to reach than the similarly sized screens like that on the Galaxy S III and the HTC One X.

Other reviewers have criticized the overall looks of the Xperia Ion, but we feel that it is a very sleek, clean and stealthy design. The brushed metal unibody aluminium body of the phone makes it feel substantially more premium than the plastic construction of past devices. Unlike flagships of old like the Arc, the Xperia Ion has both looks and premium feel.

Sony Xperia Ion

Knowing that Sony manufactured the screen on the HTC One X, our favorite display on any smartphone period, we had high hopes for the 4.6 Inch 720p display on the Xperia Ion. Being slightly smaller than the One X and Galaxy S III, this meant a higher density display on the Ion.

Unfortunately our hopes were slightly dashed, as the Sony Bravia "Reality Display" fell slightly short of the One X and the Galaxy S III. While it isn't a bad display by ANY stretch of the imagination, both HTC and Samsung's flagship phone have better displays.

Brightness, colors and sharpness were all top notch thanks to the Bravia engine enhancements which seem to crank up the three properties in videos, pictures and games. The problem with the Ion really come down to black levels and viewing angles. We really weren't satisfied with either as blacks looked almost charcoal and even reasonably angled viewing angles would wash out colors.

While these won't be deal breakers to some, it certainly puts the Ion at a significant disadvantage compared to the One X, Galaxy S III and even iPhone 4/4S/5. These problem were also exacerbated by the fact that Sony has inexplicably left out an ambient light sensor to auto regulate brightness. This was the case with the Arc that we reviewed last summer but really isn't acceptable at this point.

Overall, the Xperia Ion's screen has some very redeeming specs for multimedia usage, in fact it is probably the third best display on any Android device we've reviewed. We really liked the "HD Reality Display" and the "Bravia Engine". But sadly few will buy something because it is "third best".

It just sadly isn't the best of its class and part of having such lofty expectations has a lot to do with Sony's pedigree in the HDTV world. In a perfect world we would have had the laminated Sony Super LCD 2 display of the One X on the Ion but sadly that isn't the case.

We usually don't put much coverage about the buttons of a handset as most of the time it's nit picking or really like most times they work exactly as intended and become an afterthought. In this case, the hardware buttons were nice and responsive and a vast improvement over the overly small buttons of the Arc. We also loved the fact that the Ion came with a dedicated two stage camera buttons. However, the software buttons were, to be brutally honest, a nightmare.

First off, and probably the least of the Ion's problems is the fact that the capacitive buttons use the old style Menu, Home, Back and Search configuration. While we can probably forgive them for this oversight as this phone is probably one of the last vestiges of the Sony/Ericsson partnership and one built for use on Gingerbread.

What is unforgivable however, was the responsiveness of the capacitive buttons. Like other reviewers we had a maddening time using the capacitive buttons. They simply would not react to some touches. We believe the capacitive targets under the screen were simply too small to detect our finger's input.

The glaring problem is that other than the touchscreen itself, which was plenty responsive, the capacitive buttons are the part of the phone interacted with the most by the user. This meant that every time we used the phone we were reminded about how bad the capacitive buttons were.

This is all without mentioning that the icons don't even actually light up but rather have a band of light that appears under them. We are still perplexed as to how this serves any purpose as the light isn't needed in brightly lit situations and doesn't help the user see the icons in the dark.

Battery Life
At 1900mAh, the Ion has a pretty healthy battery compared to other smartphones. Considering it's using last year's tech and has an LTE modem, our first instincts were that it was going to need every bit of that battery to get through the day.

Like the Galaxy S II LTE and HD LTE, the Xperia Ion doesn't really have the best setup for battery efficiency, because the Dual-Core CPU in the Ion didn't include an integrated LTE modem in the designs. But unlike both Samsung's, Sony's offering doesn't have a power efficient Super AMOLED display to fall back on. Couple this with the fact that Sony didn't include an ambient light sensor to auto-adjust brightness and you have a scary recipe.

Fortunately, we still found we could get through a day pretty easily with moderate usage. The biggest factors were obviously the screen and the LTE modem, and taxing both simultaneous really can obviously take its toll on the battery.

Overall we were still more apprehensive than we needed to about the battery life, but considering the Xperia Ion uses a sealed in non-user replaceable battery, many will need to be more conscious about the power management of the Ion.

Internal Hardware
The Xperia Ion is, on paper, using "older" hardware, but as we saw in a device like the Galaxy S II HD LTE, it would be unfair to count it out before testing it.

- 1.5 MHz Qualcomm 3rd Generation Dual-Core Snapdragon S3 Processor
- 1GB of RAM
- 16GB of Internal storage expandable with microSD card slot upgradable to up to 32GB
- Adreno 220 Graphic processor
- 75Mbps LTE/21Mbps HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 12 MP camera with Exmor R Sensor and flash /w 1.3MP front facing camera

While the S3 Dual Core Snapdragon is an iteration behind the latest S4 processors in other flagship devices, it's still a very capable chipset as see in our review of the Galaxy S II HD LTE. While the experience on the HD LTE was fast, smooth and fluid the Xperia Ion was a tale of two faces. For the sake of this review we have to let you, the reader, know that our Ion review unit was upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich midway through our review.

On one hand, the Xperia Ion launched with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which besides being unacceptable at this point, was a hot mess in terms of responsiveness. Swiping from homescreens, interacting with widgets, and even the app launcher was surprisingly unresponsive.

On the other hand, after the Ice Cream Sandwich, update the phone felt like a whole new device. scrolling was quick and responsive both in the homescreen and in the app launcher. Core apps were also sped up, like the browser which felt much smoother. More on that later in the review.

Whether it was on 2.3 or 4.0, gaming performance was pretty much identical (which was good for almost all games we played), and synthetic benchmarks didn't see much of an increase. So on that front that bodes well for the upcoming opening of the PlayStation Mobile store given that the Ion has PlayStation certification.

4G LTE Capabilities
In our time with the Xperia Ion, loading speeds were quite good, constantly hovering at the 14-16mbps range. Nothing close to the 45mbps MobileSyrup had reported in their review but still solid numbers. While we saw better numbers on the One X and Galaxy S III there isn't much difference in real world usage that would makes users take pause.

Again, we have to remind our reader that these test were conducted in the Greater Montreal Metropolitan area under various signal conditions and that your experience may vary.

Speaker and microphone
Sony hasn't really ever been a letdown in the most basic function of a phone and it isn't any different this time around as the Ion was a very good during calls. So really there isn't much else to report here, overall the "phone" experience was good

The loudspeaker, however, was disappointing. Even with the "xLoud" enhancements we felt like the smaller micro drilled holes were the reason that sound was not as good as we hoped. The high praises that the Xperia Play got with its stereo speaker setup is a far cry of the Ion's single speaker. Although to be fair, the Play was a device targeted at a different target audience.

One of the showstoppers of the Xperia Ion that could set it apart from the competitions is its 12 megapixel camera. While seasoned photography enthusiast know that megapixels don't really correlate with image quality, to the unknowing consumer it basically is the only well know spec.

But the number is just that a number, the real chops of the phone have everything to do with quality rather than the number pixels captured. In our testing we felt that the camera faired pretty well. But the huge pixel count betrays the camera and really sets unfair expectations.

In good lighting conditions, the Xperia Ion produced some nice looking shots. Colors reproduction was great, even with the default settings. No need to tweak settings, white balance, etc. In low light however, the Ion falls short of other flagship offerings despite the Exmor R sensor.

As far as 1080p capabilities were concerned the Ion performed very well, producing videos as good as we've seen from the heavy hitters One X and Galaxy S III

Overall, the Ion's camera is a decent performer, but leaves us disappointed compared to the One X and Galaxy S III. This leaves us scratching our heads a bit as Sony manufactures the sensors for the class leading iPhone 4S/5 and Galaxy S III.

Sample Pictures
In a weird and fateful twist, this is be a first for us at Android Bugle as this section will be a two pronged software section. One for the unacceptably late Gingerbread build and one for the more recent Ice Cream Sandwich build.

Android 2.3
There isn't really too much to say about our time with the Xperia Ion on Android 2.3 Gingerbread other than slow and unresponsive. As we mentioned earlier in our hardware section, browsing, pinch zooming, navigating through the UI all felt like it was struggling to keep up with our finger input.

As far as looks are concerned, it looks just about the same as the UX interface we saw a year ago on the Xperia Arc when it was one of the first phone to come out with a Gingerbread and a Custom User Interface. So to know more about Sony specific interface changes and features additions, please check out our Xperia Arc Review.

Screenshots (Android 2.3 - Gingerbread)

Android 4.0
Ice Cream Sandwich was such a stark difference to the version shipped initially with this devices that it warranted its own section. While in terms of aesthetics, the phone looked just about identical to the Gingerbread version, the experience was incredibly improved.

All the benefits of ICS make is feel like a new phone, from the improved performance to the availability of the Chrome browser Android 4.0 should have been the firmware that the Ion launched with but unfortunately didn't.

Performance in synthetic benchmarks didn't improve so much but we didn't expect it to blow us away either. The perceived improved responsiveness will however be more noticeable to the end user.

We hope that moving forward, Sony is more in control of its devices and strives to not only launch phone with a recent version of Android but will also stay ahead of the game in terms of upgrades.

Screenshots (Android 4.0 - Ice Cream Sandwich)

We understand that this is a transition period for Sony as they move away from the partnership with Ericsson, so the Ion represents one the last vestiges of that partnership. But the Ion sadly followed the unfortunate footsteps of the Xperia X10 and came to market far later than it should have to be an appealing offering in an extremely competitive market.

Overall, the Xperia Ion is a good offering but, to borrow words from TechCrunch's review, it is punching above its weight class. From the last gen hardware to terrible capacitive keys to launching with Gingerbread, the Ion stumbles on these fronts. These are offset by a solid 720p screen, solid construction/build quality, fast LTE speeds and the fact that it has been upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

If you're a fan of Sony Ericsson phones, and I know there are many out there, the Ion is their best offering yet, especially after getting upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich. But we have to urge people considering the Ion to wait for the upcoming Xperia T, as it will most probably best the Ion. Let's just hope it doesn't take as long as the Ion took to hit the market.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 8.5/10
- Incredibly solid feeling and great build quality but a tad unwieldy and quite difficult for one handed use.

Screen: 9/10
- Great 720p LCD display. Not SLCD2 or Super AMOLED HD but a close third.

Buttons: 6/10
- Good buttons are easily taken for granted, but the Ion reminded us (in a bad way) how important they are. Always good to see a hardware camera button.

Internal Hardware: 8/10
- Last summer's hardware. Good LTE speeds.

Battery Life: 7.5/10
- Not bad for an LTE device. Just about par. 1900mAh compensates decently for the separate LTE radio.

Speaker and Microphone: 8.5/10
- Great overall sound in terms of a phone. Disappointing loudspeaker.

Camera: 9/10
- Good camera experience. Betrayed by the high expectation of 12 megapixels and Exmor R sensor.

UI Changes: 7.5/10
- Quite a bit different from stock Android but really doesn't build on it. Bring cohesive look to broken Gingerbread UI (moot improvement with ICS Upgrade). Our review was literally a tale of two phone, one with an awful experience on an way outdated OS and one experience that is reminiscent of 2012 in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

Addition Enhancements: 9/10
- Bravia Engine and PlayStation Certification are nice additions that set it apart form the competition.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 7/10
- Heavy on preinstalled apps

Final Score: 8.0/10

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