Sony Xperia Ion
5th Sep 2012 | 00:46
Sony's Xperia Ion may lack substance, but makes up for it style
Introduction, Hardware and Design
The look and feel of Android devices has been a hot topic for some time now, and which has recently come to a boil, in the form of litigation. Many diehard Apple fans contest that Android smartphones and tablets, or at least certain models, shamelessly rip off Cupertino. And believe it or not, the other side sometimes shares that sentiment.
Many choose Android because they want a break from Apple and are never thrilled whenever a new handset arrives looking a lot like an iPhone 4S.
These people crave something distinct, something different, both inside and out.
Thankfully, a few parties are attempting to do just that. And, those who truly want "think different" might want to look towards Sony. Specifically the Xperia Ion. It represents the very best that Android can possible be.
But at the same time, it still represents some of the most inherent frustrations that plague the platform and that users must still continually cope with.
Hardware and Design
There are many ways to describe to the Xperia Ion. Its distinct design might not beautiful to all, but it's most certainly and undeniably bold. The thing simply has presence and oozes confidence. Its sharp angles offer a break from the super safe curves you normally see, and is a breath of fresh air.
At 5.2 x 2.7 x 0.4 inches, the phone is fairly large. Its considerable profile is the primary reason for its imposing presence. Yet, the Ion fits comfortably in one's hand without becoming too much to handle.
And given how much space it takes, its 5.1 ounce weight is surprisingly light.
At the very top is the 3.5mm headphone jack. On the right is the power button, the volume rocker, and a camera button. On the left, where one would normally find the volume keys, is the micro USB port, to connection the Ion to a PC or the AC adapter, and HDMI port, to connect the device to a HD television. Both obscured by a small door. The bottom, aside from the microphone, is totally bare.
The back of the Ion is simply gorgeous. Its mostly brushed aluminum back is curved and very eye-catching, and more importantly, a joy to touch. It unfortunately dirties quite easily, but thankfully, it's ultimately quite durable.
A sleek backside
The back is also where one will find the 12 megapixel camera lens, and a flash. Again, Sony's industrial designers did a great job spicing up what is often a very (needlessly) boring part of a phone.
Initially it appears that the back does not open up, like Apple's iPhone 4s, but of the two plastic strips at the top and bottom, the one up north is actually removable. Inside you'll find the micro-SIM tray and micro SD slots (which is empty) in case the 16GB of internal storage is not enough.
The highlight of the front is the large 4.6-inch 1280-by-720-resolution display, capable of 720p. Apple has the Retina Display, and Sony has the HD Reality Display.
Performance wise, it's extremely impressive, with bright and bold colors, provided if the conditions are right. Being indoors, outside, or under the sun makes the screen exceptionally hard read.
At the top is a status light, front facing camera that is also 720p, and the AT&T logo is impossible to ignore. Android handset almost always displays the carrier's logo, this is hardly new, but given how much attention to detail was given to the phone, it sticks out quite awkwardly.
At the bottom are the usual row of home Android icons, in the form of captive buttons. Under each is an illuminating light, which activates accessed. One has to wonder why the icons themselves are not-backlight. Seems like such a unnecessary quibble, but again, when style is clearly the name of the game, it needs to be mentioned.
Otherwise, the overall look of the phone strikes an intriguing mix of mid 80's, boxy aesthetics and modern day flair (which somewhat channels the heyday of portable Sony electronics, specifically the era of the Walkman. But one that, once more, becomes stained quite easily. The front is a finger print magnet like no other phone before it, or so it feels.
Software and Interface
Inside you'll find a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S3 CPU, which is getting long in the tooth by some standards, but is more than up for the task of running the Ion. However, given that it's running Gingerbread (version 2.3.7), it's little surprise that Sony's latest hardly breaks a sweat.
Again, what should be an Ice Cream Sandwich device is not. Though it's certainly capable of being one.
The Ion is available with 4.0 out of the box, but not through AT&T, and there is no word on when an update is pending. Hopefully soon.
In its place is Gingerbread with much of the ICS trimmings, at least visual speaking. Sony's skin for Android is, in this reviewer's opinion, one of the nicest yet. In some ways, it's actually superior to the stock Google OS experience.
Issues with the apps
It's the little things, like when the display powers up from being asleep, much like an old CRT TV being turned on, to home screen quickly sliding away when the app drawer in accessed. But the best graphical flourish is when an app is chosen, for placement on the homescreen. Its like a piece of fabric being waved around in a slightly windy climate. And the best part is, such fanciness doesn't bog anything else down.
But the apps themselves are where cracks in the armor first starts to show. Let's start with carrier supplied apps: many sit side by side Google's own offerings, and as is often the case, this can lead to much confusion to the novice smart phone user.
You have AT&T Navigator, for example, which offers turn by turn, GPS assisted driving directions. But is it honestly that much better than Google own Navigation app? Not really.
Thankfully there's not too much bloatware to speak of (there's an app to allow connectivity to your PC, an app to keep track of family via location services, a QR Code reader, and that's basically it). Which is appreciated, because what little that's present is fairly confounding.
Example: there are three apps, all side by side, all with message in the name. First there's AT&T's Messages app, the default texting app that's referred to as Messaging, and Google's own Messenger app that hooks into Google+. Pretty confusing huh?
It gets somewhat worse. When you first launch Sony's Movies app, you must download updated data, which is fine. But, before the components can be installed, you'll get a warning that states that it might not work, because they were not acquired by the marketplace.
You also get instructions to fix this issue, and sure enough, when clicking the "Proceed" button, you're denied and must go into settings to click the appropriate checkboxes.
This is fine for the power user, but we can imagine it being supremely confusing to those new to Android or smart phones in general.
What's more, another warning pops up saying that this app will replace another application. Ultimately, whenever you update an app on an Android, iOS, or even Windows Phone device, you're essentially getting rid of the old and replacing it with the new. But this information is presented in such harsh tones that it might freak a few people out.
Back to Sony's makeover: Many stock Android apps have a new coat of paint, especially when it pertains to the media suite. Sony again is trying to tap into it's Walkman roots.
The Music Player app has an attractive looking interface, but it's the FM Radio app that's the most pleasant surprise.
The ease of use, and ability to operate in the background in most cases, will ensure you that you'll always be listening to something, even if you've yet to update your mp3 library.
And no mention of Sony's interface is complete without mentioning Timescape, it's social networking aggregator. Simply give it permission to access your Twitter, Facebook, and other social identifications, and it's presented in the same, pleasing interface that rules the rest of the phone.
But in terms of actual functionality, hardcore Twitter and Facebook users might want to keep their associated apps handy nonetheless.
Camera and Performance
When it comes to capturing imagery, both still and moving, the Xperia Ion is unfortunately a mixed bag. On the plus side, the dedicated camera button will activate the camera automatically, and in a pinch, far more so than many other Android devices.
The app itself is the not stock Android variant that we have become used to. As such, there's not nearly as much control offered, which is a shame. Though on the plus side, still image quality is great, in both outdoor and indoor situations. So fiddling with settings is not such a necessity.
Though one unexpected issue was the very slow auto focus. There's no real rhyme or reason for thus, and it can be frustrating when that crucial moment is lost due to slow focusing. Video quality also suffered greatly due to a lack of image stabilization. One will want to replace their point and shoot camera with the Ion, but after some misfires, one will inevitably return to what worked before.
Voice quality and battery life
Voice quality was fine on both ends. One must assume AT&T's 4G bandwidth plays a part in this. Speaking of which, the Ion is one of the fastest AT&T devices, in terms of surfing the web and downloading apps.
After an hour of use, which encompassed a 15 minute long voice call, 15 minutes of watching YouTube via the dedicated app (running on 4G, no WiFi), 15 minutes of playing a moderately graphically intensive game, and the rest of the time dedicated to surfing the web (again, using AT&T's signal), the battery life decreased just 20 percent. That's not stellar, but far better for most phones in the same price range.
This might be a good time to mention the price: Sony's Xperia Ion is an intriguing phone with many plusses and a number of hard to ignore minuses. And most in the later category are flat out annoying, but the stellar price goes long to make on try to forget and ignore said issues.
The overall design of the phone is utterly fantastic. It's massive, without being a burden, and is modern by tapping into a retro vibe that's not entirely common.
The processor is not the fastest by today's every increasing standards, yet it does an amazing job of keeping the show going. Unfortunately, the OS is yesterday's news, but there are enough graphical flourishes to ease the pain. At the very least, something better is around the corner, so if one is patient, it's not so bad.
But that wait might be difficult for some, due to the bizarre nature of how apps behave, enough to scare some first-time Android users.
When it comes to listening to music, the Ion is top-notch. When it comes to taking pictures and videos… not so much. This might be a good time to consider the reasonable price.
In the end, the Xperia Ion proves that Android phones can be different, yet some parts are business as usual, mostly under the hood. Still, it's a handset worthy of one's consideration.