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Sony Xperia Ion (AT&T) review: Sony Xperia Ion (AT&T)

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The affordable $99.99 Xperia Ion is more than just Sony's first U.S. smartphone to bear the Sony name after its Ericsson divorce, it's also the company's first foray into 4G LTE. Though similar to its international siblings, this American model is less flashy than the Sony Xperia line available across the pond. That's a real shame too since I really liked the Sony Xperia S as well as the Xperia P when I saw them up close at CES in January. Those handsets, while no speed demons to be sure, at least had a seductively stylish look driven home by a clear illuminated notification bar in their base.

Sony Xperia Ion (AT&T)
6.3

Sony Xperia Ion (AT&T)

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The affordable <b>Sony Xperia Ion</b> has solid call quality and swift 4G LTE that ties into Sony's vast entertainment empire.

The Bad

Lackluster images and video belie the Xperia's claimed 12MP camera. It's also held back by an old processor and an outdated OS.

The Bottom Line

The $99.99 Sony Xperia Ion looks like a good Android deal but its weaknesses make it not worth even the budget price.

It's not that the Xperia Ion doesn't try to impress in other ways. Besides its swift LTE data connection, it links into Sony's large library of music and movie content. But even those attributes are overshadowed by its aging Android Gingerbread software and an old Snapdragon S3 processor. The same goes for the Ion's camera performance, which isn't as capable as I had hoped. To catch fire in the U.S. market and compete with other successful phone makers, Sony really needs to step up its game with a lust-worthy halo device. Unfortunately, the Xperia Ion isn't it.

Design
A glossy black monolith of a smartphone, the new Sony Xperia Ion is handsomely styled. While it lacks the daring design elements of its European cousins, namely the Xperia NXT series, the Xperia Ion does flaunt an elegant if sober look. For instance, the handset doesn't have the futuristic notification bar that splits the Xperia P, S, and U's base in half. Translucent, that bar illuminates to alert you when important system events occur such as new messages and missed calls. It's a shame it's only found on the international Xperia models.

That said, the Xperia Ion has a sophisticated feel enhanced by its curved metal back and soft-touch trim coating the phone's rear top and bottom edges. Further lending to the phone's premium aesthetic is its hefty 5.1-ounce weight. Both the metallic backing and large 4.55-inch (1,280x720-pixel resolution) LCD screen however smudge easily and are fingerprint magnets.

In addition, I'm not a big fan of the Xperia Ion's display, which is dark and has a bluish cast, resulting in inconsistent colors. Photos on Web pages looked muted, while details in dimly lit sections of video were lost. I especially noticed the Ion's poor display when I viewed it next to HTC's superphone on AT&T, the HTC One X. The One X's screen (4.7-inch, 1,280x720 HD Super LCD) was noticeably brighter (with both phones set at maximum brightness) and its viewing angles were much wider than the Xperia's. The HTC One X also painted colors with a warmer, more pleasing palette.

The Sony Xperia Ion's big 4.55-inch display serves as a decent stage for movies and other video. Sarah Tew/CNET

Another drawback to the Xperia Ion's design is its lack of a removable battery, though the phone does have a microSD card slot to add more storage. Above the screen is a front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera (720p) for vanity shots and video chat. Below the display are four traditional Android Gingerbread symbols for Menu, Home, Back, and Search. Don't be fooled, these symbols aren't actual buttons, merely pictures drawn onto the device.

A microSD card slot is hidden under a compartment on the Ion's top edge. Sarah Tew/CNET

Below the icons sit the real keys, thin white lines, which provide haptic feedback and are also backlit. Unfortunately, the icons don't illuminate, so picking them out in the dark isn't easy. Neither is tapping the keys accurately since your instinct is to hit the symbols themselves. I ran into this annoyance every time I picked up the phone and I feel it is a major oversight.

Other buttons include a small power key and trim volume bar on the Xperia Ion's right side. There's a dedicated camera button here as well, which unlike on many Android handsets will wake the phone up from sleep and fire up the camera. By default the phone will even snap a picture immediately after the camera is activated. Running along the Xperia Ion's left edge is a flap cover hiding a Micro-USB port plus an HDMI connection so you can view content on compatible HDTVs.

Sony doesn't bundle any fancy text entry methods like Swype or other one-handed keyboard software. By default the stock Android Gingerbread layout is selected, but you can choose the Xperia keyboard, which is similar but has wider spacing between keys.

The Ion's Xperia keyboard layout is close to stock Gingerbread but slightly better spaced. Sarah Tew/CNET

Features and software
Android addicts will no doubt have a major beef with the fact that the Sony Xperia Ion isn't running the latest version of Google's mobile operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich. Instead of version 4.0, the Ion runs Android Gingerbread 2.3.7. Even so, Sony is quick to point out that it has added many of the popular features ICS brings to the table.

The Sony Xperia Ion's Gingerbread 2.3 OS is showing signs of age. Sarah Tew/CNET

For instance, you can quickly create folders by dragging and dropping app icons on top of each other within any of the Xperia's five home screens. Additionally, holding down the power button opens several options, including one for taking a screenshot.

As an Android device, the phone comes loaded with the standard allotment of Google apps and services, such as Gmail, Maps, and Navigation. There are also shortcuts to enter the Google Play digital entertainment stores for Books, Music, and Movies. Some useful third-party applications are here too, like Amazon Kindle, and MobiSystem OfficeSuite for viewing common business document formats. Of course, the entire Android software library is ready for you to download via the Google Play store.

The Xperia Ion supports access to Sony's own multimedia storefronts as well, which the company calls the Sony Entertainment Network. A Music Unlimited app will either stream custom radio stations, playlists, or specific tracks and albums for a $9.99 monthly fee. You can also store tunes locally for offline playback, which is very helpful for surviving long subway trips. Sony's Video Unlimited service, similar to services from other phone makers like Samsung and HTC, lets you rent or own movies and TV shows. For new releases, prices run about $4 to rent and $15 to keep.

Somehow didn't catch "tJohn Carter" in the Theater? Sony Video Unlimited has you covered. Brian Bennett/CNET

Camera
One of the Sony Xperia Ion's standout features is its high-resolution 12-megapixel camera. Sony also touts the fast capture time of the sensor. While I can confirm that the phone's camera indeed snaps pictures quickly, in under second, the autofocus is a bit sluggish, latching on in about half a second. All this adds up to pokey picture taking, especially when stacked against the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III, both of which essentially fire off images instantly.

The Xperia does have a few nice camera settings, including scene modes like Landscape, Portrait Night, and Party, just to name a few. There are extra modes too, such as Panorama and 3D Panorama, if you're so inclined.

Images I snapped with the camera were acceptable but far from great. Compared with the HTC One X's output, despite the Sony's vaunted 12-megapixel image resolution, shots were soft, less detailed, and full of noise. In the Xperia Ion's defense, it captured color more accurately than HTC's flagship handset. Frankly, though, I found the images I captured with the Nokia Lumia 900 clearer and more satisfying.

Details were soft and color noise rampant in our still-life shot. Brian Bennett/CNET

The Xperia Ion's backlit sensor was able to handle tough lighting but details were flat and processing heavy. Brian Bennett/CNET

This kid is cute but the image is dark considering the strong sunshine. Brian Bennett/CNET

Similarly, the Ion's camcorder recorded 720p-resolution movies that exhibited soft details and washed-out color. I also noticed a few stutters from time to time.

Performance
As it's packing a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor instead of the more recent S4 chips driving the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III (also 1.5GHz dual-core CPUs), I wasn't surprised to see the Xperia Ion turn in comparatively slow performance. The phone logged a Linpack Multi-Thread score of 88.6 MFLOPs, completed in 1.9 seconds. By contrast the HTC One X notched a much higher 170.2 MFLOPs in half the time, or 0.99 second. Samsung's latest dream handset, the Galaxy S III, beat back both, recording 175.7 MFLOPs in 0.96 second.

Sony Xperia Ion
The Sony Xperia Ion delivered blistering 4G speeds on AT&T's LTE network. Brian Bennett/CNET

My everyday usage of the Xperia Ion bore these numbers out. The phone felt very sluggish even during ordinary tasks like opening menus and the application tray. I even noticed a half-second delay opening apps. Frankly, it's not a very pleasant experience, especially coming from a high-octane handset. Nokia's Lumia 900 feels more responsive even though it runs less-robust hardware.

Besides bringing faster performance, the more efficient Snapdragon S4 CPU is an energy miser. Even so, the Xperia Ion demonstrated some degree of staying power with its Snapdragon S3. In my anecdotal battery test, which involves playing an HD video file continuously, the phone persevered for 7 hours and 57 minutes before expiring. The HTC One X lasted 6 hours and 35 minutes in the same test while the Samsung Galaxy S III trounced all comers, pushing through for a long 9 hours and 24 minutes before finally kicking the bucket. That said, in my experience the Xperia Ion's 1,900mAh battery barely managed to last through a full workday. I suspect the Snapdragon S3 chip uses more juice running on 4G LTE networks than its newer S4 sibling.

Data hogs will certainly appreciate the Xperia Ion's swift connection to AT&T's new LTE network. I managed to suck down data at a fast average clip of 24.7Mbps here in New York. Uploads were speedy too, coming in at an average of 5.8Mbps.

Many give AT&T's voice network a tough time, but in my experience the carrier has delivered rock-solid call quality, at least on the smartphones I've reviewed. The Sony Xperia Ion is no outlier, and I found that voices came in rich and likelike through the phone's earpiece. Callers also said it wasn't immediately clear my voice was being transmitted from a cellular line.

Conclusion
Sony's new $99.99 Xperia Ion offers some good features for its affordable price. The Android smartphone connects to AT&T's blazing-fast 4G LTE data network and opens the door to Sony's vast music and movie entertainment selection, not to mention the growing list of Android apps and services. But don't be fooled by its low cost; the handset is definitely a step behind today's flagship Android devices such as the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III.

Even the Xperia's 12-megapixel camera can't hold a candle to the imaging systems on those high-powered gadgets. A better choice is the Nokia Lumia 900, which for the same price has a more attractive design and better camera. Also, since it's running the less-demanding Windows Phone OS, the Lumia can get away with providing snappy performance for not much cash. But if you're wedded to Android on AT&T, then I suggest saving up for a more capable device.

Sony Xperia Ion (AT&T)
6.3

Sony Xperia Ion (AT&T)

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 6