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

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MSRP: $449.99

The Good The affordable Sony Xperia Ion 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 It's also held back by an old processor and an outdated OS.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.

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6.3 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

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.

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.

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.

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