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Sony Xperia TL (AT&T) review: Sony's new smartphone hits the mark

The $99.99 Sony Xperia TL is a fantastic value and its best Xperia smartphone yet.

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Brian Bennett
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Brian Bennett

Senior writer

Brian Bennett is a senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET. He reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from cordless and robot vacuum cleaners to fire pits, grills and coffee makers. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he rides longboards downhill in his free time.

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6 min read

The new $99.99 Xperia TL is the phone I’ve been waiting for from Sony for quite a while. Frankly it’s the handset the Xperia Ion should have been. Thanks to a swift 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and a camera that snaps high-quality images, the Xperia TL is both affordable and very capable. It’s right up there with HTC’s similarly priced One X, and a better deal than Samsung’s Galaxy S3. Of course having Daniel Craig whip the handset out in the latest Bond flick "Skyfall" while doing battle with Britain's bad guys doesn’t hurt, either.

Sony Xperia TL (AT&T)
8.0

Sony Xperia TL (AT&T)

The Good

Sony's new $99 <b>Xperia TL</b> has a swift processor, 4G LTE, long battery life, and a powerful camera.

The Bad

The Sony Xperia TL is heavy, and its conservative looks don't pack much of a punch.

The Bottom Line

The Sony Xperia TL is a fantastic value and Sony's best U.S. smartphone yet.

Sony's Xperia TL is powerful and priced to move (pictures)

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Design
At first glance, the Sony Xperia TL doesn’t stand out much from the typical dark, rectangular slabs flooding today’s Android handset market. Clad in a buttoned-down all-black color scheme, though, I do admit the Xperia TL certainly won’t clash with a sharp tuxedo.

Measuring 5.1 inches tall by 2.6 inches long and 0.4 inch thick, the Xperia TL is practically identical physically to its predecessor, too, the Xperia Ion (5.2 x 2.7 x 0.4 inches). Both phones are constructed from darkly hued metal and glass as well, and feature 4.55-inch LCD screens with the same 1,280x720-pixel resolution.

The Xperia TL sports Sony's classic curved back. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Xperia TL and Xperia Ion also tip the scales at roughly 5 ounces. The TL’s 5.1-ounce weight definitely feels more substantial compared with the Ion’s lighter 4.7 ounce heft. Above the screen sits a 1.3-megapixel camera to snap vanity and self-portrait shots, along with a thin earpiece and ambient light sensor. You won’t find any physical controls below the display; instead the Xperia TL relies on three software buttons spelled out in symbols for back, home, and recent applications.

Sony Xperia TL
All the Xperia TL's controls are placed on the phone's right side. Brian Bennett/CNET

The only tangible controls run along the Xperia TL’s right edge in the form of a tiny power key, volume rocker, and camera button. On the phone’s left edge is a Micro-USB port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack is placed on top. You’ll see the phone’s main 13-megapixel camera and LED flash on back. Similar to what you'll find on HTC handsets, the lens protrudes from the surface slightly, which may annoy those who prefer it to be flush.

I do like how Sony adds a bit of design flair here with the back surface chiseled from anodized aluminum to resist scratches and dings. The phone’s 1,850mAh battery isn’t removable, however, but you can add additional memory via a microSD card slot, which is hidden under a rubber flap.

The Sony Xperia TL's back is crafted from anodized aluminum, which resists scratches and dings. Sarah Tew/CNET

Display
The Sony Xperia TL uses a large 4.55-inch (1,280x720-pixel) LCD screen, which gets very bright and presents details sharply. Compared with AMOLED screens, such as the ones found on the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Motorola Droid Razr HD, contrast was low and viewing angles narrow. Sony’s Bravia Engine software setting tried to address some of these issues but just made colors look wildly oversaturated.

Software and UI
Thankfully the Xperia TL comes with the modern Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system preloaded. That’s a far cry from the Android 2.3 Gingerbread used by the TL’s predecessor. Of course this isn’t Google’s most recent version of Android, 4.1 Jelly Bean.

The lock screen is very basic, just a long virtual slider you drag from left to right along the bottom edge. A digital clock displays the current time and date in a thin, sophisticated font, but there are no quick launch icons to jump straight to important phone functions here. Swiping right though will push the clock to the side in favor of music playback controls.

Sony Xperia TL
The Xperia TL's lock screen is basic. Brian Bennett/CNET

There are five home screens at your disposal, and you can fill them with widgets, application shortcuts, and wallpapers as you see fit. By default the Xperia uses the "Skyfall" theme that has the iconic James Bond gun-barrel eye view as the main backdrop; 007 sound effects are loaded, too, for e-mail alerts and ringtones.

Sony Xperia TL
Configure the home screen to your tastes. Brian Bennett/CNET

Features and apps
Thanks to its Android software, the Xperia TL comes equipped with all the skills that qualify it as a true Google device. It connects to all the standard Google apps and services, such as Gmail, Maps, and Navigation. There are also shortcuts to enter the Google Play store for books, music, and movies. You’ll find useful third-party applications as well, like the Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader app, 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.

Just like the Xperia Ion, the Xperia TL supports access to Sony's own multimedia storefronts, called 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.

Camera
Sony makes a big deal of the Xperia TL’s 13 megapixel camera, touting its outstanding image quality and nimble performance. The company made the same claims about the Xperia Ion as well, but that handset failed to live up to the hype.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the images the Xperia captured. Under low light, the phone was quick enough to nab images of tricky subjects such as fast-moving children. Outdoors, colors in my test images were accurate and I observed sharp details.

Sony Xperia TL
Capture those precious moments, even with tricky subjects. Brian Bennett/CNET

One issue I didn’t appreciate is that while the Xperia TL can fire off images in under a second, often the autofocus took a few moments to lock on properly. The phone’s camera app does boast many shooting modes and settings. You can even drag function icons, say the ISO, for example, and place them on the main camera screen for easy access.

Sony Xperia TL
On a cloudy fall day, details were sharp and color accurate. Brian Bennett/CNET

Sony Xperia TL
Use the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera to snap self portraits. Brian Bennett/CNET

Still life shots were a little dark but clear. Brian Bennett/CNET

Performance
Equipped with a powerful 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and 1GB of RAM, the Sony Xperia TL pushed its Android 4.0 software along with speed and responsiveness. That’s a big improvement compared with Sony’s older Xperia handsets, which were powered by weaker S3 chips, the Xperia Ion included. Menus and applications opened and closed quickly with no noticeable lag.

Synthetic benchmark tests confirmed the Xperia TL’s agility, with the handset notching a high Linpack score of 166 MFLOPs (multithread). By contrast, the Xperia Ion managed only 88.6 MFLOPs on the same test. That said, the HTC One X earned a higher 205.7 MFLOPs.

Call quality on AT&T’s CDME network in New York was rock solid, with callers sounding loud and clear through the earpiece. People on the other end, however, could easily tell I was calling from a mobile phone and heard a slight hiss in the background.

Data speeds over AT&T’s 4G LTE network in New York were very swift, though, and I measured average download speeds at a blazing 18.9Mbps. Download throughput was high, too, coming in at a consistent 6Mbps.

Sony Xperia TL
AT&T's LTE data speeds were very fast. Brian Bennett/CNET

Even though the Xperia TL packs impressive processing muscle, the phone's 1,850mAh battery managed to last a long 7 hours and 30 minutes in the CNET Labs video battery drain test. It involves playing a looped HD video continuously. The HTC One X lasted for 6 hours and 35 minutes on the same benchmark, and Samsung’s Galaxy S III persevered for a long 9 and 24 minutes before throwing in the towel.

Performance: Sony Xperia TL
Average LTE download speed 18.9 Mbps
Average LTE download upload speed 6 Mbps
App download 646KB in 3.17 seconds
CNET Mobile site load 3.96 seconds
CNET Desktop site load 5.47 seconds
Boot time 30 seconds
Camera boot time 1.6 seconds

Conclusion
Early this year when AT&T and Sony announced plans to sell the Xperia Ion, I had high expectations. Sadly that phone’s camera, outdated software, and sluggish processor kept it from achieving high marks, despite a low price. Now Sony has come roaring back with the sequel, the Xperia TL. At just $99.99, the device offers the modern Android 4.0 OS, Snapdragon S4 CPU, and a camera capable of snapping quality images. You also get swift 4G LTE access and long battery life as part of the deal. Still, the Xperia TL’s sober design doesn’t exactly have looks to thrill. If you’re not a Bond fan or dedicated to the Sony brand, I suggest getting the $99.99 HTC One X, which offers the same level of performance and more style, though less battery life and slightly better camera. Otherwise, the Sony Xperia TL is a very technologically shrewd purchase that even Q would agree to.

Sony Xperia TL (AT&T)
8.0

Sony Xperia TL (AT&T)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8
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