The Xperia Ion is the first phone Sony has produced since its big split from Ericsson. It represents Sony’s challenge to high-end Android phones like the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S3 on AT&T — and at half the price ($100) — putting it in direct competition with the new Motorola Atrix HD.
At $100 cheaper than the top of the line smartphones, we expect that some corners will be cut. But are those cuts are worth the savings?
How it looks and feels
The Xperia Ion is a new breed of phone from Sony, likely because it actually is the first phone from Sony – sans Ericsson. It matches the large size of most high-end phones coming out this year, with a big 4.5-inch screen. That will undoubtedly make the phone too large for some of you. If so, we recommend the iPhone 4S.
The Ion has a black, square design with a rounded metal shell. Like the HTC One X, its sides jut out ever-so-slightly from the side, making it easier to get a firm grip, but less comfortable than the rounded edges of some of its competitors. The sharp corners of the phone are similarly polarizing: they look good, but if you hold it the wrong way, the corners will dig into your palm a bit.
Reaching the four haptic touch navigation buttons (Menu, Home, Back, Search) is also not hard, but we found them to be somewhat unresponsive. We often had to press a button a second time to get it to register. These may be touch buttons, but they require some pressure to work. This is the first time we’ve encountered this issue on a top-tier phone. It is still quite usable, but the annoyance of having to double press keys did wear on us.
We should also note that the screen is not covered with Gorilla Glass. It is scratch resistant, supposedly, but we managed to scratch it by accident. Fingerprints, however, haven’t been a problem.
Finally, it’s a small issue, and a feature that seems common in European phones, but we don’t love the port covers on the Ion. It looks cleaner, but if you want to charge your phone, you have to pull out a cover. We imagine something like this will be the first thing to get damaged, and will give you a headache if you try to buy a case for your expensive new phone.
If all of this sounds bad, well, it’s not. These problems are mostly small, but if things of this kind would bother you, please take them into account. This is a usable phone, but it’s not our favorite to hold.
Using the Xperia Ion
Sony has filled the Xperia with futuristic blue tones and smooth, crisp icons and logos. Compared to some manufacturers, Sony’s interface is quite clean and easy to navigate. Nothing here is too strange, and we really like the way widgets and icons wave around like paper as you move them.
The weakness comes from its foundation. Though you won’t realize it at first, the Ion still runs on Android 2.3, meaning it lacks some of the features and functionality of the Galaxy S3, Atrix HD, and One X. These phones all run Android 4.0 and there isn’t a great reason why Sony didn’t upgrade. By choosing an Ion, you will lose small things, like swiping away messages, and larger features, like access to the Chrome browser and the multitasking menu.
Not to harp too badly, but this phone is actually two generations behind now. With the Nexus 7 tablet, Google has released Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), which adds even more new features. Sony claims that the phone will be upgraded to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) one of these days, but never buy a phone hoping it will get better. We have little confidence this handset will ever see Android 4.1. If you buy an Xperia Ion, make sure you’re content with its interface as-is.
We do have to hand it to Sony, though. It has done something no other manufacturer has dared to do. The Xperia Ion’s app menu has a button that lets you instantly delete the crappy AT&T bloatware that comes on the phone. You can get rid of everything except the AT&T Navigator and “Ready2Go” apps.
Sony’s Music Unlimited app is also included, which is nice.
Overall, the Xperia Ion is usable, but not our favorite phone due to its outdated interface.
The processor on the Ion is one generation behind, but it mostly keeps up with top-tier phones in the specs department. It has a 4.55-inch TFT LCD screen with a resolution of 720 x 1280 pixels, runs on a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor (same as the Galaxy S2 Skyrocket and HTC Amaze), Google’s Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) operating system, 1GB of RAM and 15GB of internal flash memory for storage (though only 11.24GB are available to you). A microSD slot is available for those who need more storage. Common features like an accelerometer, GPS, BlueTooth 4.0, Wi-Fi, and 4G LTE are also included.
In the Quadrant processing benchmark, the Ion performed decently with a 2,800, but scored noticeably lower than competing devices. The Motorola Atrix HD, which is also $100 at AT&T, scored a 4,600; that is close to the scores of the HTC One X and Galaxy S3 (around 5,000). These numbers won’t mean much in day-to-day activity, but if you plan to play processor-intensive games or tax your phone in any way, the extra juice comes in handy.
One of the selling points of the Xperia Ion is its 12-megapixel rear camera, which is higher than the 8-megapixel norm for the industry. Numbers aren’t everything, we’ve learned. Though it can capture more pixels, the Ion still had a tough time focusing, especially in low-light environments. A few times, it wouldn’t focus at all. The camera performance roughly matched our Motorola Droid Razr, but rarely exceeded it. And the Razr does not have a great camera. The HTC One X, Galaxy S3, and iPhone 4S cameras kick the Ion’s pixel-rich camera in the kiester. But you be the judge.
On a tour of the USS Intrepid in New York City, we snapped a bunch of indoor and outdoor picks and a video of the Enterprise shuttle. Our videos were somewhat shaky and we noticed a lot of haloing around bright lights. If the quality looks good to you, don’t listen to us. The Xperia’s camera is certainly adequate, but it’s nowhere near the best in the market.
The Ion also has a 1.3-megapixel front camera.
Talking and texting
The voice performance of the Ion is on par with most handsets on the market, and we had no issues with reception. The number pad in the phone app is clear and easy to use as well. The only issue we had with calling and texting was the contacts application, which constantly tries to get you to use AT&T’s own contact manager (not a good idea). After some time, these prompts got on our nerves. 4G LTE connectivity was fast as usual here in Manhattan, but coverage of all kinds does vary depending on where you live.
The battery inside this Xperia may have been the inspiration for its name. Like most electronics, the Xperia Ion runs on a lithium ion battery. The 1,900mAh battery is about average in size for a phone with a 4.5-inch screen and has performed on par with other phones. You’ll get a day of light to medium usage, as usual. Have that charger ready every night though.
The Xperia Ion is not a bad handset, but it does feel about six months old. This is likely because it was first shown in January at the Consumer Electronics Show. Many things have changed since then, but the processor and operating system on the Ion have not. This phone runs on Android 2.3, which is two generations behind, and its processing speed isn’t in league with newer superphones like the One X and Galaxy S3. We also had some issues with minor screen scratching and navigation buttons that required multiple presses to register. Still, it was a usable smartphone and at half the price ($100) of its chief competition, the Xperia Ion isn’t a bad buy. Just make sure you try out the Atrix HD (also $100) first.
- Cheap $100 price
- Top-notch specs
- 12-megapixel camera
- 4G LTE connectivity
- Camera autofocus is slow
- Navigation buttons unresponsive
- Scratchable screen
- Runs old version (2.3) of Android
- Outdated processor compared to competitors
- USB port cover is cumbersome