With the exception of the Xperia x10, Sony hasnít really released any phones in the past 2 years that were really aimed at the high end of the market. The Arc and Xperia S were both upper-midrange phones while the rest of Sonyís portfolio (Ray, Pro, Play) where aimed at the middle of the market.
The Sony Xperia ION marks Sonyís return to the higher end of the market. Probably the best thing about the ION is itís metal unibody. Itís a huge step up from everything else Sony has released in the past 2 years. Itís very solid plus it looks and feels great.
Inside, youíll find a dual-core 1.5Ghz processor, 1GB RAM and 16GB storage of expandable storage. On the wireless side, you get LTE support, which, given how congested HSPA networks are getting, is a must-have for any high end phone (at least till the iPhone gets LTE).
On the front is a razor-sharp, 4.6Ē 1280x720 display. The screen brightness measures a blinding 500nits. For whatever reason, Sony removed the auto brightness setting from the IONís menus (they do this with all their Android phones). An auto-brightness would have been great for when I wake up and want to check the time in the middle of the night.
Straight-on, the IONís display is very pleasing to the eye. Itís really bright though the brightness causes the black levels to suffer. The viewing angle isnít that great. Thereís noticeable colour shift once you move about 20 degrees off-center. While not perfect, overall, itís a pretty nice display.
There is a non-removable 1900mAh battery. Size-wise 1900mAh isnít bad. Itís bigger than what you get on the HTC One X though the Galaxy S III has a 2100mAh.
Like I mentioned earlier, the ION has a slick metal body. The screen bezel along with part of the sides are plastic while most of the back is metal. The only parts of the back which arenít metal are the plastic covers over the top (presumably where the antennas are housed) and on the removable bottom which is where the SIM and microSD card slots are.
Speaking of microSD, the ION has 16GB of built-in storage while the microSD slot can accept cards as big as 32GB.
Size-wise it's similar to other high end phones that have 4.6"+ displays.
There are 4 softkeys, menu, home, back and search.
Besides the missing auto-brightness settings, Iíve always disliked how the keys on Sony phones donít usually light up. While there is a thin line below each buttons that lights up, the buttons themselves donít. So, when itís dark itís impossible to see what the buttons do. I also found that the buttons require a little more pressure than Iím used to though I got used to it quickly.
The HDMI and microUSB ports are hidden behind a port cover. Sony users must love port covers because Sony keeps using them. I hate them personally. On my x10, I just pulled the port cover out and used it like that.
HDMI and microUSB jack cover.
Power, volume and camera buttons.
12MP autofocus camera with LED flash, speaker. The bottom part of the back comes off revealing the SIM and MicroSD card slots. Interestingly, the ION takes a micro SIM yet the slot is more than wide enough to accommodate a full-sized SIM. I tried a full-sized SIM but the slot is too wide.
While most high-end Android phones sport a 8MP camera, the IONís camera captures images at 12 megapixels.
Thereís a dedicated camera shutter button on the side. Pressing and holding it will launch the camera - even if the screen is off. Itís pretty convenient.
Focus speeds are slower than what Iím used to. I also found that you have to hold the ION very still because a lot of the pictures I took turned out blurry. Shot-to-shot speeds are also on the slow side. So, aside from being easy to launch I found the camera speed a little relaxed for my tastes.
Pictures have a lot of resolution, more than what youíd get from a 8mp cameras - the problem is that the IONís sensor is noisier than Iím used to. Thereís even some noise in shadows when outdoors when itís very sunny.
Indoors, the ION is very noisy. Personally, Iím not bothered by the noise but like I said, itís very noticeable. It struggles if there is a bright background (like a window) or you use it indoors without the flash; the window turn purple. It also struggles with focus. If you do use the flash indoors then it does a fine job.
While not a speed demo, the ION does a great job of exposing photos. It doesnít have the HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S IIIís raw speed.
Included are a sweep panorama, 3D sweep panorama and 3D sweep multi-angle modes. If youíre not interested in the 3D features youíre probably better with a 3rd party panorama program from Google Play.
As far as the camera goes you do gain some (more resolution) but you give some up too (noisier photos, slower camera).
Outdoors, captured video looks fine with good audio capture. Indoors, I found that the image stabilization sometimes goes a little crazy. In low light video can get really jerky.
Despite the xLOUD logo on the box, the built-in speakerís maximum volume and sound quality are both average. The iPhone 4s and Lumia 900 are both miles better in this regard.
If youíre a fan of Sonyís multimedia products, youíll be happy to know that the ION has a micro HDMI connector so that you can connect it to your TV without having to use a MHL cable. I also got a chance to play with the TV docking station for the ION. It will allows you to connect a TV along with a mouse and keyboard to the ION. When you connect it, it launches a special interface on your TV.
Whatís really cool about the TV docking station is that itís HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) compatible. When you connect it, you can control it with your TVís remote control provided the TV is also HDMI-CEC compatible. That would be most TVís sold after 2010.
While the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III both ship with Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) the ION comes with a customized version of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread).
The some of the customizations are actually similar to what you get with Ice Cream Sandwich. For example each side of the app launcher is flanked by 2 shortcuts. The shortcuts can be folders with more shortcuts in them. Folders can be created by by dragging shortcuts on top of each other.
Included is Sonyís Timescape widget. Itís a social media aggregator that supports Facebook, Foursquare, Linkedin and Twitter. It supports 3rd party extensions. There are actually quite a few including extensions for SMS, Gmail, NFL, RSS feeds, YouTube, etc
Track ID is a music identification service. You let it listen to some music and it will get information about it.
Connected Devices is a DLNA program. It allows you to view media thatís stored on a DLNA server. You can also use it to send media to compatible devices like many newer TVís, XBox 360ís, PS3ís, WDTVís etc.
The ION doesnít seem to support any additional video codecs over what you get from stock Android so itís a poor choice if you use it to watch anything other than what youíve recorded with the camera.
You can use Office Suite to view as well as edit and create MS Office documents.
LiveWare Manager automatically launches certain programs when you connect accessories. For example, you can have it launch the music player when you connect headphones. LiveWare Manager can also be used to control and send apps to Sonyís live view watch accessory and with Sonyís NFC smart tags (reviews for both are coming). I should point out that while LiveWare Manager comes pre-installed on the ION it also works with other Android devices and can be downloaded from Google Play.
Other extra programs include Music & Videos (a social media app), McAfee Security (anti-virus), PSM (just a link that tells you PlayStation Store will be available for the ION later), NeoReader (a barcode/QR code scanner) and Power Saver.
SunSpider (lower is better):
Sony Xperia ION: 2490.2
HTC One X (LTE): 1550.9
Samsung Galaxy S III (LTE): 1781.5
While all 3 phones are powered by dual-core 1.5Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon processors, the IONís is a S3 model which has Qualcommís older scorpion cores. The One X and S III are S4 models which have newer Krait cores. You can see what a huge difference a generation makes. The One X outscores the ION by more than 60%.
Vellamo (higher is better):
Sony Xperia ION: 1271.12
HTC One X (LTE): 2455.52
Samsung Galaxy S III (LTE): 2364.96
Here, the difference is even greater. The S IIIís score is over 86% higher.
Of course, there are lies, damn lies and benchmark scores. Is the IONís browser really 60-86% slower? To test this, I used the ION and my S III side-by-side. I loaded up a large webpage with lots of graphics (the specials page on a local computer store) and compared them. While both phones load the page at approximately the same speed, thereís a big difference when I scroll around. The S III stutters a lot less when Iím scrolling. However, the S III cheats - while the scrolling is nice and smooth, the parts of the webpage that are being scrolled are actually rendered in a lower resolution and donít become clear until you stop scrolling. The ION stays sharp though itís quite choppy.
When you zoom in, however the difference is much more noticeable. Scrolling, the ION is like watching a slide-show, whereas the S III, low resolution and all is smooth. So, while the S III is more usable, itís victory isnít as clear cut. A large part of the usability probably comes from its newer browser. It will be interesting to see what the ION is like when it gets its Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade.
GL Benchmark 2.1.5 (higher is betteR):
Sony Xperia ION: 3342
HTC One X (LTE): 5571
Samsung Galaxy S III (LTE): 5423
Besides a faster processor, the ION has an Adreno 220 graphics processor while the One X and S III are powered by Adreno faster 225 GPUís. Again the ION gets creamed with the One X scoring over 66% higher.
Sony Xperia ION: 18.1
HTC One X (LTE): 31.95
Samsung Galaxy S III (LTE): 29.8
The difference is even bigger here with the One X outscoring the ION by over 75% this time. Clearly, Qualcomm did a lot of work between each generation.
To test the battery, I charged the battery, enabled airplane mode and then played back a video at maximum brightness until the phone shut off.
Sony Xperia ION: 264
HTC One X (LTE): 267
Samsung Galaxy S III (LTE): 368
Battery life is in line with what youíd get from the HTC One X.
Sony Xperia ION: 495
HTC One X (LTE): NA
Samsung Galaxy S III (LTE): 756
For some reason I can't get AnTuTu tester to run on the HTC One X. I've tried both versions (dual and quad core) plus I've tried it on multiple units of the same configuration. At first I thought it was overheating so I tossed it in my freezer (in a zip-loc bag) but even then the test wouldn't finish.
As a Phone:
RF performance and sound quality are average. The earpiece's maximum volume could be louder.
While I love the Xperia IONís body, it has 2 weaknesses: the slower S3 processor and it currently ships with Gingerbread.
You could make the argument that while the S3 processor scores lower on benchmarks, the difference it makes in the real world isnít easily noticed. To be honest, I wouldnít argue with that too much. I compared the browser and downloaded some games like Riptide GP, Demolition Inc HD and GTA and they all run fine.
The thing is, when it comes to a high-end phone you want to minimize the number of compromises. The phone may be adequate now but what about in a year? Will it be as fast as itís S4 powered competitors?
Buying a phone thatís Ďjust powerful enoughí is more of a decision you have to make when youíre choosing a mid range offering. On the other hand, developers usually have to weigh the trade offs between making a really awesome looking game and one that runs on as many phones as possible. So I doubt there will be many programs that wonít run on the ION because itís not powerful enough.
From a compatibility standpoint, itís true that Gingerbread phones usually run everything. You rarely see programs being updated so that they run properly on Gingerbread. I like to use Grand Theft Auto III as an example. When it first came out on Android, it wouldnít run on any of my high-end phones. I was stuck using it on my older stuff.
Itís also true that there are some performance differences between Gingerbread and Jellybean. Jellybean runs more smoothly and generally speaking runs programs a little faster.
The problem is that when you buy a high end phone you want one that feels future-proof and frankly, Sony releasing their flagship phone with Gingerbread in Q3 2012 is questionable. One of the Galaxy S III and HTC One Xís main features are that they run Ice Cream Sandwich. Ice Cream Sandwich is one of the reasons why those phones were released. If you wanted to buy a high-end computer, would you want Windows XP or Windows 7 on it?
Still, the Xperia ION is an intriguing choice. Itís much more satisfying to hold than the Galaxy S III/HTC One X. While not perfect, the screenís outdoor performance makes it an interesting alternative.
When you think of Sonyís brand you think of expensive televisions and fancy portable electronics. However, lately the Sonyís brand has been taking a beating. The high-end of the market used to be their territory. Now, with the release of the ION theyíre returning home.
- Metal unibody
- screen works great outdoors
- No Android 4.0 at launch
- Graphics performance
- port covers
- no auto brightness
- speaker not loud enough