Sony Xperia Ion Review (AT&T)

I’ve been playing with Sony’s Xperia ion on AT&T for the past several weeks. It’s a compelling smartphone: the first with Sony branding on AT&T, and it offers a 12-megapixel camera, an attractive industrial design and bonus extras such as NFC and an HDMI-out port. Ultimately, however, I’m struggling with my recommendation for this phone because there’s one aspect of it that totally ruins the experience for me: its battery life. Let’s take a dive into all of the features and see if, ultimately, the poor battery life is the nail in the Xperia ion’s coffin.

Hardware

I like the Xperia ion’s build — even though its sexiness doesn’t hold a candle to the Galaxy S III or the One X — and I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I had one friend comment that the phone “looks beautiful” while I was out to dinner. I like that there’s a hatch to hide the microUSB and HDMI-out ports, the 3.5mm headphone jack is placed appropriately on the top of the phone, and the volume buttons and power controls were all in easy reach. I love the camera quick-launch button and wish more manufacturers added this. There’s also a 12-megapixel camera on the back and a front-facing camera that supports HD video chat. I’ll discuss those two features in the camera section of this review. I also really liked the black color scheme of the phone: it accents the front display nicely.

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Speaking of the screen, the Xperia ion is equipped with a large 4.55-inch display with a 1280 x 720-pixel resolution. Unlike the Galaxy S III’s display, I was actually able to view the screen outdoors just fine. Plus, an HD video sample that came pre-loaded on the phone looked awesome thanks to Sony’s mobile BRAVIA engine. The blacks were dark and the colors popped nicely, but it had pretty terrible viewing angles. I definitely prefer the screens on the One X or the Galaxy S III — each has its own strengths, but the Xperia ion screen is solid at the phone’s $99 price point.

I loaded up a few movies and played them back on my HDTV using the Xperia ion’s HDMI-out port. It worked well but it’s just a mirror image of the phone, so you can’t really do anything while it’s connected to the TV but watch videos or browse your photos. I did appreciate Sony’s custom user interface that pops up once the phone is connected to the TV, however. It made it much easier to quickly find my media. Unfortunately, I did notice that my videos skipped a few times while I was playing them back on the television. Overall, though, it was a satisfactory experience.

Software

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Sony decided to launch the Xperia ion with the older Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, which is a weird move since every other major smartphone is now launching with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Thankfully, the company customized the software a bit so that there are a few ICS-style features. The folders on the homescreen are nice and clean, for example, it supports NFC for collecting tags or customizing the company’s Xperia SmartTags, which can be used to activate certain features on the phone much like Samsung’s TecTile stickers.

The phone’s dual-core 1.5GHz processor performed decently. I experienced a bit of sluggishness during my review period but it was able to keep up nicely while flipping through menus. I did notice that the processor was a little slow at loading 12-megapixel photos in the gallery, however. There was typically about a 1-2 second wait time for the photos to come through clearly.

Camera

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As I mentioned earlier, the Xperia ion comes with a 12-megapixel camera. The HTC One X and the Galaxy S III, by comparison, both pack 8-megapixel shooters. The camera took great shots, but I couldn’t really distinguish that they were much better than the photos I have shot with the afore mentioned models. It’s nice to say a phone has a 12-megapixel shooter, but the megapixel count isn’t everything. For instance, you’ll get a much better camera experience on the Galaxy S III or the One X because both phones offer a rapid fire option for quickly snapping photos with zero-second delay. The Galaxy S III even has a unique buddy share feature that allows you and a friend to snap photos and share a single gallery across your devices. No, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Xperia ion camera; it just feels like most other cameras I’ve used and I wish Sony stepped outside of the box more and built on its capabilities.

That said, low light performance was excellent and I didn’t see much grain in those photos. Similarly, I found that the front-facing camera was much clearer than that on the HTC One X, which means video chats should look a bit better — depending on the speed of your connection, of course.

Data/Call Quality

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Call quality on the Sony Xperia ion was solid. I really enjoyed using it as my daily driver for about two weeks and was pleased with the phone calls I made. Its 4G LTE data connection was also stellar and on a par with the speeds I’ve seen from other 4G LTE devices on AT&T. There are parts of Manhattan that provide terrible service, however, and the Xperia ion didn’t offer any improvements there. I averaged about 11 Mbps down and 3-4 Mbps up.

Battery Life

The Xperia ion has the worst battery life of any Android smartphone I’ve tested in recent memory. I reached out to the company for comment — I thought maybe my review unit had something wrong with it, but the company simply said that it’s common for 4G LTE smartphones to run down a battery rather quickly. Sure, that’s true, but I didn’t have the same issue with AT&T’s One X or Galaxy S III. How bad was it? I found that I could barely get into 1:00 p.m. in the afternoon before the phone was dead. You can seriously watch the battery drain — I’m not kidding.

The device performed better when I took it to New Jersey in an area without 4G LTE coverage and where it was forced to instead stick to AT&T’s HSPA+ network. I saw a few additional hours of battery life here but, again, most people are probably buying a 4G LTE phone with hopes of actually taking advantage of those speeds.

Thankfully, it comes with a super fast charger that can provide up to 45 minutes of talk time after just a quick 15 minute charge. There were two problems with that: First, the cord is far too short and, second, I found myself carrying the charger with me everywhere just so that I could make it through the day. It seems to me that there’s a serious software issue at hand that needs to be adjusted, but Sony didn’t appear to have one in the works.

Wrap-Up

I fell in love with the Xperia ion when I picked it up and now, weeks later while I write my review, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness when I look at it. It offers a solid camera, HDMI-out for connecting to your HDTV, a decent display and a sharp form factor all for just $99 with a new two-year AT&T contract. I just have a really tough time recommending a phone that has such poor battery life. It’s bad. We rely on our smartphones for staying in touch all day long and, with the Xperia ion, you’ll be lucky if you still have juice remaining at 3:00 p.m. Sure, you can keep it plugged in while you’re at work, or can quickly give it some extra juice before you head out thanks to the super fast charger, but it’s still a big letdown. My advice is to save up the extra $100 and head out and buy the Galaxy S III or the HTC One X. You’ll be glad you did.

Note: I will gladly update this review with a new score should Sony discover an issue to fix the battery life.

AT&T Sony Xperia ion Gallery

Rating - Mobile - 5