First Impressions: The Sony Xperia Ion LTE on AT&T


I like Sony hardware a lot. They have a unique design philosophy, and in a world of flat, large-screen slabs of glass, Sony always manages to make THEIR flat large screen slab feel a little unique.

Rather than take a couple pics of the device in an office, AT&T PR folks took a few of us bloggers out to Universal Studios to put the phone through its paces.

Did the Sony hold up, or did it get Ion-ized? 

It’s difficult to place where the Ion should fit into a phone lineup. Sony has delivered an odd mix of high and mid-range features.

The 4.55″ 720P screen is gorgeous, and deserves the “Bravia” branding Sony is leveraging. On board is a 12MP rear camera, 16GB of on-board storage with support for MicroSD cards up to 32GB, LTE data connectivity, and a 1900 mAh battery.

Those are all great, but the Ion also comes packing an older Qualcomm dual core processor (no Krait or quad-core here), and perhaps most disappointingly, this guy is also packing Gingerbread. Yup. Android 2.3.7.

Let’s start there. It strikes me very odd that any phone manufacturer would release a phone today and heavily skin it to resemble Android 4.0. It seems like a fantastic waste of internal resources, hiring software developers to duplicate functionality that’s baked into the newer version of Android.

Thankfully, Ion is on the list for a future Ice Cream Sandwich update; but it’s yet ANOTHER device with which customers will be playing the waiting game. Even more frustrating since we’re probably getting close to the release of Android 4.1 “JellyBean”.

Sony’s Timescape UI is as pretty as ever, but it’s marred by the combination of high resolution screen, older OS, and older dual-core processor. After using phones like the Galaxy Nexus and HTC One X, those annoying little stutters, lags, and frame drops are back. Such is the curse of Gingerbread. I would expect the phone to feel much smoother once it’s updated.

The phone’s crown jewel is it’s 12MP camera. I love Sony’s camera app, allowing you to customize which options and settings you want to keep on the screen while shooting stills and video. For as choppy as the UI can be, the camera app is silk. Even with a powerhouse like the HTC One X, the camera live view can feel a little stutter-y. Sony has somehow managed to keep the preview frame rate extremely high, so as you preview your shots, movement is deliciously smooth.

Picture output is very good. In good light, output is crisp and fast. Colors are nicely saturated. It’s not a zero lag shutter, but it comes pretty close. Indoors and in low light image quality degrades, and details start to smear. It’s a better camera than the one on the Lumia 900, but it wont best the low-light monster in the HTC One X.

The camera app also features one of the easiest to use panorama  sweep features I’ve used on a cellphone yet.

Video is another matter. The camera stores a very high-quality file (with surprisingly good sound), but there’s no image stabilization that I could find. Holding as still as I could still resulted in a jittery quality to all the video I shot. It’s not bad, but it can be a little distracting.

The Ion includes a handful of other welcome hardware decisions. HDMI is on board, and is a separate port. I wasn’t able to test HDMI output at the amusement park, but it’s a welcome addition.

I adore having a dedicated camera button. No phone should ever go without a dedicated hardware button for the camera. It’s so damn useful, and I hate looking for a camera app when I want to take a pic. Also, NFC is on board; but again, there wasn’t anything around for me to test it on.

Build quality is very nice. We’re treated to another brushed aluminum, rounded Xperia back. It really does give the phone a unique look for a big black slab. Holding the phone one-handed for long periods of time can get a little fatiguing, and the edge of the screen can dig into your palm a bit; but with screens this large, I tend to use the phone two handed. In all, I thought it felt better in the hand than the rectangular Galaxy S II.

Battery life was respectable. The phone was in almost constant use for the five hours I was at the park, and only when I was returning it to an AT&T rep did I get a low battery warning. Not bad at all for a 4G phone.

The wrap up?

Well. I like it. I don’t LOVE it.

Two year contract price is $99, and it’s a compelling offering for the mid-range.  It’s almost a premier handset, but not quite; and thankfully it’s priced appropriately. It’s also comforting to know that the Ion will get better with age, especially once its upgrade to ICS drops. Not a bad proposition when put up against a Galaxy S II or a Nokia Lumia 900.

It’s such an odd match up of high end and mid-range specs; but if you can overlook some of the issues, you’ll be treated to a solid mid-range performer, with an attractive price tag for LTE–and with a unique style not often seen in an Android handset.

I have to send a special shout out of thanks to our #ATTMobileReview reps for taking us out for the day at Universal Studios. It was an extremely fun way to interact with the phone and put it through it’s paces.