Sony Xperia Ion Review: High On Style, Low On Brains

Let's get in our time machines. It's the Summer of 2011. Dual-core phones running Android 2.3 are all the rage. Nobody's seen an 720p screen on a phone yet. Manufacturer skins slow phones down, but oh well. Flash forward to today. You're holding what would have been last summer's best phone.

What Is It?

It's Sony's 4G LTE phone for AT&T. It's got a angular metal body, a 4.55-inch 720p HD screen, a 12MP camera, a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, and it runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread).

Who's it For?

People who want a hot body, but intelligence... meh.

Design

It's really good looking with futuristic, sharp lines on the front, and a big, gentle convex curve in the back. It has Micro USB and Micro HDMI, behind a little panel and a physical camera button. Made almost entirely out of aluminum, it's quite heavy, but very strong. It's definitely got a cool, original look.

Using It

After using Honeycomb for a while, going back to Gingerbread will make you want to punch yourself in the face over and over again. The skin Sony put on top only makes matters worse. More on this in a sec.

The Best Part

Design/build. Not only does it look good, it's solid as hell. I know because it fell out of my pocket while I was biking at 20MPH. Took it like a champ.

Tragic Flaw

It's so. Stupidly. Slow. Holy crap. There are two factors here. 1) While it's using a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, it's the older S3 processor, not the hot new S4. It's way less efficient and noticably slower. 2) It's running Gingerbread, which came out in December of 2010, and it's got a very ungainly skin foisted onto it. There is lag and stutter at every turn. Flipping home screens, opening apps. Brutal.

This Is Weird...

Oh, I don't know, how about Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) was released in October of last year, but Sony still put some 18-month old software on there instead. Someone screwed the pooch, bigtime.

Test Notes

  • The camera is quite good. Forget about the the 12MP spec, what's really significant is Sony's Exmor R image sensor which is really good in low light. In bright light it's not as sharp as it could/should be.
  • The capacitive buttons are a total train-wreck. It usually takes three presses for it to register. A deal-breaker in of itself.
  • The phone has NFC! But it doesn't actually seem to do anything yet. I guess it's ready for Ice Cream Sandwich, which is supposedly coming sometime.
  • Battery life is abysmal. Almost never made it through a full day of moderate usage.
  • The 720p display is really pretty good. In fact, at that size the 323ppi is essentially the same as the iPhone 4S (326ppi). But put it next to HTC's One X or EVO 4G LTE, and it looks lousy.
  • Lots of radio problems with the phone. GPS, Wi-Fi, LTE, all had trouble finding and then retaining a signal.
  • I like the Micro HDMI out, but the phone is not powerful enough to push 1080p, and everything is laggy. Forget gaming. And while the panel covering the ports might seem like a good idea, it ends up just being a pain in the ass.

Should You Buy It?

Did you just skip to this section? No, of course you shouldn't. The phone is beautiful on the outside but it runs like a dog turd in snow-melt. Maaaaybe it'll help when it upgrades to Android 4.0 (if Sony doesn't butcher it with its rather unappealing skin), but the fact that it's this far behind doesn't lend confidence. Even for a mid-range, moderately-priced phone, it shouldn't perform this poorly, and it certainly shouldn't have ancient software on it. Sony has been moving at a snail's pace in the Android race, and if it wants to have any impact at all, phones like this are not gonna do it.

Sony Xperia Ion Specs

• Network: AT&T
• OS: Android 2.3
• CPU: 1.5-GHz dual-core Snapdragon S3 processor
• Screen: 4.55 inch 1280x720p LCD
• RAM: 1GB
• Storage: 16GB + up to 32GB microSD
• Price: $100 (w/ 2 year contract)
• Giz Rank: 2.5 stars