There's a million smartphones out there, but Sony is trying to make its new Xperia Ion stand out from the crowd. It's got slick styling, excellent specs and a number of novel surprises. And it's clearly intended to be a flagship for the new Sony Mobile, which shed the old Eriksson name earlier this year.
Physically, the Ion is black, featureless and deliberately slab-like, albeit with a subtly rounded back that fits the palm well. It does take some practice to learn how to hold the unit's straight, sharp top edge near, but not pressed into one's ear. But this is true of most recent smartphones that dare to be non-phonelike in shape.
At 4.6", the Ion's screen is a very natural size, about as large as will fit comfortably in the average hand. Brightness, color saturation and resolution are excellent. Resolution is 1280x720 pixels, giving the Ion excellent pixel density. (Sony claims 342ppi, compared to Apple's 326ppi for the 3.5" Retina-display iPhone.)
Like Apple's Retina screen, the Ion's display makes it just about impossible to see individual pixels. But the larger screen size has even greater impact. Text and icons are supernaturally sharp. When browsing photos, you tend to forget you're looking at a handheld screen. Video feels very much like a high-def experience. Web sites are crisp and readable, even at low zoom levels.
True, viewing angles are somewhat restricted, with contrast falling off notably as you go past the 45-degree mark. However, for a personal handheld device, this doesn't seem like a serious limitation. Overall, the Ion screen is a real pleasure to use.
As far as audio, the Xperia Ion is one of the nicer-sounding phones I've used. As long as I had the device properly positioned against my ear, callers seemed almost to be standing next to me.
For music playback or video, speaker quality is crisp enough, but about as constricted as you'd expect from a tiny handheld device. Bluetooth headphones are supported, and that would clearly be the way to go.
The Xperia Ion's camera captures images at 12 megapixels. They're very sharp at normal sizes, but zoom in and the copious image noise will remind you that you're using a tiny cell-phone sensor, not a DSLR. Still, for a phone, quality is very good.
And on the plus side, image capture is also very fast. Using the dedicated shutter-release button, Sony boasts that you can go "from sleep to snap" in just over a second. My own unscientific tests confirm that claim.
You can also capture video at 1080p via the rear camera, and 720p via the front. Not much to complain about there.
One thing that did bug me a bit was the positioning of the standard Android soft buttons at the bottom of the display. The sequence on the Xperia Ion is: Menu, Home, Back, Search. This seems wrong; to me Back is always ‘to the left.' (Check your Web browser some time. Or the Undo button in most software.) However, it's a minor quirk that you quickly get used to.
Toolbar buttons are also quite dim, and can be a bit hard to see, especially when bright content is displayed right above them. They're also needlessly difficult to activate. I often found myself jabbing at them more than once before I got the right finger contact.
It also took me a while to figure out how to switch tasks. You press and hold the Home button. Easy, once you know how. None of these quirks are serious, but they do seem to indicate a tendency on the part of the Ion's designers to favor style over functionality.
A final issue with touch control is the lack of audio feedback when typing on the virtual keyboard. There's a tactile buzz you can enable, but I missed the more-positive beep that's offered by many other devices.
Storage capacity is good: the Ion comes with 16GB of internal memory, and allows up to 32GB more to be added using a microSD card. Through the end of the year, Sony is also offering 50GB of free lifetime cloud storage on its Box service.
The Ion's 1.5GHz dual-core processor makes everything feel reasonably snappy. The included version of Electronic Arts' Real Racing 2 looked great, with very sharp 3D graphics and smooth animation.
The Xperia Ion will ship with Android 2.3, but with a promise of a swift upgrade to Android 4.0. Android power users may be unconvinced, given how slow manufacturers have generally been in delivering OS upgrades. However, Sony representatives did say that the ‘Ice Cream Sandwich' update would be available by the end of Q3 this year. So we can only hope that the process is getting quicker.
Users will find the usual mix of apps on the Xperia Ion. One notable inclusion is Sony's Music Unlimited. Users will, of course, have to create an account, and pony up a subscription fee for full access.
Our test phone also had MobiSystems OfficeSuite 5. This lets you view Office documents, but editing them requires a $10 upgrade to the Pro version.
Sony is also offering some novel hardware accessories for the Xperia Ion.
For starters, there's going to be a Smart Wireless Headset Pro. This wasn't ready for our first look, but is expected to launch this summer.
The Smart Dock cradle connects to a TV via HDMI, and allows viewing of images and video, as well as playback of audio content. Sony's own Bravia TV remote can take control of the phone, and navigate using a customizable carousel app launcher. Turning on the Ion turns on the TV, via HDMI CEC. Four coloured buttons on the Bravia remote are employed for specific functions by the Smart Dock.
Xperia SmartTags are colored tokens, a bit smaller than a Loonie, that let the user activate pre-programmed macros. Just wave the token near the Ion, and Near Field Communications (NFC) does the rest. A package of 4 SmartTags goes for $29.99.
It's an interesting and potentially useful gimmick. One example Sony demonstrated was keeping a token by the bed, for switching the Ion to alarm-clock mode: set the alarm time, disable the phone, set maximum volume, whatever. Another tag can enable Bluetooth and GPS for use in the car.
One caveat: in order to register properly, tokens need to be touched to the top-rear of the Ion (when held in portrait mode). When they say ‘Near' Field Communications, I guess they really mean it.
There's also Sony's SmartWatch ($149). It connects to the Ion (and, presumably to other Android phones) by Bluetooth, and lets users quickly see text messages, Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and even the time.
The downside is that it's kind of huge and goofy-looking. Not likely to be mistaken for a Rolex. At least the rubbery default strap can be replaced, which would help. But it's hard to envision the target market for this device: a bit expensive for teens, way too geeky for the average adult.
On balance, though, the Xperia Ion itself is a very appealing device. The styling is sleek and modern. The software is standards-based, a bit behind the leading edge, but intelligently implemented. And the display is great, enhancing any visual applications, from Web surfing to watching feature films.
Sony says it will be investing in a major campaign to support the Ion and build awareness of the Xperia brand. Initial pricing on Rogers will be $49.99 with a 3-year FLEXtab voice/data contract.