I learnt in high school physics that an Ion is a tiny particle (we’re talking atom-tiny here) which is electrically charged. Years later, as I review Sony’s new contender in the smartphone market, I learn two new things – one, that the Xperia Ion is far from being small, and two, that this is a device that can get the user charged up with its features.

The latest to join the ‘screen giant’ smartphones like Samsung Galaxy SIII and HTC One X is the 4.55-inch screen toting Xperia Ion. At Smartbuy, we reviewed the erstwhile flagship Sony product, the Xperia S, and found that other than the giant screen, it was quite the entertainer, making a bit of a style statement too. So when the Ion landed on our test benches, we took out the same checklist that we used for Xperia S, and started our reviewing process.

The Lines and Curves

We loved the minimalist block of black that the Xperia S was, with sharp edges and a lot of black real estate that was the screen. The Ion carries only half of that design philosophy forward. It follows an almost unibody design, like the One X, save for one small rubberised removable panel, to insert the micro-SIM card and the microSD card.

The screen on this NXT-series blockbuster is a massive pool of black onyx, with four capacitive touch buttons with backlit underlining etched just above the Xperia badge at the bottom. As with the Xperia S, the screen is not discernible from the bezel when it is turned off.

What it lacks, is the transparent plastic band that came with three models on the NXT series, the S, U and Sola. Also, Sony hasn’t embraced Corning Gorilla Glass yet, and still uses the same old scratch-resistant, shatter-proof-sheet-coated mineral glass. It’s not like we put the handsets through a battlefield survival test at Smartbuy, but I am always confident that a phone with Corning Gorilla Glass is better at surviving the maelstrom that is my pocket.

The back panel, however, is a refreshing change from earlier models. As mentioned earlier, the only removable panel from the back is a small plastic one towards the top of the phone. A similar panel sits at the bottom of the phone too, albeit not removable. The remaining is a vast expanse of brushed aluminium, which in our review unit, was a deep shade of crimson. A speaker grille is placed right beneath the 12-megapixel camera and LED flash.

The combination of the black front and the deep red rear along with the use of metal makes the Ion a very desirable handset. The design philosophy of the Ion sometimes reminded me of the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10.

A single hatch on the left side panel contains the micro-USB port and micro-HDMI ports. The right side sports the volume rocker, dedicated camera button and the power button while the 3.5 mm audio jack sits on the top panel .

The Ion is not the slimmest phone in its category, but with its slim edges and a slightly thick middle, the phone fit quite comfortably in my palm, in spite of its screen dimensions, and reach to the hardware buttons was very comfortable.

Tech Inside

In terms of core technology, the Xperia Ion is the same phone as the Xperia S. It carries the same Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 chip as the Xperia S. The Dual-Core 1.5 GHz processor seems a little old when compared to the competitors, since the SIII and One X use quad-core processing units; with the One X sporting a GeForce GPU as well (the one on Ion is an Adreno 220, same as Xperia S). The RAM is also still at 1GB.

Good news is that if you were disappointed with the Xperia S’s lack of a memory card slot, the Ion has one that supports microSD storage of up to 32 GB, apart from having a 16 GB internal storage space (of which 12.9 GB is user accessible).

But that doesn’t stop the Ion from delivering performance where it needs to – entertainment. Sony offers a High Definition screen resolution of 720x1280, and with the screen size of 4.55 inches on the diagonal, the pixel density of approximately 323 pixels per inch is higher than One X’s 312 and SIII’s 306. Coupled with Sony’s Mobile Bravia Engine, the LED-backlit LCD screen with 16 million colours gives a brilliant picture output, at par with the Super AMOLED screens in the market.

The Xperia Ion is the first smartphone from Sony’s stable to roll out with Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich as the default operating system. The user interface remains the same Timescape UI as on the previous NXT series handsets, but with ICS, the menus are more customisable than ever and operation becomes a little smoother. The Sony Xperia Ion is also a PlayStation Certified device.

The 1900mAh battery is inaccessible, and is a slight improvement over Xperia S’s 1750mAh one, but as the screen size is also bigger, battery performance remains pretty much the same.

And loud it is

The Ion is a notch above its counterparts, when it comes to audio outputThe inbuilt speaker on the handset itself gave quite good results - Sony’s proprietary loudness enhancement engine, xLoud, gave a very boisterous but clear output even at highest volume levels. High fidelity audio was maintained throughout the volume range, on many different genres of music.

Even if you are not a fan of using the loudspeakers, you don’t have to worry. The Xperia Ion comes with the MH750 headset as a default accessory in the box, whose performance is quite brilliant. The in-ear buds pack quite a thump, and even without tweaking with the settings on the equalizer, I could get extremely clear output. The bass was powerful, but not so much as to give me a headache.

Click-talk

Like almost everything else, the camera too is the same one which we loved on the Xperia S. The 12-megger shoots pictures with really good clarity and details in sunlight. The Exmor R technology keeps the noise away in slightly bad lighting conditions. Pictures shot in darker conditions were only slightly grainy. Colour reproduction was also quite decent. The Ion can also shoot 1080p videos at 30fps from its primary camera.

The one thing that sets the Ion (and a few other Xperia smartphones also) apart from others is the dedicated camera hardware button. From working on almost any app and even from the lock screen, the camera app is only a half-second press of the camera button away. Although the camera app can also be accessed through the lock screen soft key, the physical key was faster to access.

The dedicated key activates the camera, activates auto-focus and even detects the scene (if it was configured to be on the auto-scene mode from the last time you used the camera) and clicks the picture in about a couple of seconds. It turned out to be quite useful when I had to just whip the phone out of my pocket and capture a frame that want going to last long enough.

The camera also features the 3D sweep panorama mode. The front camera is a 1.3 meg shooter, with 720p @ 30fps video capability, which I learnt (not from my usage but from the people who I Skyped with), produces clear images during video calls.

The HD Story

Sony’s Mobile Bravia engine leaves an impression, in High Definition. The Reality HD Display, coupled with the rich audio experience, watching HD videos on the Xperia Ion was a pleasure. I watched 5 episodes of Scrubs on 720p resolution, back to back, and the video output was quite good. The frames were rendered without any interruption, the picture quality was clear and the colours were rich.

Using the Ion

In an ideal world, I would want this entertainer to go on an on. Sadly, this Ion holds less charge that I would want it to. With all social network syncing (Twitter, Facebook, Timescape, Whatsapp), one synced email address, a little bit of surfing, some map usage and using the Walkman for sometime, left the Ion without any charge in about 12-13 hours. The performance could’ve been better if I had not switched 3G data on intermittently, but I’m guessing in regular conditions it should retain enough juice for about 15 hours.

Being marginally larger than the Xperia S, typing on the Ion’s soft keys is also slightly more comfortable. The keyboard is also customisable, with swipe recognitions and the option to switch to voice typing with the press of one soft key. The haptic response is also quite good.

The notification light is slightly disappointing. It isn’t as bright and big as it should be, to ‘notify’ us about missed calls and new emails.

We say

Although the Ion is more or less the Xperia S in a bigger body with a bigger screen and a better version of the OS, it is still a very different phone when it comes to the style factor. It still carries forward some of the problems that the NXT series is known for, like heating up, average battery life and not having enough ICS based features (like screenshot shortcuts), but all in all, it is a must-have for someone who loves entertainment on the go. With its rich audio and video quality, it can keep you entertained.

I would’ve loved to see this phone as Sony’s flagship phone for sometime, but with the Xperia T’s announcement at IFA Berlin 2012, new specs and features along with Sony’s usual entertainment based USP might land in your palms in a few months’ time.

Rs 35,999

Love – Great camera, rich HD multimedia experience

Hate – Average battery life, UI is still the same old

sabyasachi.b@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on September 4, 2012)
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