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Sony Xperia Ion: Entertainment-Filled, but Running on Empty

When you hear the name Sony, you probably think of TVs, laptops or game consoles — cellphones, not so much. Now, after a decade of making smartphones under the Sony Ericsson brand, most of which were only available to international markets, Sony is making its own phones. And it’s working with carriers to bring more models to the U.S., starting with the Sony Xperia Ion.

Available now from AT&T for $100 with a two-year contract, the Xperia Ion is not only the first smartphone to be released by Sony, it’s also the company’s first 4G smartphone for the U.S.

I’ve been testing the Android smartphone for the past two weeks, and it offers some great features, such as a rich multimedia experience and zippy data speeds. The affordable price is also a plus, but it comes with some tradeoffs, including an older version of the Android operating system. But the smartphone has bigger issues — namely, poor battery life and low call volume — so it’s hard to recommend the Xperia Ion, even as a budget pick.

Though people use smartphones for much more than making calls these days, call quality is still an important feature. I tested the phone in San Francisco, and calls were clear without any background noise or voice distortion. Friends who were on calls with me also reported good audio quality, and a couple of people even said it sounded like I was using a landline.

Unfortunately, the Xperia Ion just didn’t offer enough volume on my end. Even in a quiet room, I had to crank the volume up to the highest level to hear my callers. Voices got drowned out when I had the TV on in the background, and continuing a call outside on a busy street was difficult. Trying to have a conversation over speakerphone in the same environment was nearly impossible.

On the positive side, I didn’t experience any dropped calls, and AT&T’s 4G LTE network provided some impressive data speeds. Here in San Francisco, I averaged download speeds of around 16 megabits per second and upload speeds of 6 Mbps, so I was able to pull up Web pages quickly and enjoy smooth playback of high-definition YouTube videos.

One thing to note, however, is that AT&T’s 4G network is currently only available in 41 markets. If you don’t live in a coverage area, the Xperia Ion will operate on the carrier’s 3G network, so in that case, expect slower data speeds.

That said, I wish the smartphone had an option to switch between 4G and 3G to help extend battery life. In my talk-time battery tests, the Xperia Ion’s battery delivered seven hours of continuous talk time on a single charge — short of Sony’s estimate of 10 hours. In everyday use, the smartphone struggled to last a full day.

I would start with a full battery around 8 am, and after checking my email and social networks, reading a couple of news articles on the Web, making soome quick calls and watching a short YouTube video, the battery was nearly dead by 3 pm. The battery life on 4G smartphones isn’t great, in general, but at least the HTC One X, another 4G smartphone from AT&T, offered about two more hours of battery life in the same scenario. What’s more, the Xperia Ion doesn’t have a user-replaceable battery, so you can’t even swap in a fresh battery if you aren’t near an outlet.

The Xperia Ion runs an older version of Android OS called Gingerbread, and not the latest Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s disappointing that Sony used this for its first smartphone in the U.S., but the company said it will be upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich. No specific time frame was given.

In the meantime, the company has integrated some of Ice Cream Sandwich’s features into its own user interface. For example, you can take a screenshot by holding down the power button, and create folders by dragging and dropping icons. But I did miss the dedicated task-switcher button in Ice Cream Sandwich that easily lets you move between apps.

One area where the Xperia Ion shines is multimedia. The smartphone offers access to Sony’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services, where you can stream unlimited music for $10 a month, or rent or buy TV shows and movies. Prices start at $1.99 to rent a show, and go up to $14.99 to purchase a movie.

Watching videos on the handset’s 4.6-inch HD display is a treat. With a 1,280 x 720 pixel resolution, images and text looked sharp, but the screen’s larger size makes for a bigger device. The Xperia Ion is bigger than the iPhone at 5.24 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide and 0.46-inch thick.

The smartphone has an HDMI port, so you can connect it to your HDTV to view pictures and videos stored on your handset. I connected it to my Samsung TV, and the Xperia Ion automatically launched an app that gave me access to all my media, YouTube and the browser. If you have a Sony TV, you can also use your remote to navigate through the app’s menus. This features also works on non-Sony TVs, as long as your remote has CEC (consumer electronics control) capabilities. I got a message saying my Samsung TV was compatible, but I wasn’t able to get any of my remotes to work with it.

Finally, the Xperia Ion packs a 12-megapixel camera with some fun built-in functions, like panorama shooting mode. Picture quality was good, but I didn’t find it to be any better than the Nokia Lumia 900 or the One X, both of which have eight-megapixel cameras. In fact, when taking a picture of the sunset, the One X produced a brighter picture, with more details and richer color.

The Xperia Ion’s multimedia features, 4G connectivity and affordable price are bright spots in Sony’s first bid into the smartphone market, but they don’t make up for the battery and call-volume issues. Customers looking for an affordable 4G phone from AT&T should look at the Nokia Lumia 900 for a comparable multimedia experience, or the Samsung Galaxy S Skyrocket II, which has a user-replaceable battery. Both are $100 with a two-year service agreement.

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