Sony Xperia TL review the company's second US flagship is muchimproved, but not quite perfect

As Sony's second stab at the US mobile market, the Xperia TL arrives with a major corporate synergistic push: a 007 movie franchise tie-in. But an awkward distinction as the official Bond phone and a smattering of pre-loaded "Skyfall" multimedia content alone won't drive consumer adoption; the specs and pricing will. Following in the footsteps of the company's first stateside flagship, the Ion, this AT&T 4G LTE exclusive is priced aggressively at $99 on two-year contract, packing a 4.6-inch HD Reality display (1,280 x 720) powered by Mobile BRAVIA Engine, a dual-core Snapdragon S4 clocked at 1.5GHz, 16GB of storage (expandable up to 32GB via microSD), 1GB RAM, NFC, dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, as well as an integrated 1,850mAh battery.

With Ice Cream Sandwich running the show and a planned upgrade to Jelly Bean in the works, it has all the makings of a current-gen high-end offering. So will the Xperia TL help Sony build much-needed buzz for its mobile division here in the states? Can a sub-$100 price tag effectively lure consumers away from the bigger, faster and flashier Android phones AT&T has to offer? Or is this mainly one for Sony loyalists? Find out after the break as we put the TL through its paces.

Gallery | 42 Photos

Sony Xperia TL review

Sony

Sony Xperia TL

Pros

  • Fast, reliable performance
  • Fantastic 13-megapixel camera
  • Attractively priced

Cons

  • 720p display prone to washout
  • Weak battery life
Summary

The Xperia TL is Sony's first true flagship for the US market. But despite its aggressive $99 on-contract pricing, the TL fails to overtake HTC's superior One X, casting it as a second-place budget option.

Hardware

Despite a clear design nod towards the arc S, the Xperia TL is, for all intents and purposes, an evolution of the Ion; a second chance at getting its US flagship status right. Fans of the Sony Ericcson-made arc S will find that this device is more spiritual successor than next of kin, as the TL still carries on that curved body legacy, but at 129.4 x 67.3 x 9.35mm (5.1 x 2.6 x 0.4 inches) it's more than half a millimeter thicker. Contrast those dimensions with the Ion and you have two handsets, separated by a generational leap, that measure and weigh nearly the same all around -- though the TL is a hair lighter at 139 grams (4.8 ounces). Stacked side by side, it doesn't initially appear that way, thus is the deception made possible by the TL's scooped back.

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

While we're on the topic of the TL's posterior, it merits mentioning that this particular facet lays claim to the entirety of Sony's industrial design finesse. Overall, it has an appealing, muted quality about it, with a matte finish that's divided by seams for the two non-removable caps, a covered port for micro-SIM and micro-USB ports on the upper left, and a circular cutout for NFC contact just beneath the 13.1-megapixel camera. Regarding that camera, it's the same Exmor R sensor Sony found in the Ion (though here the module gets a slight resolution uptick) and is housed within a gently protruding bump. And in a genius move by the company's designers, it's also somewhat recessed so you won't have to worry about smudging the lens with grease. Lastly, the prominent Xperia logo is situated just above the speaker at the device's base.

We have a minor gripe with the way Sony chose to arrange the hardware keys and ports here. It may just be an issue for right-handed people, but the buttons for power, volume and camera all lie on the lower half of the phone's right edge and are buried in the palm. Again, it's a small issue that's mostly remedied by switching to the opposite hand -- lefties, you're at an advantage.

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

Head-on, the Xperia TL is rather plain; its edges are interrupted only by a raised 3.5mm headphone jack on top and a sloped chin down below. Otherwise, the only visual standouts are corporate logos flanking the scratch-resistant 4.6-inch screen, including the AT&T globe at the bottom and Sony's own branding, which sits beneath the earpiece and to the side of a 720p camera.

Despite its $99 on-contract pricing, the TL offers up a higher-resolution screen than similarly priced competitors. This is Sony's latest flagship, after all, and like the Ion before it, it boasts a 1,280 x 720 HD Reality TFT LCD display. In practice, we've found the panel produces bright colors, but is lacking in contrast. Next to the 720p screen used on the Droid RAZR HD, the difference is obvious. The TL's screen just seems pale, a fact not helped by the poor viewing angles and tremendous washout, evident from a slight 15-degree angle. We tested the handset outdoors and even in overcast conditions, you'll still have to bump brightness to near-maximum levels for clear visibility. Further, after a few days of testing we decided to disable the setting for environmental dimming, as that just left the screen too dim for most situations.

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

Sony's moved on from the "HD Everywhere" mantra of the Xperia Ion, and is now emphasizing sharing via NFC instead -- even going so far as to include one SmartTag in the box. That said, the handset hasn't shed its predecessor's built-in media connectivity, given that an MHL connection with any compatible TV will trigger the same app carousel and ability to mirror content. Again, there's no option to wirelessly stream your library of movies, TV shows or music, so you'll need to have the appropriate cable handy.

SmartTags

Nestled within the Xperia TL's box is one very sleek-looking SmartTag. If you'll remember, Sony announced these NFC accessories way back in January at CES and now, nearly a year later, they're ready for mass consumption. Since Hurricane Sandy impeded our access to the tag bundled with our review unit, we went ahead and ordered a pack from the company's online store. For $20, you get four of these attractive and distinctly hued tags that are compatible with any NFC-equipped smartphone. Used in conjunction with this official Bond phone and, well, we're sure you know where this is headed. Hover the TL just above any SmartTag and the phone's SmartConnect apps springs to attention instantly loading the James Bond theme via Walkman or Google Play Music, in addition to directing the browser to the 007 website. You can, of course, set device actions that are handset-specific, so multiple users can enjoy the use of these tags and delete events as necessary.

Sony Xperia TL review the company's second US flagship is much improved, but still imperfect

The SmartConnect interface is pretty straightforward and even the least tech savvy of users should have no problem configuring events. Simply fire up the app and you'll be prompted to create a new event, associate it with a specified device (e.g. SmartTag or headphones), set an (optional) trigger time and, finally, any initial or closing action(s) like placing a call, opening an application or sending a text. There are also presets for different profiles, such as Home which enables WiFi, Car for active Bluetooth and Navigation, as well as an Office setting that launches your Calendar -- all of which can be reconfigured to your liking.

Gallery | 5 Photos

Sony Xperia SmartTags

Software

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

You'd think, at this point, that a late fall launch for an Android handset would guarantee it ships with Jelly Bean out of the box. You'd think that, and you'd be wrong. Regardless, we won't ride Sony too hard for unleashing the Xperia TL into the marketplace running the 4.0.4 build of Ice Cream Sandwich. The company's done loyalists well by being as transparent as possible about Xperia software upgrades and then actually delivering them (for the most part). So we have no doubt the TL will one day see Android 4.2 -- we're just not sure when. Unfortunately, the company's playing coy and won't commit to a hard release date.

We've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: the Xperia TL is the device the Ion should have been when it was released six months ago. It's got a contemporary dual-core S4 processor and runs on Ice Cream Sandwich (not the penultimate version of Android, but still). But we can't help shake that feeling of déjà vu; that this is another handset behind the times. Sure, other high-end smartphones outfitted with the same CPU setup exist, but they differentiate by offering either an extra GB of RAM, greater battery life, unparalleled optics, higher resolution, near-stock Android or Jelly Bean, even. Here, all we get is the addition of James Bond "Skyfall"-related multimedia content (pre-set as the default wallpaper, ringtone and notification sound) and one SmartTag included in the box. Is that enough to make the TL stand apart? If you're shaking your head, you've already answered the question.

DNP  Sony Xperia TL review the company's second US flagship is muchimproved, but not quite perfect

With that aside, Sony's lightly skinned take on ICS is pleasant, unobtrusive and offers up a mostly consistent experience with just a few tweaks. For starters, the company's augmented the way users can customize the handset. Typically, a long-press on any of the home screens would trigger a dialog box in the middle of the screen, but on the TL, a transparent pane appears up top with two circular icons on either side: one for wallpapers and themes, the other for widgets. Sony's also baked quick settings access into the drop-down notification tray, letting users easily toggle data, notification sounds, Bluetooth and WiFi.

Building upon the trend the company started with the Xperia Tablet S, this Sony-made smartphone also features three of the company's core media apps: Album, Movies and Walkman. The apps function much like they sound, with Album offering up a slew of editing options that encompasses a variety of color, FX, crop and filter options, in addition to map view for geo-tagged shots. Meanwhile, Walkman gussies up the intuitive MP3-playing experience with a visualizer option, SensMe for categorizing tracks according to theme and an equalizer for sound adjustments. Of the three applications, Movies is the most bare-boned, containing nothing more than four pre-installed Bond clips. Additionally, you get an Xperia link baked into settings, allowing you to tether the TL's network connection to other Xperia tablets or VAIO PCs and small "floating" apps for calculator, notes, voice memos and timer, accessible via the task manager, which hover above open applications.

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

It's not a Nexus (although we hope to see the day), so you know there's bound to be bloatware galore. Excluding common apps like Calendar, Clock, Messaging and Calculator, you'll find 26 third-party applications -- 10 of which belong to AT&T -- that cannot be uninstalled, merely disabled. That means unless you root your device, these apps will live on behind the scenes, hogging up your allotted 16GB of internal storage. At the very least, you have the ability to clear them out of your app drawer.

Performance and battery life

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

Much to our delight, the TL is quick, fluid and, best of all, dependable. In all of our time with the handset, we never once encountered a force close, frozen app or evidence of lag. The dual-core S4 inside just flies, handling a multitude of tasks with ease. As you'd expect, navigation through the five home screens and access to the app drawer are effected without a hitch. Applications load quickly, while games like Need for Speed Shift run smoothly without a drop in framerate.

In practice, then, the TL appears to be on par with similarly-specced handsets, but how does it fare in synthetic benchmarks? In the interest of a fair fight, we pitted it against two other devices with S4 chips: AT&T's Galaxy S III and One X variants. As you can see from the table below, all three handsets equipped with that MSM8960 processor pull nearly identical scores, with the TL notching a clear victory in AnTuTu and CF-Bench. Though we mentioned the TL's sole gigabyte of RAM as a con earlier, you can see here that having double the memory doesn't necessarily give the GS III a competitive edge. In fact, that extra helping of RAM barely gives the GS III an edge in Quadrant testing.

Sony Xperia TL Galaxy S III (AT&T) HTC One X (AT&T)
Quadrant 4,892 5,084 4,784
Vellamo 1,767 2,153 2,259
AnTuTu 7,091 6,713 6,956
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,850 1,926 1,453
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) N/A 54 56
CF-Bench 9,580 9,439 9,479
Battery life 5:50 9:10 8:55
SunSpider: lower scores are better

The Xperia TL's short battery life is by far its biggest drawback. With moderate use, we were able to eke out nearly a full working day of use from the non-removable 1,850mAh battery. And that was with fastidious attention to the charge level. Put under the duress of our formal rundown test -- that's with Twitter set to sync at 15 minutes, one push email account active, brightness set to 50 percent and radios for WiFi and GPS enabled -- the device notched just under six hours, which is similar to what we found with the TL's European counterpart, the T. It's a disappointing showing given the more robust battery life of its S4-based rivals. If you purchase this, then, be sure to have a charger handy at all times.

Network speeds

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

As we've highlighted in prior reviews, AT&T's 4G LTE network is no longer the spring chicken it once was. That is to say, awe-inspiring speeds in the upper 20 Mbps to 30 Mbps range are increasingly the exception, though they do still occur from time-to-time. We did, however, record a max of 31 Mbps / 11 Mbps over the course of our testing. In general, though, we recorded downlink speeds that ranged between 12 Mbps to 16 Mbps, while uploads hovered around 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps. Clearly, LTE adoption amongst AT&T's subscriber base is becoming more and more predominant.

Camera

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

If you've ever used the Ion's camera, you'll know what to expect from the TL. Many things are the same: that same fast capture functionality, accessible via the dedicated dual detent hardware key, along with the company's Exmor R sensor. Still, Sony chose to increase the resolution to 13.1 from 12 megapixels. In practice, though, that minor spec bump doesn't have an overwhelming impact on image quality. Unless you're possessed of a keen eye and a deep understanding of optics, it's unlikely to make much difference to the average consumer.

The interface is also similar this second time around, with options to customize the UI using assorted menu icons. By default, the camera is set to Auto mode, but by toggling it to Normal, you can select from among the usual array of scene modes. The same goes for the standard resolution setting, as the TL will capture images in a 4:3 aspect ratio at 13 megapixels. For 16:9 widescreen shots, you'll have to step down to 10 megapixels. There are also options to configure capture method (onscreen button, dedicated key or touch), quick launch, geotagging, focus (touch, face detection, multi auto and single auto), exposure, ISO, white balance and image stabilization.

Gallery | 95 Photos

Sony Xperia TL sample shots

We'd have liked to test the TL's camera in a variety of settings, but our unit arrived just before Hurricane Sandy did and, as this editor is based in New York, that translated into less-than-ideal weather conditions (to put it mildly). Without abundant sunlight, we were left to conduct our photo tour under mostly grey, overcast skies. And, as our corresponding gallery will attest, this Xperia handles that particular environment admirably.

That's not to say we didn't encounter certain circumstances where the overall shot was just too dark and lacking clarity -- we did -- but, on the whole, the TL's sensor (set to auto) was able to adjust for the variety of scenes accordingly, culminating in crisp shots with a great depth of field and natural color reproduction. The same, however, cannot be said for images taken in patchy sunlight. Within that particular setting, we noticed a conspicuous oversaturation that was especially evident in the bumped-up hues of the blue sky and surrounding buildings. Further, the TL seems to manage white balance inconsistently, as multiple captures of the same scene result in wildly different color temperatures. Note that this is without Sony's Mobile BRAVIA Engine turned on. Enable that feature from within settings and the color enhancement only increases. Low-light shots, on the other hand, were a mixed bag. The TL seemed to handle diminished ambient lighting best when set to auto, as opposed to the available night scene modes. Left in that latter mode, our resulting images seemed both oversaturated and softly focused.

Shots taken at full zoom were incredibly grainy, but we found that pulling back to about 50 percent yielded acceptable images with a tolerable level of noise. Of particular note is the panorama setting, which delivered seamlessly stitched shots that were a breeze to take.

On the other hand, 1080p video did not fare as well as static images. Sure, the recorded audio comes across clear and distinct, especially given that we were in the midst of an NYPD chopper, but playback is marred by the constantly shifting focus and shaky image stabilization. It's not entirely terrible, but it's also not ideal.

Wrap-up

Sony Xperia TL review a solid sophomore effort that lacks wow factor

It took Sony half a year to get the Xperia Ion from its CES reveal to retail shelves. By the time it arrived, it was outdated, not least because it shipped with Android Gingerbread. Does the TL suffer the same fate? Not quite, considering this Xperia made its public debut just two months ago, and was announced with ICS. So, we have to commend Sony for at least getting it out to market in a timely fashion -- the lack of Jelly Bean notwithstanding.

When you review its specs on paper -- 720p display, 1.5GHz dual-core S4, 1GB RAM, 16GB storage and 13.1-megapixel rear camera -- the TL would seem to be a high-end phone, a device fit to compete against the Galaxy S III and One X on AT&T's lineup. But where Samsung's handset crams in a multitude of sharing functions and HTC's sports a gorgeous screen and innovative unibody design, the Xperia TL falls a bit short. With a display prone to washout, a derivative chassis and middling battery life, the TL fails to meet the expectations we'd have for phones in this class.

Which is probably why Sony's gunning for budget-minded consumers with $99 on-contract pricing, putting it on even ground with the One X, Ion and Atrix HD. Positioned that way, the Xperia TL reads as a pale alternative to its S4 cousin, the One X. That's not to say it isn't a decent option for subscribers shopping on a shoestring -- it is. Yet, for all its pluses, the TL just can't hold a candle to the superior battery life and gorgeous Super LCD display on HTC's equally priced device. Ultimately, the choice is yours: shell out a $100 premium for the bragging rights of a luxury Android experience (i.e., the GS III or Optimus G) or think wisely with your wallet when choosing between this economy-plus Xperia and the less-fresh One X.