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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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.