Despite its status as a global electronics giant, Sony remains on the periphery of the smartphone world, with a tiny share of the market outside its native Japan. In Europe, it’s struggled to make a dent in Samsung and Apple’s dominance. In the U.S., Sony Mobile’s market presence is barely measurable.
After a shaky start to 2012, Sony enters fall with an unusually thorough product refresh, led by the Xperia T, its new international flagship. With a slimmed-down design, a faster CPU and refreshed software, the T offers some tangible improvements over its six-month-old sibling, the Xperia S. But in terms of software, Sony remains behind the technological curve, shipping a flagship running Android 4.0 on the eve of a possible Android 4.2 announcement.
So can Sony’s ICS-based beast measure up against to the storm of smartphone late 2012 competition? Find out after the break, in our exhaustive Sony Xperia T review.
The Xperia T boasts a sleek design, good build quality and a gorgeous screen, with impressive camera capabilities to boot. Sony’s UI is understated and professional-looking, and the £400 price point is very reasonable.
ICS is starting to show its age, and the Xperia T’s Jelly Bean update isn’t expected until February 2013. In addition, the phone suffers from mediocre battery life and a noisy autofocus motor that can ruin video footage.
If the Xperia T is to be your handset for the next couple of years, we doubt you’ll find too much to complain about. It won’t blow your head off with amazing performance or dazzling software capabilities, but it’s a competent enough smartphone, and you could do a lot worse for the £400 asking price. Nevertheless, the high-end space is about to get a lot busier in the next month, and unfortunately the Xperia T bears all the hallmarks of a phone that’s likely to get lost in the crowd.
Inside this review
After a brief detour earlier in the year, the Xperia T has Sony return to its much-loved Xperia Arc design. The phone’s convex, soft touch back panel contrasts sharply with the glossy screen and bezel -- it’s a black slab to be sure, but not your average black slab. The curved back gives it a unique profile, and makes it easier to hold, while the smooth, tapered edges are a welcome change from the Xperia S’s sharp lines. The matte finish means the Xperia T avoids the “fingerprint magnet” problem associated with glossy phones, though we did notice the phone was prone to collecting more than its fair share of dust and lint, particularly around the camera lens.
In the Xperia T, we finally have a true sequel to a fan-favorite Sony smartphone design, and with it an evolution in build quality. No more creaky battery doors, no more extraneous bezel, no capacitive buttons -- the Xperia T is almost Nexus-like in its devotion to the idea of simply placing a screen in your hand. All of the phone’s main buttons -- power, volume and camera key -- are conveniently located along the right edge, and above that sits a clip-out area for the microSIM and microSD card slots. The remaining ports -- microUSB and headphone jack -- are located on the right and top edge respectively. The rear of the device is decorated equally sparsely, with a central 13-megapixel camera, LED flash and Xperia “liquid energy” logo.
It’s not the thinnest phone out there, but the T’s exaggerated curves make for a svelte profile, while remaining sturdy enough to withstand the occasional knock. With a display measuring 4.6 inches diagonally, it’s one of the largest Sony smartphones around, but not as bulky as the HTC and Samsung competition. And at 144 grams, it’s neither too heavy nor too light -- in just about every way, the Xperia T is a measured, balanced handset.
If we were to nitpick, the only part of the Xperia T’s hardware we found objectionable was the vibration motor, which was more rattly than we’d have liked.
The business end of the Xperia T consists of a 4.6-inch, 720p Sony HD Reality display sandwiched between two logos. We’ve been pretty impressed with Sony’s smartphones displays in the past, and its latest offering is up there with the best we’ve tested. Branding aside, it appears to be a laminated IPS LCD offering, similar to the latest panels on phones like the iPhone 5 and LG Optimus G. Packing 1280x720 pixels onto a 4.6-inch display results in remarkably sharp images, and color quality is decent, though with a tendency towards brightness rather than contrast. What’s more, Sony’s proprietary Bravia Engine technology also kicks in when viewing photos or videos, improving contrast and working to eliminate noise.
Being a high-end IPS panel, the Xperia T’s screen offers exceptional daylight visibility. Coming from reviewing several AMOLED-based smartphones, the difference here was quite striking.
On the inside, the Xperia T brings to the table hardware that’s high-end, but not remarkably so. There’s a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 CPU, backed up by 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. We’ve come across countless phones with this same hardware combo over the past eight months, so we’re already familiar with the kind of performance it’s capable of delivering. So it should come as no surprise that the Xperia T is a reasonably fast smartphone. When it comes to performance, we feel the phone’s let down more by its software -- we noticed occasional performance hiccups in the launcher and task switcher, likely caused by the lack of Android 4.1’s “Project Butter” enhancements. More on that later in the review.
The Xperia T is a 3G/HSPA smartphone -- Sony fans will have to wait until December for the Xperia V if they want an LTE-connected handset. The T does support the latest 42Mbps dual-cell HSDPA technology, though, which can lead to dramatically higher download speeds. On Three UK’s network we clocked up speeds between 10 and 20Mbps down and 4-5Mbps up, around double what we get on 21Mbps HSPA devices like the Galaxy S3. In addition, the Xperia T packs pentaband HSPA+, meaning it’ll operate quite happily on both AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S.
NFC is included too, though no NFC tags are bundled with the phone.
The “HD Voice” standard is also supported on the Xperia T, meaning you’ll enjoy clearer voice calls between other people on supported networks and handsets, assuming you’re the sort of person who still makes phone calls.
Sony Xperia T specs
The Sony Xperia T runs Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, which is backed up by Sony’s UI layer, formerly known as UXP NXT. Branding aside, you’re looking at ICS with a relatively mild and inoffensive skin. Sony promises a Jelly Bean update in mid-Q1 2013.
Superficially, the Xperia home screen launcher hasn't changed all that much since the Xperia S, however the bump up to Ice Cream Sandwich has heralded a few new options including an enhanced widget menu, and new controls for adding shortcuts and changing wallpaper. As always, widgets and icons bounce around the screen with attractive, elastic animations, and pinching outwards allows you to seen an overview of all widgets at once.
As it uses Galaxy Nexus-style on-screen buttons, task switching on the Xperia T is never more than a button press away. Kudos to Sony for following the Android design guidelines -- we'd like to see more of this from other manufacturers, but this year only Sony and Motorola seem to be on-board with on-screen keys.
Sony's actually redesigned the task-switching menu a bit on the Xperia T. There are a few visual differences, and as well as a new menu down below for what Sony calls "small apps." These are miniaturized apps that run in windows, and you can drag them around in the foreground while you're using other apps in the background. It's not quite as full-featured as recent multitasking offerings from Samsung, but clearly this is something Sony has plans for in the future.
With a Snapdragon S4 chip inside, paired with 1GB of RAM, the Xperia T should have plenty of horsepower at its disposal. But while CPU-intensive tasks like gaming are handled with ease, we noticed some worrying lapses in overall performance on our Xperia T. For one, the lack of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and its "Project Butter" enhancements is painfully evident in the Sony launcher, which is prone to issues with lag and redraws. Button presses lack the immediacy of Jelly Bean devices, and even feel a tad slower than phones like the HTC One X and Galaxy S3 on ICS. There's no hardware reason for this -- the Xperia T has more than enough oomph under the hood -- so we've got to assume the issue lies in the phone's software.
As a Sony phone, the Xperia T comes packed to the gills with Sony entertainment content. The Xperia music app has been rebranded as a Walkman app, though functionally it's pretty much unchanged since we last saw it on the Xperia T. It's an attractive-looking, easy-to-nagivate app which offers a few unique advantages if you've bought into the Sony Network Entertainment ecosystem. If you're a Music Unlimited subscriber, for instance, the Walkman app fully supports that service.
What's more, the Xperia T fits pretty seamlessly in with the rest of the Sony device ecosystem, so if you've got a Sony Bluetooth/NFC speaker, the phone allows you to tap to pair the devices, and immediately start playing music from the phone to the speakers. Similarly, the Sony Xperia Link app on Google Play lets you easily set up tethering between the Xperia T and a Sony tablet.
PlayStation Mobile support is baked in, too, and the Xperia T includes the PlayStation Mobile store app -- or rather, a stub for that app which you can download from Sony's website. PlayStation Mobile is in its infancy right now, and while there's a decent selection of games available, there's not much in the way of triple-A content to sway hardcore gamers towards choosing an Xperia T.
On the social side, the Xperia T features a familiar set of apps to tie into Facebook, Twitter and other popular services. Timescape returns, allowing you to view social updates in an attractive (if not entirely functional) 3D list. And Facebook Inside Xperia, which debuted last year, is alive and well, letting you tie social feeds into the contacts and gallery applications. What's more, you can feed in music and video choices from your friends into the phone's music and media playing apps, if you're into that soft of thing.
Sony's taken a page out of Motorola's book with its Smart Connect app, which lets you automatically load certain apps, or change settings when peripherals are connected, based on certain conditions. But while the app is time-sensitive, it's not location-aware, making it less useful than Moto's offering.
Overall, you're looking at ICS with a few Sony-flavored sprinkles. There's not too much in the way of bloatware on the Xperia T, and our biggest software gripes have to do with the somewhat lackluster touch and scrolling performance compared to similarly-spec'd handsets.
Sony Xperia T battery life
Sealed within the Xperia T’s curved chassis is a non-removable 1850mAh battery. It’s an average-sized smartphone battery, but unfortunately its longevity can be generously described as mediocre. With heavy use, we were able to kill off the Xperia T in a little under five hours, and while we did manage to clock up around 10 hours with more moderate usage patterns, this is on the very edge of what we’d consider to be acceptable battery life from a 3G smartphone. In either case, you’re looking at under two hours of screen-on time.
The display and mobile data were the most battery-intensive components, and if you’re using the Xperia T outside with auto-brightness enabled, you’ll be able to watch the individual percentage points ticking away from the on-screen battery meter. Similarly, the price of faster data speeds through that DC-HSDPA radio seems to be reduced battery life.
The Xperia T’s battery issues are compounded by the presence of a battery percentage counter in the status bar at all times. On a phone with less than stellar battery life, this serves as a maddening reminder of its shortcomings in this area.
Sony has typically excelled in the area of smartphone cameras. Even the Xperia X10, a device with its fair share of issues, managed to ship with an above average camera assembly. So we were excited to try out the company's latest offering, the Xperia T (or Xperia TL, as it's known in the states), which packs a 13-megapixel Exmor R camera. The rear shooter incorporates Sony's proprietary BSI sensor, and boasts an f/2.4 aperture. So it has all its numbers in the right place -- what about image quality?
We've got a detailed breakdown after the jump, along with a couple dozen photo samples and five minutes of video.
We've been impressed with the quality of both photo and video output from the Xperia T. Sony's latest flagship lives up to its digital imaging heritage, generating high-quality stills, particularly in macro mode. All of our sample shots were taken in the Xperia camera app's "auto" mode, with tap-to-focus enabled. In this mode, the phone seamlessly transitions from close-ups to landscapes. The Xperia T's camera has excellent dynamic range, and though there's no dedicated HDR mode, the camera automatically launches into backlight-corrected HDR mode wherever necessary.
The phone's 13MP sensor doesn't seem to be as noisy as the Xperia S's 12MP unit, though some noise is still apparent in low-light shots when viewed up-close. Speaking of low-light, there's a dedicated night shot mode, which was able to help improve the brightness of pictures shot at night, though unfortunately it's incredibly sensitive to even the slightest bit of movement.
The Xperia T performed well in video mode too, producing silky-smooth footage at 1080p with 30 frames per second and superior dynamic range to what we've seen on the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2, though with a slight tendency towards undersaturated colors. One area which impressed us was the Xperia T's ability to focus -- and keep focused -- on the tiniest of moving objects in video mode. You'll see this put to the test in our sample video, where we chase an ant around the top of a stone wall. There's also a dedicated night mode for the video camera, which maximizes visibility in dark scenes at the cost of a little added noise.
Unfortunately, when it comes to video recording, the Xperia T suffers from a fatal flaw. The autofocus motor is incredibly noisy, loud enough to be picked up by the microphone when recording video. The problem is exacerbated in quiet footage, or if the camera has to change focus quickly. It’s an issue which can ruin video footage, and one we’re not sure will be possible to fix with software. And it’s a tragic shame, because the Xperia T’s camera is otherwise among the best we’ve tested.
Sony Xperia T hackability
The Xperia T is supported by Sony’s bootloader unlock program, so it’s possible to crack the device wide open, if you’re not bothered about abandoning your phone’s warranty. The process takes a few minutes, and involved a little command-line wizardry, but once you’re done, you’re free to flash custom ROMs and root your phone, if you’re into that sort of thing.
There’s already a fully-functional version of ClockworkMod recovery available for the Xperia T, and the FreeXperia team is making quick progress with their port of CyanogenMod 10 to the device. Incidentally, CM10 absolutely flies on the Xperia T’s Snapdragon S4 CPU, and if Sony can deliver the same performance boost in its official Jelly Bean update, then it might just be worth the five month wait.
Sony has made progress in the mobile space in 2012, but it continues to lag behind the major players, and that’s evident in the Xperia T, particularly where software is concerned. Where others are pushing forward with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, Sony lags behind on Ice Cream Sandwich. What's also troubling is that other manufacturers manage to get a more responsive user experience out of ICS on Qualcomm's S4 platform. Rival handsets like the HTC One XL just feel snappier than Sony's offering, and that's a shame.
On the other hand, we were extremely impressed with the Xperia T's sumptuous build quality, which is light years ahead of earlier Sony offerings, and in line with the latest competing polycarbonate handsets from the likes of HTC and Nokia.
And Sony can take comfort from the fact that it's not as far behind the curve as it's been in the past, and we're sure the Xperia T will come into its own with the promised Jelly Bean update -- though buyers will be in for a long wait.
So for all its niggles, the Xperia T is a perfectly good handset. It won’t blow your head off with amazing performance or dazzling software capabilities, but it’s a competent enough smartphone, and you could do a lot worse for the £400 asking price. Nevertheless, the high-end space is about to get a lot busier in the next month, and unfortunately the Xperia T bears all the hallmarks of a phone that’s likely to get lost in the crowd.