Sony Xperia T
The Sony Xperia T is looking to turn heads. Running with the tagline "the ultimate HD experience", Sony wants to muscle in on the big boys of the Android world.
It lands with a 4.55-inch display, so it's pushing inches to compete with the likes of the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III. But is it all as simple as that? Sitting above the Sony Xperia S, it's another design skew from Sony Mobile, in a line-up of devices that seems to be continually expanding.
But does the Xperia T have what it takes to make an impact? Will it truly be the ultimate HD experience? Is this a fitting phone to be seen in the hand of James Bond?
The Sony Xperia T seems something of an oddity in terms of design. Moving on from the NXT devices with the clear strip near the bottom, the Xperia T is much more utilitarian. It isn't ugly, as such, but it looks like something the military might design.
There's a hint of the Xperia Arc in its slightly concave back, but where the Arc was good looking, the effect is lost in the Xperia T's slightly fat frame. The divisive Xperia S did at least have a curved back that sunk into your palm, whereas the Xperia T does not: something doesn't feel right about it.
That might be the combination of that inwardly curved back with those edge ridges. It might be the fat top and bottom which make it more difficult to move the phone around in one hand to get your thumb all over the display.
Or maybe it's down to the pairing of glossy black plastic on the front half and matte black plastic on the back. The matte finish certainly adds some grip but it doesn’t feel like it's the best quality it could be. There's a slightly hollow sound when you tap the back of the phone; dust and pocket lint has a tendency to stick to the glossy plastic front.
When it comes to collections, Sony has thankfully seen sense and ditched the unnecessary flap to cover the Micro-USB connection on the left-hand side. In an odd move, the power/standby, volume rocker and camera button have all been grouped together on the right-hand side.
We say this is odd, because we can't find a comfortable way to practically hit the standby button. The top right placement on an HTC device works with an index finger around the back, the side placement on Samsung works with a thumb or again, index finger.
But on the Xperia T, if you're holding the phone in your right hand, you have to shuffle the phone around to try to hit it with your thumb. In the left hand it's much easier. It might not sound like a huge point, but pressing the standby button is probably the thing you do the most with your Android phone.
And grouping all these controls together makes it just at little bit more difficult to pick one from the other. Want to adjust the volume in your pocket, without removing the phone? Good luck with that.
With a back that can't be removed, so there's no access to the internal battery, there is a flap that opens to reveal slots for the microSD and micro SIM cards. At least the Xperia T gives you the opportunity to add additional storage if you want to.
For all we complain about the design, it's true that the body is very much only the vessel which carries the display, through which practically all interaction takes place. In the case of the Sony Xperia T there is a 1280 x 720 display measuring 4.6-inches. That gives you a pixel density of 319ppi, which is nice and sharp.
The other positive point about the Xperia T display, is that like the iPhone 5 and the HTC One X, Sony has worked to reduce the gap between the touch surface and the display itself, so it's appears more impressive, right on the surface, rather than slightly set back.
The display is capable of producing some nice rich colours, although the viewing angles aren't as impressive as you'll find elsewhere. Sony has been inconsistent with auto brightness in the past. In the Xperia T you get auto-brightness and a slider so you can change the base level around which the auto-brightness operates.
It's almost a nice feature, although we quickly found ourselves turning it all the way up during the day and then bumping it back down in the evening.
There is one thing about the display that we really like, however, and that's the main touch controls. In many devices, these are backlit controls on a touch panel. In the case of the Sony Xperia T, like the Motorola RAZR i, these are part of the display panel. The advantage here is that they rotate and vanish when not needed, which is truer to the core Android vision post-Honeycomb.
The touch controls are also pin sharp, so they look fantastic.
Software and user interface
Power up the Xperia T and you are greeted with a user interface that will be familiar to users of Xperia devices. It sits on Ice Cream Sandwich, so is pretty much up-to-date, but Sony has modified just about everything about Android in its device.
In the context of other phones, Sony's skinning of Android is heavy. Like Samsung, there are visual changes throughout, with results that are mixed: some of the tweaks are nice, some seem unnecessary and while carrying the Sony brand look, don't really enhance the user experience.
From the home page to the apps tray, Sony has tweaked everything. You get the usual arrangement of home pages, with the option of adding all sorts of widgets, with Sony catering for lots of its own services that roll into its Android phones, such as Music and Video Unlimited.
In the apps tray you can reorder apps quickly and easily, but we're not sold on the arrangement visually. Native Android's simple handling is less fussy; the addition of a link straight to Google Play would be welcomed. As we said, there's a lot that comes preinstalled here, feeling a lot like HTC devices of yesteryear: for pretty much every problem, there's a Sony solution.
That's both good and bad. Good that Sony is essentially giving you a device that does everything out of the box: media steaming, music track identification, backup, management of attached accessories, navigation with Wisepilot, NFC control.
But in some cases, these "apps" are just links to a section of the settings menu: update control takes you to the updates section of the settings menu, for example. Connected devices should just be integrated into the music and video sections, without the additional "app". That would keep things cleaner, preserving the Sony features, but without cluttering the view of the apps you actually want.
Some of the tweaks are very welcome, however. The notifications area now has shortcuts to power controls: sound, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, network data and a link to the settings menu.
The recent apps control, a standard feature of the latest versions of Android, has been enhanced to give you some "small apps" too. Not only can you switch apps quickly using the scrollable thumbnails, but you can create notes, fire up a calculator, set a timer running or record a voice note. There's also a link to install more "small apps", suggesting we'll get more in the future.
The album gets a work over too, with photos arranged by date. You get the option to geotag images and the album includes a map view, as well as a section for online images from Facebook and Picasa. But the neatest feature is a pinch zooming, which will let you quickly change the size of thumbnails: it's great for showing off your pictures and neatly animated.
Those looking for social network integration will find that Timescape is still present, but much less prominent than it once was in Xperia devices. We've never been fans of the service and we feel it can be safely ignored, as there are much better options. With Sony Facebook being included with Xperia devices, you'll find that social network is neatly integrated, with pictures and updates running into contact cards. Bizarrely there's the option to share apps from the home pages - a niche feature perhaps.
The UI is relatively slick, although the phone doesn't feel as fast to zip around as something like the HTC One X. We've found it to be stable however, but with one recurrent oddity: on many occasions we've unlocked the phone to be taken to the image gallery and shown a picture.
Finally, Sony has enabled rotation on the home screen. Many devices force you to use them in portrait for the home pages and apps tray, rotating to landscape only once you enter an app. You can turn off auto-rotation if you don't like it; we know it will be popular with some drivers.
Every Sony device is launched with a bigger picture in mind. That makes sense, as Sony looks to leverage its movie, music, television and camera assets. That doesn't necessarily mean you get access to "free" content, but it means that Sony would like to offer its services first and foremost.
Conveniently, so will Google, and any number of third-party providers, so although Music and Video Unlimited are catered for, if you decide you'd rather stick with Google or Amazon, there's nothing stopping you. As we said previously, you'll have to step around the apps for Sony services and if you're already a user – perhaps from your Bravia TV or PlayStation – then you'll feel right at home.
And in that vein you'll find that the music player is simply Walkman. Fire-up the "new" Walkman app and you'll find that visually it's very much as Sony, or Sony Ericsson, Xperia handsets have been in the past. Playlists will custom fill with your recently added tracks or most frequently played and there's a hook into Facebook to pick out tracks your friends are listening to.
We like that the background of the app adapts to reflect the album art of the music you are listening to, giving you a little variety. You can also access an equaliser to alter the sound to your liking, with the option for headphone surround to widen the sound stage.
It's a reasonably good performer once paired with a pair good-quality headphones - we used the Klipsch Image S4A - although we found that this Xperia liked to stop playing music for calls, which is fine, but then failed to resume once the call was finished.
As previously mentioned, streaming of network music can't be done from within the Walkman app which seems a little disconnected, especially considering Sony's stance on the connected world. Instead, you have to enter Connected Devices to stream from your media server, but it will let you download tracks to your device directly to take away with you.
The same applies to photos and videos through the Connected Devices app. We like the fact you can just save your network content to your phone - it cuts out the PC when you want to grab a movie from your network. The Movies app will let you "throw" content to a compatible TV via DLNA too.
Given the impressive display on the Xperia T, movie playback looks fantastic, as does photo viewing. The display is enhanced by the Sony Bravia Engine, says Sony, but from our experience it's difficult to tell whether this option makes any difference at all. We did notice some boosting of blues especially, so blue eyes in photos often look nice and bright.
We were impressed with the camera on the Sony Xperia S: the interface throws up some great options, such as multi-point focusing, that make it feel more like a compact camera and less like a phone. The same applies to the Xperia T and we're impressed with the control options that Sony put at your fingertips.
There's a dedicated camera button that's great for taking pictures, rather than having to touch the display. It makes it easier to take photos of yourself too. The button can also be used to launch the camera from the lock screen and if you're really after speed, it can launch and capture.
There are plenty of options on offer, including focusing and metering options, so you can play around and see what results you get. We found the results were pretty good. The Xperia T suffers from the same drawbacks as most camera phones, but given good conditions, the 13-megapixel Exmor R sensor will give you some great shots.
Noise creeps in as the light drops, but the flash isn’t too bad. The recessed lens is a little hard to clean, but it should be well protected from scratches, just check those images to make sure things don't look too misty once you've grabbed your shot – a sure sign the lens is dirty. It's pretty good with macro shots too.
Full HD video capture is also offered and the continuous autofocus does a good job of keeping things sharp without dramatic pulsing to find focus.
Overall the results are good. There's little to complain about, plenty of options if you want them and an interface the feels like a camera.
Battery often becomes the make or break point of a device. Features, services and apps give you plenty of flexibility, but if your device can't make it through the typical day, it's annoying to say the least. The Xperia T has a 1850mAh battery, which isn't the highest capacity around, and given the large display, you'll have to take aggressive power saving measures to make it through the day.
Sitting at the core of the Xperia T is a 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM8260 dual-core processor, with 1GB of RAM. The performance is excellent and although Sony might not be able to fly the quad-core banner from its flagship smartphone, in the real world you probably won't notice too much of a difference from big name rivals, you just don't quite get the same snappy navigation. You get 16GB of internal memory.
There's a lot that the Sony Xperia T does right. The display is impressive and once you get used to bumping the brightness back and forth, you'll appreciate the sharp details it produces and the nice balance of colours.
There are plenty of nice touches in the customisation that Sony bring to the Xperia T too, like the small apps and the quick pinch reorganisation of albums. But there are still some areas where we feel Sony could tighten up: make the music and video apps more integrated, for example.
But our biggest gripe about the Xperia T is the design. It just doesn't feel as slick in the hand as rivals. It's fatter than the HTC One X or the Samsung Galaxy S III, it nods to the Xperia Arc, but fails to embrace that wonderful waistline. If it's going to be fat, it should at least carry a higher-capacity battery. And we can't help thinking, even after plenty of time with the T, that the buttons are in the wrong places.
The result is that the Xperia T is slightly more difficult to love than some of its rivals. But it also comes in as more affordable, thanks to its slightly below-top-rung position, so if budget is a concern and a large, impressive display is on your list, it's certainly worth considering.
So is the Sony Xperia T a fitting phone for James Bond? There's something brutish about it, there's a lot packed under the hood, but it isn't infallible. What it perhaps lacks is that dab of sophistication to elevate it from anti-hero villain to blue-eyed Bond.