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Review: Sony Xperia TL for AT&T

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Nov 8, 2012, 1:38 PM   by Eric M. Zeman
updated Nov 8, 2012, 10:11 PM

The Xperia TL is the latest LTE 4G smartphone from Sony for AT&T. The TL's defining features are its 13-megapixel camera and association with the James Bond movie "Skyfall." Those two features barely scratch the surface, however. There's plenty more to the TL.

Form 

Is It Your Type?

Sony's Xperia TL is perhaps the company's best effort for long-time partner AT&T. It goes toe-to-toe with other leading Android smartphones in terms of specs and features, and looks to win over users with its exclusive content. Is the TL the first Sony phone to get all the parts in the right order?

Body

Sony hardware is typically over-designed and a bit fussy. These are both apt descriptors for the TL, an interesting slab that falls short of even my low expectations.

The overall shape and appearance of the device are fine. Sony returned to the idea of employing an arc in the design, and I find it is a welcome attribute and makes for some unique lines and curves shaping the TL. The entire back panel of the TL is arced gently, creating a concave shape. In other words, it is somewhat thicker at the ends and thinner in the middle. There's no real practical benefit to the design, perhaps other than to prevent spilled liquids from drenching the entire back surface (the TL is not waterproof.)

The front of the TL is glass and the back surface is a mix of metals and plastics. The glass is nice and smooth. The plastic surfaces - which are concentrated at the top and bottom portions of the TL's back cover - are rubbery and have some grip to them. The metallic material makes up the bulk of the TL's back surface and portions of the sides. It has a matte texture that’s unique from the rest of the phone. With three different textures, the TL feels a bit chaotic against the skin, but I can live with that.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

The problem with the TL's hardware is all in the button placement. It’s beyond terrible. The nice arcs that Sony designed into the TL's side edges and back are interrupted by irksome and annoying buttons that jut out from the side and stab you in the palm. The screen lock button is placed smack in the middle of the right edge of the TL. I prefer to hold phones in my right hand. When I gripped the TL tightly, what do you think happened? Yep, I turned the screen on. This happened 100 times a day. Honestly, I was surprised how often I accidentally turned the screen on given how small the screen lock button is. Alternately, I often turned the screen OFF when I was in the middle of using it. The only upside of this button is that it has excellent travel and feedback.

I can't say the same for the volume toggle. The volume toggle is below the screen lock button, close to the bottom of the right edge. This is very odd placement for a volume toggle. It also has terrible travel and feedback.

Sony was thoughtful enough to include a physical camera button, but it's placed so close to the volume toggle and screen lock button that I found myself accidentally pressing those buttons instead of the camera button. At least its two-stage action feels good.

Maybe you hold cell phones in your left hand. If you do, the microUSB port will catch and irritate the skin between your thumb and pointer finger thanks to its awkward placement and the way it protrudes from the side of the phone.

Moving past the buttons, the fit and finish simply isn't up to par. Some of the seams are uneven or don't join the way they should. There are so many lines, surfaces, materials, and finishes that the TL feels like it was designed by a committee of people who've never used a smartphone before. The concave shape, while interesting, makes the TL uncomfortable to put in your pocket.

The battery is not removable. In fact, the phone is buttoned up tight. If you need or want to change the SIM card or microSD card, you can access them through a hatch that's also on the right edge of the phone. The headphone jack is on the top.

Sony came so close. I like the shape of the TL a lot. If it had used fewer materials and thought about the button placement a bit more, this could be a really great piece of hardware. Instead, I found it uncomfortable to use over the course of a day.

Performance 

Screen

Sony makes great displays for its smartphones, and the TL is no different. It boasts a 4.6-inch 1280 x 720 HD display that uses the same BRAVIA Engine found in it Sony's full-sized TVs. It's bright, razor sharp, colorful, and everything looks fantastic on the screen. In order to use it outside, however, I had to turn the brightness all the way up. Once I did, snapping photos or browsing email was easy even under a sunny sky.

Signal

The TL performed well on AT&T's network. I had a chance to travel throughout the Garden State with the device and found that it latched onto AT&T's 3G and 4G LTE networks without issue. I never had any trouble connecting calls or surfing the web. I never lost a call, and the TL never dropped to AT&T's slower EDGE network. I was able to make calls in poor and strong coverage areas with the same success rate.

Sound

Phone calls sounded quite good through the TL's earpiece. I thought conversations sounded clear and were free of static and background noise. The earpiece was loud, but just shy of awesome. It'll work in most environments, but moderately loud places will have you looking for the exit. The speakerphone is another story. It is loud, but sounded distinctly as though I were listening to someone with a sock stuffed in my ear. The ringers and alert tones can be set to good, alert-y volumes, and the vibrate alert is good and strong.

Battery

I had no trouble with the TL's battery life. It easily lasted an entire waking day without issue, even when used in an area covered by AT&T's LTE network. That means 16 to 18 hours of constant use. When in standby mode and used sparingly, it could last for a couple of days. I'd recommend charging it every night, but you shouldn't have to worry about seeking out power before bedtime.

Basics 

Menus

The Xperia TL ships with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), but it will receive Android 4.1 Jelly Bean shortly. In addition to ICS, the TL comes with some customizations from Sony that are in line with its previous smartphones.

The first thing I should point out is that the TL is the "official Bond phone." In other words, it is the device used by Daniel Craig in the "Skyfall" James Bond movie that opens this month. That means the TL comes with a Bond theme, complete with wallpapers, ringtones, alerts, video clips, and so on. (No, there is no laser, no diamond saw blade, nor is there stun gas inside.) If you don't like the Skyfall theme, you can choose from a handful of other themes from Sony that we've seen on other devices such as the Xperia Ion.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

The lock screen only offers one shortcut, which is to the camera. It does, however, offer a customizable set of notifications. Using the settings tools, you can select which types of notifications are displayed on the lock screen, including missed calls, text messages, emails, calendar appointments, and so on.

The TL has five home screens, plenty of widgets, and the notification shade, main app menu, and settings menu all work just as they do on other Android phones.

Sony did one unique thing with the TL's multitasking function. When you press the multitasking button, the recent apps you've used appear as normal in a vertical column. However, a little strip of apps also appears along the bottom of the screen. These apps, called Xperia Small Apps, include a calculator, note app, clock app, and voice memo app. These aren't shortcuts to full-fledged apps. They are miniature apps that pop up as a window on the multitasking screen. They are only accessible from the multitasking screen. Sony said it will add more of them over time.

 

Customize

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

The TL has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. It provided more than enough motivation for the TL's software, apps, and user interface. Even with the Bond theme in full spy-chaser mode, the TL has no problem operating smoothly and without trouble. The TL is one of the zippiest Android phones I can recall reviewing.

Calls and Contacts

The phone and contact applications have been spruced up with a new look from Sony, but are functionally identical to the stock tools offered by Android 4.0. The phone app includes the expected features such as mute, hold, speakerphone, and add a line; and the contacts app syncs flawlessly with your Google, Google+, Exchange, and Facebook contact databases.

Perhaps the best thing about the TL's contact app is the sheer volume of home screen widgets that come with it. There have to be a dozen different ways to paste your favorite besties onto the TL's home screens.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Messaging

The TL has the expected set of Android communications tools, including Gmail, email, Google+, Google+ Messenger, Google Talk, and SMS. These apps function fine, just as they do on other devices. The TL has a couple of other apps that set it apart, however.

First, it has the Sony TimeScape app. TimeScape, which dates back to the first Sony Android handsets, collects all the status updates, messages, and such from varied messaging platforms (Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) in one place. It serves as a catch-all social networking app. What's cool about it is the way it presents the information. Rather than a boring grid interface, it puts status updates on a stack of 3D cards that float up and down the screen. You can view an unending stream of status updates from all the networks at once, or view individual threads (Facebook, Twitter). It's a cool app that I've always liked.

Second, the TL has AT&T's catch-all messaging app. This app puts SMS, IM, Facebook IM, Google Talk, and Twitter DMs all in the same place. I wish I could tell you it is as visually gratifying as TimeScape, but it's pretty awful to look at it. However, it is useful for managing all your messages in one spot.

 

TimeScape

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Extras 

Media

The TL is packed with media options. First, Sony reskinned the stock Android music and video player apps. They both offer basic playback functionality of music and videos, but look nicer than the stock apps. The Google Play Music and Google Play Movies content stores are both on board for your music and movie purchasing/renting needs. These are the same apps found on most new Android devices. The Sony Walkman app is the most feature-rich music player available on the TL and surpasses the Google Play Music app in terms of usability and cool tools. I like the way it arranges playlists and albums, and it has a nice visual look and feel.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Then there's Sony Music Unlimited and Sony Videos Unlimited. These are content services run by the Sony Entertainment Network. Once you create a Sony account, $10 per month buys you unlimited music streaming each month via Music Unlimited. The service can cache playlists on the device for offline playback and offers tons more features. The Movies Unlimited service offers movie rentals. Pricing for the rentals varies by title. These services have an incredible wealth of content, and are not limited to Sony's content. The Movies Unlimited offering, for example, will have access to new rentals before Netflix, according to Sony.

Beyond these options, the TL includes AT&T Live TV (a for-pay streaming video service), an FM radio, and YouTube.

Camera

The camera operates well. A long press of the physical camera button -- even when the screen is locked -- will open the camera. It can also be opened from the lock screen. The viewfinder leaves plenty of room for composing images and the tools for adjusting the settings are floating along the left edge.

It offers panorama and macro modes for taking wide vistas or close-ups. It can detect smiles (small smiles, medium smiles, and large smiles -- no, I'm not kidding, it has three separate settings!), and can make various different shutter sounds. I like that the flash has four settings (most cameras have three): on, off, auto, and fill-flash. It's this last option that's cool to have, because it helps take photos when you have a light background and a dark foreground and you want to make the foreground pop a little bit. If you're wondering how this is different from simply turning the flash on, it uses a lower-power burst than normal.

No matter how you choose to configure the camera, it’s very fast and responsive. It focuses quickly and takes/saves images in an instant.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Photos

The camera has 13-megapixels to work with. In general, it's a good camera. I found exposure and white balance to be consistently accurate. Focus was a bit inconsistent, though. I had several shots come out blurry when I was certain they'd look great. Having so many megapixels means you can blow the images up to huge sizes. I thought the images looked as good on my 27-inch computer monitor as they did on the 4.6-inch display of the TL itself. My guess is you're going to be pleased with the results.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Video

The 1080p HD video I shot was clear, correctly exposed and showed tons of detail. I was impressed with the quality of the color and how accurate the video was. It suffers a bit from the same jerky movement phenomenon that most 1080p HD video cameras do. In other words, try to hold the TL still when shooting video if at all possible. If you have to move it around, try to do so slowly and evenly.



Gallery

Sony added some neat tricks to the gallery application. Basically, the grid of thumbnails can be expanded and reshaped by using pinch-to-zoom gestures. By default, one thumbnail (the most recent image) is somewhat larger than the others. Grab that and do a reverse pinch gesture and it will grow to fill the screen. The other thumbnails will also grow. You can use this gesture to make all the thumbnails visible at the same time, or as few as three visible at a time (see the video tour). It's some cool UI stuff that Sony didn't have to do that makes dealing with the gallery more fun.

Otherwise, it has all the tools you expect to find in the Android 4.0 smartphone gallery app. Individual photos and albums can be easily shared with others via messaging apps or social networks. Photos can also be cropped and rotated, as well as adjusted for exposure and similar.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Apps

The TL has more than 50 apps preinstalled, which includes a typical mix of AT&T, Google, and Sony software. Most of the preinstalled apps cannot be deleted, but there's plenty of storage space available for your own apps.

Bluetooth

I found the Bluetooth radio worked well. It gave me no trouble connecting to headsets or other devices. Calls routed through my car's hands-free system sounded good and music sent to stereo Bluetooth headsets was clear and lively.

Browser

The TL includes both the stock Android browser and Google's Chrome browser. Each does a good job of rendering web sites quickly on the TL's display. They interact well with AT&T's HSPA+ and LTE networks and have no trouble delivering a solid web browsing experience. The browsers themselves offer slightly different user experiences and tools, but at the end of the day web sites work well on both.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Clock

The lock screen clock is a thin, white, static digital clock that's positioned at the top of the display. It can be hard to see. There are a number of clock widgets for the home screens, but the time is almost always displayed in the status bar at the top.

GPS

The TL includes both AT&T Navigator and Google Maps. Both are fine for navigating between points, though AT&T's app costs $10 per month. The GPS radio gave me a little bit of trouble. It was slow to find my exact location, and often took several minutes to pinpoint me. Accuracy was never better than about 50 feet.

NFC

The TL supports NFC and comes with one SmartTag in the box. By default, the tag is programmed to launch the TL's James Bond content. It can be reprogrammed, however, to do a number of different things, such as change the TL's wireless settings, send a text message, and so on. There's a companion app that helps manage the NFC radio and NFC tags. Sony is selling the tags - which are more robust than the stickers sold by Samsung and LG - in packages of four for $20. They are plastic circles and can be added to a keyring if you wish.

 

SmartTags

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Wrap-Up 

WIth the Xperia TL, Sony comes close to delivering its best phone. Most of the TL's features perform consistently well, which is not something that can always be said of Sony's devices.

My biggest gripe is the hardware. It just doesn't work well for me and I found the TL frustrating and difficult to manage. You may not care about the buttons so much, nor have any problems with them. I did.

More importantly, though, the TL's screen looks great, the battery performs well, it hooks onto AT&T's network, and phone calls sound really good. The user interface is easily managed and the Bond thematic material is a bit of a bonus if you care about that sort of thing.

The camera does a really good job, and the option to use Sony's Music and Movies Unlimited services are nice features.

If you're a Sony fan, or a Bond fan, or are looking for something a bit off the beaten path, the Xperia TL is an interesting, if fitful, choice.

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typo newfoneguy Nov 8, 2012, 2:39 PM
  • Re: typo by LegendOfSteve   Nov 8, 2012, 7:02 PM
 
 
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