What does it take to be 007's go-to phone? Some would say fast reflexes, coupled with brains and endurance -- things that the Sony Xperia TL has in spades. The $99 device comes with a powerful Snapdragon processor and 4G LTE speeds. There's also a large 4.6-inch display, perfect for watching all the bonus "Skyfall" content, along with a high-resolution 13-megapixel camera. Read on to discover whether the Xperia TL truly has a license to thrill.
In terms of looks, the Xperia TL is more Roger Moore than Daniel Craig. It's handsome, but not stunning. The top and bottom of the device's rear panel is wrapped in silky black soft-touch plastic. The remainder of the panel is made of matte, somewhat slippery black plastic. We would have preferred the inverse of this treatment, which would have made for a better grip.
We like how the 4.6-inch display sidles up to the shiny black metallic edges of the phone. Another nice touch is the subtle curve to the design when viewed from the side, much like a Bond girl.
A 1-megapixel camera rests along the top of the display. It's adjacent to the chrome Sony logo with a AT&T insignia centered along the bottom. When powered on, three backlit capacitive buttons (Back, Home, Recent Apps) sit above the AT&T icon.
A 13-megpixel rear-facing camera juts out from the top of the panel, above an LED flash and the NFC chip. The Xperia logo with its dollop of green sits near the bottom of the back panel. A lone speaker sits directly below.
A power button, volume rocker and dedicated camera button line the right side of the handset. Also on the right is a medium-sized hatch for the microSD and SIM Card slots. The microUSB port sits on the left while the headphone jack is on the top right corner.
The 4.8-ounce Xperia TL is a bit on the chunky side at 5.1 x 2.6 x 0.4 inches. The LG Optimus L9, by comparison, is lighter and slimmer at 4.3 ounces, 5.2 x 2.7 x 0.3 inches. The 5.3 x 2.8 x 0.4-inch, 4.5 ounce HTC One X is also thinner, though it's taller and wider.
Display and Audio
There's no shortage of stunning color on the Xperia TL's 4.6-inch, 1280 x 720-pixel scratch-resistant display. During the high definition trailer of "Skyfall" preloaded on the phone, Daniel Craig's eyes blazed a brilliant electric blue, eclipsed only by the ethereal azure of a pool as the actor took a nighttime swim. Naomi Harris' mocha skin was warm during the steamy shower scene. We did notice a significant amount of pixelation during night and darker scenes. It's not a view to kill for, but it's still a lovely display.
Perusing Kotaku.com and Polygon.com yielded bright hot pinks, firey reds and warm browns. Text on both sites was sharp and crisp. Viewing angles are fairly wide but not quite as generous as the panels on the HTC One X and Motorola Atrix HD.
This phone's display is brighter than the average handset but behind other devices in its price range. The Xperia TL registered 426 lux on our light meter, versus 525 for the HTC One X and 561 for the Motorola Atrix HD. Still, the typical Android phone gets 301 lux, and the Galaxy S III mustered only 210 lux.
The Xperia TL produced muted audio from its single rear speaker; it barely filled our small test room. The keyboard on a normally sultry "Sometimes I Wonder" was distorted. Both Jill Scott and Darius Rucker's vocals fell flat and the crispness of the cymbals was nonexistent.
Aside from the stock Android keyboard, Sony outfitted the Xperia TL with three different layouts. Two keyboards are traditional QWERTY with Trace technology. The Full Keyboard Extra option cues up alternate characters such as numbers and punctuation by long-pressing a button. The regular Full Keyboard displays characters with accent marks as secondary characters. You have to cycle through additional keyboards to access numbers and punctuation.
The third keyboard gives users an old-school flip phone layout with three letters crammed onto one button.
The Xperia TL lets you choose three skins for the keyboard. The choices include black-on-black, black-on-white or white-on-white, and we appreciate having the ability to personalize our input method. We were also able to adjust the keyboard's haptic feedback level.
Software and Interface
The Xperia TL ships with Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), and it's supposed to receive an update to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). However, the ETA for that is anyone's guess.
The lock screen on this device is pretty straightforward: slide the lock right to access the camera and slide left to unlock the phone. Notifications such as missed calls, texts, emails and calendar will also be displayed. Playing up the 007 theme, we heard a few chords of the familiar music with our notifications. It's Velveeta-level cheesiness, but it still made us smile.
The phone has five customizable homescreens. The default homescreen shows off a slim weather widget. Sony packs in 10 apps compared to the usual 8 by sandwiching the date and time widget between two apps. A small line comprised of five circles informs users of which screen you're on. Five ominpresent icons (Phone, Email, Apps Browser and Camera) occupy the bottom of the screen.
Changing the wallpaper and adding widgets is accomplished by long-pressing the screen and selecting the option from the gray bar that appears. You create folders by dragging an app on top of another.
Pressing the multitasking button brings up a bar along the right side of the display showing all your recently used apps. Long-pressing an app cues up options to view app info or to remove it from the list.
In addition to the app bar, a small bar filled with icons appears at the bottom of the screen after pressing the multitasking button. These icons launch small, widget-like apps including a notepad, calculator and voice recorder. There's also an option to download more small apps from the Google Play store. However, when we attempted to add a few apps, the Play store showed no results.
Other notable features include the AT&T Browser bar. A complement to the Web browser, the browser bar facilitates easy sharing and navigation. Tapping the Twitter icon cued up a smaller screen with the link of the page we visited ready to be tweeted to our followers. For quicker uninstalls on the Apps page, Sony added a small icon in the top right corner that places a small red X by any app that can then be removed.
NFC and SmartTag Technology
Similar to the Sony Xperia Ion, Sony has added some clever uses for the TLs integrated NFC chip. When tapped against Sony's SmartTags, small, quarter-sized tokens embedded with a programmable NFC chip, users can have the Xperia TL automatically perform up to 16 different actions. (The concept is similar to the TecTiles smart stickers offered for the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II.)
You can program a SmartTag and place it in your car to activate Bluetooth and GPS and launch Google Navigation as soon as you get inside your car, making it feel a little like a spy car. Speaking of spies, Sony has loaded the included SmartTag with a slew of "Skyfall"-themed content. Tapping the tag against the phone launches a website with all the latest news, videos and games featuring the world's favorite spy. There's even a link to purchase the Bond 50 Blu-ray collection. (Ah, corporate synergy.)
It's nice to know that SmartTags are reprogrammable using the preinstalled LiveWare manager when the Bond hoopla dies down. Tapping on the virtual SmartTag let us view and edit its settings. From there we programmed a range of actions for the tag, from automatically launching apps and URLs to setting sound modes and wallpapers. After we configured the SmartTag, we touched our phone to the token to perform the defined actions.
Overall, this feature worked very well. However, we had to ensure the tag touched the spot directly under the LED flash to trigger actions.
In addition to streaming content over Wi-Fi to DLNA-enabled devices, the Xperia TL can also stream video using a MHL connection. We were unable to test this feature as of press time. Stay tuned for a later update.
AT&T packed the Xperia TL with a boatload of carrier-branded software. This time around AT&T has preinstalled Navigator, FamilyMap, Code Scanner, Locker, Ready2Go, Smart Wi-Fi, myWireless, Live TV and Messages.
Sony chose a less heavy-handed approach with its app offerings. We found most of them to be quite helpful. The Update Center checks periodically for system and app updates. Power Saver let us to choose from three profiles (Power Saver, Low Battery Saver and Timed Saver) to best conserve battery life. For example, the Low Battery Saver profile switches off Wi-Fi, GPS, Data traffic and Auto-sync.
In addition to programming SmartTags, the LiveWare manager let us assign apps for headsets, headphones and chargers. For example, we assigned the Walkman app to launch as soon as we plugged in our headphones.
The Walkman app (shown on the right) features headphone surround sound and XLoud to enhance the listening experience. There's also an equalizer so listeners can toggle their preferred audio. Overall, we preferred the Walkman layout with its large images, bright colors and large text. It just makes for a better visual experience.
Heavy social network users will appreciate Timescape, which aggregates feeds from Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Foursquare into one, easy-to-navigate feed. We liked the app's rising tile motif, which has a 3D look and feel. However, while we could update our status from Timescape, we couldn't respond to replies from our friends and followers.
Other Sony goodies include 50GB of free storage from Box.net if the phone is purchased before December 31. Like most Sony products, the Xperia TL is PlayStation Certified, meaning you'll have access to every PlayStation game that comes with certification. Movie buffs can also take advantage of Sony's Video Unlimited service.
Third-party apps include YouTube, YPMobile, Nook, OfficeSuite, Facebook and Chrome.
Like Bond's trusty Walther PPK, the Sony Xperia TL's 1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 processor with 1GB of RAM is not to be underestimated. During testing apps and menus opened swiftly, and we nimbly navigated between homescreens. There was a small lag when zooming in and out of webpages, but it usually took less than a second to adjust.
The Xperia TL performed equally well on our benchmark testing, scoring a whopping 5,209 on the Benchmark CPU, greatly surpassing the 2,915 average. The Samsung Galaxy S III, which also has a 1.5-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 CPU, notched 4,786. The Motorola Atrix HD (1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU) and the HTC One X (1.5-GHz Qualcomm MSM 8960 CPU) notched 4,857 and 4,885, respectively.
The blood and guts were flying during our "Dead Trigger" playthrough. Animations on the zombie shoot ‘em up were smooth despite four apps running in the background and four open tabs in the Web browser. The Xperia TL continued to dominate on An3DBench with 7,310, beating the 7,145 category average. The S III, Atrix HD and One X scored 7,272, 7,214 and 7,138.
During Quadrant, which measures overall system performance, the Xperia TL scored 5,047. That's 1,959 points above the 3,088 Android phone average. The Atrix HD and the One X scored 4,581 and 4,901, respectively, but the S III delivered a league-leading 5,159.
The Sony Xperia TL comes with 16GB of storage that can be expanded to 32GB via a microSD Card.
4G LTE and Web Browsing
AT&T's 4G LTE network gave us fast download speeds, but upload speeds left much to be desired. On Speedtest.net, we saw an average download speed of 16.2 Mbps and an average upload speed of 1.4 Mbps. We will update this review once we test in additional locations.
Website load times were excellent. The mobile versions of NYTimes.com, CNN.com and ESPN.com loaded in 1.9, 2.4 and 3.9 seconds, respectively. The desktop version of Laptopmag.com booted in 6.4 seconds.
Camera and Camcorder
The Xperia TL has joined an exclusive club of Android phones with rear-facing camera higher than 8 megapixels. The handset's 13-megapixel camera served up vibrant colors and an impressive level of detail.
As we took photos of our storm-battered neighborhood, an image of a single pine cone on a bed of weathered pine needles stood out. The cone's brown seed scales were clearly defined, as were the needles and their various shades of gold, dark green and burnt sienna.
In side-by-side tests, the Xperia TL snapped photos fairly quickly, but it was a step behind the more premium Galaxy S III. However, when we shot a budding rose with both phones, the colors were richer in the Sony image. Indoors, the Xperia's shot of a tea container was brighter and had sharper text. The SIII's colors looked warmer but oversaturated.
Colors in our 1080p video recordings were equally brilliant, and details were sharp. However, the video looked darker than we'd like; the Xperia TL had trouble with overcast skies.
Images from the 1-MP front camera were slightly washed out with a high level of visual noise.
Test calls to mobile phones and landlines in New York and New Jersey were loud and clear on both ends. However, there was a significant amount of echo when we switched to speakerphone mode on the Xperia TL.
The Sony Xperia TL offered impressive endurance during the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE), lasting 6 hours and 58 minutes. That's a full hour longer than the 5:58 Android phone category average. The Samsung Galaxy S III lasted 6:28 while the HTC One X and Motorola Atrix HD clocked in at 5:59 and 4:52.
Gimmicky movie tie-ins aside, the Sony Xperia TL is a very good mid-level Android phone. For $99, consumers get a large HD display, a powerful processor and long battery life. And while the 13-MP isn't the fastest on the block, it captures plenty of detail. The Xperia TL's NFC capabilities also help lend some 007 high-tech cred to the device.
In this price range we prefer the brighter display offered by the HTC One X, which also has a faster camera than the Sony. And the Motorola Atrix HD has a more colorful screen and better audio. But if you're looking for a sub-$100 Android phone with swift performance and better endurance than both of the above phones, you'll find the Xperia TL to be a great value.