The evolution of feature phones to smartphones has claimed several scalps, Nokia and BlackBerry most notably. Sony (nee Sony Ericsson) has also struggled to find its feet in this brave, new world; until now. Recent estimations put Sony at third place in smartphone sales, and for good reason. The company continues to make better phones with each new release.
The Xperia TX continues this trend, and is better than the previous in the Xperia family, but is it really better than its nearest competitors?
Sony has finally landed on the best combination of its previous designs. The Xperia TX shares the "human curvature" design language of earlier phones, going back to the Xperia X10, but now has the sleek looks and soft-touch plastic finish of the company's more recent efforts. The curve in the back of the handset is more subtle than we remember on the other models, but it is still enough to feel nice and be somewhat interesting to hold.
One of the things we love when looking at the TX is that when the screen is turned off, this is a seriously black looking phone. The engineering that has gone into the panel means that the screen doesn't look grey within the black plastic bezel. It is like one, single black slab.
It looks great with the screen on, too. Sony's answer to Apple's Retina display is dubbed Reality, and it is a decent alternative, especially in the TX. Previous Xperias have suffered from an ugly colour banding problem in the LCD panel, making gradients look like segmented bands of colour rather than a single, smooth blending of tone. This problem has been thankfully resolved at Sony HQ, and the TX is band-free.
One curious element of this design, which tempers the love-fest for us, is that Sony has made the power button and the dedicated camera button the same size, and placed them in identical positions at either end of the phone. Some may say that symmetry is pleasing, but these people haven't taken a dozen accidental photos when trying to turn their smartphones off.
On a similar note, the position of the camera lens is also rather awkward. It is centred at the very top on the back of the phone, so when you turn the handset sideways to take a photo, it is too easy to cover the lens with a greasy finger.
Forgoing the trend followed by other smartphone makers, the battery on the TX is user accessible and replaceable. Located under a detachable plastic cover, the battery sits beside the micro-SIM and microSD card slots, and will need to be removed to access either card.
Manufacturer-designed user-interface overlays for Android have always been a hot topic for discussion. Some love them, some hate them. HTC won early fans for its Sense UI, but seems to be losing them now, despite new iterations of the popular software.
Sony's NXT UI is one of our favourites, but mainly because it isn't too intrusive. If you are familiar with Android, you'll find everything is located in the same positions as you'd expect them to be. Sony includes a few very handy custom widgets, including an excellent power control widget, and the whole system is scattered with small graphical tweaks and cute animations. When you remove an app from the home screen, for example, you toss it into a small bin icon that opens when you hover the app over it, and gives the phone a short buzz when you drop the app icon inside. It is a small touch, but very welcome.
The little UX tweaks and touches are welcome.
(Screenshot by CBSi)
We are far less fond of the Xperia Keyboard, which comes pre-installed on the phone. On the surface, this virtual pad has the works; Swype-like text input, easy to access emoticons and simple punctuation options. But for the Swype-like input to work, the prediction has to be outstanding, otherwise, you spend more time correcting your messages than you would entering them letter by letter. This has been the hair-pulling story of our time with the Xperia TX, where the predictions of the keyboard always opt for the most obscure words and where careless composing has led to more than one embarrassing message being sent. Seriously, Sony, why not just pay Swype and license its smarts?
The most unique feature of the TX, and presumably of Sony's Xperia line going forward, is the addition of what the company is calling Small Apps. These are tools designed to operate as overlays on top of the Android home screen and other core apps. Out of the box, you get a calculator, a voice recorder, a note take and a mini web browser. To access these Small Apps, you select the one you want from the Multitasking menu option, and you can only have one Small App open at a time.
Small apps: launch them in the Multitasking menu. We've added the blue glow to help these elements stand out.
(Screenshot by CBSi)
This is quite a neat idea. The apps float over any element on screen, they can be repositioned easily and they work as quickly as any of the apps running behind them. Sony has released the APIs for developers, too, so there is the chance that more Small Apps will appear in the Google Play store down the road.
They are not the most useful tools, though, and we can imagine that the vast majority of Xperia TX owners will never use them beyond the first bout of curiosity. As journalists, we've enjoyed having a voice recorder handy, but the other tools would only see the light of day infrequently.
The 13-megapixel camera on the Xperia TX is bound to capture some attention in phone shops, and happily, it mostly lives up to the excitement, especially for still photography. Our test photos have been good, with decent focus on most shots. We would have liked the colours to be a little warmer and punchier; they look a little washed out and there is some pixelation on close inspection. Otherwise, this is a fine smartphone camera.
The TX has most of what you can find in the best smartphones at this time with the exception of 4G. Instead, the TX downloads at a still fast 42Mbps using dual-carriage HSPA+. It also has NFC, and obviously works with Sony's SmartTags or other similar NFC triggers. The headset's Wi-Fi hardware also supports Wi-Fi Direct file transfers.
Unlike other recent Sony phones, the TX does not include an HDMI port. It does support Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) cables for connecting to TVs, though, plus DLNA for streaming wirelessly. The handset also supports display mirroring using the new Miracast protocol, though we haven't been able to test this during our review period.
All in all, the Xperia TX performance is solid, but without reaching the same speedy highs we recently experienced when using the Google Nexus 4. The dual-core Qualcomm processor in the TX does a fine job of delivering all elements of a smartphone experience, but it isn't without minor stutters and short dips in performance.
In synthetic benchmarks, the Xperia TX looks a lot like the Motorola Razr HD. It scores a solid 31 frames-per-second in a 3D rendering test, and sits at the better end of the field for most of the other Android-specific tests. There are some handsets that score significantly better though, like the Nexus 4 and Samsung Galaxy S3; both of which use quad-core processors.
Battery life is unremarkable, but was mostly enough to get us through a standard work day. There are some nice, black wallpapers available in the settings too, which should help keep the battery drain to a minimum.
Fans of the Sony brands should be very happy with this release, as it really seems like Sony has moved passed its separation from Ericsson and is finding its feet. The handset's design is immediately recognisable as a Sony phone and it includes some very nice touches.
Whether it should be your first choice, is another matter. There are a number of phones that deliver in much the same fashion, and in some cases, as slightly better. The Nexus 4 is a good example; it takes advantage of new hardware acceleration across the Android Jelly Bean platform, and has a sleeker user experience as a result. That Sony has chosen to release the TX with Ice Cream Sandwich is a mistake, despite the ever-present promise of upgrades.
The 13-megapixel camera should be a feature that really sets the TX apart from the pack, but regardless of how many pixels this camera can capture, the results are easily bettered by phones from companies like HTC, Apple and Samsung.