If you're not much a classic car nut, and you were to walk up to a stylish little 1968 Opel GT, like this one, you'd probably think "Wow, is that... Italian? It must be fast (for its age)."
Of course, you would be wrong. The Opel GT is, in fact, based on the rather pedestrian Opel Kadett - seen here. The GT was not particularly quick, expensive, or really even that rare. In fact, Opel sold over 100,000 of them. And why? Because they were small and pretty and, even in the US, a lot cheaper than a Corvette.
The Xperia TX is a lot like an Opel GT. It's quite pretty (and if you think the Opel GT isn't pretty, you need your eyes examined), but when you get inside and actually start it up, it's readily apparent that the looks are compensating for a lack of substance. And, in a car - perhaps - that's OK sometimes. In a smartphone? There's really no reason for it. That's sort of like ordering a hamburger at a four star restaurant because they meticulously sculpt every ingredient into an aesthetically pleasing shape. It's appreciated, but it's not like it really helps all that much when you take the first bite. If it isn't good, it isn't good.
Analogies aside, the Xperia TX is, indeed, not very good. And considering Sony is attempting to market this as its international flagship for the time being, that's not really acceptable. In a world where manufacturers like Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and even LG have continually stepped up their game on almost every front, Sony... hasn't. And that means there really isn't any reason to buy this phone, unless you really just enjoy throwing your money at Sony. Which, personally, I can't say I do.
Note: While this phone is not the Xperia T or TL, it is extremely similar to those two devices in almost every way but the exterior design. The T/TL, being the "Bond" phones, got a little more visual jazzing up (and different button placement), while the TX is basically the same as the Japan-market GX (yes, the names are stupidly confusing). Internally, they're all basically the same device, just with different radio configurations.
Xperia TX: Specifications
- Price: Varies, at Basatne Electronics
- Processor: 1.5GHz dual-core MSM8260A Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
- GPU: Adreno 225
- Network compatibility: Pentaband GSM 3G, microSIM
- Operating system: Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich
- Display: 4.55" LCD (1280x720) with Mobile Bravia Engine
- Memory: 1GB RAM / 16GB internal storage (11GB usable)
- Cameras: 13MP rear / 1.3MP front
- Battery: 1750mAh, removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / Expandable storage: microUSB / microSD
- Thickness: 8.6mm
- Weight: 127g
- Sony does know how to style a phone. Even if you don't love the look of the TX, there's no denying it's striking, unique, and avoids so many of the design fads other smartphone makers have fallen into of late.
- On-screen buttons. Need I say more?
- The 13MP camera is better than what you get on, say, a One X or an AT&T LG Optimus G (same camera as Nexus 4), but it's also not on par with the proper Optimus G's 13MP shooter, or really even the Galaxy S III's 8MP sensor. Oh, and it has a hardware camera button, hooray!
- The battery life is pretty good.
The Not So Good
Hello, UI lag. It's been a while. I thought I'd left you behind a little over 6 months ago when all those Snapdragon S4 phones came out. But now you're back, it seems. Seriously, Sony, this isn't acceptable in 2012, especially now that we're pretty much at the end of 2012.
The build quality is just plain bad. I can't believe Sony put out such a flimsy, cheap-feeling piece of hardware. It's sad that they're trying to call this a "high-end" phone - in some ways, even the Galaxy S III feels more premium than this plastic disaster.
The UI overlay has so many quirks and usability issues that I sort of want to throw the phone out a window on occasion. Eg, the god-awful keyboard, or the abysmally slow data syncing.
Android 4.0.4 with an Android 4.1 upgrade in "2013." That's as specific as they're getting right now. Sounds reassuring. 4.2? Ha. Ha.
Design and Build Quality
A beautiful, delicate, plastic little flower.
I have such mixed feelings about the exterior of the Xperia TX. On the one hand, it's pretty gorgeous. Sony knows design. They can make something simple and beautiful, but without being contrived or, well, weird. Compared to say, the Optimus G, which is certainly unique, but also not particularly pretty, the TX just doesn't seem to be trying as hard, but looks much better. It's graceful, and I don't think there's a single right angle on the thing.
The front of the phone is somewhat startling in its contrast to the back. Looking from the rear, the TX looks like a pinched, curvy rectangle. But go to the front, and those curves sort of vanish - it's just a rounded rectangle. It's a nifty little visual trick, and I dig what Sony did there. One thing I don't like on the front, though, is the slightly raised frame around the display bezel. It's not sharp like some phones, but it's raised just a little too far up for my taste, which sort of makes it feel like an older, cheaper handset.
Build quality is where any praise I've given thus far goes straight down the tubes, though. It sucks. Like, I can't believe Sony would release a flagship smartphone built so pathetically. It feels absurdly cheap. I hate holding this phone just because of how flimsy it feels. And it's not just the removable rear cover - the whole phone creaks and twists in your hand when any kind of pressure is exerted. It's just not good. It would keep me, personally, from buying this phone, even if the rest of it was great (which, unfortunately, it's not).
The cynical side of me believes this is because the TX is headed for markets where Sony has more brand loyalty to cash in on (Asia, Middle East), and where it can edge out a higher profit margin by using cheaper materials. The pragmatic side of me thinks that the TX just didn't receive quite as much attention as the T/TL, which by all accounts is quite solid and sturdy. I'll leave that one to you to figure out.
Button placement on the TX is a bit odd. The power button is on the left hand side, near the top, while the volume rocker is where it should be, on the right. I guess it doesn't really matter, but it will take some getting used to. There's also a hardware camera shutter button, along the right side near the bottom. Yay! Sort of.
This hardware camera button has a serious flaw. Because the TX is so symmetrical (on both the X and Y axes), pulling it out of your pocket and attempting to turn on the screen without looking (let's face it, we all do this many times a day) is a royal pain in the ass. The power and camera buttons are the same size, and they're mirrored in terms of placement. So, if you have the phone upside down - something that's very difficult to feel without actually looking - you'll hit the camera button thinking it's power. And even when you do look, the Xperia logo on the bottom of the display has the same shiny metallic look as the Sony logo on the top, so even a quick glance sometimes doesn't make it clear which end of the phone you're holding.
This has, literally, driven me absolutely bonkers over the last two weeks. If they had just moved the shutter button up half an inch, this could have been avoided. Ugh.
The quality of the buttons themselves is above that of the phone, but I despise the absolutely tiny volume rocker. There's no way to know if you're turning things up or down - it's just way, way too small. Sony, you fail at button ergonomics 101.
The notification LED doesn't do anything as far as I can tell, unless you're charging the phone. If it does blink for notifications, I must have missed it over the last fourteen-plus days. Oh, and the TX has software navigation buttons, which is good.
Sony's doing something right (and bright).
The display on the TX is great. I wouldn't say it bests the S-LCD2 of HTC's One X, but I do think it gives pretty much any smartphone display on the market a run for its money. Unlike the Optimus G's IPS display, the TX is far more subdued in terms of hue and saturation, and presents a much more balanced palette. That said, the greens are a little dull, as are the reds, and viewing angles are decidedly inferior to the reigning Android "top 3" (One X, GSIII, Optimus G). Does that really make a difference? I'd argue no.
One area where the TX's display performs surprisingly well is in the sun. I honestly have never used a phone whose screen was so visible in direct sunlight. Granted, I've been running the TX at 100% brightness the entire time I've had it, but still - it absolutely wowed me in this regard.
And if you're wondering why I would run it so high all the time, it's because the auto-brightness is terrible. It takes forever to adjust, is almost always far too dark, and uses the annoying "baseline brightness" method that I absolutely cannot stand. If I select "auto" for brightness, it's because I don't want to have any say in how bright the screen is. Don't then tell me I need to select a point which the brightness will vary from - that defeats the whole purpose and, frankly, is sort of confusing.
Sharpness is great, thanks to the fact that the TX's 720p resolution is squeezed into a 4.55" panel, meaning pixel density is a rather impressive 323DPI.
Good enough really isn't good enough - especially on a GSM phone.
OK, the Xperia TX should easily last most people most of a day under moderate to heavy-ish use (depending on your definition, of course). But accomplishing this on a 3G GSM phone with a Qualcomm S4 Snapdragon processor is like going to Sizzler and not being surprised at your bill at the end of the night: anyone who is paying the slightest bit of attention can manage it.
A decidedly average 1750mAh battery makes this possible, but frankly, I'm a little disappointed. Given the absolutely insane battery life I managed on an AT&T One X - meaning LTE - with a negligibly larger 1800mAh cell, the TX's performance is barely what I'd deem "adequate." In fact, "adequate" is probably the perfect word to describe the TX generally: everything's just "good enough," and good enough isn't good enough to compete in the smartphone big leagues.
If this were a mid-range phone, I'd give Sony a pass, but they're marketing this as their top-of-the-line smartphone, and frankly, if this is how the 3G version of their new flagship stacks up in terms of battery life, I'd be wary of the LTE-enabled variants. The battery is open to access via the removable rear cover, though, so if you're the sort of person who gets hot and sweaty and starts angrily commenting on the internet when presented with a sealed-back phone, you may be pleased.
Storage / Wireless / Call Quality
The TX comes with 16GB of internal storage partitioned into two pieces, though I'm not sure why. Of the 13GB usable, system apps seem to be on the smaller 2GB partition, while everything else is on the larger 11GB one. Regardless, you can expand this number using the microSD slot under the TX's removable rear cover, if you're into that sort of thing.
Wireless performance was a mixed bag. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity worked well, but mobile data? Not so much. Signal strength fluctuated unpredictably depending on how I was holding the phone, whether I was indoors, and other random factors that may as well be attributed to the current lunar phase. I actually had to set the TX to WCDMA only mode in order to achieve acceptable data speeds, which to me signals some sort of radio firmware glitch that needs sorting out. Speeds when the TX was cooperating on AT&T's HSPA+ network were generally very good. The TX is also a pentaband phone, which is always a plus.
Call quality was solid (and acceptably loud), but the TX's proximity sensor constantly gave me issues - turning the screen back on while I had the phone against my face, causing me to hit the dial pad or, on more than one occasion, hang up my call. This isn't the first phone I've ever used with a finicky prox sensor, but it is the first one I've used where it was consistently an issue.
Audio / Speaker
Unnervingly loud - in a good way.
Audio out of the TX's headphone jack is great, as has been the case on every Snapdragon S4 phone I've tested. Qualcomm uses a superb audio hub, and music from the TX sounds brilliant pumped into a good set of headphones. Pushing the volume above a certain level elicits a warning message from the phone to let you know you're damaging your ears, which for some reason I felt compelled to mention.
The external speaker on the TX is crazy loud. Which is great for me, because I miss calls on occasion when I'm in the car and my phone rings (I have an old car). Not that I ever answer the phone in my car while driving in the state of California. Anyway, it's loud, and while the quality isn't anything to write home about (though it's certainly better than many phones), who cares? An external speaker's job is to be heard [and provide YouTube audio], not to be aurally pleasing.
A very solid camera with a few quirks.
Sony makes some great cameras. And don't get me wrong, the 13MP Exmor sensor in the TX is good. Far above average compared to most smartphones. But I wouldn't classify this as any kind of leap forward, or a world-beater. It's just a really good smartphone camera. Let's go to the test photos.
As you can see, the TX's shooter has a tendency to wash out a bit, and despite the bump in pixels, doesn't do anything particularly special on the detail front.
Auto-focus also gave me a very difficult time in low light. And I don't mean "let's take an outdoor picture at 11PM" - I mean a sort of dark room with fluorescent lamps. It just wouldn't cooperate sometimes, and that made taking photos impossible. It was especially frustrating because the sensor is actually quite good in low light, far better than many high-end phones - the last two photos are both in a moderately lit room at night.
Anyway, it's not a Galaxy S III (which I still think is the reigning Android camera champion), but this is certainly an impressive effort from Sony. Is it so wrong that I expected more, though? I do feel just a little let down, considering this is the same company that is leading the charge in mirrorless compact cameras.
One final thing I noticed was that, out of the box, the TX's camera is configured to take photos at 10MP, in 16:9 - which, by no small coincidence, is why the first four sample photos here are in 16:9. This is a convenient little tweak that allows Sony to say that, with the screen on, the TX can capture a photo after depressing the shutter button in under one second, and roughly 1.5 seconds from screen off. Switch to 13MP mode, and that time roughly doubles. Does it really matter? No, but Sony is clearly advertising a 13MP camera's performance only when it's in 10MP mode, which just seems a little disingenuous.
Not bad, but not what it should be.
Let me be frank (when am I not, though?), this phone feels like something out of a time machine - that came from the beginning of 2012. Sony isn't keeping pace with the competition, and the degree to which it shows is rather embarrassing. Samsung, HTC, LG, and even Motorola have all but banished UI lag in their latest handsets - even when they ran Android 4.0. Hell, I've seen mid-range / budget phones with Qualcomm S4 processors run near totally smooth.
The TX, a flagship device, with a flagship price (over $650USD unlocked), basically lives up to the standards I've come to expect of much cheaper phones. Compared to, say, a Galaxy S III or One X? There really is no comparison - because those phones perform in a way that puts them in a different league.
The end result here is not a slow phone, but one that is slow enough in some ways that you can easily find something better. From what I've read, the experience on the Xperia T and AT&T Xperia TL is the same (they share the same software and components), and that's a bit sad. Sony is a solid nine months behind the high-end smartphone performance curve, but I think that speaks more to the product development culture at Sony than it does to the competence of its rivals. I'll explain in more depth in the UI / UX breakdown.
UI / UX General
Too many problems, too few reasons to ignore them.
Where to begin? Sony's UI received some critical praise back at CES when its handsets still ran Gingerbread because of its elegant look (let's face it, Android 2.3 was ugly), and relatively "light" feel when compared to contemporary versions of TouchWiz, Sense, or MOTOBLUR. The problem is that Sony really hasn't changed it since then. Let me provide an illustration that I think demonstrates my point here rather well.
For the sake of symmetry, I've removed the software buttons from the TX's screenshot. But what you're seeing above is Android 2.3 (Xperia Ion) vs. Android 4.0 (Xperia TX) - and the difference is basically "not much." The updated signal bar style, clock font, and search widget are really the only giveaways here.
Now, if you care to, go look up comparisons of stock photos of the HTC Desire HD (Sense 3.5) vs. the One S / X (Sense 4), and the Galaxy S II (TouchWiz 3) vs. Galaxy S III (TouchWiz 4). While those phones were further apart in their release cycles, the point I'm making here is in the dramatic UI shift Android 4.0 caused most manufacturers to make. Sony, though, seems rather content not changing much at all. And at this point, Sony's UI has gone from being an elegant take on an ugly version of Android to a somewhat stale branding exercise.
This UI overlay is also the prime culprit for the previously mentioned (intermittent) homescreen lag, and some of the other rather annoying issues I've encountered. To be clear, when I say "lag" I mean drops in FPS - below what should be a smooth 60 running through the homescreen UI. With widgets on, it's even worse, and with everything stripped out, the swipes still drop below 30FPS at times for no apparent reason. It's not slow, it's just significantly slower than the phones Sony is pitting the TX against.
For one, adding items to the homescreen or changing the wallpaper is done via a long press on the screen, but apparently also by some gesture unknown to me, because I am constantly accidentally bringing up the homescreen edit dialog - which is rather difficult to use in the first place. Trashing apps from the homescreen is made painfully slow by Sony's trashcan animation. The lockscreen, a rather dated sliding version, requires far too much movement to actually unlock the display, in the first week of using it, I almost always had to swipe a second time.
These may sound like small issues, but they are barriers to the everyday usability of a smartphone - things that you will constantly notice. Getting them wrong, or more accurately, making them worse than stock Android's implementation, is simply dumbfounding to me.
Yes, you can "share" apps from the homescreen, because why the hell not?
The strangeness (annoyance) doesn't end there - the TX has had an absolutely infuriating stubbornness with syncing data from any sort of service. Be it Gmail, Twitter, Dropbox, or Google Talk, it constantly seems like my TX is a full 1-3 minutes behind my other Android devices. My guess is that Sony implemented more aggressive sleep behavior to improve battery life, but such a tweak should be entirely unnecessary for a 3G phone with such a power efficient processor. This problem has become unbearable over the last two weeks, and honestly, I can't wait to stop using this phone because of it. It is undoubtedly my single biggest problem with the TX. Even getting the TX to upload screenshots to Dropbox as I type this requires me to open the Dropbox app before anything will happen - and that's not slow, that's broken.
And then there's the keyboard. Sony, in its infinite wisdom, does not include the stock Android keyboard as an option on the TX, only its own proprietary... creation. Abomination is probably a better word for it, because it's one of the worst manufacturer-built software keyboards I've ever used.
So, why? First off, accuracy is a bust - I get way more missed letters than I do on Android's stock keyboard (which I installed via a 3rd party port shortly after getting the phone). Second, punctuation is in the correction bar of the keyboard, which is absolutely stupid. Who thought this was a good idea? Because if I'm finishing a word, all I see is the suggestion, and punctuation is nowhere to be found unless I select a suggestion.
Edit: Turns out you can add a period and comma that flank the spacebar, an option that should absolutely be enabled by default. Thanks for pointing this out!
Oh, and picking a word doesn't automatically insert a space by default (this can be enabled), because then you wouldn't be able to do punctuation with the default layout. I would seriously like to meet the Sony software engineer that came up with this bass-ackwards way of doing things. The dictionary isn't very good, either. At least some of these flaws can be partially corrected through the settings menu.
Moving on, let's look at the brighter side of things for a moment. One of the few genuinely cool features in Sony's UI overlay are its floating apps, which are just like Samsung's floating apps, except you can hide them along the right side of the screen and bring them back later. It's actually pretty neat.
Sony calls these "Small Apps," and apparently they'll be putting more of them in the Play Store... eventually. Right now, a search for more of them yields no results. Some, like the timer, are quite useful. You access these small apps via the recent apps menu, which I think makes good use of a dedicated navigation button that gets a lot fewer presses than its neighbors. The small apps installed by default, unfortunately, number only four: calculator, notes, audio recorder, and timer.
Oh, and software buttons - this phone, as you can see, has them. For the most part, I do think they are a superior implementation to capacitive navigation buttons. On a phone with a 4.55" screen, it does take a bit more real estate than I'd like, but you can't have everything, I suppose.
Settings are pretty standard, though I found the brightness setting an absolute nightmare to use, as it has adopted the increasingly common (and highly annoying) not-really-automatic automatic brightness, where you choose a "baseline" from which the display's luminosity then changes. If I can barely wrap my head around this concept, something tells me a lot of other people will have similar difficulties. I keep it at 100%, because the auto-adjustment, when enabled, is basically horrible - it's slow, never seems to be bright enough, and doesn't have a very wide range.
You get some "Xperia" settings, too, but I have no idea why USB behavior is in this menu, or why downloading mobile data / MMS settings wouldn't be in the mobile networks submenu.
Of course, there are a number Sony proprietary apps, and many customized stock apps (gallery, messaging, camera) on the TX as well. The Walkman app, Sony's music player, has a six-band EQ with presets and various other audio tweaks, though they only affect music played through the app, unfortunately. There's FM radio, some Sony app discovery app (yo dawg), and the Motorola Smart Actions-esque Power Saver and Smart Connect apps, which will automatically cause your phone to do stuff based on some simple variables you can customize and create. They're actually pretty useful.
The Albums app (Gallery) is hit and miss. Its back button awareness is all kinds of screwed up - I end up on photos I selected hours ago after going straight from the notification bar to a screenshot I snapped and hitting back, instead of back to the homescreen. Viewing albums provides an absolutely great pinch gesture that reflows all the pictures on the fly to make a larger or smaller grid, and it runs without a hitch. It's uncharacteristic, because the rest of the phone can be so glitchy and laggy at times, while this obviously GPU-intensive operation is buttery-smooth.
The camera app is pretty good, though if you set it to auto (as configured out of the box), you'll wonder where all your settings went. When Sony says auto, they mean auto - you really can't change much of anything unless you switch to "normal" mode, in which case you get exposure, ISO, white balance, and most of the normal goodies. Tapping the screen can focus on a target, or capture an image, and you can configure the behavior of the shutter button, too. You can choose to launch the camera app in "quick launch" mode - which disables all settings and sets the camera to auto, and launches much faster, to "quick launch and capture" which snaps a photo as soon as the camera app launches (thus the <1.5 second claim), or to just launch the full camera app. A lack of quick settings in the capture UI is pretty lamentable, though - adjusting anything but scene mode takes far too many taps.
The Walkman app, as mentioned, has EQ and other sound tweaks, and visually is actually really nice. Certainly better than the Play Music app, which I maintain is utterly useless and cumbersome.
Overall, Sony's UI does have a few things going for it, but there are far too many very basic issues that make for an unpleasant experience overall. I just don't enjoy using the TX too often - and that's not something I can say about many phones. Its syncing behavior is extremely irritating, the homescreen lag nags at me, and simple tasks like unlocking the phone or adding widgets are made unnecessarily cumbersome by Sony's customizations.
The bright spots - Sony's little additions like small apps, the gallery reflow feature, and a very tweak-friendly camera app, don't make up for these highly visible UX flaws. Even those apps have their own problems, as I've pointed out. Sony's UI is in serious need of reimagining, and its software generally needs a lot of polishing. It just sort of feels second-rate, and that's not the kind of experience a high-end smartphone should be providing.
As for OTA updates, Jelly Bean will come "in 2013." That's all we know. Android 4.2? Who knows.
I want to say that, after giving it a round thrashing in some regards, I really wanted to like the Xperia TX. I mean that, too - Sony makes some of the most beautiful, premium consumer electronics on the market. They're an iconic name in the business. And it's good to see they haven't lost their sense of style - the TX is a properly pretty phone.
But everything else about it leaves something to be desired - everything. That's what makes it so difficult to like, it's not that there's one big, glaring flaw, it's that it feels like there are dozens of them constantly reminding me of what I don't like about this phone. It's death by a million pinpricks. If the data sync issues were resolved, there would still be many more problems to take their place, and they would still grate against my nerves every single day. And that's something I can't abide. They're the kind of problems that show a lack of attention to detail - a very un-Sony trait.
It's not that the TX is a horrible phone. You could live with it. You might not even regret buying it that much. But knowing that there are so many better options out there with so many more things to offer, with far fewer compromises and unfixed nuisances, makes buying a phone like this a rather silly choice.
Thanks to Basatne Electronics for providing this device for our review! You can buy the Xperia TX at Basatne Electronics' website here.