Software, Camera, Conclusion
Sony's custom Android user interface is one of the few that is as simple as standard-issue Android, but it puts the slightest bit of polish on top of Ice Cream Sandwich. The decision to keep things basic works well in the Messaging application, which has an elegant interface of gray-based gradients and quick access to attaching photos, notes, or locations. Tapping the attachment button then provides more sharing options for video, sound, or contacts.
AT&T confusingly adds its own Messages app that acts as a unified inbox for texts, missed calls, and voicemails. AT&T Messages syncs all communication across phone, tablet, and web. The app is convenient for users with both an Android phone and tablet, but standard text conversations will be better served in the Messaging app rather than the AT&T Messenger.
Apps / App Store
AT&T includes a number of pre-loaded applications on the Xperia TL, including its branded Code Scanner, Family Map, Navigator, Ready2Go, Smart Wi-Fi, Live TV, Messages, and My AT&T apps. The phone also includes the Astro file explorer, an FM radio app, Barnes & Noble NOOK eBook reader, OfficeSuite document creation and reading software, and YP Mobile for browsing the Yellow Pages. There's a hefty serving of bloatware, but users can disable undesirable apps from the Settings menu.
Sony also peppers in several Bond-related treats, such as ringtones and notification sounds that use sound effects and theme music from Bond films, as well as 007 wallpapers. Aside from themed features built into the home screen and settings apps, there are more than 700,000 Android apps available in Google Play.
The Sony Xperia TL offers two choices for browsers: a practically stock version of the Browser app that debuted on Android 4.0, with just the slightest visual tweak, or a pre-loaded version of Chrome for Android. The stock browser is very fast and does better than average on web benchmark tests. It also features a plainly presented interface with tabbed browsing, bookmarks, quick settings, saving for offline reading.
Chrome offers the ability to sync tabs, history, form data, and more with the Chrome desktop browser. Either option works very well and which app is best comes down to a matter of speed versus synchronized features.
Throughout its history of mistakes, the camera has been the one area that Sony has traditionally merged hardware and software without issues. Sony typically releases cameras with a high-quality lens that has the benefit of an LED flash, a physical camera button on the bottom right that can snap a photo, and an unobtrusive interface. In the case of the Xperia TL, there's a high-quality 13 megapixel to go with the aforementioned bells and whistles.
The camera shoots in several modes, but the automatic Scene Recognition feature tends to find the right setting better than any Android phone that I've used. Shutterbugs looking for a little more control can still choose to switch to settings optimized for panorama, landscape, action, night, portrait, or documents. Tapping on the screen will set the best possible focus in a second or less, and pressing the physical shutter button works well when taking a self-portrait. You could just as easily use the 1 megapixel front-facing camera, but that tends to take pictures with a considerable amount of noise. It's better to take pictures with the rear lens that does quite well. Colors like red and pink tend to be more true to life than other smartphone cameras, and the white balance tends to be very good with the Xperia TL.
Video falls well short of the standard set by the excellent still photos. The Xperia TL can shoot in full 1080p HD with image stabilizer and multiple camera modes, but the video either comes out wavy because of stabilization or jittery without it. Low or moderate lighting creates quite a bit of noise, and the lens is very slow to focus when recording video, leading to disappointing videos.
Sony includes Play Music as a default way to stream a cloud-based music collection, but anyone who prefers locally-stored music will be strongly tempted by Sony's Walkman app. Walkman has a beautiful UI somewhat reminiscent of Windows Phone, a built-in equalizer for adjusting audio levels, and a connection to Facebook that can help users discover music based on links shared by friends.
The equalizer makes a noticeable difference only when headphones are connected, but the speaker tends to play music reasonably loud. It also can create smart Playlists using the SenseMe channels feature that crafts playlists based on traits like songs that are upbeat, mellow, emotional, and so on.
The only real annoyance is that Walkman doesn't use the back button to navigate, so pressing it exists the app; however, the good far outweighs the bad with Walkman.
James Bond often has to dip behind enemy lines on long, treacherous missions, but 007 might be discovered by foes if the Xperia TL is his phone of choice. Bond, like all Xperia TL users, will find himself needing to seek an outlet to recharge the battery sooner than he'd like. With light to moderate usage of the phone, I managed only 8 to 11 hours before I ended up needing to seek a power outlet. The 1,850 mAh battery in the Xperia TL sadly cannot keep up with the performance delivered by other phones, which is a shortcoming that this device simply cannot afford to make.
Sony made a gorgeous phone that seemingly has the potential to be the device that finally delivers its elusive home run hit. That potential is sadly wasted on a device that has just enough frustrations to be another link in a chain of disappointments. The Xperia TL has an incredible camera, marvelous hardware, and better than expected software, but the total package - the oomph that makes a device an all-around pleasure to own - is absent from the device. The screen can look amazing at times, but the viewing angles are limited and it frequently looks washed-out. The software is much improved and thankfully makes very little intrusion to Android, but it sadly comes with a dated version of Android with no signs of a refresh in sight.
There's plenty to love about the Sony Xperia TL, but unless you are someone who heavily favors form over function, there's just too much about this phone to dislike.
Pros: Astonishing hardware design, excellent 13 megapixel camera, and elegant UI.
Cons: Odd button placement and behind-the-times software.