It’s always interesting to review a new Sony smartphone. As opposed to many of its competitors, Sony doesn’t only build phones to pay the bills. This is the icon that pushed consumer electronics into the mainstream in the last couple of decades by showing the world that being the first or the most innovative wasn’t as important as being the best in the design and thoughtfulness of the product. This mentality has served them well in almost every market they currently lead, even if they weren’t the first to take the punch.
Sadly, as of 2013, this mentality hasn’t served them well for either smartphones or tablets. They’ve amazed us with some of the most beautiful smartphones the world has had to offer in the past five years, and in harmony with their approach to other consumer electronics, they’ve also disappointed us for being slow in adopting the latest specs or software in a market that does care about these things.
Sony’s plans for 2013 have been to change our minds about them and show us that their new Xperia line-up is worthy of your hard-paid cash. After reviewing the Xperia Z a couple of weeks ago, it’s time to take the Xperia ZL for a test drive. Read our full review to find out if it’s right for you.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Just as the Xperia Z, the ZL packs the same Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor clocked at 1.5 GHz, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of Storage expandable via microSD up to 32GB. Some have questioned our video review about that 32GB maximum capacity, but as of the time of this review, this is what’s read on the official spec sheet on the Sony Mobile website, and we sadly didn’t have a 64GB card to prove it wrong. It also has a 13 Megapixel camera at the back and a 2 Megapixel camera at the front, both capable of 1080p video. It includes an IR blaster at the side and then the usual bells and whistles of a flagship device like dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, 4G LTE or HSPA+ variants, etc. Just beware when you select your model, since there are three Xperia ZL variants. This review is of the HSPA+ C6502 model.
Where the Z and the ZL differ is in the fact that the ZL is not waterproof, it uses plastic on the back and the dimensions are also different, as the ZL is actually significantly shorter than the Xperia Z, and therefore provides much less bezel for the same 5-inch 1080p LCD display.
Why isn’t everything on this list great? Well, the choice of processor was sadly news back in in late 2012, and not today that the Snapdragon 600 is already in town. Some debate the similarities between the 600 and the S4 Pro, which is understandable, but last year’s Ferrari is last year’s Ferrari regardless of their similarities.
Now when it comes to design, if I had to describe the Xperia ZL in one word, I’d call it elegant. Some believe that Sony crippled this device when they decided to go for a plastic design and not glass-on-glass and waterproof as on the Xperia Z, but beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and this is a beautiful phone on its own to me. It’s not only beautifully crafted as was the Xperia Z, but this one is far more ergonomic than the Z for day-to-day use.
Probably what’s most striking is the almost invisible bezel on the 5-inch 1080p display, leading to great one-handed use, and a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch. Yes, I’ll admit I have big hands, and for me reaching all four corners of this display is actually possible. If one-handed usability is as important to you as it is for most of us, this should be at the top of your list, and even if it weren’t, I’d call this the best of both worlds against any other device that’s not a phablet. The phone is in no way small, but it doesn’t seem or feel big when you use it.
Sadly once we start being picky about certain hardware choices, you’ll notice the display isn’t perfect. Sony may brag about their reality display and their Bravia Engine 2 all they want, but unless you’re looking at this display head-on, it has terrible viewing angles. How terrible? Well, while head-on, the Android buttons seem grey, which at first I thought was intentional (notice our video review), but once you pull screen shots of the UI out of the device, these are actually black. Then when it comes to viewing angles, I think the last display I used with such terrible color reproduction when seen from any angle was the 2009 iPhone 3GS, and yes, even last-year’s Sony Xperia S had a better display. Some say they aren’t bothered by viewing angles, but I’m sure that once you set it on the table for lunch and have the need to pick it up to read each message instead of being able to read it while on the table at an angle – like everybody else does today – you’ll start to understand where I’m coming from.
At first we thought this was due to Sony’s factory-placed screen protector, but the problem remained after we removed it, and to make matters worse, the display becomes more fingerprint prone without it as you’ll notice in the photo above. And yes, there’s more: If you chose to not remove the screen protector, lint adheres to it horribly and it does scratch with regular use, so pick your poison wisely.
Going back to design, the glass on the edges and the curved plastic back give this device a great feel in the hand. This glass isn’t there just as a design element, as the glass on the right side hides the IR blaster so well you can’t see it beside Sony’s unique power button. Some have considered the power button as oddly placed bellow the volume buttons, but I actually got used to this very quickly as I use the power button more than the volume buttons in day-to-day use. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
And bellow that power button, we find an addition we thought we’d never see again on an Android flagship, a dedicated camera button. This button launches the camera from sleep immediately at a very good speed, and does a good job at assisting focus and taking the shot.
At the bottom you’ll find nothing but our self-proclaimed “butt flap”. Here you’ll find a paper with all the legal approvals tucked in, the microSD card slot, the microSIM slot, and even a soft reset button, which is something you’ll rarely ever see in an Android device.
And then at the top you have the 3.5 mm headphone jack, a noise canceling microphone, the 13 megapixel camera with an LED flash, and the oddly placed microUSB charger at the side. A word of warning about the headphone jack is that even though all headphones work on it, sadly my Bose headphones didn’t sound as great on it as Sony’s bundled headset did, which is the other way around on any other phone. The chrome ring around the camera has held-up well with normal use, and it serves as a stand to not muffle the speaker; this leads to a pleasant sound when on a call or even at regular volume with music.
And at the bottom front we find the most oddly placed 2 megapixel front-facing camera capable of 1080p video, and which works great as long as you’re not right handed, since it does take decent self-portraits. You’ll also notice a small vein that’s parallel to the bottom of the bezel, which serves as an LED light. This is not an indicator though, and will only work when you charge the phone, or are viewing photos in the gallery. As with previous Xperia smartphones, this light changes to mimic the color of the photos being displayed. Be sure to watch it in action on our video review.
Overall, hardware is delightful as long as you don’t mind the “buts” that we have, which are the front-facing camera, and the terrible viewing angles. The device feels great in the hand, and it does seem like if it can take a beating. For the average user, this won’t be a problem though, and because of how well crafted this phone is, you will turn some heads to get a glance at it. In my opinion, this truly is a beautiful phone, with some non-functional decisions included.
Sony’s UI get’s better and better as it ages and is refined. I’d call it bold, since Sony finally decided to get ride of TimeScape, which just begged for a change. It also brings some unique features you won’t see on Android anywhere else as a result.
To start, the Sony UI is extremely minimalist, which comes in complete contrast with the past version. The lock screen allows you to access music or the camera, and provides a neat window curtain interface to unlock, but it doesn’t look at all like stock Android like the home screen does. Sony has decided to ditch the hardware buttons and do things the Android way with the soft buttons. This also allows you to access Google Now in the same way you can on any Nexus device, but that’s the only similarity that Sony keeps with the stock UI. Folders look like HTC Sense, and then the rest looks unique. It’s also very reliable providing little to no stutter all through daily usage.
The app tray is unique to Sony, and so is the way you add widgets, wallpapers, apps and even themes: all very elegant, and all very consistent with Sony’s refined style. You’ll also notice that there are some Sony specific apps like Walkman, Movies and Album instead of providing you the usual Android gallery. I won’t bore you with specifics though, as they are no better than what any other Android device provides, just more elegant.
Sony’s widgets are simple and just OK. They won’t wow you, nor will they clutter your experience, so I do know some people will appreciate them.
Settings were also tweaked, as Sony has selected a grainy and textured feel for everything. The pleasant news though is that you get a settings bar on-top of the drop-down menu to access vibrate, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Data and the full settings menu.
Now a very smart move that I honestly love about this phone is the small apps within the multi-tasking menu. This should be a standard on every Android UI. These apps are free on the Play Store for Sony Devices. What they do is provide you with small windows of apps that you can use within other apps. If you need a quick calculator, you don’t have to leave the browser to use it. The same goes for notes, voice recordings and even the IR remote app; simply genius. I’ll admit this is one feature that has me hooked.
Speaking of the IR Remote app, this is another useful feature. It’s so nostalgic to remember that the first Pocket PCs could do this, and then the feature died with time. The app is not limited to Sony products. You can control everything that has an IR receiver, or a remote control for it. The reason why I say “everything” is because if it’s not on the list, you can set the IR blaster to learn a specific remote control. Great to see Sony allow you to use their products in more than just other Sony products.
And then there’s the rest of the Sony UI, which I’ve come to appreciate since not everyone likes the excessive black that’s used in almost every other OEM’s UI.
And then there are the things that simply kill Sony’s intent to be unique. The keyboard looks like if it came from iOS, except that the prediction is terrible. It’s great that you can customize it to remove keys from here and there, but it’s a great idea with bad execution. The same goes for trying to move widgets around in the home screen. Jelly Bean allows this and it works great on stock Android, but with the Sony UI, the wait for widgets to react is so bad that the first week of testing this device I thought you couldn’t. The jello look and feel is dated, and honestly only makes things worse.
Sony also bundles the device with some Sony specific apps, since this is a PlayStation certified phone, but as with my experience with the Xperia S, PlayStation on this phone was like running ROMs on any cheap emulator, something which every other Android emulator can give you for free if you own the ROMs. I simply didn’t find enough value to even show this to you in the review.
Overall, Sony’s major problem with this UI is that it’s not better than what it tries to improve. It looks like stock Android, like iOS (in the keyboard), and that would be fine if it would at least perform like either, but it doesn’t. That said, get Swiftkey and don’t move widgets around, and this is a solid UI. I simply love the small apps, and I’m sure you will too.
The camera overall is on par with most high-end smartphones, and that’s really both good and bad. If you were planning to buy this phone because it has HDR video, or because it has 13 megapixels on the camera in comparison to the usual 8 megapixels in the market, don’t. But again, it’s a good camera; it’s just not better than what it competes with.
There’s a warm aspect of the final photographs that doesn’t necessarily look bad, but that does kill those shots a little in low-light. The last photo is a sample of the front facing camera, which as you can see, doesn’t make any miracles.
1080p HDR video is good. It does allow you to see better detail in high-contrast situations, and color reproduction seems more accurate. I love that the camera focuses on subjects much faster than on previous Xperia devices, but I hate the fact that still today, you can’t tap to focus on video. Video stabilization was sadly terrible, though, regardless of if the settings were on or off. In the video sample, it was turned on, and you notice how the iPhone 5 simply demolished the Xperia ZL in that department.
This device is a trooper. As opposed to many other devices that have great benchmark scores and terrible real-life performance, the ZL handled absolutely everything I threw at it with ease. Yes, this is last year’s Snapdragon, but Sony did a great job in optimizing their software experience to make it shine. Quadrant makes this device look like a super phone at 7765 and Geekbench 2 is a little more conservative and realistic at 1992. Yes, I can honestly say I recommend this device for its performance overall.
I’d call this device above average when it comes to battery life. Now remember, I tested this unlocked HSPA+ device on an HSPA+ network. Your millage may vary if you use a device optimized for other bands, as I’ve experienced LTE smartphones to perform better over LTE than over HSPA+, even if that sounds ironic. This device gave me a full day of battery life over my week and a half of testing, and at times it had enough juice to last half the next day. I am of those that prefer a replaceable battery, but this device didn’t make me miss the lack of it. Sony does provide enhanced stamina features to improve this, but I never felt a need to even give it a try.
Call Quality/Network Performance
Call quality is impressive. It’s as if Sony licensed Motorola’s voice call technology. Voice calls sound outstanding over the earpiece, and it’s as if the device echoes your voice over the earpiece, so you don’t have to wonder if the caller is listening to you well or not. I didn’t notice Sony advertising this anywhere, but I am impressed. I also experienced no dropped calls, but if you try to make phone calls with the headset, I will tell you that the microphone on the headset does make an annoying sound as you move and rub it against yourself.
Network performance was as expected over HSPA+, with download and upload speeds that were on par with every other device I’ve tested.
+ Beautiful design allows great one-handed use
+ There’s almost no bezel in this display
+ Great speed, performance and reliability
+ Loved the small apps in the multi-tasking UI
+ Good camera and camera button much appreciated
– Odd placement for the front-facing camera
– Terrible viewing angles on the display
– Sony added apps don’t provide any added value, except for the remote
– Non-broken Android features, badly fixed (Keyboard, widget movement)
Pricing and Availability
You may purchase this device today at NegriElectronics.com for $615. Just remember there are three models of this device; make sure you select the right one for your network availability.
Bottom line, Sony has made a solid hit with the Xperia ZL. It’s a gorgeous phone that doesn’t seem like if it’s going to break with normal use. It provides a solid user experience from day-to-day use, to the most intense tests we gave it. It also provides a very delightful experience when holding it and using it, proving that you don’t need a huge device to get a 5-inch display.
Sadly, Sony didn’t hit this one out of the ballpark. There’s nothing extraordinary about the Xperia ZL. What it does, it does well, but so does the HTC One and so will the Samsung Galaxy S 4. It’s hard to tell you that this device is any better than the other two giants mentioned, but I can confirm there are some lacking features in the display that leave a lot to be desired for its price point. Even if you’re a Sony fan, this device won’t improve your interaction with Sony products, like can happen when you own Apple products.
Now, in all fairness, if I were to not compare this phone against anything else, I’ll admit I loved my experience testing it. I feel Sony thought it out well, and if all the buzz surrounding competing devices isn’t a problem to you, I can assure you this device is a very good buy.
You’ll notice that my score is different to Taylor’s review of the Xperia Z in this section, and that’s mainly because I was fortunate to get a model that’s optimized for my network, were Taylor sadly received a review unit that only provided him with EDGE data functionality.