Sony Xperia ZL Review

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Already sold on Sony’s latest Xperia Z handset? Not so fast. The Xperia Z isn’t the only great device that Sony announced at CES this year. Announced alongside the Z was the ZL, and it is very much its own beast of a phone.

With an equally robust feature set as the Z, the Xperia ZL is quite the charmer. It may lack the solid glass back the Xperia Z rocks, but it has quite a few tricks up its sleeve as well. That said, is the Xperia Z still the shining star in Sony’s lineup, or is the ZL up to snuff with its brother? In this review, we’ll see if the Xperia ZL has what it takes to be the next phone in your pocket.

The Good
  • Beautifully designed
  • Great camera
  • Software experience is very nice
The Bad
  • Battery cover doesn't feel as premium as the Xperia Z
  • Camera software can lag a bit at times
  • Available at unsubsidized price only

Hardware

Let's just get this part out of the way: The Xperia ZL is one hell of a phone. From it's hardware to software experience, Sony has put a lot of effort into the making of this device and it shows.

The face of the ZL is very clean and minimal. The 5 inch 1080p HD Reality display swallows the face of the device, and is ultra crisp. Watching videos with the ZL is a very nice experience, and you'll be wanting to all the time.

Above the display, you'll find the standard set of sensors (proximity and ambient light), the ear piece, as well as Sony's logo. Why didn't I mention the front-facing camera, you ask? Well, that's because Sony decided to put the 2 megapixel front-facing shooter on the bottom right of the face, below the display. We're guessing the logic here is that you'll be able to more comfortably use the front-facing camera when it's being held in landscape mode. It's no bother to us, and it's something that most will easily get used to.

The sides of the Xperia ZL are nice and simple, leaving giving the user just what they want. The left side of the device has the micro USB charging port, leaving the bottom of the device clean. The top of the device is where you'll find the 3.5mm headphone jack, and the right side houses the volume rocker, centralized power/lock button, IR Blaster, and a dedicated camera button. You can quickly launch the camera by just holding down this button, even if it's locked. Like any decent dedicated camera button, you can press halfway down to focus on the subject, and fully press to snap your picture. Camera buttons on phones really need to make a comeback, as they beat any touchscreen shutter key.

The back of the Xperia ZL is done up in a textured plastic material,  which might not give the same in-hand feel as the Xperia Z, but it works well nonetheless. Here you'll find the 13 megapixel camera and LED flash, along with the loud speaker, Xperia logo in the middle, and a small hatch for accessing the micro SIM and micro SD card slots.

Internally, the Xperia ZL shares the same DNA with the Xperia Z. The ZL may lack the Z's water-resistant powers, but you'll still get the 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 2GB RAM, IR Blaster, NFC, and other expected bells and whistles like WiFi, GPS, etc.

Notification LED

I'm giving the ZL's notification LED it's own section because it's one of my favorite parts of just about any phone, and Sony has done some great things with it. More interesting tweaks with the LED will be discussed in the software section as well.

The shape looks like a small slit below the display with a pin hole in the middle. It looks gorgeous, and isn't too in your face like the Motorola Droid RAZR HD. I really like that manufacturers are playing around with the shapes notification LEDs in phones, as it's a nice way to differentiate the handset.

The notifcation LED is also completely cutomizable through applications like Light Flow, so you can have a different color for whatever notification you choose. There are only a handful of phones that have fully customizable LEDs, with the exeption of some Nexus devices, Galaxy devices, and some of Motorola's more recent offerings. It changes the way I use my phone, letting me know if it's one of the dozens and dozens of emails that can wait, or if it's a text I should respond to immediately, all without unlocking the device.

Not only should more manufacturers provide multi-colored notification LEDs in phones, but they should also follow Sony in playing around with the shapes of them, which can add a subtle elegance to the phone as a whole, like the Xperia ZL.

Design

Like the Xperia Z, The Xperia ZL features Sony's Omnibalance design. The simplicity of the design really works for the device, and you'll find a nice amount of symmetry throughout it.

The back panel curves ever so slightly to fit into your hand, and it does just that. Sony also managed to achieve a very compact design with the ZL, giving you a lot of screen without a lot of bezel. This is definitely a testimonial to the company's confidence in this area.

The large, centralized power/lock button may be a put off to some users in the beginning, but I personally like it. The aluminium button protrudes out more than any other button on the side, meaning you'll always know what to press, even in the dark.

Software

Running on Android 4.1.2, the Xperia ZL rocks one of the latest versions of the OS, and given that Sony is rather transparent when it comes to updating its handsets, you'll likely be kept up to date as to when the ZL will be the next OS bump.

The software experience on the ZL, like the Z, is very unique. The UI is filled with small, enjoyable animations that aren't in your face. There's also a healthy amount of Sony-developed applications that will provide you with the full Xperia experience, like Walkman, Sony Select, Sociallife, Wisepilot for Xperia, Xperia Link, Remote Control, and much more. Sony also offers up an application called Update Center that allows you to update the Sony applications, as well as system updates.

Sony also provides a decent selection of widgets to adorn your ZL's home screen with. The photo gallery widget allows you to scroll through all of your photos with a nice 3D effect -- a nod to Timescape.

The software on the ZL also offers up eight different themes for your homescreen, with options like Silk, Amethyst, Sapphire, and Emerald. Once you've selected your theme, the notification LED will also change to the same color, which is a nice touch.

Sony offers up a pretty great photo gallery experience on the ZL. The application is divided into two tabs: Pictures and Albums. In the Pictures section, photos are divided by months, and you can easily pinch to zoom to get a better view of the photos without needing select a specific photo. When tapping on the Albums section, you can choose from Facebook, Picasa, and Globe, which will show you geo-tagged photos in a nifty 3D globe. You can also view photos from media servers on your home network.

I know I can't shut up about the Notification LED, but the the Photo Gallery also utilizes it, and it's pretty rockin'. When you're swiping through photos, the phone will grab one of the dominant colors in the photo and the LED will shine that color. Simple? Yes? Genius? I also say yes. This isn't going to change the way you view your photos, but it's simple features like this that truly marry the hardware and software experiences together, and I really applaud Sony for doing something so subtle and unique.

Sony's user interface for the Xperia ZL is refined and simple, inviting you in with playful animations and easy navigation.

Web Browser, Multimedia And Camera

Multimedia

As you'd probably expect from any Xperia device, the ZL is a multimedia powerhouse.

The Movie application allows you to view videos on the device or from media servers on your home network. You can also make your Xperia ZL a media server of its own so you can view content on the device on other devices. Unfortunately, when I attempted to play anything from the media server on my computer to the ZL, not one video successfully played. We're not sure what codec support the ZL has, but it needs a few more. If you are able to play a video from your home network's media server, you can download the video directly to your phone, which is pretty awesome.

Sony's Walkman application supports the same cool features the Movies application does. I was successfully streaming an audio file that was sitting on my computer and was able to download it to the device with a tap of a button.

Of course, you'll also have access to applications like Amazon MP3 and the Google Play Store for even more music and movies.

Camera

As you also could expect, the camera on the Xperia ZL offers a top-notch experience. Sony has implemented some great features in the camera software, making it pretty fantastic. Sony knows a thing or two about cameras, given its Cybershot line of digital shooters, and that shines through within the Xperia ZL.

The 13 megapixel camera on the ZL takes advantage of Sony's next-gen Exmor RS sensor, which produces high quality photos across the board. Funny enough, the viewfinder doesn't do that great of a job showing the subject in low-light situations, but a visit to the gallery with show you a very clear image. It's pretty impressive. Likely the only other slight issue with the camera is that is can be a bit slow at times, but that will likely be remedied with an update.

The camera software provides a wealth of features, allowing you to do just about anything you'd want on a smartphone camera and then some.

One of the features I enjoyed the most on the camera was the Superior Auto feature, which automatically changes the focus mode depending on the subject, proximity, or movement. If you're very close to the subject, the camera will automatically adjust to Macro mode. If you're catching a moving object, it will switch to action mode. Many phones have these features, but you manually need to change them, so it's pretty cool to see that the Xperia ZL can do this on the fly.

Of course, you'll still get the standard features that you'd expect in just about any smartphone camera these days. Sony goes above and beyond with an awesome experience, along with great HDR video recording capabilities.

 

Call Quality And Battery Life

With a T-Mobile SIM popped in, I was surfing at HSPA+ speeds and calls came through loud and clear. There was no distortion whatsoever that I could hear, nor on the other side of the call.

Battery life on the Xperia ZL was pretty exceptional. The first day I received the device, it was running for more than 12.5 hours and still had 20% left in it. The second battery run through gave me a little over 10 hours when it hit 20%, and the third produced similar results.  I wouldn't call these bad results in the least bit, but depending on how you use the device, your results in battery life may vary.

The Final Take

The Xperia ZL strikes a mighty fine balance of beauty and power, and offers up a great software across the board.

The ZL may lack the water and dust resistance you'll find on the Xperia Z, but one could easily alleviate this with something like Liquipel. The back panel of the device also lacks the sexy glass you'll find on the Xperia Z as well. Still, I'm finding all of these to be non-issues.

From the compact and sleek design, to the software experience across the board, the Xperia ZL is one awesome device. There's just one problem. It won't be coming to the US via any carrier. This is rather unfortunate, as it's almost a crime to only be available in it's unsubsidized state. If this handset was found on the store shelves of any carrier in the US, it would get the attention it deserves. Still, if you're sold on the Xperia ZL, the high price tag may not stop you.

There's a lot of competition out there, and Sony has certainly brought the fight, challenging the HTC One, Galaxy S 4, and just about any flagship device out there. To make things even sweeter for Sony, the latest Xperia devices come in two different flavors, both unique enough to hold their own.

At the end of the day, the Sony Xperia ZL has what it takes to run with the big dogs, and pass a few up in the process.

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  • Avi

    The sony xperia ZL broke my TV set as I used its Remote Control feature.Many of IC’s got short- circuited.

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