Sony Xperia ZL review: a giant phone in a surprisingly compact frame

Sony took a rather unusual path with its flagship smartphone for 2013: it designed the hardware twice. The Xperia Z is ostensibly the star of the show with its glass body and waterproofing, but it's launching alongside the Xperia ZL, an equally brawny, yet plainer sibling. On a spec sheet, there's no apparent reason for the ZL to exist when its features almost perfectly match those of the slimmer and more stylish Z.

Still, it's precisely that emphasis on function over form that might just win the day. Sony bills the ZL as the most compact 5-inch smartphone on the market, which could win over folks who see large-screened phones as unwieldy. But is it enough to challenge conventional thinking on big phones, especially in light of fiercer competition? And is there anything special lurking underneath the ZL's reworked hood? Read on and we'll let you know whether the second device in Sony's dual-phone strategy is strong enough to outshine the Z -- and, more importantly, its rivals.

Gallery | 32 Photos

Sony Xperia ZL review

Hardware

If the Xperia Z is the epitome of Sony's OmniBalance design, emphasizing flat surfaces and right angles across the board, the Xperia ZL fudges the rules a bit. While a cursory look at the front suggests nothing out of order, a quick flip to the back shows a few radical departures -- namely, shallow angles and curves. They're nowhere near as pronounced as on Nokia's Lumia 920, but they still lead to a considerably more comfortable grip. We also appreciate the switch to a soft-touch, textured-plastic back. Although the material has less of a premium feel than the glass on the Z, it generally serves as more of buffer against fingerprints and drops.

The ZL's real ace in the hole: you can use it one-handed, at least more easily than the Z.

And there's the ZL's real ace in the hole: you can use it one-handed, at least more easily than the Z. Those curves thicken the phone from the Z's 7.9mm (0.31 inch) to 9.8mm (0.39 inch), but they're more comfortable while helping Sony lop off a substantial 7.3mm (0.29 inch) from the height, mostly in the chin. The net effect is a 5-inch phone that doesn't feel at all as big as your eyes tell you it should. You can reach most parts of the screen without straining your thumb, even as two-handed typing remains very easy with the on-screen keyboard.

Sony's trick design is enough to give the impression that other phone makers have their priorities backwards in valuing thinness over ergonomics. While we generally like skinny devices, we can't really disagree with Sony after comparing this to some of its competitors. The 5-inch ZL is shorter and easier to wield than both the 4.8-inch Galaxy S III and a 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus, let alone more directly comparable 5-inchers like HTC's Droid DNA / Butterfly. It's not as though those other devices aren't usable with one hand in some situations -- it's just that the Xperia ZL is more often a better fit.

Sadly, there are some trade-offs beyond just the more conspicuous pocket bulge. The ZL sheds waterproofing, for example. While that does provide flap-free ports, it also means having to shelter the phone in the rain. Moreover, the added bulk doesn't translate to any of the advantages that usually come with more space. The battery has an ever-so-slightly higher 2,370mAh capacity, but it's still non-removable. Sony also doesn't supply more than 16GB of internal storage. Odds are that at least a few owners will be reaching for the microSDHC slot, which has moved underneath a door that hides the micro-SIM as well.

Sony Xperia ZL
Dimensions 131.7 x 69.8 x 9.8mm (5.18 x 2.75 x 0.39 inches)
Weight 5.33 oz. (151g)
Screen size 5.0 inches
Screen resolution 1,920 x 1,080 (443 ppi)
Screen type OptiContrast LCD
Battery 2,370mAh Li-Polymer (non-removable)
Internal storage 16GB
External storage MicroSDHC
Rear camera 13MP, BSI, f/2.4, 1/3'' sensor size, 1.12µm pixel size
Front-facing cam 2.0MP
Video capture 1080p, 30 fps (front and back)
NFC Yes
Radios GSM / GPRS / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1,800 / 1,900), WCDMA (850 / 900 / 1,700 / 1,900 / 2,100), LTE (700 / 850 / 1,700 / 1,900 / 2,100)
Bluetooth v4.0
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro (APQ8064)
CPU 1.5GHz quad-core
GPU Adreno 320
RAM 2GB
Entertainment MHL, DLNA
WiFi Dual-band, 802.11a/b/g/n, WiFi Direct
Wireless Charging No
Operating system Android 4.1.2, Sony UI

Spin the phone around and you'll find some other elements in familiar and usually easy-to-reach places, including the volume rocker in the top right, the machined-aluminum power button at center right and the headphone jack at top. Unfortunately, this also means that the micro-USB socket is at the top-left corner, rather than the bottom. That may be partly forgiven since there's a two-stage camera button at the bottom right, something we'd sorely missed on the Xperia Z. The 13-megapixel camera on the back (with LED flash) also appears more safely recessed this time, and Sony still manages to stuff in that uniquely bottom-mounted, front-facing 2-megapixel camera despite the narrower chin.

Not surprisingly, a few weeks' interval between the Z and ZL launches didn't leave Sony any room to upgrade the processor. It wasn't hurting that badly, mind you. The 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and 2GB of RAM still yield strong performance, as you'll see later on. In fact, most of our concerns center on how the Xperia ZL fares against the competition. It's arriving just as a round of nimbler, Snapdragon 600-based challengers are hitting the scene -- devices like the HTC One and certain Galaxy S4 variants. Not everyone cares for speed battles, but those who do may not give Sony much more than a cursory glance.

Display


The real, you-can-buy-it-now market for 5-inch, 1080p smartphones is still small: Sony is the only company we know of that's shipping such a display on a truly global scale until the Galaxy S4 ships. Parallels like HTC's Butterfly, the Oppo Find 5 and NTT DoCoMo's edition of the LG Optimus G Pro are largely region-specific devices. As such, the OptiContrast LCD shared between both the Xperia Z and ZL still has the capacity to impress, especially in those countries where either one of those devices is currently the only 1080p phone on offer (including Canada, as of this writing).

You just can't ignore a screen density of 443 pixels per inch -- it's a treat when websites look like printed pages.

And it does, in some ways. You just can't ignore a screen density of 443 pixels per inch -- it's a treat when websites look like printed pages, or when HD movies show all their detail. Likewise, you'll see rich colors when viewing things head-on. Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine 2 delivers an additional boost in the gallery, movie and YouTube apps, punching up the saturation, sharpening images and improving contrast. It does occasionally go overboard, however. Tangelo fruit that was already a vivid orange in real life suddenly went neon when Sony's software got ahold of it. There's clearly still some room left for refinement.

We'd also remind you that the operative term here is "head-on." As with the Xperia Z, the ideal viewing angles on the ZL are considerably narrower than on the Droid DNA and most other devices this size. Look askew at the LCD to any significant degree and colors will quickly wash out, invert or otherwise deviate from their intended hues. We continue to wonder how a company known for pushing the limits of TVs can't crack the mystery of wide viewing angles in mobile when considerably smaller rivals like HTC or ZTE have fared better with screens they frequently outsource to part suppliers.

The picture is at least bright -- sometimes too bright, as blacks can become dark grays. The LCD does struggle in bright sunlight outdoors, although the readability is still leagues better than on phones with recent-generation AMOLED panels, like the Galaxy S III.

Camera


Sony Xperia ZL review a giant phone in a compact frame

As with the LCD, you'll largely know what you're getting with the 13-megapixel, Exmor RS-based rear camera of the Xperia ZL, since we saw the exact same unit on the Z in February. For the most part, that's a good thing. Shots aren't as sharp as we'd like when viewed at a 100 percent crop, and there tends to be an unnecessarily high level of noise in well-lit scenes, but the camera produces mostly accurate colors and focuses quickly on the right subject. To get the full resolution, you'll have to shoot at a more traditional 4:3 ratio. Matching the ZL's native display ratio requires dropping to a 9-megapixel image.

Gallery | 46 Photos

Sony Xperia ZL sample shots

Most owners, we suspect, will simply like the lack of work involved in getting a good shot. Superior Auto mode (also known as auto i+) typically picks an appropriate scene mode for the condition, whether there's a strong backlight or no real lighting at all. You can force HDR to stay on by toggling it from the Normal mode -- we found that unusually handy for cleaning up noise in a few night scenes -- but it's not often needed. An LED flash will cover those extreme situations where you're indoors with little light on a nearby subject, although the sensor's backside illumination is good enough that it's usually better to just leave the flash off if there's more to work with than pitch-black darkness.

There's no shortage of finer controls for those who refuse fully automatic modes, including 10 frames-per-second burst shooting, a smorgasbord of effects filters and fundamentals like ISO or white balance. The overall interface bears a welcome resemblance to what's on newer Cyber-shot cameras, although the speed hasn't improved since we tested the Xperia Z. While there wasn't excessive shot-to-shot lag, the app could take a few seconds just to start up, wasting enough time to miss a golden moment. At least there are HTC-style buttons in the camera app to immediately start either photo or video recording, with the option to shoot lower-resolution photos in mid-video.

The rear camera's party trick is its HDR video mode. It does what it says on the tin -- the setting captures video with fewer instances of blown-out highlights or underexposed shadows, leading to a more pleasingly balanced image. You can see the effect in the video above. It's a mild correction, but noticeable. Sony's software can also capture lower-resolution images in mid-video, like many recent smartphones. Make HDR movies and you can only shoot 1-megapixel stills in mid-session.

As for the front, 2-megapixel camera? Well... it's there. The output is good enough for a cropped Instagram selfie or a Skype video call, but not much more. Sony mostly has an edge in positioning the camera at the bottom, rather than the top, reducing the chances that we'll only photograph our foreheads.

Software


Sony Xperia ZL review a giant phone in a compact frame

We weren't anticipating Android 4.2 when the Xperia ZL was bound to come so soon after the Z, and Sony isn't bucking those expectations by shipping the ZL with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. Unless you're craving lock screen widgets, there's not much to miss. With that said, Sony has historically been slow with software upgrades, and we wouldn't count on a speedy or sustained update strategy.

We're mostly dealing with a rehash of the Xperia Z's software load as a result, and that carries its share of blessings and curses. Sony merges Jelly Bean well with its own code, offering quick access to Google Now and rich notifications. Thankfully, large swaths of the company's software handiwork are meant to be practical, rather than just an escape from stock Android: we prefer the multitasking view, which offers a well-laid-out glance at recent apps as well as a tray of mini apps that can run on top of whatever you're doing, such as calculators, sticky notes or timers. While those applets aren't as ambitious as the multi-app juggling from LG or Samsung, they're good enough to handle some quick math or to remind you when a meal is ready.

Large swaths of the company's software handiwork are meant to be practical, rather than just an escape from stock Android.

A key addition for 2013 is Stamina mode, which extends battery life by preventing apps from quietly sipping data while the phone's screen is asleep. You can make exceptions for applications that truly demand real-time updates, whether it's email or a favorite social network, and anything in mid-progress will run until it's finished. Sony's power-management section provides an estimate of just how long you'll last on standby in whichever setting you use, although it's wildly optimistic about the Stamina mode's impact: an estimate of one day and three hours in regular use suddenly jumped to four days and 19 hours the moment Stamina kicked in. Suffice to say that most owners, let alone gadget reviewers, usually won't leave their phones idle for long enough to test those claims.

As with the Xperia Z, though, the home screens on an out-of-the-box Xperia ZL mostly serve as delivery vehicles for Sony services. There are prominent apps and web links for Music Unlimited subscription streaming and the Video Unlimited storefront; the Movies and Walkman (read: music) apps nudge you towards those same services. Sony can't even resist getting in front of the app store experience, putting a Sony Select portal on the phone that offers mostly familiar, Google Play-based app recommendations for newcomers. Although we appreciate well-integrated platforms as much as anyone else, the pre-loaded services on the Xperia ZL are mostly trying to supersede what Google or major third parties are already doing -- and often without clear price or feature advantages. There are only so many of us who need synchronicity between a phone and a PlayStation Vita.

Gallery | 23 Photos

Sony Xperia ZL review (screenshots)

We swung through both of the Unlimited services briefly to check their current states on this side of the Atlantic. Music Unlimited at $10 Canadian (also $10 US) per month is competitive with services like Rdio or Slacker, although that begs the question: unless you have many Sony devices, why not just use Rdio or Slacker? Video Unlimited is also slightly disappointing, as we struggled to find movies or TV shows to buy or rent in HD when they're available that way elsewhere. Even a headlining movie like Django Unchained is stuck in standard definition. How are we supposed to flex the muscle of that 1080p screen without full-resolution content?

Other Sony-supplied pre-loaded apps are more practical. We saw a similar loadout as on the Z, including Dropbox, a File Commander tool, a Media Remote control for certain TVs, OfficeSuite, a Sony Car driving mode and Xperia Link for hotspots. Socialife, however, we can do without. In theory, it merges the feeds from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a soon-to-end Google Reader so that they're all in one convenient place. Apart from not playing to the strengths of the individual services, though, Socialife suffers the same flaw that HTC's Friend Stream and most other social unifiers have faced in the past: it's overwhelmed the moment you're following more than a handful of people or news feeds. We can see there being some utility for owners with a casual interest in more than one service, but we'd point serious socialites toward dedicated apps.

Be prepared for some unwanted carrier fluff, at least if you've got the Rogers edition of the Xperia ZL. We counted 10 Rogers-related apps on the phone, none of which can be uninstalled or disabled -- and three of them had (thankfully removable) shortcuts on the home screen. We also couldn't scrap Gameloft software like Shark Dash, either. The titles don't consume gobs of storage space, but they chew up resources and screen real estate that could be put to better use.

Performance and battery life


Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia Z HTC One
Quadrant (v2) 8,175 8,019 12,495
Vellamo (v2.0 HTML5) 2,214

2,198

2,429
AnTuTu 19,078

19,876

25,140
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,154

1,900

991
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt 1080p Offscreen (fps) 32 29 34
CF-Bench 18,053 16,079 25,267
SunSpider: lower scores are better

You'd think that having the same Snapdragon S4 Pro, 2GB of RAM and software as the Z would lead to near-identical benchmark results. Right? Yes and no. Most of our scores were consistent with what we saw earlier, but our ZL tester rendered web pages much faster in SunSpider, at last delivering speed consistent with other S4 Pro devices, and mustered a significantly higher CF-Bench score. We're inclined to chalk up the advantage to differences between individual units, rather than any kind of extensive optimization.

From a practical standpoint, there's little difference in overall speed. Both phones run smoothly across most of the Android interface, as well as inside of apps. We didn't encounter the stuttering in the multitasking view from before, although we very occasionally noticed a hitch during transitions. What little frustration remains centers around that oddly long camera startup time and also a risk of obsolescence. One look at the HTC One's scores and you'll wish Sony had held out for a Snapdragon 600 to give the Xperia line some added longevity, even if the on-the-ground performance is just fine.

It's clear there are power efficiency problems with the screen, Sony's software or some combination thereof.

We're more concerned about the battery life. Our current battery test, which loops HD video on with 50 percent screen brightness and WiFi on (but not connected), generated a meager five hours and 15 minutes of runtime before the phone shut off. That's not completely out of line, given what the Xperia Z managed, but it's hardly the best showing we've seen. The One for AT&T lasted for two hours longer under that kind of strain with a similar battery capacity. When other S4 Pro-touting phones like the LG Optimus G can last for eight-plus hours on a test that's only slightly gentler, it's clear there are power efficiency problems with the screen, Sony's software or some combination thereof.

That said, we got a slightly more reasonable seven hours from a taxing real-world excursion that involved 120 photos, four HDR videos, a pair of phone calls and ample amounts of social networking. Odds are that you'll fare better in normal use, and we had no problems lasting through more than a full day of testing Stamina mode with Gmail allowed and a more tempered mix of social networking, light browsing and a couple of photos and phone calls. We just wish we didn't have to treat the Stamina feature as more of a necessity than a bonus.

There's no shortage of cellular connections on the Xperia ZL we tried, which should have the same underlying hardware across North America. It offers penta-band, 42 Mbps HSPA+ 3G with support for AWS-based carriers like T-Mobile USA and smaller Canadian networks. Better yet, the LTE is both equally AWS-aware and penta-band, handling big Canadian carriers, AT&T, T-Mobile USA and a handful of carriers around the world, such as LG U+ in South Korea and SoftBank in Japan. You won't be roaming on LTE in regions like Europe, but you will have plenty of places where data flows freely.

Network performance on Rogers is healthy, though rarely spectacular. Our tests around Ottawa delivered an average of 12.9 Mbps downloads and 8.6 Mbps uploads while on LTE, with a deliberate drop to HSPA+ netting us 6.1 Mbps down and 1.3 Mbps up. Phone call quality on 3G was good for a recipient on a landline, although it sounded a bit muffled coming in through the earpiece. Don't expect an improvement in switching the call to the built-in speaker on the back, either -- it's reasonably loud, but sounds very tinny.

Wrap-up


Sony Xperia ZL review a giant phone in a surprisingly compact frame

To answer the most obvious question: if a mysterious benefactor showed us both the Xperia Z and ZL while letting us keep only one, we'd choose the ZL. The smarter ergonomics are just too valuable to ignore, as they produce a 5-inch phone without the penalties in size or comfort that sometimes come with supersize dimensions. Waterproofing isn't all that vital, either. While the Z would be our choice if we regularly lounged by the pool, we have a hunch that the plastic-backed ZL is more likely to stay good-looking throughout its lifetime. Glass isn't very stylish when it's shattered, after all.

The ZL is intriguing for other reasons as well. If you've ever wished that huge screens and one-handed use weren't so frequently seen as mutually exclusive concepts, Sony has your back. The 13-megapixel camera is a solid performer, and the processor is still quick on its feet. Sony's UI represents one of the more considered Android implementations we've seen, provided you're willing to forgive the hard sell on its ecosystem.

Still, it's hard to dispute that the smartphone landscape has changed in the weeks since we reviewed the Z -- and not in the ZL's favor. The HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 are here or coming soon, and both promise higher-quality 1080p screens as well as nimbler performance. The One, at least, offers longer battery life under heavy use. Neither the One nor the GS 4 will necessarily cost much more, for that matter. Bell and Rogers are selling the Xperia ZL for a respective $100 and $125 on contract, while the One will sell for $150 on Rogers. Why not spend a tad extra for mostly improved technology, especially when you'd have to buy a microSD card to take the ZL beyond 16GB of storage? The only US carrier deal for the ZL so far involves Cincinnati Bell, and its post-rebate $250 price likely won't lure many into switching networks all by itself. We'd gladly spring for Sony's second flagship if the price were right, but that price hasn't arrived just yet.

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Sony

Sony Xperia ZL

Pros

  • Compact for a 5-inch handset
  • Capable camera with HDR video
  • Mostly helpful Sony UI

Cons

  • Short battery life
  • Performance trails rivals
  • Narrow viewing angles
Summary

The Xperia ZL is an improvement over the Z, but doesn't shine as brightly next to many of its contemporaries.