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
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.
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.