Sony Xperia ZL smartphone

| May 11, 2013

Looking to buy the new Sony Xperia ZL ? These are definitely the most effective specs Sony has ever put in a phone, however does that really make it a phone you should buy? When we initially set our eyes on the Xperia ZL smartphone at CES 2013, it may not have gotten the appreciation that it deserved because the svelte, glass-backed and waterproof Xperia Z was stealing all the attention at the Sony booth, tables packed with Xperia ZL smartphones sat unused. While the plastic exterior might not be as striking because as the Z at first sight, the ZL is a really nice alternative from the other high-end smartphones. While you won’t waterproofing or a glass back panel you will get similar specs, camera and a far easier to hold plastic shell in it’s place.

In a way, the Xperia ZL (and Z) smartphones are the initial samples of a refocused and refreshed Sony, one that wishes to release devices with a contemporary OS, this year’s specs, and be in serious competition with the other smartphone manufacturers at a higher level. On paper, there isn’t lot to complain here,however in a time when we’re seeing some seriously high-end devices simply create their way onto the market, will Sony’s effort rise against the rest? Let’s determine in our full Xperia ZL review.

Xperia ZL Smartphone red 64gb

The good
Even with a 5-inch display, the Xperia ZL smartphone isn’t any tougher to use in one hand than smaller devices due to very small bezels and on-screen navigation buttons. The camera produces very good quality photos, it performs nicely with the automatic settings.. The software package can feel very familiar to anyone who has used stock Jelly Bean and is probably the least offensive of the OEM customizations out there nowadays. The ZL also has enough supported radio frequencies to offer you HSPA+ and LTE on with reference to any carrier in the world.

The bad
While the display size seems great once using the device it’s viewing angles are very poor, even slightly off-axis. Even though this is not a carrier device, Sony loads up the ZL with nearly 2 dozen pre-installed apps, most of which are not so useable. The camera takes fantastic photos, however the camera software package is not the most intuitive to use.

The conclusion
Aside from many minor setbacks, Sony has assembled an excellent device with the Xperia ZL smartphone. The phone’s appearance is great and feels sensible in the hand even with the massive display. If you are within the U.S. and have the money to pay for an unlocked device (the ZL runs $629 direct from Sony), you will be rewarded with a phone that is top of the line in style, specs and software package. Better of all this can be one among the few unlocked phones this year that supports both AT&T and T-Mobile on LTE and HSPA+ 42.

Xperia ZL Smartphone back view

Xperia ZL smartphone hardware

Sony went all out ensuring that the Xperia ZL smartphone has high-end specifications. Making this phone tick is a snapdragon S4 pro (APQ8064) processor clocked at 1.5GHz, secured by 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage (which is expandable up to 64GB with a microSD card). They could have boosted it up to a snapdragon 600 processor-found within the HTC One and Galaxy S4 but this one will do very nicely, and given the time of the ZL’s announcement back in January that chip simply wasn’t able to go yet.
On the front of the device you will find a pleasantly pixel-dense 5-inch 1080×1920 display, and around back you will see the camera pod holding a 13MP camera. As usual, we’ll get into a lot of details regarding these a little farther down within the review.

Build quality
Sony might have thrown a lot of of its newest style behind the Xperia Z, however the ZL is not any ugly. The “Sony Style” style is alive and well here, and while their style has been switched a lot over the year I believe they’ve knocked it out of the park here. The combination of a solid sheet of glass for the screen enclosed by a flat black and shiny red plastic inserts (white and black versions also are available), together with a matte red plastic back plate is incredibly appealing. You will seriously get some looks once you pull this phone out of your pocket.

Xperia ZL Smartphone side view

The most “Sony” of all the physical features on the Xperia ZL smartphone is also the circular metallic power button, that sticks out of the device. While it takes a little getting used to to have a power button that low down on your phone, I found it to be very simple to hit despite how I usually pick it up. On top of the power button you will find a volume rocker, that is slim compared to the power button but still easy to hit. The left side of the device is clean except for a small USB port at the very top and an entry hole for a lanyard loop at the bottom. The top edge has just a 3.5mm earphone jack, and on the bottom you will find the other side of that lanyard loop hole. The back of the Xperia ZL, while still red (or white, or black) may be a completely different texture from the inserts on the side of the phone, which makes it look like a totally different color. The inserts have a shiny coating over them that makes the color seem more powerful. This is not just a solid red, it’s like it has tiny specs of gray and black in it. It’s arduous to clarify, however it still looks nice to our eyes. That back plate homes a 13MP camera pod (which sticks up from the back) and an LED flash on the top, winged by a small speaker on the right side and mic above. Down at the bottom there is a partly removable flap that homes your small SIM and microSD card slots. The flap fits pretty much into the spot with a satisfying click, however it unceremoniously breaks up what would be a really nicely designed back plate.

Ergonomically, the Xperia ZL smartphone was a lot easier to use in one hand than i’d have expected given the 5-inch size of screen. The bezels around the sides of the screen are kept to a minimum, even on the bottom edge due to on-screen navigation buttons. The end result is a phone that is 7.5mm shorter than the Xperia Z,  and about 1mm narrower also. It’s even 2mm shorter than the Nexus 4 smartphone, that only features a 4.7-inch display. The only difference would be the thickness of the phone, the ZL clocks in at 9.8mm-and whereas it is not the thinnest phone ever, the curvilineal back makes it simple to carry.

Display
Around the front, the Xperia ZL smartphone packs Sony’s latest display technologies. We’re gazing at a 5-inch 1080×1920 TFT display (that’s 441 ppi), together with “Mobile Bravia Engine 2″, a software package that claims it enhances the viewing quality of photos and videos. The display has a fiercely high density, and appears nice in terms of clarity and color illustration, as most LCDs do. The screen is pretty sharp viewed outdoors, with the screen brightness cranked to 100-percent, however it is not essentially any better than other trendy displays from different devices. I kept the phone at about 70% brightness most of the time and things looked fine when I played with it inside and outside, apart from direct daylight.

Unfortunately, things start to quickly go downhill when viewing the ZL’s display off-angle. the complete display washes out significantly once the phone is tilted at any angle aside pointing it directly (and we mean directly) at your eyes. For example I was once sitting at my table on my portable computer, with the phone placed to the right side of the PC and the screen seemed to have some soft of milk like hue added to it. Even though you won’t be watching the screen on an angle, it’s a bit annoying when you just want to look at the phone on the table or want to show your friends a video and everybody except the person looking directly at the screen will have a sub-par viewing experience.

Another problem with the display is not the panel itself, but rather what is on top of it. As is the case with almost all of Sony’s devices, the Xperia ZL smartphone ships with a screen defender pre-applied to the screen. This is not your regular peel-off-and-go protector and it actually wasn’t designed to be removed in the end by the user. Sadly, nobody told me that and my OCD tendencies had my thumbnail at the corner of the screen trying to desperately peel it off. It wasn’t that troublesome to have a corner protruding up, however you quickly notice this is not your standard manufactory protector once it will not peel up further.
So a fast PSA for sony newcomers: don’t plan to take away that screen protector n spite of how much it annoys you. It is not supposed to come back off.

Radios
From a super-nerdy unlocked phone perspective, the radio set on the Xperia ZL is also one of the most exciting features on the phone. Not like most devices that have some reasonably priced radios built into them that work on some frequencies to chop prices and serve an exact market, we’re looking at just about any frequency you want. Here’s your breakdown:
GSM/EDGE: 850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz
HSPA+ 42: 850, 900, 1700/2100 AWS, 1900, 2100MHz
LTE: Band I, Band II, Band IV, Band V & Band XVII
That’s an entire heap of numbers to digest, however what it suggests that is that the Xperia ZL smartphone can work with EDGE, HSPA+ 42 and LTE on just about any carrier around. And most significantly for several of our readers here within the states both AT&T and T-Mobile are utterly supported, together with LTE. For the length of our review we used the device on T-Mobile and had speeds equal to those we expected from the  Nexus 4 and the same SIM.

Wireless data aside, the Xperia ZL smartphone incorporates a complement of sensors and radios. From wireless fidelity and Bluetooth to GPS and NFC, they are all here.

Battery life
You’ll have to only trust Sony on this one, however beneath that non-removable back case is a 2370mAh battery. We’d say that it’s right within the middle of the pack for battery sizes these days, and with a 5-inch 1080P display you will need each additional mAh you’ll be able to get. In my daily usage of the device I had no downside making a full 12 hour day trip on it. I typically kept the display brightness at 70% and it would see about 2 or 3 hours of screen of time every day depending on what I used it for. Days when I was outside for a longer period of time I (I’m sometimes on WiFi over 50-percent of the day) saw the battery drain more, however that may even be attributed to turning up the screen once outside. The screen may be a major drain on each mobile device, and therefore the Xperia ZL smartphone is not any exception.

Overall we never saw any fearsome drain of the ZL’s battery, and we cannot blame the battery for sometimes not making it through a full work day with consistent use. If you’re slightly upset about the battery, Sony has enclosed a software package that will prolong the ZL’s battery life. Under “Power management”, you will find many toggle switches-STAMINA mode, Location-based WiFi and Low battery mode-that may all add up to some battery time if you are willing to face up with the compromises. STAMINA mode disables data traffic once the screen is turned off, low battery mode will automatically trigger things like lowering the screen brightness and screen timeout time, shut down vibration, GPS, wifi etc. once the power level gets low.

Xperia-ZL-Smartphone-camera

Xperia ZL smartphone software package

It’s a rare case among a number of its recent launches, however Sony has shipped the Xperia ZL smartphone with a contemporary version of Android-in this case android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean.  As makers tend to do, Sony has placed its own touches on the software package to make it match to it’s typical branding style. In this case, meaning a flat, clean interface that’s chiefly gray, black and white with very little pops of blue color added . It falls in line with previous Sony software package, and is what I’d call less offensive than different manufacturer’s takes on the Android interface.

Launcher and interface
While the general “look and feel” of the software package customizations are completely different from stock, the ZL smartphone does not operate much differently than what you’d expect from a stock device. As far as menus, buttons and functions, everything is going to be as expected, only with a bit of visual modifications. This fact can bee seen from the on-screen navigation buttons all the way down to the settings menu.
Sony’s launcher is pretty basic, however it has its own means of doing things. The lock screen is apparent and might be unlocked with a swipe up or down anyplace on the screen, with a pleasant clock display and fast launch buttons for music controls and also the camera. Once on home screen, you will see a regular array of screens with a regular dock, app arrangement and status bar. The app drawer is modifiable in terms of sorting, though it solely holds apps and not widgets as stock would.
Sony includes many “themes” that modify the design of the device and wallpapers, and it’s truly quite nice to have an easy way to spice things up. Beyond the launcher, the color accents throughout the whole UI can amend from the default blue to green, red, or gray (for example) depending on the theme chosen.

Bundled apps
Even though this can be a non-branded and carrier unlocked device, Sony has still loaded up the ZL smartphone with lots of its own pre-installed apps. At my count there are a minimum of 20 completely different Sony apps loaded, not taking into consideration the helpful ones like Notes and an FM radio. While Sony has done a decent job creating a standardized platform of content apps like Sony Music Unlimited, things simply get out of hand having this several pre-installed apps.
Luckily, it looks like each one of the apps are often either disabled or truly uninstalled, that is nice if you wish to clean up your app drawer or maybe save a little bit of memory space.

Performance and usability
In daily use, the Xperia ZL performed a bit like a contemporary high-end device. Apps performed smoothly and opened quickly, the launcher and app drawer were fast as were the smartphone settings. I never experienced freezes, any crashes or random reboots (I never even saw the launcher redraw). Whatever customizations Sony has created to the software package do not appear to have interfered with the enhancements that are created by Jelly Bean as way as interface smoothness goes. Returning from a Nexus 4, I never felt like I was having a sub-par experience on the ZL.

Xperia ZL camera
Much like the internals of the Xperia ZL, Sony has placed what seems to be the best camera sensor for this type of phone. We’re looking at an Exmor RS 13MP sensor with an f/2.4 aperture here, and while that will not be nearly as good on paper because the f/2.0 that we see on some HTC handsets, we never found any problems using the camera.

Pictures
The Xperia ZL sports a crazy range of settings and tweaks that basically transcend your average phone’s camera interface. 5 buttons line up on the left side of the view finder, that allow you to access groups of settings. The top one allows you to choose the shooting mode, where you will find things like panorama, scenes, the dedicated video camera and photo effects. The second button can allow you to gradually change exposure (in +/-0.3 increments), and the others are about turning on/off the HDR, flash and general settings for the camera like ISO, timers, geotagging and the like.

Having choices is nice, however we ended up finding that the “Superior auto” mode took the finest shot. The thing about this mode is that it analyzes the scene and switches modes and settings suitably to offer the simplest shot. The interface indicates what scene or shooting mode its switched to, and it does a decent job of figuring things out. Photos in Superior auto are limited to 12MP rather than 13, however you will not notice a difference.

If instead you are attempting to provide an exact look to a shot, changing your exposure manually, ISO and metering choices will cause exceptional results. There’s lots of headroom on the ZL’s camera to find out your means round the settings and make the most of that 13MP sensor.

Stills were very crisp and clear, while in Superior auto the camera can try harder to properly expose the photo. The choice to switch to full manual management of your photos can satisfy the nerdiest of camera buffs. We actually did not notice any scenario during which the ZL captured what we might say a “bad” photo-the worst you’ll get would be an “acceptable” shot- and that is saying one thing, this camera is capable of many things that other phones camera can’t.

Even with all the praise in the world, the ZL’s camera software package lacks in two areas. first is that the interaction between the gallery (called “Albums”) and the camera is not as swift because in  the Android 4.1 Sony has removed the flexibility to swipe between the camera mode and the gallery mode. Second is that the panorama mode (called “Sweep Panorama”), is set to a number of dimensions and you cannot begin or end the panorama when you wish…

Video
The Xperia ZL captures 1080P video, and in contrast to several phones it is set to 1080P by default. The standard looks quite sensible, as will the sound captured from the rear-facing microphone. Video are often captured directly from the camera UI via a secondary button, however if you want to try and do any tweaking to the settings you have got to switch to the dedicated video mode.

There are many refined tweaks you can apply to the video if you want, together with an HDR mode. If you actually need to start out tweaking you’ll manually set exposure and the white balance.

Xperia ZL Smartphone back view screen

Front camera
The Xperia ZL smartphone incorporates a 2MP front-facing camera, with a really awkward placement within the bottom right corner of the screen. Even though we’ve definitely seen devices before with this placement, the top of the device looks like the natural place for it. Once holding the device in portrait you get a really unflattering  view of your face, however it works ok if you hold it in landscape instead. The camera takes fine photos and incorporates a tiny set of the customizations obtainable to the rear camera, like HDR, image stabilization and timers.

The bottom line
For the first time we are able to truly speak of Sony within the same lines as different makers about flagship phones. From the high-end hardware specs and placing style to the fluid and unassertive software package, Sony has seriously stepped up its game with the Xperia ZL smartphone. There are a few of tiny gripes, however we all apprehend too well that there is no phone without flaws or compromises Sony has created a phone that may be on the best level set by different makers in each aspect, and even best them in some areas. If you are prepared and willing to shop for your phone unlocked, we see no reason why the Xperia ZL smartphone should not be on your list.

Let us know your thoughts on Sony Xperia ZL Smartphone in the comments below.

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