Sony has made significant progress since it bought Ericsson out of their business venture back in early 2012. But, moving into 2013, the Japanese phone manufacturer still had a lot to improve on if it wanted to tackle the “big boys” of the smartphone market.
Less than a year following the Ericsson “divorce”, Sony introduced not one, but two great Android smartphones: the Sony Xperia Z and the Sony Xperia ZL.
At first blush, the Xperia Z, which we reviewed a couple of weeks back, seemed to be Sony’s flagship for 2013, and the better phone from the pair. But the Sony Xperia ZL shouldn’t be dismissed just because it’s smaller and not as sleek as its sibling.
As a matter of fact, the compact size of the Sony Xperia ZL may just be the best thing about this device. Even better, the small footprint doesn’t come at the expense of the specs and the overall experience.
If you’re looking for a video review of the Sony Xperia ZL, you might want to jump to the bottom of this article, where we give you a video tour of the smartphone. Let’s take a closer look at what the Sony Xperia ZL has to offer.
Build and design
Although Sony used roughly the same design language with both the Sony Xperia Z and the Sony Xperia ZL, there are a few notable differences.
Starting with the similarities, the Sony Xperia ZL features straight edges and angular corners to accomplish a slab-like overall feel.
The front of the smartphone is dominated by the 5-inch display, which renders three navigational on-screen buttons below the content area. Excluding the thin bezels, there’s really nothing else to look at other than Sony’s logo at the top and the uniquely designed notification LED light – instead of just a rounded pulsating light, the LED is more like a line and is a unique focal point for the Xperia ZL. Finally, the front-facing camera that rests below the navigational buttons is supposed to make video chats more natural by having users look lower on the screen – that’s what Sony posits, anyway.
The right side of the Sony Xperia ZL houses the large, silver power button in the middle, a volume rocker above the power button and a dedicated camera button for the trigger-happy shutterbug in all of us.
While the textured plastic back is not as rigid as some would like it to be, it does help with the handling of the Sony Xperia ZL, letting users operate it with just one hand. In addition to the improved grip, the texturized plastic is less likely to shatter into pieces the instant you’ve dropped the smartphone on a concrete pavement (which is usually a job best fitted for our own Darcy LaCouvee) as opposed to glass, the material that covers the back of the Sony Xperia Z.
The textured plastic back of the Xperia ZL features a flappy cover at the bottom that can be removed to expose the microSD and micro SIM slots. The cover is attached to the body by a single piece of plastic, and since it doesn’t feel especially durable, it does require a bit of extra attention when access to the slots is needed.
While the Sony Xperia ZL lacks the waterproofing of the Sony Xperia Z, it does compensate with a much more compact form factor. In fact, the Sony Xperia ZL is the most compact 5-inch smartphone officially announced thus far.
The Sony Xperia ZL measures 131.6 x 69.3 x 9.8 mm (5.18 x 2.73 x 0.39 in) and weighs 151 g (5.33 oz). While thicker than most flagship smartphones, the Xperia ZL is the 5-incher that’s probably the easiest to use with just one hand (the number one issue with smartphones that use displays of this size).
Sony has equipped the Xperia ZL with a 5-inch TFT capacitive panel that works at a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, with a 441 PPI density. As far as we can tell, this is the exact same display that Sony has used on the Xperia Z.
As it was to be expected judging by the spec sheet, sharpness is on par with that offered by the displays of other 5-inch Android smartphones. However, sharpness is not all that makes a great smartphone display.
Both through direct observation, and based on more formal tests, it’s clear that the display on the Sony Xperia ZL suffers from a few issues that are also seen on its bigger twin. First, although not a deal breaker to most smartphone users, is the problem of limited viewing angles. Then there’s the issue of lower contrast levels, when compared to other devices, as well as the less accurate color reproduction.
The Bravia image processing chip, a component that Sony has always touted in its marketing materials, may improve the viewing experience in some scenarios, but also oversaturate colors under certain conditions.
Overall, the Sony Xperia ZL has a good display, one that will satisfy all but the most pretentious users.
Hardware and performance
CPU, GPU, and RAM
As far as performance is concerned, you’ll have a tough time finding a faster smartphone on the market right now, although there are a few devices that are close enough to call it a draw.
Today’s top smartphones (unless you managed to buy an HTC One) are powered by the same SoC as the Xperia ZL, the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, which includes a 1.5 GHz quad-core Krait CPU and an Adreno 320 GPU. The ZL has 2GB of RAM memory.
As you would expect, benchmarks but also real life usage suggest that the Sony Xperia ZL is at the top of the performance charts, along other phones based on the S4 Pro, such as the Xperia Z, the HTC Droid DNA or the Nexus 4.
Sure, there are a few upcoming devices what will feature faster processors (the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One are just two examples), but those devices are not yet available for purchase in most markets. And I’ll assure you that, by the time those smartphones become widely available, some manufacturer will announce an even faster smartphone. That’s the way technology evolves these days. The processor package in the Xperia ZL might be getting on a bit, but that doesn’t mean it won’t give you a really great experience nonetheless.
Internal storage, camera, and battery
The Xperia ZL comes with 16GB of internal storage and can work with microSD cards of up to 64GB, which is perfect for those with an ever growing need of storage space.
The primary camera features a 13MP Sony Exmor RS sensor that produces some of the nicest pictures taken with a smartphone. Sony’s proprietary camera app is also a welcomed addition, as it features a couple of software tweaks such as Sony’s Superior Auto system (a software tool that can automatically adjust the settings depending on the environment) and Sweeping Panorama.
Here are a couple of sample shots taken with Sony’s Xperia ZL primary camera:
Sony engineers have decided to place the secondary 2MP camera at the bottom right side of the front of the phone, a decision that’s supposedly based on the fact that most people look down to their phones while in a video call.
The 2370 non-removable battery will get you through the day with moderate use, although there is nothing spectacular to report about it. During our tests, after a full charge, the Sony Xperia ZL has turned off after 5 and a half hours of HD video playback.
One key difference between the Xperia ZL and its bigger twin is the inclusion of an IR blaster. This is an emerging piece of tech appearing on more devices – it provides the ability for users to utilize their phones as remote controls for multiple devices. You can use the Xperia Zl, then, as a universal remote that controls your television, stereo system, or even a cable set-top box. It is certainly a neat and unique addition, though its functionality depends on the remote control application that is covered later.
The Sony Xperia ZL runs on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean with Sony’s proprietary Xperia UI overlaid on top. As with all custom manufacturer UIs for Android, the design is a matter of personal preference. The Xperia UI allows for some basic customization of your homescreens, although if that’s not enough for you, you can always install a custom launcher from the Play Store and get a totally different visual experience.
As far as extending the functionality of the Android OS, the Sony Xperia UI is not doing anything that we would call impressive, although the array of media-centered apps that Sony has included in the package do provide some nice features.
Another software tweak that’s worth mentioning about the Xperia UI is that, when low on battery, the phone can enter Stamina mode, which supresses the mobile data connection while the screen is turned off. There are a bunch of apps in the Google Play Store that have the exact same functionality, but Stamina mode is still a welcomed out-of-the-box feature.
One last piece of software worth mentioning is the inclusion of a remote control application. Using the aforementioned IR blaster, users can open up the Remote Control app and add from a pretty incredible list of devices in order to find the one they use. This all ranges from DVD players to cable set-top boxes to televisions. While definitely pretty handy, the built-in presets for various devices may likely work flawlessly for only newer devices. Testing on an older Vizio flat screen TV yielded only some of the buttons functional, even after using all the different remote types. Manual set up is possible, however, so if it doesn’t work for you, that may be the way to go.
When you draw the line, the Sony Xperia ZL is a great Android smartphone that delivers the best performance on the market, the most compact form factor on a smartphone with a 5-inch display, and a decent camera. Moreover, the design and build quality could prove superior to the Xperia Z, even though the ZL doens’t offer protection against water and dust.
The display however, while still a decent one, is not the best around, and that may turn off some potential customers.
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