Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sony Xperia ZL review

With their less than stellar effort in the Xperia Ion and their pretty good, but late, effort in the Xperia T, Sony’s renewed commitment to the smartphone wars seemed halfhearted. All of this was before CES 2013 rolled around. After a couple of pre-CES leaked photos, the Xperia Z and Xperia ZL were unveiled to the world. With a relatively short turnaround after the Xperia T which was supposed to be Sony’s flagship for the balance of 2012, the Xperia Z/ZL falls in line to go head to head with the flagship devices of other Android manufacturers. We will see if this adjustment in flagship scheduling can turn the fortunes for Sony in our review of the Sony Xperia ZL.

Overall Construction
Sony’s designs have recently moved away from the subtle curves of the Xperia Arc to the hard lines of the Xperia S, Xperia Ion and Xperia T while still retaining certain design continuities. The Xperia ZL follows recent Sony flagships to the point where, looking at them side by side, they are almost indistinguishable from one another. While at face value this seems like a bad thing, we believe that the Sony is still such a recognizable brand that it is the right strategy.

At 9.8 mm, the Xperia ZL isn’t the thinnest of phones, especially compared to the Xperia Z at a 7.9mm. But in this day and age we feel that phones have hit that point of diminishing returns in terms of thickness. With battery life becoming more and more a concern, we suspect thickness to be the first thing to give way to larger batteries. At 151g, the Xperia ZL is certainly heftier than other competing smartphone but not enough to be problematic.

On paper the Xperia ZL seems to be an almost exact copy of its twin the Xperia Z. But in the few ways that they are different the changes are pretty drastic. As far as the overall build of the phone the most noticeable difference is the back of the phone.

Rather than have the same glass back that the Xperia Z has, the ZL opts for a “safer” rubberized texture. While this isn’t as “premium feeling” a material we can definitely see it give users a more reassuring grip on their device and better ergonomics for one handed use. We aren’t big fans of the flap on the back to access the SIM and microSD card slot as it abruptly breaks the uniformity of back of the device and honestly felt a bit flimsy and seemed like it would be easy to break off.

What’s also noteworthy is that while keeping the exact same 5-inch Full HD 1080p display the ZL is noticeably more compact than the Z by being slightly narrow and shorter and pretty much falling in line with dimensions of last year’s flagships like the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III. This means eliminating a lot of bezel, which we hope for on more phones no matter the size.

The last things we found very interesting in the ZL would be the camera button which is a very rare yet welcome feature on any smartphone, as well a thought to be extinct lanyard hole for attaching trinkets and other doodads. The power button placement was a bit of a strange placement, but for a phone of these dimensions we are glad it isn’t on top. Also interesting is that on the same side of the phone where the volume rocker, power button and camera button are found, there is an embedded IR blaster.

Lastly, the bottom of the front of the phone is particular for two reasons, one there is a notification “glow” that, as one might expect, lights up when a notification is received but also turns to different shades depending on what you are doing on the phone. When viewing pictures, the light changes to hues matching the most predominant color in the picture, we found this to be an odd but charming design touch. The other reason is the bottom mounted front facing camera, which will take some getting used to by users but fortunately is pointed out to the user when the first attempt to use the front facing camera in the camera app.

In the end it’s almost as if Sony had two concurrent flagship designs presented to them by their design team and decided to make both. Whether or not this happened we don’t know and we aren’t sold on the idea of having two “co-flagship” devices.

Sony Xperia ZL

The Xperia ZL’s Reality Display is the first in Canada to sport a 1080p resolution on a smartphone. At first glance, the thought of 1080p displays on a smartphone screen seems like extreme overkill and we figure this is about as high as resolution is going to get for any smartphone equipped with displays at or below 5-inches. But boy does it make a difference as everything on the 1080p display was sharper than anything I have seen on any previous smartphone.

Text, pictures, 1080p HD videos, etc. were all crystal clear, sharp and just about aliasing free. We suspect that we can attribute this to the Bravia Engine 2 but in certain cases the “enhancement” done by the Bravia Engine was overdone and turned vivid colors into a hot mess of almost neon like hues.

That being said at 441 pixels per inch, looking at this display is an absolute pleasure, in the right conditions. When set down on the table to watch a video or read a website the screen instantly attracts the attention of people around the table but for both good and bad reasons. The good, obviously, is the lush 1080p Reality Display. The bad is sadly a recurring theme with Sony phones and it’s the viewing angles. Upon looking at the ZL’s display only a few degrees off center, the color degradation instantly noticeable. This is really unfortunate as it’s one of our only complaints with an otherwise beautiful display.

One last thing worth mentioning would be the fact that Sony is still pre-applying screen protectors to their devices. While we appreciate the gesture, especially the added scratch resistance for the screen, this leads to a few minor issues that bug us. For one, lint tends to get stuck in the crevice between the edge of the phone and the screen protector. Secondly, the film doesn’t seem to be at all oleophobic making it a fingerprint magnet.

When designing the Xperia Z and ZL we are certain that Sony poured endless hours into every detail of the phone and this most certainly included the buttons. In fact, during the announcement of the Z and ZL, Sony explicitly pointed out how they poured hours into the design of the power button. This was motivated by the fact the power button will be pressed thousands of times over its lifespan.

While the power button is the most tactile we’ve felt since the Motorola RAZR HD LTE, it wasn’t as good as the hype might had led us to believe. We suspect that the Z was the phone they were referring to as it looks a bit more refined than the ZL. In any case, we liked the feel of the power button as well as the volume rocker.

Under those buttons, on the right hand side of the phone, is something we wish all phones had and that’s a dedicated two stage camera button. The first stage felt great requiring the perfect amount of pressure but as for the second stage we found it a bit stiffer than we’d like sometimes messing up the focus on our subject. This is still just a minor complaint as we’d much rather have a slightly stiff camera button then not have one at all.

One this that‘s off about the Xperia ZL’s setup is that they are all found on the right hand side of the device. There was plenty of room to put the volume rocker on the left hand side of the device while moving the power button higher on the right side for a more ergonomic position. Still this is a minor learning curve.

We cannot overstate how good it feels to see another major OEM drop support for the legacy menu button. While it still sadly serves a purpose for legacy (and poorly designed apps), we’ve seen an increasing trend of app developers adopting the correct Android app design guidelines.

Sony’s use of the on screen buttons is something we can certainly appreciate with the fact that it is the best way to bridge the gap for legacy apps using the deprecated menu button and more importantly is the best way of integrating Google Now into the user experience.

Battery Life
The Xperia ZL is yet another flagship phone to move towards the “sealed in” method of integrating the battery into their handsets. While there will always be people opposed to the trend we certainly believe that if battery life is good, it shouldn’t even matter.

In the case of the Xperia ZL, the 2370 mAh battery is above average compared to last year’s crop of phones. The problem is that the ZL is sporting a 1080p full HD display rather than the 720p HD displays of last year. This means a meager 200-300 mAh over last year’s batteries to compensate for a significant increase in pixels.

Overall in regular usage the ZL was able to get through a day’s worth of usage without as much as a hitch but we wouldn’t want to push our luck trying to get it into a second day worth of usage. What did help keep battery levels relative healthy was Sony’s “Stamina mode”. We found this helped us get through heavier days of usage and we’re glad to have it pre-installed on the phone.

Internal Hardware
Like the LG Optimus G before it, the Xperia ZL is sporting some of the most cutting edge specs available. While newer flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One are technically sporting newer SoCs, when you look at the specs sheets of the Snapdragon S4 Pro versus the Snapdragon 600 the properties are just about identical.

- 1.5 GHz Qualcomm 4th Generation Quad Core Snapdragon S4 Pro Processor
- 2GB of RAM
- 16GB of Internal storage
- Adreno 320 Graphic processor
- LTE/HPSA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 13 MP Exmor RS camera with 1080p video recording capabilities
- NFC (Near Field Communication)

In day to day usage the Xperia ZL was smooth and responsive. Considering the mess that was the Xperia Ion with its hit or miss performance, this is a welcome change of pace. Gaming, browsing the web and just going around the UI was a breeze thanks to the more than capable hardware.

In synthetic benchmarks, the Xperia ZL did fantastic scoring 8000-9000 range in Quadrant while almost reaching 20000 in Antutu. While we don’t like to put too much weight behind synthetic benchmarks it’s still interesting to see how the hardware performs.

LTE 4G Capabilities
In our time with the Xperia ZL, data speeds were blisteringly fast, staying in the 25-40 mbps range while never dipping below 12 mbps. For 1080p content and all your streaming needs this will be more than enough bandwidth, although we do recommend you opt for a large data cap if you do so.

We have to remind you that we did our testing in the Montreal area in medium to strong coverage so your mileage will vary on location.

Speaker and microphone
As with most other smartphones on the market the earpiece, microphone and loudspeaker were good, but sound obviously sounded like it was coming from a smartphone. This is about par for what to expect with phones and isn’t really much to write home about isn’t.

Sony’s prowess in camera technology is well known. We’ve seen their sensors in the smartphones of competing OEMs. But in the case of the Xperia ZL, we believe Sony’s has saved the best for themselves. While this should mean excellent quality stills and videos, we found the performance a bit inconsistent.

In good lighting the Xperia ZL does very well producing well detailed pictures that are fairly crisp and very faithful in terms of color reproduction but hinges on the appropriate lighting. While it’s obvious that 13 megapixels isn’t the do all end all specification for a camera, we certainly are initially happy with the expectations set on the Xperia ZL in regular day to day use in Auto Mode.

What we were disappointed with was in low light performance. Noise levels were a bit higher than we’d like but to be perfectly honest we’ve yet to see a phone perform well in low light situations. What did help alleviate the low light performance was the use of HDR mode. If you pick up the Xperia ZL we do recommend HDR as out setting of choice.

Video quality was pretty good for flagship phone with 1080p videos running at a nice 30 frames per second. There wasn’t any noticeable tearing or blur in motion and color reproduction was very good. Unfortunately for this review, I absentmindedly forgot to save the HD video recording taken with the device on my computer so we don’t have any sample video.

Sample Pictures


Android 4.1 with Sony UI
In our experience with the Xperia Ion, Sony showed us that they were still lagging behind other OEMs when it comes to the software side of their Android endeavors. They have steadily improved with the Ion getting its Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade as well as both ICS and Jelly Bean on the Xperia T.

Sony has been doing its best to try to reduce the bloat in their version Android. From the Timescape UI that first appeared on the Xperia X10, to the much cleaner and leaner Android 4.1 with Sony UI found today, there has been a steady progression in the improvement in their version of Android.

While still having the minimalistic feel of stock Android, it’s expect the Sony would put their own touch to Android and we feel like they did a pretty good job on it. They managed to differentiate themselves from stock Android in a way that didn’t worsen the Android experience.

There are quite a few changes aesthetically, including significant changes to the lock screen, the App launcher and even the multitasking menu. The lockscreen is significantly different from any lockscreen we’ve seen on previous Sony phones as the camera and music shortcuts find their way on the upper portion of the screen rather than the unlock and camera sliders on the bottom part of the screen. Unlocking is not done by swiping vertically from anywhere on the lockscreen.

The Application launcher is arranged in different orders including Alphabetical, Own Order, Most Used and Recently Installed. Alphabetical works as you’d expect on any other Android phone, Own Order allows users to arrange apps in the order they desire and finally Most Used and Recently Installed are pretty self-explanatory.

The multitasking menu was also significantly overhauled with the number of apps displayed increased as well as added a couple of mini apps that persist about other apps allowing you to take down notes, do some calculation, as well as take voice recordings and setup a timer.

Sony also saw fit to modify the software keyboard that ships with the Xperia ZL. We don't really agree with the move because it didn't feel any more accurate or had any additional features to choose it over the stock Android keyboard or our gold standard SwiftKey. It does have some flexibility not offered by the stock keyboard like the fact that it can be configured for long press capabilities and has different vibrate/sound settings.

Overall, we feel that the Xperia ZL finds a nice medium ground for people who are coming from a previous Xperia device as well as anyone who is used to stock Android. For people coming from other OEMs that have their own skinned version of Android there will be a slight learning curve but nothing overly difficult.

Sony Ecosystem
Sony has been an established brand in consumer electronics for the better part of the past few decades. However we are only recently seeing a synergy between those different market segments. One step in that direction is Sony’s one touch syncing between the Xperia ZL and all the various NFC enabled Sony electronics like speakers, stereos and televisions. With one touch NFC triggered Bluetooth syncing getting an Xperia ZL to work with your other Sony devices couldn’t be simpler.

Sony also includes a IR blaster to tie it together and control your home entertainment system with the Xperia ZL placing it at the center of the Sony Hardware ecosystem. The IR blaster also worked with a myriad products from different OEMs, like set top boxes and sound systems.


With both the Xperia Z and ZL, we are seeing the culmination of Sony’s first serious efforts under the Sony-only era in attempting to dethrone the Galaxy S and iPhones of the smartphone world. Was it enough to take them to the top of the heap? Not yet, but they certainly took a huge step forward. While the Xperia ZL isn’t expected to sell in the numbers of a Galaxy S or iPhone, early numbers are already pointing to the Z and ZL doing relatively well.

Clearly the market has responded positively to Sony’s attention to detail, competitive hardware features and design. The Xperia ZL’s relatively compact form factor and 5-inch display prove that size isn’t only about diagonal screen size and that other OEM’s can still improve on bezel to screen ratio.

At the end of the day, Sony’s goal was to make a serious push in the smartphone market and we believe they have done so. The Xperia ZL is a nice package of performance and design that will surely please both Sony enthusiasts as well as first time smartphone buyers. As far as swaying people away from other OEMs, we still think there is work to be done.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 9/10
- Solid feel, comfortable ergonomics, reassuring textured rubberized back and surprisingly compact footprint for a phone with a 5-inch display.

Screen: 8.5/10
- In everyday use, the Sony 1080p Full HD Reality display with Bravia Engine 2 is a pleasure to use. Hampered only by odd color calibration and awful viewing angles.

Buttons: 9.5/10
- Love to see the Android Virtual Buttons. Good tactile feel to volume and power buttons. Great to see a dedicated camera button.

Internal Hardware: 10/10
- The Snapdragon S4 Pro is as fast as we remembered it in the Optimus G. LTE, 2GB and the Adreno 320 has resulted in a snappy experience.

Battery Life: 8/10
- Decent battery life. Not overly long lasting like other devices, but stamina mode does have a noticeable effect.

Speaker and Microphone: 7.5/10
- Good speaker microphone and loudspeaker performance.

Camera: 9/10
- Good camera and good video quality. 13MP camera does set lofty expectations which are mostly fulfilled. Odd front facing camera placement on the bottom right corner

UI Changes: 8/10
- Mostly identical software to what we saw on the Xperia T. Sony’s UI is on the right track with optimizing and unifying their idea of the Android experience

Addition Enhancements: 8/10
- Sony’s ecosystem of NFC compatible speakers, receivers, TVs, etc is the most comprehensive collection of compatible electronics we’ve seen from a non-Apple OEM. This works well with their IR blaster to make it an integral part of your home entertainment system.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 6.5/10
- Plethora of Pre-Installed Rogers Apps

Final Score: 8.4/10

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