Sony's latest Android phones are probably the most exciting thing the Japanese company has done in the smartphone arena to date. I mean, Sony unveiled a flagship phone that is water and dustproof.* (to one meter for up to 30 minutes.)
That alone is something worthy of attention. The sister device, the ZL, is a slightly downmarket version of the phone, though even saying that much isn't exactly fair. There's nothing particularly worse about the ZL, other than the fact that it lacks the glass backing of the Z, or its tolerance for wet and sandy situations.
In fact, many people may prefer the ZL - its headphone and microUSB ports are exposed, whereas every access point on the Z is guarded by a watertight cover that has to be pried open to access the respective port. I, for one, greatly favor exposed ports. Obviously, the Z wouldn't be very waterproof if those access points were open to air, though, and that's part of the tradeoff, I suppose.
Both the Z and ZL have 5" 1080p LCD displays, and Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processors. Both have LTE support, and Sony's brand-new Exmos RS 13MP camera sensor. Both run Android 4.1.2 with Sony's (admittedly dated) UI overlay.
So, what were my initial impressions? The hardware of the Z is beautiful - I love Sony's elegant, minimalist design aesthetic. The front of the phone isn't as pretty as the ZL, I'd argue, but that's nitpicking since both are fairly similar. The back of the Z is particularly gorgeous - one sleek slab of glass, while the ZL's is a bit more drab, and sports a rather conspicuous faux-chrome ring around the rear camera lens. However, both phones are far from ugly. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Sony knows how to make an elegant phone.
On the software side, both phones felt markedly faster than the last high-end Sony device I used, the Xperia TX (similar to the Xperia T). While the bump to a quad-core processor has sped things up a bit, Sony's Z and ZL simply felt sluggish when put up against the competition. Compared to HTC's most recent hardware, they're probably on about the same level. Compared to Samsung's, it's no contest: Sony's software is very obviously behind the curve, and it's a critical blow to the splendid hardware they've paired it with. HTC is supposedly remedying this in Sense 5 (expected this year, possibly at MWC), but for Sony, there appears to be no rescue in sight. Sony's been using the same tired-looking skin since Gingerbread, and it absolutely has to go, and so does its lackluster performance.
We didn't get a chance to test out the camera, though interestingly enough, the digital viewfinder relayed video from the rear camera at 60FPS on the screen - which was sort of cool. And on that subject, while the ZL has a hardware camera button, the Z does not. Which is kind of odd (may again have to do with that dust/waterproofing).
Both phones are coming out later this year, the ZL only in select markets, with the Z expected to launch worldwide - at the earliest - in late Q1, possibly Q2.