The Xperia ZL is the 'little' brother to Sony's recently-unveiled Xperia Z, and to get the most pressing question out of the way immediately: what's the difference between the two? Well, the ZL isn't waterproof  (and thus has a different chassis and design), has a hardware camera button, and uses a minutely larger (by 40mAh) battery. That's really it. The display, the chipset, the camera, and the software are all near as makes no difference identical to those on the Z.

Why make the ZL, then? Well, Sony has talked up things like different design direction and regional marketing strategies, but the reason this phone came to be is really quite simple: the ZL is slightly cheaper than the Z. Based on online retailer prices, you can get a ZL for about $100 less than you can an Xperia Z. So, for significantly less money, you can get substantially the same phone. If you're Sony, and focusing heavily on sales in emerging markets and regions where many people buy smartphones outright (rather than as part of a plan or contract), that makes a heck of a lot of sense. You can promise the same high-end specifications of your competitors -5" full HD, 13MP camera, quad-core processor, etc. - and potentially undercut them.

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It also makes sense as a pitch to mobile carriers, because the ZL is cheaper to subsidize than the Z, and Average Joe consumer probably doesn't know the difference. Sony did something similar with the Xperia T, its last flagship, releasing the slightly-cheaper Xperia TX for select markets and operators.

So, can you really tell the ZL is cheaper? Sure. The rear cover feels decidedly less than premium, and the awkward microSD / SIM port cover seems to have been, at best, an afterthought. The rest of the ZL, though, basically seems well put together, and the phone is far from being flimsy or creaky. Otherwise, it's the same experience you get with the Z - it just feels a bit different in your hand. You can pretty much consider this an Xperia Z review minus the hardware differences.

I'd like to thank Tekshop by Basatne for providing this Xperia ZL for review. You can buy the Xperia ZL (and many other unlocked, no-contract smartphones) at Tekshop for one of the lowest prices you'll find on the web, right here.

Sony Xperia ZL
  • Price: Varies by market (Buy at Tekshop here)
  • Processor: 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm APQ8064
  • GPU: Adreno 320
  • Network compatibility: Varies by region and model
  • Operating system: Android 4.1.2
  • Display: 5" LCD 1920x1080 (441 DPI)
  • Memory: 2GB RAM / 16GB storage (12GB usable)
  • Cameras: 13MP Exmor RS rear, 2MP front
  • Battery: 2370mAh, non-removable
  • NFC: Yes
  • Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / microSD
  • Thickness: 9.8mm
  • Weight: 151g
The Good
  • Software: Sony's best software experience to date. It's fast (mostly), fluid (mostly), and functional (mostly). Unlike previous Xperia phones, I don't get the feeling that I'm using an outdated, sub-standard skin (... most of the time), and that makes the ZL much easier to live with day to day.
  • Display: The display, despite its other flaws, does get very bright, has excellent colors, and is of course as sharp as anything you'll find out there right now.
  • Camera: The Exmor RS rear camera does take some great shots (especially in poor lighting) sometimes. It's a very capable camera, I'll certainly give Sony that.
  • Notification LED: Sony has cracked the notification light conundrum - the Xperia Z and ZL both have a big, bright LED along the bottom of the phone's face that is easy to see, and just looks cool.
  • Software buttons: Software navigation buttons! They're good, according to Google.
  • Call quality: Great call quality with Sony's speaker voice enhancement setting and call audio equalizer, which seems to artificially impart some dynamic range on the sound in voice calls. It sounds a bit weird at first, but it does make it easier to hear the other person. There's also an option to actually slow down the incoming audio on a call. I don't know how it works, but it does.
The Not So Good
  • Display: Everything you've read about the Z's display is true for the ZL - particularly that the viewing angles are not good. This may not bother some people. It definitely bothers me. Auto-brightness is also very wonky right now and just doesn't seem to work properly.
  • Battery life: Again, what you've probably already read about the Z's sub-par battery life is equally true on the ZL. I have struggled over the last week to make it through a day on a single charge.
  • Materials: The back of the ZL feels cheap. The phone is perfectly sturdy, but every time I pick it up, I'm reminded of budget phones because of that flexible, textured plastic.
  • Camera: I'll probably get nailed to the wall for saying it, but the camera experience on the ZL is just plain bad. I often had to take 3-4 shots in auto mode to get the exposure and focus the way I wanted (or to get it to focus at all).
  • Software: Parts of Sony's software just feel half-baked. The power control widget is slow and unwieldy, the weather widget won't update based on your location (and takes forever to open up), the homescreens exhibit occasional animation stutter.

Hardware

Design and build quality

The problem with the Xperia ZL from an aesthetic and materials standpoint is that its pricier sibling, the Xperia Z, clearly excels in these areas. It's not that the ZL is particularly ugly or cheap, but it isn't very striking too look at, or earth-shatteringly solid, either. It doesn't seem to have that attention to design detail - a real sense of character - that I would expect of a high-end Sony device.

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That said, Sony design and build quality on a bad day are better than Samsung's best, and that holds true with the ZL. The phone feels exceptionally sturdy in most regards, and I've certainly used phones that looks a lot worse. The clean, rectangular front devoid of any contrasting elements but a shining SONY logo is becoming something of a trademark for the Xperia line, and I like it.

All of the ZL's hardware buttons are on the right-hand side of the phone, with the volume rocker at the top, power button in the middle, and the camera button near the bottom. I actually prefer this arrangement, as the power button is very easy to find without actually looking at the phone. The circular aluminum button itself feels very strong, and has a nice clicky feel with an easy action. It may be my favorite smartphone power button to date.

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There are little parts about this phone that I don't particularly like, though. The shiny trim along all four sides is just another place for fingerprints to show up, and on my review device, some spider-cracking has occurred around the camera button. Is this glass around the edges? I'm really not sure.

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It's difficult to see, but the cracking is on the left, above, and to the right of the camera button.

The SIM / microSD port cover on the back of the phone feels sloppy. I'm not sure why Sony did it this way, but it was the wrong way. The giant chunk of plastic that you pry off of the back of the ZL is hinged by a single piece of rubber, and it's a definite eyesore on the phone. The textured plastic rear cover isn't going to win any awards, either - it feels decidedly un-premium, and exhibits noticeable flex when pressure is exerted against it.

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Some people may enjoy the grippy feel of the ZL, though, and the lack of a 'premium' material may not concern such individuals. After all, Samsung sells a heck of a lot more phones that feel substantially cheaper than this does.

One part of the ZL I really do love is the notification light, which is positioned along the bottom of the face of the phone (where those pesky capacitive buttons would otherwise be). The blackened glass, as you can see below, has a long sliver etched out along each side of the bulb, making the illuminated area quite large. It's also very noticeable - at any angle, and in almost any lighting condition. It's simply fantastic. The blink speed is set relatively high, and the LED is multi-colored (hello Light Flow). I get so tired of phones with tiny little notification lights that are impossible to see in anything but a pitch black room. This one is perfect - good job, Sony.

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Display

Let me start by complimenting Sony on making a smartphone display that isn't oversaturated to the point of silliness, and that gets properly bright if you need it to. Good job! The ZL's 1080p panel is also very sharp (of course), and won't leave anyone wanting for a lack of detail.

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The ZL actually has a pretty great display - if you're looking at it straight-on. Tilt it even at a slight angle, and a blinding white wash begins to swallow up those brilliant colors and obscure most text. I'd read about the Xperia Z's poor viewing angles, but I did not think that they were this poor. When I'm at my desk, my phone often sits next to my keyboard, and I'll glance at my notifications and clear them without actually picking it up. Doing this on the Xperia ZL is very difficult, because I often can't read the notification I'm trying to clear. This problem is compounded if you're using your phone while it's lying on a flat surface outdoors.

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I've read a great many internet commenters say the viewing angles "don't really matter." And you know what, if they don't bother you, that's fine. But they really bother me. They bother me enough that it'd a reason for me personally to not consider buying this phone. Your level of annoyance may vary.

The auto-brightness situation on the Xperia ZL has also done nothing to win my affection - even at the maximum slider setting, when I set the phone to auto, it is almost never bright enough. This can likely be fixed with a firmware tweak, but I get the feeling it behaves so aggressively not because it's legitimately misconfigured, but to save battery life. Which brings me to the next section.

Battery Life

It isn't great. I've used smartphones with comparable battery life to the ZL, but they aren't the kind of phones that tend to get my recommendation, or at least haven't in a while. I'd put it somewhere between "1st generation Verizon LTE phone" and "Optimus G on original software." Under heavy use conditions, the ZL very predictably fell below 15% in the early afternoon, at which point I'd start switching on all its various battery-saving tweaks.

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I've not had such range anxiety with a flagship smartphone in a while. Even under moderate use conditions, I need a charge-up around 3 or 4 PM if I'm going to make it through an evening out with the ZL. Battery life is one thing every smartphone owner is clamoring for more of, and it seems like Sony has done almost nothing to improve it on this phone. I've read similar complaints about the Z's battery life.

I ran the ZL, generally, on auto-brightness, and with 3G HSPA mobile data. I streamed some music. I read Twitter and checked my Gmail. Really, nothing out of the ordinary. On my One X+, I'd expect this kind of usage pattern to get me to 7-8PM reliably. On the Note II, I'd expect it to get me to the next morning.

The counterpoint here is that Sony does include various battery-saving modes, and that you should utilize them in order to maximize your longevity. My counter-counterpoint is that no, I shouldn't. Not until that battery has dropped dangerously low, at least. That's what power-saving modes are really for - eeking out that last bit of battery between charges at the end of the night. I should not have to live with brightness set to minimum, mobile data off when the display is off, GPS off, and all sorts of other nuisances. Below 15%, Sony's tools are useful, sure. But I shouldn't have been using them so much in the first place.

The battery itself, by the way, is not removable.

Storage, wireless, and call quality

The Xperia ZL comes with roughly 12GB of usable internal storage, but it's also equipped with a microSD card slot to help quench your thirst for additional gee-bees.

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The model I received is a 3G HSPA+ version, though the ZL will be sold LTE-enabled in many markets. Data speeds on AT&T were very good, some of the fastest I've achieved with an unlocked GSM phone in my area, often topping 10Mbps down. Data connectivity itself was also consistently reliable, with strong signal.

Call quality on the ZL is among the best I've heard on a smartphone, especially after utilizing some of Sony's call audio tweaks. You can enhance the audio of incoming calls for a 'richer' experience, which seems to artificially inject some dynamic range to call audio, making it a bit more full-sounding. I personally found it more distracting than helpful. You can also adjust call audio equalization (bright, smooth, or normal), which I was far more impressed by - switching to 'bright' made calls a lot crisper. You can even slow down the audio of calls using 'Slow talk.' I'm not sure how it works, but it definitely does function as advertised - everything sounds slower. Neat.

Audio

The Xperia Z uses an integrated Qualcomm DAC for headphone audio, though there is no mention of a proprietary headphone amplifier in either the Xperia Z or ZL, which is a bit upsetting, as Sony is sort of known for its headphones. Still, the Qualcomm hardware is very, very good by smartphone standards, and I think bests the Wolfson DAC found in the international Galaxy S III / Note II. The included set of Sony headphones are also miles ahead of what you'll get with almost any other Android smartphone, which is to say they're decent - new iPhone earbuds decent - but not great.

The rear speaker isn't all that loud, and given that it's pushing audio out of an opening the size of a Tic Tac, that's not exactly surprising. The quality of the sound is pretty good, and Sony's xLOUD and Clear Phase do seem to improve the volume and dynamic quality of the noises that it emits. It's not anything to write home about, though - it's a decidedly average speaker.

Camera

I expected great things from the Xperia ZL's brand-new 13MP Exmor RS camera. Unfortunately, Sony has made itself yet another perfect example of the problem with many smartphone cameras: bad software. The Exmor RS may very well be a great camera. In fact, based on some of the shots I got using the Xperia ZL, it can be a great camera. I really think some of the sample photos you see below are fantastic for a smartphone, but realize this: those are the cream of the crop of the photos I took. For every good photo, 2-4 crappy, out of focus, under/over-exposed ones were snapped to get that good shot. And that just isn't acceptable, even if it means eventually you get a great picture.

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I'm working on an upcoming camera comparison piece, and the issues with the ZL's software were all too apparent when I would switch to the One X+ or Galaxy Note II (which share sensors with the One X and Galaxy S III, respectively). The X+ and Note II got basically every single shot right the first time. The ZL really never did. It was flat-out obnoxious to use in anything but the most forgiving of circumstances (well-lit, medium-range shots with even exposure).

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What's more, Sony's Superior Auto mode is crazy picky about its choice of scene modes. For example, if it detects a "Backlight" scene, it will automatically turn on HDR, which in a sense is nice, because your average smartphone users has no idea what HDR is or why they should enable it. Unfortunately, they also have no idea that HDR shots take significantly longer to capture because two photos are being taking in rapid sequence, and that photos become much more susceptible to ghosting and shake distortion because of it.

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Same shot, same time, same mode settings - but HDR came on for one and not the other.

This wouldn't be a big problem, except that there's no real indicator that the camera is going to take an HDR photo other than the scene type (even then, you're guessing), and I'm not going to look at the scene type before every single photo I snap - that's absurd. You can take basically the exact same photo 4 times, and half of them will be taken as HDR, and half won't. It doesn't make sense.

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In 'normal' auto mode, HDR is not automatically activated for any scene, which is a plus. Unfortunately, every time the camera app is pushed out of memory, it goes back to Superior Auto mode. So, I ended up shooting basically all of my photos in S-Auto.

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As you can see, the ZL doesn't do wonders at night, though it's probably still better than anything this side of a PureView or HTC One. And if you go full crop, you can see the heavy amount of noise-reduction and smoothing going on with the software image processing - it doesn't look nice. Maybe Sony can fix a lot of this stuff in a future software update, because right now, the ZL's camera is a bit of a mess.

Software

Performance and stability

The Xperia ZL (and by relation, the Z) is easily Sony's fastest smartphone yet. This makes it substantially more usable than Sony's previous efforts, as it's an area where I think Sony's older smartphones were seriously lacking. However, it still doesn't feel Nexus 4 / Optimus G / Note II smooth. The Xperia ZL is more like the DROID DNA - it's definitely quick, but occasional stutters and hesitation are still evident.

Sony has only itself to blame on that front, and certain aspects of its custom software experience do exacerbate the occasional feelings of less-than-total smoothness. For example, the power control widget is the same as it has been on Sony phones for ages, and the way it works still doesn't make sense. It takes up a 2x1 grid, and tapping it doesn't actually toggle anything, but triggers a card animation which then causes a blown-up view of the widget to appear in the foreground, at which point you can then toggle to your heart's content. It wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't a very-noticeable delay between the tap, the animation, and finally being able to use the widget. It's unnecessary complication, and if you can't get it to work smoothly, what's the point? Same goes for the weather widget, which takes a couple seconds to complete its unfolding act, and can't even be set to auto-update your location.

As far as stability, the Xperia ZL only had one random reboot the entire time I've used it, and the only app that I would deem particularly 'crashy' is the camera, which takes forever to launch, forever to switch out of, force closes pretty regularly, and generally annoys me. Otherwise, smooth sailing - apps install very quickly, and the ZL generally brushes through most tasks easily. Is its Snapdragon S4 Pro going to stand up benchmark-for-benchmark with the HTC One's 600 or the Galaxy S4's Exynos Octa (or also Snapdragon 600)? Probably not.

Overall, while the ZL is a good performer, having used the HTC One, it's clear that the smoothness and speed bar has been set higher once again. The ZL doesn't meet that bar (frankly, it doesn't meet the Note II's bar), but is still quick in its own right.

User interface and custom software

Sony's custom UI has often been lauded as the least intrusive OEM Android skin, though I don't really think that's true - Motorola's recent phones definitely feel and look closer to stock Android than the ZL. Still, Sony's modifications at the OS level, aesthetically, are definitely not as offensive or obvious as Samsung or HTC's. I do think Sony needs to update the look of it, though, and some aspects of the experience seem to have been left behind (widgets, for example).

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To start with what I do like - Sony's lockscreen gesture is great. Just swipe up or down. The phone goes to the homescreen almost instantly. It's the quickest unlock animation I've ever used, and the whole 3D blinds effect is actually kind of cool. The app drawer is pretty standard, and loads up very quickly, too. Same goes for the notification bar. It's clear Sony's been hard at work improving the snappiness of its custom UI (though a quad-core processor probably helps) in various respects, and kudos to them for the effort. While swiping between homescreens can exhibit occasional stuttering, overall, the things I normally do on a smartphone feel very fast and fluid.

Sony's floating 'Small Apps' are still present in its latest UI iteration, and while I don't personally care for them, I think many people can appreciate a manufacturer taking the floating app thing seriously. There's a recorder, a timer, a notepad, a calculator, and a floating remote control for the built-in IR blaster installed by default. More small apps can be downloaded from the Play Store.

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The lockscreen also allows you to swipe right along the clock to go to your most recently-played track (Amazon MP3, Play Music, and the Walkman app are all supported) with playback controls, and appears by default if a track is playing. Swiping left along the clock opens the camera app, as does holding down the hardware camera button. It looks like Sony plans on adding more to the lockscreen experience, as there is a lockscreen settings area, though it only allows you to change the wallpaper at this point.

The notification bar houses some basic power controls - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile data, and audio mode, along with a settings menu shortcut. The app drawer for whatever reason eschews the very logical, very easy Google shortcut creation / uninstall app paradigm, and requires you to drag an app shortcut to the top of the screen if you wish to place it on a homescreen. Uninstalling, like Samsung devices, means opening up the overflow menu and selecting the 'Uninstall' option. It really is silly when Google has very obviously found a better way to do these things.

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One cool software tweak I noticed is an interface to customize the white balance of your display, something I would love on every Android smartphone. Sony's power management options are extensive, and allows you to customize the behavior of STAMINA mode (yes, all caps), which turns off mobile data when the display is off, and Low battery mode, which generally minimizes power consumption by turning things off. As I said in the battery life section, these are great features to have, though I feel like Sony uses them as a bit of an excuse for the ZL's hungry power consumption. Sony's standard theme engine is also in tow, allowing you to alter the color scheme of your phone.

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Apps like Album (aka Gallery), Alarm & clock, and the stock SMS app really did impress me. They all run beautifully smoothly, and are generally just nice to look at. I think Sony has the best stock SMS app available right now - it even lets you insert little doodles as MMS attachments directly from the app. The gallery re-flow animation is gorgeous, and the app is nice and simple - like a photo viewer should be. The Alarm & clock app is also very aesthetically pleasing, and runs as smoothly as anything.

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The calendar app is fairly unremarkable (Google Calendar is miles better), and the dialer / contacts app is quite standard, as well. Sony's Walkman music player is absolutely stunning visually, and for local playback, is definitely worth a look. You can utilize Sony's ClearAudio+ mode (basically, a DSP noise-reduction utility as far as I can tell), a robust equalizer, and even a visualizer mode. It's definitely a very good music playback app by any standard, and is hands-down my favorite of any made by an Android OEM.

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The ZL's stock keyboard is definitely not my favorite. Auto-correct has effectively two settings: on or off, and when it's on, it's so aggressive as to be frustrating. When it's off, you miss the corrections on common software keyboard typos. Downloading SwiftKey (or some other alternative) is definitely worth your while here.

Oh, and software buttons: the ZL has them. I'm kind of undecided on them still, but being able to just swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get to Google Now is kind of nice.

Basically, the software experience on the ZL is quite good, generally speaking. I just wish it was a little quicker, smoother, and visually updated. The power control and weather widgets' obvious neglect really bugs me, and some things I would genuinely like to have are missing. Customizable notification bar power controls, and more lockscreen configurations. On the feature end, though, I feel like Sony is definitely catching up to LG and Samsung.

Conclusion

As much potential as I see in the Xperia ZL, it's difficult to recommend it outright. The screen isn't very good. The camera is very difficult to use effectively. Battery life is far from great. Even the construction materials make me question this phone a little (that said, the Z would almost definitely not have that concern). And as far as Sony's come on the software front, it's still very apparent they're behind the likes of HTC, Samsung, and even LG in creating a consistently smooth, cohesive experience.

The ZL is not a bad phone, but it's not the phone Sony needs to stand up to the Galaxy S4, or the HTC One. Even LG's Optimus G Pro seems like a more attractive option at this point. This is unfortunate for Sony, because try as they might, the competition is moving forward so rapidly that they can't seem to catch up.

I suppose the takeaway here is that the ZL is not a phone you'd be particularly unhappy with. It's actually quite good in a lot of ways. But in others, it can be decidedly mediocre, and in a select few, below average. That's not the sort of experience a flagship smartphone should deliver in 2013. Still, if you're set on a Sony product, and need only my assurance that there is nothing very seriously wrong with the ZL, you have it - this is a solid phone, from an OEM I think we'd all like to see succeed. The problem is, Sony is still chasing after the competition, when it needs to be attempting to surpass it.

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Thanks again to Tekshop, who made this article possible by sending me a Xperia ZL (which you can buy here) to try out for a few weeks. Because they're awesome like that.