Sony Xperia ZL Review: Behind the Curve Everywhere It Counts

Sony's Xperia Z and ZL, were the two most exciting smartphones at this past January's Consumer Electronics. But that feels like years ago now, and with the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 now on the scene, it takes a lot more to be a top-tier device.

What Is It?
One of Sony's two flagship smartphones (the other being the Xperia Z). It has a 5-inch 1080p screen, a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, two gigs of ram, expandable storage, a 13MP camera, NFC, an IR blaster for controlling your TV, and LTE. (Note: We tested the international version, which was not LTE equipped). It runs Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) with Sony's "Experience Flow UI" (coughskincough) on top.

Who's It For?
People looking for a... smartphone? An Android smartphone. That has the name Sony on it. In fact, it's probably almost entirely for Sony diehards.

Sony Xperia ZL Review: Behind the Curve Everywhere It Counts


Design
The front of the phone is almost 100 percent screen, with very little bezel at all, and look! No hardware/capacitive navigation buttons. Sony went for the on-screen button look, like stock Android, which we much prefer. But don't worry, there's still plenty o' button. The power on/off button is extremely prominent, smack dab in the middle of the phone on the side. Its placement is, in a word, "unique." And, in two words, "incredibly inconvenient." There's also a volume rocker, along with another button that we wish all phones had: a physical, two-step camera button. Very nice.

Sony Xperia ZL Review: Behind the Curve Everywhere It Counts


The back of the phone is slightly curved plastic—it feels like a cheaper HTC One, but the plastic is at least very grippy. The camera lens juts out a little bit (other manufacturers have managed to make it flush with the back), and next to it is the speaker. Down at the bottom is a little panel that flips up, allowing you to swap in micro SIM cards and micro SD cards at will. The battery is not replaceable.

Sony Xperia ZL Review: Behind the Curve Everywhere It Counts

Using It

The way the Xperia ZL functions is actually pretty similar to stock Android in most ways—you get into Google Now by swiping up from the home button, for instance. However, the software's similarities are obscured somewhat by animations and little flourishes (e.g. when you remove an item from your desktop the trashcan's lid opens and closes) that only serve to slow things down. Other additions are genuinely useful, for example shortcuts to mini-apps (notepad, timer, calculator) in the task switcher, and Sony's robust power management solution.

Again, having a dedicated button for opening up the camera app and firing off photos is tremendously convenient. The IR blaster for controlling your TV works well (better than Samsung or HTC's apps, generally) but it's missing some devices (such as Roku) which will limit its utility to some. The keyboard it comes with is solid to type on, but its autocorrect is all over the place. Call quality, unfortunately, is pretty lousy (we tested it on T-Mobile's network).

Sony Xperia ZL Review: Behind the Curve Everywhere It Counts


The Best Part
Probably the interface on the camera app. It's really quite good. It's intuitively laid out and it's really easy to quickly switch between modes. We don't generally go in for in-camera effects or filters, but Sony has actually made some interesting ones. Sketch makes your photos look like drawing (above), Harris Shutter does a crazy ghosting effect (below), Partial Color lets you do the "Pleasantville effect," where only color comes out of black and white, and Kaleidoscope is... well, you can figure that one out. They're gimmicks, sure, but they're fun gimmicks. The other photo modes are easy to navigate, too. What the app isn't, however, is fast.

Sony Xperia ZL Review: Behind the Curve Everywhere It Counts


Tragic Flaw
When we did our hands-on at CES we noticed some lag and stuttering. We'd assumed it was a pre-production problem. It wasn't. Five months later and, despite the solid processor, this phone doesn't feel fast. It's fine once you're in an app (HD games such as Temple Run Oz and Inertia HD played smoothly), but getting there is slow and laggy, fraught with occasional long pauses. Once again, this is an overwrought third-party UI bringing what should be a very fast and capable phone to its knees.

This Is Weird...
You know what a phone shouldn't do? Hurt your ear when you use it as a phone. The little slit at the top of the glass that makes way for the speaker is really sharp. Not sharp enough to cut you, but definitely sharp enough to scrape you a little if you're not careful. We saw this on the LG Optimus G as well. Bad design.

Test Notes

  • While we liked the camera app (see above), the camera itself is another story, and it's rather a sad one. It really struggles with dynamic range, frequently blowing out highlights. There's a significant lack of sharpness and clarity, especially in video. Low light shots are very noisy. HDR video doesn't do much except make the camera struggle more with focus and lighting. We had such high hopes for Sony's newest Exmor R sensor, but it really didn't live up. You can see our photo/video samples here, compared against the One and the S4.
  • The screen, which is Sony's much-hyped Mobile Bravia Engine 2, is also a disappointment. It's certainly sharp enough, and colors are excellent—maybe the best we've seen—all except the most important one: Black. There is a ton of light-bleed, and even at just 50 percent brightness, the blacks are closer to gray. When you put it next to the Galaxy S4, the HTC One, or even the Nexus 4, there's simply no comparison.
  • Out of the box, battery performance is sub-par, easily outlasted by the One and the S4, and that's without LTE, mind you. However, once you start engaging the power management settings, you can pretty easily make it through the day. Stamina mode disables data when your screen is off, but if there's an app you really need notifications from (Google Voice, for example), you can white list it. Or you can use location-based Wi-Fi, which only turns your Wi-Fi radio on when you're in range of a saved network. It's actually the best implementation of power management we've seen. Enabling the Stamina mode took my remaining standby time from four hours to 32 hours. Really smart.
  • The external speaker is pretty lousy. Listening to Atoms For Peace made Thom Yorke sound like he was singing through a sheet of cellophane. A fair amount of static and a fair lack of clarity, too. Everybody is playing catchup with the HTC One on this front.
  • The front-facing camera is on the bottom of the phone, below the screen. Which is different. Doesn't really matter when you're in landscape mode, though.

Sony Xperia ZL Review: Behind the Curve Everywhere It Counts


Should I Buy It?
I'm afraid not. This is a phone we were ready and even wanting to like, and if Sony had released it at CES rather than merely announce it and then wait five months, we'd probably have liked it a lot more, but that's how quickly technology is evolving in the mobile space. The HTC One and the Galaxy S4 are simply better than this phone in almost every way, and that's all there is to it. Sony is moving in the right direction, it's just too slow in getting there.

Even if you did like most of what this phone has to offer, you should probably wait for the Xperia Z, which is virtually identical inside, except it's slimmer and waterproof. The Xperia ZL is available as an unlocked device directly from Sony and at some AT&T and T-Mobile stores. The price? An ouchie $760. Or, if you happen to be on Cincinnati Bell, you can get it for $250 with a two-year contract. We wouldn't do it. [Sony]

  • Sony Xperia ZL Specs

    • Network: Unlocked (work with AT&T/T-Mobile) or Cincinnati Bell
    • OS: Android 4.1 with Experience Flow UI
    • CPU: 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro
    • Screen: 5-inch 1920x1080 Bravia Mobile Engine 2 (441PPI)
    • RAM: 2GB
    • Storage: 16 micro SD up to 32GB
    • Camera: 13MP rear / 2MP front
    • Battery: 2370mAh Li-Ion
    • Dimensions: 5.18 x 2.75 x 0.39 inches
    • Weight: 5.33 ounces
    • Price: $760 unlocked, or $250 with two-year Cincinnati Bell contract