Described by Sony as a culmination of its greatest technologies, the Xperia ZL is an attempt to bring the company's best offerings together in a single device. In many ways the ZL makes good on this goal, offering a superb display, solid camera, and sleek design. What's even more impressive is the compact frame that Sony was able to pack all of this into. Despite the inclusion of a five-inch full 1080p display, the Xperia ZL is comfortable to hold, and -- thanks to the relocation of the power button -- can easily be operated with a single hand.
There is no denying that Sony has achieved a beautiful design with their latest flagship Android device. The ZL feels comfortable in your hand, and places all of its hardware buttons in locations that can be reached without needing to contort or stretch your hand in an awkward manner. The power button has been moved from the top of the device like many of its competitors and placed along the center of the right side of the phone. To my hand the button falls naturally under my thumb as I hold the device, however your milage may vary depending on the size of your hands. Machined from aluminum, the power button is not only a visually striking element on the ZL, but also a very satisfying button to press. Although, the high level of detail put into this one button makes us wish Sony spent a little more time designing an equally beautiful volume rocker and two-step camera shutter. That is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with the plastic buttons used, just that they feel like a bit of an afterthought when compared to the power button that separates them.
Measuring in at 2.7 inches wide and 5.18 inches tall, the ZL is slightly more compact than other five-inch Android devices, and unlike its fraternal twin, the Xperia Z, it sports an all plastic back. Although the curved back adds a little extra bulk as compared to the Z's solid glass back, we found the ZL more comfortable in the hand and less likely to slip, thanks to its textured surface. The back of the device is also home to the main camera, which juts out slightly, as well as the speakerphone and a small panel that hides the micro SIM and SD card slots. The front of the ZL is engulfed by its 1920x1080 display, with only space remaining for a small bezel, Sony branding, front camera and speaker. The ZL also sports a standard micro USB port on the left side and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top.
While far from perfect, the ZL's five-inch display certainly has its perks. Its 443-pixels-per-inch density allows text and images to appear as crisp as their printed counterparts. While 1080p movies benefit from being able to deal out all of their finer details, however ultimately on a screen this small many of these details will be hardly noticeable. The ZL also integrates Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine 2, which makes on-the-fly adjustments to saturation, sharpness, and contrast in the gallery, movie and YouTube apps. In most circumstances this helps to further enhance the beauty of the display, however there are times when the alterations can go a tad over the top. For example, one particular image of a green bridge appeared to gain a radioactive glow after the engine's modifications. Those who would rather view videos and images in their standard forms can also choose to disable the Bravia Engine 2 through the device's settings.
Perhaps the display's largest concern is its poor viewing angles. As soon as the display is tilted away from a straight-on position, colors instantly begin to wash out and the brightness drops dramatically. The screen already tends to struggle in sunlight, and is nearly impossible to properly distinguish when using outdoors at any sort of angle. Some people may enjoy this as it makes it very difficult for nosey onlookers to see what is happening on your phone, but generally that task is left to privacy screen covers.
Due to Sony's reputation for creating solid image sensors, we had high hopes for the 13-megapixel camera mounted on the back of the Xperia ZL. Thankfully, through most of our testing the camera met or exceeded these expectations, however there were a few notable issues. Images tended to have more noise than we would like to see when viewing at 100 percent crop, and occasionally the sensor seemed to struggle with dynamic range resulting in blown-out highlights. Users should also be aware that shooting at the full 13-megapixel resolution is only available in the traditional 4:3 ratio, while shooting at the ZL's native display ratio is limited to nine megapixels.
Starting the camera app directs users to the ZL's fully automatic mode, which Sony has dubbed as Superior Auto (Auto i+). In this mode the sensor is being constantly scanned in order to make adjustments to capture the best possible picture. For example, when the sensor detects any sort of fast motion it will automatically reduce the shutter speed to help reduce motion blur, while simultaneously adjusting for light conditions. While not always perfect, we found this mode incredibly handy for capturing quality pictures when caught in a situation where there simply is no time to worry about adjusting each setting manually.
Besides the Superior Auto mode, Sony has also included a variety of other shooting modes and options to play around with. When operating in the standard shooting mode users have full control of ISO, white balance, and exposure, as well as the ability to switch the image stabilizer on and off. Other features include HDR and panorama shooting modes, several "artistic" image filters, as well as a 10-frames-per-second burst mode. However, we should note that images are restricted to a maximum resolution of 1280x720 pixels when using the burst feature. On top of all this, the camera app also gives users the ability to customize the screen overlay with shortcuts to their most used settings.
Perhaps our favorite camera related feature is the inclusion of a dedicated two-step shutter button. A light tap of the button engages the camera's autofocus features, while a full press closes the shutter and captures the image. This small detail obviously makes no difference in image quality, but does succeed in making the camera easier to operate in all situations.
At first glance the front camera looks oddly out of place, located at the bottom right hand corner of the display. Sony claims this was done with the intent of making it more comfortable to hold the device in a position that captures the users entire face, as opposed to just their foreheads. There isn't much else to say about the front camera. Its two-megapixel resolution is more than capable for video chats, but for everything else you will be better off using the ZL's back camera.
Featuring a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro and 2GB of RAM, the ZL is no slouch when it comes to computing power. Still, it lags behind competitors such as the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. To be perfectly honest we never managed to reach the hardware's processing limitations, but if you are a strictly a numbers person the ZL isn't the pinnacle of what is currently available on the market. Moving around the Android interface is smooth and fluid, and apps all load in a timely fashion. In order to put some numerical values to the hardware's capabilities we turned to Futuremark's 3DMark "Ice Storm" test. The ZL scored an overall mark of 9422, which put it slightly behind the Aquos Phone EX, yet a small step ahead of its tablet counterpart, the Xperia Tablet Z.
We tested the Xperia ZL on Roger's network in Canada and found no surprises in the cellular performance. In downtown Toronto we were able to achieve a top speed of 46.4 Mbps down and 11 Mbps up, while operating in smaller markets like London, Ontario we topped out at 16.6 Mbps down and 5.8 Mbps up. There were no noticeable issues in call quality for either the caller or recipient when holding the device to the ear, but switching to speakerphone was a different experience. The built-in speaker on the back of the device offers a reasonable volume output, but is overly tinny and made some calls difficult to understand.
One area we wished the ZL excelled in was battery life. The device packs in a 2,730mAh lithium-polymer battery, which is slightly larger than the Z's 2,330mAh capacity. However, despite the plastic back, it does not offer the option to remove or exchange the power source. To test the battery's performance we looped an HD video file with the screen brightness locked to 70 percent and Wi-Fi enabled, resulting in a total runtime of five hours and five minutes. While not completely distant from competitors, it is disappointing to see such a short battery life. We understand that this is a lot more strain than the average user will subject their device to on a day-to-day basis, but even when attempting to simulate more realistic conditions we were only able to generate roughly seven to eight hours of usage. It certainly isn't impossible to make it through a day, but you might want to consider bringing a charger along when possible.
With that in mind it is important to note Sony's inclusion of a Stamina mode that is exclusive to the Xperia Z and ZL. With Stamina enabled the device will automatically shut down any background activities when the screen is shut off. Users will still be able to receive calls, messages, and alerts from the preinstalled Calendar and Alarm apps, but all other network traffic is blocked. If users find this too strict they may also add any number of apps to a white list that allows them to run in the background even with Stamina mode enabled. While its difficult to justify exactly how much of a difference Stamina mode makes, we certainly noticed an improvement in battery performance when restricting background process to just e-mails and social network alerts.
Even though it lags behind the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4 in pure performance numbers, there is no denying that the Xperia ZL is a solid Android option. Sony has done a great job of packing a giant display and decent hardware into a relatively compact form. Despite the use of cheaper body materials, the ZL still manages to feel great in your hand with the side-mounted power button falling neatly under your thumb.
The 13-megapixel camera is a strong contender in today's camera-phone market, and the inclusion of a two-stage shutter button makes us hope some other smartphone manufactures may follow suit. The processor is also no slouch and the average user will likely never notice the slightly lower performance of the Snapdragon S4 Pro.
It should also be noted that the Xperia ZL ships with Android 4.1.2, as opposed to the latest 4.2 build. We aren't sure when Sony's flagship device will receive an update, but can say that historically Sony has been somewhat slow in moving up to the latest Android builds. The tweaks Sony has made to Android are mostly minimal, a few extra animations here and there, however we are a big fan of the Stamina mode, especially given the ZL's relatively poor battery performance.
The penny pinchers will also be happy to see that the ZL offers a lower price point than its closest competitors, starting at $125 on a three-year contract with Rogers compared to the $150 and $200 price tags of the HTC One and Galaxy S 4 respectively.