Monday, May 20, 2013

Sony Xperia ZL review Off the bench


Introduction

Having finally scored a homerun, and a desperately needed one at that, Sony is keen to bring another hitter off the bench. And they sure hope its the Cadillac-driving kind. The Japanese mean business - and the Xperia Z did its best to get that point across. The Xperia ZL now has plenty of momentum to build on but a certain weight of expectations too.
The double-backup is something Samsung has been doing for a couple of years now with a Galaxy S flagship in the spring followed by a Note phablet at the end of summer. Sonys going for what looks more like a one-two punch with the glass-clad, water-proof Xperia Z and the more compact, less extravagant, but just as premium Xperia ZL. The timeframe for their arrival to market has been shortened too - pretty much a must, considering that chipset is only getting older.
   
Sony Xperia ZL
Sony needs users to like the ZL, because the Z probably wont make it on its own. On paper, the Xperia ZL has all the trimmings of its sibling save for the IP57 certification. And it should be just as capable as most other flagships of the latest generation. Here go the specs.

Key features

  • Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE support; 3G with HSPA; LTE
  • 5" 16M-color 1080p capacitive touchscreen of 441ppi, Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2
  • Android OS v4.1.1 Jelly Bean with custom UI
  • Quad-core 1.5 GHz Krait CPU, 2 GB of RAM, Adreno 320 GPU; Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset
  • 13 MP autofocus camera with LED flash and geotagging, HDR
  • 1080p video recording @ 30fps with HDR mode, continuous autofocus and stereo sound
  • 2 MP front camera, 1080p video recording
  • Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct and DLNA; Wireless TV out
  • GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS
  • 16GB of built-in storage; microSD card slot
  • MHL-enabled microUSB port
  • Bluetooth v4.0
  • NFC
  • Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
  • Accelerometer and proximity sensor
  • Active noise cancellation with dedicated mic
  • Shorter footprint than most 5” smartphones

Main disadvantage

  • Non user-replaceable battery
  • Uninspiring camera performance
  • Notably thicker than Xperia Z
  • Dubious back panel build quality and aesthetics
If youre after a FullHD five-incher the Xperia ZL is the most compact handset that fits the bill. The difference, of course, is by no means huge but having a smaller footprint than the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a great achievement. On the other hand, a 10 mm thick body is nothing to brag about. Yet, if thats the price for getting a proper shutter key and an Infrared port, it should be fine for most people.
Anyway, Sony opted for two distinct versions of a 2013 flagship and then had to sit down and think about how to make them... distinct. Having a more compact option of whats virtually the same package as the flagship makes every bit of sense. But is it worth the extra millimeters around the waistline?
It was probably important to Sony to send a clear message that whats on offer is essentially the same package - the difference boils down to size, choice of finish and waterproofing or not. A sensible plastic case doesnt look half as good as glass but has its advantages. Water resistance is a great asset but not everyone needs it. Plus... a proper shutter key, half press and all, is something we always welcome in a cameraphone.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
Sony Xperia ZL at HQ
But will Sonys two-flagship strategy pay off? Can the Xperia ZL coexist with its better-looking, and ultimately more prominent, sibling or is it better off as a regional option? What kind of users do these two have in mind? Its the kind of questions well be trying to answer, while we explore the Sony Xperia ZL. Lets get going.

5" 1080p TFT with the Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2

Surprisingly, we found that the Sony Xperia ZL in an improvement over the Xperia Z in the screen department. Given that that the two are identical on paper (FullHD resolution on a 5" diagonal, 441ppi) and come from the same manufacturer wed suggest this is due to unit variances, rather than Sony having designed a second panel of this type.
The TFT screen is backed by the Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2, which enhances contrast and sharpness, brings down noise and saturates colors to make them more pleasing to the eye. The reds in particular tend to really pop out.
Sony Xperia ZL
The 5" 1080p display
The one area that Sony has improved here is contrast and we all know that that an upgrade was due here. However, the likes of the HTC One, LG optimus G Pro and HTC Butterfly still hold an advantage here, not to mention the Super AMOLED unit on the Samsung Galaxy S4, which has virtually infinite contrast.
Heres a closer look at the Xperia ZLs screen.
Sony Xperia ZLSony Xperia Z
The Sony Xperia ZL and Xperia Z screens under a microscope
Display test50% brightness100% brightness
Black, cd/m2White, cd/m2Contrast ratioBlack, cd/m2White, cd/m2Contrast ratio
Sony Xperia ZL---0.445751294
Sony Xperia Z---0.70492705
HTC One0.1320515800.426471541
HTC Butterfly0.1417312000.455011104
Samsung I9505 Galaxy S402010404
Oppo Find 50.1717611230.515651107
Samsung N7100 Galaxy Note II02150402
LG Optimus G Pro---0.416111489
Nokia Lumia 920---0.485131065
LG Optimus G0.1419714450.334171438
Apple iPhone 50.1320014900.486401320

There are also the subjects of viewing angles. The Sony Xperia ZL display isnt terribly poor in that regard, but compared to just about every high-end smartphone out there its clearly inferior. Weve got used to the printed look that these ultra-wide viewing angles give, so we are not particularly fond of the treatment the Xperia ZL is giving us.
Some quote narrower viewing angles as an advantage as it helps your privacy in public places, but it certainly takes away some of the high-end vibe of the display.
Finally, the sunlight legibility on the Sony Xperia ZL is decent, if not quite up there with the best. You will normally be able to operate the smartphone trouble-free outdoors, but in brighter environments you might need to work a bit harder to find a proper angle.

Sunlight contrast ratio

  • Sort by Label
  • Sort by Value
  • Expand
  • Nokia 808 PureView4.698
  • Nokia Lumia 9002.562
  • HTC One2.504
  • Sony Xperia Z2.462
  • Samsung Galaxy S III mini2.422
  • Motorola RAZR i2.366
  • Sony Xperia ZL2.352
  • Samsung Galaxy Note II2.307
  • Apple iPhone 4S2.269
  • HTC One X2.158
  • Nokia N82.144
  • Oppo Find 52.088
  • Samsung Galaxy mini 21.114
You can find all about our display testing routines here.

Controls

The on-screen keys of the Sony Xperia ZL are always on except when youre viewing photos, watching video, browsing the web or playing a game. Even in these scenarios the keys easily come back up with a quick tap on the screen.
The grey strip at the bottom of the screen isnt the best background for the virtual controls. The Xperia ZL screen has a decent contrast but a black background wouldve still been a better choice.
The 2MP front-facing camera is capable of 1080p video recording and is placed in the bottom right corner. The location clearly favors landscape orientation when making video calls.
Sony Xperia ZL
The on-screen buttons
The left side of the phone features the microUSB port, which is exposed, unlike on the water-resistant Xperia Z.
On the right, youll find the volume rocker near the top, the prominent power/lock button (placed dead center) and a two-step camera button.
We always appreciate a dedicated camera button on a phone, even more so when the camera is worth its salt. The shutter button on the Sony Xperia Zl has great overall feedback and distinct half-press. Its also light on the finger so you wont get blurry shots trying to push the button all the way down.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
The sides of the phone
The top of the Sony Xperia ZL only features the 3.5 mm headphone jack.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
The top of the phone
Theres a lanyard eyelet in the bottom left corner of the Sony Xperia ZL.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
The lanyard eyelet
Sony has done well to make the Xperia ZL quite comfortable to use. The controls are comfortably placed and very responsive.

Battery life

The Sony Xperia ZL comes with a 2370mAh battery, which is 40mAh more than the Xperia Z offers. Somewhat surprisingly, it is officially rated to last for just 13 h of 3G talk time and up to 500 h of stand-by (vs 14h and 530h, respectively for the Xperia Z). Perhaps the different display unit used here is part of the explanation, but our dedicated battery test also found the Xperia ZL to have a slightly shorter endurance than the Xperia Z.
The Sony Xperia ZL managed an overall endurance score of 44h, which comes 4h short of the achievement of its sibling. Thats still a decent score, suggesting that you will only need to charge the smartphone every other day if you an hour of talking, an hour of browsing and an hour of video playback per day.
You should also keep in mind that the Sony Xperia ZL comes with the companys home-brewed Stamina mode, which has great effect on the stand-by efficiency and if you stick to it, you will get much better power autonomy

Xperia ZL runs on 4.1 Jelly Bean

The Xperia ZL runs on Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, the same firmware ticking inside the water-resistant Xperia Z. Just like with the Xperia Z, Sony promises to bring 4.2 Jelly Bean update soon to the Xperia ZL as well.
The so called Project Butter combined with the powerful quad-core chipset and graphics, give you as smooth a ride throughout the Xperia ZL UI as you can expect.
Here is a demo video of the Xperia ZL flagship in action.
Sony has also updated its custom launcher to go with the new Android version it runs on. The Xperia ZL gives you the option to change the number of homescreen panes (by adding more or removing some of the default 5) and even select any of them as home. You cant have more than seven panes at any given time though.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
Sony Xperia ZL user interface
Adding stuff to the homescreen is done by tapping and holding on a blank area of a homescreen or using the pinch zoom out gesture. A context menu appears, allowing you to add various customizations to your phone - add widget, shortcuts to apps, change the wallpaper and change the theme. You can also add shortcuts from the app drawer by holding your finger over an icon and dragging it to add it to the homescreen area.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
Adding stuff to the homescreen
The Xperia ZL has a few custom-made Sony widgets for various social services, connectivity toggles, the Walkman player, etc. The Timescape and Mediascape widgets are gone for good. Unfortunately, the widgets in the Xperia ZL do not resize or re-arrange automatically, even though Jelly Bean supports that feature natively.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
Adding and removing widgets is easy
The wallpaper menu offers both static and live wallpapers. As usual you can preview the live wallpapers before applying them. Depending on the color youve chosen the hidden LED light below the screen will light up with the same color tone.
Sony Xperia ZL
The Wallpaper menu
Selecting a new theme changes the lock and home screen wallpapers and the color of the system icons (toggles, menu icons, etc.).
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
Choosing a theme
There is no overview mode as it was with previous Sony Xperia smartphones. Instead, you get the homescreen edit menu when you do the familiar pinching gesture.
Along the bottom, there are five docked shortcuts (the app drawer shortcut and two on each of its sides). These are visible across all homescreen panes and are user configurable: they can be either single icons or folders with multiple items in them. You can also place whole folders there in which case you get smaller icons of the first four items in them.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
The docked shortcuts
The lockscreen has been redesigned too. It uses a new cool default animations and has two shortcuts for quick access to the camera (swipe to left) and to the dedicated music controls (swipe right). When the music player is active, the lockscreen will show the music controls by default, but you can hide them with a swipe if you want. You can also enable Face, Pattern, PIN or Password unlock, in ascending order of security.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
The lockscreen and its options
The standard notification area is also present, and now features a few toggles switches (Sound, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Mobile Data). Theres also a quick shortcut to the settings menu. For some reason, the notification area isnt accessible from the lockscreen.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
The notification area now has a few connectivity shortcuts
The app drawer is organized in pages and you can sort the apps manually, alphabetically, by the most used or most recently installed. If you tap and hold on an app a green Add to Homescreen area will appear on top of the app drawer. Just drag the icon there and you will go back to your homescreens where you can put a shortcut.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
The app drawer
The awesome task manager we met on the Xperia T is also here. It lets you go to the recently opened apps as well as remove them with a side-swipe. The so-called "small apps" introduced with the Xperia T are here too.
They are similar to Mini Apps from Samsung, and pop up tiny widget-like applications on your homescreen, which you can move around and use without having to fully open a dedicated app. So far, theres a default set of four: Calculator, Timer, Notes, and Voice Recorder - and it looks like you should be able to stock up on some more from the Play Store as well.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
The updated task manager now features small apps • The Calculator small app
The Data usage system service is onboard too. It also lets you set a limit for network data for a specific period and usage is broken down by apps.
Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL Sony Xperia ZL
Data usage app
Sony has added its own Backup & Reset feature for Android ICS. It works for apps youve uninstalled and then reinstalled again, restoring them with the previous saved settings. The reset option is in the same submenu.
Sony Xperia ZL
Backup & reset

Final words

So, why the Sony Xperia ZL and not the Xperia Z? To begin with, this is a question many of you will never be asking, as the pair will not be officially available at the same time on most markets. At first glance, the best case scenario for the Xperia ZL would be for them to never cross paths.
We mean, the Xperia ZL is a seriously good regional version of the current flagship but one that we would be hard-pressed to recommend over the more sophisticated, on top of being waterproofed, Xperia Z. On a second thought though, a more compact - and therefore more comfortable to handle - package will be an alternative enough people would be willing to consider.
The Xperia ZL is powered by the same quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset ticking inside the Xperia Z and though its no longer the best there is (Snapdragon 600, Exynos Octa), it still is a top-notch piece of hardware that will handle whatever you throw at it. The 5" 1080p TFT screen couldve been at least slightly better though. OK, you can put the privacy spin on the limited viewing angles but you will have a lot harder time finding an excuse for the mediocre contrast.
However, this shouldnt be held against the Xperia ZL alone - in fact, our unit come with a screen better than the proper flagship, so it might actually work to its advantage.
Anyway, these are virtually identical packages and the choice boils down to premium looks and better grip, water proofing and more comfortable handling. Therere things too like a hardware shutter key and an infrared port on the Xperia ZL. Probably enough for a regional version - but is it enough to justify a pair of almost equal high-end phones? Given that wider choice always works to the benefit of users, wed say yes.
Sony Xperia Z
Sony Xperia Z
And to make it even more complicated, the real competition comes into play. The already available HTC One has a slightly smaller but clearly superior screen, an optically stabilized camera, better audio output, a pair of stereo speakers and killer looks. Sure, the 4MP camera, whatever HTC calls it, might not be everyones cup of tea but it gets the job done on most occasions and its low-light performance is something to look forward to. The non-expandable storage is hardly ideal and the HTC One costs about €50 more than the Xperia ZL (not to mention the supply shortages), but its definitely worth checking out.
HTC One
HTC One
The more serious threat for the Xperia ZL is, of course, the Samsung Galaxy S4. It has the richest hardware and software package on the market, no matter whether you are looking at the Snapdragon 600 or the Exynos 5 Octa powered model. The latest Galaxy flagship boasts a 5-inch SuperAMOLED, a more impressive camera and a set of advanced gestures. In fact with the Xperia ZL lacking the sleek look of the Xperia Z, its quite easy to recommend the Samsung flagship (which has uninspiring design as its sole shortcoming) over it despite the slightly higher asking price.
Samsung I9500 Galaxy S4 Samsung I9505 Galaxy S4
Samsung I9500 Galaxy S4 • Samsung I9505 Galaxy S4
The Oppo Find 5 and ZTE Grand S come from makers that are rising in popularity and offer flagship specs, without the premium name tax. Finding either of those in your local stores can be quite hard, though. There is the Asus Padfone Infinity too, which adds a 10.1" tablet dock, but you should make sure you need that as it costs an arm and a leg.
Oppo Find 5 ZTE Grand S Asus PadFone Infinity
Oppo Find 5 • ZTE Grand S • Asus PadFone Infinity
The Sony Xperia ZL is not as good looking as its glass-clad sibling, or most of the direct rivals for that matter. Nor is it the most powerful device on the market. Were tempted to call the Xperia Z the better part of the pair and forget about it.
The most compact FullHD five-incher is the Xperia ZLs defining feature - and the emphasis is on compact. But ... the Xperia ZL is a FullHD five-incher after all, and for Sony having two horses in the flagship race must feel good. Plus, theres always people who like to cheer for the dark horse.


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