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Sony Xperia ZL review: Clear calls, stunning photos, but too pricey

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A less sophisticated cousin of Sony's current flagship phone, the Xperia Z, the Xperia ZL has plenty to offer, including the same powerful components and impressive 13-megapixel imaging system. Priced at an exorbitant $759.99, though, this Android handset is no impulse buy. That said, as it's running Jelly Bean out of the box, boasting a big 5-inch screen, and supports 4G LTE, it's nicely appointed. If you're going to spend this much on a phone, however, there are other similarly impressive unlocked options, such as the HTC One Developer Edition.

Sony_Xperia_ZL_35567073_02_540x386.jpg
7.3

Sony Xperia ZL

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>Sony Xperia ZL</b> is thin, with a big, bright screen, a zippy processor, great call quality, and a camera that takes excellent pictures.

The Bad

The Xperia ZL is more expensive than competing unlocked handsets. The phone’s battery life is short and its camera is sluggish.

The Bottom Line

The unlocked Sony Xperia ZL's camera captures excellent images and makes clear calls but has a price that's hard to swallow.

Design
Sony certainly used its current design language in crafting the dark and thin black slab that is the Xperia ZL. The ZL's clean lines, sleek rectangular shape, and glossy edges would fit right in if set next to the company's HDTVs and home theater equipment.

Meet the big-screened Xperia ZL. Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're expecting a luxurious build quality equal to that of the Xperia Z, you won't find it in the ZL. Unlike the Z, the Xperia ZL doesn't have a water- and dust-resistant chassis. The phone also has a more mundane plastic back and not the premium glass material the Xperia Z sports. Still, the ZL's textured back cover is pleasing to the touch, repels fingerprints, and offers a sure grip.

The Xperia ZL is thin and relatively stylish. Sarah Tew/CNET

Measuring just 0.39 inch thick, the device is also svelte and easy to slide into tight pockets. With its large 5-inch screen and at 5.18 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide, placing the ZL alongside other items is a squeeze. The phone has some heft, too, tipping the scales at 5.33 ounces.

The well-appointed Sony Xperia ZL (pictures)

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Physical controls on the Xperia ZL are sparse, and the phone's right edge holds only a thin volume rocker, power key, and dedicated shutter button. In a unique design twist, Sony has placed the circular power key at the center of the handset's right side. I found it to be within short reach of my thumb, but honestly I'd rather have it positioned slightly higher along the spine for extra comfort.

On the left side is the Micro-USB port, while up top is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Another interesting design choice is the placement of the 2-megapixel front camera. It sits below the screen in the bottom right corner, not the traditional spot above the phone's display. I do like the Xperia ZL's thin, sliverlike notification light, also underneath the display, which pulses in various colors when alerts roll in.

On the back is the 13-megapixel main camera. Sarah Tew/CNET

You will find a 13-megapixel main camera on the back of the ZL, along with an LED flash. Also here are a small speaker and a door that provides access to both SIM card and microSD card slots. The phone's 2,370mAh battery is embedded, however, so it's officially hands-off -- you can't replace it.

It's very enjoyable to watch video and view photos on the Sony Xperia ZL. Sarah Tew/CNET

Screen
Packing a full HD resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, the Sony Xperia ZL's 5-inch screen certainly has plenty of visual impact. Colors were vibrant and details were sharp, whether I was viewing photos or reading e-books and Web pages. That said, the screen isn't the most impressive I've seen. For instance, I noticed that viewing angles were very shallow.

Both color quality and brightness deteriorated quickly if I gazed at the ZL's display in any direction other than straight on. Additionally, though the Xperia ZL's screen is actually brighter than the HTC One's (1,920x1,880-pixel, 4.7-inch), the One's viewing angles are much wider, which translates into more stunning images and video. By contrast, besides merely killing brightness, tilting the Xperia's display off angle resulted in a distracting greenish cast to whites.

Software, UI, and features
Past Sony phones like the Xperia Ion and Xperia P were well behind the curve. In fact, the Xperia TL was the first Sony handset to have features and components on par with its smartphone peers. The company has definitely upped its game with the Xperia ZL. The handset runs Google's Android Jelly Bean operating system (version 4.1.2), which supports all your modern mobile needs. Sure, it may not be the freshest iteration of Android that Google has cooked up (currently that's version 4.2) but very few devices, save the LG Nexus 4 and upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4, can boast that.

Unlock the Xperia ZL by flicking your finger upward or by swiping the camera and music icons to the center. Sarah Tew/CNET

Regardless, the Xperia ZL offers all the power and flexibility of modern Android plus has native support for Google services, including the enhanced search capabilities of Google Now. The phone doesn't run pure Android but instead has Sony's UI skin grafted over it. With a custom lock screen, for example, the Xperia ZL features the company's own special sauce.

Highlights are a handy weather widget and a nice remote control app that makes it so you can use the phone as a second clicker for TVs and AV receivers. With the Remote software I was able to control Samsung and Panasonic HDTV test units easily, powering them up, switching inputs, and so on. You do have to use the app in landscape mode, which I think is an awkward way to hold a remote.

Check the weather with the ZL's handy app. Sarah Tew/CNET

You can download and play a small selection of exclusive Xperia-branded games on the ZL as well. Don't get too excited, though; these titles aren't true PlayStation Vita or PSP games. They are merely beefed-up smartphone-style fare or third-party titles tweaked to run on Xperia handsets.

Performance
While the Xperia ZL's exterior differs slightly from that of the Xperia Z, the phone's internal components are the same. Under the hood are a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of internal storage.

This helped the ZL post a respectable Linpack benchmark score of 569.8 MFLOPs (multithread). The handset's showing of 7,670 in Quadrant, a test that assesses total system performance, was also high. These numbers were enough for the ZL to keep pace with the HTC Droid DNA (401.6 MFLOPs, 8,165) and Oppo Find 5 (573.6 MFLOPs, 7,233) but not enough to beat back the HTC One (696.97 MFLOPs, 12,194).

Quadrant wasn't a problem. Screenshot by Brian Bennett/CNET

Call quality
I tested the unlocked Xperia ZL on AT&T's GSM network in New York and was impressed with its call quality. Callers described my voice as crystal-clear with no background noise or audio artifacts to speak of. In fact they had difficulty telling that I was speaking to them on a cellular connection. Voices came through loud and clear through the earpiece on my end as well, and callers' vocal tones were surprisingly rich and warm.

Sony Xperia ZL call quality sample Listen now:

The Xperia ZL is pretty easy on the eyes. Sarah Tew/CNET

Through the speakerphone, people I spoke to definitely noticed a drop in call quality. They reported a distracting background hiss and said that my voice was muffled. The ZL's speaker does have plenty of volume, though, enough to fill a small office conference room.

Data speeds
Though the Sony Xperia ZL is an unlocked device, it is compatible with a wide range of LTE bands. Specifically it will support LTE bands 1, 2, 4, 5, and 17. As a result I was able to slide in an AT&T SIM card and immediately jump onto the carrier's 4G LTE network in New York.

4G LTE on AT&T was fast. Screenshot by Brian Bennett/CNET

That's a good thing because I was able to enjoy swift data speeds, with average downloads reaching a high of 30.4Mbps. Average upload speeds were much slower, clocking in at 4.3Mbps.

Battery life
Perhaps it's because of its big, bright, energy-hungry screen, but I found battery life on the Xperia ZL less than satisfying. I would definitely have to plug the phone in for charging overnight or risk running dry by late evening. Battery testing backed this up, with the Xperia ZL lasting a short 5 hours and 42 minutes on the CNET Labs Video Battery Drain benchmark. That can't hold a candle to the HTC One's longevity of 9 hours and 37 minutes on the same test. Still this result is better than Sony's rated own rated video playback time for the ZL of 5 hours and 30 minutes. The phone also has a battery stamina mode that you can engage to eke out more run time.

Camera
If you're familiar with Sony Cyber-shot point-and-shoot cameras, you're well on your way to mastering the Xperia ZL's imaging app. The software boasts a wide range of features, scene modes, and settings, all packaged in an interface ripped right out of the company's compact cameras. With a 13-megapixel sensor and resolution options starting at VGA and topping out at 12 megapixels, the Xperia ZL's camera shoots images of outstanding quality for a smartphone.

The Sony Xperia ZL's camera app features plenty of shooting modes and extra features. Sarah Tew/CNET

Indoors, studio shots were clear, with lifelike colors and crisp detail. The phone's white balance was also spot-on and images were correctly exposed.

Studio shots were clear and correctly exposed. Click to view full image. Brian Bennett/CNET

Moving outdoors, the Xperia ZL continued to demonstrate its imaging prowess. Details were sharp, and colors in the clothing of pedestrians and foliage vibrant yet not oversaturated. Sony's heavy-handed image processing does tend to paint pictures with an almost cartoonlike flatness, especially if you crop in closely.

Detail outdoors was sharp, with accurate colors. Brian Bennett/CNET

Still, the camera app's many features, including modes for panorama and HDR, are welcome inclusions. Where the camera really shines is when taking macro shots up close. If you're into taking a lot of nature close-ups, this is the device for you. My tight shots of flowers had colors that sang and detail on par with what you'd get from more robust point-and-shoot cameras.

Macro shots of flowers had plenty of detail. Brian Bennett/CNET

The Xperia ZL also snaps panorama shots. Brian Bennett/CNET

White tones in clothing were also balanced well. Brian Bennett/CNET

There were a few things that gave me pause. The Xperia ZL uses what Sony calls a "Superior auto" mode by default. While it's smart enough to automatically detect and select appropriate scene modes depending on environmental conditions, it demands a lot of processing power. As a result, if Superior auto selects HDR or other scene themes that involve snapping multiple shots in succession, you're likely to get double images of moving subjects. I found that choosing the phone's Normal mode helped fix the issue.

Another weak point in the camera is shot-to-shot time, which was on the slow side. Typically I had to wait about a second between each shot I snapped.

Conclusion
The Sony Xperia ZL has a lot going for it, but its unsubsidized price of $759.99 is high. It sports a sleek and elegant style, if you can forgive the plastic backing, and has both a zippy quad-core processor and support for swift 4G LTE. Those features are compelling, but a better deal in my book is the $649.99 HTC One Developer Edition. For less, the One offers more internal storage, a better screen, and a build quality that can't be matched. Still, I suggest choosing the Xperia ZL over the HTC One if stunning photos and having a local SD card on which to store them are your priorities. A cheaper unlocked Android option is LG's Nexus 4, which costs $299, though it lacks 4G LTE support.


Sony_Xperia_ZL_35567073_02_540x386.jpg
7.3

Sony Xperia ZL

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7