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

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16

The Good The Sony Xperia ZL 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.

Visit for details.

7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

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 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.

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

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.

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).