The Sony Xperia ZL is the more affordable and slightly smaller sibling to the Xperia Z flagship Android smartphone we've also reviewed. In fact, Sony claims it's the smallest 5" smartphone on the market, and we believe they're right. For a phone with a very large display it's slightly shorter than the 4.7" HTC One and both narrower and shorter than Sony's own Xperia Z. In terms of internals and display, the ZL is identical to the Z, but it costs a bit less because it has a plastic back and isn't waterproof like the Z. I love great looks as much as the next person, and admit I rarely come in serious contact with lots of water (at least while using my phone), so I find the Xperia ZL a more tempting proposition-- more so because Sony now offers a variant with US LTE, which the Xperia Z lacks.
Our review unit was provided by www.tekshop.us (tekshop.ca for you Canadians), and they sell the Xperia ZL C6506 for a relatively reasonable $539US as of this writing. Sony sells the Xperia ZL direct from their website, but it will set you back $629. Like the Sony Store model, Tekshop's has LTE 4G support that works on AT&T and T-Mobile's 4G network. It supports the 700 / 800 / 1800 / 1700 / 2100 LTE bands, which covers both AT&T and T-Mobile US LTE, though we tested it only with an AT&T SIM card. This is an unlocked GSM quad band world phone that also has HSPA+ 3G (carriers sometimes refer to this as 4G) that works on both AT&T and T-Mobile in the US. The phone uses a micro SIM card and there's no contract requirement. It is not compatible with Sprint and Verizon.
The Sony Xperia ZL has dual band WiFi 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and a GPS with GLONASS. It has a front camera that's oddly placed at the lower right corner and a very good 13 megapixel rear camera with f/2.4 lens, HDR and an Exmor RS sensor just like the Xperia Z. It produces very good photos and 1080p video with natural colors and decent sharpness. There's lots of detail in the Xperia ZL's photos, and for those who like serious sharpness, some post-processing can do the trick to sharpen up Sony's fairly soft algorithm.
Like the Xperia Z, the Xperia ZL runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean with light Sony UI customizations on a 1.5GHz quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU with 2 gigs of RAM. It's not quite as quick as the Snapdragon 600 in the HTC One and US version of the Samsung Galaxy S4, but it's still one of the faster Android phones on the market. It has 16 gigs of internal storage and a microSD card slot that works with SDXC cards. As you might expect, it benchmarks nearly identically with the Sony Xperia Z. If you like the Xperia ZL, don't obsess on the Snapdragon S4 Pro vs. Snapdragon 600 CPU difference; the S4 Pro is plenty fast enough to play the latest challenging 3D games and it handles 1080p high quality video perfectly.
Note: in our video review we had the non-LTE variant, but the LTE version Xperia ZL C6506 is now available and is the one to get in the US and Canada.
The Sony Xperia ZL has a colorful yet natural looking 5" full HD display that's quite bright. At 1920 x 1080, it competes with the top smartphones on the market and it's extremely sharp. Colors are vibrant and pop, yet they're more natural than Samsung's Super AMOLED displays. Sony's Mobile Bravia 2 software engine tweaks colors and brightness to achieve a near perfect experience whether you're reading an ebook or watching a movie. Still, clarity and contrast aren't as good as the HTC One (our favorite smartphone display), and outdoor visibility is decent but not as good as the HTC One and iPhone 5. As with the Xperia Z that shares the same TFT panel, the ZL washes out when viewed off angle and blacks aren't as rich and inky black as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One's displays. Move it 30 degrees off center and it dims and colors turn pale. You can argue that a phone is small enough to hold at a direct angle in front of your face, but the reality is we often pull our mobile companions out of pockets for a quick glance or cast a sidelong look at the phone on a table while in a meeting. Viewing angles do matter.
Calling and Data
As with the Xperia Z, call quality is excellent and reception is very good. Data speeds are excellent, resulting in a very good web browsing experience and apps download quickly. The phone has the mobile hotspot feature so you can use it as a high speed wireless modem for your tablet or laptop. It comes with Google's Chrome web browser, and the usual suite of Google apps including Gmail, YouTube, email, Maps and all the Play apps.
Other goodies include USB OTG host and HDMI out via optional MHL adapter. The Xperia ZL has a dedicated camera button that we absolutely love on this camera-centric smartphone. The smartphone has a consumer IR and a Remote app to control your home theatre gear, much like the app on Xperia Tablet S and Xperia Tablet Z Android tablets. This is a pure AV remote app with lots of virtual buttons and it doesn't handle content discovery as do TV apps like Peel and Samsung's AV remote app that's based on Peel.
Camera: 13MP with Exmor RS Sensor
The 13 megapixel rear camera with LED flash and EXMOR RS sensor takes superb photos and has HDR for both photos and 1080p video. The intelligent auto mode really is smart, and we rarely had to use manual settings to get the best shot. Even if you're a photo buff, it's nice to not have to fiddle with settings to achieve a great photo. The Sony Xperia ZL has sweep panorama, image stabilization, 16x digital zoom and burst mode. The f/2.4 lens isn't the fastest we've seen, but it lets in enough light for a reasonably good night shot. The Sony focuses faster than the Samsung Galaxy S4, but not as quickly as the surreally fast HTC One. Image quality, for those who need lots of pixels, far exceeds the 4MP (UltraPixel) camera on the HTC One. The Samsung Galaxy S4 and even the HTC One win for offering more photo modes vs. the Xperia Z.
There's plenty of detail in photos and that's perfect for print or places where larger images are needed (vertical market, photo sharing sites). Sony avoids over-sharpening, instead leaving that to you and Photoshop. Photos buffs will appreciate this, but novices may prefer that the phone do the doctoring for them. 1080p video capture is sharp, bright and image stabilization works well.
Like the Xperia Z, iPhone 5 and HTC One, the Xperia XL's battery is sealed inside. It has a 2370 mAh Lithium Ion battery, and that's competitive with the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One's battery capacity. But like the Xperia Z, battery runtimes weren't impressive for screen on time. That means when you're using the display to watch video, read email or view a web page; in fact Sony only claims 5.5 hours of video playback time, which is relatively short. When the screen is off (i.e. playing music or in a call), runtimes are much more hearty and we clocked over 12 hours of call time on a charge (when doing nothing else).
If you're fond of Sony's smartphones and software experience, the Xperia ZL is particularly attractive as a no-contract smartphone. It's fast, the UI is clean and pleasing and the camera is very good. Here in the US, I suspect no-contract high end phones are beat out by carrier subsidized models, but for those of you who appreciate an unlocked world phone or perhaps aren't due for a subsidized upgrade, the Sony Xperia XL has its appeal (especially because you can use it on both AT&T and T-Mobile). Yes, it's not quite as sexy as the Xperia Z, but it has LTE 4G that works in the US, a more comfortable and durable plastic back and an AV remote.
Display:5" TFT display with Mobile Bravia Engine 2. Resolution:
1920 x 1080 (441 ppi). Has ambient light sensor, accelerometer and proximity sensor.
Ion Polymer rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable.
Performance:1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad core CPU (MDM9215M / APQ8064) with 2 gigs RAM and 16 gigs internal storage (approx. 10 gigs available).
x 2.70 x 0.39 inches. Weight: 5.33 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone with HSPA+ 3G on the 850/900/1700/2100MHz bands. US variant has LTE 4G for US GSM carriers.
Camera:1.3MP front camera and 13MP rear camera with Exmor RS sensor and LED flash.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
Networking:Integrated dual band
WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC.
Software:Android OS 4.1.2 Jelly Bean with light Sony customizations. Full suite of Google Android apps including the Chrome web browser, Gmail, email, YouTube, Google Maps and Navigation. OfficeSuite 6 MS Office viewer and full collection of Sony apps including Sony Select, PlayNow, Walkman (music player), Socialife (social networking), Xperia Link and Playstation Mobile.