Sony Xperia ZL (Unlocked) review

The unlocked Sony Xperia ZL is a big, beautiful smartphone that's very comfortable to hold, but a sky-high price tag places it out of reach.
Photo of Sony Xperia ZL (Unlocked)

The unlocked Xperia ZL is Sony’s best smartphone yet. It’s also the best-size big-screen phone we’ve tested. It has a 5-inch screen, which means that it technically meets our definition for phablet (which is a phone the size of a small tablet). But unlike every other phablet out there, the Xperia ZL doesn’t feel huge. It has a beautiful 1080p display, an ultra-fast quad-core processor, and a good 13-megapixel camera. But the Xperia ZL costs $759.99, which puts it out of reach for even the most dedicated Sony smartphone fans. So while the Xperia ZL is a very good phone, it’s just too expensive.

Size, Design, and Call Quality
Before I focus on what the Xperia ZL is, it’s important to mention what it isn’t. And this isn’t the water-submersible, dust-resistant, all-glass Xperia Z we saw back at CES. While both phones are running the same hardware and software, the Xperia ZL isn’t ruggedized, and with its textured, rubberized back panel, it doesn’t have quite the same luxury look and feel as the upcoming Xperia Z. There’s still an all-glass front panel, and thin glass inserts on each side of the phone, so it’s still attractive, but what Sony really gets right here is size.

Sony has nearly managed to stretch the display to the phone’s edges, with very little bezel on the top and bottom. It still measures 5.18 by 2.73 by 0.39 inches and weighs 5.33 ounces, which means it’s a good deal larger than most phones in the 4-inch range, but it’s actually more compact than the 4.8-inch Samsung Galaxy S III, which measures 5.38 by 2.78 by 0.34 inches. So if you’re looking for the most comfortable big-screen smartphone out there, the Xperia ZL is it.

Powered by Sony’s Mobile Bravia 2 engine, the ZL’s 5-inch, 1080p display is a thing of beauty. With a resolution of 1920-by-1080 pixels, Sony has packed 441 pixels into each inch of the display, and the results are lovely. Fonts, images, and video all look razor sharp, and brighter colors fare particularly well. I would’ve liked to see a little more saturation or inkiness in the darker shades, and the viewing angles could be wider, but these are minor complaints about a very nice display.

Typing on the onscreen keyboard feels fine, which makes sense, given its large size. Of course, 5 inches is still 5 inches, so you may need to break out your other hand from time to time when you can’t quite reach all the way across the display.

As for the rest of the phone, I really like the status light right below the display that lets you know how much charge you’ve got left. All of the physical controls are located on the right side. There’s a circular aluminum Power button in the middle, a volume rocker at the top, and a Camera button on the bottom. A standard 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the top right edge, and the power port is on the left. I reviewed the all-black model, but the ZL also comes in white, or black and red.

The back of the phone doesn’t come off, which means the 2,370mAh battery is nonremovable. Sony includes a suite of power management software, but on its own, the battery lasted for 7 hours and 40 minutes of talk time, which isn’t bad, but we’ve seen better results on most new phones. A flap on the back panel opens up to reveal the SIM and microSD card slots.

The Xperia ZL is unlocked, so you can use it on either AT&T or T-Mobile’s network. It supports both HSPA+ 42 and LTE on the 850/900/1700/1900/2100MHz bands. It also supports 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. For this review we tested it on AT&T.

Reception is excellent on AT&T’s network, but call quality is only average. Voices sound fuzzy and reedy in the phone’s earpiece. Calls made with the phone have a sense of fullness, but a lot of background fuzz made its way through whenever someone spoke. The speakerphone sounds fine but is not loud enough to use outdoors. The phone had no trouble pairing with a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset and standard Android voice dialing worked fine.

Hardware, Android, and Apps
The Xperia ZL is powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064 processor. In other words, it’s crazy fast. Sony has laid a pretty thick skin over Google’s Android operating system, but it doesn’t seem to affect performance. The ZL turned in excellent benchmark scores across the board, and deserves a top spot among the most powerful Android phones available today. Using the phone felt silky smooth, and you definitely won’t have trouble running any of the 800,000+ apps in the Google Play store.

(Next page: Camera, Multimedia, and Conclusions)

The phone is running Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean), which isn’t the newest version of Android available, but it contains enough of the features and tweaks you’ll find in 4.2.2 that it’s not a huge deal. And while Sony’s Android layer is fairly extensive, the changes are mostly cosmetic. You won’t find any crazy modifications like the Flipboard-style home screen on the HTC One.

You get five customizable home screens here that come preloaded with a few useful apps and widgets. There isn’t a ton of bloatware, aside from lots of helpful preloaded apps from Sony. For starters, you get Sony’s own Album (picture gallery), Movies, and Walkman apps, which are sleek, attractive alternatives to the standard Android versions.

Sony has added TrackID, which is a Shazam-like app that can identify music tracks for you. There’s also Wisepilot, which is a mapping and navigation app that doesn’t seem terribly accurate; you’re better off with the Google Maps-powered Navigation app, which also comes built-in. Sony Car is a great simplified interface to use in the car while you’re driving, and the Remote Control app uses the phone’s IR blaster to control supported Sony devices like HDTVs and stereo systems, which is great if you inhabit a Sony-heavy universe. Sony has also added its own music and app stores. Music Unlimited, the app store, seems to have a well curated selection, but for apps you’re better off sticking with Google Play.

The ZL has NFC support, which doesn’t have a ton of real-world applications yet, but Sony is trying to remedy that with its Smart Connect app. Smart Connect allows your phone to follow a specific set of rules when you tap the phone to a programmable NFC Smart Tag. If you want to go for a run, for instance, you can program a tag to automatically open your music player and set the volume to a specific level. You can also program to it turn on alarms, direct calls, or even send text messages.

Finally, Sony has added a Power Management menu to the phone’s settings. The company claims Stamina Mode can improve standby by four times or more by automatically shutting down battery-draining apps when the screen is off and starting them up again when it comes back on. Other options, like Location-based Wi-Fi, automatically activate the phone’s Wi-Fi setting when in range of a saved network.

Camera, Multimedia, and Conclusions
The Xperia ZL is the latest 13-megapixel camera phone to cross our desks. And it’s a pretty good camera, to be sure, but not markedly better than the best 8-megapixel shooters we’ve tested, like the Apple iPhone 5, the Nokia Lumia 820, or the new HTC One, which actually uses an innovative 4-megapixel UltraPixel camera.

The camera snaps photos quickly, in just under half a second. Photos deliver a lot more detail than your average 8-megapixel phone shot, but the ZL’s photos tend to get a little soft as you zoom in. Color can look disappointingly washed out indoors, but it looks rich and natural outside. Video recording is better. Videos look very crisp and played back at a smooth 30 frames per second, though again the coloring indoors looked a little bland. Of course, there’s also a fine 2-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat.

The phone comes with 10.60GB of free internal storage and my 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards worked fine in the microSD slot on the back of the phone. Sony includes a decent set of wired earbuds, and I was able to play AAC, MP3, OGG, and WAV music files, but not FLAC or WMA. Audio sounded great through Sony’s headphones as well as a Bluetooth pair. All of our test videos played back at resolutions up to 1080p, and looked fantastic on the big 5-inch screen, but audio over Bluetooth was slightly out of sync.

So while the Xperia ZL is Sony’s best smartphone to date, and a very good smartphone in general, it’s hard to get past the sticker shock of that nearly $800 price tag. If you’ve got money to burn and you want the most comfortably designed phablet there is, the Xperia ZL won’t disappoint. But if you’re looking for an unlocked smartphone, you’re better off with our Editors’ Choice, the Google Nexus 4. It doesn’t have LTE support, but it has better call quality than the ZL, runs the latest version of Android, and has similarly fast performance. Oh yeah, and it only costs $299. Otherwise, if you’re looking for the best Android phone available right now, you can get the HTC One on AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile for around $200, but you’ll also be locking yourself into a contract. And don’t forget about the Samsung Galaxy S4, which looms largely on the horizon. It’ll be available on every major carrier, and will likely come in an unlocked variant as well.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, UMTS
Screen Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
NFC Yes
Dimensions 5.18 x 2.7 x 0.39 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g
Video Camera Resolution 1080p Rear
1080p Front-Facing
Battery Life (As Tested) 7 hours 40 minutes
Available Integrated Storage 10.6 GB
Processor Speed 1.5 GHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064 Quad-Core
GPS Yes
Total Integrated Storage 16 GB
High-Speed Data EDGE, LTE, HSPA+ 42
Weight 5.33 oz
Screen Type Mobile Bravia Engine 2
Operating System as Tested Android 4.1.2
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 13 MP Rear
2 MP Front-Facing
Screen Pixels Per Inch 441 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, 1700
microSD Slot Yes
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 5 inches
Bluetooth Version 4

Verdict
The unlocked Sony Xperia ZL is a big, beautiful smartphone that's very comfortable to hold, but a sky-high price tag places it out of reach.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc