The Sony Xperia ZL ($US759, unlocked) is your average high-end smartphone. It ticks all of the appropriate boxes: large, full-HD display, a camera that's chock full of megapixels, speedy LTE-connectivity (I tested it on AT&T's network), and a beefy quad-core Snapdragon processor. But in a world of iPhones, HTC Ones, and Samsung Galaxy S4s, ticking off all the boxes is far from enough.
A pretty face
The Xperia ZL's 5-inch 1080p display is gorgeous, provided you're looking at it dead on. The screen begins to look washed out the moment you tilt the phone away, which can be off-putting if you're a stickler for these sorts of details. I got over it: the loss of color accuracy is annoying, but I don't spend too much time ogling phones at disparate angles so it doesn't feel like a deal breaker. However, if you're fond of showing photos off to your friends or watching videos on a bus ride, keeping tabs on how you hold the phone can be a bit annoying.
Bothersome viewing angles aside, the phone's display is a treat to look at. The screen's bezel is wondrously thin, and the 443 ppi pixel density offers clear, crisp text, so everything--from photos and videos to app icons--looks bright and vivid. If you aren't completely satisfied, the ZL even offers white balance settings, so you can tweak the color temperature to suit your tastes.
The rest of the phone is no slouch, either. The curved corners don't dig into your hands while you hold it and the textured backplate feels nice to the touch. The phone's width (just shy of 2.5-inches) can make it a bit awkward to hold for folks who aren't saddled with my large oafish hands, but I found it rather comfortable.
The headphone jack sits by its lonesome at the top of the phone, while the microUSB charging port sits on the left. The right side hosts the volume bar, the silver power button, and the shutter button for the 13-megapixel camera. The ZL is fairly light at 5.35 ounces, and is less than half an inch thick, which makes for an agreeably pocketable package.
Tinny tunes and moving pictures
The phone's single speaker is on the back, adjacent to the aforementioned 13-megapixel camera. There's nothing especially revelatory about its' performance, which is devoid of bass and tinny once the volume is cranked up. I do like that it's on the rear, as it stays out of the way however you hold the device--I often find myself muffling the audio on smartphones and smaller tablets. In fact, once I'd placed the phone down on a wooden surface the sound was actually rather pleasant; I've been streaming music from Spotify for a few hours now, and while you'd still be better off with a pair of headphones (Sony bundled a set with the ZL) it's not bad in a pinch.
As for that camera: 13-megapixels sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Well it is, and it can take rather lovely photos when fed lots of lighting and enough time to compose a great shot. But there's quite a bit more to capturing a great photo than throwing lots of pixels about and while the ZL does an amicable job, it suffers from a few minor oversights. While there is a dedicated camera shutter button, it doesn't actually launch the camera app--you can launch the app by way of the lock screen, but that can take a second or two and that's lamentable.
There's also the matter of the autofocus: Tapping on the phone's screen while composing an image will let the phone know the general area you'd like to focus in on (and adjust the camera's automatic capture settings accordingly), but it won't actually focus until you've hit the shutter button on screen. You can get around this by pressing the dedicated shutter button halfway, and then taking the shot, but a number of my photos came out rather blurry because I was a bit too quick on the draw. The ZL offers 1080p video recording, but that too is not without faults. Audio recording was great, but the camera's image stabilization occasionally made my videos rather jittery whenever I panned about.
A fair bit of staying power
The Xperia ZL is driven by a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and 2GB of RAM. As expected from such a powerful mobile processor, the phone had no trouble tackling any of the apps and games I threw at it. Call quality on AT&T's network was excellent: I had no trouble keeping up with conversations, and had no complaints from folks I spoke to on either coast. I also saw great LTE coverage wherever I went here in San Francisco, though your mileage will of course vary.
The ZL's 16GB capacity is par for the course with most modern smartphones, as is support for 32GB microSD cards, and the NFC, WiFi, and Bluetooth radios. If you own select Sony television sets you can also use the phone as a faux remote control, sharing content to your TV over your wireless connection. The ZL's 2370 mAh battery isn't removable, but I generally didn't need to reach for a charger until the end of a day's worth of web browsing and email syncing. Heavier usage can take its toll, and the battery buckled a bit faster when I cranked the brightness up and spent a few hours watching videos, playing games, and streaming music.
The Xperia ZL has another trick up its sleeve: Stamina Mode. Turn this feature on, and the phone will automatically disable mobile data and Wi-Fi every time the screen turns off. You'll still receive calls and text messages, downloads and uploads will complete, and certain apps (like music-streaming over Spotify) will continue to work in the background. You can also set up a whitelist of apps that will ignore Stamina mode and function normally. Sony claims that this setting will quadruple the phone's standby time, and while I haven't fully verified its claims, I definitely saw quite a bit of extra staying power. Stamina mode will be of most use to folks who tend to leave their phone idle for long periods of time, but it's a nice touch that certainly doesn't hurt to activate.
The Xperia ZL is running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) with a few understated embellishments. It's not "pure" Android in the traditional sense but I rather like it. Simple animations breathe a bit of life into mundane actions like dragging icons about, the multitasking overview adds a few application shortcuts, and the option to quickly uninstall apps with iOS-style "Xs" is an excellent addition. Arguably the best part about Sony's skinning-efforts is that they stay out of the way: icons are different, but it doesn't go much further than that.
Sony has also been kind enough to ease up on the bloatware. You're stuck with Sony's Walkman media player app, gallery and video playback apps, and the Sony Select app store which pitches app recommendations. Also saddled onto the device is Socialife, a sort of RSS reader and News feed that displays content from social media accounts like Twitter and Facebook, Google Reader, and select categories you can sign up for. I didn't find it very useful, but your mileage may vary.
You can easily uninstall the rest of the bundled apps, which include a trial for McAfee's mobile security, Wisepilot's GPS navigation app, and OfficeSuite 6, which is, well, an office suite. It supports Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF files, but there are better alternatives available on the Play Store.
Should you run out and buy an Xperia ZL? In a word, no. There's nothing expressly wrong with it: I rather like the design, which feels modern, if a bit run-of-the-mill. It performs well, serves up plenty of battery life for average use cases, and even has a nice camera once you get used to its limitations (or aren't especially picky). But there are just too many great options out there, and while the Xperia ZL won't disappoint, your money will be better spent elsewhere.