Review: Sony Xperia ZL
The ZL has a handful of media options on board, but there are some notable omissions.
First, Sony reskinned the stock Android music and video player apps. They both offer basic playback functionality of sideloaded music and videos, but look nicer than the stock apps. The Google Play Music and Google Play Movies content stores are both on board for your music and movie purchasing/renting needs. These are the same apps found on most Android devices. The Sony Walkman app is the most feature-rich music player available on the ZL and surpasses the Google Play Music app in terms of usability and cool tools. I like the way it arranges playlists and albums, and it has a nice visual look and feel. It does not have its own store, but it played everything I sideloaded (songs purchased from Amazon, Apple, and Google) without issue. It has a great equalizer for customizing the sound.
Sony's Music Unlimited and Videos Unlimited services are both missing in action, but the ZL has an FM radio and TrackID, which can be used to identify songs. The ZL also has an app called Smart Connect that uses DLNA to connect it to other DLNA-certified devices for playing media content. The app works really well and I had no trouble pairing the ZL with my TV sets, for example.
Speaking of TVs, the ZL is the latest high-end smartphone to include an infrared transmitter and Remote Control application. The app walks you through the process of pairing with your television set (or cable box, DVD player, etc.) and it takes only a moment or so. Once the setup process is complete, the ZL can be used to power devices on/off, change the channel, adjust the volume, and so on. You can use the remote app to interact with the guide on your TV (the one provided by Comcast, Verizon, et al.), but the app doesn't offer a guide or video content discovery service of its own.
Sony has taken pains to stuff as many features as possible into the camera of its latest smartphones, and the ZL benefits from Sony's efforts.
The camera operates well. A long press of the physical camera button — even when the screen is locked — will open the camera. The viewfinder leaves plenty of room for composing images and the tools for adjusting the settings are floating along the left edge.
It offers panorama and macro modes for taking wide vistas or close-ups. It can detect smiles, and can make various different shutter sounds. I like that the flash has four settings, including fill-flash. Fill-flash helps take photos when you have a light background and a dark foreground and you want to make the foreground pop a little bit (it uses a lower-power burst than the normal flash mode.)
The camera also has a bunch of different shooting modes. The default is called Superior Auto. It’s good at detecting scenes and then adjusting the settings to match those scenes. The ZL can also be put into normal shooting mode, video camera-only mode, and burst shot mode. Users can also choose to add picture effects while capturing images/video, and of course switch to the front camera/video camera. The shooting modes are easily accessed through a large icon that appears in the upper-left corner of the display. When pressed, it shoots a strip of options across the screen.
Everything about the camera is fast. It opens quickly, focuses quickly, and shoots/saves images quickly.
The camera has 12 megapixels to work with and left me impressed with the results.
In particular, focus was always sharp, producing clean, clear images. White balance was nearly always accurate, and the ZL did a great job with exposure. I was particularly impressed with how the ZL used the flash to compensate (but not over-compensate) for poor lighting conditions. Colors look really good. In sum, it is easy to say that the ZL produced better results than I've seen on other cameras of late, including the Galaxy S 4 and HTC One.
Similarly, the ZL's video camera did a great job of capturing HD video. I was impressed with the clarity, white balance, and exposure. In particular, the ZL's video does well in low-light situations. Video captured with the ZL is certainly YouTube worthy, and looks great on an HDTV.
The ZL carries over the same cool gallery app that was on the Sony TL. Basically, the grid of thumbnails in the main gallery view can be expanded and reshaped by using pinch-to-zoom gestures. By default, one thumbnail (the most recent image) is somewhat larger than the others. Grab that and do a reverse pinch gesture and it will grow to fill the screen. The other thumbnails will also grow. You can use this gesture to make all the thumbnails visible at the same time, or as few as three visible at a time. It makes dealing with the gallery more fun.
Otherwise, it has all the tools you expect to find in the Android 4.1 smartphone gallery app. Individual photos and albums can be easily shared with others via messaging apps or social networks. Photos can also be cropped and rotated, as well as adjusted for exposure, etc.
There are 50 apps preinstalled on the ZL, which is a lot for a phone that doesn't have any carrier-branded services. Many of Sony's apps, such as WalkMan and Update Center, duplicate functions that are already baked into the Android platform. It is worth mentioning two other Sony apps: Sony Select, and PlayNow. Sony Select is an app recommendation tool that works similar to the Samsung Hub on Galaxy devices. It offers a selection of apps and games that Sony thinks you'll enjoy. PlayNow is a focused on media, and can be used to play online games, share photos, and listen to music.
I found that the ZL's Bluetooth radio worked well. It gave me no trouble connecting to headsets or other devices. Calls routed through my car's hands-free system sounded pretty bland, but music sent to stereo Bluetooth headsets was clear and lively.
The ZL includes Google's Chrome browser. It does good job of rendering web sites quickly on the ZL's display and it interacted well with AT&T's HSPA+ and LTE networks. The ZL delivered a solid web browsing experience. Chrome can be used to sync browsing history and bookmarks with the desktop version of Chrome. There are plenty of alternative browsers available in the Google Play Store should Chrome not suffice for you.
The lock screen clock is a thin, white, digital clock that's positioned at the top of the display. It can be hard to see and isn't customizable. There are a number of clock widgets for the home screens, but the time is almost always displayed in the status bar at the top.
The ZL includes Google Maps and WisePilot for Xperia. Google Maps is a known entity. WisePilot is a version of TeleNav’s app that's been customized for Sony. It uses large icons and simple tools to look up directions, view maps, and perform local searches. It requires a monthly payment of $10 to Sony, however.
In terms of the GPS radio itself, the ZL functioned flawlessly in that regard. It found me in 10 seconds or less, and was accurate to within about 25 feet. The combination of the ZL's processor, network connection, and Google Maps worked well for live navigation.