Sony Xperia ZL: An unlocked 5-in. gem in a diverse Android smartphone market

Testing out the new unlocked 5-in. Sony Xperia ZL smartphone recently made me realize that smartphone innovation has truly turned a corner.  Maybe you have noticed it yourself.

Six years after the first iPhone appeared, Android is now the undisputed global king of smartphones with hundreds of models from many vendors with a fairly wide amount of variation in hardware and software.

On the other hand, Apple is now resorting to ads that declare Apple’s signature: “Designed by Apple in California” as if that were the most important thing about its products. This approach comes after years of stubbornly refusing to change even the size of the iPhone to more than a 3.5-in. screen (now 4-in. in the iPhone 5) or alter much of the iOS phone interface.  The coming iOS 7 design is an important change, although some have already declared it looks anemic. Perhaps Apple will wow the public with hardware changes in the next iPhone coming this fall.

I’m an iPhone user and fan, but there’s no question that Android smartphone manufacturers like Samsung, now Sony, and soon Motorola (under Google) are trading on quite a lot of diversity that Apple is not.

Motorola’s upcoming Moto X, for instance, is designed to give users “freedom to design a smartphone as unique as you are.”  The first device from Motorola since it was acquired by Google is rumored to have a 4.7-in. touchscreen and run Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2. 

If users can truly design components in the Moto X as we can do with desktop computers, that will be a game changer.  Some Motorola fans have theorized the users could pick many options: whether the Moto X is waterproof or not; has an LCD screen or AMOLED or Super AMOLED; has a certain processor or memory or battery size. If the Moto X only comes with variable cases that can be personalized, that’s fine, but seems a little lightweight and silly.

Which brings me back to Sony and Samsung.  Samsung is the clear Android leader globally, and makes a number of devices, from the Samsung Galaxy S4 to the Galaxy Note II and others. You can have a large range of screen sizes, colors, and even a touchscreen stylus or not. There is even a big Samsung push to incorporate more security with Knox, to persuade IT shops that Android is secure enough to use at work. 

Samsung and other Android smartphone makers also trade on creature features like removable batteries, standard USB charging and NFC. All are items Apple has avoided, leaving me wondering if such omissions are finally hurting the iPhone, despite all the iPhone’s innovations and reputation for high quality.

Sony is relatively new to the Android mix, and so far holds a tiny share of the Android smartphone market. What makes the company interesting, and worth checking out, is Sony’s vast reputation for electronics over recent decades.  That’s a principal reason I’ve been testing out a review unit of the Xperia ZL.

Sony launched in January its Z Series of three smartphones, which a spokeswoman described to me as starting with the ZL with no water-resistant features, then moving to the Z with water resistant technology and up to the Xperia Z Ultra, which is “even more waterproof.”

While that might sound like a strange distinction for smartphones, it encapsulates how Sony is allowing diversity and choice across Z line of smartphones—something that Motorola might be offering within its one Moto X, with the “X” possibly from the variable symbol in algebra.

I really want to get my hands on the Z Ultra, but it’s not yet available and was only announced June 25

Who wouldn’t want to get a chance to use a 6.44-in. smartphone like the Ultra, just about the same size as the Samsung Galaxy Mega, at 6.3-inches?

Some people think anything over 4-in. (the size of the iPhone 5) is too big to use in one hand, but I am consistently delighted by the larger screens on the larger new phones, or phone-tablets being dubbed “phablets.” (I hate that word, but I guess I’ll be lured into using it.  Colleague Gregg Keizer says it sounds like a pill for a strange intestinal problem.) I simply hold the bigger models in one hand and type with a single finger with the other hand.  It’s not significantly slower than thumbing with both hands on a smaller virtual keyboard.

The ZL I’ve been testing  seemed plenty big enough at 5-in., with the same 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution of the Ultra. (The Xperia Z is also a 5-in. model, but with 1080 x 1920 pixels.) Both the ZL and Z Ultra take advantage of technology that Sony gained from its development of the Bravia TV for enhancing colors, by filling in missing pixels.

sonyxperiazl_0.png

This depth of color is actually fantastic across Web sites and in games that I tested on the ZL. It might be enough of a single “cool factor” to convince a user to buy the device.

Z Ultra is going to come with a huge quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor rated at 2.2 GHz, making it the world’s fastest.  The ZL runs the Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core, rated at 1.5 GHz.  Even though it is smaller, I couldn’t notice any lagging at any point, in swipes or loading apps.

There’s no stylus with the ZL, while the Z Ultra will support touches from any pencil, stylus or pen with a tip diameter larger than 1 millimeter. 

The ZL includes a 13-megapixel auto focus rear camera and a 2 megapixel full HD front camera.(The Z Ultra actually has just an 8 megapixel rear camera, with a 2 megapixel front one.)   Both cameras in the ZL are superior to any smartphone I’ve tried, although I admit I didn’t do any side-by-side tests. 

Cameras are another example of increasing diversity in smartphones and are becoming a feature that all the smartphone makers tout, especially Nokia. They include the ability to shoot in darkened settings or to quickly edit shots. I can’t see buying a smartphone for just a better camera, but some people will.

The ZL felt a little heavy to me, but also more substantial than the plastic feel of the Samsung Galaxy S III or Samsung Galaxy S4.  Overall, it is 5.33 ounces and measures 5.19 x 2.75 x 0.39 inches. One small touch in the Sony phones is a very prominent silver power button on the right edge. At first it seemed out of place against the black case of the ZL, but as I used it, I came to like having the power button so easy to find and operate—especially when compared to the iPhone 4 that I use most often.

Sony has already offered updates to Android 4.2.2, even though the ZL first shipped with 4.1 in April. 

One of the biggest impediments to owning the ZL is that most potential buyers won’t be able to see the striking colors of the display when purchasing it online, as required.  As an unlocked device, my review version runs over AT&T, but it can also run over T-Mobile USA. Amazon was selling the ZL over 4G LTE recently for $514.51 in white or black, down from the original $719.99, while the Sony store had it for $569.99. Sony wouldn’t comment on the reason for the price cut, although I’m left wondering if the diversity approach Sony exemplifies with its three Z Series products is working out.  On a separate note, T-Mobile is planning to offer the Xperia Z exclusively soon. Oddly enough, Cincinnati Bell had a locked version of the ZL available for $250 and a two-year contract. 

I didn’t find much wrong with the ZL, but I was mystified by the Sony Stereo Bluetooth Headset SBH20 sold separately for $49.99.  I tried it and didn’t fully appreciate its call handling and remote music playing ability.  The headset comes with ear buds connected by wires to a clip-on box that is less than half an ounce and comes in several colors.  The box communicates via NFC and Bluetooth with your ZL smartphone, primarily to eliminate wires, so that you can keep the phone in a purse, briefcase or pocket.

The premise of eliminating wires makes total sense, I admit, but I found it annoyed me because I had to fiddle with clipping on the little box somewhere on my clothes, as well as still carrying the smartphone.  Traditionally, I would have the ear bud wires attached to my phone and carry the phone in my pocket or backpack, which just seems simpler.  The price doesn’t seem to justify the advantage of the headset, but I admit I’m not the one to ever consider buying it in the first place.

In summary, my experience with the Sony Xperia ZL left me feeling that this old-line electronics manufacturer really can compete with quality smartphones in a intense and crowded market.  It will not only take unique Sony technology of the kind it learned with Bravia, but a willingness to be savvy with diversity in its models and marketing that recognizes there will be unlocked buyers and carriers that still want an exclusive. 

Sony seems willing to do what it takes to compete, not only against Samsung, but Apple and others.

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