First impressions: Hands on with the Sony Xperia ZL smartphone

Pushing for a comeback in the States, Sony(s sne) directly sells its Xperia ZL smartphone in the U.S. for $629.99 through its Sony Store. That may be a tough sell in this land of subsidized cell phone addicts, but this market is changing. And Sony’s device is priced at or below other flagship phones currently available on the market.

The folks at Sony loaned me an Xperia ZL Android(s goog) unit to look over and although I’ve only had the device for less than 24 hours, I can already share some first impressions. My early take is that this handset is worth the look if you’re already considering an Android flagship phone from HTC, Samsung or LG. Here are photos followed by some initial thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Sony claims the ZL has the the sharpest 5-inch smartphone display and is also the world’s most compact handset with such a screen. The screen is beautiful and vibrant, but very comparable to the Galaxy S 4, HTC One and LG Optimus G Pro; perhaps slightly better contrast to my eyes. I do believe the “most compact 5-inch screen” on a phone claim, however. There is very little bezel above and below the display; less than on competing phones. This handset is all screen.
  • Because of that, at least one design compromise had to be made and I don’t care for it. Instead of having the front-facing 2 megapixel camera near the top of the phone’s face, it’s down at the bottom right. I find it far too easy to cover the camera with my hand when on a video call.
  • There’s a super slim LED notification light on the bottom edge of the screen. I almost didn’t even see it at first. That worried me at first; now I like the unobtrusive nature of it.
  • I like the feel of the phone, it has a nice rounded and textured back. It feels better to me than the Galaxy S 4, even though the GS4 is a smidge thinner and the same width. The phone is comprised of glass, metal and plastic.
  • It’s a personal preference, but I love the rounded power button the side of the device. It’s easy to spot, easy to feel and looks premium. My son, however, hates it, so opinions will vary.
  • The phone has an integrated battery so you don’t remove the back, but a small portion of the cover opens up for a SIM card and micro SD slot. I like this better than slots all around the side of a device.
  • Sony ships the phone with Android 4.1.2 along with a lightly modified user interface. The UI is far less jarring than TouchWiz or Sense; it’s very clean, sharp and modern. If I have to have a skin atop pure Android, I prefer it to be light for performance purposes and I think Sony has accomplished that.
  • In terms of performance, the phone doesn’t appear quite as peppy as the latest flagships but it’s not behind by much. That shouldn’t surprise as the Xperia ZL arrived months ago and uses last year’s 1.5 GHz Qualcomm(s qcom) S4 Pro quad-core processor. That’s the same chip that powers Google’s Nexus 4. It helps that Sony included 2 GB of memory.
  • Sony touts a 13 megapixel Exmor RS camera sensor as a big differentiator, but I’m not sold on that yet. I need to take more images and videos. So far, I don’t see a vast improvement over other high-end cameras in smartphones. I haven’t yet taken low-light images and for some reason, when I switch to HDR mode on the camera, it takes me back to the phone’s lock screen. I do appreciate the dedicated camera shutter button on the side of the phone.
  • There’s no carrier bloatware, but Sony has added a number of its own and partner apps: Sony Select, McAfee Mobile Security, NeoReader (a handy barcode scanner), TrackID, PlayNow, Wisepilot navigation and a shortcut to install Socialife. I’d like to uninstall some of these, but of course can only hide them.
  • I haven’t used the phone enough to test the battery; I don’t see it draining unnecessarily fast so far. The phone has a 2370 mAh battery and a Stamina mode for longer standby time.
  • All of the desired connection types are here: NFC, aGPS/GLONASS, an IR remote, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth and MHL support.
  • The phone also supports a wide range of cellular frequencies and technology, depending on market:
    • UMTS HSPA+ (Bands 1, 5, 8, or bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 8)
    • GSM GPRS/EDGE 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz
    • LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20, or bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 17)

Overall, my first impression is good although I don’t know if I can ever get used to the front-facing camera at the bottom right. I really like the overall form factor because the nearly all screen handset provides a very immersive experience. I’ll keep using it for a few days and see if that feeling continues; no promises about reversing course on that front camera though!