Not known as a top-tier smartphone maker in the United States, Sony’s middle-of-the-road performance in reviews, user interface, special features and battery life resulted in a ho-hum sixth-place finish (out of nine). Sony does offer very good cameras, and we like that the Xperia Z is water-resistant, but the company should really work on display viewing angles and carrier distribution.
Sony doesn’t come out with phones often in the United States, which is why we only reviewed three of its devices last year: the Xperia ZL, the Xperia TL and the Xperia Ion. While we liked all three, only the TL earned a 4-star rating. While the phones are designed well and have a lot of strong features, such as NFC, excellent cameras and a number of helpful apps, the screens tended to wash out quickly. And, when compared with similarly priced competitors from Samsung and Apple, Sony’s offerings fell short on one or two key areas.
Sony makes minor modifications to the Android operating system. The Xperia ZL, for instance, offers a lightly skinned version of Google’s Android Jelly Bean 4.1.2. From the lock screen, users can swipe to open the camera app, music player or simply unlock the handset. Unlike the HTC One and Galaxy S4, however, you can’t add apps to the lock screen. The Notifications menu has shortcut to the settings menu, as well as controls for the handset’s ringer, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Mobile Data functions. However, we wish there were shortcuts for brightness and Airplane Mode here.
The few Sony smartphones that made it to American shores in the past year averaged a so-so 5 hours and 55 minutes, with the Xperia TL going for as long as 6 hours and 58 minutes on AT&T’s 4G LTE network. The Xperia ZL, however, only endured for 4 hours and 49 minutes. Unfortunately, Sony often uses sealed-in batteries.
Shoppers have been enticed by Sony with features that are unique to its brand, such as easy access to its movie and music services via a Sony Entertainment Account. We like PlayMemories Online for storing photos and videos in the cloud, but the PlayStation Mobile games tend to be weak. Sony does a good job with NFC accessories, making it easy to pair its phones with speakers, headphones and other accessories with a tap.
The 5-inch 1080p Reality Display on the Xperia ZL offered vibrant colors, thanks to Sony’s built-in Bravia Engine technology. Both this screen and the one on the Xperia Z are fairly bright, too, registering above-average lux readings on our light meter. However, viewing angles were a bit narrow, resulting in cloudy images when watching content from the sides. Sony’s Xperia TL features a 4.6-inch, 1280 x 720-pixel scratch-resistant display that produces bright colors, but had trouble with darker scenes.
The Sony Xperia ZL and TL both come equipped with 13-megapixel cameras with Sony Exmor sensors capable of capturing rich, defined images. On our Smartphone Camera Shootout, the ZL placed fourth out of nine brands and impressed us with its ability to shoot clear images in low-light situations. Some outdoor images were blown out, but image quality was sharp overall. You’ll also find adjustable ISO settings, Burst Mode, sweep panorama and Superior Auto mode on the ZL. As for the TL, we appreciated the devices speedy shutter, although it wasn’t quite as fast as the Galaxy S3’s.
A stylish, minimalist approach to design has caused Sony to turn some heads, particularly thanks to phones with thin bezels and subtle curves. The Sony Xperia TL handsome looks made it 007’s phone of choice in “Skyfall,” while the Xperia ZL impresses with its OmniBalance design — a commitment to symmetry. The new Xperia Z is water-resistant. However, Sony’s phones tend to be a little heavier than competing devices.
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Sony offers several technologies for improving audio quality, including the Xperia ZL’s xLoud setting for pumping up the volume, Clear Phase for improved audio quality at lower volume, Slow Talk for slowing the speech of a person on the other end of the line and microphone noise suppression for removing background noise. Each feature worked as advertised. But when we listened to Adele’s “Someone Like You” on the Sony Xperia Z speakers side-by-side with other flagship phones, we found the audio quality flat, hollow and softer than the competition.
Even though it makes some of the most stylish, innovative phones around, Sony treats the U.S. market as an afterthought, with key devices such as the Xperia Z arriving several months after they launch elsewhere and only on AT&T or T-Mobile. Most Sony devices never even make it to these shores or, like the $759 Xperia ZL, are only sold as unlocked.