The Sony Xperia ZL comes in an identical box, in terms of both design and contents, to that of the Xperia Z. Our Xperia Z unit came with a complimentary 2GB memory card, which the Sony Xperia ZL doesn't have, but that's hardly a big deal. You do get an A/C adapter, a microUSB cable and a headset with an extra pair of earbuds.
The Sony Xperia ZL is the 5" smartphone with the smallest footprint on the market. At 131.6 x 69.3 x 9.8 mm you won't get anything better among its immediate rivals in the face of the Xperia Z (139 mm tall), Samsung Galaxy S4 (136.6 mm) or the HTC One (137.4 mm).
However, the Xperia ZL is the thickest of them all at 9.8mm. We didn't find this particularly bothersome - the Sony Xperia ZL is quite comfortable to handle and allows a decent grip. More so than the glass-covered Xperia Z.
The smaller footpring is probably the first thing the Xperia ZL will use in its defense, as many users are likely to question the absence of high-end finish. If recent history has thought us anything, it's that there are enough people who value handling over fancy design. We, for one, are not too fond of the textured battery cover but plastic is clearly something you don't have to worry about as much as you would for the glass rear panel on the Xperia Z.
The Sony Xperia ZL is being pitched as the most compact smartphone with a 5"1080p screen and the amount of space below and above of the screen is an easy to spot difference to the Xperia Z. The top and bottom bezel have been noticeably shrunk and that's perhaps the reason why the front camera is located in the bottom right corner - a bit unusual, but not unprecedented (remember the Nokia N9?). The side bezels too have been reduced to the bare minimum.
The chrome insets on the sides of the handsets are one of the few similarities with the Xperia Z. The reflective plates are a nice accent and come in the same light graphite color as on the water-resistant Xperia.
Sony is using a similar simplistic front on the Sony Xperia ZL with no hardware buttons on the glass. Capacitive on-screen controls are used instead that stay out of the way while browsing the web or viewing images, playing games or watching videos.
The breathing LED (Sony call it ambience light) is discretely hidden beneath the glass under the Home key. It illuminates a tiny slit that grows thinner at the edges and looks classy.
Above the screen you'll spot the earpiece and the Sony logo. Sony smartphones usually come with a factory-fitted screen protector on top of the scratch-resistant glass and the Xperia ZL is no exception. Sometimes the manufacturer logo is even printed on the thin screen protector sheet itself. Most people probably won't mind the extra protection as long as it doesn't compromise the viewing angles and overall image quality.
The back panel of the Sony Xperia ZL is made of patterned plastic which rugged texture facilitates the grip but looks a bit tacky. The back accommodates the 13MP camera lens, which is raised above the surrounding surface. Next to it are the loudspeaker grille and a single LED flash.
The secondary, noise-reducing microphone is above the lens, with the Xperia logo imprinted across the middle of the rear panel.
It sure looks like a removable back panel but it isn't. In order to access the microSD card slot and microSIM card you have to undo the tiny flap at the very bottom of the smartphone. Getting it open tends to be a fiddly exercise and it doesn't really lock firmly back in place. Not to mention, the questionable aesthetics - the flap really looks like a patch.
Another thing we didn't quite like about the plastic back cover of the Sony Xperia ZL is the fact that it noticeably bends and gives in even when gently pressed. That's not the most reassuring feeling.
The best thing about the Sony Xperia ZL is the size - and the easiest way to appreciate the difference is to have an Xperia Z in the other hand. The Xperia ZL doesn't even come close to the level of refinement of its glass-clad sibling, but the grip and the handling definitely tip the scales in its favor. We wouldn't say the Xperia ZL was made entirely with single-handed use in mind but it's easier to handle most of the five-inchers we've tested, and it's probably tied with the Galaxy S4 despite the thicker profile.
The materials are sensible and pleasant to the touch and the build quality is solid for the most part. The only exception is the underwhelming fit of the back panel.