Unlike most other areas of its business, Sony’s history in the tablet market is a short and relatively humble one. Prior to this Sony Xperia Tablet Z, it’s released just three – the Tablet S, Tablet P and Xperia Tablet S – and all to a rather lukewarm reception, sealing their fate in a competitive marketplace.
Sony went back to the drawing board to re-think its strategy. While it had previously tried to stand out in from the crowd by focusing on a ‘different’ design, there had been some overlooked performance snags that left it vulnerable to criticism.
Now the company is back for another crack of the whip with the Xperia Tablet Z. With an impressive spec list and a design that sticks to the tablet essentials of super-slim design and super-light weight, it is certainly Sony’s most promising tablet yet. Could this be the key to Sony finally cracking the tablet market once and for all?
Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: Hardware and design
It’s dropped the wedge-like ‘folded magazine’ design of the Xperia Tablet S too, instead opting for slim and light boasting rights in a more standard-looking tablet shell.
If you’ve laid eyes on Sony’s Xperia Z smartphone, you’ll certainly see the inspiration for the Tablet Z’s design. It has a similarly straight-edged look that makes it feel somewhat angular in the hand.
It’s a very different feel compared with others on the market, and is one that divides opinion on our reviewing team. It’s not uncomfortable, though. We were initially concerned that it would be, but it’s no doubt helped by its ‘world’s thinnest and lightest 10in tablet’ status.
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And it is slim. At just 6.9mm it even out-skinnies even the slender iPad mini and is almost inconceivably light at 495g. While this makes it amazingly comfortable to hold for long sessions of watching Arrested Development, it does lack that premium feel of the metal-backed Apple iPad, for example, and we reckon many would take an extra few grams to make their £500 bit of tech feel like it’s more worth the outlay.
We also found the Xperia Tablet Z to have a fair bit of flex to it, which can be somewhat unnerving, and leaves the tablet feeling a little fragile. That said, on paper the Xperia Tablet Z is actually one tough cookie. It borrows the same polyamide ‘skeleton structure’ that runs around the edge of the Xperia Z smartphone, and is said to make it more durable against any knocks or drops.
Its back panel is a soft-touch glass fibre too, which adds to its light-but-durable finish. We all know that tablets are an absolute haven for fingerprints, but we found this back got particularly grubby and needed a regular clean to keep it looking its best.
The strangely useful waterproof features found on the Xperia Z smartphone are also here, opening up a whole new world of movies in the bath and worry-free use in the kitchen or around the pool. In fact, Sony says it can handle up to to a whole 30 minutes underwater, should you wish to check on the latest stock-market news whilst scuba diving.
To make such waterproofing possible, all the ports around the Xperia Tablet Z have small removable covers to protect them. As such, you’ll spend a lot of time removing and replacing covers, which can become more than a little tedious. We also wonder how well these will hold up over time, although we had no problems with them during our time with it.
Speaking of ports, you’ll find a headphone jack, micro-USB for charging and a microSD card slot for bolstering the Xperia Tablet Z’s 16GB memory by up to another 64GB (for the wi-fi only version, the LTE version up to 32GB). Being the media hoarders we are, we’re big fans of tablets that allow this, so that’s a big plus for the Sony against the likes of the iPad and the Nexus 10.
Buttons are kept to a minimum to match the tablet’s fairly minimalist design. You’ll find a solid metal power button on the left-hand side, with a less premium-feeling thin plastic volume-rocker beneath. There’s also a notification light here to let you know when the tablet is charging.
As well as the black version that we tested, the Xperia Tablet Z is also available in white, with an LTE version available at an extra cost as well.
Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: Performance and connectivity
The Sony Xperia Tablet Z is the first tablet to use Qualcomm’s 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, and with 2GB of RAM to support it, we found it moved around fast and smoothly, with no sense of delay or lag when flicking through menus and apps.
Games were handled well on it too, and browsing on the Tablet Z’s widescreen proved an enjoyable experience, with no stutters when zooming in on text and pictures. We did find pages loaded and rendered quicker on an iPad 4 on the same wi-fi network during our test, though; the Tablet Z experienced occasional delays when scrolling quickly through graphics-heavy webpages.
Battery life was pretty good, with the 6000mAh battery managing around eight or nine hours of fairly regular use on around 50 per cent brightness. The handy Stamina mode can also help to stretch this by just a little, locking down the tablet’s data connections when the screen is off.
Be prepared to give it some time to charge up. Like a lot of tablets, it’ll need a good overnight charge from empty if you want it to be full for your morning commute. We also encountered a few issues with the micro-USB charger not being recognised when we thought it was plugged in, so it’s worth making sure it’s actually charging before you hit the hay.
Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: Display and video performance
The Xperia Tablet Z’s 10.1in screen gets a much-needed boost from previous Sony tablets, and is now capable of displaying Full HD content on its 16:9, 1900 x 1200-pixel screen. However, this is easily bested by the likes of the 2560 x 1600 display on the Nexus 10 and the 2048 x 1536 iPad display – and it doesn’t compete for pin-sharp detail, either.
That’s not to say that viewing the Tablet Z’s screen in isolation is not an enjoyable experience. Its large black bezels at either size can make the whole device feel a little unwieldy, but they do help to keep your hands out of the way. The 16:9 aspect ratio also makes it great for watching movies on, leaving no space for black bars – unlike the iPad.
But compare it with the Apple’s picture and the Tablet Z is bested once more. Its colour balance is on the warm side – easily seen when viewing white web pages, which look creamy compared with the iPad’s bright renderings.
Detail is good, but not great when next to the competition: the iPad easily picks out the more subtle details that the Tablet Z misses thanks to its extra screen resolution. The Z is outdone on contrast and black levels too.
Sony has used its Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2 for improved colour reproduction, and it’s a good move. The Xperia Tablet Z has a richer, more vibrant colour palette than previous Sony tablets – particularly noticeable with reds, greens and oranges.
In contrast, the iPad goes for a cooler, more natural balance, which we found more preferable during a direct comparison. Viewed in isolation, though, it’s a more than enjoyable watch, even if we saw a slightly green tinge in darker scenes.
There’s good news for anyone who has tried watching a video on the Xperia Z smartphone, though: the viewing angles here are much better. The only comment we have is we very often felt the need to turn the brightness up to maximum when watching video to improve clarity, something which isn’t going to be too friendly to the battery.
Sony Xperia Tablet Z: Software
Running Android 4.1.2, the Xperia Tablet Z is a little behind the most up-to-date Android tablets on the market, and misses out a few of the more helpful tweaks such as separate pull-down menus for settings and notifications. There’s an OS update in the works, apparently, but as a premium device it’s a shame to not see this included out of the box.
Sony’s Android skin is fairly lightweight and inoffensive, and is intuitive and easy to use without too many quirks. There are a number of Sony apps pre-installed, most of which you can delete, although there are some you’ll be stuck with (more on that later).
With up to seven screens for apps and widgets, there’s plenty of room to manoeuvre all your stuff. The widgets on offer are the same stock ones you’ll find on most Android tablets, with a few Sony-specific ones for their services, like Video Unlimited and the social aggregator Socialife. Along the top of the screen there’s a bar in which you can slot four of your favourite apps, which will stay put for quick access as you navigate around the tablet.
The icon to open the app tray sits in the top right, while along the bottom you’ll find two icons – one to launch the pre-installed universal remote control (there’s an IR blaster along the tablet’s landscape top edge) and one to launch mini-apps – a small number of miniature-sized apps that you can use while doing other things. The most useful is the web browser; there’s also a calculator and voice recorder among other things.
Open the app tray and you have the ability to organise your apps by most used, most recently installed, alphabetically or your own custom layout. This is a nice touch, and doing it A-Z can be very useful for those with a lot of apps.
The Sony services and apps included are good, on the whole. The Socialife app provides a Flipboard-esque layout of posts from your various social networks, and throws in news stories of interest as well (you can choose your preferences in the settings).
It’s a nice service to use, although we found it had a tendency to list tweets together, followed by posts from Facebook, and then news stories, for instance – rather than a preferable mish-mash of them all together. It also crashed on us a few times during testing, but this is something we’re sure can be fixed with a simple firmware update.
Sony’s music and video streaming services, Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited are also on board, of course, and provide fairly similar services to others on the market. Music Unlimited has a Spotify-matching £9.99-per-month charge for unlimited streaming on multiple devices with the boast that it offers the highest quality of any music subscription service.
Video Unlimited, on the other hand, is a service more likely to rival the likes of BlinkBox than Netflix, with the ability to rent or buy movies, including a very good selection of some of the latest (including Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained) averaging around £3.50 to rent.
There are also several clever ways to use the Xperia Tablet Z with other Sony products you might own. NFC is on-board for one-touch connecting with headphones, for example, and with Xperia Link you can simply tap your Xperia phone to the tablet to share its data connection.
Other Sony love-ins include the ability to ‘throw’ content from the Tablet Z to your Bravia TV and the ability to wirelessly connect a Dualshock 3 PS3 controller for serious tablet gaming.
Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: Camera
We won’t dwell too long on the Tablet Z’s camera – if you’re looking for a device to take a decent picture, then tablets simply aren’t the way to go. That said, there is an 8MP camera on board if you need it, and a helpful 2.2MP front-facer for video calls and selfies.
The photo performance is average. In good natural light, images can look OK, but are full of noise (if pretty accurate colour-wise) when played back on the Z’s screen. Like the iPad, there’s no flash for dark shots and there’s a rather strange quirk of the landscape Android menu bar staying in that orientation even when the camera (and all its menus) is used in portrait.
The camera app has plenty of options, including an Intelligent Auto setting, individual scene selection, panorama mode and a burst mode for taking a load of shots in a row. There’s a handful of picture effects too, but none rival the likes of Instagram for when you need to make a bad snap look good.
There’s a 1080p video mode too, but once again results are variable. It particularly struggles with exposure in bright light as high dynamic range (HDR) is an option for still shots only.
Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: Sound quality
Being a Sony product, sound has been pushed as a big part of the Xperia Tablet Z. The layout of the ‘speaker halls’ on left and right corners might seem prone to being covered when you hold the thing, but in actual fact we didn’t find that to be the case, whichever way round we held it.
Sound from these speakers can err on the tinny side, but delve into the audio settings and there’s a host of options you can tweak to help this. In particular we found the Clear Phase setting, which adjusts the quality of the internal speaker, worked well at bulking out its sound and taking some of the emphasis away from the treble.
xLoud is also a good setting to play with if you’re looking to share your sound with friends, as it’ll boost the tablet’s volume output fairly significantly (although you’ll lose some clarity and detail in exchange).
Playing music through headphones is the best way to go, though, as it shows off plenty of detail and a taut, well-defined bass. There’s still a touch of brightness on occasion, though, so it’s best to steer well clear of the phones ClearAudio+ feature (which boosts the midrange and treble) and look at manually setting the audio levels to find a balance that suits you.
Elsewhere, the Xperia Tablet Z produces a solid, rhythmic sound, with a fine sense of drive and good dynamics.
Sony Xperia Tablet Z: Verdict
We like the Sony Xperia Tablet Z. It does a lot of things right and only very few things terribly wrong, and is easily Sony’s best tablet to date. The design is a little Marmite, but its slim and light frame makes it the perfect travelling companion.
If you have plenty of other Sony products, the Tablet Z will slot in with them seamlessly – but there aren’t many other USPs. Its waterproof ability is certainly one of them, but that doesn’t have quite the same universal appeal as Apple’s App Store or the Google Nexus 10’s crisp screen and great battery life.
It’s £80 pricier than the excellent 16GB Nexus 10 too, which immediately puts a difficult battle on its hands: it costs the same as the full-sized iPad – £400 for the 16GB wi-fi or £500 for the 16GB LTE.
Sony fans will love the Tablet Z, but there are better tablets out there for less money. And no amount of waterproofing can change that…
Sony Xperia Z: hands-on pictures