Sony Xperia Tablet Z Review
For years, it’s been tough to recommend a 10-inch Android tablet to almost any buyer out there. Google’s platform is fantastic on smartphones and mid-sized tablets, and even finds reasonable utility on some cameras, but it’s always struggled with the leap to the large-acreage screen sizes of full-scale tablets. Most of that scaling problem is due to Android’s lackluster tablet app selection, a handicap severe enough to severely degrade even outstanding devices with beautiful displays like the Nexus 10 or interesting form factors like the ASUS Transformer series. Given that bleak history, injecting yet another promising piece of 10-inch hardware to the Android landscape seems at best hopeless and at worst delusional.
But this is not the Sony of years past. Gone is the bizarre eyeglass-case design of the Tablet P and the too-literal “folded magazine” concept of the leaky Tablet S. The Sony of 2013 is the same company that brought us the Xperia Z and Xperia ZL, devices which paved the way for a 10-inch Android tablet of unparalleled design: the lightweight, ultra-thin, and water-resistant Xperia Tablet Z.
Is there enough here to overcome the stigma of the 10-inch Android tablet, though? Does the Tablet Z finally offer a compelling enough package to warrant iPad-like expenditures on a full-size Google slate? Will Sony’s beautiful hardware be enough to kick-start developers into building a truly great Android tablet app ecosystem? We’ve spent ten days finding out, so click ahead for our Xperia Tablet Z review.
Videos · Specs & Display · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call Quality · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Specs & Display
Some halo tech products live and die by their spec sheet; the Tablet Z isn’t one of them. That’s not because of a disappointing turnout, necessarily, but there’s not much here to turn too many heads in the tablet space.
“The Z,” as we’ve come to call it around the office, is powered by a familiar SoC: last year’s quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro (APQ8064) running at 1.5GHz, with the Adreno 320 GPU alongside. That’s backed up by 2GB of memory on the RAM side, along with either 16 or 32GB of storage expandable via MicroSD to an additional 64GB. While an LTE version is available, our 16GB Tablet Z is of the WiFi-only variety. It includes support for 802.11 a/b/g/n, DLNA, NFC, GPS with GLONASS, and Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP. The typical gyroscope and accelerometer are augmented by a magnetometer here, and there’s also an FM radio onboard: a nice touch for those who still want or need the ability to receive “terrestrial” broadcasts.
A 1920×1200 TFT LCD panel serves as the canvas for the Tablet Z’s software experience. The combination of a moderate pixel density (224 ppi) along with somewhat limited viewing angles and the too-bright blacks of LCD technology led us to expect a poor showing from this screen. But Sony surprises us here. The company makes clever use of color-saturated wallpapers and UI elements, along with the dynamic adjustments of its Mobile Bravia Engine 2, to give the “HD Reality Display” quite a satisfactory performance. It’s still frustrating to use in broad daylight, especially considering how glossy and susceptible to fingerprints the Z’s glass is, but indoors under moderate lighting, the Tablet Z’s display paints quite a pretty picture. Also, in a very nice touch, the screen is unlockable via a double-tap when turned off, eliminating the need to fiddle with the power/standby button.
The Tablet Z’s design is its key differentiator, but it’s highly angle-dependent. Viewing the tablet from the front, it seems unremarkable at first glance: a 10.1-inch display dominates the device’s face, topped by a 2.2MP front-facing camera and the familiar Sony logo off to the left. The display is rimmed by a generous bezel some might find excessive, but it’s a godsend for one-handed usability – more on that in a second.
Around back, the Z’s design is even more Spartan, offering just the centered Xperia branding and an NFC logo at the tap-to-share area down low, with the 8.1MP primary camera making its home in the upper-right-hand corner.
It’s not until you flip the tablet sideways that you realize its true uniqueness – the unit measures only 6.9mm thick. While super-slim measurements may have become de rigueur in the smartphone space, their novelty remains potent in the tablet world. The Z measures a full 2mm thinner than Google’s Nexus 10, yet Sony has still managed to fill that slim stretch of reflective material with buttons, ports, indicators, and more. The left side is the most crowded, with a volume rocker, headphone jack, charging dock connector, and notification LED sharing space with the same pronounced power/standby button found on the Xperia Z and ZL smartphones. The speaker ports number four and are split across the bottom corners of the tablet, with the MHL-capable micro-USB jack and MicroSD slot splitting the space between. Up top, the tablet’s microphone shares space with an IR transmitter, an increasingly prevalent addition to today’s mobile devices.
All of these casing penetrations are covered either by the reflective side material itself, or by protective flaps that swing outward on wiggly hinges. While annoying to fiddle with, these doors serve a vital purpose: they preserve the Tablet Z’s IPX55/57 water-resistance and IP5X dust-proof ratings. IP55 certification means you can blast the Z with low-pressure jets of water from “all predictable directions,” and IP57 means the tablet won’t mind being immersed in up to a meter of fresh water for up to thirty minutes. The IP5X dust-resistance rating is less-often discussed, but according to FlashlightReviews:
The dust test for IP5X … is conducted in a dust chamber for 8 hours, with talcum powder (2kg per cubic metre of the test chamber) circulating, so it continually falls down onto the equipment under test. IP5X testing may be conducted either with or without underpressure – depending on the equipment category.
The upshot: you can take the Z into the sawdust-covered workshop and reasonably expect you won’t come away with a film of powdered wood under your display glass or camera lens. And what dust has accumulated on the outside of the casing, you can wash away with the garden hose around back.
The Tablet Z isn’t necessarily the most durable in terms of drops, bumps, and scrapes: its wide expanse of tempered glass and lack of a protective exoskeleton keep it firmly outside the “rugged tablet” category. But as long as its protective covers are closed, users can take the Tablet Z along for a day out on the boat or four-wheeler without much worry – and for such a thin and light tablet, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Speaking of light: the Tablet Z weighs in at just 495 grams, compared to the Nexus 10, iPad 4, and the Surface RT, all of which sit north of 600g on the scale. Combined with that generous bezel, reassuring rigidity, and the comfortable soft-touch back, the light weight makes using the Tablet Z one-handed not just possible, but a pleasure. Sony calls the aesthetic vision behind the Tablet Z the OmniBalance design; whatever you think of that term, it succeeds brilliantly at melding the portability of a seven-inch tablet with the screen size of a ten-inch one.
Jumping into the Tablet Z’s software, it doesn’t take long to discover that this isn’t a stock Google experience. The lock screen disappears with a window-blind like effect, and you’re dropped into Sony’s special build of Android 4.1.2. It looks similar to stock, but with some definite aesthetic and functional differences that grow more apparent the deeper you drill into the software. The most prominent change from stock is the relocation of home, back, and multitasking keys to the lower left, and the placement of the system status, settings toggles, and notification center on the lower right. This recalls the earlier Android tablet designs spearheaded by Honeycomb, but in a good way: it makes these crucial functions easily accessible with a single thumb when holding the tablet in landscape, and it makes much more sense than the Nexus 10’s top-down, “gorilla-arm” implementation.
Sony has also placed two persistent shortcut keys in the midpoint of the bottom row. One calls up the remote app so you can use the Tablet Z to control your TV, cable box, DVR, or other home-media apparatus. In our limited testing, we found this works about as well as similar offerings from Samsung and HTC; it controls our older LG television just fine, but we’re not entirely sold on the utility of a “one-stop control center” for home media. Is it handy? Yes. But it’s hard to make the case that hopping into a remote app on a tablet is easier than picking up a dedicated remote control to do the same job, at least with the current state of the software. Sony’s implementation is very good -in some ways it’s better than Samsung’s- but the entire field of smart devices controlling home media systems has a lot of growing up to do.
The other center-mounted shortcut key offers a bit more utility: it summons a list of titles Sony calls “small apps,” which are -you guessed it- small-scale windowed apps ranging in complexity from a calculator all the way up to a bare-bones browser. They operate a bit like the Pop-Up apps on Samsung tablets, but on the Tablet Z only one title can be open at a time. That’s a small offense: it’s not nearly as bad as having no multitasking option in the first place, but does feel a little confining. Fortunately, the feature is expandable: if you don’t like the existing selection you can buy more small apps from the Play Store, or convert existing app widgets into small apps.
Sony has also included a suite of custom titles it puts front and center of the home screen out of the box. While the immediate compulsion is to refer to these titles as “bloatware,” these are at least visually cohesive, well-designed apps. The photo-organizing Album app is fun to scroll through, and it includes the ability to sync with Facebook, Picasa, and other photo repositories. Movies hosts your local video files (but not, annoyingly, videos you’ve shot with the Z’s camera) and it allows you to “throw” them to other compatible devices using WiFi or WiFi Direct; it can also fetch details about downloaded movies from the internet. The Walkman app has a brand name that still manages to inspire nostalgia, but it’s a modern player for locally-stored music, with large easy-to-use controls and everything from visualizer to a shortcut option that lets you search for lyrics, music videos, and artist info across the web. Sony Select is a Sony-curated app store apparently designed to steer you to fun and useful apps, but in our testing it didn’t seem to offer improved navigation or search abilities beyond that of the Google Play Store. That’s confusingly augmented by another title buried in the app launcher on our production unit, an app catalog called PlayNow which performs terribly and looks as though it hasn’t received an update since the Gingerbread days. Finally, there’s Socialife, an aggregator a bit like a mash-up of Flipboard and HTC’s BlinkFeed that displays news stories, tweets and status updates from your social streams. It’s a fun novelty for a second, but performance issues plague Socialife; it’s jittery, stuttery, and a bit of a mess – a performance aspect about the Z we’ll come back to.
In all, Sony’s custom software load looks quite nice; it’s some of the most visually pleasing manufacturer “bloat” we’ve seen (with the exception of the hideous PlayNow), and it blends beautifully with the rest of Sony’s skin. If your house is home to a Bravia TV, Sony Personal Content Station, Xpera Z smartphone, and/or a PlayStation, the Tablet Z is the natural companion, and its custom software suite will play a big part in its integration. You’ll also benefit from the smart NFC-based features Sony has baked in to its ecosystem, tapping the tablet to other Sony devices ala Samsung’s “Bump” functionality, and using your PS3 controller to play games on the Tablet Z.
But if you’re like many other people, splitting your techno-allegiance between, say, a Windows 8 desktop, a Samsung smartphone, an Apple TV, a Vizio television, and an Emerson stereo system (or any similar multi-brand variation), the Tablet Z’s out-of-box software won’t offer much added utility compared to the stock Android experience. In that case, you could easily be forgiven for dumping all of Sony’s custom titles into a folder called “Other Stuff” and tossing it onto your least-used homescreen.
The Tablet Z’s 8.1MP CMOS primary camera uses Sony’s “Exmor R for mobile” sensor, and defaults to 5MP out of the box. Presumably, it does this to maintain a widescreen aspect ratio, which we appreciate. Still, its field of view is quite narrow, forcing you to get far away from a subject before you can capture your entire scene inside the frame. Just as we said in our Galaxy S 4 review, that’s something we don’t like, and we wish phone- and tablet-makers would start using wider-angle optics more consistently.
The results are about what you’d expect for a tablet camera: that is to say, not great. No matter what lighting situation, photos more often than not display fuzzy edges, low contrast, and more noise than we’d like. Ramping up the resolution to 8MP gives us a bit more detail, and toggling HDR on brings out the midtones – but it also exacerbates the low-contrast problem, and it doesn’t help as much with backlit shots as it does on other devices.
On the bright side: unless you’re a fan of ridicule, you’re probably going to be using the tablet Z’s camera less for scenic photos and more for document scanning, barcode reading, and the like – and at these tasks the camera will do just fine. There are a bevy of options for adjusting the optics, and the 2.2MP front-facing camera actually does quite a nice job in good lighting conditions, ensuring your Skype calls go well.
Video is similarly middle-of-the-road – the colors are a bit muted, but it’s nice to be able to shoot in 1080p. Also, auto-focus is reasonably quick to adjust and sound quality is nice in quiet environments. As in the still-shooting mode, there’s a host of adjustments available for tweaking the camera to deliver the best shot.
The responsiveness problem we outlined with Socialfeed earlier is unfortunately not confined to that app on the Tablet Z. While the Sony skin is attractive and useful, it’s also sometimes quite laggy. Even simple actions like scrolling between home screens sometimes results in stutter and hiccups. On our unit -again, a retail production device running final software- swipes were often interpreted as taps, resulting in no small number of errant pageloads and app launches. Behavior like this is something we shouldn’t be seeing on a device of this class, and it gets old very quickly.
Fortunately, some of this lag can be mitigated by the simple step of removing Sony’s default widgets, which are either unoptimized, resource-intensive, or both. For the more courageous, Sony recently announced that AOSP is now available for the Tablet Z. While this build lacks some key features of a fully-enabled consumer Android tablet, its existence virtually guarantees a fluid, feature-complete build of stock Jelly Bean running on the Z in the future. Hopefully that build will also manage to keep the processor from running so hot and heavy, as the Z does get a bit warm under the left hand after a few minutes of heavy use.
We’re hesitant to recommend throwing the baby out with the bathwater here, though. While it’s not always buttery-smooth, Sony’s UI layer brings a lot to the table: people might not miss many of the fun aesthetic touches, but genuinely useful additions like the repositioned buttons, small apps, and the remote-control utility would all go away with a stock build. Hopefully, other custom ROMs like the CyanogenMod 10.1 build in development for the Tablet Z will retain some or all of these feature enhancements, while fixing some of the shortcomings of the stock software. Again, though, that’s only for the modders and the rooters; the “average consumer” will need to remain willing to deal with the feature/performance compromise of the stock software, at least until an OTA update lands to address some of the bugs.
In terms of audio, the Tablet Z offers fair performance. Its multi-port speakers are interesting; holding the Z in its normal landscape configuration often results in palms blocking the side ports, but their bottom-mounted counterparts are able to compensate a bit for the loss of side sound. When enabled, Sony’s “S-Force Front Surround 3D” audio enhancement creates a nice faux-surround effect for media playback, and audio streaming to Bluetooth or wired headphones works well, with rich, full sound even over Skype.
|Sunspider (lower is better)|
Sony has included some battery optimizations with the Z’s software load – a welcome sight on a tablet this thin, with a battery only two-thirds the size of the one on the Nexus 10. The most visible addition is STAMINA mode, which disables data, background polling, and other customizable actions when the screen is off. That’s in addition to the more conventional low-battery mode, which includes options to disable or hobble certain features once total charge reaches a certain low-power threshold. Low-battery mode is a no-nonsense martinet, too; in default mode, it shuts WiFi off promptly at 30% with no warning and no announcement – a step that more than once led to confusion about why we suddenly weren’t able to load any web pages or fetch any tweets.
With our Tablet Z polling two email and three social media accounts, plus a variety of other services like Google Voice, during our test period, we found that the unit usually drained about ten percent per eight-hour overnight period in normal operating mode. With Stamina Mode turned on, that power drain fell to less than 5% drain overnight.
For a moderate-use test, we charged the Z to full-power and put it to work over the course of a weekend, predominantly as a web browser and e-reader, with very light Twitter, email, and Google Voice usage. The unit started off with a 100% charge as of 10a Saturday morning, which as of Monday at 2:20 pm had fallen to 16%. The predominant consumer of energy during that 2-day, 5-hour, 45-minute up-time period was the screen, whose on-time totaled 4 hours and 41 minutes.
The takeaway: even though most of the Tablet Z’s internal volume is taken up by its 6000-mAh LiPo battery, there’s a price you pay for being slim, and it’s predominantly an endurance cost. This isn’t a tablet that you’d bring with you into the forest for a week with no charger, but it packs enough juice to last a few days with moderate to heavy use, and much longer if you’re smart about how well you program the STAMINA mode.
The Tablet Z’s extreme portability and available cellular variants might lead some to take it out on the town -or at least between offices- for some video-calling action. That’s a task the tablet performs … adequately. While its front-facing camera does a good job at videoconferencing, its microphone doesn’t: callers on the other end of video calls reported consistent echo problems during our testing. Those problems were mitigated somewhat when we retreated into our sound-proof booth, but you shouldn’t have to rely on an anechoic chamber to get your tablet to make good voice calls.
The tablet’s speakers are also quieter in Skype calls than in media playback – a problem inherited from the smartphone world, where cellular calls are often inexplicably more muted on loudspeaker than their music and video counterparts. You’ll want to keep some Bluetooth or wired headphones handy for communication purposes. Fortunately, as mentioned before, those work fine.
+ Beautiful, thin, light hardware
+ Water-resistant and dust-proof
+ Colorful, adaptive display
+ FFC delivers solid video-calling experience
+ Tight integration with Sony products and services
– Stock software lags periodically
– Battery life could be better
– Speakers could be louder
– Android tablet ecosystem remains underwhelming
Pricing and Availability
The Xperia Tablet Z is available direct from Sony at $499.99 for the black, 16GB, WiFi-only version. A white variant and cellular versions are also available in certain markets, though you may need to turn to third-party retailers for access to those. Our review unit came from Negri Electronics.
The Xperia Tablet Z is still very much a ten-inch Android tablet, with all the failings of that platform in that form factor. Most egregiously: the app situation is still mediocre, with popular titles like Twitter and Facebook built for smartphones and appearing awkwardly stretched-out on the Z. Some, like Instagram, even force you into the awkward portrait orientation – a position that
16:9 16:10 tablets like this look and feel ridiculous in, lightweight or not. The Android tablet app problem is still a very real handicap.
But as we’ve speculated before, it may take truly beautiful Android tablet hardware to motivate developers to code great software to run on it. And in that department, the Tablet Z more than fits the bill. It’s a thin, lightweight, beautifully-crafted piece of technology that makes us want to overlook its failings, rather than dwell on them. And don’t forget: it’s waterproof.
While we wish its stock software were a bit more responsive, its battery a bit bigger, and its price a bit more competitive, this is still one of the most beautiful tablets we’ve ever handled, and one of the only Android tablets we’d consider buying at the 10-inch form factor. If you run your life on Google, and you’re looking for a large but portable tablet to extend your computing needs on the go, the Xperia Tablet Z deserves a very long look indeed.