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
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.
|Test name||Xperia Tablet Z||Google Nexus 7||Google Nexus 10||Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0|
|Sunspider (lower is better)||1396.6||1680||1358||962.8|
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.