Android has achieved its success in the tablet space mostly through the smaller, less expensive products. For premium 10” tablets the iPad is still king. That hasn’t frightened off Sony. The company has eschewed the race to the bottom in favour of the Xperia Tablet Z, a tablet with premium design and build, and price tag to match.
The Xperia Tablet Z shares the same design language as the Xperia Z smartphone: black, monolithic, angular. We were not too keen on it in smartphone form, as the harsh corners made the device feel larger in the hand than it actually was. On the tablet it works perfectly. It’s hard to imagine a tablet with a more minimalist design, yet for all its simplicity it looks very attractive.
The Tablet Z is also very thin. At just 6.9mm it is the slimmest tablet we’ve seen, with a lightweight feel to match. So thin and light in fact that it has an almost brittle feel, as though you could snap it in half without too much effort. In fact it appears to be rather sturdy, with Sony’s now customary semi-rugged casing protecting it against dust and water.
The tablet is very wide, and is clearly designed for landscape use, wherein it is perfectly weighted in the hand. Rotating it into portrait mode makes for a less comfortable experience, the elongated design making it top heavy and hard to hold one handed. In practice we didn’t feel the need to use it upright too often, although you will encounter apps from time to time that demand it.
The minimal design extends to a featureless front, barring the Sony logo and well hidden camera. The only buttons are the power and volume controls along the left edge. The ports – headphones, microUSB, microSIM and microSD – are all tightly sealed. This is primarily to keep them waterproof but also serves to help them blend in to the tablet’s body.
The seals are somewhat fiddly to remove, which is no doubt a good thing if you’re planning on getting the tablet wet. We can only hope they hold up well to repeated removable over a couple of years. Inserting your SIM card, incidentally, is also a fiddly process involving a tiny SIM tray that could easily get lost.
The remaining external features include a camera on the rear. This is tucked away right into the corner, so is free from obstruction from your fingers. There’s no flash alongside it. On the top edge is a barely noticeable IR port for controlling your TV and other gadgets.
In the bottom corners are the stereo speakers.
Cleverly, these two speakers have four ports, one along the bottom and one along the side edges. This seems to have minimal beneficial effect on audio quality, but it does ensure you should never block one of the speakers, a common complaint on many tablets. Whether you are holding the device in your hand or in your lap you might find you’re blocking either the side or bottom ports, but never both.
On the whole the Tablet Z is an impressive example of stylish, understated design. Our main complaint is how difficult it is to keep clean. The glossy display seems to attract fingerprints more than many other tablets, the soft touch back is prone to the odd greasy smear, and a small ridge around the edge of the screen collects grit and grime and is difficult to clear out.
The display on the Tablet Z ranks among the best on current Android tablets. Again we prefer what Sony has come up with here to what it had on its phones. The colours seems more vibrant and the blacks deeper, which helps the navigation and status bars to completely blend into the surround.
We’d prefer it to be brighter as the combination of a very reflective glass and all the fingerprints it attracts make it hard to see in bright outdoor conditions. But in normal conditions it is great. The 1920×1200 pixel resolution, at a solid 224ppi, produces crisp and clear text and is wonderful for video. The display is super responsive, too, adding to the overall impression of speed and power in the tablet.
Features, performance and battery
The 1.5GHz quad-core processor powering the Tablet Z is not the fastest around, but when coupled with 2GB of RAM – the new standard for a flagship device – it is fast enough for lag-free performance. Scrolling was reasonably smooth in the Chrome browser, and high-end games ran well. We did note that for even moderate use the device did tend to get quite warm beneath the left hand.
The tablet comes with 16GB of internal storage, although as always that is only part of the story. Of that 16GB there is around 11.3GB available to the user, of which less than 11GB is free after a factory reset. With fast wireless and cellular connectivity available cloud storage is an option, but most users will also need a memory card.
Sound quality from those corner speakers is pretty good but only moderately loud. We prefer front facing speakers as seen on devices like the Nexus 10 or HTC One, which reduce the need for headphones (at least in private).
We liked the inclusion of the IR port on the top edge of the tablet. The accompanying software has support for most common devices and manufacturers pre-programmed – this is not limited to Sony TVs only – and if yours isn’t there you can use the ‘learning’ function to program it yourself.
The Tablet Z won’t replace your normal remote, but if you find yourself frequently playing with your tablet while watching TV then it really does become a useful add-on. The software has been well thought out too, with the inclusion of a pop-up remote controller app that appears on top of whatever other app you are using at the time.
Inevitably, though, the slimness of the Tablet Z seems to have been paid for in battery performance. There’s a 6000mAh battery on board, non removable of course. This is 15% smaller than the battery in the Galaxy Note 10.1 and a third smaller than that in the Nexus 10. We found we could get around two days of ‘average’ use, equating to around five or six hours of screen on time. Standby performance was better, aided by a stamina mode that switches off background syncing.
The Tablet Z runs Android 4.1.2 out of the box, with an update to 4.2 promised. Sony has skinned the device along similar lines to its phones, and it remains one of the least intrusive skins from any manufacturer. The styling has been Sony-ised, including a change of system font, but still fits with the general feel of Android.
Sony has followed the Samsung approach of replacing, and at times duplicating, the core Android apps. Many of the changes are irrelevant – the practical differences between Album and Gallery are negligible – but the duplicates are more annoying.
They include a Sony movies app alongside Play Movies, and a Wisepilot GPS trial in addition to Google Maps. As always the bulk of the extra apps are tied into the Sony ecosystem, so the value you get from them will vary depending on how much other Sony stuff you own.
Fortunately many of the pre-installed apps can be removed if you don’t want them. The one we were most enamoured with was the keyboard, with its spacious keys that facilitated near full speed typing.
Of the other changes made by the skin the most interesting and useful is Sony’s Small Apps feature. Small Apps is activated by an icon permanently positioned on the navigation bar, and enables miniaturised versions of apps to pop-up on top of your current app.
Small Apps is a nod towards full windowed multi-tasking, but has been built to provide specific functionality rather than merely clutter and overcomplicate your desktop. We’ve already mentioned the remote app, which can be used in Small App form, and lets you change channels on your TV without interrupting the main task you are performing on your tablet. It can be productive too: you can pop open a small browser window to research something online without closing the text document you are writing into.
We found it to be a really useful. It’s a variation on an idea we’ve seen on Samsung tablets and also in the split screen mode in Windows 8, and is something we would hope to see become standard in future. For Sony the support is limited to certain specially designed app. There’s a small number built-in and more can be downloaded through the Play Store (the selection is limited but generally useful). Widgets can also be used as Small Apps.
The number of tablet apps overall is still the Achilles heel of any Android tablet. We can hope that the new tablet-specific sections in the Play Store will encourage developers to optimise their apps, and to make it easier for users to find them. The large, landscape oriented display on the Tablet Z did no favours to the appearance of scaled-up phone apps.
As we mentioned the positioning of the camera in the top left corner as you hold the tablet – the top right on the back – ensures your fingers stay well away from the lens. However this positioning makes composing your shots more tricky. You naturally hold the device directly in front of you when shooting, but the offset lens means the image you see on screen is not aligned with your own position. You need to pan slightly to the right to achieve the expected shot. The effect is more exaggerated on close ups, where the object you expect to be in the centre is shunted to the right hand side of the frame.
Beyond that issue the camera quality was pretty good. There’s heavy noise reduction, noticeable in the smearing of details, in lower light conditions, and this is not helped by the lack of even a rudimentary flash. The camera software is good, and we rarely found a need to switch out of the very clever iAuto mode. The few occasions we did were to shoot panoramas, which came out really well.
That said, the Z is a large tablet, and we don’t foresee it being used for photography for any more than a last resort shot, should you camera or phone not be easily to hand.
We like the Tablet Z. A lot. Yet there’s something stopping us wholeheartedly recommending it. It sits in a part of the market that Android has struggled to make much impact, and we’re not sure whether its unique feature, its waterproofness, is really enough of a selling point to change that. Conversely Samsung’s Notes have the pen, Asus’ Transformers have the keyboard, and the Nexus 10 has a significantly lower price. And the iPad, of course, has the apps.
As much as we enjoyed using the Tablet Z we couldn’t argue that its strengths were not matched by these other device. So if you’re in the market for a ten inch tablet this is definitely one worth considering, but there are plenty of other options available that might just suit you better.