Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: Sony releases its best Android tablet yet

It wasn't all that long ago that every month offered up yet another Android tablet for review. While Samsung is still producing plenty, the output of Google-powered slabs has generally slowed, replaced by a steady stream of Windows 8 / RT hardware often from the very same manufacturers that were once all about Android. Sony continues to be pretty discriminating with its launches, however: until now it's released only three Google-powered tablets. The first was the Tablet S, followed by the clamshell Tablet P and the Xperia Tablet S, which improved on the original with a thinner build and improved specifications.

Then there's this, the Xperia Tablet Z. It arrives with a completely new design, although it should be familiar to anyone who's already seen Sony's Xperia Z smartphone. It features the same "OmniBalance" look, uniform thickness and straight edges. The display's resolution has been bumped up to 1,920 x 1,200, while the tablet runs Android 4.1.2 on a quad-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro, with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of built-in storage -- all the while weighing in below 18 ounces (1.13 pounds). Like the Sony Xperia Z smartphone, there's also water and dust protection, which makes it a relatively unique property in the tablet market. But priced at $499 and up against the iPad and the pin-sharp Nexus 10, is there enough here to protect itself against the tablet competition? Join us after the break to find out.

Gallery | 35 Photos

Sony Xperia Tablet Z review

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Sony

Sony Xperia Tablet Z

Pros

  • Wide viewing angles
  • Infrared blaster and remote apps easy to set up
  • Water-resistant, stylish design

Cons

  • Weedy charger, temperamental micro-USB port
  • Frustrating waterproof covers
Summary

The Xperia Tablet Z serves as an excellent second screen. Remote functionality is easy to set up, while the display is one of the best we've seen from Sony's Xperia range, if not the market in total.

Hardware

We feared the tablet would be a little uncomfortable with those sheer corners and razor-thin 6.9mm profile, but the lightness ensures that it's perfectly comfortable to hold in both landscape and portrait

Sony is hitting its stride with its Xperia hardware design. While we initially feared the Xperia Tablet Z would prove uncomfortable with those sheer corners and razor-thin 6.9mm profile, the lightness actually ensures that it's perfectly comfortable to hold in both landscape and portrait. Each of the edges is coated in the same glossy black plastic as the front of the tablet, while the back goes for a matte finish -- one that gave a bit of grip for our fingertips to hold on to.

Aside from some Xperia branding in the center, and a symbol to represent the device's NFC credentials, there's only an 8.1-megapixel camera to break up the back, located in the top-right corner. The secondary front-facing 2.2-megapixel camera is centered above the screen and both use Sony's Exmor R sensors -- marked improvements over Sony's previous tablets.

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Another upgrade from its Android tablet predecessors is the display. It may have the same 10.1-inch size, but it's now capable of 1080p playback. The official resolution (1,920 x 1,200) affords a little extra space for the on-screen Android soft keys. There's a pretty substantial inch-wide bezel around the display, but this enables you to hold onto the tablet without inadvertently nudging the touchscreen. In fact, from the front, at least, it bears a passing resemblance to BlackBerry's PlayBook.

There are also stereo speakers split across both of the lower corners, so the four outlets are almost exactly where your palms will cup the device. If you're worried that would affect audio playback, you'd be right, although the unfortunately tinny, treble-heavy playback means music actually sounded better with our hands filtering it. Maybe we've been spoiled by the mobile audio skills of the HTC One, but on a tablet, we had hoped for a lot better.

Despite its claim to be the world's thinnest and lightest tablet, the Z is still surprisingly solid. We're relieved to say that Sony has improved on the early preview models we toyed with at MWC, nixing an awkward creak we found while handling it. Additionally, the company's engineering team fixed a screen that previously looked distorted if you applied pressure to the display. Suffice to say, we experienced neither of those issues with our retail sample.

Despite its claim to be the world's thinnest and lightest tablet, the Z is still surprisingly solid.

Even with the slim silhouette, the Xperia Tablet Z still manages to house everything you'd expect in a 2013 Android tablet. Alongside 16GB of storage, there's memory expansion through microSD, FM radio, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi, an infrared blaster and HDMI through a MHL-compatible micro-USB port. That blaster, which resides along the center of the top edge, means the tablet can double up as a multi-talented remote.

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Along the left edge, there's a port for headphones (with a water-protective cover), volume rocker and Sony's talismanic power button. It's still machined aluminum, although it wobbles around a little more than it does on the related smartphones. There's also a notification light that resides here, which will broadcast whether your tablet is charging or when there are new emails and other social notables. If you prefer to avoid blinking lights, you can also turn it off inside the Display tab of the Settings menu. There are two more protective cover flaps for microSD and micro-USB along the bottom side and these covers are identical to the ones found on the Xperia Z. While sturdy enough, we do have concerns with their longevity -- they're a necessity for the water and dust resistance. In our not-so-scientific testing, the IPX5/7-qualified tablet held up fine against our hose-down and a few dunks into a nearby sink. We just have to reiterate -- check that you've closed all those port covers.

Display

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Sony's new tablet display might not be the highest resolution we've seen, but it's perfectly suited for 1080p video playback, swiping through photos and browsing the internet. This pixel count places it squarely between the 1,280 x 800 Galaxy Note 10.1 and the 2,560 x 1,600 Nexus 10, both from Samsung. Having spent plenty of time with the iPad's differently proportioned screen, we reckon the Xperia Z's widescreen ratio is the better option in many scenarios. As well as acting as a more suitable canvas for movies, internet browsing while in vertical orientation offers a lot more scroll room -- useful for news sites with ever-updating content.

Sony's thinned its tablet screen tech, removing a layer of air to keep the touch panel closer to the surface while reducing reflection. This is also what ensures the screen remains black (and almost the same shade as the tablet) when switched off. Size aside, the panel appears to be a different caliber to the one found in the Xperia Z smartphone, with a high level of off-angle visibility and little to no color undulation either -- two major complaints we had with Sony's smartphone flagship. However, we tended to crank up the brightness setting to the higher levels while in use. A layer of tempered glass, while perhaps not our preferred choice, didn't pick up a scratch during our week of testing.

Camera

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We'll keep it brief here. Tablets are rarely gifted with the greatest camera sensors because, well, they're tablets. Sony at least went as far as to include one of its Exmor R 8-megapixel camera units, but performance is still average. We were a little disappointed with the noise on several shots, perhaps, in part, because faults are more easily visible on a screen with the resolution to show you the whole shot. There's no flash to assist in darker settings, but automatic white balance does a decent job of ensuring colors look correct, while Sony's customizable camera app UI is easy to configure with the settings you need.

Video capture is also a bit underwhelming, with typically overexposed skies and a scrolling effect kicking in when on-camera action went over a certain level. These results were very similar to what we'd get from a smartphone from two years ago, so it's very likely we're dealing with the same sensors here. Though HDR video capture didn't make the cut on the tablet, you still get an option for HDR stills. One final niggle is the unfortunate top-corner positioning of the lens, which seemed to constantly pick up smudges.

Software

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To its credit, Sony didn't go overboard with the software bloat -- or at least what's there is easy enough to erase. There's a predictable row of movie, music and gaming icons, including shortcuts to your own content and Sony's entertainment network. We're starting to sound like a broken record, but we're still sticking with our iTunes account and Netflix subscription. Sony needs to work on making its entertainment hubs more appealing -- a lengthy free trial to go alongside your $499 tablet purchase might help.

A familiar combination of light-trail wallpapers, widgets and coolly styled menus make Sony's Android skin relatively inoffensive.

A familiar combination of light-trail wallpapers, widgets and coolly styled menus make Sony's Android skin relatively inoffensive. The bare bones of the UI are almost identical to what we saw on last year's Xperia Tablet S, with two icons along the lower edge of the screen that act as shortcuts to both the remote and mini-apps (more on those soon). There are also extra slots along the top edge for your four favorite apps. These stay put as you navigate around home screens and apps, and so are good places to keep your browser, email and other regular-use shortcuts. Notifications and settings reside in the lower-right corner, while your app tray shortcut lies above that in the top-right corner -- it's a little different from the uncomplicated perimeter of stock Android on the Nexus 10.

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Sony Xperia Tablet Z screenshots

As we've seen already on other recent Xperia devices, you'll be able to access a collection of mini-apps that can be floated above other apps. It's not quite as functional as the multi-window mode seen on Samsung's Galaxy series; you won't be able to split the screen between video or map apps, for example. These mini-apps are more focused towards utility, but there's the notable addition of a floating web browser window, alongside duller fare like a timer and calculator. There's also a mini-app for the remote, which, we have to admit, offered us the smoothest pairing method we've ever seen on an Android device with IR blaster. After choosing our product category and manufacturer (yep, it's not Sony-exclusive), we were able to pair several TVs, a sound system and a Blu-ray player within minutes. There's also the option to customize which control buttons show up within the app, and a "trackpad" option that lets you assign four specific controls (like volume and channel buttons) to swipes.

Curiously, SideView, a Sony app that pairs a TV guide with remote control and voice search, wasn't pre-loaded on our European model. We went ahead and installed it for ourselves from Google Play, and it happily pulled down a program guide for terrestrial UK TV networks. The app adds some extra show details from Gracenote, although without a Sony-based TV to link to, we weren't able to swipe our program choices from the tablet to the big screen as we hinted at in our preview. If you're looking to share your own video content, or the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, an MHL-compatible micro-USB port will let you beam your tablet's HD display to the big screen with minimum fuss.

Performance and battery life

Xperia Tablet Z Nexus 10

Samsung Galaxy

Note 10.1

Quadrant 7,434 4,551 5,695
Vellamo 2,242 1,605 2,395
AnTuTu 20,263 8,731 11,962
SunSpider 1.0 (ms) 1,382 1,501 1,233
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt Offscreen (fps) 32 33 n/a
CF-Bench 17,790 9,772 13,157
SunSpider: lower scores are better

The Tablet S' sluggish behavior was one of the major issues we had with the folded-design tablet, a performance that was best described as erratic. Fortunately, the Tablet Z behaves like we hoped it would: a quad-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro paired with 2GB of RAM is more than enough for most of our Android tasks, regardless of Sony's Android skin atop Android 4.1.2. The screen responds to our touch immediately, while apps launched briskly. If we had one niggle, it's that we experienced unwarranted resets twice during our time with the tablet, but these were both when we first received the Xperia Tablet Z -- it soon settled with use.

Pitted against the Nexus 10 (with a dual-core 1.7GHz A15 processor) and the Note 10.1 (with a quad-core 1.4GHz Exynos 4) Sony's tablet comes off looking very strong,

Pitted against the Nexus 10 (with a dual-core 1.7GHz A15 processor) and the Note 10.1 (with a quad-core 1.4GHz Exynos 4) Sony's tablet comes off looking very strong, besting the other two 10-inchers with ease across our metrics. The AnTuTu test score, which surveys memory performance, SD card-writing speed and 3D performance among other things, is notably higher on the Xperia Tablet Z, while SunSpider results showed the Xperia tablet bested on browser performance by the similarly quad-core Note 10.1. The Sony tablet, however, otherwise trounces its Android competition in the rest of our benchmark tests on a Qualcomm chipset we're more used to seeing in smartphones.

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With a 6,000mAh battery, the Z may match the Xperia Tablet S that came before, but this time it needs to power a far more pixel-dense display. Fortunately, in our standard rundown test (50 percent brightness, WiFi on, video looping), we got a respectable eight hours and 40 minutes -- slightly better than Sony's last tablet (8:31). In more normal use, we found the tablet lasted through a day of moderate use, although we'd advise taking a charger with you if you're going to rely on it for a full day. Daily charging was the norm.

Tablet Battery Life
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 8:40
Apple iPad mini 12:43 (WiFi)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 12:01
Apple iPad (late 2012) 11:08 (WiFi)
Apple iPad 2 10:26
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Google Nexus 7 9:49
Microsoft Surface for Windows RT 9:36
Apple iPad 9:33
ASUS Transformer Prime Infinity TF700 9:25
Pantech Element 9:00
Motorola Xoom 2 8:57
HP TouchPad 8:33
Sony Xperia Tablet S 8:31
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 8:20
Motorola Xoom 8:20
T-Mobile G-Slate 8:18
Acer Iconia Tab A200 8:16
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 8:09
Galaxy Note 10.1 8:00
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 8:00
Google Nexus 10 7:26
Archos 101 7:20
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01

The Xperia Tablet Z comes boxed with a charging adapter that appears to be identical to a smartphone charger. But here it's supporting a device that both outputs more energy and boasts a higher-capacity battery, meaning you'll need to plug it in overnight to get a full charge. Sony's official Japanese press release pegs it at six hours and 30 minutes and our tests came to a similar figure. Worse, we found the micro-USB charging port to be a little temperamental. Attempting to charge the tablet from empty overnight, we woke up twice to a still completely discharged device, which is a concern.

Wrap-up

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Sony's made its best tablet yet. It's a stylish relaunch of the company's Android tablet series, but we can't shake the feeling that the Xperia Tablet Z's benefits are harder to sell than, say, the crisp display resolution of the Nexus 10 or the app strength of the iPad. Features like NFC and the infrared blaster ensure it lives up to its promise as a TV companion, while the screen is capable enough to share among friends or prop up for an impromptu TV-watching session. Once installed, Sony's SideView TV app and remote control mini-app offer up one of the easiest second-screen combinations we've ever used.

However, while the unlikely combination of the Xperia Tablet Z's unassuming design and water protection is impressive, there simply aren't that many water hazards in the living room and coffee shops. It's the kind of feature that a smartphone needs far more than a tablet. All that said, this remains a premium Android tablet with a lightweight, but solid build. It's just that it also has a premium price -- one we're not sure it can command.

Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.

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Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: the company's best Android tablet yet