Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet review: A top-tier slate with a familiar face

Oh, Sony. Its earliest Android tablet efforts were a little odd (and that's putting it politely), but the company eventually managed to get its act together. Last year's Xperia Tablet Z? Easily the finest Android slate that Sony's ever made. When it came time to craft an upgrade, though, Sony was faced with a choice: Should it try to push the envelope in a different direction? Or simply stay the course and apply a healthy dose of polish to an already-good device?

Needless to say, it chose the latter. The new Xperia Z2 Tablet looks strikingly similar to its predecessor, albeit with a swapped-out set of components under the hood. The strange sense of drama that comes with a new product seems absent here. In a cynical age when new devices can fly or flop based on spectacle alone, Sony played it safe. It iterated. But is that such a bad thing? Is "iterating" really as yucky a word as we've all been led to believe? Let's find out.

Gallery | 13 Photos

Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet review

Hardware

The line between stark minimalism and sheer dullness is a fine one, and it's honestly a little tough to tell where the Z2 falls. With the screen off, there just isn't much to look at. The company's love affair with its OmniBalance industrial design philosophy (think: curved edges, round power buttons and uniformly slim waistlines) is still in full swing, which means plenty of the Xperia Tablet Z's design choices carry over into its successor.

Take that corporate logo on the tab's face: It's still nestled in the top-left corner, and the 2-megapixel front-facing camera and 8.1-megapixel rear shooter are right where we saw them last time too. Meanwhile, the Z2's rear end is still swathed in a soft, matte gray plastic that makes the whole thing easier to hang on to... and makes oily fingerprints even more obvious than they were before. Popping open a few tabs along the top edge reveals the microSD and micro-USB ports (be sure to seal them again before traipsing through the rain) next to the IR blaster. The rest of the pertinent bits are de rigueur for top-tier Android tablets: There's a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 clocked at 2.26GHz, along with 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 GPU. You've also got your usual slew of radios, including WiFi (with support for Wi-Fi Direct), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and a 6,000mAh battery.

Now, one could argue that Sony strives for visual consistency between its gadgets, but the end result is a tablet that lacks a distinct sense of personality. In a way, I guess that's the point -- the Z2's design is so unassuming that you wind up paying it no mind, like white noise that fades into the background once you wake the 10.1-inch IPS display and get blasted with a faceful of Android.

Of course, just ogling it is one thing -- you'd be hard-pressed to pick one up and not be struck by its svelte shape (6.35mm) and light weight (just under one pound). You very quickly get the impression that there's nothing extraneous here. There's no cruft; just the barest of essentials carefully assembled into the platonic ideal of a tablet. My colleague Sharif Sakr dutifully ragged on the new Xperia Z2 smartphone because of how bulky and oddly proportioned it felt, but the formula works so much better when it's stretched out to suit a bigger display.

Oh, and by the way, Sony's still enamored with the idea of crafting gadgets that can stand up to the elements, and I'm tickled by the fact that showers can no longer stand in the way of my awful YouTube-viewing habit. The in-shower experience ain't ideal, though: The touchscreen occasionally interprets the pitter-patter of water droplets as finger pokes. At least you won't have those problems if you take the Z2 for a dip in the shallow end of the pool instead.

Display and sound

If it wasn't made painfully obvious by the Z2's spartan design, the 10.1-inch, 1,920 x 1,200 IPS LCD screen is meant to be the star of the show. That'd be a recipe for disaster if the company came up short again (I'm looking at you, Xperia Z1), but the display easily holds its own against the competition. Sony's leaning on its revived Triluminos screen tech to help the Z2's panel produce richer, more natural colors than the washed-out LCD screens that littered the company's past. Long story short: It helps this particular screen get closer to the vivid colors and sumptuous blacks seen in AMOLED screens with the help of blue LEDs and quantum dots. Throw in some excellent viewing angles, and Sony's got a screen to be pleased with here. There's no denying that Sony's display doesn't squeeze as many pixels together as Samsung's screens usually do, but I couldn't discern any individual pixels and the overall experience didn't leave me wanting.

Photos and videos appear extra punchy thanks to Sony's X-Reality image-processing engine, which (among other things) can sharpen visuals, pump up contrast and fiddle with color saturation. This, I wasn't so fond of -- I like images that pop as much as the next nerd, but it also has the nasty tendency to make already detailed media look a tad gritty. Fortunately, all it takes to disable the feature is a quick tap in Settings... until the next time you feel like your photos look a little drab.

The screen's general loveliness is, sadly, offset by a few niggles. To start, for a tablet that's ostensibly meant to handle the elements, the screen is great at reflecting just about everything in sight. It's especially troublesome once you step out of the house, an activity that Sony tacitly encouraged by ruggedizing the Z2 in the first place. I was also torn on the significant bezels that flank the screen on all sides too, though the average shopper might not even bat an eyelash at them. I'd argue that bezels this hefty make the tablet look just a bit chintzier than it deserves, but at least my thumbs never obscured the on-screen action.

Crisp visuals are one thing, but you can't really enjoy a few episodes of Sherlock unless the sound is up to par. Perhaps the most idiotic design choice we saw in the original Tablet Z was that the stereo speakers were baked directly into the slate's edges -- the perfect place to be covered up by a pair of meaty palms. This time around, they've been shifted to the front, nestled low along the screen's left and right sides. The move has helped significantly, but, alas, they're still a hair tinnier than I'd like and far from the loudest tablet (or even smartphone) speakers I've come across. It's worth noting that the Z2 also supports dynamic noise cancellation -- so long as you've shelled out for the compatible Sony headphones, anyway.

Software

Just about every gadget maker that sells Android devices has attempted to put its own spin on the interface, and Sony's efforts have always, always rubbed me the wrong way. Why? Earlier versions felt unwieldy and overwrought, which often made playing with a device that used it an exercise in frustration. The Z2 has me coming around on that stance, if only a little. You see, while tabs like Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro are festooned with all sorts of severe interface tweaks and cruft, Sony took a more subdued approach. This slim, little bugger runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat under that thin veneer of face paint, a sweet surprise for those of us not used to seeing Sony tech sporting the latest and greatest software builds.

Here's the kicker, though. KitKat's flavor is mostly obscured, but the Xperia Z2's UI is light, responsive and generally well-thought-out. Consider the venerable home screen, for instance. Pressing and holding brings up a menu that not only lets you adorn it with widgets, but also allows you to add apps from there, as well as swap out wallpapers and visual themes. Swiping to the right from the app tray pops out a window that lets you arrange and uninstall apps with ease. Need to jump in and out of your running apps? The app switcher button lives just where you'd expect it to, but a curious slew of icons runs along the bottom. Tapping on them lets you plop down "Small Apps" like timers and Gmail windows and a remote control interface for the IR blaster (which works just as well as ever) that hover in front of whatever else is on the screen. They're a nice touch that can help in cases when you can't be bothered to fire up something more comprehensive, but I never actually found myself in need of them.

Of course, Sony just can't let you forget it's a media behemoth, too. To that end, the Z2 is loaded up with standalone Walkman and Movies applications. They're both essentially pulling double duty: In addition to letting you access your locally stored songs and videos, they also act as conduits to Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services. PlayStation fanatics may find themselves gravitating toward the included PlayStation app because of the name, but don't be fooled: All you can really do is keep tabs on friends and download the occasional nutty game from the PlayStation Store. Like most of us, I tend to bristle when companies go overboard with the bloatware. To its credit, Sony could've done much, much worse. Thankfully, it didn't, and the Z2 is a better device for it.

Camera

Let's be honest: Few things look as silly as snapping photos with a tablet clutched in your hands. If you ever find yourself in that position, the bit that really adds insult to injury is the sad truth that tablet cameras have historically tended to suck. Sony seemed to try, at least a bit. Both the 8.1-megapixel rear camera and the 2-megapixel unit perched above the display pack the company's backside-illuminated Exmor RS sensors. That said, neither camera is anything to write home about. Colors are represented nicely enough (though some of the visual flair is owed to that X-Reality engine, which is turned on by default), but plenty of the images I shot were grainy and lacking the sort of detail one would hope Sony could squeeze out of an 8-plus-megapixel sensor. The camera experience isn't completely without upsides, though -- at least the interface is well laid out.

Gallery | 13 Photos

Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet sample shots

What's even more puzzling is that the Superior Auto mode (which is enabled by default) tends to work on some photos a little too well, softening details and fiddling with saturation to the point where it arguably shouldn't. For better results, you'll need to stick the camera in manual mode before firing away. In a cruel (if expected) twist, the Z2 smartphone packs a staggeringly superior sensor. So, anyone hoping for imaging parity within the Z2 line is going to walk away disappointed. Shooting video in 1080p is similarly underwhelming, with the results being a hair grainy and washed out (especially when you're trying to shoot outdoors).

Knowing that variety is the spice of life, Sony threw in some curious photo effects and features (perhaps to distract us all from the weak image quality). Should you lack interesting subjects to shoot, you can conjure up dinosaurs and little elven creatures to scamper across your kitchen floor with an AR overlay feature. You can also pretend you're shooting with a much more expensive camera with the Background Defocus feature, as it aims to reproduce the handsome bokeh that's usually a result of playing with apertures on an actual lens. Sadly, it just doesn't work all that well -- try as it might, the software usually can't get a grip on the boundaries of the object you're trying to isolate. Here's what it all boils down to: The Z2's cameras are passable, and are capable of producing some nice shots when the conditions are right. When they're not -- and they usually won't be -- you're way better off shooting with your smartphone anyway.

Performance and battery life

No point in beating around the bush: With a Snapdragon 801 chipset and 3GB of RAM nestled within that slim chassis, the Z2 has more than enough horsepower to keep up with your day-to-day grind. Scrolling through long web pages was buttery smooth (as was video playback), and there was nary a hiccup to be seen while drifting around corners in Need For Speed: Most Wanted. If you're the type that prefers numbers to anecdotes, take a gander at the tale of the tape:

Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Galaxy Note Pro 12.2
Quadrant 2.0 18,877 19,530 16,639
Vellamo 2.0 1,622 2,735 1,786
AnTuTu 4.0 34,150 31,859 33,967
SunSpider 0.9.1* (ms) 1,015 1,069 1,044
GFXBench 2.7 Offscreen (fps) 27.3 22 N/A
CF-Bench 37,902 31,567 33,250

*SunSpider: Lower scores are better. Scores were run on Chrome using v0.9.1 for consistency.

Sony's slate is clearly capable of trading blows with Samsung's oeuvre, though that Quadrant score seems anomalously low. That said, nothing I threw at the Z2 during my week of testing managed to fluster it, but that doesn't mean it's immune to the occasional bout of strangeness. Swiping between home screen pages can sometimes be a little jerky (usually when the default live wallpaper is churning away in the background), and the screen would sometimes refuse to auto-rotate no matter how slowly or confidently I spun the tablet around. Fortunately, both of those quirks seemed to correct themselves a few days into the testing process, but I'll update this review if that stability starts slipping.

Slightly more concerning than some software flakiness is the Z2's battery life. It managed to hang in there for between seven and eight hours of continued use with one push email account humming away and WiFi and GPS radios on, all while playing a looped video and syncing Twitter every 10 minutes. That'll cover you for a flight from New York to San Francisco with some juice to spare, but that comes up short against most of its big-screened competitors, and even the last-gen Tablet Z. That said, you can throttle the tab's performance with what Sony calls Stamina Mode to squeeze some precious time out of the thing.

Tablet Battery Life
Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet 7:57
Microsoft Surface 2 14:22
iPad Air 13:45 (LTE)
Apple iPad mini 12:43 (WiFi)
Apple iPad mini with Retina display 11:55 (LTE)
Apple iPad (late 2012) 11:08 (WiFi)
Apple iPad 2 10:26
Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 10:04
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Acer Iconia W4 9:50
Nexus 7 (2012) 9:49
Microsoft Surface RT 9:36
Toshiba Encore 8:45
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 8:40
Nexus 10 7:26
Dell Venue 8 Pro 7:19
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 7:18
Nexus 7 (2013) 7:15
Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 7:13
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 6:55

Configurations and the competition

By now, you may already know if you want one of these things, so let's talk cash: $499 will net you a WiFi-only 16GB Xperia Z2 in either black or white. Itching for just a little more internal storage? You can double up that space for an extra $100, but you'll be stuck with the white model. Why? We're not entirely sure ourselves. As it happens, $499 takes you a long way in the realm of tablets -- you could pick up a 16GB WiFi Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 and a base model iPad Air for the same price. Samsung's slates are pretty fierce competitors, especially since they pack significantly higher-res displays and a boatload of software tweaks that augment Android as we know it. And the iPad? Well... it's an iPad; you know exactly what to expect. It, too, sports a display with a higher pixel density for the same amount of money, but it's hard to deny the engineering feat Sony's managed to pull off. If you're scouting around for a bigger Android tablet, make sure to consider the Z2.

Wrap-up

When people trot out the tired "evolution, not revolution" cliché, it's usually to cast evolution in a pejorative light. I don't think that's fair. There's plenty of value and enjoyment to be had in the continuous refinement of a formula, especially when it one day results in a new iteration that works far better than the original could've. That's exactly the case with the Z2 Tablet -- it's not going to upend the industry, but it's been polished to the point where it stands strong against (and in some ways outshines) formidable rivals. It's worth noting that you can pick up a Z2 and one of Samsung's 2014 Galaxy Tab Pros for the same price. Your mileage may vary, but the combination of an ultra-slim body and an Android experience that doesn't hit you over the head with potentially extraneous features makes Sony's latest tab one that's definitely worth your attention.

Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren contributed to this review.

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Sony

Xperia Z2 Tablet

Pros

  • Incredibly thin and waterproof, too
  • Snappy performance
  • Sony's Android UI is thoughtful and lightweight

Cons

  • Relatively short battery life
  • Glossy screen 
  • Middling speakers 
  • Both cameras are underwhelming
Summary

Not only is the Tablet Z2 the thinnest and lightest tab Sony has ever made, but also it's far and away the best. It's trim design and strong spec sheet makes it a strong competitor against similarly sized tabs from Sony's arch-rival, Samsung.