Sony's consumer electronics division is in an ongoing state of flux. Having already given up on PCs and e-readers, the company recently pledged to make fewer TVs and smartphones in a bid to get its books back in the black. How Sony's strategizing will affect its output of tablets remains unclear, but no doubt a keen eye is being kept on the reception of its latest slate, the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact (don't let that mouthful of a moniker fool you -- Sony only classes the 8-inch tablet as "compact" to differentiate it from its two previous 10.1-inch devices). The company is renowned for the quality of its premium products, and like the two smartphones that make up the rest of the Z3 family, its newest tablet is a testament to that legacy. Cutting to the chase, it's an elegant and powerful device, but with prices starting at $445/£300, those credentials might not be enough to make you choose Sony over the competition.
Gallery: Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact review | 30 Photos
Gallery: Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact review | 30 Photos
Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact
- Thin and light design
- Stunning display
- Fast performance
- Long battery life
- Expensive compared to similarly sized flagship tablets
- Sony's Android skin feels dated
- Poor camera
Sony's experimented with quirky devices in the past, but these days it tends to take a distinctly no-nonsense approach to design. Similar to the other members of the Z3 range, the Tablet Compact has a deliberate, square profile, softened only by slight rounding of its corners and sides. Some might call it uninspiring or flat-out boring, but I regard it as stylishly simple. Where other manufacturers might use vibrant colors, clashing textures and a bit of imagination to attract buyers, Sony prefers an IP65/68 dustproof and waterproof rating alongside stainless steel corner guards for extra durability.
That's not to say it's completely lacking in design accents. Sony's signature aluminum power key is in attendance, and a purely ornamental dark gray border (silver on the white version) around the perimeter of the device serves to break up the rubbery plastic and tempered glass that dominate the back and front, respectively. Dotted along the edges, you'll find a volume rocker next to the power key, a 3.5mm headphone jack, Sony's magnetic dock connector and a couple of sealed cubbyholes: one for the micro-USB port and another protecting the microSD and nano-SIM slots (the latter only being present on the LTE model, of course).
The direction of the two silver Sony logos on either side of the tablet suggests it's meant to be used in portrait orientation. This is even clearer when you consider the high, central position of the main camera on the back of the device, as you have to be mindful of obstructing the lens when taking photos in landscape mode. Previous Z-series slates -- excluding the curious "tablet edition" of the Xperia Z Ultra -- have sported an almost symmetrical, picture-frame style of display bezel. With this new 8-inch effort, however, the left and right bezels are slim enough that I can grip the tablet firmly with just one hand. While that sounds convenient, it's actually more uncomfortable than it should be to use it this way.
The power key and volume rocker sit central on the tablet's right edge, and directly opposite is Sony's
useless proprietary magnetic dock connector. When I'm grasping the slate with one hand, then, these features are in just the right spot to rub and scratch at my skin. Aside from this design oversight, the tablet is a joy to use, mostly because it's only 6.4mm thick (0.25 inch) and weighs 270g (9.5 ounces). That's even thinner and lighter than the latest iPad mini, which comes in at 7.5mm (0.29 inch) and 331g (11.7 ounces). The Z3 Compact is perfectly balanced and light enough that you can easily suspend it between your paws for extended periods of time without fatiguing; in fact, it's the only tablet I've used that hasn't had me wishing for a case to prop it up in right out of the box.
An unavoidable side effect of being so thin and light is that the tablet also feels a tad... delicate. Now, the device does bow to my twisting and flexing tests a little more than I'd like, but even then, I'm content with the overall build quality. In other words, I wouldn't choose to make it sturdier at the expense of size or weight. Also, the Z3 Tablet Compact is fully waterproof, after all, so it's not like Sony's thrown this together using spare parts and a roll of duct tape.
Display and audio
The Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact is decked out with an 8-inch, 1,920 x 1,200 IPS LCD display (283 ppi). In simpler terms, that means it has a full HD (1080p) screen with a few pixels left over for accommodating the standard Android navigation keys. As is Sony's way, the tablet's graced with several of the company's display technologies, including Triluminos and X-Reality for richer colors and sharper images. Forgetting the trademarks, the panel is, quite simply, gorgeous. Colors are vivid; whites are accurate; and blacks are basically as good as they can be for an LCD display. Viewing angles are excellent, and the panel can also claim fantastic sunlight readability. On a nice day, you'll still get a modicum of glare coming off the glass, but the screen burns bright enough to be easily visible even in strong, direct sunlight.
I didn't expect much from the tablet's stereo speakers. The only clues as to their whereabouts are two slivers of missing plastic above and below the display glass, and I can't say these narrow grilles look particularly functional. I guess it was inevitable that I would be pleasantly surprised, however, given my low expectations. Sound is well-defined, even if it is restricted to the middle and top end, and the speakers kick out more than enough volume to annoy everyone in your train carriage. At approximately 75 percent of maximum volume, though, the tablet begins to vibrate and audio loses all sense of clarity as distortion takes hold. The speakers could be way better, and any semblance of bass whatsoever would be appreciated, but there are also worse ways to watch an episode of your favorite show in bed.
Having had the pleasure of reviewing the excellent Xperia Z3 Compact, I had a hunch the Tablet Compact would be a different animal once a set of headphones was plugged in; and I wasn't wrong. Through headphones, audio is crisp and perfectly balanced, with a healthy bass range to get your head bobbing. There's all manner of technology working away in the background to make sound output as good as it is, such as an audio-resolution upscaling engine, but all you need to concern yourself with is what you want to watch or listen to next. The tablet supports several high-resolution audio formats, too, if you happen to have a particularly fancy digital music catalog.
The Z3 Tablet Compact is running Android 4.4.4 KitKat for now, but Sony expects to upgrade the slate to Lollipop (Android version 5.0) in early 2015. Hopefully it won't just be an under-the-hood upgrade, as the company's custom skin could do with an overhaul, too. It's familiar and comfortable enough, as it doesn't stray too far from the stock Android experience, but it could use refining in the same way Z-series hardware has been subtly nipped and tucked over the generations. At this point, it's almost too colorful and cartoony, given the business-like appearance of Sony's devices themselves.
The firm has something of an ongoing love affair with bloatware that could do with being scaled back, for example. Out of the box, you need to spend a moment clearing the Z3 Tablet Compact's home screen panels of unwanted widgets and shortcuts, before setting it up how you actually want it. The overly cluttered app drawer? Well, that's something you just kinda have to put up with, which isn't a huge deal if you make good use of the home screen carousel. Still, having several different gallery apps and various music and movie players could easily be avoided. You can forgive Sony for preloading its own tablet with homegrown services -- of which there are many -- like Video Unlimited, the Lifelog activity tracker and the PlayStation app. I'm less magnanimous, however, when it comes to more obvious bloatware like the OfficeSuite, AVG antivirus, Kobo, QR code reader and Garmin navigation apps. Thankfully, these are all uninstallable, so they can be easily purged if they're of no use.
Beyond the general verdict that Sony's Android skin is at least intuitive to use, there are a couple of nifty features that also deserve a mention. The baked-in screen-recording function that's accessed via the "shutdown menu" (which pops up after holding down the power key for a second) is neat, even if you don't see yourself using it. Also, the Z3 Tablet Compact supports PS4 Remote Play, meaning you can use it as a wireless screen for your home console as long as both devices are connected to the same WiFi network. Both smartphones in the Z3 series are also capable of this, but it makes way more sense on the tablet due to its significantly larger display.
Sony's Xperia Z2 Tablet plays host to a pretty underwhelming pair of cameras, and unfortunately for those hoping for better this time around, the Z3 Tablet Compact is kitted out identically. I doubt you'll care much that Sony hasn't bothered upgrading the 2.2-megapixel front-facing shooter. I've made many a Skype call on the device with no complaints regarding picture quality from the other end, and I guess if you absolutely have to take that opportunistic selfie, you'll just be glad to have a shooter on hand. I understand that cameras just aren't a priority for tablet makers. The smartphone photographer is a much more demanding breed of user, whereas a tablet camera is more of a functional asset -- it's there for when you need it. Still, the quality of the 8.1-megapixel camera with its Exmor RS backside-illuminated sensor on the Z3 Tablet Compact is almost inexcusable, especially as Sony expects you to spend the better part of 500 bucks for the privilege.
Gallery: Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact sample shots | 24 Photos
Gallery: Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact sample shots | 24 Photos
Whether you're using the manual or "Superior auto" setting, which, incidentally, restricts image resolution to six megapixels, photos rarely come out how you want them to. All cameras typically do their best work in situations with plenty of natural light, but even under these conditions, images from the Tablet Compact are frequently washed out, overexposed and lacking realistic color representation. Every now and again, you'll be surprised by the quality of a picture, but only because the previous five have been a disappointment. If there's one compliment you can bestow on the Z2 Tablet's camera, it's that it isn't as bad as the one on the Z3 Tablet Compact. Since they use the same hardware, I can only conclude that the sensor hasn't been calibrated properly in the newer slate.
It simply can't deal with artificial light, with the auto-white balance setting struggling the most. Low-light performance is a little better. Sometimes images are knowingly overexposed to jack the brightness up a tad at the expense of contrast and color, which isn't unusual in mobile devices. When this doesn't occur, though, you're left with a dark, grainy image -- the kind you won't care to share unless filtered and hashtagged accordingly. As you'd expect, video performance isn't markedly different, with 1080p clips suffering in the same way stills do. The autoexposure setting tends to be commendably consistent, but focus often stutters and the quality of the video itself is lacking. And that's when you're framing a static shot; start panning around and it's like watching a flipbook your eyes can't keep up with.
I'm certain I could've achieved better quality photos more consistently had I begun digging into the endless menus of Sony's camera app, but that's just not my style. Out of all camera software, that's why I prefer the stock Android app. It takes care of everything for you, and though you could argue Sony's "Superior auto" mode is comparable, the fact that I have the option to tweak settings means I'm always mindful I could be squeezing something better out of the lens. I flat-out dislike Sony's take on the camera app due to the infinite number of settings available. I imagine even a pro photographer would quickly tire of the cumbersome, disjointed menu system, regardless of the deep level of control it seems to offer.
Alongside the manual and "Superior auto" modes, there are various other camera "apps" available on the device and to download. Some are potentially useful, like the YouTube live-broadcasting mode, Evernote plug-in and "Timeshift burst" feature, which lets you select from a set of images taken before and after you hit the shutter release. Others are there to inject a little fun into the proceedings, such as the augmented reality camera apps that overlay virtual objects and critters onto your images. And some of your photos are bound to be so bad that you'll want to hide them behind dinosaurs and ninjas.
Performance and battery life
The Z3 Tablet Compact might look starkly different compared to last year's 10.1-inch Z2 Tablet, but hardly anything has changed when it comes to the key specs. You're still looking at 3GB of RAM and a quad-core Snapdragon 801 chipset with Adreno 330 GPU, albeit clocked at a slightly higher speed of 2.5GHz. There are a couple of reasons the core internals are nigh on identical. For one, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 801 SoC is basically as good as they come; and secondly, it's got more power than you realistically need in a tablet. Games like Asphalt 8: Airborne run dreamily on the highest graphics settings, so if you're partial to the odd session of [insert game of choice here], know that it'll run as well on the Tablet Compact as it would on any other top-tier device.
It should go without saying, since the tablet handles processor-intensive 3D games without a hiccup, but if you need confirmation: The general user experience is super-slick, too. Whether you're swiping furiously through the home screen or app drawer panels, or taking care of the basics like checking email and browsing the web, the Tablet Compact never misses a beat. It's a high-end device with a price to match, and that's most certainly reflected in the performance stakes.
When it comes to connection protocols, the Z3 Tablet Compact supports practically everything you can think of: dual-band WiFi (up to 802.11ac), Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC, GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou, ANT+, WiFi Direct, Miracast, MHL 3.0, DLNA and various other, more obscure acronyms. In addition to the two WiFi-only configurations with either 16GB or 32GB of onboard storage, there are two models with nano-SIM slots for tapping into Cat 4 LTE networks (maximum download speeds of 150 Mbps). I've been testing out the SGP621, which supports LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17 and 20. Thus, it's the model most suitable for European and North American markets (though it won't work on Sprint's 4G network), while SGP641 is the SKU for Asia, with support for LTE Bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 28 and TD LTE Band 40. You're not limited to data traffic on the LTE variants, by the way, meaning you can use the Z3 Tablet Compact as a comically oversized phone if you're so inclined (or have no other choice).
Battery life is easily one of the standout features of both the Xperia Z3 and its miniature counterpart. The Z3 Tablet Compact is no different. While the slate's 4,500mAh battery isn't oversized for an 8-inch tablet, it lasted between 13.5 and 14 hours in our standard looping-video rundown test from a full charge (I ran it a few times to be sure I was getting an accurate result). To put that into perspective, that's among the best results any tablet's ever achieved.
In real life, you're looking at more like 10 hours of continuous use, since you'll be losing efficiency by doing more than simply watching a locally stored video for over half a day. Battery life drops dramatically if you're doing more processor-intensive tasks, of course. I used it frequently over the holiday period to Skype with relatives and friends, and I estimate you could stay on a call for around three to four hours from a full charge. If the slate is destined to sit on your coffee table for the majority of its tenure, though, it'll turn out to be one of those devices you forget to charge for days on end, because you simply don't need to.
Right now, you can pick up a 16GB WiFi-only Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact in the US for $479 on Amazon, or £300 through Amazon's or Sony's online UK stores. It really isn't worth springing for the 32GB configuration at $500 or £349 when a 16GB microSD card can be found for significantly less than the mark-up, but if you require LTE connectivity, you're looking at roughly $545 or £399. It goes without saying, then, that this isn't exactly a cheap tablet, and it's hard to justify the price when you can find perfectly good products like Amazon's Fire HD 6 for $99/£79. The Z3 Tablet Compact is in a completely different league, of course, especially when it comes to computing power, but then it depends on what you're going to do with your slate. Plenty of folks would be better off choosing a much cheaper tablet if browsing, emails and social networking are their primary concerns.
At the higher end of the spectrum, there haven't been too many notable releases since the Xperia Z2 Tablet was launched in early 2014. Of the devices that have comparable screen sizes to the 8-inch Tablet Compact, the strongest competition comes from Google's Nexus 9, Apple's iPad mini 2 or 3 and Samsung's 8.4-inch Galaxy Tab S. The Nexus 9 is the newest of the trio, and runs Android 5.0 Lollipop out of the box. It's a tad heavy, but with a high-res display, decent battery life and excellent performance, it's not a bad device for the $399 asking price. The iPad mini 3 is also $399 for the 16GB configuration, and is a great little tablet all-round, though the $299 iPad mini 2 is arguably a much more attractive option if iOS is more your bag. The 8.4-inch Galaxy Tab S is currently selling for $340 at Expansys, making it the cheapest of the lot. It's thin, light, powerful and carries a gorgeous 2,560 x 1,600 display.
If you haven't noticed the theme here, let me spell it out for you: The Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact is at least $80 more expensive than its closest competitors. And the real problem is that I wouldn't consider it to be necessarily better than any of the products mentioned. Each device has its flaws and killer features, so obviously personal preference comes into play when you're deciding what tablet's gonna suit your needs best. But, it's kinda hard to justify the extra expense when the Z3 Tablet Compact doesn't have an obvious edge.
Sony's Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact is a lovely piece of hardware. It's light on flair, has a borderline-terrible camera, mediocre stereo speakers and a slightly tired Android build. On the flipside, though, it has a fantastic display (even if it is only a 1080p panel), outstanding performance and long battery life. Maybe I'm just boring, but the facet I like most is how thin and light the tablet is. I haven't really wanted for a new slate since I picked up a discounted OG iPad mini many moons ago. While I've been using the Z3 Tablet Compact, I've grown to adore how... compliant it is. For me, its size and weight are the most impactful features, but therein lies the problem.
There are other thin and light tablets. Some have higher-resolution screens; others are beautifully designed; and all are cheaper than the $479 Z3 Tablet Compact. A high waterproof rating doesn't justify such a high price, and I shouldn't really be complaining about things like camera performance for that kind of dough, either. I've had the luxury of using the featherweight tablet for an extended period of time -- enough to fall in love with its petite profile -- but I haven't had to drop a cent for the pleasure. While I'd be happy to add one to my gadget repertoire, I simply can't bring myself to drop nearly 500 bones on a tablet that doesn't stand out enough from the crowd. If it were cheaper, maybe -- but for now, I'll stick with my two-year-old iPad mini, thanks.