So far, tablets haven’t been a huge success story for Sony. Despite some brilliant, distinctive product designs and the strengths of the Bravia-branded displays, there has always been something missing: That special ingredient “X” that transforms a decent tablet into the next must buy. It also hasn’t helped that Sony always seems to be late to the party, putting out a Tegra 2 tablet just as everyone else was moving on to Tegra 3, or going with a bog standard 1,280 x 800 resolution screen just as the competition is moving to 1,920 x 1,200 or above.
The Xperia Tablet Z is a stronger contender, though it still feels rather like it’s arriving just in the nick of time. Unlike the Xperia Tablet S, which used an Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC, the Tablet Z uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, currently this season’s hottest chip. That will change with the emergence of Tegra 4 and SnapDragon 800 tablets in the coming months, but then performance isn’t actually the Tablet Z’s best feature. So what is? A new ultra-slim, ultra-light body, along with a 1,920 x 1,200 10.1in display.
The design of the Xperia Tablet Z has none of the weird scroll effects of the Xperia Tablet S, but that doesn’t mean it’s short on “wow” factor. Here the wow comes from two things. Firstly, at just 495 grams it’s incredibly light. You can comfortably hold it one-handed, or keep it supported in two hands for watching movies or web browsing for hours at a time. Secondly, at just 7mm it’s incredibly thin.
These things might not matter to everyone, but they make the Xperia Tablet Z feel luxuriously portable. You can easily pack it in a bag or briefcase and carry it around all day, forgetting that it’s there. For this reason alone, any frequent business traveller should have the Xperia Tablet Z high on their shortlist.
It’s tempting to think that with these dimensions, the Xperia Tablet Z would feel rather weak, but actually that’s far from the case. The chassis feels rock solid, the screen is scratch-proof glass and the whole shebang is sealed for water and dust resistance. Apparently, you can immerse the tablet in water for up to 30 minutes – which should cover you if you drop it in the bath.
One downside of this waterproofing is that all the connections are concealed by small plastic flaps. To charge the tablet you’ll need to remove the cover that hides the micro-USB connector, and the same goes for the microSD slot, the microSIM slot (on 3G/4G models) and even the headphone socket.
There’s no HDMI output, but the micro-USB port supports MHL video output, and connecting with cables isn’t really Sony’s style. The manufacturer’s dream is that you’ll use your tablet with a new Bravia TV using Wi-Fi screen mirroring, or use the tablet’s NFC transceiver for one-touch mirroring from tablet to TV. What’s more, you’ll also use your tablet as a remote control for your TV, while using the Sideview TV feature to access programme-relevant information and interactive features. Without a Bravia TV to hand I can’t actually confirm how well any of this works, but it’s the sort of thing that might sway loyal Bravia consumers.
Screen and sound
With a 1,920 x 1,200 resolution, the 224ppi (pixels per inch) Xperia Tablet Z’s display falls short of the Google Nexus 10’s 300ppi, but I wouldn’t consider this a deal-breaker. It’s a good working resolution for Android – any movies you’ll be watching will still be 1080p, and any games you play while on the move will actually run better at this resolution than they will on the Nexus 10. The screen is beautifully vibrant, sharp and clear and unless you a) have a Nexus 10 to hand, or b) are the sort of person who insists on pressing their eyeballs against the glass, it’s unlikely you’ll notice any difference on a day to day basis. Seriously – it’s a gorgeous screen.
Sony’s Mobile Bravia Engine 2, as used in Xperia smartphones, is supposed to add a little extra impact here as well, and in practice HD video and high resolution photos do look stunning, with deep black levels and colours that leap off the screen. This is an excellent tablet for watching catch-up TV or movies while you travel. It also helps that the sound is very good by tablet standards. Volume is limited and there’s not a lot of bass, but the output is clear and there’s more stereo spread than on most rivals, with the exception of the equally impressive Kindle Fire HD and Fire HD 8.9.
Software and usability
The Xperia Tablet Z comes packing Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and though Sony has customised the basic UI with a few enhancements, these are both functional and tastefully designed (other manufacturers take note). Apps for Sony’s Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited services appear on the home screen, along with a Sony movie player app, Walkman-branded music app, photo album app and a Sony Select app, which appears to do little more than link through to Sony recommended apps on the Google Play store. Meanwhile, Sony’s Socialife app is another news and social networking consolidation app, bringing updates and new posts to a handy home screen widget.
Inevitably, there is some unnecessary meddling. Sony’s Xperia keyboard doesn’t seem to offer any improvements over the standard Jelly Bean model and we made more typing mistakes with it. Worse still, the standard Android model appears to have been removed. However, you’re not stuck with it if you don’t want to be; I installed Swiftkey for tablets and it worked perfectly fine. Sony’s mail client could also use some honing, particularly when it comes to the clunky account setup process, but it’s happy working with Exchange ActiveSync and Google Sync, and we soon had it working perfectly with both accounts.
The Xperia Tablet Z’s speciality is working with other entertainment devices, and these don’t necessarily have to be Sony-manufactured. Your mileage will vary, but I tried the remote control function with a Panasonic Plasma and a Sony PVR, and managed to get full control of both with a minimum of fuss. Meanwhile, the streaming features seem to work perfectly well with DLNA-compliant media players. There are clearly advantages to pairing a Sony tablet with other Sony gear, but if you prefer a mix-and-match approach you’re not actually penalised for that.
Sony makes some bold claims about the Xperia Tablet Z’s cameras, with the 8-megapixel rear camera branded Exmor R for mobile, and supposedly capable of great performance in low light. In practice, it’s a bit disappointing. There’s a better grasp of natural colour and detail than with most tablet cameras, but pictures taken indoors in good lighting still suffer from obvious noise, and outdoor photos aren’t all that punchy. The best things come in the software, with a full range of scene modes, some nice built-in effects and an intuitive UI. The same complaints extend to the 2-megapixel front-facing camera. On balance, the Xperia has two of the better tablet cameras I’ve seen, but that’s not really saying much.
The Xperia Tablet Z uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro – the same SoC found in the Google Nexus 4 – running at 1.5GHz and paired with 2MB of RAM. In practice it feels extremely slick, the elements of the UI flicking and shifting smoothly before your eyes, and apps loading in an instant.
It’s also a good performer when it comes to benchmarks, with the Geekbench 1.2 score of 2001 putting it comfortably ahead of Tegra 3 devices like the Xperia Tablet S, if slightly behind the Nexus 4 and Samsung Exynos 4412-powered Nexus 10. And if you like to play games in your off hours, the Tablet Z is one of your better bets. It managed an impressive 13 fps off-screen frame rate in the GFXBench T-Rex HD benchmark, and 32 fps in Egypt HD. That’s significantly faster than a Tegra 3, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything better on Android until Tegra 4 and Snapdragon 800 come along.
Another concern with a tablet so thin and so light is that battery life won’t be up to scratch. However, the Xperia Tablet Z is a pleasant surprise here, effortlessly managing a good ten hours or so of mixed use, and approximately seven and a half hours of HD movie streaming over a Wi-Fi connection. Gaming seems to hit the battery quite hard – it went down 15 per cent in half an hour of Real Racing 3 – but that’s not unusual.
In terms of its physical design, the Xperia Tablet Z is the best and most practical Android tablet I’ve ever looked at. It’s light enough to take anywhere, and powerful enough to cope with almost anything you might throw at it. The screen, while not a winner in the resolution stakes, is excellent, and the battery life is very good.
If I have any concerns here it’s that the tablet is £80 more expensive than the Google Nexus 10, which has a slightly faster processor and a slightly better screen. All the same, if I was buying a tablet to take on the road, I’d pay the extra for the brilliant, comfortable and durable design, not to mention the reduction in weight. Wait a few months and new devices will doubtless outperform the Tablet Z, but for now Android tablets just don’t get much better than this.
Manufacturer and Model
Sony Xperia Tablet Z
1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro
MicroSD up to 64GB
10.1in 1920 x 1200 IPS
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean)
Size and weight
172 x 266 x 6.9mm, 495 grams