Sony builds lovely kit. Consoles, smartphones, TVs, tablets - all with super specs, expensive materials and the best components. But it’s never crafted a tablet that’s more than the sum of those parts.
The Xperia Z2 Tablet arrives thinner, lighter and more powerful than ever. Like last year’s Tablet Z, it’s a superb movie tablet, slick in use and a cut above everyday Androids because it’s waterproof.And yet… Sony still hasn’t quite cracked it. Because the specs race is over and everyone won. Now it’s all about creating a premium, portable design and killer apps to make the tablet as essential as the smartphone. For Sony tablets something’s still missing, and it’s more than just the fifth Stuff star.
A Textbook Tablet Refresh
Sony’s outgoing Xperia Tablet Z is selling for around S$688, so what’s in this year’s refresh to convince us to part with a similar sum? Choice tweaks, that’s what.
The Z2 Tablet looks almost identical to the Tablet Z, making for a fun session of spot the difference. The hardware has slimmed down half a centimetre to just 6.4mm (somehow making the 7.5mm iPad Air look fat) and it now weighs just 426g for the Wi-Fi-only version. That’s ludicrously light for a 10in tablet, and even after a couple of hours arm ache won’t be a problem for any but the feeblest of gadgeteers.
Aside from the surprisingly powerful speakers sensibly being moved to the front of the tablet from the sides and the new placement of the now flap-free headphone jack, that’s it for the cosmetic changes.
Like the Tablet Z, it’s a sliver of glass and aluminium that feels almost worryingly thin, and not overly comfortable to hold, thanks to an elongated form and slight flex in the middle. The OmniBalance styling, designed to immerse you in what’s on the screen, is finished to perfection - from the reflective skeleton frame to the statement power button, lovely to stroke matte back and artfully hidden port flaps. It's a classy design but all that fussiness is ruined by the bezels, which are huge by 2014’s standards and make the Z2 Tablet more cumbersome than it needs to be.
A big part of the Z2’s appeal is its waterproofing, which is now IP58-certified (a slight improvement over the Z) so drops in up to 1.5m of water are now safe. It might be a splashproof cooking companion or a bathtime long-reads tab. Either way it means the Z2 Tablet will be more useful in more rooms of the house, and that’s got to be a good thing. Still, with smaller, cheaper tabs here to stay, full-size tablets such as the Z2 need to work to avoid being relegated to a stay-at-home slab.
This is What We Call a Movie Tab
A big reason most of us want a big tablet is to give movies and TV shows the minimum space they deserve. And here the Sony shines.
It’s almost the same screen as the Tablet Z: a 10.1in 1920 x 1200 affair with tons of Sony’s display tweaks - X-Reality engine, Triluminous tech and now for the Z2 “Live Colour LCD tech” for brighter colours. Unlike Samsung and Asus, Sony hasn’t made the leap to 2k tablet resolutions yet, which is a shame and a bit of a surprise considering the company’s at the forefront of 4K TV design.
In the end all you need to know is that Sony’s an expert on screens - this one is bright and crisp with none of the viewing angle problems that have marred Xperia phones. The 264ppi iPad Air is sharper for reading text and webpages, with slightly more detail when it comes to video playback, too, but otherwise the Z2 Tablet is every bit the stunner. That’s thanks to seriously vivid colours and the kind of brightness and contrast that makes for really punchy pictures. In ultimate terms we’d say the iPad Air produces the more realistic colours, but the vibrancy of the Sony is mighty appealing and never jarringly unnatural.
Apps for a 10in Sony
Full-size tablets have to live up to more than just media bingeing potential. How? With apps.
Whether it’s gorgeous, creative App Store apps designed for the iPad or Samsung’s huge bundle of productivity freebies, Flipboard-style homescreens and subscriptions for the TabPro range, both greatly expand what you can do with a 10in tab. We’re talking anything from manipulating virtual Korg synths to dragging and dropping Samsung files.
Samsung overhauled its software offering because Google Play still isn’t doing enough for 10in tablets. It’s neck and neck for smartphone games and apps across iOS and Android but on tablets, the number of fantastic, optimised Android apps still trails the App Store. And Sony hasn’t done enough to bridge the gap. Instead you get an almost untouched version of KitKat with only Sony’s own Walkman, Movies, Album and What’s New apps, and while that once would have been anathema to Android evangelists, they’re too busy mucking about with their cheaper Nexus tabs to pay the Z2 much mind.
That’s not to say Sony hasn’t taken certain steps. There are resizeable, windowed small apps for the likes of Gmail and the browser, which is a nice multi-tasking touch (particularly if you go for the Z2 Tablet’s keyboard case) - albeit without quite the range or flexibility of Samsung’s rival Multi Window apps.
The closest Sony has to a compelling must-have app is the excellent universal remote, plus neat tricks such as Wi-Fi ‘throwing’ of content to bigger screens. It needs more. We don’t mean useless, gimmicky bloatware - the likes of Samsung have grown up enough to choose a few worthwhile additions to KitKat and Sony needs to keep up.
Performs and performs and performs
The Z2 Tablet might not have that one killer feature to make us want to buy this over any other slate. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a supremely reliable device in use.
As expected, the Snapdragon 801 and 3GB of RAM combo handles everything you can throw at it with ease, from Asphalt 8 to running six small apps on top of the browser. This is a very slick tablet indeed, with high benchmark results to back up the real-world use (33782 on AnTuTu and 2030 on Geekbench 3). While we wouldn’t recommend tilting a 10in tab to play racing games, you can hook up a DualShock PS3 controller to get your game on when surroundings allow.
There’s no need to fear the low percentage icon when using the Z2 Tablet either. Battery life is as good as its predecessor, dropping about 10% an hour of fairly heavy use and lasting just over nine hours in our usual video rundown test (HD video loop, Wi-Fi on, half brightness). That means you’ll rarely be reaching for the Stamina mode, a gift from Xperia smartphones, but the power saving function does make a big difference when needed.
It’s unlikely to be a priority when choosing a tablet but the 8MP rear camera doesn’t let the Z2 down. It takes usable if not brilliant snaps - Sony’s smartphones take crisper shots with better exposure but Sony’s Superior Auto mode is on hand to change scenes as you go. The 2.2MP front camera is nice and bright for video calls, too - something lesser tabs struggle with.
We haven’t had a chance to fully test out the Xperia Z2 Tablet’s accessories yet but we have gone hands-on with both the Bluetooth keyboard case and the MDR-NC31EM in-ears - the only buds that’ll work with the Z2 Tablet’s clever digital noise-cancelling tech.
The slim, metal case isn’t quite a Transformer keyboard but it’s tidy enough for the occasional typing sprint on the train. There’s also a blocky speaker dock, remote control and mic available - and the Z2 Tablet will work with Sony’s SmartBand when that shows up.
Sony Tablet Z2 Verdict
The Xperia Z2 Tablet has all the right numbers - 1920, 801, 6000. That would be enough if it wasn’t for the fact that tablets win big on criteria you can’t put a number on - how they fit into your life, what they allow you to do that your phone’s simply too small for.
Sony’s still got some way to go in packaging up its screen, performance and software expertise into more than a collection of brilliant components - a tablet with a real edge over its rivals. As it is the Z2 Tablet is a great movie machine, but a tablet costing this much needs to do more, and it’s out-worked and out-played by iPads, Samsungs and Transformers.
Having said all that, the single-minded approach to media consumption will appeal to many, as will the all-day battery life and waterproof construction, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.