For a powerhouse such as Sony the relatively slow-burning nature of its tablet business must be something of a frustration. But the truth is that the Japanese giant’s Android offerings have struggled to stand out in an arena that includes technological marvels such as the iPad and affordable excellence from Google’s own Nexus 10. Now Sony’s hoping what is essentially a 10in version of its superb Xperia Z smartphone might do the trick for 2013.
The Xperia Z is the 5in 1080p waterproof phone that was Stuff's top handset for two months at the beginning of this year, if you need reminding. But with a higher price than the Nexus 10, the Xperia Tablet Z will have to do something special. Can Sony skilfully replicate the Xperia Z's strengths on a bigger slab size? Or is this just another Android tab to ignore?
Design and build
Sandwiches, lilos, moustaches: a quick list of things that just don't work if they're too thin. Tablets aren’t in that list. At 6.9mm, the Xperia Tablet Z is slimmer than most phones and e-readers, never mind slates packing 6000mAh batteries, and at 495g it’s also very light indeed. The mind boggles at Sony’s engineering witchcraft – it makes the iPad 4 look chubby.
But even with the subtle OmniBalance design, matte back and symmetrical skeleton frame taken from the Xperia Z it still feels unwieldy to hold. With a 16:9 screen plus surrounding big black bezels, in portrait mode it feels blocky and silly. Even in landscape you'll worry about batting someone in the face.
The Tablet Z’s form doesn’t really work for us: from the volume rocker’s placement in the groove of the tab’s left edge making it a less than satisfying press, to the thin tab flexing worryingly in the middle and having to faff around with flaps covering the headphone jack, microUSB port and microSIM slot, it’s just all a little fiddly.
The upside of the fussing over covered connections is the Xperia Tablet Z’s pretty unique waterproofing – it can handle up to 30 minutes submerged in water and can even get blasted with water jets. The wet finger tracking is good but using a droplet-filled screen doesn’t feel particularly smooth and the matte back will need a wipe afterwards.
We actually think there’s more of a case for a waterproof tablet than a phone: plenty of masterchefs use tabs in the kitchen for recipes and you’ll want to know that you can slosh some red wine over it. Plus kicking back to a streaming binge in the bath is now entirely possible.
Waterproofing aside, Sony’s done the honourable thing and upgraded the Xperia Tablet S’s 1280x800 screen to a very nice 10.1in 1920x1200 display for the Tablet Z. As with the Xperia Z you’ll get on well with the Tablet Z if you prefer a cool colour palette for your movies – compared for instance to the punchier, sometimes oversaturated hues found on Samsung tablets. Viewing angles are great – better than the Z’s smartphone counterpart – and Google’s redesigned image-heavy Play Store looks fantastic.
Text, too, looks sharp and contrast is great, but Sony’s efforts aren’t as eye-caressingly convincing as the iPad’s stunningly sharp Retina Display or Asus’ bright and vibrant Transformer Pad Infinity. As with its design (compared to, say, the iPad Mini) then, the Tablet Z’s screen is a step behind the very best in class. That’s fine until you consider that, with the exception of the Infinity, all our favourite tablets are available for less money than the Tablet Z.
Performance and cameras
The Tablet Z’s control room has also been given a sprucing up since last we played with a Sony tab. Sony’s ditched last year’s 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 chip for Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro power. Clocked at 1.5GHz, the Snapdragon gets ample support from 2GB of RAM and none of 2013’s Android games can trouble it. Running Android 4.1.2, this is a pared down Sony skin with a few extras such as pop up apps that make good use of the wide screen and the usual Walkman music player, Video Unlimited, Wisepilot and Socialife apps built in.
Expect this new Xperia to heat up when you get those cores working with multi-tasking, big downloads or a 30 minute session tearing up the tracks in Miami in Asphalt 7. And the Tablet Z is an odd shape for gaming: it’s a wide device to be tilting in public and in landscape you’ll struggle to get your thumbs anywhere near the middle of the screen.
Benchmark time. Its Geekbench 2 score of 2172 is pretty respectable, but with one eye on the next gen of Snapdragon processors (such as the 800, which is said to have 4K support and double the graphics capabilities of the current crop), spec junkies might want to hold off a few months.
All in all, it’s a wonderfully reliable Android experience – NFC pairing is quick and easy, tricks like double-tapping on the screen to wake it up work well and any lag is more likely to be down to individual apps than the device itself, which is buttery smooth.
Connections and storage
As well as the usual microUSB port and the tasty addition of microSD expansion up to 64GB, the Sony tab also rocks NFC (which is all over Sony wireless speakers and TVs this year for pairing, mirroring and backup) and a microSIM slot for 4G on the go.
But that’s not it. Like the Xperia Tablet S, the Z has an IR blaster so you can use it as a universal remote, there’s a TV sideview app for listings and you can hit ‘throw’ on your tablet’s video content to mirror it on the big screen via DLNA.
Sony’s dream home set-up is getting neater and neater, with nice touches such as tapping your Xperia Tablet Z to a 2013 TV’s remote to share photos and movies. The microSD expansion will be much cheaper than going down the iPad route, too. And you may well need that expansion slot – the 16GB Tablet Z has just 11GB of usable space.
It might take a while to re-juice, but the Xperia Tablet Z’s battery life is really a big bonus. We’re big fans of any slate that doesn’t stare up at us with its big, blank dead screen on our train journey home, and if you go easy on the brightness, you’re looking at eight to nine hours of regular streaming, browsing and gaming.
Pump up that 10.1in Full HD screen to maximum brightness though and you’ll be draining 20% in an hour. Stamina mode – which kills the data connection when the screen is off – can help you stretch the Tablet Z’s already stellar battery for that crucial extra hour.
With the arrival of the incredibly priced Nexus 7 and 10, the game has changed for Android tablets, but Sony seems to have received the memo, scrunched it into a ball and eaten it, never to mention its existence again.
If your heart is set on a Sony tablet to match your living room set-up or if the waterproofing angle is a big deal, then the Xperia Tablet Z won’t let you down with a lovely screen, good performance and life-saving battery life. But at that price next to the iPad and Nexi further up our Top Ten list of best tablets, the Tablet Z just can’t compete.