Sony Xperia Tablet Z review

There has always been something of an awkwardness around Android tablets, a bitter taste left by earlier dalliances with an interface that didn't really work, and a huge gulf between the premium and the low-quality devices.

Jump to the present day and the Android tablet market is not only littered with excellent devices, but prices have also tumbled and manufacturers are looking for ways to really appeal. The Sony Xperia Tablet Z is one such example: this isn't just a slab of Android, it's one of the best examples of Android tablets currently available, pitched as premium, without being too expensive.

Previous Sony Android tablets were late to arrive at the party and blighted by quirky design. The folded design might have seemed like a good idea, but was less of a selling point than slim and light. With the Xperia Tablet Z seeming to hit all the right points, let's see what it's really made of.

Design

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z, in our opinion, stands almost unchallenged when it comes to design. It matches the Xperia Z smartphone, giving you a square-edged finish at only 6.9mm thick. It's incredibly thin and is sure to wow when you pass this tablet to a friend.

It measures 172 x 266mm, housing that Full HD 10.1-inch display, but it only weighs 495g, making it lighter than the immediate competition by some margin. It's lighter than the iPad 4, lighter than the Nexus 10, and that weight makes a difference in everyday use, as it's a pleasure to hold.

We've said that the design matches that of the Xperia Z phone, but Sony has switched away from having a glass sheet for the back to give you a tactile finish. Although slim, there's plenty of grip for your fingertips when holding this skinny tablet. The rear does get a little grubby though, so needs a regular clean to keep it looking its best.

The neat design is complemented by its minimalism. Because this tablet is water resistant, with IPX5/7 certification, the ports are all covered. That gives you a nice clean finish from all sides, so it's lovely to look at.

Water resistance obviously means you can sit in the bath and browse your subscription to GQ in Play Magazines, not have to worry about that glass of wine that's just been tipped over it, or the spray from that soup you're blending in the kitchen.

That's a real positive if you're accident prone or want the reassurance that your tablet won't be wrecked by a quick splash of water, but also means that connections are a little more fiddly. Every time you want to charge the tablet, you'll have to open a flap; every time you want to listen with headphones, again, you'll be picking at the edge of the cover it get it open.

Sony isn't completely oblivious to these challenges, as the Xperia Tablet Z supports NFC, so you can easily connect to wireless headphones, avoiding that connection headache. Yes, Sony offers a full range of NFC Bluetooth headphones.

There are also a couple of contact points on the side of the Tablet Z for charging, with Sony offering a dock that not only offers to charge your tablet but also acts as a variable angle deskstand, but it will cost you £39.

We're totally sold on the design of the Sony Xperia Tablet Z. We think it looks good, it certainly feels good and the light weight is really noticeable when using the tablet for extended periods. We're happy to live with the connection flaps, but we'd seriously consider those wireless accessories for daily use to make life that tiny bit easier.

The hardware

Despite the slim frame, Sony hasn't made huge sacrifices on the spec sheet. In fact, you'll find that this a powerful tablet, with a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset, clocked at 1.5GHz and 2GB of RAM. That's a loadout that matches many of the leading Android smartphones.

The internal storage is either 16GB or 32GB with a £50 difference in price, although there is that microSD card slot, so you can easily expand the storage to meet your needs.

There's also a healthy array of connections on offer. On the wireless front you have the usual suspects in Wi-Fi, along with Wi-Fi Direct and Miracast to send content to a compatible display. You get Bluetooth 4 and NFC, as mentioned, as well as DLNA support, as you'd expect from a Sony tablet.

There's also the option for LTE, although you'll pay £100 extra for the privilege (£499, 16GB LTE version) and that's before you add your own SIM card for the data connection.

In terms of physical connections, the Micro-USB - also under a watertight cover - supports MHL for connecting to HDMI on your TV, so there's no lack of connection options overall.

There's an IR blaster so you can use your tablet to control your AV devices. This isn't a new feature on Sony tablets, as the Japanese company has pitched its tablets as sofa companions for some time, but it's really easy to set-up and have controlling multiple devices in your home in no time at all.

On the audio front, the Xperia Tablet Z sounds great through good quality headphones and the speakers are pretty good too. Sony has opted for an unusual arrangement, putting two speakers in each of the bottom corners of the tablet. We first thought we'd muffle them with our hands, but that didn't seem to be the case: it's difficult to block this arrangement of speakers, so it sounds pretty good.

It's not as competent as the excellent Kindle Fire HD, or even the HTC One, but it stands itself in good stead and watching a movie at high volumes is agreeable enough.

The battery gives you a typical 10 hours of life and, like many tablets, it takes quite a while to charge, so worth keeping topped up over night. It benefits from Sony's stamina mode, however, which gives you a range of customisable options to make sure you're not wasting the battery on things that don't need it and this option is well worth exploring.

The display

The display on the front gives you 10.1-inches of Android real estate with a "better than Full HD" resolution of 1920 x 1200. It's a nice display, but it doesn't stand up to the Nexus 10, which is both sharper and offers better colour reproduction.

READ: Nexus 10 review

Although the panel isn't as sharp in absolute terms as the Nexus 10, it acquits itself rather well. Your content - from websites, to magazines to photos, videos and games - all looks good. The entire front of the tablet is a bezel-less sheet of glass and like all tablets reflections and outdoor use can be a problem, but we love the fact that with the display turned off, it's just an inky black surface.

The viewing angles are pretty good too, so if you're watching a film with the tablet lying on a table, you'll still be able to see everything. That also makes this a good tablet for sharing, as you don't need to be sitting right in front of it to look at pictures, for example.

Sony's 10.1-inch display on the Xperia Tablet Z is on the warm side, so although colours have plenty of punch, the whites look a little yellow. That's not a problem unless you're looking at something that has a white background, like a website, and you probably won't notice unless you have a superior quality comparison display, like the HTC One, for example.

Adding to the mix is Sony's Bravia Engine 2. This technology helps to boost video and pictures and generally we like the results, as it tends to boost the colours and add contrast that can sometimes be lacking in mobile shots.

Software experience

Sony has made changes to the software on the Xperia Tablet Z, to bubble some features to the surface. First of all, this tablet launches on Android 4.1.2, so you miss out on some of the better tablet refinements that Android 4.2 offers. The biggest area of awkwardness is around settings.

On the Xperia Tablet Z, settings and notifications are bundled into the pop-up box in the bottom right-hand corner, which isn't as user friendly as the latest Android version, which splits these features, offering access via a swipe down from the top of the device, on either the left or the right for notifications and settings respectively.

Aside from that basic level difference, Sony's tweaks add shortcuts to a top bar, with space for four applications. These can be added or removed with a long press. The camera and Chrome are in place by default, but if you wanted to add Gmail for example, it's easy to do so. You can also create folders on this top bar as you can elsewhere on the home page, so it's easy to get access to the apps you want quickly.

Across the bottom of the display, there's also a tweak. Not only do you have access to the regular Android navigation controls of back, home and recent apps, but there's also access to mini apps, as we've seen on Xperia smartphones in the past. These work nicely as you can open them over other apps, so for example, you could have a timer running while also looking at a recipe in your browser.

There's a mini app for the remote, as well as the main app. This app works in cahoots with the IR blaster we’ve mentioned, so you can control your TV or other devices without having to pick up a separate controller.

Otherwise, the Xperia Tablet Z is very much as any other Android tablet is. There is a full run of Sony apps pre-installed. That means you get the Walkman music player app in addition to Play Music and you get Sony's Movies app, in addition to Play Movies, as well as a host of services that Sony has been adding to devices for as long as we care to remember.

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z is a good performer, thanks to the power under the hood. We can't, hand on heart, say that Sony's software tinkering makes this any better than stock Android, but at the same time, aside from those negatives that come with not having the latest version of Android, there's nothing that's irritating either.

Cameras

We still think that cameras are rather superfluous on a tablet. Aside from testing the camera performance on tablets, we've never had to use one in anger, because there's always a smartphone within reach and typically, smartphones are better and much more manageable than tablets when it comes to photography.

But with Sony throwing everything into the Tablet Z, it's no surprise to find an 8-megapixel sensor for the rear camera and a 2.2-megapixel front camera. The front camera is actually very capable and will give you a respectable self-portrait as well as capturing 1080p video. If we have one criticism, it's that it could do with a wider-angle lens, which would make video conferencing just a little more agreeable.

The rear camera comes with all the additions that Sony adds to Xperia smartphones. There's no LED flash, but apart from that, you've got a selection of shooting modes, HDR, various focusing options, picture effects and so on. That might be overkill, but if you need your Xperia Tablet Z to capture you a shot, then it has you well covered.

Verdict

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z is a great Android tablet. The design and specification is impressive, offering a thin and light tablet that's a pleasure to hold, with the reassurance of protection from water for those inevitable accidents.

Some might take issue with the need to open flaps, although with the right accessories you'll be able to bypass that minor irritation.

READ: Sony Xperia Tablet Z vs Nexus 10: Which tablet is best for you?

The display isn't the best out there, bettered by the Samsung-built Nexus 10, which offers a more natural colour palette as well as a high resolution for sharper details.

Overall the Sony Xperia Tablet Z is a great choice. A software update to Android 4.2 would lift the user experience to be one of the best out there. If you're looking for an Android tablet at 10.1 inches, it comes recommended.

READ: Best tablets 2013: The best tablets available to buy today