Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet review
Tablet season 2014 is upon us and vying for your attention is the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet. It's slimmer, lighter and more powerful than its Tablet Z predecessor and offers some standout features such as waterproofing.
If you want to splash around in the bath while playing games, watching movies and doing all those tablet-based tasks then the Z2 Tablet has you covered. But, and somewhat perplexingly, Sony has opted for the same 1920 x 1200 resolution 10.1-inch screen and giant bezel surround as found in its predecessor.
Has the tablet world moved forward and left Sony behind or does the Z2 Tablet's slim new design give it enough guts to stand out among the crowd?
Prior to embarking upon this Sony review we have been in the company of the Samsung Galaxy TabPro 10.1. It has the same screen size as the Sony, but avoids the ugly excess bezel. We're not sure why there are such giant black bands around the Z2 Tablet's display, but it's impossible to ignore and almost looks like a tablet of yesteryear because of this.
Conversely, however, the Z2 Tablet's slender design and 426g weight are a revelation. Some 0.5mm and almost 70g has been shed compared to the earlier Tablet Z, but importantly the 6.4mm thick slate is slimmer and lighter than its nearest Samsung and Apple rivals. So big points for Sony there.
In the hand it feels great because quality materials have been used. A smooth rear with Sony and Xperia branding, solid metal buttons and volume control, and a silver-colour metal edge that's softened by smoothed edges. It's all neat and tidy because many ports are hidden under discrete flaps in order to maintain the waterproofing. In short, the Z2 Tablet looks great.
If only Sony had worked as hard to cut back on this excess bezel then we'd be looking at a truly stunning tablet. Because turn the screen on and the bezel is all too apparent. We'll sound like a stuck record whinging about the bezel, but it's a feature that's hard to ignore in our view.
One other aspect of the Xperia Z2 Tablet that many will call into question is the screen resolution. The 1920 x 1200 pixel panel is the same resolution as found in its predecessor, while in the meantime we've been watching other manufacturers output 2560 x 1600 resolutions at the same scale or even in smaller panels.
However, we don't think it matters that much. The Sony still offers a greater-than-Full-HD resolution and 224ppi pixel density. It'll eat up 1080p movies no problem and on-screen icons won't be shown so small scale as a result of super-high resolution that they remain easy to thumb through with accuracy.
But not opting for a higher resolution may mean fewer doors of possibility are open. Take the Samsung Galaxy TabPro 10.1, for example, which offers multi-tasking facility to open multiple application windows at once. Because the Samsung offers a 2560 x 1600 pixel panel this is effective, with text legible even when squeezed into small scale windows on the device. Sony does offer a mini apps feature, where quick commands can be dragged around the screen, but it's less of a Windows-style fare than the Samsung.
What is obvious with the Z2 Tablet screen is its saturated colours. This comes as a result of the X-Reality for mobile software which pumps those colours to excess. But it's easy to switch off: just hit a tick box in the display settings and you'll no longer be looking at impossibly red reds.
It's within the settings department that you'll find other tweaks that can be made to the display, and useful ones at that. We found the Z2 Tablet display to be too warm at all times, but the white balance option provides red, green and blue virtual sliders (from 0-255) to manually shift the colour balance. Even so, when side-by-side next to the Samsung TabPro the Sony can't be called the winner in our opinion - the screen fails to deliver as balanced hues and white whites.
Viewing angles are good as this is an IPS panel, but the glass coating is somewhat reflective and limited auto brightness means reflections show up more than they might on the competition. Hike the brightness and it's little bother.
In use the Z2 Tablet takes Google's Android (4.4 KitKat) operating system and builds upon it with its own software. Sony is all about pushing its Sony Entertainment Network (SEN), and as a company with fingers in many entertainment pies we can see why.
SEN is the hub, with links to music via Walkman and movies via Movies apps each leading to your personal collections but also opening up Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services. These services aren't free (short of a 30 day trial), but if you're already a user then it'll fit perfectly into your setup. Both are decent libraries too.
Games can also be accessed, with the What's New app featuring the latest titles, in addition to the music and movies from Unlimited as mentioned. It's all presented in a friendly, colourful tile-based format.
Compared to the earlier Tablet Z there are some subtle software improvements too. We had remarked how the earlier model bundled settings and notifications together, but that's no longer the case. As with other KitKat devices, notifications are now accessed via a downward swipe to the top left of the screen, while settings are on the right hand side. Much cleaner.
The home screen, and four surrounding screens, can also be customised to suit your needs. Click and drag apps, or active widgets into place for quick access or glance-to-view live updates. We have calendar and email showing as quarter page displays, for example, with some favourite app icons also available for fast loading.
If you want a whole page of twitter, then you can without directly accessing the app, for example. Just assign it to one of the five available screen. However, we found the process of placement to be somewhat rigid. Whereas the Samsung Magazine UX has edge-to-edge placement and app windows are resizable, the Sony software is more fixed in its scale. It also likes to add yet more virtual bezel as apps can't be displayed right towards the edges of the panel. All small things, but we felt some of screen space was underused, plus the trio of Android icons exist as virtual buttons rather than off-screen physical ones.
Sony being Sony there are some cool additional possibilities. Got a Dualshock 3 controller? Plug it in via USB and you can game away to your heart's content. The controller doesn't come with the tablet, but if you're a PlayStation owner then we can see the additional appeal.
As far as tablets go, the Z2 is no slouch when it comes to gaming either. That's because the quad core Snapdragon 801 processor under the surface delivers 2.3Ghz alongside 3GB RAM. It's as powerful as these devices come.
Everything runs smoothly, from browsing to apps, right through to top spec games such as Angry Birds Go! and more. Some apps do clever things to limit the power being utilised, such as in Google Chrome where page "snapshots" avoid a full resolution render when you're not looking at them. Switch from tab to tab and you'll catch the pages refreshing, so there's a tiny bit of lag but it doesn't impact usability.
All that power could cost the battery life dear, but we found the Z2 Tablet to be just fine in our tests. It's not groundbreaking, but the 6000mAh battery lasts out for many hours at a time. We've not needed to charge it throughout the course of an 9-hour office day with a break in the middle. Can't say better than that.
Sony quotes it as 10-hours of movie playback, though, and while we've not sat down for a solid day of watching - we have work to do after all - we did see around a 10-12 per cent battery drop per hour in the standard mode with auto brightness on. Drop the brightness and it could last yet longer.
There are additional battery modes to get the most from a more casual user experience. Stamina Mode, for example, temporarily disables Wi-Fi and applications when the screen is off, while also limiting the hardware performance. Go one step further and Low-Battery mode can be set to kick in when the battery reaches a defined percentage - ours is set to 20 per cent, but you can select anywhere from 1-100 per cent - which temporarily cuts out various features. You can select whether some features can remain on from a checklist which includes Bluetooth, GPS, vibrate, Wi-Fi and more options. Clever idea, and certainly effective.
To charge the Z2 Tablet there's a micro USB port hidden under a waterproof flap. You'll need strong fingernails to get this open and is a bit of a nuisance. But that's the price to pay for waterproofing.
One way around this charging hurdle is the inclusion of a magnetic strip to the base of the tablet. Buy the magnetic Charging Cradle accessory and the Z2 Tablet slots into place neatly, which would be our preferred choice when it comes to charging. It'll cost you an extra £39, but when we've seen the tablet sat upright in its charging position it looks oh so cool. Well worth it.
Wet Wet Wet
How many other tablets can you throw in the bath without worrying about it? Waterproofing is one standout feature of the Sony Z2 Tablet.
But is it really fully waterproof? We've seen some say "water-resistant", but it's better than that. Rated IP55, the Z2 Tablet is rated with a level 5 protection against the ingress of both dust and water particles. That's the second highest on the Ingress Protection scale. To test, we plonked the Z2 Tablet in a bath of water one lunchtime and there were no problems at all after taking it out.
The tablet can't be used properly while submerged, however, as the flow of water seems to confuse the surface into doing things that you're not asking it to. But that's besides the point: it's a protective feature, not a feature to keep bored deep sea divers happy. Knowing you could jump in a swimming pool with this tablet and think nothing of it is cool, although at this scale it's not going to casually slide into a spare pocket.
As a result of the waterproof feature all but the 3.5mm headphone jack are obscured behind removable flaps. The speakers are largely concealed too, with only two small openings to the front left and right sides to output audio. Sound quality is passable, but nothing to get excited about. At full volume and with Sony xLoud switched on the mid-levels sounded close to distortion and weren't particularly comfortable to the ears. There's enough volume to feel the whole tablet almost vibrate from the soundwaves though.
And no, we didn't play any Wet Wet Wet.
From a features perspective the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet has a long list of positives: waterproofing, that new slimmer and lighter design, a quality construction and all the power of the Snapdragon 801 processor. It's premium, priced as such, and waves a Sony flag that's sure to lure people in.
But once in the hand the Z2 Tablet presents its obvious weakness: that excessive bezel. It undoes some of the otherwise excellent design. That plus a screen resolution that's now a step behind the competition - even the 2012 Google Nexus 10 is preferable in this department - are two things impossible to ignore. We said we'll sound like a stuck record about the bezel, but we wanted less of it and an overall smaller product.
Which is a shame, because the Z2 Tablet is a great device. It can mix in among the best of them when it comes to raw power, battery life, software and build quality. But for all its progression compared to the earlier Tablet Z - and it's a far cry better than the earlier still Tablet S - the sum of all those top features fail to add up to the best overall user experience, particularly in light of current competition.