Sony's appetite for smartphone releases isn't quite matched by its schedule for tablets, the latest of which sees Sony trying to crack the smaller tablet segment.
The name Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact reminds us of slightly cumbersome German compound words (like Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister) and sees Sony hanging onto the Z3 family name, designating it a tablet, and proclaiming that it's small. Why it can't just be the 8-inch Xperia Tablet, we don't know.
It arrives with plenty of the goodness that we've seen from Sony's previous two most recent tablets. But is this the compact tablet to plump for?
Apple boasted about the 6.1mm thickness of the iPad Air 2, but you can't complain about the 6.4mm thickness of the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact. Measuring 213 x 124mm front-on, it sticks to Sony's OmniBalance design, retaining the rather large bezel at either end.
That does at least give you somewhere obvious to hold the tablet when in landscape orientation, even if it makes it look a little taller or longer than it perhaps should be. At 270g, however, it's light and portable. It's comfortable for prolonged one-handed use, and more than 20 per cent lighter than the iPad mini.
It's nicely constructed, using Sony's now-familiar approach with front and back neatly held together with the waistband, offering reinforced corners for added drop protection. As before, the tablet is waterproofed with an IP65/68 rating, so it will be happy in the bath.
The external ports are covered by removable flaps to seal the body, although the 3.5mm headphone socket is proofed so doesn't need such a cover. There's also a contact charging point which means the tablet can be docked to charge (using a charging dock accessory, sold separately), rather than fiddling with the Micro-USB flap and plugging in the provided cable each time you want to recharge.
The back of the Z3 Tablet Compact is plastic with a matte textured finish. It's perhaps not as premium as some but it feels solid enough and that texture provides some grip, with a little sparkle when it catches the light right.
This is a refinement of all Sony's previous Xperia designs and, apart from thinking the Tablet Compact looks longer than it should, there isn't much to complain about. It's certainly a win for portability.
The 8-inch display comes with a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels (283ppi). Sony has doggedly stuck to this resolution while other competitors have leapt around. Samsung sits at 2560 x 1600 (359ppi) on its 8.4-inch Galaxy Tab S, while the iPad mini is 2048 x 1536 pixels (326ppi) on its 7.9 inch display.
With the Nexus 9 moving to a 4:3 ratio, an aspect that's been so popular on the iPad, the rather elongated look of the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact might make it feel rather awkward to some.
Certainly the Z3 Tablet Compact's 16:10 aspect ratio isn't as useful in portrait as you might like, so it isn't as adept for reading books, but it acquits itself well when it comes to movies where it's a natural fit.
The Z3 Tablet Compact comes fully loaded with Sony's trademarks too. It's a Triluminous display, using a Live Color LED construction and X-Reality processing in an aim to boost colours in photos and video. We've seen this in many devices previously and the experience is generally good, but if it's too much - and the Super-Vivid mode is worth avoiding as it over saturates to the extent that detail is lost - then X-Reality can be switched off.
The IPS panel is also good for wide viewing angles. You can set the Z3 Tablet Compact down on the desk and things still look as they should from the majority of angles, although things do dim and lose contrast a little as you hit the extremes - but that's not typical of how a product such as this is used, so is of little consequence.
Sony claims this is its brightest display ever, but we found the auto brightness to be a little too aggressive and lack brightness in indoor conditions. The screen surface is very reflective, which is part of the problem, as you'll need a little more brightness to cut through those reflections. You can opt to change the brightness using a software-based slider for full control, though, so can manually fix the brightness to your preference. Another problem with the screen is how it seems to cling on to fingerprints a little more than we'd like, so needs wiping clean often.
But we're happy with the display quality. Whites are bright and there are decent blacks too, although it perhaps doesn't quite have the richness that the Samsung Galaxy Tab S AMOLED display offers.
If your interest is squeezing the highest quality out of the images you're viewing then, yes, some other tablets will serve you better when it comes to absolute detail. But in many cases, as it currently stands, the Sony copes with apps, games and movies well enough.
The power within
Sony isn't scared to pump plenty of power into its devices and the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact is no exception. With a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset clocked at 2.5GHz with 3GB of RAM under the hood, this tablet is as powerful as most flagship smartphones - and that shows in its slick operation.
Apps are fast to load and everything is lag-free in operation. But at times we've felt it isn't quite as fast as the Nexus 9 (which we also have on the desk in front of us): load up Real Racing 3 and the Nexus feels like it offers smoother performance, especially noticeable on panning shots, where there's a little more judder on the Xperia tablet. But that's a minor point in a device that's otherwise well specified; a point that shows just how impressive Nvidia's Tegra chipset is.
The 16GB internal storage is a little on the light side, though, as there's the operating system eats into space, leaving only 11.20GB available out of the box. If you're a gamer that space will soon fill with big games, which can often clock 3GB a piece.
For media that's less of a problem as the Sony has microSD card slot, accepting cards up to 128GB, which is a perfect way to carry extra downloaded movies or music. For apps, however, the Android operating system doesn't allow installs on separate media, it needs to be on the core internal storage.
The Z3 Tablet Compact comes in both Wi-Fi and 4G versions, so if you want to use this as a phone or just stay connected on the move then you can, but the 4G version comes at a premium.
There are front-facing speakers on the edges of the device, as seen in the higher-spec Xperia phones and the larger Z2 Tablet. It's great that Sony is putting two speakers to the front as that really brings a stereo boost to gaming and movies that some other tablets lack.
They offer plenty of volume too, although things get a little distorted and shrill at the top levels; keep in the middle of the volume range and you'll get the best performance. There are various enhancements you can apply both to the speakers and headphone output, with the latter getting a 3D surround option if you want it.
One of the unique features that Sony had been offering with some products, such as the earlier Z2 smartphone, was the inclusion of NC31EM noise-cancelling headphones in the box. Sadly that's not the case this for the Z3 Tablet Compact time around, as you'll need to fork out an extra £60 for the pleasure (or buy a suitable alternative pair). As we've found previously, these headphones do work very well, so will appeal to those who like to use a tablet on their travels minus the background noise.
There's also support for high-res audio over USB, if you're looking for even higher quality.
Software and user interface
The Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact launches on Android 4.4 KitKat, tweaked with Sony's usual user interface changes. That means a lot of Sony content is elevated through Music and Video Unlimited, which is integrated into the Walkman app and elsewhere, and there's the bloatware aplenty.
You can turn off the integrated Sony content from the media apps if you don't use those services, leaving it to local content only, which we suspect many will. As we've experienced before, there's still a good deal of media support, which is where the likes of Sony and Samsung win out over stock Android or Apple's iOS arrangement.
You'll be able to play a range of file types out of the box, with integrated support for network media sources, if you have a stack of existing movies or music you want to play. It will even apply Gracenote details to your local files, giving you more information on that rogue movie you find lurking in the depths of your network.
That makes the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact something of a star when it comes to Sony's media experience. It's as good here as it is on the Z3 or the Z3 Compact smartphones.
Some of the nicest changes to Android recently have arrived with the latest version, Lollipop, which isn't yet available yet on the Tablet Compact. Sony has confirmed that the update is coming, but there's no date on exactly when that will happen.
With Lollipop you'll benefit from lots of material design apps updating; the latest that Maps or Gmail has to offer, in addition to downloading plenty of extras for that Lollipop look and feel.
For what it's worth, we now think that Google's stock Android calendar is better than Sony's, so if you're interested in productivity then Google's Docs, Sheets and Slides are probably a better bet than the bundled OfficeSuite app. As Google refines Android's offering, some of the Sony-specific bundled extras feel rather redundant. But, for now, it's a case of playing the waiting game for Lollipop to arrive - just as is the case for many other phones in the interim.
PS4 Remote Play
One of the unique features Sony is pushing in the Z3 Tablet Compact is support for the PlayStation 4. Remote Play is a really good way to play PS4 games away from your main TV and the Z3 Tablet Compact is one of the few devices that will support this option (the PS Vita handheld console being the device that kicked the feature into action). You'll need a PS4, of course, but that should be high on every gamers' hotlist.
In addition, you'll need to buy the Game Control Mount (£30) to connect the DualShock 4 controller to the Z3 Tablet Compact, but then you'll be able to play using the tablet's screen. We've used the Z3 Tablet Compact for Remote Play and the size really does make it a fantastic option.
Battery life is one of the strengths of the Z3 Tablet Compact. For those following the Sony Mobile story, you'll know that battery life has been something of a forte of late. The Z3 Tablet Compact continues that trend, offering a 4500mAh battery. Although that's not as capacious as some competitors, it offers around 15 hours of video playback.
What's perhaps most surprising is how well this tablet will last in standby mode. We charged it and ignored it for a week (as the Pocket-lint Awards 2014 was our primary focus) and were surprised to find it still had some juice when we came back to it.
One thing that assists in preserving battery life is that conservative screen brightness we mentioned earlier. Use your tablet for watching TV in the dark, and it will outperform many others; crank the brightness up and hit those demanding games and the Z3 Tablet Compact will rip through the battery life just like any other tablet.
There's an 8.1-megapixel camera on the rear of the Z3 Tablet Compact and a 2.2-megapixel front-facing camera. There's no flash on the rear, but otherwise the camera app is loaded with many of the features you'll find on the Sony Xperia smartphones range.
If you're a fan of tablet photography (which, hopefully, nobody is) that might come in handy, but for many we suspect it will never get used. You get the likes of SteadyShot stabilisation, HDR (high dynamic range), and a selection of shooting modes. There's no sign of 4K video capture, but otherwise there are plenty of options.
The performance doesn't quite match that of the Z3 smartphones, but given good light and you'll get some reasonable quality shots. When the light dips, a sprinkling of image noise pushes its presence into images rather quickly.
Flip the tablet around and the front camera produces snaps that are a little soft, but we suspect it will be mostly used for video rather than taking selfies. Again, in low-light the quality drops off fairly quickly.
Sony has made a play for portability with the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact and there's no denying that's been achieved, in spite of the bezel present at both ends. As a tablet to throw in a bag and take with you on the move, it gets the core design right.
It's well specified, with plenty of power, substantial endurance, waterproofing, and a display that can cope with brighter conditions (once you take control of its brightness settings). In that sense, there's little that the Z3 Tablet Compact won't do.
However, it is rather expensive. At £329 it's £90 more than the iPad mini 2, which is a natural rival. The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 (Wi-Fi) and Nexus 9 are also both cheaper, at £319 a piece. The 4G version of the Z3 Tablet Compact, as reviewed here, is £429, making it considerably more expensive.
There are unique strengths of Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, such as its PS4 Remote Play feature, but the competition is fierce. From the iPad's premium build and superb apps, to Samsung's excellent high-resolution display, or the Nexus 9's 64-bit Tegra power and pure Android Lollipop offering, the Sony finds itself struggling to make as strong a case.
For PlayStation 4 owners and media fans, or those who want a travel companion, the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact is worth a look. But for all the goodness it offers, the price just feels too high.
from £329 | £429 as reviewed