(Pocket-lint) - The latest tablet to roll off Sony's line is the Xperia Z4 Tablet. Announced before Sony confusingly launched a Z4 smartphone in Japan and the Z3+ in the rest of the world, the Z4 Tablet looks to deliver everything you could want from a modern Android tablet.
At a glance, it might not look hugely different from Sony's past tablets, and in that sense it's symptomatic of Sony Mobile's approach to design. It's packed with some of the latest hardware, however, so it is more progressive than some of Sony's previous devices and, indeed, some of its latest smartphones too.
Will the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet be crowned as the best Android tablet? We've been living with one to find out.
Design: Slim gets slimmer
You might think that Sony's overriding aim is to make the slimmest tablet around. For several generations, the Xperia Tablet has stuck to Sony's OmniBalance design – and that hasn't changed here.
The Z4 Tablet is a slim machine at just 6.1mm throughout its 254 x 167mm footprint, with Sony still hanging onto some of the prominent bezel around that 10.1-inch display. It's more compact than the previous Z2 Tablet, slimming down and looking smarter for 2015.
The bezel has been a source of criticism in the past, but in reality it gives you somewhere to grip the thing both in landscape and portrait orientations. A bezel-free display might be desirable on a smartphone, but you don't want to be constantly putting your fingers all over the sides of your tablet display. And given that the Z4 Tablet weighs only 389g, we're happy with its balance; its more slender frame feels great in the hands at this scale.
The Z4 Tablet offers a high quality of build and is one of the few devices on the market that's water resistant, with an IP65/68 rating. The slots for the microSD card on the side – and SIM if you have the 4G version – are covered by the traditional flap, but the Micro-USB socket is now open to the elements, but still weather-proofed, just like the 3.5mm headphone socket.
That makes a tablet that delivers the benefit of environmental protection, without the faff of flaps its predecessors have featured. If you're looking for the ideal tablet for watching Sons of Anarchy while in the bath, then this Sony is most certainly it.
The signature metal power button is a little more prominent than on previous devices, which we found makes it a little easy to knock, but overall, we're really taken with the Z4 Tablet's design. It's higher quality than the HTC-built Nexus 9 and well placed to compete with the latest Samsung Tab S2 devices or the iPad Air 2.
Sony has been moving the speakers around across its devices for the past few years. Here you have a pair of front-firing speakers in the seam between the display edge and the border. The 1-inch slits sit typically where you might grip the tablet when gaming, so they can get obscured by your fingers, unless you flip it upside down (with the Sony logo upside down and at the bottom). We also found that the position of the volume rocker meant we frequently changed the volume when gaming, which isn't the smartest piece of design.
The Z4 Tablet is, currently, one of the larger Android tablets out there, with many competitors moving towards the smaller 8- and 9-inch sizes. Samsung is one of the other few exceptions, with its 12.2-inch Galaxy Note Pro.
Reflections on the display
While others have been bumping up the resolution of the display, Sony has seemed reluctant to make a step forward beyond Full HD (1920 x 1080). The Z4 Tablet changes that, with the step-up to a super-sharp 2K display, delivering a resolution of 2560 x 1600 pixels over the 10.1-inch panel, which equates to 299ppi. That aspect ratio is wide-angle, much like your TV, rather than the squarer format of the iPad or the new Samsung Galaxy Tab S2.
Aside from the bump in resolution, Sony's message is simple: this is its best display on a tablet yet. It's brighter than before, has a wider colour gamut, and in the time we've been using it that's certainly been proven true. However, with Sony's X-Reality software engaged, things can appear a little oversaturated. This gives a boost to things like photos, but we found that some games looked a little too garish at times. We'd rather that to a dull and lifeless display, however, so we can't complain too much – plus X-Reality can be switched off from within the settings.
However, there is a slight weakness: the display surface is incredibly glossy. This means that when outdoors you're going to see a lot of reflections, although it has the brightness to cut through them, even if you'll have to manually move the brightness slider up at times to get the levels you need. That's exactly what we've had to do when on the train writing this very review using the Z4 Tablet itself. Even with this ample brightness the screen is a fingerprint magnet, so you'll be forever wiping it clean.
We like the richness of the colours and the resolution makes everything nice and sharp, especially those apps and images optimised for higher-resolution viewing.
Plenty of power
We've never really asked for tablets to be hugely powerful. When using a tablet we never have the urgency that we do with a smartphone, where we're switching apps, firing all over the place, trying to get things done in a hurry. That leads to many tablets offering good performance without pushing the highest specs.
The Xperia Z4 Tablet is a different beast, an all-powerful flagship device that's every bit as powerful as your phone, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chipset and 3GB of RAM. It's hugely powerful, skipping through tasks and quick to act when you ask it to do something.
There's been a lot of debate about the thermal performance of that chipset – especially in the Sony Xperia Z3+, where it had lots of problems – but we can't say we've experienced such an experience with the Z4 Tablet. Yes, it gets warm during a prolonged session of Real Racing 3, but we didn't find it to be problematic.
There's a sizable 6,000mAh battery on board, with Sony boasting that you'll be able to get 17 hours of video watching out of it thanks to Stamina mode. This, of course, varies depending on what you're doing and there are times you don't want Stamina mode engaged. But we found that the Xperia Z4 is a good performer, giving you more than the typical 10 hours of constant use. We've been able to use it for long days out of the office as a lightweight productivity device without the battery being a concern.
There's 32GB of internal storage, with support for microSD as we've already mentioned. There's the option for Wi-Fi only or 4G/LTE, so you can stay connected on the go too. When all is said and done, there's little on the spec sheet that this tablet is missing and it offers a slick and smooth performance.
That keyboard dock
There is a point of controversy surrounding the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet, however, and that's the BKB50 keyboard dock that comes in the box. Not because a Bluetooth keyboard is necessarily a bad thing, but that you can't buy the tablet without it. That means you're paying for something you might not want, but more importantly, it suggests that Sony thinks you're going to be using this device for more wordy tasks, that productivity is going to be up at the top of your list. Almost like a Microsoft Surface competitor (which, conversely, doesn't feature a keyboard in the box, but probably should).
That's all well and good, except when the price lands at £499, which is exactly how much the Wi-Fi only 32GB Z4 Tablet costs. That makes the it more expensive than the 64GB iPad Air 2. But then the power, cracking display and waterproofing might swing things into Sony's favour. The keyboard, however, costs £149 on its own and while we wouldn't expect the Z4 Tablet to be £350 without it, getting below the £400 mark would make the Z4 Tablet much more appealing for a whole other audience.
But back to the keyboard for a moment, which we're not entirely opposed to as some might be (similar to our Surface argument). It's a Bluetooth keyboard and connecting is quick and easy, followed by a key tap to wake it up for full keyboard controls. Some concessions for Android have been made too, with home, back and recent apps buttons to aid navigation. There's also a full run of function buttons on board to change volume, brightness and so on. For a brief second you could be fooled into thinking this is a best of both worlds: ultra portable and productive, fused with the fun of Android.
There's also a trackpad, just like a laptop, with an on-screen pointer to help you navigate around. This trackpad is rough to the touch, however, unlike the silky smoothness of the display. To avoid accidental touches there's a slight delay on the trackpad before it wakes up, by which time you have to ask whether you'll wait, or just use touch instead. We used a mixture.
The pre-installed Microsoft apps are again a nod to productivity (and becoming common on Android devices) and the first thing we did was sign in to Office 365, sync to OneDrive and resume our work from Office 2016 apps on the Mac. That's Microsoft's "Office everywhere" dream in action, and thanks to the keyboard, word processing is a darn sight better than it is using an on-screen keyboard.
So yes, you can get productive with the Xperia Z4 Tablet docked into its keyboard, but it's still a mixture of keyboard and touch. Using the recent apps button to multitask is a little cumbersome and there's no sign of an equivalent Samsung (or LG) dual view, which might be handy for those who want to refer to something (like a spec sheet) while writing something else (like a tablet review).
The attaching mechanism is mostly friction based, but we found it secure enough. The slight rake of the keyboard when open makes it possible to type, although it's a little clattery. This chiclet-style keyboard could be better, but after a period adjustment, we were typing away with enough speed and accuracy. One thing we really don't like, however, is the tiny right-hand shift key. It's so small, and nestled between the cursor and return, is an easy route to errors.
But, and it's a fairly big but, there are lots of areas where Android isn't great when deployed as a desktop operating system. Many apps work in portrait only, and the keyboard response is often different between apps, so this isn't a permanent solution. Whether that's an acceptable compromise for you will depend on exactly what you're looking for. If you're looking for productivity, then you'll probably be better suited with a Microsoft's Surface, with its proper desktop Windows operating system.
User interface and software
Sony sits in the middle of the customisation pack with its Android devices. There's a full run of changes under the skin, but with Android 5 Lollipop, much stays true to the core Android experience, unlike rivals Samsung, that introduces much wider changes. There's some subtle details we like, such as the ability to customise the shortcuts in the swipe down menu, but sticking to Lollipop's native design.
There are some fancy wallpaper effects, changing colours and patterns as you swipe around using the tablet. There are a wide range of pre-installed apps, which is something that Sony Mobile is often guilty of. This ranges across Sony content offerings, and an ever expanding array of apps from Kobo Books to Garmin Navigation to Support apps, many of which you'll likely ignore.
We like the inclusion of the Microsoft apps, although, in reality, this being Android, it's easy enough to install the apps you want. You can also uninstall many of those bundled apps to tidy things up too, and we'd heartily recommend you do so. When docked, there's a sort-of Windows-style Start menu offering recent apps, although by the time you've tapped the button, you might as well have opened the Android apps tray to select what you want.
Then you have PS4 Remote Play, giving added appeal to those with a Sony console under the TV who want to play over Wi-Fi on the go, as well as the option to use your DualShock controller with your tablet to enhance the gaming experience.
Things are slick and fast when interacting with the Xperia Z4 Tablet. As we mentioned, there's plenty of power on board and there doesn't seem to be a huge let down on the software side either. Yes, the bundling is a little boring and Sony's adaptations don't seem to have changed visually for the last three years (like icon design, menus, and so forth), but we're happy that you ask it to do something and it does so with little fuss.
There's an 8-megapixel camera on the rear of the Xperia Z4 Tablet and a 5-megapixel camera on the front too. We're not massive users of tablet cameras, but we know (having been to any number of tourist spots around the world) that some people are. Perhaps too many people.
There's no flash here (not uncommon for a tablet), and the cameras don't have the same sort of quality that you'd expect from one of Sony's smartphones. But they're still good enough.
The rear camera is reasonable in good light, but as the light dips so image noise quickly appears. The same can be said of the front camera, which offers a nice wide-angle, but fairly grainy results. If you're after the occasional selfie then it will swing into action, but we'd recommend using your smartphone instead.
Despite all the power, the rear camera doesn't offer 4K video capture, sticking instead to Full HD, but there's plenty of fun to be had, including Sony's AR Effects app that will keep kids entertained for hours by swapping their faces for tigers and pirates. Until you uninstall it, that is.
Sony's naming convention has become a little obscure in the Xperia line, with the Z4 Tablet really replacing the Xperia Z2 Tablet (the Z3 Tablet being a smaller 8-inch model). But this latest offering, despite its determined large scale and design, does address some of the issues we had with the previous device.
Principal to those is that the display resolution has now jumped forward to a super-sharp 2K panel. Some small tweaks make the world of difference too: the waterproofing is better than predecessors as the Micro-USB port is proofed, making the Z4 Tablet a lot more practical to live with than earlier flap-protected port designs. It's also altogether slimmer and more compact than earlier models, adding to the overall appeal.
It's a great tablet to use, it offers solid performance and battery life, and that bundled keyboard is a big nod to the productivity ambitions that the Z4 Tablet harbours. But while you can buy that keyboard separately (£149), you also can't avoid the cost of it as it's bundled in the box. The resulting £499 (Wi-Fi) or £579 (4G LTE) asking prices are therefore a touch high, especially if you're getting a keyboard you don't actually want.
Potential keyboard qualm aside, however, and the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet is one of the slickest Android tablets out there. It has power that will leave many standing, but you'll have to pay a high price to own one.