When it comes to premium tablets, most arguments fall flat when the Apple iPad is brought up, and not without good reason. However, that’s not to say there’s no market for rivals – you could attribute it to personal preferences or sometimes, a more practical matter of desired capabilities and features, such as say, expandable memory or plug-n-play connectivity with a computer. And this is where Sony’s new Xperia Tablet Z comes in.
Not to be confused with the manufacturer’s flagship smartphone with the same moniker, the Tablet Z brings with the entire gamut of enticing features and capabilities apt for a high-end slate, many of which are shared with its handset sibling. And at the top of the list is IP5X and IPX5/7 certifications for dust and water resistance respectively. In fact, it can survive submersion in up to 3 feet of wear for up to 30 minutes at a time, and we’re sure you can imagine all the possibilities that open up. But how does it fare otherwise?
Design and Hardware
The Xperia Tablet Z borrows quite a few design elements from its smartphone namesake, and sports a similar blocky design. Except for small rounded corners, there are no curves at all, and it’s essentially a flat, rectangular slab. The Tablet Z’s highly anorexic chassis is a mere 6.9mm thick, and is extremely lightweight, weighing just 495 grams. This makes it the thinnest and the lightest 10-incher, at least at the time of writing. Thanks mainly to this, and also its soft-touch rear, the slate is quite comfy to hold, which is more than what can be said for the Xperia Z smartphone.
Meant to be help primarily in the landscape orientation, as is evident from the placement of the branding and the controls, the device doesn’t have any hardware keys on the front, and the fascia is dominated with the 10.1-inch display. The screen is surrounded by a black border, but when it’s on standby, the front is just a large expanse of piano black. When held in the landscape orientation, the Sony logo is on top left of the screen, with the front camera placed right in the center. The top is home to the IR blaster and a microphone, while there’s nothing on the right save the right speaker grille closer to the bottom. At the bottom, you’ll find the stereo speakers placed on both extremes, a tab-covered microUSB port on the left, and the micro-SIM and microSD slots hiding under a single tab towards the right.
The left spine sees a lot of action, with the 3.5mm audio socket on top, again covered with a tab. Right below that is the metallic circular power / sleep button, a notification LED, and the volume rocker. Moving town below on the same side, you’ll find a couple of dock connectors and the left speaker grille. Intelligently, the stereo speakers get outlets both on the bottom as well as the sides, so that the audio isn’t muffled if you’re using the slate on your lap. As far as the back is concerned, there’s just the main camera on top right, Xperia branding bang in the center, and a small NFC logo close to the bottom. Overall, the build quality is solid, and as we mentioned earlier, it’s svelte chassis and light weight make it supremely easy to hold for long periods of time — a vital criterion for any portable device like this. The dimensions also translate well into portability — just slip it into a bag and you’ll hardly realize it’s there till you need it.
Sony’s known for its displays, and the one on the Xperia Tablet Z is of the LED backlit variety and sports a resolution of 1,920×1,200 pixels with a density of 224 ppi. The screen boasts Mobile Bravia Engine 2 tech, and as such, the colors are crisp, and the display quite sharp. The screen isn’t overly saturated and that appears as dullness on occasion, but it does seem more natural overall. If we had to nitpick, we’d say that it’s not the best display we’ve seen till date. That said, it’s still quite capable and responsive.
Cameras on tablets, especially large-screened slates like this one, remain useful just for casual photography. As anyone who has tried shooting with one will testify, the size and the form factor isn’t exactly conducive for anything more. However, we’ve seen more than a few users using tablet cameras, and if you’re one of them, you’ll be a tad disappointed with the Tablet Z’s snapper.
The 8.1-megapixel shooter here boasts the Exmor R for mobile image sensor, and offers most of the frills we’re accustomed to, including HDR, burst mode, Sony’s Sweep Panorama, and control over settings such as exposure, white balance, ISO and metering. It also includes a “Superior Auto” mode that adjust settings based on the scene, but shoots only at the max resolution of 7-megapixels.
At front, a 2.2-megapixel camera handles video calling. The UI is quite straightforward, and allows you to capture stills and video without switching modes. In fact, you can shoot 1-megapixel stills while capturing video. Speaking of video, the main camera is capable of full HD video recording too. However, while shots taken in good light are usable, they aren’t really outstanding. And shots taken in low light tend to appear noisy and grainy. While this may not be a deal breaker for those who don’t prefer using a tablet for shooting, it’s still worth noting since a premium device like this is expected to deliver great results, and also if you’re depending solely on it for capturing important moments.
Again drawing parallels with its smartphone sibling, the skin atop Android 4.1.2 is very similar in look and feel to what we’ve seen on the handset earlier. The lock screen, in fact, is the same, and offers the same quick access for camera and music, along with a lovely windows blinds animation while unlocking. The skin has been tweaked for the tablet’s large screen, and hence, you get the three Android keys as software overlays towards the bottom left on the UI, and the notifications and status indicators on the bottom right. The bar on top offers quick access to Google Now and space to place four of your fave app shortcuts alongside, while the top right has a button for editing home screens, plus access to the app drawer. The main gripe we have here is that the size of these onscreen controls is too small, and therefore, it’s possible to tap the adjoining one by mistake or miss your target completely at times. “Small Apps” as seen on the Xperia Z are present here as well, and are accessible via a tiny button at the bottom. Hitting said button pops up a menu bar with the available small apps — including the likes of notes, a calculator, and even a mini browser. These can be dragged around, but not resized, and for some reason, you can only have one of them running at a time. Some of them pop out as full-sized versions. You can add more Small Apps via the Play Store, and even include any of the available widgets as part of the small apps menu. These widgets pop out in the same fashion as Small Apps, and can also be resized.
Next, another button next to the small apps key gives access to the small version of the Remote app, which turns goes full sized with a tap. Also accessible via the main app drawer, the Remote app uses the IR blaster on top of the slate for universal remote functionality. A useful capability, and one that’s quite similar to what we’ve seen in some of the recent smartphone flagships such as the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4, the one on offer here doesn’t provide an EPG feature. However, it’s capable of controlling almost the entire gamut of home entertainment kit, including TVs, set-top boxes, projectors, iPod docks, amplifiers, DVD players, Blu-ray players, and more. The setup process could vary depending upon the specific brand and model you have — it worked with our LG TV in a single shot but it took numerous hits and misses before it shook hands (reluctantly, for not all functions could be controlled) with our Humax-made Tata Sky Plus box.
Sony also crams the Xperia Tablet Z with software, including quite a few multimedia apps. The music and movie players are quite worthy, capable of downloading media info and artwork from the internet. And if you get bored of music stored locally, there’s FM radio available too. Deserving a special mention is the “Smart Connect” app that lets you specify tasks and actions that are carried out automatically when you connect accessories. For example, you could set it to launch the Walkman music player app when you connect a pair of headphones. In yet another interesting twist, while the slate can’t (thankfully) be used for making cellular voice calls, it does have SMS capabilities that can be used via the included Messages app. For text input, there’s the Xperia keyboard that, apart from the usual full-sized option, also offers a smaller iteration that docks to one side for easier typing when the tablet’s held in the hand.
Performance and Battery life
The guts inside this slim gadget are home to a Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core chip clocked at 1.5GHz, an Adreno 320 GPU, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of expandable storage. These are solid specs, and they reflect in the tablet’s performance. There was nary a hiccup in our testing and usage — with the device coming out triumphant on the smoothness and responsiveness quotient. It didn’t have trouble with any of the apps and games we threw its way, and it multi-tasked like a champ.
When you consider the options it offers for hooking up to other devices, you won’t be disappointed — there’s dual-band Wi-Fi, NFC, DLNA, and HDMI via MHL apart from the other usual stuff. USB OTG support is present too — and comes in handy when you need to transfer some data or media in a crunch. The sealed 6,000 mAh battery pack seems decent too, for it lasted us a full working day with reasonably heavy usage and the tablet hooked up to either 3G or Wi-Fi at all times. Realistically speaking, you should expect nightly charging if you’re using it for gaming and media, and carry the charger with you for trips that extend into the second day. If your usage is more sporadic, the battery can see you through the second day as well, especially if the customizable Stamina mode is used. To put it in a nutshell, we were quite impressed by what’s on offer.
And then we saw the price tag.
High pricing is the undoing of many a capable gizmo, especially considering the competitive landscape… and that seems to be the case with the Xperia Tablet Z too. Apart from its Achilles’ heel of a camera, most other criteria work quite well in its favor. Everything from its sexy, svelte design, good build, snappy performance, to the decent screen and battery life strike the right chords. And the dust- and water-resistance is really the icing on the cake — useful in so many scenarios including trips to the beach and when faced with a sudden downpour. The importance of this feature cannot be over-emphasized.
While the Xperia Z handset’s pricing at launch time worked out well in the face of more expensive smartphones, the Tablet Z’s sticker of Rs 46,990 (~ $810) in India could definitely act as a deal breaker because it’s very tough to ignore the Apple iPad’s pull at such price points. If you’re the US, you can get the Tablet Z for $499, and the iPad starts at the same price too, so you’re still facing a similar quandary. Undeniably, there’s a certain coolness attached to any Apple product. But even if you look at it objectively, the iOS ecosystem has significantly more tablet-optimized apps compared to Android, not to mention other factors such as the iPad 4’s gorgeous display and awesome battery life.
However, for all it’s goodness, the iPad doesn’t offer features such as memory expansion, the convenience of USB On-The-Go and plug-n-play PC connectivity. And it certainly isn’t water resistant. The Sony Xperia Tablet Z is the panacea you need if you’re looking for a premium, feature-rich Android slate, and we can have no qualms in saying that at this time, you really can’t do better than this.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10