With the Xperia Tablet Z, Sony's making a statement: It's saying that the premium, innovative Sony-of-old is back. The Sony we remember fondly from our childhoods. This thing's an absolute stunner, that much is obvious to anyone on the internet, but using it, is it good enough to supplant the Nexus 10 or even the tablet king, the iPad?
Sony's exquisite-looking new tablet, which takes the novel design of the Xperia Z phone and expands it to 10.1 inches.
People who want a premium tablet that's not an iPad.
As I mentioned, Sony's novel design ethos from the Xperia Z is clearly visible in the Tablet Z; a great move from where I'm standing. It's not glitzy or too fancy; just a simple black rectangle with slightly rounded corners, and straight, square sides inlaid with black glass-like plastic (at least on the black version). On the whole it's actually very understated, and looks different to most other tablets on the market -- it certainly couldn't be confused for an iPad, which is a very good thing in my book.
It's not often that I get to say a gadget has made me drool, but the Xperia Tablet Z managed it. Unfortunately, it's one of those things that has to be experienced in the flesh to really understand its gorgeous physicality -- no amount of photos or videos will truly give you a sense of what this thing is like.
The main design feature of the Tablet Z has to be its minuscule thickness. This thing is so thin; it's actually thinner than most of the anorexic phones we've got today, at just 6.9mm thick. Compare that to the iPad's 9.4mm and you get an idea of just how thin it is. That insane waistline basically defines the rest of the tablet.
The front of the Z is just a screen with a chat cam embedded above it. In fact, it resembles pretty much any modern Sony TV, complete with the little Sony logo in the top left-hand corner. When the screen is off, you can't really see where screen ends and the frame begins, although it does have quite a large bezel around the outside. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, because it's about a thumb's width either side of the screen, which gives you something to hold onto without interfering with whatever you're trying to watch or read. I'm not entirely sure why, but the screen just begs to be touched, much more so than an iPad.
Along the sides of the tablet you've got the doors that cover the ports; a thin volume rocker; a power button; a small but bright notification LED, and two contacts for a charging dock. The top edge features an IR blaster, which is apparently a thing now, considering all the flagship Android phones seem to have them. In the tablet's bottom left and right corners are two sets of speakers, one pair along the bottom and another pair on the sides, which means when you're holding it you don't block the speakers.
The rear of the tablet is a lot less fancy than the front, with a matt black fibreglass-infused polycarbonate back plate, which actually ends up being just about the right amount of grip, giving you confidence that this thing isn't going to slide out of your hands. The 8.1MP shooter punctuates the back plate in the top right-hand corner, with an NFC chip indicator stuck like a tramp-stamp centrally on its bottom edge.
So thin and light, unlike almost every other 10-inch tablet, you put this thing down when you want to, not when your arms can't take it anymore. It makes using a large-screen tablet as easy as wielding a 7-incher.
The screen is great, too. It's got decent viewing angles, which makes sharing videos and photos with your mates easy on its 10.1-inch widescreen. Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine 2 is in force here, just like the Xperia Z, which makes videos and photos really pop. In fact, the screen has pretty decent colour saturation all round, without feeling artificially enhanced, while whites are warm without being yellowed. At 10.1-inches of full HD 1920x1200 resolution, you get a respectable 224ppi, which makes text look razor-sharp. Although it's bested by both the iPad 4 at 264ppi and the Nexus 10 at 299ppi, the Tablet Z can rub shoulders with the best of them, as you really can't tell it's any less sharp. To all intents and purposes, the Sony's screen is just as crisp and even a little bit clearer than most of the competition.
On the performance side of things, Sony's thrown last year's cutting-edge processor in there: The Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked at 1.5GHz and backed by 2GB of RAM. While it's not going to be quite as fast as the likes of the Snapdragon 600-packing HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4, it's no slouch and I couldn't detect any lag anywhere across the interface or when loading apps.
Having the speakers on both the edge of the tablet and the bottom really does help when watching TV or movies. It means you can hold it properly without worrying about blocking the speakers, and not having them on the back means they have decent forward projection, making them more than loud enough. We're not talking HTC's BoomSound performance here, but the speakers are decent for a tablet this thin. Sony's thrown in some 3D sound virtual surround processing in the mix too, and while the stereo separation is actually quite good without it, virtual surround is more of a gimmick than anything else.
Likewise, the audio quality over both Bluetooth and through the headphones port is one of the best I've heard for a long time. Solid sound reproduction without having to resort to something as distortion-inducing as Beats audio is nice, and shows Sony's put a bit of the Walkman magic into the creation of its latest tablet.
The last factor that you have to consider when using the Tablet Z is, because it's waterproof and dustproof, the port doors which seal the tablet against elements. In normal usage, the only ones you'll likely open are the microUSB and headphones ports. While a door hanging open on the bottom of the tablet during charging it at home won't cause any issues, having the headphone's door swinging free while you're out and about might. Still, get yourself a set of Bluetooth headphones and you've got that problem solved.
It's unbelievably thin, and damn light at just 495g (compared to the iPad's 662g and Nexus 10's 603g), which makes holding it, using it, and carrying it around so incredibly easy. No longer does a 10-inch tablet kill your arms, forcing you to prop the thing up on your knee or a table.
It's an absolute fingerprint magnet. Sony says the Tablet Z has an anti-fingerprint coating on its screen. I'm not sure what coating the screen has, but if it is oleophobic as Sony says it is, it has failed. This thing attracts skin oils like a summer picnic attracts wasps.
Being waterproof, all the ports are sealed with little rubber-edged doors. The strange thing is that they're all labelled with the usual symbols, apart from the cover to the microUSB port, which has been left blank. It's not that it inhibits the device at all, or that you really need a label, but it's really odd that it's the only one that's not got a symbol stamped on it. Weird. A small quibble, we'll admit.
- It's waterproof, which comes in handy if you're using it in a kitchen or the bathtub. Who doesn't want to watch movies while enjoying a good soak?
- Being waterproof, it's really easy to clean because you can just run it under a tap. Make sure the port doors are shut first, though, OK?
- Because it's so thin and light I can even one-hand this thing, which makes carrying it outside of a bag really easy. In fact, it's the first 10-incher I've ever felt comfortable walking around outside with sans bag. Although, that makes you a massive mugging target, so maybe don't do that.
- 16 or 32GB of on-board storage is backed up by a microSD slot, so you've got plenty of space for all your movies for that next flight to Barbados.
- Battery life is pretty good, easily double that of your current Android phone flagships, despite the battery being only 6,000mAh compared to the iPad's 11,560mAh beast. You'll get a good two days' worth of usage out of it unless you rinse it with a game.
- Sony's Stamina mode app controller, which suppresses background app access to data services and the CPU while the screen is off, actually makes sense for a tablet. Unlike a phone which needs data all the time to keep you in the loop with emails, IMs, Twitter, etc, you can enable this thing and be rest assured the next time you come to the Tablet Z while left in standby it won't be totally flat.
- The camera is ok for a tablet with an incredibly fast and smooth viewfinder, but it's not nearly as good as the Xperia Z, Galaxy S4 or iPhone's camera, and, of course, you'll look like a right idiot taking a photo with your 10.1-inch tablet. You can see some sample shots from pretty much ideal shooting conditions at the end of the gallery up top and judge for yourself.
- It has an FM radio built in. Does anyone still listen to FM radio when you've got Spotify?
- Sony's skin on Android 4.1 is pretty light, and for the most part adds to the experience. Some things, like the mini-app tray for widgets and quick apps could be handy, but most people will just ignore them.
- From the homescreen, your big list of apps is accessed through a button in the top right, while the notification tray is situated in the bottom right, which is a bit weird but works well enough.
- There's a little bar of apps at the top of the launcher where you can pin shortcuts to like the Windows quick-launch bar of old.
- Sony's media apps can be used or ignored; your choice. Sony's movie store has a good selection, as does the music store, but you've got Spotify and the Play Store, so I'm not sure why you'd bother unless you were hooked into the Sony ecosystem already.
- There's a setting for double tapping the screen to unlock it, which is pretty cool, unless you manage to double-tap the thing in your bag and suck the battery dry.
- Sony's tablet keyboard is actually decent, and the first one I've not immediately replaced with Swype.
If you're looking for a top-notch tablet experience, and you want a 10-incher over a smaller, 7-inch device, then you should definitely consider it. In fact, of all the premium tablets out there at the moment, the Xperia Tablet Z is easily my favourite. It's thin, light, snappy, and with a great screen. It's difficult to truly get across how much easier it is to use given its diminutive physical stats. Being waterproof and dustproof are a bit of a gimmick, but those additions could come in handy if you want to use it in the bath.
The only problem is the price, as this thing isn't cheap. Sony's clearly marking its territory here, firing up a flag to say its tablet is as good as an iPad, and this time round it arguably is as good as an iPad. It's certainly thinner and lighter without sacrificing anything but a smidgen of battery life. But whether that's enough to drag people away from Apple's magnet-for-tablet-buyers, I don't know. It's definitely the best Android tablet out there at the moment, even if the Nexus 10 is cheaper and technically packs a sharper screen.
If it makes any bones to you, this is the tablet I would buy if I had £400 laying around.
Processor: 1.5 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro
Storage: 16/32GB + microSD card
Screen: 10.1-inch 1920x1200 TFT Colour LCD (224ppi)
Camera: 8.1MP rear, 2.2MP front-facing camera
Dimensions: 172 x 6.9 x 266 mm; 495 g
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, NFC, IR and LTE
Price: £399/16GB; £449/32GB; £499/16GB+LTE