Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Second time’s the charm: The Xperia Tablet Z review Sony goes high-end with a thin, waterproof chassis and MHL capabilities.

Sony has a long history of producing handsome products, but the company has had some trouble gaining market share. According to analyst reports, it's been trailing behind most handset manufacturers, despite the launch of its Xperia Z and ZL smartphones. But it's latest device, the Xperia Tablet Z, could help the give the company a bit of a boost, at least in the tablet sector.
The Xperia Tablet Z is Sony's diamond in the rough. It’s a beautiful tablet with clean lines and a feather-light chassis. It makes devices like Apple’s fourth-generation iPad feel antiquated just by its weight alone. But looks and feel aren't the only factors that can carry a gadget through to success. In Sony’s case, it’s competing in a market teeming with OEMs that are in a race to the bottom—the idea being that the cheapest tablet could sell the most units. But Sony is taking the opposite approach by producing a higher-end tablet at a premium price (a $500 price-point, to be exact). It's always been Sony's modus operandi to offer stylish products at a higher price than others, but whether it will be successful in the Android market remains to be seen. Will Sony see success with the Tablet Z? Let's find out.


SCREEN1920x1200 10.1-inch TFT Color LCD (224 ppi)
OSAndroid 4.1.2 Jelly Bean with Sony Xperia UI
CPUQuad-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
GPUQualcomm Adreno 320
STORAGE16, 32, or 64 GB NAND flash, expandable via microSD
NETWORKING802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, DLNA, optional 4G LTE
PORTSMicro-USB, headphones
CAMERA8MP rear camera, 2MP front camera
SIZE10.47" × 0.27" × 6.77" (266 × 6.9 × 172 mm)
WEIGHT1.09 lbs. (495 g)
STARTING PRICE$499.99 for 16GB, $599 for 32GB
SENSORAmbient light sensor, GPS, thermometer, barometer, proximity sensor, gesture sensor, RGB light sensor
OTHER PERKSWaterproof, MHL capable
The Xperia Tablet Z is a 10.1-inch beauty. It has some professional flair with its all-black casing, but its thin chassis gives it a youthful look. There is also a bit of space in between the screen and the edge of the body, so you can pick up the tablet without worrying that you'll accidentally activate something on-screen. When you turn off the screen, the difference between the screen and the edge of the tablet are indistinguishable, which is just another example of Sony's subtle design prowess.
At 495 grams, the tablet is one of the lightest devices we've held in a long time. At 0.27 inches thick, it even beats out the iPad in thinness. The Tablet Z feels good to hold, too. It’s easy to prop up against your knees as you lie back in bed to read, and its thin profile makes it a pleasure to carry around. We found it much easier to hold one-handed on the train ride in to work than an iPad. Of course, it’s still 10 inches wide, so you’ll need to account for that space in your bag.
The Tablet Z is also IPX5/7-qualified waterproof, which means you can take it with you into the shower to watch Arrested Development as you scrub away the day. Sony says that the device can handle up to three feet of water for up to 30 minutes without any cause for concern. We tested this feature last, just in case it was all false advertising. Happily, it was not.

Whoops! I dropped my tablet into the water.

Keep in mind, we did not have three feet of water to test this with and instead opted for a bathroom sink. I was a bit skeptical about dunking the Tablet Z, let alone leaving a faucet running over it. After about 20 minutes, I took the device out of the sink to dry it off. The water droplets slipped off as if the tablet had been covered in Ultra-Ever Dry. The touchscreen still functioned properly.
I noticed that if the display is on while it's under running water, it will interpret the pressure from the faucet as touch, which makes the app that's on-screen appear to have a mind of its own. I "accidentally dropped" the tablet into the faucet as it was filled with water while the device was playing an episode of Arrested Development on Netflix. The app first muted the sound and then paused the video; I can't tell if it did that automatically or if it registered the water as a finger telling it what to do. Either way, I suppose you won't have to worry about your tablet running out of battery life underwater.

All dried off and still playing videos.

Additionally, there are removable covers for each port to keep the water out. However, they tend to get in the way of general use, and it can actually become annoying to have to open them each time you need to access a port. For instance, some of my charging cords for the micro-USB port don't go in all the way. Because the port is placed on the bottom side of the device, it makes it difficult to casually sit with in landscape mode as it’s charging. The cord has a propensity to fall out as well.
As far as input goes, the Xperia Tablet Z features the aforementioned micro-USB slot, a headphone jack, and expandable storage via microSD. The tablet is MHL capable, which means you can hook up the device to an HD television and mirror it via HDMI with a compatible connector. It also features a 2MP front-facing camera and an 8MP rear-facing camera. Its power button and thin volume rocker (which I thought was a pop-out SIM slot at first glance) sit on the device's side. There's a notification light residing near the power button as well. You'll want to turn that off from within the settings menu because it's bright and highly distracting when you're trying to fall asleep.

Lastly, there are stereo speakers built into the bottom two corners of the device. I could watch movies and listen to music when the tablet was near me, but I wouldn't suggest using the Tablet Z as a replacement for a boombox. However, there are several options in the settings that can boost sound. Clear Phase automatically adjusts the sound quality of the internal speaker, while xLoud enhances the loudness of the speaker. You can also use the tablet's S-Force Front Surround 3D function, which virtually reproduces 3D sound. After these settings were turned on, the Tablet Z definitely produced a richer sound.


The Xperia Tablet Z features an LED-backlit LCD display with Sony's Bravia Reality Display engine, essentially a post-processing engine that enhances photos and videos. You can turn this off and on from within the settings, but it didn't appear to make much of a difference to my naked eye. (I tried photographing it to show the difference, but the differences still seemed too subtle to show through.)
The tablet features a 1900x1200 resolution with 224 ppi. Its main rivals, the Nexus 10 and fourth-generation iPad, offer a 2560×1600 display at 300 ppi and a 2048×1536 display at 264 ppi, respectively. The device’s pixels-per-inch number is paltry on paper when compared to its competitors, but its display was nonetheless sharp and bright. I enjoyed reading Kindle e-books on the Tablet Z every night, and movies were easy to watch at any angle thanks to the gapless display.

On the highest brightness setting with the Bravia Reality Display engine engaged, the Xperia Tablet Z exhibited warmer colors than the third-generation iPad's high-contrast colors. Still, in general, the iPad is much brighter and its text is much crisper. You can physically see that the latter has more pixels in the image below. (Unfortunately, I didn't have the Nexus 10 on hand to do a side-by-side comparison.)

The third-gen iPad's screen.
The Xperia Tablet Z's screen.

I also took the tablet outside in the sun to see if I could get some reading done—I even sat near the sprinklers since I knew the tablet would be safe. The Tablet Z is easily usable in broad daylight. Just be sure to use the white background on your e-book app of choice if you're planning to read out on the lawn.


The Tablet Z comes with 2GB of RAM and a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro SoC—the same processor running in the Nexus 4, LG Optimus G Pro, and Xperia ZL handsets. The S4 Pro has since been surpassed in performance by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600, but it's still a good performer. The tablet also has NFC capabilities, which is useful for transferring content like photos to other compatible devices, but we didn't test this ourselves.
The Tablet Z certainly feels faster than some of the other tablets I've been using lately, but I use tablets to read through my Kindle library, play the occasional game, and catch up on my television shows—all things that the Xperia Tablet Z did very well. I fired up Google Earth just to see how well the application would work on the device, and it was a pleasant experience. While the Tablet Z is capable, its bigger screen also contributed to the illusion that it’s faster. But Geekbench tests offered a different opinion.

We first encountered the quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro last October after Google announced that Qualcomm's new processor would come standard with its Nexus 4 handsets. The processor beat out most other Android devices at the time, in addition to Apple's third-generation iPad, but we could see it falling short in some cases. Overall, Sony's tablet device stayed strong in second place, but Samsung's Nexus 10 certainly gave it a run for its money.

Interestingly enough, while the Tablet Z remained average across the board, it still didn't beat out theNexus 4 in both Geekbench and GFXBench tests. That handset shares the same components and specifications.

As for its JavaScript performance—with all tests done in Google Chrome for tablets—the Tablet Z performed relatively average among the crowd. For the most part, JavaScript benchmarks don't actually gauge how well the underlying hardware works, but it's comforting to know that the Tablet Z can keep up. In Mozilla's Kraken JavaScript Benchmark, the Tablet Z managed a score of 21888 milliseconds.

Battery life

The Xperia Tablet Z comes with a 6000 mAh battery pack and a number of power-saving settings that can help you get the most life out of a single charge. The STAMINA mode will disable mobile data when the screen is off, while the low battery mode will disable all functions in order to save what little life is left as the battery is dying.

We performed our battery testing without any power saving functions or special features turned on, save for the Bravia display engine. We also left the brightness level at half-mast with the volume turned all the way up. The Tablet Z lasted on standby for a number of days before it was screaming for a charge. We left it unplugged overnight, and the tablet used up only 10 percent of its battery life. While watching video, it took a long time to kill the tablet—about seven hours of continuous video streaming before the battery meter dipped into the red and needed to be plugged in. Overall, this is a tablet that will last you through a plane ride overseas. You shouldn't have to worry about keeping it unused on your nightstand for days at a time.

Camera and video

We live in a world where people bring their tablets to concerts, and as a result, camera performance has become increasingly important on these types of devices. Sony advertises that the Tablet Z’s 8-megapixel rear-facing camera uses Sony’s Exmor R sensor, the same one that’s available inside various Cyber-shot and Handycam cameras and similar to the one featured in the Xperia Z handset. It uses “back illuminated technology,” so light receptors aren't blocked by a wire circuit; light falls directly onto the receptive areas without anything blocking its path. The inclusion of the sensor is supposed to help the device take great photos in low light—precisely the kind of thing you’d want to hear if you're the type to take your tablet with you to meet the band.
Unfortunately, this is all marketing speak. The Tablet Z does not take well-lit photos in low light situations. The photos came out grainy and green, with too much noise to make the picture even worthy of an upload to Instagram. It couldn't even take advantage of the afternoon light peering in from the window, as exhibited in the photo of the Millennium Falcon below.

 Here's the photo taken in the afternoon light. When I posted it to Instagram, it looked weathered and grainy—without any filters.
This is an attempt to see how well the Tablet Z can focus on objects. Unfortunately, it made everything look green and soft-focused.

Taken outside with the Tablet Z's Superior auto mode.
Taken outside using the Tablet Z's HDR mode.

 Taken outside with no modes on.
Taken outside using the Landscape scene as a setting.

The Tablet Z is outfitted with many of the same camera features as the rest of the Android tablet crew, like HDR, Panorama, various Instagram-like photo filters, scene selections, and a burst mode. There is also a Superior auto mode that automatically adjusts all the settings so that the tablet takes the best-looking photos (an example of which can be seen above). But you can't engage HDR in this setting, and for the most part, the relatively better looking photos were the ones where I was able to handle the settings.
The Tablet Z's video mode was capable, but videos came out grainy, too. And the front-facing camera produced photos that were typical of a 2MP camera. Overall, this isn't a device for taking your family photos—or any you want to display—but it will do the job for a video conference or for snapping a quick photo.



The Tablet Z currently runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean with Sony’s proprietary Xperia UI overlay. Its interface generally follows along the lines of a typical Android experience, though it's based on an older Android tablet experience and not the most recent one that shipped with Android 4.2.
A plus sign up in the corner, next to the starkly labeled “apps” button, will let you add widgets and apps or change the wallpaper. You can select from a number of themes from Sony’s art vault, many of which are actually quite nice. I went with the Amethyst motif.

You can add apps, widgets, or whatever you choose to the home screen.
You can select various themes if you'd rather not bother with customizing your Tablet Z.

You can also add a few more quick-start icons to the top left-hand side of the screen—as if you needed more places to dock applications on such a large form factor.
Apps are not automatically laid out alphabetically in the apps drawer, so you’ll be able to pick from the most recently installed applications just by scrolling through to the end of the list. In the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, you’ll see the notifications shade with quick access button to the settings. Opposite from it on the bottom, there are the soft navigational controls.

You can choose several ways to display your icons.

Another neat feature: Sony packed its Xperia Tablet Z with small apps extensions and their multitasking capabilities. The small apps even enable you to bring up different apps in a separate pop-out window. So if, for instance, you wanted to bring up an IMDB profile while you're watching a movie, you could quickly bring up a pop-out window for the browser and then navigate to the site. You can also pin any apps of your choosing, but you'll have to get them from the section of the Google Play store featuring apps formatted for Sony devices.

The pop-up window...
.and the apps that can be used with it.


Fortunately, you won't have to deal with too much bloatware with the Tablet Z—Sony even includes Chrome as the default browser right out of the box. But there are still a few kinks and extra applications that come as part of the package.
The Tablet Z comes preloaded with Office Suite, which I actually found very helpful on a device this size because I could more comfortably read PDFs. The Tablet Z features its own proprietary photo gallery and Walkman music player, which exists alongside the stock Google Music player. There is also the Sony Select app store, which is a bit overkill because Google Play offers all of the same applications. On top of this, Sony offers its own Movie store. You can sign up for unlimited streaming through Sony’s service called Music Unlimited (similar to Google Play Music All Access).
The Tablet Z has its own remote control application and is equipped with an IR blaster so it can act as a universal remote for a variety of devices, including a Blu-Ray player, an iPod dock, a PC set up as a media center, and a variety of cable and satellite set-top boxes. Unfortunately, Sony doesn't support my brand of products—I live in a set-top box household—so I was unable to test this functionality.
You can set up the Tablet Z as a media server and use DLNA to stream connected content from the device to a television or set-top box that lives on the same network and supports this functionality. I was able to set up the tablet as a media server and stream videos, music, and photos to a WDTV Play media player connected to my bedroom television.

Other applications include Socialife, which is essentially a reader application from Sony (Sony even advertises it as a replacement for Google Reader on its Google Play store page). You can link it with your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google Reader accounts to get updates all aggregated into a tiled feed. I found the application to be useful, despite it being one of the "included" applications that Sony packages up with its devices. While there's a stigma against OEM-provided applications, Socialife seems to challenge the notion that they're not worth using. And unlike HTC's BlinkFeed, it's not constantly blaring in your face and taking up an entire home screen. Of course, if you choose not to use the application, you can’t delete it.
And because it's Sony, PlayStation owners can take advantage of PlayStation Mobile. I don't own a PlayStation 3, so I was unable to test this application.

One direction

It finally feels like Sony knows what kind of direction it's going in. It took Android and didn't bog it down with too many extra applications and unchangeable elements; it left most of the core Android experience there while prettifying it up in its own way. It included a very capable (if slightly older) quad-core processor from Qualcomm and managed to shrink down all the components into a very thin package. The company even made the Tablet Z waterproof, because accidents happen. This is a $500 device that you don't have to worry about.
In some cases, the numbers don't really matter. Its benchmarks may have been average and the display on the Tablet Z may not be as bright and vivid as the iPad's Retina display, but it makes up for its shortcomings with all of those other elements. Where it runs into a bit of trouble is with its price point: $499 for the 16GB version. That's comparable to the 16GB iPad, but if you're looking to stick with Android, the 16GB version of the Nexus 10 is $100 less and performed much better than the Xperia Tablet Z. It also has a longer battery life and Google-timed software updates.
It all comes down to whether or not you value style, build, and Sony's add-on perks over performance and a stock interface. The Xperia Tablet Z is nice—really, really nice—to hold and use for extended periods of time. If anything, it's an indication that Sony has indeed got its groove back. We're just hoping that it means there are greater things to come.
  • Water-proof chassis for when accidents happen
  • Stays mostly true to the Android UI
  • Relatively long-lasting battery life
  • Beautiful, easy-to-read, and widescreen 1080p display
  • Extremely light
  • Many of the applications that Sony packaged are overkill
  • Comes with an older version of Android—and you never know when the next software update will be
  • The camera takes awful pictures

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