With the launch of the Xperia Z last month, Sony upped its game beyond what I’d expected, offering a phone that was different, sexy, capable, and very fast. It was different because it was water-resistant and dustproof; sexy because of its Gorilla Glass backing and gorgeous Full HD screen; capable thanks to Sony’s usual extras; and fast because of a potent processor that had Android dancing like a marionette at my behest.

Following on from the Xperia Z, Sony released the Xperia Tablet Z. It should start appearing on local shop shelves sometime in July, but I was lucky enough to snag one early, for this review. Right from the get-go, the tablet had me enthralled (name notwithstanding): it is super-thin at just 6.9mm, its screen is big, sharp and gorgeous with a pleasantly unusual resolution of 1 920 x 1 200, and it has all kinds of sweet tech built in specific to Sony, including neat ways to make use of the tablet’s NFC chip and interact with Sony TVs.

When I got my own to play with, I wasn’t disappointed. As nice as it is on the surface, there’s even more to it than its sexy appearance suggests. To sum it up, before getting into the specifics, the Xperia Tablet Z is the nicest-looking, most feature-stuffed Android tablet I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, and one that I won’t hesitate to recommend to anyone looking for a non-Apple tablet.

Looks & Build

Seeing the Tablet Z for the first time, my eyes were immediately drawn to just how impossibly thin it is. This is to modern tablet design what Kate Moss was to modelling in the early nineties. The second thing I noticed about it is how heavy it isn’t. I don’t know how Sony managed to pull it off, but it only weighs 495g which is a lot less than Apple’s iPad 4 (652g). Believe it or not, that 157g makes a huge difference to how comfortable it is to hold and use for extended periods.

Another feature that appeals is its build quality. Like its smartphone counterpart the Xperia Z, it’s completely waterproof, at least for a while. You can submerge it in up to 1m of water for 30 minutes, and as long as the rubber seals that cover its ports are in place, it will emerge unscathed. This is fantastic news for anyone who has fancied reading an ebook in the bath, or people who often find themselves spilling drinks over their valuable electronics. While it might seem a bit of a gimmick, at the very least it removes any worry that dampness of any kind will kill your expensive toy, thereby adding to its robustness. And when has that ever been bad?

Sony has engineered the Xperia Tablet Z (let’s just call it the Tablet Z from here on in) so well that it’s also drop-proof. Don’t chuck it off a building and expect it to survive, of course, but it will definitely withstand slipping out of your hand, even if as tall as me.

As much as I love the classic black Sony went with for the Tablet Z’s design, both the screen and the tablet’s matte black rear surface attract fingerprints like honey attracts Winnie-the-Poohs. It’s not a problem while the tablet is in use, as the bright screen doesn’t show fingerprints at all, but when the screen is off, it’s Smudge City. A cloth solves the problem easily, of course, but it bears noting.

Alternatively, you could always wash off any persistent fingerprints with water. The beauty of the Tablet Z’s water-resistance is that it can quite literally be held under a running tap without causing damage, and simply towelled off afterwards. See how awesome waterproofing is?

The only things I don’t absolutely love about the Tablet Z’s physical design is its power/wake button and the volume rocker located just below it. They’re both absolutely necessary, but they stick out just a bit too much. Fortunately they make up for this a bit with their sturdiness.

So, the tablet’s looks are superb. Rated on its own, the overall design gets a very enthusiastic 9.5 out of 10; it’s by far the prettiest Android tablet I’ve ever seen.

Screen

Sony’s engineers have come up with screen tech for their mobile devices, including the Tablet Z, called Mobile Bravia Engine 2 – the same technology found in Sony’s high-end Bravia TVs, just adapted for a much smaller form factor. In addition to being almost unbearably bright at its highest setting, its colours and contrast are simply amazing. The cherry on the cake is the screen’s resolution: at 1 920 x 1 200, it has a pixel density rating of 224ppi, which means crystal-clear visuals and razor-sharp text.

User experience

Getting around the Tablet Z’s interface is one of the many things that set it apart from other Android tablets, as it’s very smooth. It immediately responds to swipes and buttons presses. In general I was very pleased with how quickly it responded to my touches.

Sony-specific Tweaks

Sony did a great job of customising Android’s interface to appear more in line with its other products. Anyone who owns a PlayStation 3 or Sony smartphone will see some familiar elements when they first fire up the Tablet Z. Sony also made sure it kept it in line with in-house branding by adding the WALKMAN app for music playback and various Sony apps for managing photos and watching movies.

Xperia_Home

I do wish whatever bodies govern South Africa’s entertainment industry would get their acts together and sort out the licensing issues that prevent big-name companies from bringing their entertainment services to consumers. If they did that, I could have a South African Sony account to access the PlayStation Mobile app along with Sony’s video- and music-on-demand services, which the Tablet Z allows for. Right now, a South African account is useless, and you’d need a US account with fake details to get any use from those apps. Hmpf.

Even though most of Sony’s entertainment services aren’t available, there is another small button on the Home screen called Sony Select. This loads up a store-like application that shows off a bunch of apps and games developed by other companies, all recommended by Sony. It provides a brief description of each, and if you choose to press the Get button, you’re whisked away to Google Play where you can download your chosen app/game. A few apps there are actually worth the effort of obtaining, so their recommendations are quite useful.

Experience Extender

Sony has thrown in several newer technologies that make the Tablet Z more than just another Android tab. Its NFC implementation includes the usual NFC trappings like photo-swapping by simply touching another NFC device to the back of the tablet, but it also lets the tablet broadcast whatever is on its screen to a Bravia TV by simply bringing it close to the TV’s remote. This only works with the latest Bravia TVs, though, but all is not lost for non-Bravia owners: the tablet can also connect to any HDMI-equipped external screen over MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) using an adapter cable.

As it also has a built-in infrared blaster, the Tablet Z can act as a replacement for the many remote controls that probably litter your lounge. It ships with a remote control app that works with a huge number of appliances from many manufacturers and I was able to get it to work with my A/V receiver at home quite easily. The functions it offers are fairly basic, but they are the most common ones like volume controls and channel adjustments so it will definitely come in handy.

Xperia_Remote
Simple layout, big buttons – what more does a remote need?

Wi-Fi woes

I was a bit puzzled by its Wi-Fi performance. I downloaded ES File Explorer from the Play Store, an app that can browse, copy, and stream digital content from a Windows PC. While I managed to do all of those things, the speed at which it copied files was a little disturbing – I saw a maximum speed of 379KB/s. That proved slow enough that 1080p movies wouldn’t play without stuttering on the wireless network.

While the slow Wi-Fi is not a huge problem, it does mean if you have an ADSL line at home that’s faster than 6.5mbps you won’t get the full benefit of that speed when browsing the web and downloading files with the Tablet Z. It’s just something to keep in mind, although it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

Storage

Streaming 720p movies worked just fine thanks to their far lower bitrate, but I was disappointed I couldn’t make full use of the tablet’s Full HD screen that way. The alternative is to copy an 8GB 1080p movie file to the tablet and store it locally, but that too has its challenges, as the Tablet Z only has 16GB of internal memory, 5GB of which is used by the OS. Fortunately, adding more can be done by using the tablet’s microSD card slot that accepts memory cards up to 32GB in size. Still, the convenience of streaming content from another location is more desirable, and the Tablet Z’s apparent hatred of 1080p streaming proved a rather annoying (if minor) inconvenience.

Xperia_Storage
11GB isn’t that much storage space anymore, is it?

Gaming

I love playing games on all platforms, so of course I downloaded a bunch of different games shortly after getting the Tablet Z. It’s impressive to see 3D games running so smoothly on the tablet considering how detailed mobile game graphics have become, and only one game I tried showed any signs of lagging or slowing down (The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth). In that game general interactivity was hampered by sluggish scrolling, stuttering menus and the occasional lag in responsiveness, but that was only one bad egg out of the dozen or so games I tried – everything else ran smoothly. For the most part, the Tablet Z revealed itself to be an excellent gaming machine.

Xperia_Game
Rage of the Gladiator is one of the best games I’ve played on the Tablet Z so far.

Audio

On the sound side, performance was a bit of a mixed bag. Sony gave the Tablet Z four individual speakers that work together to create a 3D surround sound environment, and I’ll admit I did hear more detail and bullets whizzing past from unexpected directions, so it’s pretty good. But the overall tone of the audio was rather tinny which can’t really change even when adjusting the built-in equalizer. Listening on headphones gave the best results, with warm, rich, detailed sound coming through quite strongly.

Camera

Tablet cameras aren’t known for their quality, and while Sony has put some effort into the 8-megapixel shooter on the Tablet Z, you’re still better off sticking with your phone or a dedicated compact point-and-shoot. It doesn’t do a terrible job in bright, natural light, but it doesn’t do well under low light conditions, with a lot of visible noise and some definite blurring marring the snaps we took. Still, it’s there if you need it, along with a 2-megapixel front-facing camera that’s useful for video chats over Skype.

Battery

I spent a lazy Saturday downloading and playing games, browsing the web and generally fiddling with the tablet as much as possible. With screen brightness set to its lowest (yet still plenty visible) the whole time, I managed to eke out 12 hours of use. That was also without enabling its “Stamina Mode” which promises to stretch the tally even further. I did notice it took a while to recharge, though, with an average time of around 6 hours to 100% from 5%.

LTE

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of mobile networks – they charge way too much for what you actually get, in my opinion – so I wasn’t all that keen on inserting my SIM card into the Xperia Tablet Z. But I did for a few moments, to test the tablet’s LTE performance. I got just over 4mbps here at the htxt offices, but your mileage will vary depending on LTE coverage in your area. I wasn’t impressed, but it definitely has more to do with the service provider than the tablet. At least the functionality is there, should you need it.

Should you get one? Yes!

Having spent the better part of a week with the Xperia Tablet Z, I’ve come away very impressed. Its sharp looks and sturdiness alone are worth the asking price, and the fact that it can be dunked underwater and hosed off should it ever get dirty is pudding to an already-delicious meal. Add in excellent responsiveness and a gorgeous screen, and you have all of the trimmings necessary for a very competent tablet. It’s not perfect, with wobbly Wi-Fi performance and somewhat underwhelming audio, but those things aside it’s still easily the best Android tab I’ve tested.

Summary

Sony Xperia Tablet Z
Price: R9 999
Android 4.1.2
The good: Stunning design, waterproof, fast
The bad: Slow Wi-Fi, tinny audio, fingerprint magnet
Rating: 9/10

Specifications

  • Operating System: Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean)
  • CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro @ 1.5GHz
  • Display: LED-backlit @ 1 920 x 1 200 (224 pixels per inch), 350 nits, 10-point multi-touch
  • Memory: 16GB internal, microSD card slot up to 32GB
  • Sound: Stereo Speakers with 3.5mm jack
  • Camera: 8.1MP front-facing, 2.2MP rear-facing, 1080p 30fps video recording
  • Battery: 6 000mAh Li-Po
  • Data: 3G, LTE
  • Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth v4.0, MHL
  • SIM: Micro SIM
Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.