When Sony unveiled the Xperia Tablet Z, it offered a glimpse of the future for full-size Android tablets. Sleek, light and waterproof, the 10.1-inch slate was a true iPad competitor.
Twelve months later, the company is back with its replacement. Although the Xperia Z2 Tablet looks almost identical to its predecessor from afar, it’s even lighter, thinner still and packed with updated components.
By embracing the annual upgrade cycle widely adopted in the smartphone market, Sony wants to stay ahead of the curve. It faces stiff competition from Samsung’s new Galaxy NotePRO tablets, Apple’s numerous iPad models and other tablets due later this year.
A tall order, although Sony proved with the Xperia Tablet Z that it can deliver a unique, premium tablet with a 10-inch (or thereabouts) form factor. If the Xperia Z2 Tablet builds on that foundation and remedies the weaknesses of its forerunner, it could be a sleeper hit for 2014.
Although the look and feel is largely unchanged, the Xperia Z2 Tablet still offers a memorable and refreshing design. The previous model was thin, but this year Sony has built an even skinnier tablet that’s guaranteed to attract some attention. At just 6.4mm thin, the device is an impressive feat of engineering and even bests Apple’s iPad Air in that department. From the moment you pick it up the tablet screams luxury, which is a rare sensation in the Android space.
The trade-off for that ludicrously thin profile are some chunky bezels on the top, bottom and sides. They’re difficult to ignore and at first glance, detract from what is otherwise an attractive piece of hardware. While that sense of disappointment never dissipates entirely, they do serve a purpose. Clutching a 10.1-inch tablet is often precarious, particularly one-handed. With ample space for your thumbs, it’s possible to hold the Xperia Z2 Tablet in landscape and keep one paw free for performing secondary tasks.
Similar to Sony’s new Xperia Z2 smartphone, the slate embodies the Omnibalance design language. It’s predominantly black, with brushed metal sides and a dark, matte material that slightly softens the edges and corners.
Taken as a whole, the slate’s design is fairly unoriginal. Safe, even. Sony isn’t pushing into new or radical territory here, but in this instance I’m not complaining. The Xperia Z2 Tablet looks refined and sophisticated, with an attention to detail that anyone can appreciate. At just 439 grams, it’s also lighter than many traditional magazines.
The small, curved dome used for the power button. The (almost) non-existent branding. The tiny dimple which alerts your finger to the orientation of the volume rocker. Everything is well-ordered and all of the buttons are easy to reach. Whether you’re slouched on the sofa or checking emails on the train, the Xperia Z2 Tablet is a gorgeous device to use.
The display dominates the front of this new premium slate, and rightly so. Sony has been brave, however, in its decision not to raise the pixel density this time around. It’s another 1900×1200 panel, or 224 pixels per inch (ppi). That’s significantly lower than other full-size tablets, such as Apple’s iPad Air (264 ppi) and Samsung’s Galaxy NotePRO (247 ppi).
Instead, Sony has focused on improving the quality of the display in the original Xperia Tablet Z. The new model supports ‘Live Colour LED’, a technology which the company says produces brighter, natural and more accurate colors. The move is admirable; rather than racing for higher pixel counts, the Xperia Z2 Tablet is focused on the essentials first and foremost, such as color reproduction, contrast, saturation, clarity and brightness.
It’s a pleasant viewing experience, but one that rarely pulls ahead of its competition. Whether you’re streaming an episode from Netflix or watching a recent blockbuster downloaded from the Play Store, video playback is always a delight. Deep, rich blacks deliver fantastic contrast and the wider color gamut helps to recreate the ‘big screen’ cinematic experience in your lap.
When you’re tucked in with the digital equivalent of a DVD box-set, suddenly the 16:9 aspect ratio makes sense. Sony is positioning the Xperia Z2 Tablet as a gaming device too and with its PlayStation Now streaming service on the horizon, it makes sense to offer a scaled-down widescreen TV.
Unfortunately, the format isn’t as well suited to ebooks and digital magazines. While holding the device in portrait, it feels too long to properly imitate a regular paperback novel. The clarity is superb though, with razor-sharp text and bright whites in the background. Hold the slate in landscape and you’ll see two pages on-screen side-by-side. It’s a much better fit, although the width the Xperia Z2 Tablet can make it difficult to manage in public. For ebooks, the 7-inch Android tablet still reigns supreme.
Water? No problem
Most of Sony’s flagship Android devices are now waterproof, and the Xperia Z2 Tablet is no exception. If you take it outside in the rain, or fancy some light reading in the shower, you can be sure this full-size slate won’t suddenly switch itself off and never properly resuscitate.
While the tablet will happily resist some a Super Soaker, it’s difficult to do much with it. Once you have a thin veil of water resting on top, the touchscreen is largely unresponsive – apps open at random and your various swipes, taps and prods will frequently go unregistered.
So if you fancy using this device in the bathtub, it’s important to have everything set up first. Whether that’s a movie, ebook or digital magazine, you’ll need it open and ready to go before you take the plunge.
Instead, it’s better to think of the Xperia Z2 Tablet’s waterproof capabilities as a protective measure. If you’re caught in a sudden downpour, or accidentally knock over a cup of coffee, it’s never a problem. Admittedly this isn’t an earth-shattering feature, but it’s a welcome one all the same.
To support its upgraded display, Sony has fitted its latest slate with dual front-facing speakers. The company has termed this setup ‘S-Force’ and it promises to deliver a surround sound experience without the need for standalone speakers.
Although Sony says the new speakers have been “carefully placed” on the device, they’ve been fitted in a terrible position. I suspect most people, like me, pick up a tablet with both hands towards the bottom of the opposing edges. The corners of the device sit in the palm of your hand and the thenar – or the padded section at the base of your thumbs – provide extra support on top.
If you hold the Xperia Z2 Tablet this way, both speakers are covered. You won’t muffle the sound completely, but audiophiles will certainly hear the difference. It’s a shame, because Sony had the right idea here – HTC’s BoomSound setup is terrific and I’ve been waiting for other manufacturers to follow suit.
Ergonomics aside, the Xperia Z2 Tablet offers a decent audio experience. The range is excellent and the highs are crisp, particularly for dialog and voice acting. The twin speakers can deliver at the low-end too, although the bass is often lacking in power and depth. This is a common problem for tablets though and if you’re truly passionate about sound, a decent pair of headphones will always be your best option.
If you exclude the Nexus and Google Play Edition devices, Sony’s hardware offer some of the best Android software experiences. For the most, part the company takes a hands-off approach to Google’s mobile OS, allowing the original ‘stock Android’ experience to shine through.
The additions it does make are fairly useful too. In the multitasking menu, there’s a small toolbar for launching ‘mini apps’ and widgets, such as a calculator, timer and internet browser. They’re not particularly sophisticated, but can be useful when referring to other apps.
The quick settings pulldown is also fully customizable, so you can specify exactly which options are shown by default. In the app drawer, Sony also added a slide-out menu to help you reorganize and search for apps. Software can be filtered by name, how often you use them, or when they were installed – there’s even the option to rearrange them manually.
In the app department, Sony is keen to push its own wares, particularly around content and services. The Walkman app ties into Music Unlimited, a streaming service similar to Spotify and Rdio, while the Movies app links to Video Unlimited, a marketplace for purchasing TV episodes, seasons and movies. Neither are awful, but they pale in comparison to specialized apps.
Sony takes this further with What’s New, a feed of recommended content that you access by long-pressing the home button. The Sony Select app serves a similar purpose, only for software instead of media. Neither are obtrusive, but the recommendations are poor and they’re generally just unhelpful.
It’s a similar story elsewhere. Sony’s email, gallery and messaging apps are serviceable, but they’re no better than Google’s apps and clearly inferior to the best software in the Google Play store. I suspect many Android enthusiasts will replace these apps immediately and then never touch them again.
Sony knows how to develop cameras. The A7R and RX100, for instance, produce jaw-dropping photos and slowly, Sony is using that expertise to improve its mobile products too. The Xperia Z2 Tablet offers an 8.1-megapixel rear-facing camera with 8x digital zoom and 1080p video recording, which is standard fare for Android slates.
Sony’s camera app offers a bevy of different shooting modes, covering panoramas, background defocus (for shallow depth of field) and burst photography. Most of these are superfluous though; you’ll spend most of your time with the Superior Auto and Manual modes instead.
The photos from the Xperia Z2 Tablet are fine, but unremarkable. Colors often look washed out, but they’re usually bright, sharp and with a suitable amount of contrast. The exposure compensation, white balance and ISO options offer extra control, but it’s worth emphasizing this is a tablet, not a full-frame DSLR.
As the saying goes, “the best camera is the one that’s with you.” If nothing else is to hand, Sony’s latest Android slate will deliver. The 2.2-megapixel camera on the front, meanwhile, is competent for video calls and selfies.
With a 2.3 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM, the Xperia Z2 Tablet is a powerhouse. Whether you’re playing games such as Riptide GP2 and Asphalt 8: Airborne, editing video or catching up with unread emails, this Android slate never skips a beat.
I went out of my way to find its limits and rarely did I experience any slowdown, stuttering or long load times. Everything was quick and remarkably smooth – the occasional app would freeze and force close, but that’s not uncommon for Android smartphones and tablets.
The battery life was a different story though. Sony’s latest tablet runs on a 6,000 mAh power pack, which should be more than adequate. Yet with intensive use, particularly for video games, the Xperia Z2 Tablet runs out of steam at an alarming rate. After I had finished streaming a movie or experimenting with the camera, I was often surprised by the amount of charge it had dropped.
In casual use though, the device fares much better. If you’re using it to read email, browse the web and read the occasional ebook, it’ll last most of the day without dipping into the red. Charging could be a little faster and you can always use Sony’s Stamina Mode if you’re in a tight spot.
Too often, Android hardware feels like a race to the bottom. Manufacturers want to hit increasingly lower price-points and inevitably, most of these products are riddled with compromises.
It’s therefore refreshing to see Sony target a premium, high-end experience with the Xperia Z2 Tablet. While not perfect, the device offers a stunning, spartan industrial design and competitive internals. The processor and RAM are excellent, and the 16GB of onboard storage can be raised by 128GB with its included microSD card slot.
The display is a noticeable leap from last year’s model, although the resolution and pixel density feels like a missed opportunity. The front and rear-facing cameras are solid and its take on Android is better than almost any other tablet manufacturer. In short, this is probably my favorite full-size Android tablet. At least until Google launches a follow-up to the ageing Nexus 10.
Get the TNW newsletter
Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.Follow @thenextweb