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Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: Thin, thoughtful design, but at a premium price

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MSRP: $499.00

The Good The Sony Xperia Tablet Z offers a refreshingly thin and light design, with great gaming performance, and a sharp screen. The MHL connection, impressive waterproofing, and expandable storage are notably appreciated extras.

The Bad $500 for 16GB of storage is a heavy price hike compared with Sony’s previous tablet entry, and the tablet’s poor network performance and slow app loading cuts into its value. The low-light camera feature isn’t as effective as a traditional flash.

The Bottom Line Though awash in features, the Xperia Tablet Z's $500 price is a decidedly bitter pill to swallow when a better, cheaper alternative exists for $100 less.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.6 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

The Xperia Tablet Z is the thinnest and lightest large tablet I've yet held. A fact made somewhat more impressive given that Sony doesn't skimp physical features. An MHL connection, expandable storage, and two better-than-decent cameras -- tablets with quality cameras are still somewhat anomalous -- all made the cut.

The Tablet Z is also fully waterproof: I've had it submerged in half a foot of water for minutes at a time and have thoroughly hosed it down with a level of fervency only the most diligent of corrections officers can relate to. Yet after a quick towel-off, it works perfectly.

Well, "perfectly" for the Tablet Z. It's plagued by slow Wi-Fi speeds, apps that take a bit too long to load, and a high asking price for its embedded 16GB of storage. By comparison, the Nexus 10 is faster and $100 cheaper. Google's tablet is still the large Android tablet of choice.

However, if you fancy yourself taking in the latest episode of "Scandal" while soaking in your bathtub and desire complete impunity from water splashes and the occasional accidental dunking, there isn't a better tablet currently available for you.

I'm not a fan of jagged edges on tablets. If there's a button or some other physical feature that sticks out from a tablet's body, I tend to notice it. And by "notice it," I mean hate it. The iPad's buttons are guilty of this, and I was pleased to see that Apple corrected this admittedly small oversight with the iPad Mini.

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z's thin, somewhat prickly volume rocker juts out from its left edge and while this makes it easy to find, it's also not the most pleasing piece of plastic to accidentally run your finger across.

Now that's thin. Josh Miller/CNET

I'm also not a fan of the Z's hard plastic edge design. While I'm sure it helps protect what is otherwise a fairly flimsy body, it's a bit too thin and unyielding for my tastes.

Luckily, those are really the only physical design gripes I have with the Tablet Z. It's otherwise impressively light and incredibly thin for a 10-incher; however, those who equate "premium" with metal-embossed backs will be disappointed by the Tablet Z's brushed plastic posterior, which seems all-too eager to take on oily fingerprints.

Sony Xperia Tablet Z Sony Xperia Tablet S Google Nexus 10 Apple iPad 4
Weight in pounds 1.06 1.22 1.33 1.44
Width in inches (landscape) 10.5 9.5 10.4 9.5
Height in inches 6.8 6.9 6.9 7.3
Depth in inches 0.27 0.50/0.43 0.35 0.37
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 1.0 0.7 0.9 0.8

Along the left edge, above the volume rocker is a circular silver power button that, like its spindly neighbor below it, sticks out from the tablet's body. However, thanks to its rounded frame, it's able to do so without any annoying physical unpleasantness. Speaker grilles adorn the bottoms of the left and right edges: a location choice I haven't quite seen on a tablet before.

The Tablet Z's body feature three distinct ports: a headphone jack, MHL connection, and a microSD port. All three can be covered by attached door flaps that seal each port shut when closed, transforming the tablet into an effectively waterproof device.

Josh Miller/CNET

The doors to the port were a bit difficult to open until I noticed a small slit on the bottom of each I could force a fingernail into. That's kind of a criticism, but I understand why Sony maybe didn't want the doors on its waterproof tablet to be easily removed.

Just how waterproof is it?
According to Sony, the Tablet Z can be submerged in up to 3 feet of fresh water for up to 30 minutes without sustaining damage. I was hesitant to actually test this out on my review unit until I'd actually spent enough time with it to write most of the review. I guess I just wasn't all that confident in how effective it would be at staying dry.

It's this waterproof. Josh Miller/CNET

However, I did use a kitchen faucet hose to spray the tablet down from every conceivable angle and left it submerged in half a foot of water for a good 10 minutes. After a quick wipe-off with a paper towel, the tablet worked normally.

Getting (Ex)mor from your mobile cameras
The 8-megapixel back camera has been outfitted with Sony's Exmor R technology, which is purported to allow you to take good pictures in low light.

Only the Tablet Z's back rear camera includes Exmor R. Josh Miller/CNET

According to Sony, the lens circuitry is arranged so that the light sensors are in front, with the lens wiring in the back -- the opposite of a traditional lens setup. Without the circuitry blocking the lens, theoretically, the sensors will be able to detect more light. More light equals more information and hopefully more lifelike shots.

While the Z's back camera does technically allow more light to come through compared with a traditional nonflash tablet camera, it still fails to produce nice-looking shots in low light. Low-light shots look incredibly dithered and usually greenish, and personally, I'd rather just use a flash. There's potential for the technology, but it seems to suffer from the same problems it's supposed to fix.

A low-light shot taken with the Z's rear camera. Eric Franklin/CNET
A similar shot taken with the Nexus 10's back camera. Eric Franklin/CNET

Shots taken in normal lighting conditions look fine, but not exceptional. The front camera is a cut above most tablet front-facing shooters and delivers better-than-decent still shots and smooth video for conferencing.

Software features
If you're at all familiar with Sony's suite of tablet apps, you won't find many surprises here. Sony's movie and music marketplace apps, Video and Music Unlimited, respectively, make returns.

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