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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.

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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.

Design
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Video Unlimited offers rentable and purchasable SD-only movies and TV shows, but no streaming capability. Thankfully, Google Play picks up the slack with streamable or downloadable movies and TV shows; most in HD. Music Unlimited is pretty much the same idea, but for music. Walkman is Sony's music-playing app with built-in features for getting info and lyrics about the song from the Internet and features a number of sound equalizer options. With Play Memories Online, you can store your videos and photos in the cloud and view them across multiple devices.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Sony's remote control app and IR blaster make a return, and I was able to set it up to use as my Samsung TV remote in seconds. Once configured, the tablet can be used as the universal remote for your cable, satellite, Blu-ray player, or pretty much any home theater device.

Using DLNA, you can also "throw" content from the tablet to a networked TV or compatible set-top box, including an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. While pictures are sent quickly enough, streaming even short videos from the tablet to my Xbox 360 produced video that would play for a few seconds before pausing and buffering periodically. Something that's probably attributed to the Tablet Z's slow Wi-Fi speed.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Hardware features
The Tablet Z houses a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, 2GB RAM, and includes support for 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and GPS, as well as a gyroscope and an accelerometer.

The Z is one of the few tablets to include NFC capability and while it does work, its area of functionality -- located at the official NFC logo on the back -- is so small that I spent minutes attempting to line it up with the Nexus 10 just to push a single picture. Also, even after the picture zoomed away, I found it sometimes necessary to keep the two tablets touching for a few seconds or the procedure failed. A few times it even stopped working altogether, until I quit and then restarted the gallery app. Pushing from the Nexus 10, however, was easier and faster and didn't require me to keep the tablets touching any more than it should.

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Josh Miller/CNET

I like what NFC technology has to offer, but let's please not start a trend of including it just to check it off the front-of-the-box specs list. Let's make sure that when we want to beam something to another device, we can do so quickly and easily, without any hassle. There's no real point in including this cool, convenient tech if I can't enact it with a simple quick bump.

Performance
The Xperia Tablet Z is a good, but not great performer. It's great at running games, and its screen is impressive-looking; however, apps take a bit too long to load and Wi-Fi speeds are lackluster.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Polygonal games like N.O.V.A. 3, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, and Real Racing 3, ran at higher frame rates than on the Nexus 10, but only slightly so. The difference between the two was more pronounced in the 3DMark benchmark.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 1.5GHz Qualcomm S4 Pro Andreno 320 (single-core) 2GB Android 4.1.2
Google Nexus 10 1.7GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos 5 Dual (5250) Mali-T604 (quad-core) 2GB Android 4.2.2
Apple iPad 4 1.4GHz dual-core Apple A6X PowerVR SGX554MP4 (quad-core) 1GB iOS 6.1.3

3DMark (Normal)
Google Nexus 10 8,055
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 10,204

Graphics test 1,720p (GPU)
Google Nexus 10 36.9
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 44.7

Graphics test 2,720p (GPU)
Google Nexus 10 32.9
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 43.4

Physics test, 720p (CPU)
Google Nexus 10 26.2
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 33.2

Navigating speed is quick but maybe not quite as zippy as the Nexus 10's, but we're talking fractions of a second here. I also used the first level of N.O.V.A. 3 to test app-loading speed, with some sobering results. The Xperia Z trailed behind the Nexus 10 by about 10 seconds and behind the iPad 4 by about 27 seconds. That's a large level, to be sure, and while less demanding apps took about the same amount of time to open, it's disappointing to see a brand-new $500 tablet outpaced by a $400 one from six months ago.

N.O.V.A. 3 Level 1 load time (in seconds)
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 38
Google Nexus 10 29
Apple iPad 4 11

The Tablet Z's 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution is lower than the Nexus 10's 2,560x1,600-pixel setup, but there's little difference in actual noticeable clarity, and even in games, the two screen are comparable. Real Racing 3's cars still sport lots of aliasing on either tablet. The Z's screen does handle color saturation better, however; images are richer and faces in movies look more lifelike than on the Nexus 10, despite its screen's higher pixel count.

Tested spec Sony Xperia Tablet Z Sony Xperia Tablet S Google Nexus 10 Apple iPad (4th generation)
Maximum brightness 411 cd/m2 393 cd/m2 368 cd/m2 398 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.43 cd/m2 0.47 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 955:1 836:1 836:1 812:1

Wi-Fi speeds consistently trailed behind that of the Nexus 10 whether when downloading apps or simply surfing the Web via Chrome.

Deer Hunter Reloaded download time (in seconds)
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 162
Google Nexus 10 60

SpeedTest.net download speed (in megabits per second)
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 10
Apple iPad 4 33
Google Nexus 10 47

Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video Battery life (in hours)
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 7.2

Conclusion
The Sony Xperia Tablet Z offers plenty of features, a sharp screen, and good gaming performance. It's also the thinnest, lightest large tablet I've yet held, but its slow network performance, disappointing large apps loading speed, and high price prevent it from being recommended over the Nexus 10 as Android tablets go. However, with impressively effective waterproofing, an expandable storage option, and useful Sony software features, most will be satisfied by its offerings. That is, as long as the high price works for you.

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