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Sony Xperia Z4 tablet review: The best tablet you've never heard of

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The Good The Sony Xperia Z4's slim, waterproof design is simultaneously sleek and solid. Running the latest version of Android, it features a colorful user-friendly overlay. It has a sharp HD screen, and its performance is fast and smooth.

The Bad The optional Bluetooth keyboard is cramped to type on and has a frail plastic build.

The Bottom Line For novice Android users with a desire to greatly personalize their experience, the Sony Xperia Z4 is a beautifully constructed tablet with high-end specs that won't disappoint.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 9

Sony might not be the first to come to mind when you think about tablets, but if you're in the market for a stellar Android model, you should pay attention to its latest release. The Xperia Z4 tablet, not to be confused with the Xperia Z4 smartphone, is a skinny and powerful 10-inch tablet that's both dust- and waterproof.

One of the best reasons to pick an Android gadget (and skip on comparable iOS or Windows devices) is the freedom to tweak it to your heart's desire. Rocking a colorful overlay full of useful customization features, the Z4 takes full advantage of this flexibility.

Whether it's the option to organize the app tray layout by apps most commonly used or the ability to launch Spotify as soon as you connect your headphones, what sets the Xperia Z4 apart is its considerable customization opportunities.

A touch of waterproof durability goes a long way. Josh Miller/CNET

Solid Android tablets with a chic design, powerful performance and razor-sharp HD screen are a dime a dozen, but one that hand delivers all the personalization options natively (without having to download any additional apps) like the Xperia Z4, are harder to find.

Speaking of hard to find, although the tablet is currently on sale in the UK for £499 -- and available on Expansys for the same price -- Sony has not made an official announcement regarding official pricing or availability in the US or AU. US shoppers can find the Wi-Fi-only model on Amazon without the keyboard for $699 and with it for $759. The standalone LTE variant starts at $799 and the LTE model with the keyboard will run you $849.

In Australia the LTE variant of the Z4 is a Telstra exclusive, available outright for the bizarre prices of AU$888 or on plan from AU$62 per month. The Wi-Fi only model will arrive in late September at Sony stores and online, for AU$799.

Design

The Sony Xperia Z4 tablet is one of the thinnest and lightest tablets, which is a nice feat for a large 10-incher. The rounded corners and slightly curved edges help it fit comfortably in your palms when holding it, and the smooth plastic back has a subtly textured finish that provides some grip support.

Tested spec Sony Xperia Z4 Dell Venue 8 7000 Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 Apple iPad Air 2
Weight 0.87-pound (393g) 0.67-pound (306g) 0.65-pound (294g) 0.96-pound (437g)
Width (landscape) 10 inches (254mm) 8.5 inches (216mm) 8.4 inches (213mm) 9.4 inches (240mm)
Height 6.6 inches (167mm) 4.9 inches (124mm) 4.9 inches (124mm) 6.6 inches (169.5mm)
Depth .24-inch (6.1mm) .24-inch (6 mm) 0.26-inch (6.6mm) 0.24-inch (6.1mm)
Side bezel width (landscape) 0.56-inch(14.2mm) .69-inch (17mm)/ 0.18-inch (4.6mm) 0.56-inch(14.2mm) 0.8-inch (22mm)

The top edge houses the headphone jack, while the SIM and microSD card slots are next to it, covered by a small flap. On the right edge you'll find a Micro-USB port, and on the left there's the power button and volume rocker. Our review unit was charcoal black, however it's also available in white.

Sony's skinniest slate yet. Josh Miller/CNET

One of the coolest design aspects of the Xperia Z4 is its waterproof build. It has an IP65/68 rating, meaning it can withstand a brief shower or dusty conditions. Unlike Sony's previous model, the Z4 doesn't have flaps to protect the ports, making the headphone jack or Micro-USB port vulnerable to the possibility of water damage.

It can be submerged up to 1.5m (5 feet) underwater, but since water can enter through the ports, it's not exactly the bathtub-friendly Xperia tablet we're used to seeing. However, if you ever spill your drink on it, the built-in durability provides a nice sense of security.

A lackluster set of keys. Josh Miller/CNET

The Sony Xperia Z4 has an optional keyboard accessory, but I'm sad to report that that it's not worth the investment. It's light and thin, snugly fits the Z4 into its top edge, and when attached, it transforms the thin tablet into a netbook-esque device. However, its plastic build feels cheap, and it's sometimes unresponsive. Its poor performance depreciates the overall user experience, and despite the added functionality, you're better off skipping it.

Features

Running the latest available version of Google's operating system, Lollipop 5.0 , the Xperia Z4 features an overlay that slightly modifies the Android experience. It's no complete overhaul like you'd find in the Lenovo Yoga 10 , but the alterations are evident.

screenshot2015-07-06-15-48-20.png
You can organize your apps in whatever way you want. Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

While not a flashy feature, one of the best aspects of the UI is the easy ability to customize how you interact with your Xperia Z4. You can modify practical things, like choosing which settings buttons you'd like quick access to via the pull-down menu, accessible by swiping down from the top of the tablet, or you can change how the apps in your app tray are organized.

You can also customize more complicated matters. Smart Connect is a preloaded app that allows you to tell your Xperia tablet what to do when you connect or disconnect an accessory. You create "events" that trigger a certain response from the tablet. You can set the tablet to automatically launch your running playlist when connected to headphones between the hours of 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., or set the volume to max whenever connected to the charger, ensuring you won't miss any notifications.

screenshot2015-07-09-13-04-29.png
You can tell you Xperia tablet what to do when you connect your headphones. Screenshot/CNET

When tethered to the Bluetooth keyboard, a small taskbar on the bottom-left corner of the screen appears. It's customizable -- you can hand-pick which apps appear in it, and you get a maximum of 18. This is an easy way to open your most-used apps instead of finding the shortcut on your homescreen or making your way to the app tray. I found it very helpful and used it often.

If you own other Sony products, like a TV, Xperia phone or PlayStation, the tablet can also seamlessly work with those devices. For example, you can mirror the tablet's screen onto your Sony TV or Xperia phone, and if connected to a PS4 via the preloaded PS App, the Z4 can be utilized as a controller, a second screen, or as a keyboard for text entry.

screenshot2015-07-08-10-33-37.png
Customizing the taskbar is everything but taxing. Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco

Hardware

The Sony Xperia Z4 tablet houses a 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 64-bit octa-core processor, Adreno 430 GPU, 3GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal memory, and a microSD card slot that can store up to an additional 128 GB. Other features include Bluetooth 4.1, FM radio and NFC connectivity.

Our review unit was an LTE variant of the Sony Xperia Z4 tablet. There's no information on where the tablet will be available, let alone which carriers will offer it, so at the time of review we were unable to evaluate the feature.

The microSD and SIM card slots are hidden behind a cover. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance

Considering its high-end specs, the Sony Xperia Z4's performance is unsurprisingly stellar. Basic tasks, like checking email, streaming video, or browsing the Web are smooth like butter and even large apps and games run without a hitch.

The Sony Xperia Z4's gaming performance ranks it among the best. This is good news for those interested in mobile gaming, as well as those that want to use the Sony tablet in conjunction with their PS4 gaming console. Graphics are sharp and smooth, and gameplay rarely encounters a hiccup.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Sony Xperia Z4 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 64-bit octa-core Adreno 430 3GB Android 5.0.2
Dell Venue 10 7000 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3580 PowerVR G6430 2GB Android 5.0.2
Nvidia Shield Nvidia Tegra K1; 2.2GHz quad-core A15 ULP GeForce Kepler 2GB Android 5.0
Apple iPad Air 2 Apple A8X N/A 2GB iOS8
Google Nexus 9 Nvidia Tegra K1; 2.3GHz dual-core Denver Kepler DX1 2GB Android 5.0

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Nvidia Shield Tablet
28,104
Google Nexus 9
25,854
Sony Xperia Z4
24,561
Apple iPad Air 2
21,647
Dell Venue 10 7000
21,004

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

The 10-inch screen boasts a 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution display with a wide range of colors that appear lifelike. HD content on the 2K screen looks splendid and even the UI itself is great to look at when adding widgets to your home screens or changing the theme of its appearance.

You'll find a front-facing 5.1-megapixel camera that satisfies for video conferencing and selfies as well as an 8-megapixel camera on the back. For both, colors are a bit washed out, and graininess is prevalent. I wouldn't recommend using either much, unless you like playing with camera features.

The Xperia Z4 rocks an excellent screen. Josh Miller/CNET

The features built into the native camera app range in usefulness, but they add a unique, fun element to the otherwise drab pair of cameras. In addition to your typical scene modes, the Xperia Z4 has camera apps. They range from wacky to practical, but since the photo quality isn't that great, I enjoyed the wacky options more.

screenshot2015-07-06-13-01-42.png
The camera apps are better than the camera itself. Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

One of the most interesting camera apps is the AR mask, mostly because it's so odd that it's captivating. Using the front-facing camera, you can transform your face into an animal, or even take a photo of a friend and use that as a mask. It makes for some interesting results.

The creative effect app also included its own array of interesting filters. Aside from the expected black-and-white and pencil-sketch filters, there's a trippy kaleidoscope mode that makes the most mundane environments a work of art and a cool comic book one that, well, makes it look like you're inside of a comic book.

dsc0001.jpg
I wasn't lion about those fun camera features. Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

The Sony Xperia Z4 tablet houses a 6000 mAh battery with a purported video playback time of 17 hours. After testing it in the CNET Lab by looping a local video in airplane mode, the Z4 averaged 10.8 hours.

Battery test result
Sony Xperia Z4 10.8

What about the competition?

It might appear expensive when compared to the slew of budget tablets available, but the pricing places it right in the wheelhouse of its competition. The chart below reflects current pricing according to availability in the US and UK. This review will be updated with any relevant information that Sony provides us.

Wi-Fi only Wi-Fi only w/ keyboard LTE LTE w/ keyboard
Sony Xperia Z4 (32GB) $699/£499/AU$799 $759 $699/AU$888 $849
Apple iPad Air 2 (64GB) $599/£499/AU$739 $699 $729/£579/AU$899 $899
Microsoft Surface 3 (64GB) $499/£419/$699 $629/£529/AU$878 N/A N/A
Dell Venue 10 7000 (32GB) $549 $679 N/A N/A

The Microsoft Surface 3 and Apple iPad Air 2 are not made in 32GB models, so we included the 64GB versions, taking into consideration that although both the Sony Xperia Z4 and Dell Venue 10 7000 include only 32GB of native storage, each has a microSD card slot that makes an upgrade to 64GB a mere $14 away.

Note, the keyboard included in the pricing for the iPad Air 2 is the Logitech Type+ keyboard case (not available via the UK Apple Store), which is suggested by the Apple Store and comparable in function to the Surface 3's and Venue 10 7000's proprietary keyboards. However, there are many other options for the Apple iPad available.

An Android alternative to the Xperia Z4 lies within the similarly sleek Dell Venue 10 7000 . With comparable performance, aesthetics play a part in which 10-inch Android tablet you might prefer; in contrast to the streamlined and skinny build of the Xperia Z4, the Venue 10 7000's slim figure deviates from the norm with a chunky rounded spine, for ergonomic grip support. The Venue 10 7000 also offers a Bluetooth keyboard (sold separately). However the Dell's keyboard fits and works like a dream when attached to the tablet, and it makes the Xperia Z4's keyboard looks like a homely afterthought. As an Android-based workstation, the Dell Venue 10 7000's design outshines that of the Sony Xperia Z4.

The Xperia Z4's best competition can't do this. Josh Miller/CNET

If you're open to a different operating system, the Apple iPad Air 2 and Microsoft Surface 3 are two comparable powerhouses. The Surface 3 runs a full version of Windows 8.1 -- soon to run Windows 10 -- meaning it can run any Windows program, and its signature keyboard case is highly lauded for being fashionable and functional. The Xperia Z4 is slimmer and thinner than the Surface 3, and the Google Play store offers more apps than the Windows Store, but the Microsoft tablet is also a better workstation thanks to its cleverly constructed keyboard.

The Apple iPad Air 2 is arguably the most popular tablet, making a comparison between it and the Xperia Z4 a necessary evil. Performance between the two is comparable in speed and consistency, however the Xperia Z4 excels in gaming graphics, and it weighs a little less than the Air 2. If you're already invested in the iOS ecosystem, the choice to opt for an iPad is easy. The Sony tablet is a better alternative if you prefer the Android operating system or if you're big on gaming -- the PS4 compatibility is a huge plus.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia Z4 is currently one of the best Android tablets out there. Not only is it a well-constructed powerful performer with a stunningly sharp screen, its thoughtful overlay puts the control of the Android experience in the hands of the user in a remarkably accessible manner. In the end, the modifications to the interface render the Sony tablet a better option for less tech savvy users. Sure, you can download apps that replicate the fancy features of the Xperia Z4, but if you don't have the time, patience, or will to parse through the Google Play store for those alternatives, the Z4 conveniently offers myriad ways to adjust the tablet's functions to your liking for maximum usability -- and enjoyment.

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