Sony's first attempt at making Android slates was less than a rousing success. Not one to be discouraged, Sony is back with a new Android-powered tablet called the Xperia Tablet Z. This is the big brother of the Xperia Z flagship smartphone. I've spent a little time with the Tablet Z and I have some thoughts in advance of the full review.
The device is surprisingly thin and light. Yes, I know what the spec sheet says, but it's different when you get it in your hands. Just knowing that it's 495g and has a 10.1-inch screen doesn't mean much until you pick it up. I nearly dropped the tablet taking it out of the box because I wasn't prepared for how easily it came up. The thinness is impressive (only 6.9mm), but the weight is what really sets it apart.
The Tablet Z is water and dust-resistant, which likely leads to the extremely solid feel it has. There is no flexing or creaking, although the device is made out of plastic. The frame is rigid and the seams where different panels come together are perfectly aligned. The back is made of a soft-touch material and is completely flat. A lot of devices rely on a tapering near the edges to make the shell feel thinner – not the Tablet Z. It's just crazy thin all the way through.
There are four recessed speakers near the bottom and a volume rocker on the left right next to the power button. Around the periphery are also covered ports for headphones, a microSD card, and the microUSB cable. I'm slightly concerned about the flimsy-feeling port covers. If one breaks off, the tablet would instantly cease to be water-resistant regardless of how solid the design is.
The 1920x1200 resolution screen would have been top-of-the-line a year ago, but now it falls short of the numbers posted by the Nexus 10 and others. Still, it's a crisp panel and I'm impressed with the viewing angles thus far. That aspect is at least an improvement over the Xperia Z, which tends to wash out easily.
Software: Less Swoon
Sony seems to keep its Android modifications to a minimum, and that mostly holds true with this device. Based on Android 4.1.2, Sony's Xperia Z software is responsive and close to stock. There are some changes in the way widgets and icons are added to the home screen, as well as some (perhaps unnecessary) UI flourishes.
The version of Android currently running on the Tablet Z uses the "old" style Android tablet interface. The navigation buttons are off to the left, and the notification area is on the right. The app drawer and Google search are at the top of the screen. I know there are some people that were aghast when Google switched the UI around with the Nexus 10, but I actually prefer that approach. The notifications in particular are better in the phone-ish UI. Sony also tossed in some navigation bar buttons for the remote app and built-in floating widgets. I don't think I need access to these features all the time, but I have yet to find a way to turn the shortcuts off.
Scrolling through the home screens and opening apps is lightning fast. I feel like I already know my way around because Sony hasn't fundamentally changed the way the OS works. The settings are – thankfully – almost identical to stock Android. What customizations there are feel superficial, which is a good thing in this context.
Stock Android uses a blue edge glow to signify the end of a scrollable list, but not all OEMs keep that effect. HTC has completely removed it, preferring to use the accordion animation in Sense apps. I mention this because Sony kept the edge glow, but made it white. I just find this very odd because it is essentially invisible in a large proportion of apps. It's one example of tweaks Sony made that I believe were poorly thought-out.
Sony packed in some extras like Bravia-branded image post-processing, DualShock 3 controller support, and the PlayStation Mobile store. This is not a carrier-branded tablet, so crapware is at a minimum. Buyers will, however, be subjected to Sony's various multimedia services. It's like seeing two parallel universes coexist on a single tablet. There's the Google Play stuff, which is universal on Android and comes with cool web services. Then there's Sony's "Unlimited" and "PlayNow" services. I haven't fully inspected these yet, but they don't look great.
There are annoyances with every new device, and indeed there are some with the Tablet Z. However, I'm very impressed with the hardware so far. When you're working with a 10-inch tablet, it's incredibly important that it's a comfortable device. If it's too heavy or balanced oddly, you're going to hate using it. The Tablet Z is looking good on this count.
I'll have to spend more time playing with the software, but things aren't bad. My first impression is that the good parts of the software are the things Sony didn't mess around with too much. The last-gen Snapdragon S4 chip seems more than capable of pushing all those pixels – the Tablet Z is very fast. A full review is incoming, but my brief time with the Xperia Tablet Z had been positive. I have real hope this is going to be Sony's first winning slate.