Sony has never really been a tablet forerunner. The company has offered some decent slates in the past, but nothing you’d urgently recommend to a friend. The Tablet Z was good—but nobody remembers you for being mediocre. Example: we recognize the Kindle Fire HDX because it offers a solid experience highlighted by a unique service in Mayday; the Nexus 7, meanwhile, is important because of its affordability and powerful specs. The iPad is the obvious tablet emperor, but even that crown has lost some of its sheen, giving way to a relentless Android invasion. That said, can Sony’s latest tablet step up and finally cement its status as a bonafide competitor?
From a hardware perspective, this is absolutely one of the better devices you’re liable to find. It’s elegant, thin, and full of some truly impressive technology. It’s difficult to comprehend the engineering behind Sony’s new darling; it defies logic, and almost doesn’t seem real. But then you start digging through the software, and in one fell swoop it all comes unraveled.
You want fast and smooth? Look elsewhere. Even with today’s super specs, the software is no faster than something from two or three years ago. Such good hardware held back by a sub-par software experience.
The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet is an immaculate specimen of engineering that’s rare outside of the Apple camp. Other tablets are sufficiently designed, sure. But this: you pick it up and your mind struggles to comprehend how so much technology can be stuffed into such a small chassis. The thinness, the lightness; it almost feels like Sony forgot to add the internal components, as though you’re holding an early prototype that got plucked from the factory. It’s not flashy, but the minimal approach works to perfection, giving users an incredible vehicle to consume content.
Sony has always produced very capable hardware, and we’ve recognized this fact in the past. I’ve been using this particular device for the past several days and every time I pick it up I’m still genuinely impressed. At just 15.5 ounces and 6.4mm thick, the Z2 Tablet is light and durable, weightless and impressively built. And the whole thing is rated IP58, which means you’ll be able to lug this thing to the river (and into the water) without doing any damage. (The precise rating says five feet of freshwater for up to half an hour.)
Compared to its predecessor, the Z2 Tablet largely looks the same. That is: this is a black rectangle with rounded corners and flat edges, which is all kept together by an aluminum border and tempered glass on the front. The backside is a nice matted soft touch that’s not slippery, though greasy fingertips will definitely smudge the heck out of it. And good luck wiping those little splotches away completely; they will refuse to go away. Not a huge deal, just something to take note of.
On the tablet’s left side is a lovely chrome power button, which is a signature of Sony’s mobile products. Below that is a rather forgettable volume rocker—and that’s about it as far as physical buttons go. There’s a headphone jack on the tablet’s bottom left side, and the microUSB and microSD slots sit on the tablet’s head, both of which are covered by flaps. On the back there’s an 8-megapixel camera, and a Sony connection on the bottom for accessories if you’re into that kind of thing. Additionally there’s an IR blaster up top for controlling your TV, which is actually pretty handy on such a wide canvas.
Up front the device frames a 10.1-inch Full HD (1920×1200) TRILUMINOS display with Live Color LED and X-Reality for mobile, ensuring the sharpest possible image. The screen looks fairly nice; colors are relatively vibrant, though the blacks could definitely be deeper. It lags behind an AMOLED screen, that’s for sure, but by no means is the Z2’s display awful. Pictures look wonderful, movies are crisp, and Web browsing is enjoyable. Out in the bright sun you can mostly see what you’re reading, but you might struggle to work your way through a lengthy article or book. Best leave this one for indoor viewing.
Finally, and really important for a tablet: Sony equipped the device with S-Force Front Surround, which is basically a fancy way of saying the Z2 Tablet now has front-facing speakers. That means you won’t be muffling the audio when you grip the device with both hands, which tends to happen when the speakers are placed around back. (If you look real hard, you’ll see the two surround sound speakers on the left and right side, near the bottom corners when the tablet is in landscape; also, don’t hold a widescreen tablet of this size in portrait, because that’s just silly).
One last thing, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the 8-megapixel actually takes some decent shots. I see people taking pictures with their tablets all the time. Seriously, now that I think about it, I see people holding up huge tablets all the time. Like, pretty much every time I go out into a busy public space. Which also makes me think: why are so many people taking their tablets out into public? I guess, take the fact that the Z2 Tablet can take some nice shots into consideration if you’re serious about purchasing this device.
With Android 4.4 onboard, you’d expect this thing to fly. Android has evolved into a silky smooth experience that’s both efficient and virtually lag free. It still doesn’t quite have the pizzaz of iOS, but pretty darn close. And when you have the specs the Z2 Tablet does, things should purr along like a luxury automobile. Unfortunately, Sony has somehow managed to make the impossible possible. Well, I suppose not impossible. But the software is often sluggish, hampering what had the potential to be the best Android tablet out there.
It’s not that Sony’s skin looks bad, because it doesn’t at all. In fact, it’s one of the more preferable skins out there. But it lacks a smoothness you’d find in an iPad or even a Nexus 7. You know there’s a problem when you’re swiping between homescreens and there’s a perceptible stutter, like it’s hesitating before saying, Yeah, ok, I’ll switch to the next screen now. For hardware that’s so finely tuned, seeing this kind of performance is a disappointment. There’s some sort of disconnect between the hardware and software, a kind of synthesis you’d see in a vanilla version of Android. I did notice a slight bump, however, when I changed the stock wallpaper, so perhaps that’s the main culprit, though it shouldn’t be.
Once things get going, such as playing a game or movie, the device is fast enough, and you won’t really notice any sort of problem. But it’s just in launching applications and scrolling through the OS overall seems to present the problem. For how good of an impression the hardware leaves, the software gives you a nice, swift kick to the shin. Luckily this is Android we’re talking about, and thankfully there are other launchers in Google Play, such as the ever-popular Nova. Just slap that bad boy on and you’ll be good to go; the nightmare will be over. You’ll never have to deal with stutter or lag again. It’s unacceptable you’d have to perform a quick surgery to iron out the kinks. But the hardware makes it worth the effort.
If you were to purchase a Sony device, you’d already know going in that there will be plenty of pre-installed Sony apps, just like you’d find on any other device. However, it does become a bit overbearing. Immediately after setup, you’ll have apps such as McAfee Security, Pixlr Express, OfficeSuite, File Commander, Sketch, Socialife, and many other apps that you probably won’t ever use. Unless you’re very committed to using Sony apps (WALKMAN, Xperia Lounge, Video Unlimited, etc.), you’ll be stuck with plenty of apps just filling up your device.
One of the apps, PlayStation, is pretty handy if you have an active circle of friends and want to keep track of your trophies, but otherwise it isn’t much of a draw and it’s not an exclsuive. If you do actually use the app, pretty much anything you click on will bounce you over to the Web, so you wind up not wanting to use the PlayStation app in the first place. I pretty much stayed away from anything that came pre-installed, though if you’re a big Sony user they’ll more than do the trick. As an added bonus, you can use a DualShock 3 controller to play some games on the Z2 Tablet because of its PlayStation certification, which is a neat little perk.
One great thing about the Z2 Tablet is that Sony makes it easy to hit the ground running. That is to say the company entices users to stay within the confines of Sony’s own ecosystem. So, for example, Sony gives customers access to six free movies, including Captain Phillips and American Hustle, while folks also get a 30-day free trial of Music Unlimited. Finally, Sony offers customers eight PlayStation mobile games, making the task of building up a library of content less painful than it should be.
Overall, the experience of the Z2 Tablet is hit and miss. The skin over Android 4.4 could definitely be zippier, though it certainly isn’t half bad in terms of usability. It isn’t too complicated, and for the most part everything is pretty straight forward: swipe down to see the notification tray, add widgets by long-pressing, etc. I actually like how you add apps, widgets and change wallpapers, and when you’re inside the app drawer, you can swipe from left to right to reveal a little pane to organize your apps and whatnot. It’s a nice little touch. If only things moved at a quicker pace.
There hasn’t been a ton of Android tablets this year outside of the Samsung camp, so this is definitely a nice breath of fresh air. The hardware alone is worthy of your attention, though the software, while functional enough and pretty decent on the eyes, can be sluggish and frustrating. When you consider this is $500—a high price for tablets these days—is it better than, say, Apple’s iPad? No, definitely not. The iPad’s synthesis of hardware/software is too strong, and the app selection is still better in Apple’s camp.
But among similar tablets on the Android side, the Z2 Tablet certainly stands out. It can’t be overstated how lovely the hardware is; that breathless feeling after picking it up is uncommon, highlighting how special this is.
You could argue the bezel could be smaller, but that’s about the only knock on hardware. Despite being extremely thin, light and waterproof, it gets days and days of battery, and that back soft touch cover feels just right. You can also comfortably hold the device one-handed without getting fatigued, which is a miracle for a tablet of this size.
Disclaimer: Brandon used the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet for six days before writing his review.