Sony’s Xperia Z2 tablet is a significant update to its first real iPad challenger, the Xperia Tablet Z. Now slimmer, lighter and much, much faster Sony has a true Android competitor to the iPad Air on its hands.
While most Android tablet manufacturers stick to the smaller, roughly 7in screen sized tablets like Google’s Nexus 7, which are cheaper and do not attempt to directly compete with Apple’s bigger iPad, Sony is aiming at the premium end with its new tablet computer.
The one drawback is that there aren’t a lot of Android apps available optimised for full-sized tablets when compared with the iPad - especially when it comes to apps that are exclusive to Android and not made by Google.
It is a chicken-and-egg scenario. There aren’t many good, full-sized Android tablets available, so there's no draw for developers; so there isn’t the wealth of optimised apps on offer to draw consumers to buy full-sized tablets, so there's no draw for developers…
Super slim and feather-light
Sony has clearly used its “omni-balance” design principle for the Xperia Z2 Tablet, mimicking the design of the company’s latest smartphones. But the rear of the tablet is not a slab of glass. Instead it's covered with a soft-touch texturised plastic, offering a reassuring amount of grip. It makes the tablet easy to hold, which its slimline 6.4mm thick and 426g frame certainly aid. For comparison, the iPad Air is 7.5mm thick and weighs 469g.
Though light, the Z2 Tablet is solidly built, with minimal flex in the body when twisted.
The rest of the tablet is essentially a slab of glass with metal edges. It is simple and understated, and has at least a passing resemblance to Sony’s line of premium televisions – and that is no bad thing.
All of Sony’s high-end smartphones and tablets have been waterproof for the past couple of years; so is the Xperia Z2 Tablet. Its IP58 rating means it will resist a 1.5m submersion for up to 30 minutes, rather than simply immersion to 1m like its predecessor.
The waterproofing comes with a few design compromises. While the headphones port is open (and awkwardly positioned in the bottom edge of the tablet), the micro-USB charging port and the microSD slots are protected by rubber-sealed doors.
The gaskets fit snugly, but charging the device every night will inevitably lead to wear and a break of the seal over the lifetime of the tablet. Opening the door and plugging in the connector is also quite fiddly – but like the Z2 phone the tablet has Sony’s magnetic charging port, for those that want to avoid having to hook up the phone via micro-USB each night. You can slot the tablet into a charging dock, removing the need to fiddle with the door – but you have to buy it separately.
The Xperia Z2 Tablet has a big, bold and bright 10.1in full high definition screen with great viewing angles. The screen is of lower resolution than the iPad Air’s (1920x1200 pixels v 2048x1536, 224ppi v 264ppi), although it is impossible to tell the difference in general use.
The front-facing speakers are very directional, clear and quite loud. Unsurprisingly they lack bass. They bracket the screen, making sharing videos with others enjoyable. Most tablet speakers are quiet and placed on the back, so having them mounted on the front makes a real difference. They aren’t a patch on HTC’s BoomSound speakers like those mounted on the HTC One M8, though.
- Screen: 10.1in full HD IPS LCD
- Processor: 2.3 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
- RAM: 3GB of RAM
- Storage: 16GB or 32GB (microSD slot also available)
- Operating system: Android 4.4 “KitKat”
- Camera: 8.1MP rear camera, 2.2MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 with BLE and GPS (LTE optional)
- Dimensions: 266 x 172 x 6.4mm
- Weight: 426g
Powerful and it vibrates
The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet uses the same chip from Qualcomm (the Snapdragon 801) as its smaller brother the Xperia Z2 phone, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8, making it just as quick as the current crop of flagship smartphones.
That means the Z2 Tablet is powerful, fast and lag-free. Graphically intensive games run smoothly on the large screen and apps launch almost instantly. It is also relatively easy on the battery, which is important because that's clearly where Sony has cut back to slim down. The battery capacity is 6,000 milliampere-hour (mAh) battery, compared to 8,827mAh for the iPad Air and 8,220 for Samsung’s 10.1in tablets.
But looking past the numbers, I found the Xperia Z2 lasted a good day (about 15 hours) on a single charge under continual usage (continual push email, a few hours' browsing, perhaps an hour of video) without activating any of the power-saving modes. Sony’s power saving “Stamina” modes work well to extend standby times, too, giving at least four days' standby in my testing.
The Z2 also has a microSD card slot for adding up to 64GB more storage for movies, photos and music, and comes with either 16 or 32GB of storage built-in, depending on model.
There's a vibrating alert - rare for a tablet but incredibly useful for telling when the tablet has been switched on. It gives a short shake when the power button has been held down long enough to boot the tablet up – something that was left down to unnerving guesswork on the previous generation, and on many rivals.
Android with useful tweaks
Sony makes some subtle customisations to the standard Android experience on all of its devices. While most are cosmetic, the small functional tweaks are almost uniformly useful. There aren't unnecessary lag-inducing animations, and the overall look of the interface is clean and understated.
Sony has shoehorned "theming" into Android, so the look and feel of the device can be customised way beyond simply changing the background. Menu buttons, the status bar, lockscreen and lots of small interface elements can all be changed using downloadable themes that can make Android look really quite different.
One of the most useful additions Sony makes has to be the Stamina mode mentioned above, which is twinned with a battery icon that can contain the battery remaining percentage within it. (Normally, the percentage figure sits beside the icon, crowding the status bar.) It is a very small thing and makes a big difference on a smartphone, but less so on a tablet with more screen real estate to play with.
Users can also adjust the status bar contents to hide unnecessary icons, while the quick settings panel under the notifications pull-down menu adds a host of useful controls for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC among other settings that can be configured and re-ordered.
The Xperia Z2 Tablet also has an added a very useful tap-to-wake gesture just like its smaller phone namesake – double-tap the screen to wake the tablet rather than having to hunt for the power button.
A smart backlight control, which uses the front-facing camera to watch for your eyes, can also be useful to keep the backlight alive when reading a web page or watching a movie without having to touch the screen.
Sony’s apps also come preinstalled on the Z2 Tablet, including the Walkman app and Sony’s music and movie subscription services. They’re generally decent, but can be safely ignored by anyone who already has a Spotify subscription or other preferred app or service.
However one annoying add-on app that can’t be removed is the Sony “What’s New” app. It suggests content you might be interested in – which is fine – but Sony has insisted on sticking it under the "swipe up for Google Now" gesture that’s common to most Android smartphones and tablets. To get to Google Now, you have to swipe up and to the right; a swipe up from the home button and to the left launches the What’s New app.
I frequently activated What’s New instead of Google Now by accident, but couldn't find any way to get rid of it.
On the plus side there's Sony’s Smart Connect app, which automatically puts the Z2 Tablet on silent when plugged into the mains at night – or at any other time-, hardware- or event-defined quick settings. You can also define a whole host of custom actions to speed up everyday tasks such as switching from silent to a "loud" sound profile when you plug in headphones, or turning on Wi-Fi when you get to work or back home.
Sony’s Z2 phone has a very powerful 20.7-megapixel camera, and while the Z2 Tablet’s main camera isn’t quite as impressive at 8.1-megapixels, it still produces decent shots for a tablet. It can also use Sony’s fun photo apps, like its augmented reality dinosaurs, motion shot and other bits and pieces.
I’m still not quite sure why you’d take photos and video with a 10.1in tablet, but you can if you must.
The front-facing 2.2-megapixel camera mounted above the screen is good for video calling, but nothing to write home about for shooting selfies, and certainly not a patch on the front-facing 5-megapixel camera of the HTC One M8, for instance.
Users can control their TVs and other home entertainment equipment using the IR emitter mounted in the top edge of the tablet and Sony’s remote app, turning the Z2 Tablet into a universal remote.
The Xperia Z2 Tablet is the first to pack active noise-cancelling technology integrated into its body for use with a special headset. The headset, which must be bought separately but also works with the Z2 phone, contains microphones that monitor incoming noise and send it back to the tablet, which then blends in noise cancellation to whatever is being played.
Active noise-cancelling is not a new thing, but normally it requires headsets with a bulky battery and electronics pack attached to the headphone wire. Sony has squeezed the components and software into the tablet, removing the bulk that normally makes noise-cancelling earphones bulky or heavy.
Because the noise cancelling control system is built into the tablet, you can select from four noise profiles – planes, trains, buses and the office – which makes the technology much more effective. I found the office setting to be particularly effective at blocking out the hubbub of an open-plan office, much more so than most other noise-cancelling ear or headphones, while the train profile handled the daily commute well.
The sound quality of the noise-cancelling earbuds has good dynamic range and solid bass. The only detractor is that they do not have an in-line music control remote, as is common on mobile headsets (because the auxiliary channel that would control it is used for the sound feedback); you'll have to control it on the tablet. If you use other headphones which do have a mic and/or music remote, they will work as on other tablets and phones.
Pricing: like an iPad
Sony has priced the Xperia Z2 Tablet right in-line with the iPad Air and other premium full-sized tablets. The 16GB Wi-Fi-only Xperia Z2 Tablet costs £399 in black, while the 32GB storage model costs £449 in black or white. An LTE-variant with 16GB of storage costs £499. Apple’s iPad Air costs upwards from £399, with a 4G variant costing £499 and up.
Verdict: the best full-sized Android tablet going
The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet is undoubtedly the best full-sized Android tablet out there, and the best competitor to the premium experience offered by the arguable king of tablets, the iPad Air.
It’s built with premium materials, powerful enough to handle anything you can throw at it and will last all day on a single charge. It is slim and waterproof, which means you can watch Game of Thrones in the bath, and it’s a quantum leap over the Android tablets that were on offer just a couple of years ago. It’s also light enough to use as an ebook or digital comic reader, while watching video on the great-looking screen is delightful.
The Xperia Z2 Tablet isn’t quite as rounded or ergonomic as the iPad Air, though, and it still needs more decent apps optimised properly for a 10.1in Android screen. You can’t blame Sony for that, and in the chicken-and-egg scenario, at least we have a decent full-sized Android tablet to entice developers to create those apps. Now it’s is up to the public to buy them and provide that enticing user base. Whether that’ll happen is unknown.
If it makes any difference, it is the tablet I would buy with my own money, which is saying a lot.
Pros: great screen, super thin and light, waterproof, decent battery life, built-in noise cancelling, premium materials
Cons: fiddly doors for ports, shortage of optimised apps compared to iPad, irritating “What’s New” app
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