Sony Xperia Tablet Z review: Ultimate

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Sony Xperia Tablet Z

Sony's tablet designs have always bordered on the unusual side - the wedge-shaped Tablet S was meant to evoke a folded magazine, while the clamshell Tablet P was apparently ideal for slipping into a purse or handbag. By contrast, the Tablet Z looks almost pedestrian - but at the same time is easily Sony's best android device to date.

The best tablet from Sony yet, and arguably the best tablet you can buy anywhere. Rather than experiment with shape, Sony has opted for a standard slate with slightly rounded corners. It's still a bit special though, at just 6.9mm thick and weighing a paltry 495g, it's noticeably slimmer and lighter than any of its competitors - those being the Apple iPad 4 and the Google Nexus 10 . With a soft-touch plastic rear and a screen bezel with room for your hands to avoid blocking the screen, it's very comfortable to hold, even for long periods. The entire chassis is sealed, making the Tablet Z both dust- and water-resistant. It can sit in a meter of water for up to 30 minutes without any effect, and will shrug off split drinks or a splash under the taps in the kitchen sink. If you're looking for the perfect digital recipe book, or like to browse the web in the bath, this is the tablet for you. It's impressively thin and incredibly light.

The MicroSD card slot, Micro HDMI output, 3.5mm audio jack and micro USB port are all protected by plastic covers, which create a firm seal to keep out water. We aren't normally fans of these kinds of flap because they are prone to breaking off, but the ones Sony has used here feel far sturdier than the ones seen on other tablets. The stereo speakers are great if you keep your hands out the way. There are four speaker ports, two at each bottom corner of the tablet – they point downwards and outwards respectively, creating a wider cone of sound compared to many such devices. Your hands direct the sound towards your ears when you hold the tablet, but you have to be careful not to muffle them with your hands when watching a film or playing a game. Audio quality is perfectly acceptable, although we would still recommend a good pair of headphones.

The front of the tablet is protected by toughened glass, which might attract fingerprints but should protect the screen against accidental scrapes or scratches. The 10.1in, Full HD display takes pride of place beneath it. With a 1,920x1,200 resolution, it's slightly less detailed than that of the Google Nexus 10, but you'd be hard-pushed to notice in practice with its 221 pixels-per-inch providing razor sharp text and images. There's an upside too for gamers - the Nexus 10 often struggles to render 3D games at its native resolution, which is something we didn't experience with the Xperia Tablet Z. It's an IPS panel, with excellent viewing angles, although the glass is highly reflective so you'll need to max out the brightness when using it in direct sunlight. Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine 2, which we first saw in the Xperia Z smartphone, makes a reappearance here to increase contrast, colour vibrancy and sharpness in photos and video.

The effect is far more pronounced on a tablet than a phone, with images looking pin-sharp and incredibly vivid. Full HD video has plenty of punch too, thanks to excellent black levels. You couldn't find a reason to disable Bravia Engine, but the option to do so is in the settings menu. However, there's no option for user customisation – it's either enabled or switched off.

Photographers will certainly appreciate the screen for showing off their work, but they can also use the Xperia Tablet Z for taking images. The rear camera uses Sony's Exmor R imaging sensor, it's capable of capturing 8.1-megapixel stills, though in the default Superior Auto settings this is limited to 7.2-megapixels, and recording video at 1080p. Burst photos and Sony's sweep panorama modes are included, and multiple photo effects can be toggled through the Camera app, including fisheye, tilt-shift and partial vignette. Unfortunately, it takes noisy images at maximum resolution, even in daylight. It frequently over-exposed the windows and overhead lights, while at the same time lacking detail in the darker parts of each scene. With the right lighting and a steady hand, it's possible to capture clear snapshots, but it certainly won't replace your compact camera,or even a high quality smartphone. Outdoors, it fared slightly better, capturing plenty of detail on an overcast London morning - with the added advantage that we didn't have to worry about the rain damaging the tablet.

There's no flash, so low-light images suffer from a lack of detail and increased noise. Finally, the front webcam uses a smaller 2.2-megapixel sensor, which is fine for video chat or quick self-taken snaps.

Powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro processor running at 1.5GHz and paired with 2GB of RAM, the Xperia Tablet Z is a seriously fast tablet. Android absolutely flies, with no signs of stuttering and very little time spent waiting for applications to load. The quad-core CPU did lose out a little to the higher-clocked dual-core chip found in the Nexus 10 in the Geekbench and SunSpider benchmarks, but during regular use you aren't going to notice the difference. Games and 3D applications are where the Tablet Z takes the lead –it scored an incredible 9,802 in 3DMark Ice Storm, making it the fastest Android tablet we've tested and almost as fast as the current crop of quad-core smartphones from the likes of  HTC and Samsung. We had no trouble playing demanding games like Real Racing 3, which look fantastic at Full HD resolutions. As it's a Sony device you can pair a PlayStation 3 controller with the tablet, plug the tablet into your TV via HDMI and turn it into an ad-hoc games console.

All that 3D power doesn't come at the expense of battery life. In our video playback test, the Tablet Z managed a superb ten hours 17 minutes. That means it will outlast Apple's latest iPad, arguably the benchmark for tablet battery life, by almost 20 minutes.

The Xperia Tablet Z runs Android 4.1.2, rather than the newest Jelly Bean 4.2 version, although Sony has promised that an update will be made available in the coming months. This means that, for the time being, there's no way to use multiple user accounts on the tablet, as Sony hasn't included the Guest Account feature in the Tablet S. As it is, Sony's custom Android skin gives it a sleek appearance, without becoming obtrusive like some of its competitors. The only additions, other than some re-skinned icons, are the shortcut bar on at the top of the home screen and the mini apps toolbar at the bottom - this lets you open a small web browser window, notepad or calculator over the top of an open app. Sony's take on Android is pretty close to Google's, with a couple of useful tweaks.

There are plenty of bundled apps as well, including Sony's Video Unlimited and Music. Unlimited apps for streaming music and renting films, the very slick Walkman for playing music saved to the 16GB of internal memory and Album photo gallery, which can import images from Facebook and Picasa, or from a NAS or networked PC. There's also the Remote Control app for turning the tablet into a universal remote using its IR blaster, we tried this on a couple of TVs from other manufacturers and though it's not the easiest to set up, we got it working smoothly in quick order. The Tablet Z is built to work smoothly with Sony's Bravia TVs, with built-in NFC, screen mirroring and the ability to "throw" content using DLNA, although you can send videos to any compatible TV, rather than just Sony ones. It also includes the usual Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS connectivity, along with an optional 4G module – if you buy the more expensive model, coming soon for around £490.

There's little doubt that the Sony Xperia Tablet Z is one of the best 10in tablets we've ever reviewed. Its main competitor is Google's Nexus 10, which is £80 cheaper and has a higher resolution screen; although the Tablet Z has plenty of features that make choosing between the two a tough decision.
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