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Sony Xperia Tablet Z review

Thin, light, and ready for a rainstorm

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Xperia Tablet Z underwater (1024px)
Xperia Tablet Z underwater (1024px)

Growing up, I read constantly. I read at the breakfast table, on the bus, in class (though usually not the book I was supposed to be reading), at lunch, at home, and in bed. My parents mostly supported my bibliophilia, save one weird habit: I used to read in the shower. I would stand in there, water running down my back, holding my book out and reading. I'd do this for hours, given the chance — eventually, my mom learned to bang on the bathroom door 10 minutes after I'd started "showering" and yell "Put the book down!" Then she'd smell my hair to make sure I'd put Matt Christopher down long enough to actually use shampoo.

My habits have changed since then, but I miss all the reading time I once had. Which is why, when the waterproof Sony Xperia Tablet Z came into The Verge's office, I knew exactly how I needed to test the $499 slate. From the shower to the pool and everywhere in between, this light, thin Android tablet seemed like the perfect companion for reading, and even watching movies and listening to music.

Plus, I just started reading Dan Brown's new book, Inferno, and putting it down is virtually impossible. So, with apologies to my mom and the New York City water supply, I grabbed my Tablet Z and hopped in the shower.

The tablet’s purest form

Every once in a while, when I’m meeting with a laptop manufacturer, they show me the unpainted version of their new device. You can see the parts, the connectors, the seams, the screws. I always love those models more than the finished ones, because they’re so real, so bare, and the Tablet Z strikes me the same way. There’s really no room for anything on the insanely thin 6.9mm edge (it’s thinner than the Droid RAZR, thinner than the iPad Mini, thinner than pretty much anything else you’re wondering about), so there isn’t much. There isn’t much decoration either. More than any tablet I’ve ever used, holding the Tablet Z feels like you’re just holding a screen. And at just over a pound, you might as well be.

Sony got rid of basically everything but the screen

Like the iPad is “just a big iPod touch,” The Tablet Z is just a big Xperia Z. A slightly better version, maybe, because the tablet’s soft-touch matte black back feels a lot better than the phone’s glass panel. It’s glass on all other sides, though, interrupted only by a tiny rubber bumper around all four edges. Once again, the power button is the most distinctive design touch, a lone silver sphere in a sea of black — it looks and feels good, but it’s way too easy to press, and that meant I often pulled the Tablet Z out of my backpack already turned on and running.

The rest of the Tablet Z’s ports are covered by plastic flaps, which is terribly annoying every time I spend five minutes prying one of them off so I can plug in my headphones or charge the thing. There’s at least a good reason, though: the Tablet Z is completely waterproof. I dunked it in water, ran it under the sink, and accidentally-on-purpose spilled a bunch of Diet Coke on the device, and as long as the ports are sealed the device just keeps on chugging through it all. (Heaven help you if you spill while you’re charging, or while you have headphones in.)

It may “work” while wet or even submerged, but an underwater tablet this is not. I used the Tablet Z outside in a rainstorm, because I could, and for the most part it worked okay — big, perfectly-placed raindrops would occasionally press a button I didn’t want, but the tablet still sensed my finger and mostly did my bidding. Emboldened, I started submerging the tablet in the sink or running water over top of it, and it stopped being usable at all. In fact, some scary things happened: a stream of water constantly pressed buttons, opened apps, changed settings, and at one point actually deleted Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon from the tablet entirely. The Xperia Tablet Z is not by any stretch a tablet you’ll want to use in the water — it’s just a tablet that can go in the water and not be totally ruined.

It’s the world’s best shower radio

Still, there’s something wonderful about using a tablet that’s not afraid of a few drops. Because it’s so unpredictable when it’s soaked it’s not great for reading or anything involving a lot of touching the screen, but for the most part I could start a podcast or a song and let it play — the Tablet Z is a little bit like the world’s best and most expensive shower radio. More often, I just appreciated the peace of mind of knowing that a drop of water from the sink wouldn’t ruin my tablet while I brushed my teeth, and my semi-annual spillage of my drink all over my desk wouldn’t mean I flushed $500 down the toilet. Most of my gadgets are precious objects, to be treated with the utmost care lest a breeze come along and ruin them forever. I loved having one device that I didn’t have to worry about all the time.

Not much to look at

There’s not much to the Xperia Tablet Z besides its 10.1-inch, 1920 x 1200 display. As always, Sony makes a big deal of its Bravia heritage, touting the company’s TV prowess as evidence that it knows how to make displays. Sony’s TV division might want to distance itself from the Tablet Z’s display, though: it’s sharp and clear, but something has clearly gone wrong with the color reproduction. “White” is really more like yellow, so everything you look at has odd, almost old-fashioned tones — Fast Five took on a strange 1960s Western feel, which is awesome but not exactly correct. Off-color whites also throw off every other color, leaving the Tablet Z feeling like it’s just been miscalibrated.

Making screens and speakers is different from making them for tablets

Sony often has a problem with viewing angles, but not here — the Tablet Z is much more watchable from strange positions than the Xperia Z and most other Sony products. And at 1080p, individual pixels are hard to discern unless you’re really looking for them. But bad colors make the screen look washed out no matter what angle you watch from. Part of the problem can be solved by turning off the “Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2” in the device’s Display settings — when enabled, it boosts contrast into the stratosphere and makes everything needlessly intense — but no matter how hard you try you can’t make this screen as good as an iPad, or a Nexus 10, or even a Transformer Pad Infinity.

Sony’s other divisions also contributed to the Tablet Z’s speakers, and its camera. In both cases, the result is good without being overwhelmingly impressive: the 8-megapixel camera is fine but not meaningfully better than any other tablet despite Sony’s pronouncements about its backside-illuminated sensor, and the lens’ placement all the way in the top left corner of the back makes framing any close-up shot really awkward.

The speakers get louder than most — I could hear the Tablet Z over my air conditioner, which is rare for a tablet — and they have an impressively full, rich sound simply because there are four grilles surrounding the bottom two corners of the tablet. Of course, all that just exacerbates the fact that it sounds like you’re listening to music on an 1880s gramophone, and there’s so little bass response that Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” sounds a bit like an a cappella song with a snare drum.

More hardware than Android needs

The Tablet Z’s 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro processor isn’t the best on the market, but it doesn’t really need to be — it’s been a while since power has been an issue for Android tablets. The Tablet Z works just fine, with little lag or slowness whether you’re playing a game or just swiping around the operating system. It even multitasks well, thanks certainly to its 2GB of RAM. The base model comes with 16GB of internal storage, and the $599 version has 32GB — both come with microSD slots so you can augment as you see fit.

Basically, it works like an Android tablet: scrolling stutters in some apps, as it always does, and the occasional app can take a beat or two to open, as it always does, but nearly everything works as it’s intended to. Unless the tablet’s underwater, of course, at which point all hell breaks loose.

Nearly every current Android tablet is more powerful than it needs to be

If there were a tradeoff Sony was going to make in order to squeeze the Tablet Z into its tiny frame, I figured it would be battery life. My worries were mostly unfounded, though, since at seven hours and nine minutes on The Verge Battery Test the Tablet Z is well above average for a 10-inch tablet. It’s no iPad, which lasted better than nine hours, but it’s better than many, and in more normal use lasted two or three days. That’s really all I expect; everything else is just gravy.

What a tablet’s really for

If I have to use a skinned version of Android, I’d choose Sony’s every time. Not only does the Tablet Z not offer the typical truckload of cosmetic changes to Android 4.1.2 (no Android 4.2 yet, unfortunately), it actually adds quite a bit to the operating system. There’s a sort of quick-launch bar at the top of the screen, which gives you access to four apps or folders from any screen without having to go into the app drawer. Sony’s great Small Apps are here as well, letting you pop a calculator or notepad on top of whatever you’re doing without having to switch apps; it’s not quite as robust as Samsung’s true split-screen multitasking, but it’s really handy.

For once, a company actually improves upon the standard Android experience

There are a handful of Sony-made apps on the Tablet Z, from PlayMemories Online and Video Unlimited to Smart Connect and Xperia Link. These are Sony’s answer to Samsung, the result of a huge and integrated company trying to make you use only Sony devices, only Sony services, and only Sony content. It’s not going to work — none of the services are anywhere near good enough to make me want to buy another Sony product. But if you happen to use a lot of Sony products… go nuts.

Sony’s best addition to the Android experience is its universal remote control functionality. Sony’s been doing this for a few years now, coupling an IR blaster with a handful of useful apps for controlling your TV and finding things to watch, but it works particularly well on a tablet. There’s a small app for the remote, so you don’t have to leave your app to quickly change the channel, and from the many available macros to the huge number of controls you can fit on a 10-inch screen, it’s a pretty solid replacement for most universal remotes.

Oddly, there’s no visual TV Guide-like app preinstalled, which most other tablets-cum-remotes offer, but Sony does have its TV SideView app in the Play store and there are third-party alternatives that work just fine. I’m constantly using my tablet as I watch TV, look at Twitter, or answer emails, and having a remote so easily accessible was awfully handy. I’m a big fan of this resurgence in IR blasters.

A universal remote is a great second feature for a tablet

For all it adds to the software, Sony can’t escape the fact that the Android ecosystem still trails iOS in a big way. Even as the gap slowly narrows in pure numerical terms, I was amazed by how many apps are just worse for Android tablets than for the iPad. Scrolling and pagination in Pocket are both really awkward, the Netflix app is painfully slow, and most other non-Google apps I used lagged their iOS counterparts in design, features, or both.

How good can the best Android tablet be?

Ultimately, the Tablet Z’s raison d’être is two-fold: it can be a universal remote, and it can go (but not function) underwater. I don’t know if that’s worth $500, or even the $100 over some other great Android tablets.

I used the Tablet Z a lot more than I’ve used most Android tablets — it’s just so amenable to so many situations. It’s thin, light, and rugged enough that I carried it everywhere with me, and from cooking to bathing I really like having a waterproof tablet. If you’re looking to spend $500 on an Android tablet, the Xperia Tablet Z is the one to get — I like its gimmicks much better than the Galaxy Note 10.1’s. Ultimately, though, gimmicks are all any $500 Android tablet has going for it.

The real problem is that it’s not Sony’s fault it can’t make a $500 tablet as good as an iPad. Sony did almost everything it could — if the screen were better, I’d prefer this hardware to the iPad — it’s just that the Android tablet ecosystem so massively trails iOS in both quantity and quality of apps. There are some signs that Google is committed to solving this problem — a tablet section of the Play Store was featured prominently at Google I/O — but until that section is filled with great and optimized apps, it’s really hard to say you should buy an Android tablet for any reason other than price. There’s a reason Amazon's Kindle Fire HD commercials boil down to “we’re just like the iPad, only cheaper,” and why it’s hard to recommend the Tablet Z over the Kindle Fire HD or the Nexus 10.

The Xperia Tablet Z is a great Android tablet — it might be my favorite one yet. (It’s even seen me naked.) But it can’t escape the Android ecosystem, which remains Apple’s big trump card. If you’ve got $500 burning a hole in your pocket and you’re not actively avoiding buying an iPad… you should buy an iPad.