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Featured Review: Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet

July 3, 2015 - Written By Tom Dawson

In the Android tablet world, things have started to become a little “samey” over the past couple of years. As Google themselves continue to show that they’re not interested in fostering Android on tablets as they should be doing, these slates have basically become giant touchscreens. That’s not quite fair of course, there are millions of Android apps out there that can drastically extend the usefulness of any Android tablet. For all intents and purposes though, Android tablets are basically bigger smartphones, touchscreens that function as a window to the web and apps. So, a good tablet only really needs three things to be a success; a good look and feel, a great display and good performance. Sony, with their new and improved Xperia Z4 Tablet hope to achieve those goals and then some, with the inclusion of a keyboard dock and water resistance. Can Sony’s latest and greatest tablet live up to their lofty ambitions?

Specs

We covered what was on the inside of the Xperia Z4 Tablet when it launched earlier this year, but here are some quick reminders for those in a hurry:

  • 10.1-inch Quad HD (2560 x 1600) IPS Display
  • Octa-Core Snapdragon 810
  • 3GB of RAM
  • 32GB of internal storage, with microSD expansion
  • WiFi 802.11 b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, GLONASS, 3.5mm headphone port
  • Optional LTE version
  • Measures at 254 x 167 x 6.1 mm (10.0 x 6.57 x 0.24 in), weighs just 393g
  • 8.1-megapixel rear-facing camera, 5.1-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 6,000 mAh Battery

Design and Feel

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Right away, you can see that Sony want people to look at this tablet and go “wow”, with a thickness of just 6.1mm, Sony have succeeded in that goal. It’s not just about the tablet’s thinness however – which only really hits you when you have it in hand, this thing is thin – as it’s also nice and light, and the curved edges of the tablet are kind to your hands. So too, is the textured back panel which gives the tablet some much-needed grip. Elsewhere though, there’s not much to look at and see; which is a good thing. Aside from the subtle Sony logo on the front of the device, more logos on the rear and that trademark aluminum power key, the Xperia Z4 Tablet is an elegant, yet eye-catching tablet.

Where buttons are concerned, there’s just the power key and a volume rocker, which neatly features a raised dot on the volume up button, making it easy to find. As this is an Xperia Z device, it’s naturally water-resistant, which means there are flaps covering certain ports. To keep things elegant though, there’s just one flap this time around. If you have the LTE version, which is the one Sony sent me for review, then both the SIM card and microSD card slot are under the same slot. Brilliantly, there’s no cover closing off the microUSB port. Those that haven’t experienced a port cover before will think “what’s the big deal, here?” However, this is an excellent departure from previous tablets, like last year’s Xperia Z2 Tablet, as you can plug a charging cable in hassle-free. Considering Sony expects people to actually get stuff done here, the ability to add a USB memory stick or something without dealing with a flap is a smart move. The headphone port here helps to show how thin the tablet really is, but it’s in an awkward position, and straight headphone connectors will stick out like a sore thumb. If it were on the side it would be a much better placement, but this is just my preference.

In the hand – or hands – the Xperia Z4 Tablet can be an unwieldly beast. Forgetting the size thing for a minute, the fact that it’s so thin does have its downsides. It can be a trick to grip in one hand unless we’re talking portrait mode, and tapping on the glass while typing or surfing doesn’t give you as much confidence as you’d think. Having said that, the whole piece of hardware feels solid and sturdy.

Display

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Sony have finally gone with a Quad HD display with the X4 Tablet, and the 10.1-inch 2560 x 1600 IPS display used here is nothing short of gorgeous. Viewing angles are perfect, color pops as well as any other display, and everything is nice and crisp. It’s bright, without being too bright and the blacks are really quite deep for an IPS panel. This has a rich, deep color tone to it without going overboard, and it’s an absolute joy to watch YouTube and Netflix with. This is the best display that I’ve ever seen on a Sony device, and it’s arguably one of the best displays on a tablet out there, we suppose waiting for Sony to go Quad HD was worth it.

This is a real high point of the device, which is a good job, as the display is easily 90% of a good tablet experience. A display like this is great to have available and it’s well worth taking a look at the Z4 Tablet for the display alone. It’s remarkably viewable in sunlight as well. The UK has had some of the sunniest days on record, and I was actually able to use the Z4 Tablet outside at my leisure. This is something I can’t say about the Nexus 9 and other tablets. Sadly though, the glare that’s present in all-glass displays comes in to ruin things a little bit, but it’s still an excellent overall experience.

The Keyboard Dock

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If a good display is essential to every tablet, then Sony wants their keyboard dock to be an essential part of their tablet. The keyboard dock here might feel and seem like an afterthought, but Sony really want people to get things done with this guy – the price tag needs working off, after all – and the keyboard helps, tremendously. Speaking about the hardware, the keyboard dock has a hinge which is also a slot for the tablet. You basically stick the Z4 Tablet in here and you have a sort of strange Android-come-Laptop contraption. There’s no port to attach to, as this is a Bluetooth affair, but you can carry the two around like a laptop, Sony has even added rubber pieces to the keyboard so that it doesn’t mark the display.

I decided to type my entire review for the Z4 Tablet on this keyboard, it might sound cliche, but it seemed a decent test. I’ve been using the keyboard for bits of work here and there, and I am remarkably impressed at how much I like it. Sure, it’s small and a little cramped, but the feedback is fairly good – if not a little noisy – and I have been able to get up to a good pace after little time with Sony’s keyboard. I was surprised at how good this inclusion is, but it definitely makes the idea of getting work done on a tablet much more entertainable with a keyboard as good as this on offer.

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When the keyboard dock and tablet are closed together, it genuinely feels like you’re carrying around a netbook. It’s a little chunkier and heavier, but it sure beats carrying a second item with you to get work done. The tablet does however, seem to wobble a little when typing with the keyboard dock, but this is a minor annoyance. When using the keyboard and tablet together on a desk, this really doesn’t matter much, as the whole unit feels like a tiny laptop, albeit one with a much, much better display. On the lap, things are a little different, but it’s still fairly decent an experience to spend time with, and I was happy that Sony had developed such a good keyboard dock for this great tablet.

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This doesn’t mean it’s perfect, though. I don’t understand why we need all these extra buttons. Do I need a ‘PrtSc’ key when I can take a screenshot with the power and volume keys? What about a ‘Del’ key and Backspace keys? Keys like these are hangers-on from cramped and unnecessary Windows keyboard layouts and removing them would give us more room, a la the Chromebook keyboard. The inclusion of these keys aren’t as annoying as the trackpad though. It’s nice that Sony have included this, and it does work, but it goes to sleep very quickly, takes an annoyingly long amount of time to wake up and is fairly unresponsive. They have however, include the two-finger to scroll gesture, and this does work. There are options to change this behavior in the settings of the BK50 keyboard, but ultimately I found the touchpad to be a downside to the keyboard dock.

The idea that this could replace laptop might be something that everyone can agree with, but with some smart software changes and a typing experience with a fairly short learning curve, Sony have at least given Android users one of the better alternatives to a laptop. Besides, try finding a Quad HD display, let alone one this good, on a laptop. To put things into perspective, I often use a Chromebook for ease of use and great typing experience, but the Xperia Z4 Tablet has a much, much better display and is arguably much more versatile overall.

Software

One thing that a lot of users have always liked about Sony is that they offer some of the best Android software around. No-nonsense software that takes what Google have built, and put their own stamp on it, without ruining it. With the Xperia Z4 Tablet, you’re looking at Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, which looks much like stock Android, with a few icon changes and color changes here and there. There’s a launcher from Sony, which feels familiar enough and there’s also some neat additions here and there to make Android that little bit better.

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One headlining feature is that when you’re connected to the BK50 keyboard dock, the navigation bar gains some wicked features. To the left of the back button, Sony have added a taskbar of sorts, which looks like the one from Chrome OS, there are white lines underneath apps that are open, and switching between them is super-easy. There are a series of dots here that you can tap to get access to a second and third menu of six apps apiece. All of this is customizable, too. There’s an up arrow right at the edge to the left, tapping this brings up a Start menu of sorts. It offers up the battery life of the keyboard, recent apps as well as a link to the settings to customize the taskbar as well as change things about the keyboard dock, including the ability to turn off the trackpad and change function key behavior.

Elsewhere, there are lovely additions like the headphone optimizer. This was an excellent inclusion for me, I listen to a lot of music and while I was listening to TIDAL while writing, I was offers the ability to optimize the sound. Sony said that this would probe my headphones and then adjust, I was skeptical. Using the high-end RHA T10s I was wondering what else Sony could offer. It was like a magical switch. Bass became tighter and more pronounced, vocals came out of the track more and the whole sound signature had more body to it.

Things like the taskbar and audio settings sum up the software experience here; subtle and meaningful additions where needed. It all adds up to a great experience overall, and it’s a great way of extending Android without getting in its way. There’s fun theme support as well as the ability to easily customize a number of elements of the overall system. It all comes together to offer one of the easier-to-use, yet fully-featured Android offerings out there.

Performance

Running the show here is a Snapdragon 810, yes, that Snapdragon 810. Regardless of how you feel about the 810, the Xperia Z4 Tablet performs wonderfully. Everything runs great here, from browsing the web, to immediate key presses on the keyboard, all the way up to great gaming performance. Transitions are quick and smooth, apps launch without delay and the whole experience is a pleasant one. The only stutters I came across were when watching HD video for extended periods of time, which leads me to my next point.

There’s been a lot of hubbub about the Snapdragon 810 and heat. While I am convinced that it’s all overblown a little bit, the Xperia Z4 Tablet does get really quite hot in one specific spot above the logo, but you don’t really notice it in general use. It does seem to have a little bit of impact on performance every now and then though, as there’ll be a stutter here and there. On the whole though, there are no performance-related issues when using the Xperia Z4 Tablet.

Gaming is great fun here as well, but the display size does make it a little difficult to get two thumbs further into the display, but everything looks great and everything runs well. There are high framerates on all games I tried and again, the IPS display here makes games really pop and look great.

Battery Life

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The Xperia Z4 Tablet has a 6,000 mAh battery on the inside, and you’d think that would be plenty for something like this. However, battery life on the Z4 Tablet is just okay. It’s not bad by any means, but Sony’s idea of getting hours and hours of movie watching here just doesn’t add up to me. On idle, the tablet sips away at battery life, but when using the keyboard, the Internet and having the screen at near full brightness, the battery life starts to go downhill, not too fast, but fast enough to notice it.

If you’re planning to use the Z4 Tablet all day, maybe to replace a laptop, or to get work done on the move, it’ll get you through the day, perhaps a day and a half. Anything intensive however will start to suck away the remaining battery.

Camera

There is an 8.1-megapixel rear-facing camera here, but that doesn’t mean you should use it. Tablets are never designed to take good photos, and the Xperia Z4 Tablet lives up to that idea. The whole experience here is sluggish, and photos come out soft and washed out. All-in-all, this feels more like a budget smartphone camera than it does an expensive Sony tablet. Still, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take photos, and while they’re not the best, they’re more than serviceable.

For taking photos to put into projects or when on-site somewhere, this will do just fine, but it’s nothing to write home about, sadly. It works, and gets the job done, but we would’ve expected more at this sort of price range, even if cameras on tablets are thought of as secondary.

Sound Quality

There are stereo front-facing speakers on the Xperia Z4 Tablet, and while they don’t hold up against BoomSound speakers, they do sound very good. They get quite loud without distorting and the sound reproduction does have some good body to it. However, due to the fact that the tablet is so thin, these speakers can’t move much air, which leads to a lack of bass overall. Still, this is a solid effort from Sony on the speakers front.

Where headphones are concerned however, things are much better. I’ve touched on the headphone optimization earlier, and this works excellently. There’s also the famous five-band graphic equalizer from Sony here, along with their “Clear Bass” technology which boosts bass without adding mud to the overall sound. If you’re a big music listener, just like their smartphones, Sony’s latest tablet has a lot on offer.

Conclusion

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With the Xperia Tablet Z4, Sony have taken their older Xperia Z design as far as they can take it. The Xperia Z4 Tablet offers so much more than last year’s Xperia Z2 tablet, but they look similar and that’s a problem for Sony. Still, for right now this is one of the best Android tablets available. The display is absolutely stunning, and the 6.1mm thick frame not only makes this an elegant tablet, but something that seems worth the large price tag.

The keyboard dock is a great inclusion, and it’s easy to use, and Sony’s software additions make Android much easier to use when using a mouse and keyboard. It’s not just an afterthought and does make the tablet much more versatile.

There’s so much to like about the Xperia Z4 Tablet that the only low point of the device is its steep price tag. This is one pricey tablet, but if you want the best, then you’ll have to pay for it. The 6.1mm thick frame is crazy thin and helps to show us once again that Sony know what they’re doing when it comes to designing hardware. It feels nice in the hand, the fact that it’s water-resistant makes this “life proof” and the keyboard dock brings it all together. It’s good-looking, it’s fast and has a better quality of display than many of us do in our living rooms. Sony have created one of the best Android tablets out there, and if you can afford it, you won’t be disappointed.