Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet Review

Not only is the Tablet Z2 the thinnest and lightest tab Sony has ever made, but also it's far and away the best. It's trim design and strong spec sheet makes it a strong competitor against similarly sized tabs from Sony's arch-rival, Samsung.

Hardware

The line between stark minimalism and sheer dullness is a fine one, and it's honestly a little tough to tell where the Z2 falls. With the screen off, there just isn't much to look at. The company's love affair with its OmniBalance industrial design philosophy (think: curved edges, round power buttons and uniformly slim waistlines) is still in full swing, which means plenty of the Xperia Tablet Z's design choices carry over into its successor.
Take that corporate logo on the tab's face: It's still nestled in the top-left corner, and the 2-megapixel front-facing camera and 8.1-megapixel rear shooter are right where we saw them last time too. Meanwhile, the Z2's rear end is still swathed in a soft, matte gray plastic that makes the whole thing easier to hang on to... and makes oily fingerprints even more obvious than they were before. Popping open a few tabs along the top edge reveals the microSD and micro-USB ports (be sure to seal them again before traipsing through the rain) next to the IR blaster. The rest of the pertinent bits are de rigueur for top-tier Android tablets: There's a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 clocked at 2.26GHz, along with 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 GPU. You've also got your usual slew of radios, including WiFi (with support for Wi-Fi Direct), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and a 6,000mAh battery.

Now, one could argue that Sony strives for visual consistency between its gadgets, but the end result is a tablet that lacks a distinct sense of personality. In a way, I guess that's the point -- the Z2's design is so unassuming that you wind up paying it no mind, like white noise that fades into the background once you wake the 10.1-inch IPS display and get blasted with a faceful of Android.
Of course, just ogling it is one thing -- you'd be hard-pressed to pick one up and not be struck by its svelte shape (6.35mm) and light weight (just under one pound). You very quickly get the impression that there's nothing extraneous here. There's no cruft; just the barest of essentials carefully assembled into the platonic ideal of a tablet. My colleague Sharif Sakr dutifully ragged on the new Xperia Z2 smartphone because of how bulky and oddly proportioned it felt, but the formula works so much better when it's stretched out to suit a bigger display.

Oh, and by the way, Sony's still enamored with the idea of crafting gadgets that can stand up to the elements, and I'm tickled by the fact that showers can no longer stand in the way of my awful YouTube-viewing habit. The in-shower experience ain't ideal, though: The touchscreen occasionally interprets the pitter-patter of water droplets as finger pokes. At least you won't have those problems if you take the Z2 for a dip in the shallow end of the pool instead.

Display and sound


If it wasn't made painfully obvious by the Z2's spartan design, the 10.1-inch, 1,920 x 1,200 IPS LCD screen is meant to be the star of the show. That'd be a recipe for disaster if the company came up short again (I'm looking at you, Xperia Z1), but the display easily holds its own against the competition. Sony's leaning on its revived Triluminos screen tech to help the Z2's panel produce richer, more natural colors than the washed-out LCD screens that littered the company's past. Long story short: It helps this particular screen get closer to the vivid colors and sumptuous blacks seen in AMOLED screens with the help of blue LEDs and quantum dots. Throw in some excellent viewing angles, and Sony's got a screen to be pleased with here. There's no denying that Sony's display doesn't squeeze as many pixels together as Samsung's screens usually do, but I couldn't discern any individual pixels and the overall experience didn't leave me wanting.
Photos and videos appear extra punchy thanks to Sony's X-Reality image-processing engine, which (among other things) can sharpen visuals, pump up contrast and fiddle with color saturation. This, I wasn't so fond of -- I like images that pop as much as the next nerd, but it also has the nasty tendency to make already detailed media look a tad gritty. Fortunately, all it takes to disable the feature is a quick tap in Settings... until the next time you feel like your photos look a little drab.
The screen's general loveliness is, sadly, offset by a few niggles. To start, for a tablet that's ostensibly meant to handle the elements, the screen is great at reflecting just about everything in sight. It's especially troublesome once you step out of the house, an activity that Sony tacitly encouraged by ruggedizing the Z2 in the first place. I was also torn on the significant bezels that flank the screen on all sides too, though the average shopper might not even bat an eyelash at them. I'd argue that bezels this hefty make the tablet look just a bit chintzier than it deserves, but at least my thumbs never obscured the on-screen action.

Crisp visuals are one thing, but you can't really enjoy a few episodes of Sherlock unless the sound is up to par. Perhaps the most idiotic design choice we saw in the original Tablet Z was that the stereo speakers were baked directly into the slate's edges -- the perfect place to be covered up by a pair of meaty palms. This time around, they've been shifted to the front, nestled low along the screen's left and right sides. The move has helped significantly, but, alas, they're still a hair tinnier than I'd like and far from the loudest tablet (or even smartphone) speakers I've come across. It's worth noting that the Z2 also supports dynamic noise cancellation -- so long as you've shelled out for the compatible Sony headphones, anyway.

Software


Just about every gadget maker that sells Android devices has attempted to put its own spin on the interface, and Sony's efforts have always, always rubbed me the wrong way. Why? Earlier versions felt unwieldy and overwrought, which often made playing with a device that used it an exercise in frustration. The Z2 has me coming around on that stance, if only a little. You see, while tabs like Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro are festooned with all sorts of severe interface tweaks and cruft, Sony took a more subdued approach. This slim, little bugger runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat under that thin veneer of face paint, a sweet surprise for those of us not used to seeing Sony tech sporting the latest and greatest software builds.

Camera


Let's be honest: Few things look as silly as snapping photos with a tablet clutched in your hands. If you ever find yourself in that position, the bit that really adds insult to injury is the sad truth that tablet cameras have historically tended to suck. Sony seemed to try, at least a bit. Both the 8.1-megapixel rear camera and the 2-megapixel unit perched above the display pack the company's backside-illuminated Exmor RS sensors. That said, neither camera is anything to write home about. Colors are represented nicely enough (though some of the visual flair is owed to that X-Reality engine, which is turned on by default), but plenty of the images I shot were grainy and lacking the sort of detail one would hope Sony could squeeze out of an 8-plus-megapixel sensor. The camera experience isn't completely without upsides, though -- at least the interface is well laid out.