The Super-Slim Xperia Tablet Z Feels Like Sony’s Finest Tablet Yet

After Sony released a string of curious Android tablets that failed to catch on, the company had no choice but to go back to the drawing table and try something different. That something different wound up being the Xperia Tablet Z, easily one of its most conventional designs yet — a choice that may end up paying off nicely. Now that the decidedly non-kooky Xperia Tablet Z is gearing up for an appearance stateside, we tracked one down here at MWC to get a glimpse at what Sony’s tantalizingly thin tab brings to the table.

First things first — if you’re a fan of minimalist industrial design, then you’ll find a lot to like here. Sony’s bright 10.1-inch Reality Display (running at 1,920×1200 no less) is the clear focal point of the device’s face, and there’s nothing else save for a Sony logo, an IR blaster in the corner, and an easily missed 2-megapixel camera. The display is also aided by one of Sony’s Mobile Bravia engines, which means colors can easily take on a lurid cast unless you dial it down. Meanwhile, the back is a matte black slab devoid of any detail other than a small Xperia logo and an 8.1-megapixel camera in the top- right corner. One could easily call it dull, but “understated” feels like a better fit because of how nice it feels.

The Tablet Z weighs in at a scant 1.09 pounds, and its trim waistline is only 6.99mm thick — for a bit of perspective, the iPad mini is just a hair thicker at 7.22mm. In order to keep the weight as low as possible Sony resorted to an almost entirely plastic body. That sounds like the recipe for a chintzy-feeling tab, but that’s definitely not the case here. Despite being very light, the Tablet Z has a remarkably solid, premium feel to it. There’s a little bit of give to be felt if you grab the thing by the sides and give it a twist so it may suffer from some long-term issues down the road, but it’s a far cry from some of the overly creaky, plasticky tablets that still pepper the market.

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A quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset and 2GB of RAM are tucked away inside the Tab Z’s waterproof chassis, and my time with the Tablet Z was largely lag-free. When faced with the prospect of putting out tens of devices for public consumption at Mobile World Congress, most companies typically try to do something to keep we nerds from mucking around with them too much. Not so here — I was able to download and install Quadrant from the Google Play Store to get a slightly better idea of what the Tablet Z is capable of. Over the course of three trials the Tablet Z consistently put up scores in the low to mid-7,000s and topped out at 7601 — devices like the Nexus 10 and Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 usually hover around the mid-4,000s.

Granted, this is a synthetic benchmark and doesn’t provide a complete picture of performance, but it’s clear that Xperia Tablet Z is no slouch.

I only really have one gripe with Xperia Tablet Z — the custom UI that Sony has loaded on top of Android. Longtime readers may know that I’m an avid proponent of leaving Android untouched, and Sony’s implementation just doesn’t do it for me. In fairness, it’s lighter and less cumbersome than some of the other overlays currently clogging up other Android devices so you may disagree, but the occasional bit of visual stutter while rifling through menus, and the fact that background images were distorted when set, raised some flags. That said, Sony has added some neat features to help make up for it, such as a universal remote app that doubles as a programming guide, and a revamped new gallery that displays geotagged photos on a globe.

At an early morning press address yesterday, Sony Mobile CEO Kuni Suzuki pointed to a renewed focus on bringing the company’s “cutting-edge technology and resources” to Sony Mobile, and confidently called 2013 a “breakthrough year.” Naturally, it’s too early to tell if that actually pans out, but certainly not impossible. The Xperia Tablet Z is a (hopefully not so) rare return to form for Sony, and here’s hoping that the rest of 2013 is full of products as well-executed as this one.