Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet review: Android’s Surface 3

£499
Price when reviewed

Is there a point at which a point a tablet becomes too thin? If so, Sony’s Xperia Z4 Tablet is surely on the verge. It’s the firm’s slimmest tablet to date, a fraction of a millimetre thinner than the already-barely-there Z2 Tablet and a handful of grams lighter, too.

Indeed, it’s hard to believe a 10in tablet could weigh this little. At 393g, it feels more like a plastic placemat than a cutting-edge gadget.

The Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet features all the hallmark Xperia touches, such as the circular, silver power button

Design

Given the obvious effort Sony has put into slimming down the Z4 Tablet, it’s a shame that it hasn’t done more work on the design. The plain black back panel doesn’t exactly scream quality, and the rather cheap and rattly Bluetooth keyboard that’s included in the box doesn’t help with the overall impression either.

The design is lifted somewhat by Sony’s trademark touches – the silver circular power button and volume controls on the left edge add a touch of class – but the overall impression remains of a product that needs some love and attention. Certainly, next to an iPad Air 2, it looks rather plain.

Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet: Tablet head on

Despite this, there are elements that do impress, in particular the light weight and durability. The tablet on its own is 44g lighter than the slightest tablet Apple has managed to construct to date (the iPad Air 2) and adding the bundled keyboard brings the weight up to a mere 760g. That’s more than 100g lighter than Apple’s ultra-desirable 12in MacBook.

Just like the rest of the Xperia range of tablets and smartphones, the Z4 tablet is both water- and dust-resistant. This is of less benefit on a tablet than a phone (be honest, who takes their tablet out in a rain shower?), but its IP65/68 rating should protect it from an accidental encounter with a hot cup of coffee.

Even better, this year Sony’s waterproofing doesn’t come with the usual irritation of having to unhitch a flap every time you want to charge your device: although you’ll still find flaps all around the edges covering the microSD slot and SIM slots, Sony has removed the flap covering the micro-USB socket without compromising the water resistance.

Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet review: Capless USB port

Is the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet a Surface 3 killer?

What really sets the Z4 Tablet apart from its predecessors, though, is the new keyboard. Included as standard, the keyboard turns it into the Android equivalent of the Microsoft Surface 3.

There’s one glaring problem, though. If that is indeed the market Sony is going after, I’m not at all convinced it will succeed: the keyboard falls a long, long way short of the refinement offered by Microsoft’s Type Cover.

Firstly, the build quality is highly suspect. Push the tablet into the hinged slot at the rear of the keyboard and it wobbles about horribly. On the plus side, there’s no need for a kickstand: the stiff hinge means it can operate like a standard laptop. However, because the keyboard is too light to counterbalance the tablet, the whole thing tends to topple over at the slightest nudge.

The Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet comes with a bundled Bluetooth keyboard

That’s one reason why I didn’t feel comfortable using the Z4 on my lap; another is the hinge’s range of adjustment. It’s so narrow I found myself constantly peering down at an angle at the screen, or leaning back to get a better view.

The touchpad is one thing that does work well – surprisingly so considering that it measures a mere 76mm across. Multitouch scrolling gestures feel responsive and accurate. The keys, too, have a decent, positive clicky action, while a bunch of special keys make navigating around Android easier. However, the whole thing feels far too cramped to type on quickly. It’s okay if you’re a slow, steady typist, but anyone who uses all ten fingers for text entry should steer well clear.

Screen and speakers

Full HD is so old hat these days that the Z4 Tablet’s next upgrade shouldn’t come as a shock. Where the Z2 Tablet had a 1080p screen, the new model has a high-DPI panel with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600, delivering a pixel density of 299ppi.

I’m still not convinced of the need for such high resolutions on small screens, especially since they can have an impact on power usage and performance, but I can’t criticise the quality of the Z4 Tablet’s display.

It uses IPS technology, so viewing angles are exceptional, and first impressions are of a bright and colourful image that’s bristling with detail. The figures stack up impressively well, too. Testing with a colorimeter reveals a maximum brightness of 464cd/m2, a contrast ratio of 963:1 and good colour accuracy, with only a slight purple tinge to blues blotting the Xperia Z4 Tablet’s copybook.

Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet: Sony logo

It’s accompanied by a pair of front-facing speakers that are laudably clear. Although a little down on low-end body compared with the iPad Air 2, their position – embedded in the screen surround and forward-facing – means you’re less likely to obscure them with your hands.

Performance

With so many pixels to work with, you’d expect the internals to have been beefed up too, and so it has proved. Sony has opted for one of Qualcomm’s top-end Snapdragon 810 SoCs, featuring an Adreno 430 GPU, and accompanied by 3GB of RAM and 32GB of eMMC storage.

The former is an 64-bit octa-core part, and as with all such processors we’ve seen so far, it comprises a pair of quad-core CPUs. The more powerful of these (based on the ARM Cortex-A57) runs at 2GHz and deals with demanding tasks, while the less powerful 1.5GHz Cortex-A53 part deals with day-to-day jobs, thus saving power and – hopefully – battery life.

In terms of the way this tablet feels to use, the Xperia Tablet Z4 is peerless. It feels ultra-responsive, doesn’t slow down while multitasking, and plays demanding games extremely smoothly. And benchmark figures back this up, with the Z4 Tablet delivering a result of 37fps in the GFXBench T-Rex HD test at native resolution, and Geekbench scores of 1,261 and 4,226 in the single- and multi-core tests respectively. The Z4 Tablet can’t quite match the Nexus 9 or iPad Air 2 for raw performance, as you can see from the table below, but it isn’t far behind, and for multitasking it’s a whisker ahead.

Sony Xperia
Z4 Tablet

Nexus 9

Apple
iPad Air 2

Geekbench 3, single-core1,2611,8891,683
Geekbench 3, multi-core4,2263,4464,078
GFXBench 3.1, T-Rex HD (onscreen)37fps46fps53fps
GFXBench 3.1, Manhattan (onscreen)15fps22fps24fps

Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet: Tablet reversed in dock

Crucially, and perhaps more importantly, battery life is superb. I set a 720p movie to loop using the stock video player, and with the screen set to a standard brightness of 120cd/m2 the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet lasted 12hrs 40mins on a single charge.

That’s some way short of the Z2 Tablet’s astonishing 14hrs 38mins, but given the more demanding nature of the screen and internal hardware, I think Sony has done a great job. What’s more, by using Sony’s smart backlight control, it’s possible to eke out even more life from the Z4 Tablet’s 6,000mAh battery.

Software, connectivity and camera

Sony’s Android launcher continues to be one of the least intrusive around, and that continues on the Z4. This time it incorporates Android 5.0.2, and adds a number of handy features of its own.

The best of the lot has to be the Chrome OS-like shortcut bar that appears in the bottom-left corner of the screen whenever the keyboard is connected. Just like Chrome OS, this toolbar adds shortcuts that launch key apps – Chrome, Gmail, Google Now, Drive, YouTube and Calendar – and even includes a Start menu in the bottom-left corner of the screen.

The Start menu provides access to recently used apps via a vertically scrolling list, allows you to add and edit the shortcut menu to its right, and also hosts shortcut buttons for Sony’s pop-up apps, which comprise a calculator, screen grabber, countdown timer and browser. These may be subtle additions, but they make an awful lot of sense for keyboard users.

Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet: Rear of tablet

One area where the Xperia Z4 Tablet really stands out, though, is connectivity. It comes with 802.11ac Wi-Fi as standard, with support for MIMO, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC and MHL output for wired connection to a monitor, plus that all-important microSD slot for expanding on the Z4’s 32GB storage and an infrared transmitter. There’s also a 4G version of the tablet for those who can’t be bothered with the faff of tethering.

For pictures and video, there’s an 8.1-megapixel rear-facing camera and 5.1-megapixel front-facing unit. Image quality from the rear camera isn’t brilliant – noise and compression artefacts spoil shots taken even in good light – but it’s just about good enough that you won’t feel too disappointed if you don’t have your phone to hand when you need to take a quick snap.

The front-facing camera isn’t bad, either, but here the limited keyboard hinge adjustability causes problems: with the tablet slotted into its keyboard dock, you have to lean back to get your whole face into shot, or drop your seat to a comically low level.

Verdict

With the inclusion of the Bluetooth keyboard, it seems that Sony is positioning the Xperia Z4 Tablet as a business and productivity device. It’s certainly light enough to take on the best Ultrabooks at their own game, and theoretically there are apps and services available that could help it do so.

However, the reality is that the hardware – in particular the keyboard – fails to convince. It’s plasticky, cheap-feeling and far too cramped for fast typing. The wobbly hinge mount and lack of vertical adjustment provide even more cause for complaint.

That wouldn’t be a problem had Sony made the Xperia Z4 Tablet available on its own at a lower price, because alone it represents a formidable competitor to the iPad Air 2, especially for those who favour Android over iOS. As it is, though, you can’t buy one without the other, a restriction that ensures the price pushes up to a rather hefty £500.

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