Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: The Most Portable Android Tablet Money Can Buy

Reviews Paul Briden James Peckham 14:11, 27 Nov 2014

Sony has announced a new Xperia Tablet and this time it comes in a much smaller form, what did we think of it?

Rating: 
4
Typical Price: 
£329.00
Pros: 
Incredibly lightweight, thin, and portable, Great screen, Decent battery life, Powerful performance, Waterproof, Loaded with connectivity options including 4G LTE
Cons: 
Build quality and finish is lacking, UI overlay is an eyesore
Verdict: 
A capable device and a decent all-rounder with plenty of power, connectivity, good battery life and a great display. Falls short of perfection due to lacklustre build finish and a UI we'd rather not have to look at

Sony’s been making very decent, well put together tablets for a good few years now. The company has always had an eye for design and was one of the first in the field to really champion complete water and dust resistance on its mobile products, resulting in plenty of people using their Xperia phones and tablets by the pool or –– in our case –– while taking a lovely warm bath. Up to now, though, Sony has consistently built large-form tablets similar in size and weight to the iPad Air and iPad 4. 

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, which is quite a bit mouthful, is the company’s first small slate –– and it really is a beauty as well. Like its Compact range of smartphones, Sony hasn’t pulled any punches when it comes to design, specs and hardware. But beyond this what is the tablet like to use? Will it replace our trusty Nexus 7? And, most importantly, is it a better option that Apple’s now-very-affordable iPad Mini with Retina?

Lets find out. 

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: Design

Sony’s Xperia brand has established itself as one of the more premium offerings in the Android space, but at the same time it’s also established itself as something of a “Marmite” brand in terms of aesthetics and build – it’s highly divisive, and people tend to either love the style or loathe it.

Here at KYM Towers we run the full range of opinions; James likes the cut of Sony’s jib, enough so that even before he started working here he picked up the Xperia Z1 on contract with his own cash. Rich can’t stand Sony’s styling at all, he simply thinks it’s awful stuff. I rather like it, on the whole, but I do have a few reservations with Sony’s design choices, although for me these don’t start and stop with the exterior build.

There are a couple of things which immediately jumped out at me upon opening the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact’s box.

Firstly, it’s insanely thin and lightweight, at a mere 6.4mm and 270g respectively. This is of course a very good thing, with the tablet seemingly being more comfortable in the hand than most rival slates, and even besting conventional paper notepads, books and other paraphernalia that you might wish to replace with it. What little weight it has is evenly distributed across the bodywork, making it an absolute doddle to operate holding it in one hand while activating the display with the other. Secondly, I can’t say the build materials and quality exactly lives up to what I’ve come to expect of Sony Xperia devices – this is a little disappointing.

So far Sony’s whole shtick has been the combination of metal and glass for a premium look and feel, but this is significantly reduced on the latest slate. While the company’s previous tablets (the 10-inch Xperia Z2 Tablet and its kin) have swapped the Xperia phone range’s glass backing for polycarbonate in order to aid grip, it has previously used a higher-quality feel plastic with a better fit and finish. On the Z3 Tablet Compact you have a very thin feeling matte finish plastic, it has a cheap and tacky feel on its own, but add this to the build quality, which exhibits plenty of flex and creak, and I’m really left wondering where Sony’s Quality Assurance bods were hiding when this device got the seal of approval.

The Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact does still offer some keystones of Sony’s product portfolio, namely the IP68 water and dust resistance certification, which means it’ll officially survive a dunk in over a metre of water for up to 30 minutes. With Sony’s other devices user tests have shown such resistance will stand deeper depths and for longer periods of time, but the official stats cover what you’re protected from under guarantee, ie: if it doesn’t work.

That is, providing you remember to keep the flaps shut. Yes, the flaps have made a return covering the microUSB port and the dual-slot for SIM and microSD cards. Once again the 3.5mm audio jack remains uncovered due to some clever coating technology. The flaps are far more discreet than ever before, in fact at first you might (as I did) find it pretty difficult to locate these ports as they’re so well hidden away behind the seamlessly integrated flap panels.

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: Display

Sony isn’t really doing anything new with the display on the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, as it carries the same collection of Sony technologies we’ve seen on most other Xperia handsets and tablets to date. It’s an 8-inch LCD panel using Sony’s Triluminos technology and its X-Reality Engine. The glass is shatter proof with an oleophobic coating to repel greasy fingerprints, and multitouch input supports up to ten digits (you don’t really need more though, right?)

It has a 1920x1200 pixel resolution at 283 pixels-per-inch (ppi), putting it squarely in iPad Air 2 Retina territory, though a little ways behind the iPad Mini 3. At any rate, it looks visually lush with sharp picture quality, vivid colours, and really excellent contrast and black depth. Brightness is also pretty intense and the viewing angles are great. Sony’s got a bit of a background in cinema and TV production and it’s fair to say that this is like carrying your own little mini movie theatre around with you – I thoroughly enjoyed our battery testing phase using films.

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: Storage, Connectivity & Other Hardware

Anyone familiar with Sony’s Xperia range will likely be able to predict how much onboard storage the Z3 Tablet Compact packs in. You might like to think that being an innately multimedia-facing device a tablet might carry a bit more space than Sony’s now-standard 16GB-only setup (or at least gave a few other options), but you’d be sadly wrong. Fortunately, as usual, Sony does allow microSD cards with support for up to 128GB on the swappable storage format – in all likelihood you’ll be using this a fair bit.

Sony’s clearly taken a look at the popularity of larger devices such as phablets approaching a similar size to smaller tablets and with plenty of folks apparently happily using one device for multiple roles. That’s why the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact comes with a Nano SIM card slot and support for both 3G HSPA+ and 4G LTE across a wide range of bands, and as a result some UK networks are offering the slate on monthly contract tariffs. It’s not just for mobile internet data for apps and browsing on the move though, you can in fact use the Z3 Tablet Compact for calls and text messages as Sony has included these Android components within the UI just like the Xperia smartphones.

Being a premium category device in terms of pricing, there’s a lot of other connectivity options here, including MHL 3 A/V TV-Out, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, and NFC. You also get Bluetooth 4.0, microUSB, A-GPS/GLONASS, dual-band Wi-Fi with Hotspot, and FM Radio.

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: Processor & Performance

Unsurprisingly, Qualcomm is the name of the game here and the chip used is a Snapdragon 801 quad-core Krait 400 SoC clocked at 2.5GHz. This has an Adreno 330 GPU and 3GB of RAM onboard too. You can probably guess where this is going – there’s an absolute truckload of Snapdragon 800/801 based devices on the market these days and unless a manufacturer hamstrings this chip with some particularly cumbersome, inefficient software then said devices all tend to perform fairly well. The chip carries a lot more power than is needed for the vast majority of content available on Google Play right now, although in the future this will likely change.

Rather unsurprisingly, the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact operates nice and smoothly when sliding between homescreens, menus and interface elements. I am yet to encounter any stuttering or slowdown even with a plethora of applications minimised in the background. Gaming is arguably one of the most intensive things you can do on a tablet and the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact coped admirably well with a range of graphically intensive titles, including Real Racing 3. Overall I found the heat levels were lower than expected but a section of the bodywork towards the bottom right did get a bit warmer.

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: Camera

While Sony may have made some concessions to the multi-role, crossover nature of big phones/phablets and small tablets with its LTE, call, and SMS/MMS support, it has not taken the same approach to imaging. You might consider that a silly or sensible choice depending on your preferences, but I can see why it was avoided considering the tablet’s thinness and portability seems to have been of prime importance here, and even Sony’s sensors do add some bulk – a bulge that would have been quite noticeable on a 6.4mm chassis.

Anyway, what we have here instead is an 8.1MP Exmor RS CMOS back-illuminated sensor (BSI) with an f/2.4 aperture. There’s a lot of stabilisation tech aboard but it’s all digital rather than optical, and there’s no LED flash of any description. It supports HDR, 1080p video, and panoramic capture, as well as several other fairly standard modes and features (self timer, digital zoom, burst etc.).  

Image quality is fairly average, however, with some visible graininess and scenes looking a bit washed out, particularly in low light. Mediocre imaging is nothing new on a tablet though, and personally it’s not something that bothers me in the slightest, so I can hardly hold it against Sony in this instance. If you’re looking for a tablet with excellent photography this is not it, but then I’m not really too sure where else you might look.

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: Battery

The battery is a non-removable 4,500mAh Li-Ion cell. I found that with light-to-moderate use the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact gave at least a couple of days on a single charge, usually closer to three. Meanwhile, on video testing, I ran The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug in its entirety, a full 2 hours 41 minutes, from 100% charge and with full brightness and Wi-Fi enabled. By the time the credits came up there was 67% charge left, which is none too shabby and similar in performance to several of Sony’s smartphones and those of rivals. The tablet also features Sony’s stamina mode to eke out a bit of extra life, however, with very light use this thing will last days anyway if you’re just an occasional tablet user.

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: Software & UI

The slate runs Android 4.4.4 KitKat with Sony’s own UI layer on top and it’s much the same as what we’ve seen aboard every other Xperia branded device so far. In my view the Sony UI simply doesn’t cut it in 2014 and heading into 2015, it is positively archaic in style and even BlackBerry 10 has managed to brush itself up and look a bit more modern.

Obviously all of KitKat’s signature functionality is present and correct, including excellent multitasking, a slick notifications system, and incredibly smooth operation, but Sony’s menu design is tremendously uninspiring, it’s like the inverse of the phrase “lipstick on a pig”, perhaps lard slathered on a supermodel? Essentially Sony has consistently taken something good and made it ugly; the menu screens, the notification boxes, the native app shortcuts, it’s all pretty gross.

And this is annoying, it’s really, really annoying, because I like Android’s functionality and I like Sony’s exterior design, by and large, I think it’s really very good and it presents a complete disconnect with the UI design. I hate to bring Apple into the equation as an example but I’m afraid it fits the bill perfectly in this case – the iPhone-making company had the same problem with its software design not fitting in with the hardware’s style, and its solution was to get its lead designer, Jony Ive, to shift his attention to the UI with iOS 7 so there was some consistency. And it worked. Perfectly.

At the moment it feels as though Sony’s device and UI design are handled by two completely separate teams kept in isolation from each other, perhaps in completely separate offices or even in separate countries, who knows, perhaps that’s not the case, but that’s certainly how it seems. Of course an easy solution would be to just run stock Android, and with version 5.0 Lollipop out in the wild with the new Material Design that would be even more compelling. There are rumours saying Sony may do this, but nothing concrete at this point. Unless this changes we are left with either making do with the Sony UI or opting for a third party launcher, or, in the extreme if you’re very competent with such things  - rooting the device.

Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact Review: Conclusion

When I originally heard Sony was producing an 8-inch tablet I thought this was going to be the best slate the company had produced so far. I was mightily impressed by Sony's earlier tablet offerings in terms of spec, features, and build quality, but felt their 10-inch scale and sizeable bezels made them a bit too unwieldy. Not just for my tastes alone, but for a tablet market that increasingly seems to favour something smaller and more portable (you only have to look at how Apple has shrunk the 9.7in iPad Air’s form factor from older, larger models to see that, with tablets, bigger screen and less bodywork is better).

This enthusiastic assumption has turned out to be true in some ways, but not so much in others. I think Sony is still offering quite an appealing product here as far as spec, performance, display, and battery life are all concerned, and it is a nicely sized, nicely proportioned and highly portable device with good durability features. However, the build quality is, for me, a big step backwards on Sony’s part as this has nothing of the premium flair I’ve become accustomed to seeing from the Japanese electronics giant, and in many ways that was the company’s party piece that kept my interest in its products burning.

On top of that Sony continues to falter when it comes to its software choices, blinkered to the garish UI design it puts out time after time.

These two negative points in combination are not enough for me to cast the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact out as...well, an outcast. There is a lot to like and a lot to recommend. I appreciate that many Android users can easily look past something like UI design and still happily use a device for what it can do, for those people this tablet may well still carry plenty of clout. Likewise not everyone necessarily expects a tablet to be lovingly crafted from metal, glass and high-end plastics; to look like some kind of modern art installation when poised on your coffee table or desk. I personally think that anyone who has loved Sony’s earlier designs in this mould will be disappointed though, and this device may turn a few fans sour on those grounds alone.

It’s still a good tablet though; still plenty powerful enough, still has a great display, carries oodles of connectivity options, has decent battery life and packs a versatile, agile operating system with Google’s Android. Plus it can take a dunk in the bath and it’s insanely thin and portable – I can’t emphasise this last point enough for people who have always wanted a tablet that can go wherever they go and which weighs next to nothing: this is most assuredly it.

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