When we talk about gadgets, we tend to lump smartphones and tablets together. But in many ways, they're strikingly different product categories.
Among smartphones, for instance, the iPhone has usually competed with at least one high-profile, big-selling Android model--most famously ones in Samsung's Galaxy S line. But there's no Android tablet that's done well enough to feel like the full-sized iPad's peer. Instead, Apple's tablet has remained the Goliath of the category, and an Android army of Davids has haphazardly ganged up on it with limited success.
One of those Davids has been Sony. The company started out making quirky tablets which went out of their way not to resemble the iPad too much. Then it released the Xperia Z, which was a lot more iPad-like than its predecessors, but with some features which the iPad lacks, such as a water-resistant case.
The newest Sony tablet is the Xperia Z2--not to be confused with the phone of the same name. As the name indicates, this is an evolutionary advance on the Xperia Z, rather than a radical rethinking of what a tablet should be. At $500 for a model with 16GB of storage, the Z2 costs the same as the iPad Air; unlike a bargain tablet such as Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX, it aspires to compete with Apple purely on quality, not price.
There's a lot that's very nice about this tablet: It's both Sony's best tablet to date and one of the best Android models, period. But as with other Android tablets, trumping the iPad Air in certain respects doesn't mean you're in the same Zip Code when it comes to overall experience.
Good: The Size, Weight and Overall Feel
There's nothing plasticky or bulky about the Z2. Like the iPad Air and Amazon's 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX--and few other full-sized tablets--it's so light that I'm pleasantly surprised every time I pick it up. At 15.49 ounces and a quarter-inch thick, it's a tad lighter and thinner than the one-pound, .29-inch iPad Air--but the difference is more striking than those numbers suggest, because the Z2's 10.1-inch screen is meaningfully larger than the Air's 9.7-inch display.
I also like Sony's soft-touch back, which feels a bit reminiscent of a leatherette cover on a classy old hardcover book, without reducing itself to actively mimicking stitched leather like some recent Samsung gadgets. Basically, this is a really nice tablet to hold.
Bad: The Screen's Aspect Ratio
Sony's screen, with a resolution of 1920-by-1080 pixels, is crisp, vivid and easy on the eyes. But I continue to be befuddled by why so many non-Apple tablets opt for a wide-screen orientation, including this one. Sure, it's great for movies.
But in every other respect, it makes for a more awkward experience than if the horizontal and vertical dimensions were more similar. The Z2 is oddly skinny in portrait mode, and typing on the full-sized keyboard in landscape mode is awkward. (Sony does give you a wacky-yet-effective mini-keyboard option, though--it sits in the lower right-hand corner of the screen where you can jab at it with one thumb.)
Good: It's Splashproof
Sony has been on the water-resistant bandwagon for a while now. You can submerge the Z2 in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to half an hour. Sony talks about using it to take photos while swimming or diving; even if that sounds like an unlikely scenario, it's good to know that spilling a drink in the vicinity of this tablet shouldn't be cause for panic. (You do need to make sure that you've snapped the MicroUSB and MicroSD doors along the tablet's metallic rim firmly shut.)
Good: Android's Interface Shines Through
Unlike Samsung--which likes to pile its own features on top of Android, such as the ability to stick four apps onscreen at once--Sony hasn't tampered too much with Google's software design. If you're familiar with Android in its unvarnished form, you won't have trouble finding your way around the Z2. And with a quad-core Qualcomm processor and 3GB of RAM, it's got enough hardware oomph to keep the interface zipping along.
Most of the stuff which Sony has added makes sense. There's a universal remote-control app which lets you command your TV using the tablet's built-in infrared transmitter, for instance. And an image-processing program can blur the backgrounds on photos from the 8.1-megapixel rear camera--nothing like the effect you can get with a serious DSLR camera, but still fun to fiddle with.
Bad: The Third-Party Android Tablet App Situation
The selection of apps which have been designed specifically for an Android tablet with a roomy screen such as the Z2's remains skimpy. That's not something that Sony can fix. But it remains a significant downside for Android tablets in general, especially compared to the embarrassment of riches available for the iPad.
Bad: Dueling Content Stores
Almost every phone and tablet that runs Android suffers to some degree from having an excess of ways to buy movies, music and/or apps--Google's Play stores, plus whatever the hardware manufacturer and, sometimes, a wireless carrier, has added. It leads to bloat and confusion and generally feels like too many salespeople clamoring for your attention.
With the Z2, the duality is more striking than usual, in part because Sony is such a major purveyor of digital content. The Z2 plays up Sony's own music and movie stores, and plunks a prominent What's New widget on your home screen, with "recommendations" of movies, albums and apps.
I recommend ignoring those recommendations. What's New suggested I buy a Spider-Man game from Gameloft's site--which made me enter my credit-card details and download it through the tablet's web browser, a clunky process which failed the first time I tried--rather than simply getting it from the Google Play store. Rather than linking to Google Play for video, the widget links to Sony's video store, where prices are often the same as Google's but sometimes higher or lower.
A company like Sony is never going to come to terms with this, but with Google Play onboard a tablet, additional sources of content are largely redundant. Maybe when you set up an Xperia tablet for the first time, you should get to choose between either Sony's stores or Google's as your primary sources of content--and the tablet could then tuck the ones you didn't select into an out-of-the-way folder.
If you're going to buy an Android tablet, the Xperia Z2 merits your attention. It's a solid piece of hardware with style to spare, and a worthy alternative to anything available from Samsung. But I'm still waiting for an iPad alternative which--like the iPad Air itself--adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The Z2, pleasing though it is some respects, is yet another Android model which doesn't perform that rare feat of mathematical magic.