Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact review

There are big tablets and small tablets, expensive ones and cheap ones, Android ones and other ones. There are useful tablets and frustrating tablets, recommendable ones and heinous ones. Ultimately, though, there are good tablets and there are bad ones, and far fewer of the former than the latter.

Tablets are a dime-a-dozen these days, so it’s important to sit up and take notice of one that stand out. The Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, despite its mouthful of a name, is one of those rare great tablets, a device that hits all the marks it needs to and continues to impress after the fact. From a hardware perspective, in fact, there is little else I could want from it; and its Android-based software is not only good, but commendable for its restraint.

At $529, though, the price is the thing, and it’s not a small one. It’s more than the iPad mini 3 and almost as much as the iPad Air 2. It’s one of the most expensive Android tablets currently available, and it’s not better enough to justify the price.

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Specs

  • Android 4.4.4 KitKat
  • 8-inch 1920 x 1200 pixel IPS display w/ Triluminos + X-Reality
  • 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC w/ Adreno 330 GPU
  • 3GB RAM, 32GB internal storage
  • 8MP rear camera / 2.2MP front camera
  • 1080p video capture
  • WiFi (a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth 4.0, MHL 3
  • 4,500mAh battery
  • 213.4 x 123.6 x 6.4 mm
  • 270 grams
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What’s Good

It’s really difficult making something light and thin that is also durable; the Z3 Tablet Compact succeeds in that regard. It’s remarkably thin, at 6.4mm, and noticeably lighter than other high-end tablets in its class, like the iPad mini 2. The Compact is also waterproof, another reason to choose it over the iPad to take along to the pool or beach.

The 8-inch screen is very un-Sony in that it is bright, colourful and accurate, with superlative viewing angles. I say that in jest, largely because it appears the company has overcome most of its display sourcing issues that plagued earlier-generation products. Though a lower resolution than the equivalently-sized iPad mini (and a different aspect ratio), the 16:9, 1920 x 1200 pixel display is really nice to look at, and its overall dimensions make it relatively easy to use in portrait mode (though it is better suited to landscape).

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Around the sides you’ll find the requisite power and volume buttons, along with an exposed headphone jack and covered microUSB and microSD ports. These ports need to stay closed to ensure the tablet’s IP68 waterproof rating, but they’re not finicky, nor difficult to secure. The backing is made of a soft touch white plastic, making it considerably easier to grip than Sony’s glass-adorned smartphones, while maintaining a feeling of luxury one expects from a $500+ tablet.

Using the tablet is enjoyable, too. There’s Sony’s PS4 Remote Play feature, which hooks into a console over WiFi and mirrors its capabilities, freeing up a TV input for other things. This is great when you have kids that want to watch Netflix on Apple TV or play some Wii U while you kill zombies on the PS4, but it doesn’t free up the PS4 to do other things on the TV itself. Think of it as AirPlay Mirroring in the opposite direction.

In our testing, PS4 Remote Play was only almost perfectly synced to the television, and hooking the tablet to Sony’s DualShock 4 adapter, which is unfortunately a separate purchase, made it easy to emulate a PS4 experience on a much smaller screen. It’s not as immersive, but it’s a pretty good facsimile.

More importantly, PS4 Remote Play is, among Sony’s not-as-relevant media hubs like Music and Video Unlimited, the only major software differentiator in a market where such a thing is a diminishing commodity.

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From both a hardware and software experience, it’s difficult to criticize the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact. Yes, it’s unfortunate that it isn’t made of aluminum, especially for the price, but not all metal tablets feel premium. Even the 8MP camera is pretty good for a tablet, and the device is small enough to avoid looking ridiculous snapping a photo surreptitiously of your kids or friends when a smartphone isn’t close at hand.

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Sony’s colourful and dynamic Android 4.4.4-based software is inoffensive at best, and many of the aspects that grated on the company’s recent smartphones, like the poor design of its dialler and contacts apps, don’t apply here. Sony’s done a good job bringing its media portals — Album, Walkman, Movies, etc. — up to KitKat-era design specs, but now that we’ve seen what a tablet looks like on Lollipop it’s hard not to yearn for the latest and greatest. The Xperia, though, feels nimble and quick in ways few competitors’ tablets do: its Snapdragon-powered hardware is more than able to keep up with the simple animations of its icons and subtle background effects of its launcher, and its portrait orientation benefits from phone-oriented app scaling.

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The other advantage of the Compact’s size and weight is how portable it is, and how easy to hold in one hand. Many 16:9 Android tablets suffer from portrait awkwardness, the problem of the screen feeling too tall in portrait mode. Thanks to ultra-slim horizontal bezels and a weight that allows it to be clutched at length between two fingers above and below the screen, the Compact is eminently portable, and a great travel partner. Its screen also makes it great for watching movies or playing games, and the 32GB of internal storage, plus a slot for microSD, warrants applause, too.

The device’s speakers — yes, two of them — are not only powerful but fairly accurate, bringing the whole package to the table, so to speak. With a good kickstand case and a decent pair of headphones, this is one of the best entertainment devices you can buy (with one big caveat).

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What Needs Work

The Tablet Compact’s cons are few but significant: it’s too expensive, and the battery is too small. I’m happy Sony can claim “the thinnest waterproof tablet in the world,” but that doesn’t help when the battery cell is barely bigger than most modern smartphones.

The 4,500mAh battery translates to roughly two-thirds the longevity of a typical 8-inch tablet, and despite the addition of a Stamina Mode that turns off WiFi when the screen is dark, I wasn’t able to eke out more than a day from the device. It’s not a big deal — tablets aren’t phones, after all — but it’s a problem that could have been solved with a slightly larger battery and a marginally wider girth. The problem doesn’t rear its head until you consider specific use cases: here-and-there browsing and reading don’t consume that much battery, but play an hour of Threes! and watch a movie and you’re likely down to 20%.

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Finally, the price is prohibitive, especially when you consider the competition. The Samsung Tab S 8.4, another fantastic Android tablet, doesn’t quite have the same well-rounded spec sheet — it lacks the waterproofing, dual speakers and extra storage — but it’s $110 cheaper and offers a larger, richer, higher-resolution display as well as plenty of value-added software. And, at 6.6mm, is only marginally thicker, but offers a battery with 10% more capacity.

Then there’s the iPad mini 2, our current small tablet favourite, which costs $379 for the 32GB version. It’s got a much better app selection, a marginally better screen, and it’s made with higher-quality materials.

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Wrap

The Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact is a small tablet with a big name, and a big win with only a few missteps. The primary one is price, and that’s the only I can’t seem to get over. It’s the right size, weight and thickness, and its performance is exemplary. It’s well-designed, portable and easy to use one-handed, but some of that gracefulness comes at the expense of battery life.

If and when the price declines — and the market indicates that it eventually must — the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact will be a must-buy for Android lovers. For now, though, I can’t recommend it when the competition is as fierce as it is.

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