Sony’s Xperia Z Tablet: Thin, Waterproof, Nice-Looking — and Normal

The third-generation Sony tablet dumps the previous models' quirky design for a more straightforward aesthetic.

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In 2011, Sony introduced the Tablet S, an Android tablet with a unique wedge-shaped case that mimicked a folded-back magazine, making it — in theory, at least — comfy to grasp. A year ago, its successor was a bit less unorthodox in form factor, but still sported a bit of a hump on one side.

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Sony is announcing the worldwide rollout of the Xperia Tablet Z, a model which it first introduced for the Japanese market last month. Sony gave me a sneak peek earlier this month, and the 10.1″ Z is an attractive-looking tablet — but this time they’re conventional good looks, not a continuation of the company’s previous attempts to go off in its own direction. Instead, the company has tabletized the design aesthetic of its Xperia Z smartphone, with a more straightforward black, angular design which exudes class.

The Tablet Z is 6.9mm thick — Sony says it’s the thinnest 10.1″ tablet on the market — and it weighs just 1.09lb. It’s waterproof — Sony dumped a Z in a small aquarium during its demo for me, with no ill effects. It’s the first tablet to use Qualcomm’s newest Snapdragon S4 quad-core processor. And its camera features seem to be a cut above average: the rear camera packs 8 megapixels, and the camera app is modeled on the interface which Sony uses for its standalone digital cameras.

As with the Xperia Tablet S, the Z’s predecessor, Sony emphasizes features which make the new Xperia feel at home in the living room. It has an infrared port, which lets it serve as a universal remote, and TV SideView, a new version of Sony’s fancy guide to TV shows available on cable, Netflix and other sources. Like most new Sony products, it uses NFC technology to enable the feature Sony calls One-touch: the ability to send music from the tablet to a One-touch speaker by tapping the two gadgets together.

Sony says that the Tablet Z will be available this spring, and it’s priced exactly like Apple’s comparable iPads. It’s $499 for a 16GB wi-fi model and $599 for a 32GB version. (Both variants have MicroSD slots for memory expansion.) That’s actually a price hike compared to the Xperia Tablet S, which started at $399, and puts the Z in a different class than much-cheaper-than-an-iPad tablets such as Amazon’s 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD, which that company has offered for as little as $249.

All in all, this tablet is in tune with Sony’s overarching strategy at the moment, which is pretty much the same one it had back in the golden age of Sony: make premium products, utilizing Sony-only technologies, and try hard to stay out of bruising price wars.

The biggest challenge for the Tablet Z is its operating system, Android Jelly Bean 4.1. There’s still a paucity of top-notch Android tablet apps designed with large displays in mind, a striking downside compared to the iPad’s embarrassment of riches. That makes it impossible for the Z to trump the full-sized iPad no matter how good its hardware is. But it does look like Sony has come up with one of the most elegant, well-engineered Android tablets so far.