Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact – Size is not everything

A great small Android tablet, without compromises.

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact is probably the only Android tablet on the market that does not require you to compromise on anything. This is despite the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact being the world’s lightest tablet, weighing only 270 grams. It is also the second thinnest Android tablet on the market, just 6.4 mm thick. The tablet was released in November last year, but has lost none of its appeal in the intervening months.

At £309.95 for the 32GB WiFi model the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact is certainly not cheap, but given its size and weight, its elegant design coupled with quality hardware and outstanding software, it is still excellent value for money. Especially compared to, say, the Nexus 9 or the iPad Mini 3.

My previous review/assassination of the Google Nexus 9 lists pretty much all the attributes an Android tablet should not have. I had high expectations of the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact, as the best Android tablet I have ever owned was its larger predecessor, the Xperia Tablet Z2. So, does the diminutive Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact deliver?

Design and Display

As mentioned above, it is amazingly thin and light. Sony designers must really like the look they came up with for the Xperia Z1 smartphone, as from the front it looks very much like a larger version of the Z1. I like the modern, clean styling of the Xperia Z devices, and have no complaints with Sony sticking with what works for them.

 

The power button, the volume up/down buttons are all centred on the right hand side of the tablet (viewed in portrait mode), and there is a headphone jack on the same side.

With the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact (and the upcoming Tablet Z4), Sony have abandoned their longstanding attachment to 16:9 aspect ratio screens, and gone 16:10. This is a lot more useful for reading and working, if still not as good as 3:2. It is a good compromise though, which makes for a far better viewing of videos. It is also a lot more satisfying for gaming than a 3:2 screen, as thumbs and fingers do not get in the way of the action as much.

 

The 8.01” Full HD+ (1920 x 1200) screen is absolutely brilliant, with vibrant but life-like colours and excellent viewing angles. Although as Sony are Sony, you can opt to display ultra vibrant, surreal colours. Thankfully the defaults are sensible. Text and everything else is crisp and sharp, as you would hope from a 283 ppi display. Another improvement over previous Xperia tablets is that the surface of the screen is far less glossy – using it in bright sunlight is no longer a challenge.

The position of the micro-USB charging socket is sensibly on the bottom, rather than on the top of the tablet (as on the Xperia Tablet Z2). Not that the position matters much, because you will rarely use the charging port. This is not because battery life is excellent, although it is. It is because Sony are mad keen on making everything waterproof, as their jellyfish-like Aquatech popup store in Dubai (pictured below) demonstrates. This means the Micro USB port is covered by a fiddly flap. So if you should decide to buy one, you should factor in forking out an additional £23 for the DK39 charging dock. Trust me, you will want to!

The Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact goes one better than the Tablet Z2, and is IP68 compliant. This means it can be immersed in water up to a depth of 1.5 metres for up to 30 minutes, or alternatively be hosed down with running water. I guess the former could be useful for people who like reading in the bath.

I was keen to put Sony’s claims to the test, so I decided film this encounter with an aquatic predator. My tablet survived unscathed, I am relieved to say. Water resistance may be a pretty useless gimmick in my opinion, but at least Sony are telling the truth.

 

Hardware

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 Quad-core processor clocked at 2.46 GHz. This may not be the very latest or the very fastest Qualcomm SoC, but it is a proven, highly capable performer.

Unlike the Google Nexus 9, it is capable of running every game at the highest quality without any stuttering or slowdowns, even if its graphics performance should theoretically be about 20% slower.

3DMark - Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact

Geekbench - Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact

As you can see from the above charts, the Z3 Compact is in the middle of the pack when compared with current and recent flagship devices.

Sony have sensibly equipped the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact with 3 GB of memory, so there is no problem with the launcher swapping out of memory, and everything is fast and snappy, including Chrome. Joy of joys!

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact is available in white or black, with either 16GB or 32GB of flash storage, and with or without 4G LTE. I bought the 32GB WiFi version, which has around 26GB of storage available. All versions have a MicroSD card slot supporting up to 128GB memory cards, and better yet, you can install apps onto the card, so for an additional £65 you get a total of 160GB of actually useful storage.

There is an 8.1 megapixel camera on the back, and a 2.2 megapixel wide-angle front camera ideal for video conferencing or selfies. The front camera is obviously a lot more useful than the rear camera, but both cameras take high quality pictures as well as 1080p video. Below are some unedited images.

The Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact has superb WiFi capabilities. It not only has dual-band 802.11ac maxing out at 866 Mbit/s, but 2 x 2 antennas means it has excellent reception, unlike the Nexus 9, which would frequently temporarily lose connectivity if I took it out of one room to another.

The battery life is excellent compared to the Nexus 9 or Hudl 2. Sony claim 170 hours of music listening and 15 hours of video playback. The built-in 4500 mAh battery charges quickly, both using the supplied AC adapter and using my Anker multi-port USB charger.

The following chart shows the battery usage the day I wrote this review. The section shaded purple is when I was writing. At other times I was playing games or the tablet was charging.

Sony Xperia Tablewt Z3 Compact Battery History
Battery History

One last thing worth mentioning is that the thermal design of the Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact is excellent. Thanks to its aluminium back the heat dissipates over a wide area in the centre of the tablet. Even after several hours playing games, the tablet is nowhere near as hot as the Nexus 9 was under light use, and the heat stays away from your fingers and palm.

Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact Back
The aluminium back of the device is not only elegant, but allows heat to dissipate well

Software

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact ships with Android 4.4 KitKat, but you will get offered an upgrade to 5.0.2 Lollipop as soon as you turn it on. Lollipop is a great tablet operating system, and it is sad that so few manufacturers are yet to adopt it six months after launch.

Laudably, Sony’s already minimal skinning of Android has become even more minimalist as the operating system has evolved to the next level. After installing the Google Now Launcher and Google Keyboard you would be forgiven for thinking you are using a Nexus device, only you obviously are not because the hardware is not utter, skid-marked pants!

Rather than turning the user interface into a hideous mess, like Samsung, Sony have instead focused on enhancing the experience by providing features that make Android better. The most noticeable visual tweak is probably the rather attractive clock on the lock screen.

Xperia Clock on the lock screen
Xperia Clock on the lock screen

In addition to Google Cast support, it has full Miracast Intel WiDi support, both for mirroring your screen to another device and for mirroring another device on your tablet.

Google made the weird decision to make external storage pretty much useless in 4.4 KitKat, by only allowing system apps to write to them in the name of security. As Google could not be bothered to fix this in Lollipop either, it is great of Sony to put this right. Not only can apps be installed on the SD card, but Sony bundle the capable File Commander app as a system app, so you are able to write and delete files as you please. Thank you, Sony!

Another Sony exclusive feature is the ability to easily mount any number of Windows or FTP/SFTP file shares as folders on the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact. This is very useful for copying files to and from the tablet, or for backing up data. I used it a lot on my Xperia Tablet Z2, and I was pleased to see it was still there. Why other devices do not have this feature is beyond me.

Until I checked online, I had no idea what this entailed, but the Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact is Android for Work certified. It turns out to be not very interesting. What I do know is that I wrote this entire review on the tablet using Microsoft Word without any issues. All Microsoft Office apps as well as Outlook, OneDrive, Remote Desktop, Gmail, Google Calendar and every other app I use for work has worked flawlessly.

Indeed, every app does. In 10 days of use, I have only had one app crash or fail to load. The Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact has crashed, rebooted or frozen exactly zero times. Its stability is rivalled only by the Xperia Tablet Z2. None of the many other Android devices I have owned and used are anywhere close in terms of stability. Clearly Sony are doing something right. This point alone is a compelling reason to choose the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact.

Sony have added a lot more features to the operating system of the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact. Here are the most useful and noteworthy additional features:

  • The screen does not turn off if you are looking at it. This is useful if you are reading something with a lot of difficult words. Also, it allows you to save battery by reducing the screen timeout.
  • Screen recording is built in. Just long-press the power button and select it from the menu.
  • Ability to have separate lock screen and launcher backgrounds. Although the lock screen background does not appear if you have a background app running that interfaces with Android audio notifications, such as the Sonos controller.
  • The DLNA certified media server optionally allows clients to upload files to it. Handy for syncing media.
  • If you have a Sony TV or Blu-ray player, you can use the tablet as a remote control, and even stream the picture and sound to the tablet if you need to go for a wee.

Sony features in pictures

 

For Audiophiliacs

There are two speakers on the front of the device. The sound quality is very good for tablet speakers, but the speakers are rather quiet even at maximum volume. This might have something to do with the tablet being water resistant.

If you are using headphones or external speakers, there are the usual Sony options for sound equalization. Much to my surprise, Virtual Surround Sound can actually improve the sound, but only for chamber music. The option likely to be of most use is Dynamic Normalisation. This helps keep the audio at a similar volume level when playing tracks from different album from streaming music services. Just remember to disable it before playing Beethoven’s Ninth.

If you are into high-definition audio, as Sony desperately want you to be, you will be pleased to know it has a high quality DAC and the tablet can be used as an USB DAC. Slightly more useful to ordinary people, the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact contains active noise-cancellation circuitry, which when combined with the inexpensive MDR-NC31EM earphones (£22.42 from Amazon) can supposedly achieve up to 98% noise reduction. I have only just ordered the headphones, so I cannot say whether Sony are telling fibs, but if they are not, I will be a very happy man.

Summary and Recommendations

Beyond the PC Award of Excellence WinnerThe Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact is difficult to fault. It is amazingly thin and ludicrously light. The industrial design, screen, wireless connectivity and hardware are all top notch. No Android tablet is as reliable, and Sony, shockingly for an Android device manufacturer have added features which make Android better, instead of bastardising the user interface. The 16:10 aspect ratio and less glossy screen finish make it a great all-round tablet, suitable for work and reading as well as watching video and playing games.

My biggest complaint after 10 days of full-time use is that the tablet is too thin and the edges too curved to fit in the grooved tablet stand of the Microsoft Universal Tablet Keyboard. Also, it would have been nice if the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact supported face unlock like the Xperia Tablet Z2. Both fairly trivial complaints considering it is an Android tablet I am reviewing.

So, is the Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact the best Android tablet available? Yes, I am pretty sure it is, which is why it is the first ever recipient of the soon to be prestigious Beyond the PC Award of Excellence.

Of course, there is always something new around the corner. If money is no object and you just want the absolute best Android experience, you may be interested in pre-ordering the Sony Xperia Tablet Z4 for £499.95.

Personally, I am delighted I opted to buy its little brother the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact instead for £309.95, and not just because I have a problem with delayed gratification. The Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact delivers all I want from an Android tablet, and I do not think it makes sense to pay 190 quid more for one. After all, £499 buys you a Surface 3, a tablet which is also a real computer!

If you think no Android tablet could ever be worth even three-hundred quid, you should give the Sony Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact a chance. If you are still not convinced, if you are in the UK I suggest you get a Tesco Hudl 2. Now only £99, it is staggering value for money. Imagine, a cheap Android tablet that is fast and that does not feel cheap.