With the $499 iPad on one end, and the $199 Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7 on the other, what's a midrange tablet maker to do? Sony may have found the answer in the Xperia Tablet S. This $399 Nvidia Tegra 3-powered Android tablet has an attractive design, bright display and the ability to control your entertainment center with an improved built-in remote control. You can even equip the Xperia Tablet S with a Surface-like keyboard cover. Does this slate do enough to win us over?
The Xperia Tablet S is a direct descendent of the Tablet S, for good and bad. We like that Sony kept the folding design--the left edge is a bit thicker, and curves around the back, like an open magazine--but it's a lot thinner than the original, making the device feel sleeker overall. The curved back section also has a raised dot pattern, which not only feels good, but makes the tablet feel more secure in hand.
However, some of the same issues we had with the first tablet are here, too. The SD Card slot has a plastic cover that was awkward to open. However, Sony did away with the microUSB port here, so once you insert an SD card, you probably won't be removing this cover too often.
What we found most annoying was the plastic cover for the AC adapter on the bottom edge. It's not attached to the tablet in any way, and we promptly lost it (sorry, Sony).
At 9.4 x 6.8 x 0.4-0.5 inches, the Tablet S has a smaller footprint than the ASUS Transformer Pad 300 (10.4 x 7.1 x 0.38 inches), the Archos 101 XS (10.6 x 6.6 x 0.4 inches) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 (10.1 x 6.9 x 0.38 inches), but is slightly thicker than all three. Its weight of 1.26 pounds is equal to the Tab 2 10.1, and lighter than the Transformer Pad 300 (1.4 pounds) as well as the iPad (1.44 pounds).
With a resolution of 1280 x 800, the 9.4-inch display on the Xperia Tablet S hasn't changed since last year, and is lower than premium tablets such as the TF700 (1920 x 1200) and the iPad (2048 x 1536), but is on a par with models such as the ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 and the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. However, given that smaller and cheaper tablets, such as the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, also have 1280 x 800-pixel screens, we think it's a bit of an oversight on Sony's part not to go with a higher resolution.
Still, watching videos, such as the "Cloud Atlas" trailer on YouTube, was a treat. Colors were vivid, and blacks were rich and deep. The TFT display looked great even from extreme angles, and we especially liked that fingerprints didn't prove problematic. We also liked the fact that the display can resist the occasional splash of water.
It's also quite bright: At 411 lux, the Tablet S outshines the tablet average by about 60 lux and the TF300 by 80 lux. The Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 was slightly brighter at 424 lux.
The bottom-mounted speakers on the Tablet S produced good, if not terribly loud, sound. While we could easily make out all of the instruments on Jay-Z's "Heart of the City," the guitars and drums on Motley Crue's "Kickstart My Heart" sounded a bit more muddled. As expected for a tablet, bass wasn't all that powerful.
There are a large number of tweaks you can make to the audio settings. Within the Sound control panel, selecting ClearAudio+ automatically adjusts the equalizer using recommended settings. In general, turning on this feature made music sound more balanced.
Within Sound enhancements, an equalizer lets you adjust settings to your heart's content, or choose from a number of presets such as Rock, Pop and Soul. The Clear Phase option automatically adjusts the sound quality--we recommend keeping this feature on. S-Force Front Surround 3D is designed to emulate a three-dimensional sound field, but we don't believe it enhanced audio quality
About the only criticism we have is that all of these settings are buried within the Sound control panel.
Overall, we liked the audio from the Tablet S, but slightly prefer the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, whose speakers face directly at the user, resulting in a richer experience.
The Xperia Tablet S runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, with a few smart additions. For starters, the upper left corner of the screen has icons for the Browser, Mail, Camera and Settings. The upper right corner has a tab for Guest Mode (more on that later) and Apps and Widgets.
In the middle of the bottom of the screen are two small icons; the right one opens a small floating remote control app for your entertainment center. The left icon opens to reveal a small bar at the bottom with icons for the Browser, Calculator, Clip, Memo, Recorder, Remote Control and Timer.
Clip lets you select the entire screen or just a portion, annotate it, and then save or share it via email or social networks such as Google+ and Picasa. Memo opens a floating mini app on which we could draw or type a note, and then save or share it, much like a clip.
In general, these Small Apps, as Sony calls them, are much like the Mini Apps on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, and proved useful from time to time.
Powered by a 1.3-GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM, the Xperia Tablet S returned solid scores. On the CPU portion of the Benchmark test, its score of 3,942 was 1,100 points above average and the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 (2,834), and also bested the TF300 (3,613). However, it fell below the Infinity TF700 (5,220). The Archos 101 XS, which has a 1.5-GHz TI OMAP 4470 processor, returned a nearly identical score of 3,939.
On the graphics-focused AN3DBench, the Tablet S' score of 7,752 was higher than average (7,316), the Tab 2 10.1 (6,779) and the TF300 (7,705), but less than the TF700 (7,937) and the Archos (8,014).
In everyday use, the Tablet S was fairly speedy, but we noticed some stuttering as we went from the Apps menu to the home screen and back. There was also about a one-second delay as we rotated the screen from portrait to landscape mode. We also noticed that the Wi-Fi would turn off when we put the tablet to sleep, and would take about 3 seconds to reconnect when we woke the device.
Similar to Samsung's tablets, the Xperia Tablet S has a built-in IR transmitter that can turn the device into a remote control for your home entertainment system. The Remote Control app proved fairly easy to set up. Within 10 minutes, we had configured the app to control our TV, cable box and receiver. A special macro function also let us turn our TV, cable box and receiver on with just one button, much like some of the better universal remotes.
Despite these features, the remote's usefulness was limited. For example, we use our receiver to control the volume, and the cable box to change channels. However, we couldn't control both from the same screen; we had to switch from the cable box screen to the receiver screen, a cumbersome extra step.
Somewhat more useful was the Watch Now app. Similar to the Peel remote control app on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 and Galaxy Note 10.1, the Watch Now app displays only those programs it thinks you'll like. After installing the app--annoyingly, it wasn't preloaded--we entered our ZIP code, cable provider and selected the 50 channels we most liked to watch.
After churning for a few seconds, shows from all of those channels appeared as large thumbnails on a grid that slowly scrolled from right to left. We especially liked the small bar at the bottom of each thumbnail that showed how much time was left in that program.
Selecting a thumbnail opened a window that displayed more info about that program, and gives you the option to watch or favorite the show. Selecting Watch causes a neat animation that shows the card flipping toward your TV.
You can also connect the app with your Facebook, GetGlue and Twitter accounts, so you can tell the world what you're watching.
Overall, we like the app, but it lacks some features. For example, unlike the Peel app (which is on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1), you can't sort by category (such as sports, etc.), or skip ahead in time to see what's on next.
"Can I borrow your iPad?" Anyone who's owned a tablet will inevitably be asked this question by a friend or kid. And while you want to be polite, you don't want that person peeking into your email account, which is why Guest Mode is a nice addition.
When you set up a guest account, you can determine which apps and widgets will be available to that person, and automatically change the background, so that you can see at a glance that the tablet is still in Guest Mode. However, outside of this, you can't block particular web sites or content. While FreeTime on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD also has its limitations--no browser controls there, either--that utility lets you set time limits for different kinds of content, such as games, video or books.
The Xperia Tablet S is loaded with apps, and, thankfully, many are worth using. Sony apps alone include Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited (pictured), PlayMemories, Reader by Sony (pictured), Movies, Album and Walkman (pictured). We especially like that the latter three apps immediately recognized multimedia content on our Network-Attached Storage drive, although it did have some trouble streaming it to the tablet. Also, these apps do a better job displaying content than their Google analogues, such as Gallery and Play Books.
Currently, there are more than 16 million songs in the Music Unlimited library. The Access plan, which gives access on PCs, Macs, and the PS3, costs $4.99 per month. The Premium Plan, which includes all devices, is $9.99 per month. The Video Unlimited library currently holds more than 80,000 movies and TV episodes. Unlike Music, pricing is a la carte, with rentals costing from $5.99 to $7.99, and purchases $29.99. Sony Reader Store offers access to 2.5 million titles, but only 28 magazines and 58 newspapers.
Of course, the full complement of Google apps is here as well, including Google Play, Gmail, Drive and YouTube.
Third-party apps include Netflix, OfficeSuite, Hulu Plus, Evernote, Crackle and Scrapbook, which lets you create a virtual scrapbook from Web clippings, videos, etc., and share them with friends.
The Social Feeds app has been rebranded as Socialife, but acts the same way, pulling in content from your Facebook as well as RSS feeds, and presenting them in an attractive interface. Overall, it's akin to Flipboard. We also like that the app lets you comment on articles through your social networks, too.
Consumers who purchase the Tablet S will also be able to download three films--from 15 choices--from Google Play for free. At the time of this review, those movies included "Men In Black II," "Moneyball" and "Friends with Benefits."
Apparently, Sony's camera division isn't talking to its tablet division. Both the rear-facing 8-MP camera and the front-facing 1-MP camera on the Xperia Tablet S produced images that were grainy and washed-out. The reds and greens of a shelf-full of tchotchkes were muted, and we saw a significant amount of noise in the darker areas, too.
A photo we took of ourselves using the front-facing camera looked blotchy enough to almost seem like it was rotoscoped.
On the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the Xperia Tablet S lasted a strong 7 hours and 54 minutes, about an hour longer than the category average, and better than the ASUS TF700 (7:39) and the TF300 in Balanced mode (7:11). However, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 lasted a far longer 9 hours and 59 minutes.
Sony sells a number of accessories for the Xperia Tablet S. The most intriguing is the Keyboard Case, a leatherlike folio that not only protects the tablet, but has a built-in keyboard. The keyboard cover costs $99, but consumers who purchase it along with the Tablet S by September 29 can save $50.
The Tablet S slides into a dock connector in the upper part of the case. A small charging port rests along the right side, but we have to question Sony's judgment in going with yet another proprietary port, when a mini-or micro-USB connector would have fit just as easily. On the plus side, once you plug the tablet into the keyboard case, it's automatically paired.
When open, the angle at which the tablet rests was too vertical for our tastes. Also, there's no way to keep the tablet upright on anything but a level surface; tilt the whole thing back slightly, and the tablet will flop backward.
The keyboard itself bears a striking resemblance to the keyboard lid on the Microsoft Surface tablet. The keys themselves are touch-sensitive, and only slightly raised. While we were able to type relatively fast--the keys are responsive--we found ourselves making more mistakes than usual, because it was hard to find our way around by feel alone. Plus, some of the keys are lilliputian, such as the right Shift, question mark and carat. We did like, though, that Android buttons for Home, Back, and recent apps sit along the bottom.
The fanciest accessory for the Xperia Tablet S is the $99 docking stand. This device, which has a circular 6.5-inch base and stands 7.9 inches tall, looks every bit as elegant as the tablet itself. At the end of the chrome arm is a docking connector for the tablet that locks into place. The arm itself lets you rotate the tablet 90 degrees in either direction. In the base are USB and HDMI ports, as well as power for charging the tablet.
Overall, it's a neat-looking accessory, but treats the tablet more like a work of art, and less a functional consumer electronics device. It was a lot more practical to hold the tablet in our hands, as opposed to interacting with it on the stand.
A slimmer design, better apps and a lower price? Yes, the Sony Xperia Tablet S is definitely an improvement over last year's design. We especially like the enhanced remote control functionality, because you can control multiple components with the press of a button and because there's a sleeker interface for finding stuff to watch. On the other hand, the Guest Mode has limited parental control options versus competing tablets and the optional keyboard case isn't very effective. At this price, we give the edge to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, which has a better remote control app, better speakers and longer battery life, Still, for its $399 price, the Xperia Tablet S is one of the more attractive and functional Android tablets on the market.