Sony has a lot to prove in the mobile space. For years, it has struggled to earn a substantial following with its smartphones, and its first two tablets landed on shelves last year with a thud. Things could be better for Sony. Still, the manufacturer trudges on with the Xperia Tablet S, its second big push to create a tablet that inspires people. Has it finally found a spark? Find out below.
(Update 10-5-2012: In light of Sony suspending sales of the Xperia Tablet S due to manufacturing issues related to its “Splash proof” claims, which we did not test, we’ve lowered the score of this tablet and cannot currently recommend it.)
Design and feel
If you compared the differences in design from the first Tablet S to the new Xperia Tablet S, you’ll notice one major trend: It looks a lot more like an iPad. Is this a bad thing? Not at all.
Sony has kept a hint of the fold-over design of its first Tablet S, but thinned the entire tablet down (in depth) significantly. It’s hard to tell if it was intelligent design, or just good luck, but the fold of plastic actually makes the Xperia one of the most comfortable larger tablets to hold vertically. You can hold it rather naturally with one hand.
The rest of the design has also seen improvements. Instead of a plastic shell, the back of the Xperia Tablet S is aluminum. Two good-looking speakers grills adorn the bottom (when in landscape), as does a proprietary charging and docking port, which is sometimes more hassle than it’s worth. Samsung and Apple also have unique charging ports. Because of this, if you happen to misplace the single cable that comes with your Xperia Tablet S, you’re screwed. Oddly, Sony has actually included a plug for the charge port that makes the back look smoother, but since it’s just a small chunk of plastic that must be repeatedly removed to charge the tablet, there are few who will bother to keep plugging it in for beauty’s sake – especially once they lose it; the thing is tiny.
Perhaps the best asset the Xperia has, however, is its size. Its screen is an odd 9.4 inches – smaller than the 10.1-inch norm for Android tablets. Fortunately, this size proves beneficial, allowing the Xperia to achieve similar dimensions to the iPad. The smaller screen makes navigating Android slightly easier. Normally, we would point out how a smaller screen (we prefer the 8- or 9- inch size) makes it easier to thumb type in landscape mode, among other things, but typing isn’t improved much here due to a shoddy new default keyboard by Sony, which shoehorns a full number pad, onto the right side of the screen. This actually makes it more difficult to type as your right hand has to constantly reach over a number pad that you seldom need. A better solution would have been to add a number row along the top of the keyboard or allow the top row of letters to be pressed and held to get numbers.
Finally, though we’d like to praise the quality craftsmanship of the Xperia Tablet S, our review unit does have three annoying issues.
1. If you attempt to bend the tablet diagonally, even just a little, you can pretty easily cause the screen to turn green – which can be scary.
2. A small section on the back of our tablet makes a bendy, squeaky noise every time we apply pressure to it, alluding to possible bonding issues in manufacturing.
3. The power button has to be pressed extra hard to register. Often, we’ll press it and it just won’t turn on, so we must press again, with more intention. The Xperia doesn’t like taking orders, apparently.
Overall, the Xperia Tablet S is a winner in design, but fails to pass a few quality control issues. Hopefully Sony will work these out.
The Xperia Tablet S runs on Google’s Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) operating system with a few select Sony modifications. Android is mostly intact as are critical Google services like Gmail, Maps, and Calendar, but Sony has swapped out many of Google’s flourishes for its own. The new widgets and Sony apps like Reader and Walkman work well enough, but few of Sony’s services stand out. They’re familiar offerings, though you should check out Music Unlimited and Sony’s PlayStation Mobile store if you’re hunting around for music or good games. They are worth a gander.
There are a few unique features on the Xperia Tablet S. The first is “Guest Mode.” Using a button in the upper right, you can actually create extra accounts on your Android tablet and limit the apps that those accounts have access to, allowing parents to more comfortably let their kids play around with the family tab. Unfortunately, this feature stops one step short of completion. Though you can limit app usage and have multiple accounts, you cannot create unique email setups for each user. So if you don’t limit your email account app, your child can still get into it. The same goes for browsers. When I first learned of this feature and questioned it, Sony representatives suggested to me that if it’s a big deal, you could download multiple email apps and multiple browsers, and, say only give your kid access to FireFox. It sounds cruel, but it is a solution, I suppose – if a bit crude.
Another potentially useful feature is the ability to create mini apps out of any widget you have installed. While Samsung has long included a little bar of six or so mini apps that float around like a window in… Windows on your desktop computer might, its apps have always been limited to the ones included. Sony has opened this idea up. Yes, it’s included a few apps like a calculator, but any widget you install on your tablet, from any app , can be turned into a mini app. I haven’t used this feature much, but it’s a decent idea and I can see it coming in handy from time to time.
Again, I must point out that we experienced some major glitches and issues with connecting to Wi-Fi (it would not connect and lock the Settings menu up) when we first got the Xperia Tablet S. Sony quickly issued a patch for this bug and it appears to be fixed, but it was difficult to connect to Wi-Fi so we could even download the patch.
Overall, using the Xperia Tablet S was extremely pleasant, except in the brief moments when it wasn’t, like when we encountered the Wi-Fi bug. We’re glad it’s been patched.
Sony has included an 8-megapixel rear camera in the Xperia Tablet S, but like many tablet cameras, it’s not exactly impressive. For some reason, Sony has also replaced Google’s camera software with its own, even less impressive app, with a very ugly and confusing user interface. Oddly, the app has a very small window to show you what picture you’re taking, and if you want to take an 8-megapixel shot (why not?), you’re forced into a 4:3 boxy aspect ratio.
Most shots come out with much less detail than they should, even outdoor shots like this one of the buildings surrounding the Empire State Building in New York City. There’s little impressive about Sony’s camera here. Luckily, I’m betting that few of you buy tablets for their cameras.
The Xperia Tablet S has pretty standard specs for a larger tablet these days. Everything runs pretty smoothly (incredibly smooth, at times, thanks to Sony’s UI). The Tablet S has a 9.4-inch 1280 x 800 pixel LCD touchscreen, 16GB to 64GB of internal flash memory for file storage, a 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, 1GB of RAM, a webcam, Wi-Fi connectivity, and Bluetooth connectivity. It charges via a proprietary port, but does have a full-size SD card slot next to its headphone jack on the left side. Full size SD is uncommon, but a pleasant surprise.
On the Quadrant test that we perform on most Android devices, the Xperia scored a 4,000, which is comparable to other Tegra 3 machines. High-end tablets and phones like the Galaxy S3 have topped 5,000, but you shouldn’t have trouble playing most games or performing most intensive tasks on the Tablet S.
Sony claims that the Xperia gets about 10 hours of battery life if you’re browsing the Web, and we can confirm that our experience with the battery was quite positive, especially on idle. Many Android tablets seem to lose battery quickly on idle, but Sony’s tablet will last you a couple weeks before dying, if you aren’t using it. Sony has set no records here, but the Tablet S is a solid battery performer.
There is a lot to love about Sony’s new tablet. It looks good, has a smooth user interface, and its size makes it comfortable to hold. The downsides are mostly quality-control issues. Sony has fixed a paralyzing Wi-Fi bug, but we’ve had issues pressing the power button and found elements of the hardware a little cheap, despite the fact that the tablet looks and feels quite premium. The camera is also disappointing, even for a tablet. The Xperia Tablet S starts at $400 and for a price like that we expect a tablet that can compete with the best. Sony is getting there, but we still recommend you buy an iPad 2 for the same price, or pony up an extra hundred dollars for the third iPad. If you’re a fan of Sony products, give this one a try, but be mindful of its weak points.
- Comfortable, good-looking design
- Great screen size
- Smooth user interface
- Good battery life
- Full SD port
- Wi-Fi glitch
- Random hardware problems
- Bad camera & camera app
- Proprietary charger
- Poorly designed default keyboard