Review: Sony Xperia S tablet emphasizes entertainment
At a Glance
The Sony Xperia Tablet S puts an exclamation mark on the company’s core value as a cross-media entertainment house. Sleekly stylish, and loaded with several cool Sony apps, this 9.4-inch Android 4.0 tablet has lots to recommend it, especially to couch potatoes and other entertainment aficionados.
The Xperia Tablet S is the second tablet from Sony, but the first to bring the company’s Android tablet line into the Xperia brand fold. The tablet costs $400 for the 16GB model; the 32GB model costs $500, and the 64GB model costs $600.
The Xperia Tablet S's good looks start with its superslim and light profile. No more than half an inch thick at its fattest and weighing in at 1.25 pounds, the Xperia S almost makes the iPad look and feel bloated.
Its design may be thinned down compared with its predecessor, the Sony Tablet S. Nonetheless, the Xperia Tablet S retains the Tablet S’ foldover design: At its thickest point, the chassis curves around, to a black textured backing covering most of the rear of the top half (in landscape mode). While this design looks sort of odd, it provides a good surface for gripping the tablet. This design also protects the 8-megapixel rear camera lens.
The power-on button and volume rocker button are on the top right edge; a headphone jack and SD card slot are on the left edge. The Xperia S's integrated left and right stereo speakers are located on the rear of the device, towards the bottom on each side; for a tablet, they produce significantly better-than-average audio.
Sony's wide docking and charging port, similar in appearance to Apple's proprietary iPad dock, is recessed from the center of the bottom edge. Sony calls this a multiport, and provides a cover intended to keep it watertight. (Sony suspended sales of the Xperia S in early October after learning that it wasn't, in fact, "splash proof" but the company has since fixed this issue and begun shipping the tablet again.) I don't mind the proprietary connector so much as I minded the very short USB charging cable that comes with the Xperia S, which made it difficult to use while charging.
But once charged (which in our tests took about 3.75 hours), the Xperia S ran just 12 minutes shy of 11 hours, one of the best battery lives we've seen for an Android tablet. With an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core chip inside, the Xperia S also turned in first-rate across-the-board scores on our suite of tablet benchmarks. It matched or outperformed the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity on most of our tests, although the Google Nexus 10 did better still in our performance testing. However, neither of those models could come close to the Xperia S's battery life, at about 8 and 9 hours, respectively.
Firing up the Xperia S brings its handsome 1280-by-800-pixel touchscreen to life. The display looks good, with better blacks and contrast than most Android tablets; but the Xperia S lacks the high pixel density found on the iPad, the Transformer Pad Infinity, and the Nexus 10—and that omission shows.
The Xperia supports 802.11n Wi-Fi on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.
Sony sells several accessories for the Xperia Tablet S; Sony supplied its $100 cover with a built-in keyboard that attaches to the Xperia's dock. The cover has a mini-USB pass-through charging port, so you can charge the tablet while using the keyboard—a good idea. But I can't really recommend it because the touch-based keyboard's excessive sensitivity made it almost impossible to use: Tapping a key would invariable cause it to repeat. I was much happier with the Xperia's software keyboard and the predictive text entry support.
Other accessories include an HDMI adapter that plugs into the docking port (pricing wasn't available); a docking stand with HDMI and USB 3 ports ($100); and a couple of less expensive stands and covers.
The Xperia S runs Android 4.0, albeit a version with a customized launcher and home screen. The default home screen looks cluttered thanks to Sony's determination to promote its apps and content, most prominently in a small window labeled "Topics."
That window itself (or at least its size) is the product of a Sony feature called Small Apps—the ability to run widgets such as a browser or calculator in a small window on top of a full screen running another app—a sort of picture within picture scheme. To use it, you tap a small icon at the bottom of the display screen, which brings up a bar with the widgets or apps you can run as a small app.
You can add or remove widgets that support the feature; installed widgets on my evaluation unit included ones for Evernote, Google Play Gmail and a couple dozen others. You can find additional widgets in the Google Play store. While I might not have appreciated seeing Topics as a small window, I can think of many scenarios in which having a second app visible on the screen might be useful: For example, running Sony's universal remote app while browsing the web and watching TV.
That universal remote app, labeled simply "Remote control," is one of the Xperia's major selling points, and rightly so. Setup was the easiest I've ever been through for a universal remote. Sony doesn't bother asking you for model information—if you know the manufacturer of your TV, set-top box, DVR, tuner, or other component, it presents you with a remote configuration to test (by tapping with tablet pointed to the component—the IR port is in the top edge). If the first one doesn't work, the app gives you another to try out until you find one that works. In my tests, it got the configurations right on the first or second try. Alternatively, you can go through a teaching routine with the remote that comes with the component.
But wait, there's more: The remote has a macro feature that lets you create custom commands involving multiple controls. It took me only a minute or so to create a macro that switched between HDMI inputs on my TV with a single tap on the Xperia's screen. Very cool.
You can use the universal remote app in conjunction with Watch Now, a downloadable Sony app that creates a customized visual program guide based on your choice of favorite channels and social media. Once you specify your programming preferences, Watch now produces a scrolling montage of images for programs in progress; tap on one to get more information or have the remote tune to the show.
Another Sony app that impressed me was the Walkman music player's ability—without any setup at all on my part—to channel music to DLNA-compatible players, which in my case included a couple of Sonos components. (Sonos is an audio system that lets you stream music from multiple local and Internet sources to connected players throughout your home.) All I had to do was tap on a button that presented me with player options, including the tablet itself.
Other Sony extras include Socialife, a sort of Flipboard-like app for aggregating your social network content; Scrapbook, which lets you create notebooks with images and other content from multiple websites and apps; PlayMemories Online, a cloud service for sharing photos and videos; and (of course) a software version of Sony's e-book reader.
A Guest Mode feature seems designed for parents who want to allow their kids limited access to the Xperia. It lets you create accounts for multiple users, each of whom can personalize the Xperia with wallpaper and apps to which you grant them access. This feature remains a value-add, although no longer a unique one now that Barnes & Noble's Nook HD has multiple accounts, as does Google's Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 running Android 4.2.
If nothing else, the Xperia S shows that Sony is serious about tablets. It's a bit pricey compared to the Android competition, but its great battery life and performance, the outstanding universal remote and music player, the attractive design, and SD card expansion slot—handy for use with camera SD cards or to expand the storage—make the Xperia Tablet S a standout in an increasingly crowded field.