After trying something different, Sony tries something better
Sony's long marched to the beat of its own drummer — to varying levels of success. Sony's unique designs have created plenty of success stories (like the NEX line of cameras), but tablets haven't been one of them. The Tablet P had strange, clamshell hardware that was good for basically nothing other than keeping the screens protected. The original Tablet S, which looks like a rolled-up magazine, was nice hardware but had really underwhelming and outdated software. Neither was what you'd call a smashing success.
When I met with Sony to talk about its latest tablet, the Xperia Tablet S, reps told me the device was a direct result of everything the company learned from the past two devices. The folded-over magazine aesthetic remains, but it's been toned down and refined. The software's been updated to Android 4.0, and Sony's added a lot of new features and functionality as well. One of the Tablet S's most popular features, I was told, was the IR blaster universal remote — that's been upgraded and improved. The new tablet also plugs into Sony's enormous ecosystem, from Music Unlimited to PlayMemories to Reader.
The Xperia Tablet S is the first Sony tablet to feature the Xperia branding, and as such is something of a re-launch for the company. The tablet is out now, starting at $399 — is it enough to elevate Sony into the Android tablet race? Read on.
There's a happy medium between boring and bizarre
There was absolutely no mistaking either of Sony's previous tablets for anything else — they had a look all their own. The Xperia Tablet S is considerably less notable, but that's probably a good thing: this is a much better-looking slate, handsome and minimalist with rounded edges, a classy silver-and-black color scheme, and a thin profile. The top edge rolls over into the back, giving it the look and feel of a folded-over magazine page — its grippy texture also makes it much more comfortable to hold one-handed. I like the look, but it's purely aesthetic this time — on the previous Tablet S the fold propped the device up at a nice typing-friendly angle, but here the flap is much smaller and doesn't really change anything. The Tablet S took the idea too far, I think, but the Xperia Tablet S might not go quite far enough.
Still, it's a decent-looking device, if a little boring. The 9.4-inch display is surrounded by a big, glossy black bezel, with a Sony logo placed above the screen and to the left. Weirdly, the logo looks good there. It's not nearly as obtrusive as most center-located, glittery silver logos — it's just a quiet reminder that you're using a Sony tablet. (Of course, I'd trade it for no logo at all, but I'll take what I can get.) The 1.3-pound body is almost exactly the same weight as the iPad, and at 8.9mm (at its thinnest point, the flap is slightly larger) it's about a sheet of paper thinner than Apple's latest tablet. It feels like any other Android tablet to hold and use — I couldn't say either about Sony's other tablets, and I'll take conformity over Sony's quirky previous designs even though I wish Sony would take a few more chances.
There's some space on the Xperia Tablet's edges created by the fold-over plastic flap, and that's where Sony hides most of the device's physical buttons. There's a power button and a volume rocker on the right side, and a headphone jack on the left side above a hard-to-open, easy-to-break flap that covers a full SD card slot. Having the full SD slot is pretty awesome — syncing any Android device with a computer is a pain, and it's much easier to just throw a document or movie (mostly movies, in my case) onto a card and plug it into the tablet. Sony uses a proprietary charging port / dock connector, which is set so far back into the bottom of the tablet that it takes a big bite out of the bottom edge. It's surely for the purposes of sturdier docking, but it looks terrible — fortunately you can't see it from the front.
There are two cameras on the device, an 8-megapixel sensor on the back and a single megapixel on the front. Both are exactly what they need to be, and nothing more: the rear camera takes decent shots in a pinch, and the front camera is fine for video chat. I don't recommend going out of your way to use either one.
One of the iPad's biggest advantages doesn't get talked about enough: it has a wide range of accessories that complement and improve the device. Sony's ecosystem isn't going to be as large anytime soon, but the company did smartly release a handful of cool accessories alongside the Xperia Tablet S. Most are what you'd expect, like a series of cases and a couple of different stands.
The $99 Cover with Keyboard is a bit more enticing, though: it's a folio-style cover for the Xperia Tablet, with a full five-row keyboard embedded in the inside of the front flap. The tablet connects to the Cover via the dock connector (there's a Micro USB port in the case for charging), and stands up at a laptop-like angle.
The case is nice, a thin and light rubbery material with a cord for keeping it closed. The keyboard's pretty bad, though — the keys aren't raised at all, so they're basically just capacitive keys on a soft surface instead of a screen. You get more display space without the on-screen keyboard opened, but it's almost exactly the same typing experience with or without the Cover. Which is to say, you'll do a lot of hunting and pecking, and don't even try to type without looking at the keys.
As Sony has moved to unify and integrate its product line, some changes have been more useful than others. I can take or leave its naming and software synergy, but I'm certainly happy that Sony's tablet team is taking cues from its TV prowess. At least, I assume that's how Sony's consistently made great tablet displays, including the Xperia Tablet S's 1280 x 800 TFT LCD. It's marginally sharper than some other tablets just because it has a 9.4-inch screen, but mostly it just looks better. It has really deep blacks, which makes movies look better, and colors and viewing angles are both excellent. It's the same size and resolution as the previous Tablet S, and it's still a very good display. Of course, it's no match for the iPad's Retina display or the 1920 x 1200 screen on the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, but it's a step above most 10-inch tablets I've tested.
So are the speakers, actually. The Xperia Tablet S has two down-firing speakers on its back, and while they're too close together to create much of a stereo effect they're at least loud enough to be heard in a non-silent room (unlike most tablets). They're not exactly mind-blowing in their power or dynamic range — wubs come few and far between — but they're totally serviceable for watching movies or YouTube videos. You can tweak a lot of equalizer options or use the settings Sony's ClearAudio+ technology thinks are ideal, but I found the default settings worked best.
Even decent speakers are a nice change
I'd rather have a stock Android tablet than any skin, full stop. But if manufacturers have to customize the OS on their devices (and clearly they feel they do), every company should do it the way Sony does. No icons are changed, no color schemes have been tweaked — Sony just adds to Android 4.0 without changing what's already there.
Dear tablet makers: add, don't change
There are a lot of additions, though, including three on the home screen alone. There's Small Apps, which are a complete aping of Samsung's Quick Apps — they're small pop-up widgets that show up over top of whatever app you're using, and let you quickly take a note or search the web. I'm a fan of these apps, which are a poor man's version of actual multitasking, and I especially like the Small App version of the universal remote, which lets you quickly change volume or channels without going into the full app (more on that in a second). Also on the home screen, you'll find a dock of sorts up next to the Google search icon in the top left corner: that just gives you yet another place to put and launch apps. Which is neat, I guess.
Guest Mode should be a stock feature
Sony's smartest addition to the operating system seems so obvious that it should really just be a core Android feature: Guest Mode. You can set up essentially a second (or third, or fourth) user for your device, and can control the apps, settings, and data that user can access. It's great for your kids, if you don't want them to be able to open Google Play or browse the web – it's also nice if you just want to let someone use your tablet without worrying about what notifications will pop up or whether they'll read your email. It could possibly slow down your system, as apps aren't closed when you switch between users; even background music keeps playing as you switch, so make sure to close apps before you open a new user. It takes one tap to enter Guest Mode, and then you have to enter a password to exit — the whole thing is seamless and simple, and really feels like a core feature of Android. Google should take note.
In addition to the OS and UI tweaks, Sony also preinstalls what I'd call "a crapload" of extra apps onto the Xperia Tablet S. Most are Sony apps, bringing the company's ecosystem of products and services onto the device. You get Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, PlayMemories, Walkman, Reader by Sony, Sony Select — on and on the list goes. If you're invested in Sony's ecosystem whole-hog, it's great, but as a bit of an ecosystem polygamist (I use Netflix, Rdio, Google Play Music and Movies, Hulu, Kindle, and more) it's just an overwhelmingly large selection of apps I don't want to give money to . The Xperia Tablet S is definitely a "Sony Experience" device, but without an ecosystem as compelling as Amazon's on the Kindle Fire HD, I'd rather it just be an Android tablet. An Android tablet with Guest Mode, at least.
I don't have cable in my apartment in New York, which means my TV-watching life is a hodge-podge of remotes, set-top boxes, home theather PCs, and all manner of streaming services. The Xperia Tablet's IR-capable remote ties that mess together as well as any universal remote I've used. For one, it's remarkably easy to set up with almost any device: I got it working on two different TVs, a Blu-ray player, an Xbox 360, a WD TV Live Hub, and an Apple TV in the span of about five minutes. You just choose the type of device (set-top boxes are under "Networked Video Players," which took me a while to figure out) and the brand, and the Remote app runs through a set of options to figure out which particular device you have. It never took more than two tries to pair with any of my devices.
The Remote app shows a set of controls specific to whatever device you're using, with a scroll bar at the top for switching between them. The controls are fairly basic — lots of up-down-left-right buttons, number keys, and the like — but functionality is pretty complete. The big new feature for this version of the remote app is macros, which means you can set it up to do multiple things with one touch. I was quickly able to set the app to turn on my TV, Blu-ray player, and stereo with a single touch, but unfortunately that's where the functionality ends. There's no way to say "turn on my TV, change to HDMI 2, then fire up Netflix on my Apple TV," as you could with a Logitech Harmony or other universal remotes. The Xperia Tablet simply maps your tap-tap-taps, and then replays them — it's imitating rather than learning.
Since I don't have cable, the Watch Now TV guide app (which is Sony-only but weirdly doesn't come preinstalled) is less useful to me personally, but it's a pretty nifty feature. It's a hyper-visual guide of shows you want to watch instead of just a channel-sorted grid — the app displays all the shows that are on, and if you just tap on Breaking Bad it'll take you straight to where it's showing regardless of channel. The guide also learns what you like, and connects to your Twitter and Facebook as well — icons on the screen get larger for shows Sony thinks you'll like, and based on the time I've spent with it it's pretty accurate.
I don't think it's going to completely replace your actual remote control — mostly because you have to constantly look down at the screen, since there are no physical buttons — but the functionality is a smart and obvious one for any tablet to have, and I really like Sony's implementation.
Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor is inside most of the tablets I've tested in the last six months, and they pretty much all work the same. The Xperia Tablet S is fast and responsive, and is particularly adept for playing games — I'm getting really good at Shadowgun as I test more and more tablets, and it's as smooth and impressive on the Xperia Tablet's display as any I've tried.
Software, not hardware, is now the limiting factor for Android tablet performance
Of course, the Nexus 7 also runs a Tegra 3, and using it side by side with the Xperia Tablet throws into stark relief how much Android 4.1's performance has been improved. It's the little things: the screen rotates faster, scrolling is smoother, and every animation happens slightly faster. The Xperia Tablet is perfectly usable, but the Nexus 7 feels more finely tuned. Sony has promised an update to Jelly Bean for the Xperia Tablet S, but given the number of custom apps and features for the device I'm not holding my breath.
I took the Xperia Tablet S with me to Germany for Photokina 2012, and was thrilled with the device's longevity. I watched an entire season of How I Met Your Mother (23 20-minute episodes, a little less than eight hours), plus a couple of Breaking Bad episodes and one of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, before the battery finally croaked — that's about 10 solid hours of watching movies. In more normal use — tweeting, browsing, streaming a show or two – I consistently only charged the Xperia Tablet S every three days. That's about what you'll get from an iPad, too — though the iPad achieves it while using LTE — and it's really nice to not have to think about charging the tablet every day.
Plenty to like, but at twice the price of the Nexus 7 it's hard to justify this purchase
The Xperia Tablet S is one of my favorite Android tablets yet, but to be honest I can't totally explain why. I suppose it's because it's one of the few devices I've tested with no glaring flaws — there's no hideous UI skin, no major performance issues, no critical features missing. I like most (but not all) of Sony's software additions. I've used the remote features a lot, more than I expected to. Guest Mode made the Tablet S more amenable to social situations than any other tablet I've used, too.
But at the end of the day, the $399 Xperia Tablet S is double the price of the Nexus 7, a tablet with virtually identical specs (even the screen is the same resolution, though it's smaller), Google's latest and greatest OS, and the promise of timely updates in the future. Sony's case for the price premium is more compelling than most other tablet makers — primarily its remote control capability — but unless you're dying to replace your Logitech Harmony, it's hard to recommend against saving $200 and buying a Nexus 7.