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Sony Xperia Tablet S review: Sony’s second-gen Android slate has a slimmer design, faster guts

For Sony, it’s all about the presentation. To be sure, since the company put all of its mobile products under one roof, it’s achieved more of a balance between style and substance than it did with the original Tablet S and Tablet P — two devices that had a lopsided emphasis on unique, proof-of-concept designs over user experience. It’s fair to say those initial tablet efforts failed to resonate with consumers, leaving the company with little recourse other than an all-out do-over.

Which is why the new Xperia Tablet S has a lot to prove: it can’t get by based on looks alone. Running skinned Ice Cream Sandwich and packing a quad-core Tegra 3 SoC, this 9.4-incher maintains the same 1,280 x 800 IPS LCD panel used on the first-gen S, and even assumes the same folded-over magazine shape — albeit, in thinner form. Yes, that full SD slot remains, but you might not need to rely on it now that the tablet comes with up to 64GB of built-in storage. So, will an emphasis on OS, ecosystem (Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited, Crackle, Reader, etc.) and a slimmed-down build make up for the blunders of the first-gen Tablet S? Will a $399 starting price help this WiFi-only tab stand out amongst the Android competition? Stick around as we find out whether this S is more than initially meets the eye.

Specs and Basics

The Sony Xperia Tablet S starts at $399 for the 16 gig model, which is competitive with other name brand Android tablets with quality specs but no special features like the full HD display on the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 or the active digital pen on theSamsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (both starting at $499). Sony’s price gets steeper if you want more storage, with the 32 gig priced at $499 and the 64 gig priced at $599. We’d like to see a smaller incremental jump in pricing for the higher capacity storage models.

This is a WiFi only tablet with dual band WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0 and a GPS (though Sony doesn’t list the GPS on their website, both GPS Status and GPS Tracker report a GPS and we got a fix on 3-5 satellites indoors and 7-8 outdoors). The tablet ships with Google Maps and Navigation. Since it lacks 3G/4G, it’s not the ideal replacement for an in-car GPS unless you download and store maps on the tablet before taking a trip.

The Xperia Tablet S has a front 1MP video chat camera and a rear 8 megapixel camera that can shoot 1080p video. The tablet runs on a 1.4GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU with 1 gig of RAM.

Design and Ergonomics

Typical of Sony, the Xperia Tablet S has a unique design that will never be confused with the iPad or any other manufacturer’s tablet. We like the distinctive design, and the slim casing is ergonomic too. The “fold” acts like a book or magazine spine that gives you something to hold onto comfortably when reading in portrait mode. In landscape mode, the side grooves and rear “magazine flap” act as grip points without adding much bulk. Given the smaller than average footprint, the Xperia Tablet S is more comfortable to hold for longer periods of time when reading books and magazines.

Sony moved the stereo speakers to the bottom edge so they’re not muted by your palms when holding the tablet in landscape mode. They’re noticeably louder than the meek speakers on the first gen Tablet S and we found them adequate for extended bouts of movie watching, though they’re not full enough to do justice to music (the same is true of all tablets).

Ports and Accessories

The tablet has a 3.5mm headphone jack, a full size SD card slot and a proprietary sync/dock/charge connector. The connector supports Sony’s optional dongle adapters for USB host ($20) and HDMI ($40). It’s not as awkward and fiddly as the first Tablet S charging connector, and it’s protected by a rubber plug that ensures splash-resistance. Sony markets the tablet as an ideal cooking companion because you can touch the display with wet hands (the same is actually true of other tablets) and covers protect the sync port and SD card slot. That doesn’t mean it can take a bath, but it will repel the occasional splash when you’re washing carrots by the sink.

Sony offers a nice selection of accessories that include a $99 keyboard case that’s slim and light with a Microsoft Surface design. Unlike many external keyboard-case combos, Sony’s uses the dock connector rather than Bluetooth. There’s a $99 table-top stand that looks very Scandinavian modern, and it has 3 USB ports as well as HDMI out. Sony also offers a speaker dock as well as a traditional cradle with a similar design to the first gen cradle. It holds the tablet in landscape mode at an adjustable angle and charges the tablet (there are no I/O ports however).

While the first Tablet S running Android OS 3.2 Honeycomb had hobbled external storage support that worked primarily for file transfer, the Xperia Tablet handles SD and USB mass storage devices much the same as other Android tablets. Videos on the SD card appear in Gallery and music on the card appears in Play Music. Sony’s File Transfer app is still on board should you find it convenient for backing up digital camera images and videos, and you can download one of the many free file managers available on the Google Play Store for general file management.

TruBlack Display

Sony’s TruBlack display is as lovely as ever with deep blacks and rich, warm colors that are perfect for movie watching. Clearly that’s a focus for Sony who includes their Crackle and Video Unlimited apps along with Netflix and Hulu Plus. The resolution is standard at 1280 x 800, but things look a little sharper since those pixels are fitted to a 9.4 rather than more common 10.1″ panel. The Xperia Tablet S doesn’t have as much glare as the last gen model, and to our eyes it looks like Sony toned down the plastic coating that protected the first tablet’s display. Do we wish the Xperia had a full HD 1920 x 1200 display like the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 and the Acer Iconia Tab A700? We certainly wouldn’t complain, but its display is sharper and clearer than average for a 10″ class machine and it’s easy on the eyes for reading with no jaggy text.

Performance

Early last year the Nvidia Tegra 2 1GHz dual core CPU was the staple of high line Android tablets. Now we’re moving into the 1.4GHz Tegra 3 dual core with much improved GeForce 12 core graphics. The Sony joins a number of other Android tablets running that CPU, including the TF700, Iconia A700, Toshiba Excite 10 and Nexus 7. The Tegra 3 is undeniably a strong performer, and it brings support for Tegra 3 enhanced Tegra Zone games, a boon to gamers.

The tablet feels snappy and it’s been stable other than Sony’s Sociallife app that likes to crash at least once per day (you see a crash report and the app silently relaunches itself, the tablet itself doesn’t grind to a halt). The first gen tablet’s social networking app had a tendency to crash at first, but Sony eventually fixed that, though we found it a battery hog. Sociallife on the Xperia doesn’t eat up the battery, most likely because WiFi shuts off after the tablet has been asleep for an hour. Unlike several other Android tablets, there’s no way to prevent this, which is unfortunate if you want the connection to stay active for background news/weather/social networking updates.

Benchmarks

Quadrant GLBenchmark 2.1Egypt Offscreen AnTuTu Sunspider JavaScript Test
Sony Xperia Tablet S 4561 67 fps 11,557 1838
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 5349 101 fps 12,777 1206
Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 4915 74 fps 12,229 1903
Toshiba Excite 10 4143 63 fps 11,056 1935
Acer Iconia Tab A700 3646 58 fps 10,536 1958
Asus Transformer Pad TF300 3425 69 fps 9559 2257

IR Remote for AV Home Theater Control

If you’ve read our review of the first Sony Tablet S you know we really liked the AV remote app and found it the best among tablets with that feature. While most tablet virtual remotes have an abbreviated version of the controls available on the physical remotes, Sony’s is rich with buttons and controls for all major AV gear types and brands. It’s easy to set up the various remotes for your home theater and cable TV equipment, and the Sony has swipeable sections for each remote to access advanced (and not so advanced) functions that are absent in other simplified remotes. Every button on the physical remote is reproduced and that’s crucial when controlling today’s complex AV receivers and Internet-capable Blu-ray players and TVs. The interface is attractive and we like the AV gear overview with power buttons for each piece so you don’t have to go into each remote just to power on/off pieces of gear.

In contrast, Samsung’s tablets with AV remotes come with the Peel app that’s more of a TV Guide on steroids and less a remote. For those who want a similar presentation of TV content, there’s the downloadable Sony Watch Now app that showcases what’s on now in a graphically rich manner. Why Sony didn’t preload this app, we can’t imagine.

Reader eBooks

For those of you not familiar with Sony ebook reading devices and the Sony Reader store, it’s an ePUB bookstore that uses standard Adobe DRM, and you’ll activate your Adobe account on the device when you log into your store account. Sony has a solid selection of books, that’s not as comprehensive as the Kindle Store, but you’ll find most popular books and bestsellers there.

The Sony Reader application is attractive and responsive, with single and facing-pages display modes, font size adjustment, justification, background settings, screen rotation lock and a brightness slider. Though you can change the font size, you can’t change the font itself, which is a shame (the same is true of the Reader app on the last gen tablet). The app supports press and hold to create highlights and to look up words in the Wikipedia, Google or elsewhere in the book rather than a locally stored dictionary (that means you’ll need a WiFi connection). You can create bookmarks by tapping the upper right corner of a page, and access the table of contents, highlights and bookmarks using a control at the bottom of the display (tap near the bottom center of the display to bring up Reader controls).

Sony does support side-loading of PDFs and ePub books, which we greatly appreciate. For PDFs, the Reader app features single and facing page views, highlighting and bookmarking. If you want to side-load ePUBs, just put them in the Downloads folder inside the Reader folder on internal storage.

Multimedia Apps

The tablet comes with Sony’s Crackle app, and we found it more reliable than Crackle loaded on other brand tablets where our connection often drops forcing us into a painful loop of viewing commercials over and over without ever seeing the main attraction. Streaming was reliable on the Xperia Tablet S with no connection drops. The Crackle app provides access to the same movies and TV shows as the website, and quality looks just as good as the Flash version on tablets. You can log in to your Crackle account and see your viewing history and queue as well. It works well and it’s free.

Sony includes both the standard Google Play Music and their own Walkman app that’s extremely visually appealing. Sound through headphones is excellent with plenty of volume, good bass and strong separation. Paid streaming music and video services include Sony’s Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, Netflix and Hulu Plus.

Camera

Tablet cameras are generally mediocre. The 8 megpixel rear camera on the Xperia Tablet is excellent. Sony and Sony Ericsson know how to make excellent mobile phone cameras, and that hertiage shines through in the Sony Xperia Tablet S. Images are sharp, colorful and well exposed. 1080p video is smooth, natural and it handles high contrast settings well. At the $399 price point, this is the best camera you’ll find on a tablet today.

Wacky WiFi

If you’re experiencing WiFi disconnect issues when the tablet sleeps, check for firmware updates using your tablet. The first tablets shipped with a software bug that killed WiFi whenever the tablet when to sleep for an hour or more. Sony fixed that bug quickly with a software udpate.

Battery Life

Sony claims up to 12 hours of video playback and 10 hours of web browsing via WiFi. In our tests we managed 8.5 hours of video playback (locally stored content) and 8 hours of productivity use using the Quickoffice to edit MS Word docs (we downloaded Quickoffice since Sony only includes an MS Office viewer), viewing web pages, checking email and social networks using the official Facebook and Twitter clients. Like most tablets, the Lithium Ion battery is sealed inside. Sony uses a compact wall wart charger with the Xperia Tablet S rather than the tiny notebook style charger included with the first gen tablet.

Conclusion

We liked Sony’s first gen Android tablet, even though it was late to market. This time Sony’s really hit their stride with the slimmer and better looking Xperia Tablet S. The 9.4″ form factor is a winner for ergonomics and portability while maintaining that big screen experience. Sony’s software customizations make for a more enjoyable out of the box experience with lots of content consumption options plus an MS Office viewer. The display is one of the nicest we’ve seen on tablets with rich blacks, excellent natural colors and vibrance. Yes, it’s not a 1080p display but it’s still very good. Our only complaint? There’s no obvious path to Playstation certified games (an app would be nice).

Price: Starting at $399 for 16 gig model

Website: www.sony.com

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