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Sony Xperia Tablet S review: Sony Xperia Tablet S

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The Good The Sony Xperia Tablet S has a comfortable, high-quality design, a sharp-looking screen, storage expansion, and potential as a universal remote alternative.

The Bad Unfortunately Wi-Fi currently shuts off whenever the tablet sleeps, waking the tablet from sleep takes way too long, and its screen flickers intermittently. Price is a bit high for what's offered.

The Bottom Line The Xperia Tablet S has an excellent design, but there are cheaper alternatives that provide similar and better tablet experiences.

6.9 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

The Sony Tablet S was one of the more impressive Android tablets when it debuted in 2011. Now with its Xperia Tablet S, Sony has revised the design, upgraded to Tegra 3, and updated its media ecosystem.

These improvements deliver a more than solid tablet that unfortunately currently suffers from some serious performance issues.

Sony does its best to offer its own spin on a media ecosystem and has built one of the most comfortable large form factor tablets to date, but depending on your needs, there may not be enough here to justify its $400 price, especially given its current performance issues.

Editors' note:The Sony Xperia Tablet S has a glaring Wi-Fi performance issue that causes its wireless adapter to shut off whenever the tablet enters sleep mode and sometimes requires a full system restart to get Wi-Fi working again. Because of this (among a few other issues detailed in this review), I've decided to give the Xperia Tablet S a 5 in performance. Sony is aware of these performance issues and says that an OTA fix for the Wi-Fi issue is "coming soon." I'll revisit the tablet's performance rating as soon as its released.

Editors' note update: On September 21, 2012, Sony issued an OTA update for the Xperia Tablet S, addressing the Wi-Fi performance issue. The Xperia tablet S no longer requires restart when returning from sleep in order to re-enable wireless. As a result, I've raised the tablet's performance score to 6; however, there are still problems with the Wi-Fi disconnect policy's implementation. These problems are detailed in the performance section below.

Design
As manufacturers continued to spit out tablets at nearly a weekly rate, the original Sony Tablet S found a way to stand out from the pack thanks to its unique "rolled-back magazine" wedge design. While the new Xperia Tablet S retains the magazine look, the wedge shape of the original is gone. The new tablet sports a more refined look and now lies nearly completely flat as opposed to being noticeably elevated.

The tablet sports a 9.4-inch screen and feels really light and comfortable to hold, especially when held in one hand in portrait mode; something that can’t be said for most tablets larger than 9 inches.

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The Xperia Tablet S is one of the only tablets larger than 9 inches that actually feels good when held in one hand. There's obviously something earth-shatteringly serious happening on that screen, judging by the look on my face. James Martin/CNET


Sony Xperia Tablet S Sony Tablet S Apple iPad (2012) Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700
Weight in pounds 1.22 1.28 1.44 1.32
Width in inches (landscape) 9.5 9.5 7.3 10.4
Height in inches 6.9 6.8 9.5 7.1
Depth in inches .5/.43 .87/.37 0.37 0.33
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.75 0.81 0.87 0.8

Along the tablet's right edge sits a volume rocker and power/sleep button; a full-size SD card slot and headphone jack are on the opposite edge. The power/sleep button had a tendency to not react to my presses and sometimes required a few presses before the tablet would awake from sleep. There’s also the issue of how long the tablet took to awake from sleep after pressing the button, but we’ll get to that later. On the top side of the bezel is a 1-megapixel front camera, and opposite it, on the back, is an 8-megapixel shooter with no LED. The micro-USB port from the previous Tablet S is gone.

While the front of the tablet is mostly glossy black, the back is of silver aluminum, with a raised, black textured panel at the top giving it its magazine feel. Sony chose to go with a proprietary multitport input for its charging port, which sits right in the middle of the bottom edge.

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The folded back magazine design is retained, but feels much more comfortable now than it did on the original Tablet S. James Martin/CNET

Your tablet, your remote control
As with its previous incarnation, Sony includes an IR blaster and its own remote control app for the Xperia Tablet S, which turns the tablet into a remote control for not only your TV, but now your Blu-ray player, stereo, and cable box, among other devices. Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to game consoles.

To set up your remote you simply choose the type of device you want to control and its manufacturer. You can then choose the specific type of remote (my Samsung TV had 77 different options!) and begin controlling away. There are a couple of problems with this solution versus my universal remote, however. First, the range on the Xperia is shorter and requires more precise aiming to be effective. And if there's one thing I hate when slothing on the couch, it's having to use precision. Second, while my universal remote never sleeps and is always ready to go at a moment's notice, the Xperia will eventually fall asleep and need to be unlocked before it can be used as intended. These are somewhat minor quibbles, however, and many will appreciate the app's inclusion of macro support and the many, many different types of remotes to choose from.

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One of the key differentiating features of the Xperia Tablet is Sony's remote control software. For those willing to put in loads of time, there are some cool macro customizations to tinker around with, but personally I'll stick with my Logitech universal remote. It's always on and is easier to use. Eric Franklin/CNET
Still, I enjoyed using the app's actual controls much more than Peel’s TV guide/remote control app’s slider-based control seen on recent Samsung Galaxy Tabs. Speaking of guides, Sony recommends users download Watch Now to further enhance their TV remote experience.

Watch Now is a pretty slick-looking TV guide that gives you information on what’s currently playing, allows you to change the channel to a show of your choosing with a single tap, and post comments about shows to Twitter, Facebook, and Get Glue, directly from the app. In my time with it, however, the app wasn’t always very accurate about which shows were actually on. Also, why this Xperia Tablet S exclusive app doesn't actually ship with the Xperia Tablet S, is beyond me.

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The Xperia Tablet S is purported by Sony as being splash proof, as long as the multiport is covered. I tested this by splashing a mostly empty cup of water on its screen. It continued to function. I moved on. Eric Franklin/CNET

According to Sony, with its multiport cover in place, the Xperia Tablet S is "splash proof" (but note that doesn't necessarily mean "waterproof") and its screen is purported to respond to touch gestures even with wet hands. I tested this by splashing a bit of water on the the screen and while the screen didn’t function with water on it, once I wiped it off, and waited a few seconds it worked normally. The tablet did work perfectly with my wet hands however.

Software features
The Xperia Tablet S ships with Android 4.0, but Sony says to look for a 4.1 upgrade before the end of the year. The interface is filled with plenty of the same app shortcuts the original Tablet S enjoyed, sans the oppressive Sony visual theme. Sony takes a page from Samsung’s TouchWiz interface by including an embedded mini-apps and widgets shortcut array on the bottom of the screen.

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Here you can get a sense of how thick the folded back magazine feature of the tablet is. Also, the volume and power buttons are well-spaced. James Martin/CNET

Guest Mode lets you make multiple personalized user accounts with customizable app and widgets accessibility. Creating the new account is a simple and clear process that ultimately does what it intends: allow for an ironclad lockdown of any software feature of your choosing. For parents, this could be a great tool for limiting Junior's access to apps on your tablet, while still allowing him to play around with it.

Video Unlimited returns and offers rentable and purchasable SD-only movies and TV shows, but no streaming capability. Thankfully the Google Play picks up the slack with streamable or downloadable movies and TV shows; some in HD. Music Unlimited is pretty much the same idea, but for music. Walkman is Sony’s music playing app with built-in features for getting info and lyrics about the song from the Internet and features a number of sound equalizer options. With Play Memories Online you can store your videos and photos in the cloud and view them across multiple devices.

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Sony's Video Unlimited app is actually quite limited when it comes to streaming HD movies and TV shows. In that you can't actually do that. James Martin/CNET

Sony also provides codes for 3 free movies (from a list of 15) on the Google Play store, but curiously, not its own store. As for the selection, well let’s just say it was a good thing "Moneyball" was on there.

Hardware features
The quad-core Tegra 3 inside the Xperia Tablet S is the same 1.4GHz chip we've seen on other Android tablets. The Xperia also includes 1GB of RAM, as opposed to the faster DDR3 RAM the Asus TF300 uses and has support for 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and GPS.

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Tegra 3: so much potential, so little realized. These splashes are simulated. James Martin/CNET

Performance
The tablet features a 9.4-inch IPS screen with a 1,280x800-pixel resolution. That’s smaller than 10.1-inch displays running at that same resolution, which means higher pixel density and sharper text; however, the colors and all-around screen vibrancy couldn't match the Kindle Fire HD's impressive screen. Also, I noticed that the Xperia's screen flickers intermittently for no obvious reason. It's rare, but is disconcerting when it occurs.

Tested spec Sony Xperia Tablet S Sony Tablet S Apple iPad (2012) Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700
Maximum brightness IPS mode (Super IPS) 335 cd/m2 393 cd/m2 455 cd/m2 422 cd/m2 (644 cd/m2)
Default brightness 136 cd/m2 160 cd/m2 160 cd/m2 112 cd/m2
Maximum black level, IPS mode (Super IPS) 0.17 cd/m2 0.47 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2 0.34 cd/m2 (0.53 cd/m2)
Default black level 0.06 cd/m2 0.19 cd/m2 0.17 cd/m2 0.10 cd/m2
Default contrast ratio 2,266:1 842:1 941:1 933:1
Maximum contrast ratio, IPS mode (Super IPS) 1,970:1 836:1 939:1 (1,241:1), (1,215:1)

My favorite test game, Riptide GP, ran smoothly at maximum resolution and included the requisite Tegra 3 water splashing effects.

The way Sony set up its Wi-Fi disconnect policy for the Xperia Tablet S feels like a legitimate, if stupid oversight. Users can choose from three options and none of them allow Wi-Fi to stay on when the tablet sleeps or its screen turns off. Last year's Tablet S had a much clearer implementation.

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2011's Tablet S's Wi-Fi disconnect policy is a lot clearer than the Xperia's even if it also doesn't work as it should all the time. Screenshot: Eric Franklin/CNET
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The Xperia Tablet S' disconnect policy reads like a No parking after midnight street sign. Screenshot: Eric Franklin/CNET

Originally, there was the issue of the Xperia Tablet S requiring a complete restart to re-enable Wi-Fi after returning from sleep, but this was addressed in an OTA update on September 21st, 2012 and while it no longer requires a restart, I sometimes had to wait several seconds after waking the tablet before Wi-Fi re-enabled itself. When it actually was working however, Web and app downloading speeds were zippy.

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The speakers deliver loud, but ultimately tinny sound. A bit more bass would have led to a lot less of me grinding my teeth grinding. James Martin/CNET

The Xperia’s speakers delivered loud sound, but its Clear Audio + sound enhancement feature didn’t seem to make a difference in sound quality. Also, more bass and less "tin" would have led to me grinding my teeth a lot less when listening to music at high volumes.

The 8-megapixel back camera took decent shots, but come nowhere near matching the Asus Transformer Infinity's 8-megapixel shooter's capability to capture detail and color. Just goes to show that a camera’s capability to take high-resolution photos does not necessarily make for a quality camera. The front camera actually captured more detail than I expected and was more than adequate for Skype-type activities.

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The front-facing 1-megapixel camera is totally adequate for Skype calling, but not much else. James Martin/CNET

The tablet's GPS performance brings back bad memories of the Transformer Prime. The Xperia had a tough time both finding and holding onto any satellites for more than a few seconds.

Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours)
Sony Xperia Tablet S 10.5

Conclusion
Sony definitely gets the design right here. The Xperia is one of the most comfortable large form-factor tablets I’ve ever held and while its remote control feature can't compare to a true universal remote, it's thoughtfully implemented and will please those willing to delve deeply into its customization options. Guest mode is a neat feature for families and its full-size expandable storage option is comforting to have.

However, the Wi-Fi policy issue, lag when returning from sleep, and intermittent screen flickering need to be addressed ASAP as they seriously adversely affect the tablet's value.

With its current issues, I can't recommend it for any price. If Sony hammers those issues out, then the Xperia would stand as a quality tablet, but those looking for a full Android tablet should think twice before buying. The Asus Transformer Pad TF300 offers much of the same options and is currently sitting pretty at $340. Also, if you're strictly looking for a media consumption tablet, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 inch is coming in November for $300, and if its 7-inch version is any indication, it should be well-worth the money. Then of course, there's the iPad 2's current $400 price with its incredible app and ecosystem support.

The Xperia Tablet S isn't necessarily a bad deal at $400, but there are just too many tablets out there providing very similar (and in the case of the iPad 2 better) experiences at the same price or lower. Regardless, make sure Sony addresses the Xperia's performance issues before you buy.

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