Review : Sony Tablet S

Sony dips into Android tablets with uncommon thinking.

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Product Manufacturer: Sony

Price: $499 (16GB Wi-Fi)

The Good

  • Clever ergonomics.
  • Truly usable SD card slot; file transfers.
  • Infrared remote feature.
  • AirPlay-style media 'throwing.'
  • Sony speed boosts.
  • Always-on home screen shortcuts.
  • Generally good display.
  • Solid battery life.
  • Special docking features.

The Bad

  • Terrible cameras.
  • Weak speakers.
  • Remote control app is limited.
  • Numerous glitchy or limited special features.
  • PlayStation Suite not really suited to the tablet UI.
  • Low number of tablet-native apps.
  • Still somewhat laggy due to Android.
Sony has often been one to pick its battles carefully: sometimes it enters first, like with the Walkman, while in others it waits until it thinks it can achieve something distinct. With the Tablet S, that's more true than ever: Sony is taking on the iPad in the hopes that an infrared remote, custom apps, and a genuinely unique design will give it an edge. Whether or not Apple or Sony's fellow Android tablet rivals have reason to worry is the core of our Sony Tablet S review.

Design and docking

Most tablets take their design goals literally, aiming to create close to a slate-like shape as possible; that usually means as thin as the engineers allow. Not so with Sony. The Tablet S is consciously asymmetric, meant to resemble a folded-back magazine so that users have a more natural grip. Sony not only didn't mind that it didn't have the thinnest; it chose not to play that game where Apple and Samsung have.

It mostly works. When held in landscape mode, it tilts more naturally towards your face, and it gets a more logical angle when it's sitting on a desk. Sony even includes small feet on the back to avoid scraping it when it's sitting on the coffee table. Portrait mode is where it works best: hold the thick end and your hand 'bites' into the textured grip like it should, so you can read one-handed or use it comfortably while standing.

The shape both is and feels light, too. Sony gets to about 1.3 pounds through the use of plastic rather than the slimming on the iPad 2, but because the weight is balanced towards the thick side you're likely gripping, it reduces the strain that comes from having too much of the weight at the opposite end from your hand. You won't mistake it for the lightness of an e-reader, but it's certainly more palatable for reading books over long periods. Certainly it's better than the Motorola Xoom, which was heavier to start with but was far too top-heavy if you used it in portrait mode.

Drawbacks are few when just considering a basic hand hold. The Tablet S is cheaper-feeling than we'd like, and while it won't fall apart, it doesn't have the iPad's reassuring metal. Asymmetry also means that, unlike an iPad, the BlackBerry PlayBook, or most Android tablets, you can't just hold it any way you want: if an app demands a fixed rotation, like many Android phone apps do, you may end up holding it the opposite way. Third-party accessories are also liable to be a minor pain, since cases and others assuming symmetry won't work.

Having that extra padding on one end does help with controls and expansion. Both the power button and volume rocker are tucked under the lip of the 'wrapped' area and are easy enough to remember but hard to accidentally push. Sony has found room not just for a micro USB port but a full-size SD card slot, which is genuinely useful in Sony's implementation -- more on this later.

Sony has made a pair of odd choices, however, when it comes to ports. Although the micro USB port is there, there's no cable included: it's up to you to supply your own, not to mention what purpose it serves. It's not high-powered enough to charge the tablet. That role is left to a proprietary power port, which apart from limiting your cable choices is always slightly tricky to plug in.

We suspect it's designed the way it is because it's also meant to lock the tablet into its optional dock, which we found very easy to use. Apart from serving as a convenient stand if you pair up a Bluetooth keyboard, it automatically triggers a prompt to use the tablet either as a desk clock or as a photo frame, both of which we can certainly see being used by some owners.

One weakness we noticed is uncharacteristic of Sony: the speakers. The Tablet S, unlike so many other slates, has stereo speakers that sound clear enough, but they're surprisingly underpowered. Without enough raw output, they're quickly overwhelmed in anything more than a moderately quiet room. This may be a clue as to why the iPad and so many other tablets have a monolithic speaker instead, since it's better to have a clearly distinguishable one-channel sound than an inaudible stereo mix.

The display

As with most tablets, the display is the defining feature, since it not only affects the viewing experience but defines the hold. We're inclined to say that 9.4 inches nearly hits a sweet spot. While only slightly smaller than the 9.7 inches of the iPad or HP TouchPad, it's just smaller enough that it's more feasible to thumb type or otherwise reach across. Magazines and other content are just large enough to be readable while still staying reasonably small, unlike what you can see on a small but occasionally still cramped 8.9-inch tablet.

Turning to the display itself, Sony's choice of LCD is what we'd call a good but not great panel, though in some areas it's doing better than others. It uses what Sony calls a TruBlack panel: effectively, it's a resin layer that deepens the black levels, reduces glare, and makes colors pop. We can vouch for the first two. Sony might not have reached the real black of AMOLED screens, but it's visibly darker. The panel isn't glare-free enough to be used in bright sunlight, but it eliminates a fair amount of the more common reflections.

Color vibrancy we're not sure about. We'd call the screen fairly accurate, but there's a slight muted quality to the color that's noticeable if you put a tablet with a very high-grade panel, like the iPad, nearby. Apple and Samsung both have visibly more vibrant and brighter screens. Sony should be complimented for very wide viewing angles, though, as the screen barely changes hue at all even when seen nearly side-on.

Sony's real challenge is simply that screen technology is a moving target, particularly when it comes to the resolution. Just a day after we received our Tablet S, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Tab 7.7, which has an extremely vivid Super AMOLED and fits the same 1280x800 resolution as Sony's tablet into a smaller area. Apple is also rumored to be getting a 2048x1536 display on the iPad 3, and Samsung will have a 2560x1600 10-inch tablet LCD. We find the resolution just fine for now, but if you want the ultimate in display technology, it's not here yet.

Android 3.1 and Sony's core customizations

The Tablet S is part of a narrow crop of tablets that will ship with Android 3.1; 3.2 is already shipping, and Ice Cream Sandwich (possibly referred to as Android 4.0) is due by the end of 2011. Accordingly, it sits in between some of the bigger OS revisions, but it's still more polished than the 3.0 we saw as recently as the LG Optimus Pad and T-Mobile G-Slate. Most of what it brings are small but welcome interface and under-the-hood changes: the OS is slightly faster, brings resizable widgets, and a much expanded list multitasking switcher to jump to other apps. It recognizes USB devices if they either conform to a common standard (such as a keyboard) or the app is built to recognize them; that's why Sony can include a micro USB port.

We won't recap the entire experience other than to say that it's improved, but still periodically rough, with elements that tend to lag, occasional crashes, and just an overall lack of polish. While we're comfortable navigating the OS and find it powerful when everything is synchronized, it feels a little too Windows-like with a need to constantly jump between the top (for menus) and bottom (for notifications and basic navigation). Your preference will depend on whether or not you were aiming to replicate the desktop or get away from it; ours is that a tablet is a chance to break from convention and make technology more accessible, not to follow tradition.

More importantly, there just aren't enough apps, and Google has done little to make finding tablet-native apps easy. It's not until you reach Android 3.2 that some apps can zoom, too, so legacy phone apps will have an out of proportion interface.

Sony has done some work of its own to massage the experience, though. What might help the most is a tuning that the company refers to as Swift and Smooth. At a minimum, it improves the touch responsiveness. While we still noticed that characteristic Android lag in areas where touch wasn't used, such as rotating the screen, Sony has gone to some lengths to make the response to touch, such as scrolling or launching apps, noticeably better. The browser is faster: on average, we noticed that it took several seconds off of loading a page versus another tablet (admittedly running Android 3.0) that we had, especially given Flash's notorious delay on page loads..

We also liked that the top of the home screen now has a few, customizable shortcuts to commonly used apps, such as the web browser or mail. On other devices, you're too often left to use the app switcher or to scroll through multiple home screens. A favorites shortcut next to the app tray launcher in the upper-right of the home screen isn't as useful. Sony is trying to replicate the PlayStation 3's layout in that area, and it doesn't work.

The keyboard in normal mode, whether landscape or portrait, largely hews to the stock Android keyboard layout, just with a more Sony-like theme. You won't always see that, though. When entering a password or another area where a mix of letters and numbers is likely, Sony introduces a secondary keyboard that includes a number pad next to the QWERTY layout. Ostensibly, it's to make entering those numbers easier, but we more often than not found it jarring: it disrupts the layout and shrinks the QWERTY keys, so if you were typing quickly and advanced to a section where the number pad keyboard comes in, you'll at least slow down, if not mistype. Numbers come up seldom enough that we'd rather just remember to hit the special character key.

You can, however, speed type on the Tablet S once you're used to it, and we found it fast enough to whirl through with concentrated typing. You won't want to write an essay, but a substantial e-mail or Twitter update isn't any issue. We thankfully skipped some of the laggy behavior of the Optimus Pad and enjoyed that there was predictive text, although it won't auto-correct by default, just passively suggest spelling options.

Sony-specific apps: remote control, media, and file transfers

Before we launch into Sony's bundled apps, a disclaimer: as of the time of this review, the Tablet S hadn't launched and so had a number of apps that were placeholders, such as the Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services, Reader, and Select App. We'll test what we can what they launch, although their absence didn't significantly affect our review: many of them have rough equivalents in Android Market, such as Slacker.

Sony when it launched the Tablet S saw it as the linchpin for all its products: a place where one device could either control or play just about anything in Sony's catalog. As such, while there isn't a conspicuous amount of interface changes on top, there are several apps that handle some very distinct features.

By far the most unique is the infrared blaster found on the thick side of the tablet. Paired up with a remote control app, it's possible to control home theater equipment, and not just Sony's, directly from the Tablet S. There's no required Wi-Fi link; instead, you just have to create profiles for individual devices and then pick them from the app. The range is broad and covers TVs from genuinely obscure brands through to DVRs and digital media hubs. In a fitting bit of irony, it will even control an Apple TV.

The app works well for direct control and can have multiple pages of buttons to speed up input. Switching directly to the fourth HDMI input can save a large amount of time. With this in mind, though, we've noticed that it can require some extensive work to truly get a device up and running. Most brands only get profiles rather than specific models, and you end up finding sets that fall between the cracks. Our Samsung LNT-4069FX, a fairly standard LCD TV that we bought in 2008, doesn't show HDMI inputs by name and only maps a pair of them to actual buttons. It's possible to add and program buttons, but that extends the setup time from a minute to ten as you reach inside and set up each input by hand.

There's no macros, either, so the Tablet S won't replace a Logitech Harmony or other universal remote. You can't tell it to turn on the TV, switch the receiver to the relevant input, and start up a Blu-ray movie. Sony hinted during our first hands-on time that macros might be coming later, but we have to assume for now that the infrared on the tablet is more a convenience than a device seller.

Not surprisingly, music and movies play a big role in a tablet made by the same company that owns Sony Music and Sony Pictures. The movie player is only slightly upgraded in most respects; music is somewhat more advanced in the inclusion of SensMe, a mood-based automatic playlist generator. Where it gets more advanced is in the inclusion of a "throw" button on either. Use it and you can push media to any DLNA-equipped target: a wireless speaker, a TV, and even a PlayStation 3. We've used it, and when it works, it's nearly as good as Apple's AirPlay -- you don't have to put effort into slinging media around the home.

"When it works" is the operative term. Despite being on the same network where we've had DLNA sharing work before, the Tablet S couldn't see the PS3 on the main network we had to try. It could see a Sonos audio system on the network, but it couldn't push standard MP3 files that other devices could. Admittedly, any iOS devices can't play their own locally stored content on either device without custom apps or elaborate workarounds, but we'd expect a host of devices supporting DLNA to talk to each other.

Other apps have their usefulness, although in a limited form. A Social Feed Reader is the quintessential third-party Android social network integrator merging Facebook and Twitter: it works for very casual users with only a small number of friends, and it has a fairly clean and well-structured interface, but it falls apart for anyone with a substantial number of contacts. Sony does have its own mini cloud service, Personal Space, which can be used to share media between groups of friends. It's straightforward enough to use, but at 1GB of total space and few using it, it's difficult to justify when Facebook and Google+ can achieve some of the same effect.

One feature may trump all for some owners, though: file transfers. Although it's a Sony app and not part of the OS, the File Transfer app makes it very straightforward to grab files and either move them to or from the tablet. We mostly used it to offload photos and videos to an SD card, but the reverse also works. It has no real explanation for newcomers and isn't a pervasive part of the OS like it should be, but if all you're looking to do is to load a third-party app or get some downloaded songs from the tablet to a computer, it works. Even Android 3.2 is currently very limited in how it can use the SD card slot; it's somewhat telling that Sony could do quickly what Google itself hasn't done yet.

Gaming and hardware performance

Another segment of the preloaded software suite, gaming, deserves its own software section. The Tablet S is just the second device beyond the Xperia Play to officially support the PlayStation Suite, Sony's official platform for recreating some of the PlayStation experience in mobile. Out of the box, you get both a direct port of the PS1's Crash Bandicoot as well as the PS Suite-optimized Pinball Heroes, both of which are fine games in their own right. The pinball game takes advantage of the tablet's widescreen ratio, so you can either see the entire table while you play (our preference) or go landscape for a more closely focused view.

It's when you try Crash Bandicoot, though, that the problems with bringing PlayStation Suite to a tablet creep up. Sony has faithfully recreated the pre-Dual Shock PlayStation gamepad on the touchscreen; the scheme, however, just doesn't work that well for action-based games. It's playable, but there's a certain degree of irony to Sony attacking iPhone games only to turn around and encourage using titles with the same limitations. The 320x240, 1996-era graphics aren't scaled elegantly on the larger screen, either, and what looks acceptable on the Xperia Play's four-inch LCD looks over-pixelated on the Tablet S' 10-inch display. Without PlayStation Pocket or other apps to curate the native games, there's limited appeal to the PlayStation side right now.

Raw performance in modern games, as well as the larger OS, is what you'd expect from Android tablets as a whole, primarily because it's the exact same hardware inside as virtually every other Android 3 tablet outside of the HTC Jetstream. NVIDIA's dual-core Tegra 2 is fast enough to drive games with smartphone-level detail at a tablet-sized resolution. It's not the revolution that it needs to be to stand out, though, and tablets like the iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1 can both outperform it. Flash content on the web sometimes struggles, even with the hardware acceleration kicking in. We don't think it's too slow, but with quad-core tablets a few months off, the speed may feel strictly adequate before long.

Camera app and image quality

The Sony camera app is one of the few at this stage to make significant changes to the layout of Google's official software. In this case, it has unusually deemphasized the actual preview in favor of a pseudo-filmstrip at the bottom with recent photos. We'd like the photo preview window to be larger and the filmstrip smaller, although we can't complain too much about the convenience of jumping to a photo taken five shots ago. Settings aren't extensive but do include macro focusing, white balance, exposure compensation, and the requisite scene presets. A big, oversized shutter button is appreciated.

Unfortunately, it's in the camera quality that the Tablet S is a definite letdown. Sony might have a five-megapixel camera on the back, but it's clear this is more to get a perceived numeric advantage more than for actual quality. Despite some images looking acceptable, we noticed that many others have a slightly smeared, hazy look, even in bright daylight. Colors tend to be muted or sometimes inaccurate. Low light isn't much better than the iPad 2's camera, so the higher resolution sensor hasn't bought much more than raw size.

Front camera image aren't that ambitious, either. At 0.3 megapixels, it's really just large enough for the sake of Google Talk Video Chat, Ustream (included here), or Picplz self-portraits. The quality is just good enough for the resolution and intentions. Our pick would be the Galaxy Tab 10.1 if front image quality mattered.

Video quality somehow deteriorates this further. Even after choosing maximum encoding quality at 720p and keeping the tablet fairly stable during movement, we saw large amounts of visual artifacting from the video as it was taken straight off of the camera, let alone posted to YouTube. Moreover, audio was near-unusable: we made sure we didn't obscure the microphone, but it was so faint as to frequently be inaudible and wasn't as spectacular when we did hear it. Critics might dock Apple for its choice of hardware in the iPad 2, but it's proof that sometimes a low-spec camera and microphone can do a lot more than a pair that looks better on paper.

Battery life and a note on 3G/4G versions

Gauging battery life can be difficult on a tablet because of the sheer variety of tasks they handle. We focused primarily on continuous browsing, since that's often what tablets excel at and are benchmarked against. In our experiences, we netted about 8.5 hours of battery life on average in these conditions without trying to tightly regulate background apps or other power usage elements. Overnight battery drain is more severe than on some tablets we've seen, but that depends entirely on how many apps are checking for mail in the background. You can leave the tablet up and running for two or three days, but not much more than that if you get a healthy amount of e-mail and social network updates.

The battery life is certainly solid compared to some tablets we've seen, particularly the Dell Streak 7 and Toshiba Thrive. If battery life is paramount, though, the iPad and a handful of the larger Android tablets last practically longer. We've regularly seen over 10 hours of battery life from an iPad and relatively little overnight drain even with background mail.

We have yet to try a 3G or 4G version of the Tablet S, although that's mostly a virtue of Sony's pushing those off weeks or months ahead. When they do ship, expect HSPA+ speeds (LTE isn't likely practical) and a minor but noticeable reduction in battery life, most of all when the cellular link is in use. Only the Tablet P clamshell is so far known to be getting 3G, through AT&T, but European carriers and possibly Canada should have the 3G option as well.

Wrapping up

Virtually every Android tablet maker that has shipped so far has faced a tough question: what would make someone want to buy your product instead of an iPad? Providing that answer has so far been tough. A few, like Samsung and its Galaxy Tab 10.1, have simply focused on improving core features: getting a slimmer design, better cameras, options like LTE for 4G. Acer focuses on price. Others, however, focus on having a gimmick: ASUS' Eee Pad Transformer has its notebook dock, HTC's Flyer and Evo View 4G have their pen, and LG has its 3D video. So far, none of them have caught on well enough to seriously upset Apple, not even with Samsung's market clout.

Sony could be best be described as trying to strike that balance with the Tablet S, and in some ways it succeeds. Using a tablet as a home theater remote can feel like a gimmick, but it's one you could realistically use every day. More interesting to us are the meat-and-potatoes upgrades. We like that Sony thought of ergonomics, not just thinness, when shaping the design. Swift and Smooth might not completely iron out Android's quirks, but it goes some way towards getting the responsiveness it needs. And the SD card slot combined with file transfer might finally add some much needed ability to work from a tablet if you regularly shuttle files around.

Even so, the Tablet S feels more competent than outstanding. For every nice extra feature, there's seemingly another that doesn't quite work the way it's promised, sometimes within the same app. The performance, the screen, the build quality are all good, but not great. The camera is just a mess, too. And as interesting as Sony's work is, it still has to contend with problems that are mostly in Google's hands, like the dearth of native Android tablet apps.

If you're already heavily invested in an Android smartphone or something about Apple's app policies or features rubs you the wrong way, the Tablet S is a solid pick. At the same $499 for a 16GB Wi-Fi model as an iPad 2, it's competitively priced. But if you're not wedded to Google or your TV, it's hard to suggest the outlay here instead of with Apple. Android can theoretically do more, but the overall polish and much larger app library on the iPad means you're already getting things done.