For all the Xperia Tablet's quirks, it initially comes across as just another rectangular, black-bezeled slate -- when you're looking at it head-on, anyway. There's nothing conspicuously "Sony" about it at first glance: its front face is relatively plain, with no flourishes other than the front-facing camera and company logo placed neatly in the upper-left corner. Only when viewed from the sides or back is the tablet's unique shape immediately apparent. Seen from a side angle, the device appears to be floating, suspended only by that folded-over wedge. And it must be said that the device now lies flatter, as opposed to the original Tablet S, which had a more pronounced slant. Almost all of the ports and hardware keys are hidden out of sight, either within the folds (power and volume on the right edge, 3.5mm headphone jack and covered SD slot on the left) or buried behind a removable bit of plastic (e.g., the charging port at the base). It's that last bit that has us shaking our heads and fists at Sony. We're not big gamblers, but we're willing to bet users will lose that silver-colored nub within one week of use.
Around back, the Tablet S is a two-tone, two-tier affair. On the original, the magazine-like fold extended nearly three-quarters of the way down, but here it occupies only about a quarter of the backside. It's nicely textured, too, but you won't notice that subtle tactility until you grip it. Smack dab in the middle is the 8-megapixel rear camera, accompanied not by a flash, but by an IR blaster. Aside from that, Sony's once again shuffled its Xperia branding off to the side, allowing the smooth aluminum construction to speak for itself. A dual speaker setup can be found below, as well as that covered charging dock.
By now you're probably wondering how the slate feels in the hand and we're pleased to report that quirky back curve actually serves a functional purpose. When held in landscape, the majority of the tab's weight is distributed to the fold, freeing users from unnecessary wrist strain. This also means the device tilts forward ever so slightly, but it's not so extreme that it makes the thing unstable. What's even better, though, is how it fares when you grip it one-handed in portrait mode. Clearly, you're forced to accommodate the fold in whichever orientation you choose, but it does make for an exceptionally natural grip, and the generous bezel leaves just enough room for your thumb to comfortably rest.
Display and sound
We hope you like staring into your own reflection because that's what it's like to use the Tablet S. Despite the OptiContrast technique applied to keep glare to a minimum and the display visible in bright light, it does anything but that. Indoors and out, the slate reflects even the slightest trace of surrounding light, making it more difficult to make the most out of that 9.4-inch screen. Oh, you'll still be able to read the screen in direct sunlight somewhat with brightness set to max, but even then you have to angle it just so.
Complicating matters further is the low-friction coating the company has applied to the screen. In theory, this should feel nice beneath the fingers, but mostly, it lends itself to a slippery feel. We already have to contend with a software keyboard for typing, but add to that a slick screen and, well, you're in store for a load of errors.
The Xperia Tablet S features a 9.4-inch (1,280 x 800) IPS panel that delivers colors and contrast typically associated with that solution. On the whole, this translates into images, icons and text that appear crisp with balanced tones that appear ever so slightly muted. For sure, though, the tab could've benefited from some of the saturation afforded by Super AMOLED displays, giving it an extra push past the glare towards better readability. Regardless, if you're planning on using this to watch HD content, you won't have much to gripe about since it handles 720p video with ease. Audio isn't the most robust -- there's a noticeably tinny quality to it -- and the dual speakers' positioning just behind the tablet's base means much of that sound ends up being misdirected. At maximum volume it's far from overpowering, which should work well when within a relatively quiet room, but not so much in a public space.
When Sony pulled back the curtain on the Xperia Tablet S at IFA, it drilled home the point that the Xperia brand would entail more of a unified user experience. After all, the market's now glutted with samey Android tabs, so if the Tablet S is to succeed, it needs to be different. How does it do that? Well, for starters, the primary home screen is almost completely taken up by two rows of Sony-branded "apps." We're putting that in quotes because one such application, Sony Select, is really just a web shortcut that leads to a curated"app store," which in turn redirects to Google Play.
That minor niggle aside, when you power on the device you'll instantly be greeted by the company's content ecosystem: Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, Play Memories Online, Reader by Sony, Walkman and Socialife. Whether you choose to opt-in for this suite over Google or even Amazon's more well-established offerings is purely a matter of personal choice. But we can't see many users abandoning their pre-existing libraries and accounts for yet another third-party option.
Pure Google enthusiasts on the hunt for a slate with the buttery smooth performance of Jelly Bean will want to hold off on buying this, or maybe just grab a Nexus 7. That's because the Xperia Tablet S ships with a custom layer atop Android 4.0.3. Though Sony is averse to calling its UX a "skin," there's really no other name for it -- the customizations are quite obvious. For instance, the home screens are now bordered by the company's toolbars, which offer quickaccess shortcuts for the browser, camera, mail app and settings menu, along with a Google search box up top, an icon for Guest Mode (more on that shortly), and shortcuts for Sony's built-in TV Remote application.
These tweaks, combined with the pre-loaded Sony apps and widgets end up giving the S a cluttered look and feel. There's something very cramped about the user experience that we found off-putting. It's busy precisely where it shouldn't be. But on the off chance you don't mind these software customizations or even find them useful and are willing to wait for that promised Android 4.1 update, then by all means, shower Sony with your dollars. (For the record, Sony has not given a precise ETA for its JB update. Makes sense; updating that skinned UI could take time.)
If you do have kids or frequent visitors around your home who like to tinker with your tech toys, you'll be glad Sony included Guest Mode on the S. It's basically a form of parental control for your tablet. The setup is quite simple: after creating a user-specific profile, you can then select which apps you want to grant access to and even a password so you can exit out of this protected mode and back into the full software experience. Users operating within these walled environments won't have much ability to customize the tablet outside of setting shortcuts or swapping out the wallpaper.
In keeping with the domestic theme, Sony's built-in TV Remote control app is intended to let you control your flat-screen while you casually browse the web from your couch. This, too, is pretty straightforward, though you'll need to read through a bevy of menus before you're prompted to select the proper television manufacturer from a seemingly endless drop-down list. Barring any incompatibilities, you should have full remote functionality up and running in under two minutes -- that's how long it took us to start toggling volume control on our office set. There's even the option to customize your button layout and set macro functions for things like powering on your TV or cable box. All told, it's a neat addition to the S, but not really enough of a killer feature to help this Android tab rise above the competition.
So, we've already touched upon the bloat Sony's shoe-horned onto the Xperia Tablet S, but just to give you the full tally, the software load includes 27 pre-installed apps, including AccuWeather, Evernote, OfficeSuite, Hulu Plus and Zinio, among others. To be clear, you'll be able to uninstall some of these third-party applications, but not Sony's own.
Performance and battery life
There may be a Tegra 3 heart buried within this Sony-made slate, but that quad-core performance doesn't quite shine through. Every so often, the Xperia Tablet S evinces a here-again-then-not sluggishness that just doesn't match up to its powerful CPU. Attempt to wake the tab from a sleep state and you could wind up waiting up to 10 seconds, during which time you'll likely mash the power button repeatedly. Make it through to the home screen and it's more or less a game of chance: will navigation be brisk and smooth or jittery and halting? The same goes for jumping in and out of the app drawer, a transition that either zooms without a hitch or stutters noticeably. This disconnect between raw processing power and inconsistent real-world use also extends to the browser, which routinely loaded full desktop pages quickly, but had a difficult time keeping pace with rapid scrolling and pinch-to-zoom.
Other problems cropped up in our time with the S, like its occasional inability to turn on WiFi or lock onto a WLAN signal. Each time this trouble surfaced, we were able to temporarily fix it with a quick reboot. But that's just not an acceptable solution for a market-ready product. Sony has acknowledged the problem in the form of an early software update, which claims to address the issue.
Pitted against other Tegra 3-toting rivals, all clocked at 1.3GHz and packing 1GB RAM, the Xperia Tablet S generally notched top marks, with an impressive SunSpider result and smooth frame rates. As you can see in the table above, however, we weren't able to get definitive scores across every benchmark for the Transformer Pad TF300 and Excite 10, so we can't solidly call this one for Sony. Where performance was quantifiable, however, the S is clearly the undisputed champ. Which is why it's such a shame that the tab falls prey to performance hiccups in real-world usage.
Sony's tablet fares respectably on the power management front, with an additional settings option to automatically scale down backlight levels. With light to moderate use, you can expect a few day's worth of juice out of the 6,000mAh battery. Put it through our formal rundown test, however, and that longevity takes a hit, eking out eight hours and 31 minutes -- a result that puts the S fairly far down on the tablet totem pole, particularly compared to other 9- and 10-inch tablets.
We'll state this as plainly as possible: tablets are terrible for photography. If you need to snap quick shots on the go, please default to your smartphone -- that's why they're called mobiles. Tablets, on the other hand, are awkward and unwieldy and the S is no exception. Add to that the slickness of the S' screen and its inability to adjust zoom with the volume rocker and you have a pretty good excuse to never use the camera app.