Sony has entered the market seven months after the Motorola Xoom, the first Android Honeycomb tablet, shipped. Sure, a lot of tablets have hit the market since then and some of them have been solid, but Sony spent those extra months making something different from the crowd. Yes, the internals are standard top drawer Honeycomb: a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual core CPU, a gig of RAM, 16 gigs ($499) or 32 gigs ($599) of storage, Adobe Flash and the usual wireless trio of WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth and a GPS. But Sony came up with a design that's like no other, to use their old tag line, and they've integrated their movies, Playstation gaming, ebooks, an AV universal remote and music services into this tablet, making it more turnkey for the everyday consumer. In fact, we'd call this a lifestyle tablet because it focuses on style, comfort and software/services that extend what the tablet can do out of the box. Though it joins the ranks of similarly spec-d tablets like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and Acer Iconia Tab A500, those tablets are more oriented towards those who are looking for computer replacements with more emphasis on ports and expandability rather than consumer software and services. That said, Sony throws in a few geek features like USB host that actually works and a full size SD card slot. Reviews of the pre-release Sony Tablet S lacked working Sony apps, while our retail shipping unit has all the apps, and we'll cover them in detail in our review since they're a key differentiator. The tablet ships with Android OS 3.1, but on first use it prompted us to download the OS 3.2 update-- sweet.
Design and Ergonomic Delights
The tablet's design is modeled after a folded magazine. It has a wedge shape and is 0.3 inches at its thinnest point and approximately 0.75" at its thickest point (the spine of the magazine). It's a beautiful looking design and the tablet stands apart from the crowd of flat slates. The Sony Tablet S is relatively light at 1.33 pounds, which is the same weight as the iPad 2 and just a hair heavier than the 1.25 pound Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (currently the lightest 10" tablet). It feels significantly lighter than the 1.6 pound Motorola Xoom and 1.55 pound Asus Eee Pad Transformer. It's not just that a quarter pound makes such a difference, though it is significant, but the Sony is designed to be held comfortably. The Sony Tablet S is the first tablet that doesn't have me quickly looking for a stand or place I can rest it while using it; it's that comfortable to hold. Yes, Sony wanted to add some of their signature style, but they've always focused on ergonomics and usability and how that integrates into a stylish design. They've hit a home run here; the tablet is pleasant to hold when reading and comfortable for gaming with accelerometer-based games. It's less oblong than other Honeycomb tablets and the squarer shape makes it more balanced and better suited to ebook reading. Unlike the elegantly thin iPad 2 and Tab 10.1, its edges aren't so thin that they dig into your palm. And thanks to the tapered design combined with a stippled back and inset sides that act as grip points, it's not prone to sliding out of your hand. Sony does include a lanyard strap, just in case you're still worried though.
The tablet is made of mostly gloss black plastic with a matte gray area below the magazine fold on the back. We're not huge fans of plastic, but it does make for a lighter tablet, and the plastic is durable. We accidentally tackled a doorjamb with the thick rounded area of the tablet near the right corner, and it came away unscathed, though the wooden doorjamb did lose some paint. How will the casing and display survive scratching? Time will tell, but in the 4 days we've had the tablet it hasn't suffered scratches yet. That said, the display isn't Gorilla Glass, so I'd be careful. We'd love to see some of Sony's carbon fiber love here, but then we'd have a much more expensive tablet, and Sony has finally steered to mainstream pricing, which is a good thing in a recession.
Deals and Shopping:
Typical of Sony, the controls and ports are hidden from view to maintain unbroken lines. The power and volume controls live under the fold, and the USB and full size SD card slot are under a fiddly door on the left. The charging port on the bottom edge is exposed so it can be used with Sony's optional charging dock. We're not fond of the miniature laptop style charger that's bulkier than many tablet chargers, but the upside is you get much more cord length compared to the others. The charger connector is a throwback annoyance with two plastic ears that surround the actual contacts. It's good for holding the tablet in the dock, but requires more attention to engage the charger directly to the tablet.
The tablet's power button illuminates amber while charging and green when charged, and there's a large green LED beside the power button for notifications.
The Sony Tablet S has a 9.4" capacitive multi-touch display running at the usual 1280 x 800 resolution. That's just a bit smaller than the 10.1" used on other Android Honeycomb tablets, but we don't mind the 0.7" size reduction because it makes for a more portable and balanced tablet with higher pixel density. Sony uses their TruBlack display technology that's found on Sony Bravia TVs, and the screen indeed achieves deeper black levels than other tablets. It's also got wonderful color depth and saturation without looking over-saturated like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It has wide viewing angles on par with IPS displays, and videos have a warmth and depth that reminds us of a high end TV rather than a tablet. We wish the brightness could be cranked higher for viewing in very brightly lit places, and the gloss plastic over the panel looks attractive from a design perspective but introduces plenty of glare. I'm not usually a fan of screen protectors, but Sony's own $25 LCD protector for the Tablet S is well worth the purchase. It protects the non-Gorilla Glass display and adds a matte finish that really kills the glare without reducing screen quality or introducing grain. It's particularly good for those of you who want to use the tablet as an ebook reader.
Performance and Expansion
The tablet has a gig of RAM and either 16 or 32 gigs of internal storage that's divided between space for application installation and data such as files, videos, photos, etc.. Storage is divided to allocate 9 gigs to data and 4 gigs to application installations on the 16 gig model. The Sony Tablet S has a full size SD card slot that's compatible with SDHC high capacity cards, and USB host. Sony includes a file transfer application that makes it easy to transfer files from flash drives and SD cards to internal storage, but system-wide support for SD and USB storage devices is sadly lacking. That means Gallery, the music players and Sony's video player won't automatically see and include files on mass storage devices. Some third party apps do, but if you're using the built-in apps, you'll need to start playback using the file transfer app (simply tap the file to open it without transferring it). You can also use one of the many file managers on the Android Market to access and open files, so there's no need to copy them to internal storage. While it's not too much trouble to use the file transfer app or a file manager to browse and start playback of video files, it's extremely annoying if you want to play a library of music stored on an SD card or flash drive. Other Honeycomb tablets show media stored on microSD and SD cards in the built-in apps, why not the Tablet S, Sony? Please fix this.
USB host means that with a micro USB to female USB OTG cable you can use flash drives, externally powered hard drives, as well as USB game controllers, keyboards and mice. Sony sells the USB host cable for $14, which is surprisingly cheaper than Motorola and Nokia brand USB OTG host cables. We tested the tablet with a Logitech Playstation-style USB controller, keyboards and flash drives and all worked well. We tested Sony's Dual Shock 3 Playstation controller, but ironically didn't have the luck we had with the Logitech using USB or Bluetooth. Check out our video of us playing Crash Bandicoot using the Logitech USB game controller plugged into the Tablet S.
You can copy files to the tablet from your computer using a standard micro USB cable that's included with most Android smartphones and tablets. Oddly, Sony doesn't include one in the box-- how cheap, Sony. The tablet mounts as a standard mass storage device in Windows and requires the free Android Transfer app for Honeycomb tablets (download it from Google) with Macs.
Wireless and GPS
The Sony Tablet S has single band WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1 and a GPS. WiFi range was average among tablets, and Bluetooth works fine with a variety of peripherals and stereo headsets. The GPS was quick to get a fix, even indoors and the tablet ships with the usual Google Maps and Navigation. Sony states they'll release a 3G model (likely with AT&T 3G / faux 4G HSPA+ since the upcoming dual screen Tablet P will run on AT&T), but there's no date or further information.
Sony Tablet S Video Review
Here's our in-depth 30 minute video review of Sony's first Android tablet. We compare it to the iPad 2, Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Asus Eee Pad Transformer. We explore the UI customizations, speed, PS games (Crash Bandicoot), the Reader ebook app, AV Remote and much more.
And now a short video of us playing Crash Bandicoot using a Logitech USB gaming controller:
Sony is uniquely positioned to deliver a boat load of value-added content since they own a movie studio, the Playstation brand, the Sony Reader ebook store, a major record label, the Music Unlimited streaming service and Crackle.com (a site that streams free movies and TV shows with commercials). Remember the Sony Dash running Chumby? That's replicated here too, though we feel that Android apps and the web browser offer superior and much less passive ways to consume media vs. the tabletop Chumby style viewer.
We really like Sony's customizations of Honeycomb (watch our video review to see it in action). The quick access icons to the AV remote, web browser, email and Sony Reader are handy, and we love that you can customize the app launcher with sectional dividers and names. We do wish that Sony had come up with some widgets, since these are the heart and soul of Android's customization. There's nothing special in widgets, not even a custom clock or weather widget. Certainly there's nothing that competes with the widgets in HTC Sense and Samsung's TouchWiz. Instead Sony goes with their Favorites; a selection of multimedia, web pages and ebooks that you're recently accessed. It's pretty, but not terribly useful.
Other bundled apps include Foursquare, and UStream but no MS Office compatible suite. You can download free Office viewers from the Android Market, but you'll have to pay $15 or $20 for a suite that edits and creates Office docs. The bundled third party apps are mostly shortcuts to download the latest version from the market, and you can uninstall them if you wish.
AV Remote with IR Blaster
If you've read our review of the Vizio 8" Tablet, you know it's the only other Android tablet with an IR blaster and AV remote app. We loved that feature, though the virtual remotes had an abbreviated version of the controls available on the physical remotes. Sony's is an embarrassment of riches in comparison. Just as with the Vizio, it's easy to set up the various remotes for all manner of AV gear, but Sony offers swipeable sections for each remote to access advanced (and not so advanced) functions that are absent in Vizio's 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.
Want to stream media from other computers or devices on your network to the Sony Tablet S? No problem, we found the DLNA client worked well and we streamed videos from our PCs and an Asus Eee Pad Transformer. Oddly, we couldn't view JPEG videos stored on the Transformer using the Sony, even though they were standard JPEG files.
The Sony can act as a DLNA server, but there's no dedicated app for that. Instead, when you're in a multimedia app like Gallery, you can "throw" the media at available DLNA compatible devices like TVs that appear as icons. The only problem? We couldn't find anything the Sony would work with. While the throwing thing is cool, we'd settle for a boring DLNA server app that just worked.
The Sony Reader application is tablet-optimized, and should be available to other Honeycomb tablets by the end of 2011. It's attractive and quick, with single and facing-pages display modes, font size adjustment and a brightness slider. Though you can change the font size, you can't change the font itself, which is a shame. The app supports press and hold to create highlights and to look up words in the Wikipedia (rather than a locally stored dictionary, and 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).
Though not wildly full-featured (no changing typeface, no margin control or justification settings), Sony does support side-loading of ePUB and PDFs, which is a rare treat (B&N's Nook Android app supports side-loading but not Kindle or most manufacturer-provided ebook apps). This worked fine in our tests and you can put the files in any folder on internal storage. Book covers rendered correctly and you have access to the same bookmark, font size and highlighting features that you do with Sony's Reader Store books.
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, but you're not limited to their bookstore thanks to side-loading. We're particularly impressed with PDF support: the app lets you bookmark PDFs (a rarity in ebook apps), highlight and pinch zoom. Given the large display, PDFs are easy to read in single page view, though you can view them in facing page mode as well.
The tablet comes with Sony's Crackle app, and it's easier and more reliable to use than viewing movies and TV shows on Crackle.com using the web browser and Adobe Flash which sometimes has unreliable controls and suffers playback stalls after commercials on Flash-capable tablets. 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. We've heard that Sony will release the app for other Honeycomb tablets by the end of 2011 (it's already available for Android phones).
Sony includes both the standard Google Music app (with music beta cloud storage support) and their own app that's extremely visually appealing. We like it a lot, and the built-in speakers are relatively loud for tablet speakers and get a little EQ help from Sony's software. We'd expect the best from Sony, but the HTC Jetstream and Galaxy Tab 10.1 have fuller, richer speaker sound. Sound through headphones is excellent with plenty of volume, good bass and strong separation. Our only wish? That Sony and Google's music players were able to see music stored on an SD card
For pay-for streaming of music and video, Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited are here... sort of. There are icons, but the services are still in the "coming soon" phase. We hear that you'll get a six month free membership to Music Unlimited once it launches, and one free movie from Video Unlimited.
Thanks to Android's capable web browser and Adobe Flash 10.3, you can play Amazon Videos (including Amazon Prime videos) and other Flash-based streaming content from TV network websites. As of this writing, Netflix isn't available for the Sony Tablet S, though that may change since Netflix is aggressively adding Android support (all OS 2.2 and 2.3 smartphones recently got Netflix). The Movies tab in the Android Market is mysteriously missing.
This is the first Playstation certified tablet, and that means it can play Playstation games (PS1 not PS3) via Sony's own emulator. They did a great job, as we can see with the included Crash Bandicoot, but we'd love to see more games (Sony is working on this). The other included game is Pinball Heroes, which relies on the touch screen rather than PS1 emulation.
Since the tablet has an Nvidia Tegra 2 CPU with hardware graphics acceleration, it can play Tegra Zone games well, and it handled Riptide GP, Samurai Vengance II and Sprinkle perfectly. The excellent display and overall good performance made these games a pleasure to play.
Not so great news here: the tablet has a 5,000 mAh Lithium Ion battery vs. the 6,000 to 7,000 mAh batteries used in several 10" tablets. Granted, the slightly smaller display draws less power and there's no 4G LTE power drain here, but we wish Sony squeezed another thousand mAh of power into the wedge. In our tests, the Tablet S managed 7.4 hours of continuous video playback with WiFi on and brightness set to 75% (since the display isn't wildly bright, 75% is a reasonable setting). That's not horrible, but it's at least an hour shorter than the 10" tablets with the longest runtimes: the HTC Jetstream, iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
We can live with the runtime, since it's not that far out of the pack and offers plenty enough juice for a day or more of use, but standby time is a problem. Something drains the battery overnight, and the Android "what's been using the battery" function isn't reporting anything unusual. Our tablet on average drops 15% to 20% overnight, even with WiFi set to turn off when the display is off. We suspect some piece of Sony software isn't behaving as well as it should. To counter this, we either turned the tablet completely off or left it on the charger overnight; and that's something we don't have to do with other tablets. We hope Sony addresses this with an update.
The Sony Tablet S has a better than average camera by tablet standards, though it doesn't surpass the impressive HTC Jetstream's 8 megapixel 1080p shooter or the cameras on top smartphones. The front VGA camera does a decent job with Google Talk video chat, but you wouldn't want to use a VGA camera for snapping photos and videos. The rear 5.1 megapixel camera with autofocus lens but no flash takes very nice photos that have plenty of detail with low noise (given good light). Colors are bright and fairly accurate, and the camera handles contrast better than average.
The camera can shoot 720p video at 30fps that's on par with better 5MP camera phones. There are camera settings for macro, macro fixed mode, EV adjustment and scene selection, and a quick access film strip style panel of recently taken photos and videos below the viewfinder.
We like Sony's first Android tablet, especially as a consumer-oriented lifestyle product. It's unique looking, very attractive and seemingly sturdy despite Sony's reliance on plastics. Best of all it's light and easy to hold-- it's the first 10" class tablet that I actually enjoy holding and using for extended periods of time. The Sony Tablet S is fast, runs the latest Honeycomb OS and comes with all sorts of apps to keep you entertained, from ebook reading to movie watching. Though not wildly bright, the TruBlack display is one of the nicest we've seen on a tablet or notebook, and it makes videos that much more enjoyable.
We're thrilled that the tablet has an SD card slot and USB host, and love Playstation gaming using a USB game controller. But we have to ask Sony what they were thinking when they omitted OS-wide support for SD card and USB flash drive storage. Other Android tablets bring up images, videos and music stored on cards and drives in the built-in applications like Gallery and Music. With the Sony, you've got to use a file manager to play/watch/view these files one at a time, or download a third party app that can browse to storage card folders. Fix this Sony! And while you're at it, fix whatever it is that drains the battery more than average when in standby.
Display:9.4" TruBlack capacitive multi-touch display. Resolution:
1280 x 800, supports both portrait and landscape modes. Has acceleromter, ambient light sensor and gyro.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable.
Performance:1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual core CPU with 1 gig RAM and 16 or 32 gigs internal storage.
x 6.8 x 0.3 (thinnest point) - 0.75 (thickest point) inches. Weight: 1.33 pounds (1 lb. 5 ounces).
GPS:Yes. Ships with Google Maps and Navigation.
Camera:VGA front video chat camera that works with Google Talk and rear 5 megapixel camera with autofocus lens.
in stereo speakers with Sony sound enhancement, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
WiFi 802.11b/g/n (single band) and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (works with Bluetooth stereo headsets, keyboards and mice).
Software:Android OS 3.2 Honeycomb with custom Sony software and UI tweaks. Adobe Flash Player included. Standard suite of Google Android applications including web browser, email, gmail, YouTube, Maps, Navigation, Gtalk, Search and the Android Market. Sony apps: Sony Reader, Crackle, DLNA, video player, Social Feed Reader (for Twitter and Facebook), AV Remote Control, Sony music player, Wi-Fi Checker, File Transfer, Desk Clock and Chumby.
SDHC card slot, micro USB port with USB host.
In the box: Tablet, charger, wrist strap and getting started guide.