Review: Sony Xperia S Tablet
January 24, 2013 — by Per Christensson
After reviewing both the new iPad and the Microsoft Surface RT, I felt somewhat obligated to review an Android tablet as well. Therefore, I bought a Sony Xperia S last month and have been testing it out the past few weeks.
The Sony Xperia S (or the "SGPT1211" in traditional Sony nomenclature) is a good-looking tablet. While it feels a bit cheaper than the iPad and Surface, it is more comfortable to hold than either of them. The tablet is extremely lightweight and has a unique design with an asymmetrical back that provides an easy way to grip the device. I don't mind that the back surface is plastic since it has a nice feel and is smooth along the edges.
While I like the overall design of the Sony Xperia S, I'm not a big fan of the covers for the charging port and the SD card slot. The SD port (which can be used for additional storage) has an awkward cover that is difficult to open. Once you pry it off, it dangles precariously by a thin piece of plastic that is bound to break. The charging port cover comes off completely, so I know I'm going to misplace it at some point. The purpose of the covers is to create a "water resistant" device, which really means the tablet is only splash proof. Unfortunately, these strange covers tarnish an otherwise outstanding design.
The Xperia S's 9.4 inch screen is vibrant and bright and has significantly better black levels than the Surface. Yet its 1280 x 800 pixel resolution doesn't come close to matching the iPad's retina display. Fortunately, the picture quality is excellent and the touchscreen is extremely responsive and accurate. It easily beats the responsiveness of the Surface, though it can't quite match the silky smooth iPad.
The built-in speakers are decent, but the maximum volume is a bit weaker than what I expected from a Sony product. Fortunately, the sound output from the headphone jack is extremely crisp. The volume controls on the right side of the tablet make it easy to change the volume at any time, though it's a bit too easy to accidentally press the sleep button. In typical Sony fashion, the Xperia S uses a proprietary connector to charge the device or transfer data via USB.
After using this tablet for a few weeks, I can say with confidence that Android is my favorite mobile operating system. It is far more flexible than Apple's iOS and is more responsive and easier to use than Windows 8 or Windows RT. I love how the Back, Home, and Menu buttons are always available in the bottom bar, no matter what app I am running. The Home button serves the same purpose as the iPad's physical Home button and the Surface's Windows button, bringing you directly to the home screen. The back button conveniently jumps to the previous screen within an app. My favorite button, however, is the Menu button, which displays a scrollable list of all active applications. This provides an quick and easy way to switch between open apps — something the iPad and Surface could definitely learn from.
Android's bottom bar, which is always accessible, includes other convenient features such as the time, battery level, Wi-Fi status, app notifications, one-click access to the system settings, and several other shortcuts. This highly-functional menu bar makes the Android feel much more like a computer than the iPad, which is a big plus in my book. Additionally, each app has its own custom menu at the top of the screen that contains useful tools and shortcuts. Ironically, Android is more similar to Mac OS X than Apple's own iOS is.
For the most part, Sony's included software is great. You can play music using the Walkman app, view photos with Album, watch videos with Movies, and read books with Sony's Reader app. Several other bundled applications, such as YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Crackle make the Xperia S a top-notch entertainment device. Unfortunately, it's not a great productivity device out-of-the-box. I was disappointed to find the included OfficeSuite app was only a demo and cannot be used to create or edit documents. If you want to actually modify text documents, you need to download OfficeSuite Professional for $15. Of course, there are several other options available through the Google Play store as well.
My favorite feature of the Xperia S is Sony's universal remote app. This app works with the built-in infrared (IR) transmitter to control your home audio and video devices. So far I have set it up to control a Pioneer, Sony, and Samsung TV, as well as a cable box. As an added bonus, I even found some new guide features on my cable box that were not accessible with my Comcast remote.
While I love the Android 4.0 operating system, it definitely has some kinks. For example, within 15 minutes of using the tablet for the first time, the screen froze while I was viewing a webpage. It crashed the entire system and I had to force a restart by holding down the power key. That has never happened on my iPad or my Surface. Additionally, the operating system take a surprising long time to load at start up and even waking up from sleep mode can take more than ten seconds if you haven't used the tablet for awhile.
The Xperia S's touch response is great, but the overall performance is not quite as fast as I had hoped. Webpages load a bit slowly and there is definitely some lag when scrolling through webpages. Sometimes, swiping from one screen to the next is even a bit choppy. Fortunately, these lags are mostly cosmetic and do not cause usability issues.
While I like Sony's implementation of Android, it's easy to see that the hardware and the OS are not developed by the same company. This "non-integrated" approach has its benefits, but it also produces a few hiccups in the user experience. For example, I was surprised to find I could not import photos from an SD card into the Albums app. Once I removed the card, the photos were gone. Fortunately, I discovered the nifty File Transfer utility, which can be used to transfer images and other types of files to and from the tablet. While I was finally able to import my photos, it was only in a roundabout fashion.
The Sony Xperia S is well-designed, but has a few flaws (like the awkward port covers). Still, it is the most comfortable tablet I have used and has one of the best screens. The Android operating system outdoes both iOS and Windows RT and the included software provides numerous entertainment options right out of the box. Overall, the Xperia is a well-rounded device that is worth considering if you are looking for a new tablet.