Sony came late to the tablet game, and when it did finally rock up with the Tablet P and S, it was hardly playing its A game. So now we have the Xperia Tablet S in our hands the question is obviously, has Sony addressed the issues, and is this a device worth buying.
The first bit of good news is that the Xperia Tablet S comes with a name that fits with the rest of the Sony Mobile range, and a price that's identical to that of the Nexus 10. This means Sony is getting its game together, and that it can actually hope to interest people with its new devices. As long as they're good. So are they any good? Let's find out.
Of all the tablets, Sony's tend to be the most unusual. There was the Tablet P, which we didn't love, that folded in half, and the original Tablet S had the sort of folded magazine style to it. This style continues with this device too, in much the same way and we do still kind of like it. For one, it makes one-handed portrait operating quite pleasant. If you're reading a book, you can hold it on the bulge, and get a nice hold, while your other hand turns the pages. It doesn't give you much height when the tablet is on a table though, so don't expect miraculous typing advancement or especially great video viewing from it, you'll still need a stand - and an external keyboard - for those things.
Around the device, there's a cover, beneath which there is an SD card slot. We like this, and Sony has fixed the ridiculous feature with the old model that it could only copy the data over, rather than access the SD card as a separate device. A recent update to the Xperia S also means that this slot can read SDXC too, so you'll get the maximum possible space. That's good, because it means you can spend less and get the 16GB model, rather than having to pay a load more for the 32GB version.
Along the bottom edge, there's a socket into which a proprietary data and charging cable connects. You'll also see the speakers here. They're more obvious than before, and their location isn't ideal for all uses. There's also a headphone socket, as well as power button and volume rocker. For hardware controls and ports, that's your lot.
It's also interesting to note that the new Tablet S is splashproof too, so while it can't be submerged, if you get a little rain on it or perhaps spill a glass of water over it, it shouldn't be a total tablet-ending event.
Compared to the Retina iPads, the Xperia Tablet S looks like the resolution will be a concern. At just 161ppi, anyone buying on specs alone would avoid this device because it doesn't stack up to most of the other devices. But, not buying it based on the resolution would be a mistake.
First, this screen is great. Images are sharp, and there's good colour too. It's all very natural though, there's not any over-saturation like you'd get on an OLED phone, it's a natural, subtle display. For watching video, like Netflix or stuff streamed from around your home network, it looks great.
There's also more than enough detail for emails and web browsing, and it is these things, after all, that need the extra resolution far more than video ever does. Of course, you can tell the display is lower resolution than the iPad if you stare at it for long enough, but in day-to-day use, that just doesn't cause problems.
The Xperia Tablet S has a quad-core processor and 1GB of RAM. It feels very snappy and responsive to us. We really have enjoyed using the tablet and it never feels like it's underpowered. Games seem responsive too, although we're not massive fans of gaming on tablets as it usually involves a lot of swearing and complicated controls.
We note that Sony opts not to include hardware decoding for some video types. For example, it's not able to play MPEG-5 video in an MKV container, which means a lot of DLNA apps will be pointless - unless you use a power-hungry software decoder. This is in stark contrast to Samsung's tablets, which almost always have more codec support, and thus more efficient power management when watching video.
Sound, and the speakers
We enjoyed the Xperia Tablet S while languishing in bed with a pretty major bout of something nasty. That meant that we got to test it out as an email device, something to follow Twitter with and, most importantly, a way to catch up on some of the TV we don't have time for when we're well.
Being in bed though, meant that the tablet would sit on a soft duvet with its speakers pointing down into our sickness-riddled bones. And that, in turn, gave the whole thing a muffled sound that was hard to follow.
But then, we hit upon a brainwave. It was so simple: just turn the tablet upside down, so the speakers could do their thing unimpeded by the softness of our pallid flesh, and the comforting duvet.
With this sorted, we were able to enjoy the sound from the Xperia's speakers with few concerns. Audio was crisp and clear too, giving us no trouble when watching TV shows via Netflix. Music wouldn't work so well, but for telly, it's ideal.
Plug in a set of headphones, and of course things start to get a lot better indeed, and the Xperia Tablet S has a very capable sound system that can give a solid range of audio to a pair of good headphones.
While Sony's version of Ice Cream Sandwich isn't customised all that much, the firm does include a decent amount of its own apps and services.
First up, the Xperia Tablet can act as a universal remote control, allowing you to tell it what home entertainment hardware you have, and then control everything from the tablet. This works well, assuming the Sony has heard of your hardware. If there's something a little off-book, you have to program it manually, which is a more time-consuming process. We like the idea of this though, because it's a good remote, and most people have their tablet near them when they're watching TV.
As with all Sony products, there's the usual movie, music and gaming services. These are bundled under the "unlimited" brand, and they're reasonable enough. Of course the big problem with alternative stores is that you can quickly end up with a lot of different sources for your media. For music, this is rarely a problem as DRM has ceased to exist in this market. Movies and games, on the other hand, can be more of a problem. They aren't easily moveable from device to device, because of DRM, and it's reasonable to assume that Sony doesn't have a massive interest in selling stuff on non-Sony devices.
But more than that Movies Unlimited isn't competitively priced in the least. Rentals, in our tests were either the same, or more expensive than Google Play. Purchases, on the other hand, were much, much more expensive.
But there's more to the stupidity than just cost. Take, for example, Resident Evil: Retribution, a truly miserable example of the art of filmmaking, but it's a Sony Pictures movie. An SD rental on Movies Unlimited is £3.99 and on Google Play Movies it's £2.49. There's no HD rental option on Sony's store, but you can have it on Google Play for a quid more than SD. Worse still though, you can't buy the Sony movie on the Sony movie store, but you can on Google Play, in either HD or SD (£11.99 or £9.99, if you're interested).
If that doesn't prove that Sony still has trouble with keeping its own group of companies in line, we don't know what will.
The good news is, you can use both Sony and Google's stores on this device. So you win either way, but can we respectfully suggest that you give the Sony store a wide berth, until such time as it realises that this kind of crap just won't wash.
There is also an e-Book store, called Sony Reader. It's nicely laid out, and is a convenient system to use. We like the Tablet S as an e-reader too, because of its unique design, so we could be very happy here. Pricing is a little less mad - probably because Sony doesn't own a book publisher, so has its head in the game - and pricing is the same as Google Play Books, and a little bit more expensive, on the whole, than Amazon's Kindle service.
You also get FreeType OfficeSuite, for the office stuff in your life, along with Evernote pre-installed. There's also Xperia Link, which will help you connect your Sony mobile phone to the tablet, when you're not near a Wi-Fi hotspot. It's like any hotspot app, but it's geared up for Sony devices and aims to make the configuration easier.
Tablets should aim at 10-hours life from a charge. The Sony uses auto-brightness, so in theory along with its lack of 3G, the battery should last a decent length of time. And indeed, we found this to be the case. Video drains it at a faster rate than we'd expect to be honest, and this might be something to do with how video apps are written, and how efficiently they use the hardware acceleration options of modern chipsets.
We moan about cameras on tablets all the time, but it's only fair to point out that the camera on the Sony is actually "reasonable". That's all it's getting from us by way of compliments. It's okay in strong light, and things don't fall apart when darkness falls a little too. We can't remember a tablet that does a better job.
The front-facing camera is fine for video calls, although holding a tablet and making a video call is really not comfortable and worth avoiding like the plague.
Sony was always going to struggle to get traction with tablets because it's a fairly crowded market and there's lots to choose from. Sony might make solid hardware, but so do most companies these days, so what is there to sell us on the Xperia over anything else?
The surprise is, perhaps, that the Xperia Tablet S is actually one of our favourite 10-inch Android tablets. It might not have the features of the Note 10.1, but it easily outclasses the Galaxy Tab 10.1 - although that device is a lot cheaper. It's also priced around the same as the Nexus 10, and that means Sony is over its premium charging model that nearly destroyed the company.
The Tablet S is, therefore, one of the 10-inch tablets you should consider very seriously, if you're in the market for one. The display is arguably much less impressive than on other devices, and there are still some Sony quirks to be found, but as a second screen for casual surfing, watching and gaming, it's really very nice.