It's been exactly a year since the original Sony Tablet S debuted. It was unique, and a lot better than the terrible Tablet P, but it never got to be all that popular. This year's Tablet S returns with the Xperia moniker and a set of improvements that should fix the flaws from the first time around.
The Xperia Tablet S is a 9.4-inch Android tablet running Ice Cream Sandwich. It has 1280x800 resolution (that has become an Android tablet standard). The IPS screen looked brighter and crisper than last year's dim version, and it has an anti-fingerprint coating.
A built-in IR blaster controls home entertainment devices, which is one of my favourite tablet features. Sony took it up a notch by giving you the ability to program IR blaster macros. For example you could just hit "Gaming Mode" and it fires up your TV, gaming system, and receiver, and it puts all the inputs where they need to be. Really slick.
On the inside a quad-core Tegra 3 is now running the show, which is good since last year's had some serious lag problems. It has a full-sized SD card slot (nice for viewing pics from your digital camera) and port that can be used to connect to USB or HDMI (with a dongle). It has an 8MP camera on the back and a 1MP camera on the front. It also supports DLNA for beaming you media to other devices.
The biggest improvement here, though, is the build quality. While we like the shape of last year's model, it felt like very cheap plastic, which bent and creaked. This year's Tablet S has a metal back which felt much, much stronger, but remains even lighter than an iPad 2 (which is lighter than the current gen iPad). They have retained the metaphor of the folded over magazine, but now they've flattened it. This will make it fit in a bag much better, but it may have lost some of the ergonomic charm of the original. Probably a good trade for most. Holding it in one hand it still felt nicely balanced. They've moved the speakers to the bottom of the device now (in landscape mode) which may help prevent muffling, though we prefer the Note 10.1's placement of the speakers on the front of the device. The speakers have virtual 3D, and from our quick listen, they sounded good. The tablet is also now water repellent to the IPX 4 standard, which is great news.
We didn't get too much time to play with the software, but the good news is that things seemed to move quickly and smoothly. Sony has made some tweaks to Ice Cream Sandwich. Most noticeably there is a quick launcher in the upper-left corner, where you can put four shortcuts to whatever you want. There are also a bunch of "small apps," which include miniature versions of browser, Facebook, YouTube, and calculator apps, plus some free-standing widgets. We'll reserve judgement until further testing. The Xperia Tablet S also comes with Sony Music Unlimited which now offers offline storage.
There will be a bunch accessories available. One is a stand that will three full-sized USB ports and an HDMI port. There's also a smart case that has a built in keyboard for under £80. The unit I played with was pre-production, but I had tons of double key-presses and it seemed almost unusable. Hopefully they'll work the bugs out before it comes to market. There are other simple covers and stands as well.
All in all, these are significant improvements to an already good tablet. Is it good enough to be the best? That will have to wait for our full review, but we'll say that the potential is there. The Xperia Tablet S will be available on September 7th and will come in three sizes: 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. Stay tuned for prices.