The Sony Tablet S has a characteristic focus on multimedia. From the IR Blaster and DLNA support on the connectivity side to the preinstalled music and video streaming apps on the software side, Sony’s tablet oozes multimedia appeal from the pores of its slender frame. But when it comes down business, can Sony’s flagship device deliver the goods, or is the 9.4” WXGA Trublack screen just for show?
Features and codec support
The appropriately named Video Player app that comes preinstalled on the tablet is a simple piece of software that lives up to its almost as simple name. Features are scarce and the interface is minimalistic, though it has good transition animations and the ‘cover view’ mode is an interesting way of seeing your videos. It scatters your video thumbnails out like photos and you can drag them around the screen. Not the best example of practicality, but a bit of fun nonetheless. You can also choose grid or list view and rearrange the order of your videos alphabetically or according to date added. Diving into the settings tab will give you toggles for zoom, dynamic normalizer, two speaker options and the update database button. Simple and functional. Just barely.
Out of the box, Sony’s tablet has video support for MPEG 4, H.264, and WMV, which is far from a mind-blowingly extensive list. Installing a third-party video player like Moboplayer or MX Video Player will add support for popular containers like MKV, MOV or AVI and common codecs like DivX and Xvid as well as subtitle support, giving the Sony Tablet S a chance at becoming a true multimedia device.
The Tegra 2 processor has been documented to have trouble decoding High Profile H.264 encoded videos and the Sony Tablet S is no exception. With the excellent quality to size ratio that High Profile provides, a large proportion of my video collection could not be played without first being re-encoded into Main Profile. Needless to say, the more advanced Hi 10 Profile H.264 neither renders nor plays correctly due to the lack of codec and the inherent Tegra 2 problem. But of course, no one expected it to.
Video playback and audio
Supported video formats worked perfectly up to 720p. Playback was smooth, the colors were vibrant and there were no visible sign of tearing, distortions or any other digital artifacts. 1080p was a different story however, with noticeable stuttering, tearing and desynchronizing of audio and video. This shouldn’t be a major issue since viewing 1080p on the native resolution would result in a loss of detail anyway and 720p is perfectly fitted for the 1280×800 display. The only downside would be having to hold up the tablet for the duration of the clip, though the tablet is relatively light and its slanted design means you can also leave it on the table while watching.
The Sony Tablet S features built-in stereo speakers, so you can enjoy your video when you don’t have a pair of earphones handy. Or if you want to annoy the person sitting next to you on the bus/train/plane. Surprisingly, the speakers are both loud and sound good, providing accurate sound reproduction without distortion or noise until the volume is cranked up to maximum. So that person will be either extra annoyed or join in watching the video. Sony has included two settings to govern the sound output, one to ‘enhance’ the volume (xLOUD) and one to ‘adjust’ the quality (Clear Phase). Turning on xLOUD increases the volume significantly whilst Clear Phase has no perceptible effect on sound quality.
Sony’s tablet performs well under indoor lighting, with excellent screen visibility and a very wide viewing angle. Colors stay vibrant and sharp without loss in contrast or distortion for both horizontal and vertical positions, so whether you’re holding it in portrait or landscape, there will be no discoloration or blurring. However it should be noted that at the extremities, reflections are much more pronounced, so take that into consideration before offering to watch a movie together with 7 of your mates.
Outdoors in the shade, the tablet still managed to put up a good fight, with light colored images still perfectly visible at maximum brightness, though darker images suffered. Fingerprints became more noticeable and reflections more prominent, but the tablet is still useable. Just don’t watch any videos.
Despite the screen going up to 393cd/m² at maximum, the glossiness of the display made viewing in direct sunlight difficult. Even navigating the menus was a tremendously challenging task, so watching anything was out of the question.
Under low lighting the screen performs moderately well, with the minimum brightness providing a soft glow, enabling the device to be used for nighttime viewing. That said, any sort of backlit screen tends to place a strain the eyes if used for prolonged periods of time, so turn on a light and switch on the TV if you’re planning to watch The Dark Knight.
Using the tablet on public transport provided a similar experience to outdoor usage, with maximum brightness necessary to see anything comfortably. Despite the satisfactory level of visibility, turbulence on both the train and bus meant a rather unsteady screen. That combined with a health dose of motion sickness and you’ve got something I know I would never do again.
Viewing multimedia on a 9.4” screen sure beats anything on a 3.7” phone screen. This one’s a no-brainer and that’s even before we look at resolution. The abundant WXGA resolution on the Sony Tablet S also edges out most netbooks, which usually clock in at 1024×600 and provide a superior watching experience with its sharp 161ppi display. In addition, most netbooks ship with Intel’s Atom processor, of which some may struggle with 720p video playback. The AMD fusion series have no problems decoding up to 1080p, but considering the weight of a netbook is at least two times that of the tablet, Sony scores another one on the portability side.
So that leaves us with full-sized laptops and desktops. My old Core 2 Duo laptop can decode 1080p videos without a problem and can also output them to the TV via VGA (yeah I know, VGA is so 1987). It plays every codec and all the formats in addition to having a larger 14” screen. But it’s heavy. Really heavy. If we’re talking portable media device, the tablet would steal another win. But considering Sony’s mediocre outdoor performance, this one’s a draw. Just.
Now desktops are in an entirely different category. Unless you have a generator in your pocket, you’re not going to be watching any movies on your desktop while travelling. But when you’re at home, the monitor has the advantage of size, resolution and comfort, no contest. Considering that the desktop can only be used at home, portability doesn’t even come into the equation and the tablet suffers a crushing loss to the monitor.
But wait, what about the TV, you ask. The tablet and the TV are two very different devices designed for different purposes, so would it be fair to compare them? No. Can we compare them? Absolutely. Though if we did, it’ll probably turn out like the desktop. Or maybe we’d just sit in front of the TV and use the tablet during the commercials.
The Sony Tablet S performed admirably in terms of video playback. Its core kept general performance slick and its display was a pleasure to look at. Colors, contrast and sharpness were excellent and the 9.4” WXGA screen really made the movies come to life. It’s portable enough to take with you anywhere, just stay out of the sun when you’re doing some serious viewing. Overall, if you want to watch videos, you can probably leave the netbook and laptop at home and just take the tablet. That said, I would recommend leaving the desktop and TV at home as well, you know, in case your generator runs out of fuel. Or something.