Sony finally revealed all on its Android-based Tablet S this week. The tablet with a 9.4 inch display, will ship in late September with a starting price of £399 for a 16GB model and £479 for the 32GB unit.
You'd be wrong to think Sony's Tablet S is a run-of-the-mill iPad lookalike tablet to ignore. Sony's Tablet S shows the consumer electronics giant has not lost its design mojo over the years, and with this first tablet offering Sony infuses originality and flare into a tablet market that desperately needs it. Pre-sale of the Tablet S begins today.
What distinguishes the Sony Tablet S isn't its specs, which are fairly standard, but its design. Sony's attention to detail is hard to miss and I would know. For the past week I've been living with a pre-production model of the Tablet S.
Here are my first impressions of Sony's innovative Tablet S.
'Wedge' design is refreshingly unique
What makes the Tablet S unique, for starters, is the tablet's tapered design that grows to 0.79 inch thick at its deepest edge, from 0.3 inch at its thinnest. The Tablet S eschews the usual flat slab and push to thinness. Sony says the design was influenced by the curve of a folded-around magazine.
The tradeoff is Sony has sacrificed the slimness of an Apple iPad 2 or a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, for something uniquely pleasing to hold. There are two benefits from this unique design. One, at the thicker side, the plastic is curved around the edges making it very comfortable to hold. Everything on the screen flips orientation based on the accelerometer, so you can hold the tablet equally as comfortably in your right or left hand. The other benefit of the wedge design is that it provides a built-in gentle incline for typing, making this tablet more natural to use than the flat slabs.
The Tablet S weighs 600 grams according to Sony, which puts it on a par with Apple's iPad 2. However, the effective weight feels different, because the wedge design of the Tablet S also accommodates an off-centre weighting of components inside. This has the net effect of making the tablet feel like it weighs less than it does. In a side-by-side test it felt like the iPad 2 was just a tad heavier, even though it wasn't.
A type-friendly tablet
Sony's attention detail doesn't stop there. The tablet is clearly optimised for use in a landscape orientation. And in that position, I found my fingers naturally fell to where the power and volume buttons were, in the sloped indented right edge of the tablet. Plus, I liked how natural the flow felt as hit the power button to wake the device, then I swiped my finger to unlock Android 3.1.
Sony has made numerous interface changes as well. The company stopped short of doing a full user interface rework, as Samsung did with its' Galaxy Tab 10.1. Instead Sony has tweaked the standard Android Honeycomb UI making task more intuitive to perform. It also added useful widgets and shortcuts to the home screen and includes a tile-based Favorites screen, shown first at the tablet's unveiling earlier this summer. Lastly, Sony has completely transformed the look of the apps menu to make app icons easier to navigate.
Sony has replaced the stock Android keyboard with its own keyboard design. I liked the layout of the Sony keyboard a lot, largely because I didn't have to think a lot about what was where. In some views, like when I was entering a password, Sony reduced the width of the keyboard to add a number pad on the same screen. I wish more tablet keyboards raised the number pad up a level, or at least gave the option to do so.
Tablet S easily fits into my routine
One of the things that made Tablet S stand out for me is how it complemented how I wanted to use the tablet.
It's easy for me to tell you how surfing the web with the Tablet S or reading a book from the couch was breeze, but what I really like is Sony's attention to making the tablet complement how I might use it. For example, with the tablet's built-in IR blaster app and Sony's well-designed remote control app I had no trouble turning the Tablet S into a universal remote for controlling my home theatre components, including multiple DVD recorders, Blu-ray players and televisions, regardless of the manufacturer or age of the component.
Dream tablet for gamers
Another feature that has tons of potential we only get a glimpse of now. The Tablet S, along with the smaller Tablet P being released later this year, are the first tablets to be PlayStation Certified. On-board you get the PlayStation 2 hits Crash Bandicoot and Pinball Heroes. And never mind that Crash is a throwback to 1996-era gaming, the bottom line is that I still found the gaming experience of this port to the Android platform entertaining and compelling.
And the potential is huge given Sony's library of titles for PS2... and that potential only gets multiplied if the company were to ever tie in PlayStation Portable or PlayStation 3 games. Details are vague, but the company will offer a store later in the year with more titles available. The bottom line here is that, with this feature, Sony clearly differentiates itself for the gaming crowd.
Adding up the Tablet S' plusses, suddenly Sony's price feels a bit more reasonable.
Getting up close with the display
For a Honeycomb tablet, the Sony Tablet S specs ring fairly familiar: Nvidia Tegra 2 1GHz dual-core, 1GB of RAM and 16GB and 32GB options.
The display, however, measures just 9.4 inches across the diagonal, which makes the Tablet S unique among its competitive set for now. Interestingly, the rumour mill had pegged Amazon being the one that would offer a 9.4 inch display, but in fact first out the gate with that size looks to be Sony. The overwhelming majority of Android 3.x Honeycomb tablets have a 10.1 inch display.
The display's resolution, 1280 x 800 pixels, is the same as the 10.1 inch competition. And the display benefits from Sony's TruBlack technology, borrowed from HDTVs. The technology reduces the air gap between the LCD layer and the glass layer by filling in the difference with a clear gel that reduces the light reflectivity to mitigate glare and increase sharpness and contrast.
As with most any LCD tablet, the screen is still an unusable mirror in bright and direct sunlight. But it in ambient light the display looks better than most, in my casual use testing.
Buttons, cameras, ports and jacks
My test images looked impressive on my pre-production unit, with fine detail and generally good colour handling, though the Tablet S had difficulty handling the natural colours of skin tones.
The front-facing camera is just 0.3 megapixels, while the rear-facing camera is 5 megapixels. It appeared to take decent pictures, though I haven't run the Tablet S through our full testing suite just yet.
Along the left edge, the tablet has a headphone jack and a secure flap that covers the SD Card slot and micro-USB port. The port is more for sideloading content via the PC than anything else. While the SD Card slot is handy for viewing media on a flash card, but is sadly only there to transfer media from the card to tablet, not to serve as bona fide usable expansion as on the Toshiba Thrive, for instance.
Hopefully, this is something Sony will reconsider and change via a future firmware update.
Along the bottom is Sony's proprietary docking port and charger. I could understand this being proprietary if the tablet recharged quickly. The pre-production unit was slow at recharging, taking orders of magnitude longer than I'd expect to build up charge. We'll of course evaluate this again with the shipping unit, when we get one.
Software and usability
The Tablet S brims with additional hardware and software tweaks that set it apart from the rest of the competition. For example, Sony added its own software algorithm to the touch screen's firmware to analyse finger movement and improve responsiveness.
Another nice software touch is a redesigned apps menu that allows you to make icons larger and allows for custom views such as sorting apps alphabetically or newest first. Another customisation, the promising Sony Favorites page has a tile-structured design, but, in use I found it more limited than I would have liked, with its heavy focus on showing my most recently added, played or viewed content.
Speaking of apps, Sony provides a slew of custom apps. Sony's Gallery app replaces the native Google gallery. Sony also includes its own music player, which produced far better audio than Google's native player that ships with the Android OS. In my informal tests Sony's music player boosted the loudness, bass, and overall audio quality significantly as compared to Google's own player.
Sadly, the audio improvement is only heard through Sony's player, which means if you use the Pandora app, you're out of luck. And Sony's player only has limited features (ie., you could play by album or artist, but it lacked track level access). One convenient feature in Sony's own gallery, music player and video player: The ability to throw a piece of content up to any DLNA device detected by the tablet. This throw capability, together with the Tablet S' DLNA support, may explain the unit's lack of an onboard HDMI port.
The Tablet S has links to Sony's stores on the web, Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited, as well as to the Reader store. However, these were not ready at this time, so I couldn't tell how optimised the experience was for use via the tablet.
What was available: Chumby for Sony Tablet. Sony ported the Chumby apps used on the Sony Dash for use with its tablet, with opens up plenty of options for how you can engage with the tablet.
Sony may be late to the party, but I appreciate that the Tablet S reflects that company tried to differentiate it from the cookie-cutter tablet field. I look forward to using the final product, because this pre-production model certainly shows lots of potential. Now excuse me while I return to steering Crash Bandicoot around the island, and change the channel on my television to catch NCIS.