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Sony Tablet S
Sony Tablet S

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Sony Tablet S review

Sony takes on the iPad with its Honeycomb tablet

When Sony passed off its Tablet S to us for review, I was more than a little excited. While the company has been a bit slow on getting into the tablet game, the two devices we’ve seen (the Tablet S and the odd, folding Tablet P) have sparked quite a bit of curiosity. It’s not just about the unique designs, either. Sony is one of the few companies with a footprint and ecosystem big enough to potentially take on Apple in this one-horse game. The $499.99 (or $599.99 32GB) Tablet S is the more familiar of the pair, though with its folded-book styling, it stands out amongst a sea of tablets that look depressingly similar to Apple’s entry. Inside, the S is driven by a Tegra 2 chipset, meaning more than enough power to take on heavy gaming duties (good news for the PlayStation certified device) or help you work through gargantuan spreadsheets (if you’re the spreadsheet type). The Tablet S is also blessed with a handful of unique additions to Android 3.1, including a suite of Sony applications as well as a home theater remote app which takes advantage of the device’s built-in IR transmitter.

So, does Sony’s first move in this space change the game or move the ball forward? Or is the company dealing out another familiar entry into an already-crowded space? Read on for my full review and find out.

Hardware

Hardware / design

Sony has come up with a stand-out look for its first tablet
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There’s no questioning that Sony has come up with a stand-out look for its first tablet. From the second you see the S, it’s clear that the company is making a statement about how you’ll live and work with the device. The basic shape calls to mind a folded-back book or magazine, and should immediately get you reminiscing about the days when humans used outmoded and environmentally damaging products made from paper. The device sports a 9.4-inch screen and weighs in at 1.33 pounds, though Sony claims it feels lighter in your hands than other tablets on the market because of the way the shape allows weight to be distributed. It’s hard to say if that’s true or not, but the mostly-plastic device definitely felt light in my hands. In terms of actual thickness, the tablet is nearly as hefty as a MacBook Pro at its largest point, but tapers down to a narrow 0.3 inches. If you set it side-by-side with an iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1, the difference will be shocking. It’s not the kind of the device you can discreetly slide into a small bag.

Whether or not you warm up to this design is probably a matter of taste, but I found myself liking the fold, in both two-handed and single-hand settings, as well as on a flat surface. The beveled shape makes for slightly easier typing when you have the S on a desk.

Besides that big screen up front, the Tablet S features a power / sleep button and volume rockers on the right side, along with a notification light that I found to be annoyingly bright. For some reason, Sony has disabled the option to switch it off, so I found myself placing the tablet against another surface at night, as the pulsating LED was a bit distracting in a dark room. On the left side is a headphone jack, Micro USB port, and SD card slot. Along the bottom of the device is a proprietary charging jack; the plug Sony includes feels incredibly cheap, and was difficult to get connected to the device. I’m not sure if the company is trying to out-Apple on weird, non-standard connections, but the inclusion of this plug over a standard Micro USB port for charging struck me as unnecessary and bothersome. All of the buttons on the device feel awkwardly placed and difficult to find, making for a lot of missed presses while using the tablet.

In all, the Tablet S is a distinct device with a lot going for it in terms of industrial design, but there are also some missteps here that make the device feel somewhat underwhelming. Had Sony gone with a higher grade of materials, or made any attempt to make the buttons and connections more accessible, I think I would have walked away more impressed. I added points for originality and functional design on the shape, and then subtracted half of those points for the cheap build quality and odd choices on interaction with the hardware.


Internals

Internals / display

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Inside the Tablet S, you’ll find a healthy dose of familiar Android guts. The device is powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 chipset, meaning you’ll not only get solid performance on standard apps, but access to customized apps that take advantage of the CPU’s increased horsepower. Those apps number in the low double digits however, so don’t get too excited. The Tablet S has 1GB of RAM onboard and 16GB or 32GB of storage hardwired (I tested the 16GB version). The device also sports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and an array of sensors (gyro, light, accelerometer, etc.). Overall, performance seemed relatively snappy, though there were some odd hiccups and stalls during regular use. It’s hard to say if that’s the fault of the hardware or software. I’m hoping it’s the latter.

The Tablet S has stereo speakers (if you’re holding it in landscape, that is), which produced a remarkably tinny, unsatisfying sound. You would think the people who brought you the Walkman would cook up something a bit more accomplished in the audio department… but you’d be wrong.

The display itself is a fairly standard 1280 x 800, and there are two cameras on the device: a 3-megapixel shooter on the front, and a 5-megapixel model on the backside.

Overall, performance seemed relatively snappy, though there were some odd hiccups
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Cameras

Cameras

Rear cameras on tablets are completely silly to me
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The back camera does a fine job of capturing images — if you’re into holding a nearly 10-inch tablet up while you snap away. As I’ve said in many other tablet reviews, rear cameras on tablets are completely silly to me, and I have yet to see anyone put them to use in public. I certainly won’t. On the other hand, the front-facing camera here is a step up from most other models, and I’m happy to see Sony trying to improve the specs on what is normally an afterthought. Just know this: neither of these cameras are excellent shooters, and neither will replace a real camera or decent smartphone option — mostly due to the size of the device and awkwardness in use.

You can also capture 720p video with the Tablet S, though this seems even more bizarre to me than snapping photos. Quality was solid, though the device’s awkward size made it tough to get steady content. The glossiness of the screen also made it hard to capture both video and still shots when outside.


Software

Software

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Note: The software on the device was not final as of this writing, and many of the custom applications for the device will not be available until launch.

Most tablets these days must be judged on their software. In the case of Android Honeycomb tablets, that’s not exactly a Herculean effort, as nearly all of our most recently tested devices are running extremely slight variations on a theme. Literally.

Sony is no different in the sense that the company has opted for slight tweaks in the software rather than a major overhaul (a la Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense). The Tablet S utilizes largely the same build of Honeycomb as other tablets (like the Galaxy Tab 10.1), though there are a few notable differences.

For starters, Sony provides (or will provide, rather) a set of customized applications geared towards its ecosystem and playing to its strengths — namely, entertainment and gaming. The device I tested is still using pre-production software, so many of the new titles were missing. In particular, the company’s Video / Music Unlimited services, Reader Store, and SelectApp marketplace won’t be available until the launch of the device in September. The company has also struck launch deals with Foursquare and Crackle for exclusive tablet launch titles, though I didn’t have a chance to test those apps either.

Still, I had a chance to play with some Sony-exclusive apps and content, like the company’s custom remote control for home theater equipment (which utilizes the tablet’s IR transmitter), and Crash Bandicoot, one of the gaming titles ported directly from the original PlayStation version. The remote app was easy to set up and painless to use, and I could easily see tablet owners reaching for the S over their Harmony One. On the flipside, while Crash Bandicoot does a faithful job of replicating the graphics and sound from the PSone, the controls left something to be desired. Quite a bit, actually. It’s clear that the game was never meant to be controlled via touchscreen, and trying to grapple with the on-screen d-pad and buttons was less than fun. A tablet like the S is capable of great gaming experiences, but trying to dupe the controls of a multi-buttoned joypad seems like a recipe for disaster.

There are other missteps in the OS that left me scratching my head as well. For instance, Sony has replaced the standard application browser with its own take. The new variation looks cheap and cartoonish, replacing Honeycomb’s sleek, Tron-ish black and blues with a white background and somewhat campy icons and animation. You’re able to create groupings of apps and give them custom names, which is nice, but adding those applications to your homescreen has been turned into something of a multi-step mess. Instead of the simple hold and drag of stock Honeycomb, you have to press down on an app, move it up into a "place on homescreen" box (which is tiny). Then once it’s placed on the homescreen (in the first available slot), you have to further rearrange its position. Why anyone thought this was superior to Google’s scheme is open to guesses, but it made simple management of icons a frustrating pain.

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Additionally, the company added a kind of quick access launcher — a strip of small icons — to the right of the Google search box located on the upper left side of the screen. It’s a fine addition, but now instead of interacting with the bottom left corner, upper right hand corner, and homescreen group of icons, you’ve got another far away area to consider. It makes what is already a confused user experience even more confusing.

Sony has also altered the stock Android keyboard, adding a numeric keypad to the standard QWERTY layout. That’s all well and good, except when it isn’t — it changes on the fly while you’re typing depending on the field you’re working inside of, which can make for missed letters. This happened to me on a variety of occasions while using the Tablet S. The design of the icons on the device have also been altered to match Sony’s familiar style, though the like-minded coloring and concept of each one makes it difficult to find what you’re looking for by scanning. I found myself actually having to read labels on icons.

Sony also added Chumby functionality to the Tablet S, but I’m at a loss to understand why. There doesn’t seem to be a single piece of Chumby functionality that couldn’t be handled better by something in the Android market. I get that the natively passive quality of Chumby apps might make sense if the tablet were docked, but I think there were better ways of handling this idea than resorting to the dated, low-resolution, and frankly clunky Chumby programs. This seems more an afterthought than anything else.


Battery life

Battery life / performance

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Battery life on the Tablet S seemed solid to me, but slightly less impressive than other tablets I’ve recently tested. In particular, I noticed a more pronounced drain on the battery when the device was sleeping, and I felt it fell short of competitors like the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in terms of overall battery longevity.

I wasn’t able to run our standard suite of battery tests on the device because Sony has limited the screen timeout on the Tablet S to just 30 minutes.

In terms of general performance, while the device seemed speedy running graphically intense games, I found the general experience with the OS to be a bit start and stop. This may be due to unfinished software on the device, or it might just be a symptom of Honeycomb, which increasingly strikes me as a sluggish and overcomplicated tablet OS. Regardless, the experience of using the device compared to the iPad 2 is night and day — it never feels completely pleasant or responsive.

The general experience with the OS to be a bit start and stop
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Lately I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall when working with Honeycomb tablets. Google released an OS that never felt completely finished, and it still lacks much in ease of use and cohesion. Little details like sometimes not being able to properly select text or the scattered layout of navigational items make it a generally more harrowing experience next to the iPad 2 or even the TouchPad. In Sony’s attempt to alter (or improve?) the experience of the OS, the company has simply made it more messy. I didn’t feel like I wanted to pick the device up and work with it — I felt like I wanted to avoid it.

The company is capable of making some very nice and handsomely designed hardware, and I would say that they’ve accomplished that with the Tablet S. But as in past efforts, Sony seems to struggle on the software side, and that makes this device harder to recommend even against other Honeycomb tablets. There’s no question that Sony has the raw materials — hardware know-how, a big ecosystem, great brands like PlayStation — to deliver a serious competitor in the tablet space, but that competitor is not the Tablet S.

Note: As stated earlier, the software on the device was not final as of this writing, and many of the custom applications for the device will not be available until launch. We may revisit the device and score when Sony issues the promised updates.

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