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Sony Tablet P review

One screen's good, but is two better?

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Sony Tablet P hero
Sony Tablet P hero

In a market riddled with similar slates, no one's going to accuse Sony of adopting a copycat tablet strategy. First the company released the Tablet S, a tablet seemingly inspired by a folded-back magazine, and now comes the Tablet P, which draws its design from some combination of a Nintendo 3DS and a Kyocera Echo. We’ve been hearing about the Tablet P for more than a year, originally as the Tablet S2, and now it’s finally available: the clamshell device has two 5.5-inch displays, a Tegra 2 processor, dual cameras, Android 3.2, and data connectivity through AT&T's HSPA+ network. It's available for $399.99 with a two-year AT&T contract, or $549.99 contract-free (oddly, there’s even a $5 / month discount on your data bill if you don’t get a contract).

Sony's doing things very differently with the Tablet P, but is it fixing what wasn’t broken? Or does the new form factor solve a design problem we didn't know tablets had? Read on to find out if two screens really is better than one.


Video Review

Video Review

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Gaming consoles meet Android tablets

That the Tablet P comes in a phone-sized package is telling — the tablet has a surprisingly small footprint. Out of the box, the device is 3.1 inches wide by 7.1 inches tall and one inch thick, with a silvery plastic shell and black accents. It slips nicely into a jacket or even a jeans pocket (assuming you wear pretty baggy jeans), and at 13.1 ounces it won't weigh you down too much. The smooth case is interrupted only by the slightly protruding hinge, the camera lens, and four tiny feet that make the tablet sit upright even though its back is rounded. There's also a small rectangular notch cut out of the front of the case, where you pry open the device — a notification LED rests in the same spot, and glows green when you have a waiting notification.

The unassuming exterior flips open to reveal not one, but two 5.5-inch LCDs. They’re surrounded by black bezels, which could use a lot of slimming down; there's more than an inch on either side, plus about a half-inch on the top and bottom of the two displays and a third of an inch between them. The huge bezels make the Tablet P a lot larger than it ought to be, not to mention harder to hold and interact with since the screen is so far away from your thumb while you hold the tablet. Without the bezels, the device would be about the same size as a 3DS, which feels about right.

Most of the external buttons are grouped on the right side of the bottom display: there's a power button, an AC adapter port (the Tablet P won't charge via USB, which is a bummer), a Micro USB port, and volume buttons that are so small and recessed that they're very hard to press. The back also pops off into two pieces, one giving access to the full-size SIM card slot and the other to the battery and Micro SD card slot. Unfortunately the Tablet P lacks the IR transmitter found on the Tablet S, as well as the cool companion remote app.

The Tablet P is well-built and sturdy, with nice materials and a very reliable hinge — its ability to stand one screen vertically while the bottom lays flat is pretty awesome, allowing you to prop the device at almost any angle and see it at your desk, or use it as an alarm clock on your bedside tablet. It does creak a bit — the removable backs don't always feel like they're fully connected, and give a little more than I'd like when pressed. The real problem, though, is that this device’s design doesn't feel fully thought out. The back is nicely rounded and easy to hold, but the bottom corners of the device are really pointy, to the point where after about 20 minutes of holding the device, my hands actually hurt from the tablet digging into my palms. Things also default to the top display (when only one is in use, it’s always the top one), and it can be hard to hold the Tablet P and reach all the way up there. Nintendo did this much better on the DS, moving all your interaction to the bottom of the display and all your viewing to the top.

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Displays and speaker

Displays and speaker

Two displays, 11 inches of screen
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Each 5.5-inch display is a 1024 x 480 LCD, and they both look good, sharp with deep blacks and good contrast — Sony's TruBlack technology is at work here, and it makes the screens look great. Viewing angles are pretty bad, with colors washing out a bit once you get more than a little bit off-axis, and since the displays are usually at two different angles one screen is always going to be off-axis. There are also jaggies on text if you look hard enough, but in general the displays do fine. I don't love the displays' resolution, either, because it means videos have black borders on the right and left as you watch 16:9 video, but video still looks pretty good.

The biggest problem with the displays isn't the screens themselves, but once again the huge bezel between them. With most apps, you get the option to either use it on the top screen, or on both; normally for web pages or apps like Twitter, it'd be great to have as much vertical space as possible. The huge bezel kills the experience, though, putting a gigantic gap between the two displays that completely breaks up the flow of a page or app — and occasionally makes an app nearly impossible to use (more on that below). It doesn’t obscure any on-screen data, just makes it harder to follow.

There's only one speaker on the Tablet P, spewing sound through a small slit on the left side of the device. It's really underwhelming: everything comes out muted and muffled, and even at max volume isn't very loud at all. I spent a lot of time holding the tablet up to my ear to try and hear it, even in relatively quiet situations. The speaker's also located exactly where you'll likely place your left hand while holding the device, and my hand was more than enough to completely mute the sound – I thought I'd broken the tablet a couple of different times, before realizing my hand was just in the way. The iPad 2’s speaker has long been my benchmark for tablet speakers — it’s not great, but it’s at least decent — and the Tablet P's speaker is far below even Apple's.

Cameras

Cameras

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I wish tablet manufacturers would start offering cameraless versions of their tablets for a few dollars less — I'd take that tradeoff every single time, and I suspect I'm not the only one. The Tablet P's rear-facing 5-megapixel camera is functional, though it's far from a camera you'd want to use to preserve important memories. It's slow and produces soft, noisy photos, though it's not measurably worse than most other tablet cameras. It can also shoot 720p video, though it's not much to look at either.

The front-facing, 0.3-megapixel shooter, on the other hand, is comically awful. I can't remember the last time I saw a camera that let in so little light — unless you're basically pointing the camera at the sun, you're going to get impossibly dark photos. Don't even bother trying the front-facing camera, even for video chat.

It’s frustrating to see such a lackluster effort from a company that builds world-class camera parts, and an excellent camera could have really set Sony’s tablets apart — it seems like Sony also knows people don’t care about their tablet cameras.

Sony's better at building cameras than it shows here
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Software

Software

Sony's Honeycomb

The Tablet P runs Android 3.2.1, so my standard Honeycomb complaints apply: there's a fair amount of lag and sluggishness present all over the OS, though the Tablet P isn't a worse offender than any other Honeycomb tablet. There's some stuff to like, of course — multitasking is solid, for one — but Honeycomb's just not a great operating system. There's also the app problem, which sets Android tablets a long way behind the iPad; there just aren't enough good apps designed for tablets, and the few that exist are hard to find buried in the Android Market.

Honeycomb needs to be left behind even more than Gingerbread

Sony skinned the Tablet P's Honeycomb pretty heavily — thanks to the unique form factor, some customization seems necessary for anything to work at all. A few changes are head-smackingly obvious, too, like the fact that long-pressing on an app in the app drawer gives you the option to uninstall it right from there.

There’s also a quick-launch menu of sorts and a Favorites menu, which give you quick access to your most-used apps and bookmarks — that's nice, though it doesn't seem any more efficient than just adding bookmarks and apps to your homescreen. Most of the changes aren't for the better, however, especially aesthetically: the Tablet P's core apps all have purple icons, making them hard to pick out of the list, and the app drawer itself glows a bit as you look at it and goes into a weird 3D animation when you scroll. Everything's very animated and glitzy, but it's too much for my taste.

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Dual-screen apps

Sony also redesigned nearly every core app on the Tablet P, but the logic behind that makes a lot more sense. Most Android tablet apps weren't exactly developed with two displays in mind, so the responsibility for making the device work fell to Sony. Where the company could tweak things, it did a decent job: a number of parts of the operating system are cleverly optimized for the two screen layout. In some apps, like the browser, things flow seamlessly between displays, and the keyboard takes over the bottom display when you bring it up. That I love — having 5.5 full inches devoted to the keyboard, while still being able to see the browser above, is a great way to use the tablet. Email is similarly optimized; you see a folder and message list on the bottom display with a single message up top, and the keyboard takes over the bottom when activated. The Video player plays the video on the top display while displaying controls on the bottom; the Gallery app shows you the selected picture on top, and thumbnails of all your shots on the bottom. For some uses, two screens is a great thing, and Sony did a nice job of optimizing what it could.

Unfortunately, Sony can't do anything about most third-party apps, and that's a big problem. Sony's worked with a few app makers, and launches with 40 dual screen-optimized apps — Crash Bandicoot, Crackle, Foursquare, and more, which you can find through the Select Apps icon — and a few even come preloaded on the device. But for the most part, third-party apps from Gmail to Angry Birds are confined to the top screen — there's occasionally a toggle between "Single Screen" and "Full Screen," though you're better off leaving them on the top screen anyway. If you try to use Angry Birds on both screens, the middle of the screen — where all the action is — gets cut off by the bezel, so the game becomes really hard to play. Pinball Heroes is a little better, since most of the game happens at the bottom, but it’s still a jarring experience. The keyboard-as-bottom-display trick is common, which is nice, but the interface otherwise is really messy when you're not using an app tweaked by Sony. Sony says it's actively working with developers to get more Tablet P-ready apps, but for now you'll run out of things to do quickly.

There are a few new Sony apps on the device, like a Reader app for ebook reading and portals to Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services. All are decent portals to decent content, and Video Unlimited in particular has a nice selection of recent movies, but I'd wager there's probably little there you can’t find through Netflix, Hulu, Kindle, Spotify, and all the rest. There's little other bloatware to be found, fortunately — a few third-party apps like Evernote and a couple of games, but surprisingly little especially for a carrier-sponsored device.

Sony has promised an upgrade to Android 4.0, and in addition to the stability and usability improvements the new operating system should bring, there are a few other goodies in store as well, like Microsoft Office document compatibility. Even if the update does solve some of the Tablet P's problems, it won't solve the issue that very few apps work well on tablets, and even fewer of those will work well on the Tablet P. My recommendation for nearly anyone in the market for an Android tablet is to wait and buy a tablet already running Ice Cream Sandwich, and that seems an even better idea if you're intrigued by the Tablet P — wait for the upgrade, or just look for a more up-to-date device.

Playstation Certification

The Tablet P is a "PlayStation Certified" device, indicated by the four-icon logo placed near the hinge. It's a nice bit of branding synergy for Sony — the Xperia S and other devices are similarly certified — and means you can play a tiny selection of original PSOne games, but in practice it's not at all exciting. Playing Crash Bandicoot is all well and good, and it's actually much better on the Tablet P than most: the bottom screen is devoted to the game's controls, which makes the on-screen d-pad and buttons easier to manipulate. But the game selection is meager, and there are better games in the Android Market anyway.

Performance

Performance and battery life

Last year's internals still work well — mostly
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The 1GHz, dual-core Tegra 2 processor inside the Tablet P was for a time the standard Android tablet chip, and with good reason: even though it’s not exactly bleeding-edge anymore, it's extremely capable, running almost everything I did on the tablet without so much as a hiccup. Whether I was playing Crash Bandicoot, watching YouTube videos, or just browsing the web, the Tablet P always kept up. The only real issues I had while using the tablet seemed to all be software-based: a few actions took a while to complete, but mostly because there seem to be long, complex animations for almost every action that take a half-second longer getting you where you wanted to go. Our various benchmarks back up what I saw anecdotally: the Tablet P's Sunspider score of 2,109 is pretty good for a tablet, though its 1,900 Quadrant result isn't very impressive. But as I said, in practice I had few issues with the performance of the device, and that Quadrant score isn't poor, either – it's just not top-notch anymore.

The browser is a particularly bright spot, handling image-heavy sites (like this one) better than most Android devices, especially with respect to pinch-and-zoom: it wasn't perfect, but it was far better than the stock browser typically does. Of course, as with all Android tablets, it still defaults to loading mobile sites even though it's plenty large enough to handle full ones, and it has its font-rendering issues as well — but I'll take what I can get.

The Tablet P connects to AT&T’s network, but unfortunately there’s no LTE support — you just get HSPA+. Once again it’s clear that the Tablet P was designed a year ago, before AT&T’s LTE was more than a glimmer, and didn’t get a spec bump before coming to market. The improvement from HSPA+ to LTE is a huge one, too, so it’s frustrating to see Sony not take advantage. Reception is good, though since I wasn’t using a Sony-approved SIM card I can’t really speak for its speed. It seems to be about what you’d expect from an HSPA+ device, though.

Two screens totaling 11 inches means a lot for the Tablet P's battery to power, which is why there's a gigantic 3,080mAh battery inside the rear cover (it's removable, too). It’s a good thing, too, because even with the giant cell the Tablet P's battery life is only average — it lasted me a full day of playing games, emailing, browsing, and listening to music, but was just about dead at the end of a long workday. That was all over Wi-Fi, too, and I’ve used a number of tablets that last longer.

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Even if its specs were high-end, the Tablet P wouldn't be

The Sony Tablet P is an intriguing idea: putting a full-fledged Android tablet into a Nintendo DS-like clamshell form factor has some real potential upside. Its form factor — mostly the relatively large, high-resolution screens — should also be a sign to Nintendo (and even Sony's PlayStation division) of how to build a portable gaming device. But Sony doesn’t seem to have put its full weight into the device: it has an outdated (if still good) chipset, and outdated (and not that good) network connectivity and software.

For the Tablet P to really work as more than just a console, Sony would also have to convince every developer in the Android Market to code a version of their app that makes sense on the dual-screened form factor — the apps that aren't optimized become a pretty poor experience thanks to the odd screen resolutions and the difficulty of accessing the top screen while holding the device. It would also need to drop the huge bezel and make the device easier to hold — it's nice and small when it's closed, but unwieldy when you flip it open. Add all that together, and the Sony Tablet P becomes a hard sell even for the biggest fans of the Nintendo DS form factor. If you want gaming, stick with the PlayStation Vita, which is also available on AT&T, and if you want a tablet that has good games you can’t beat the iPad 2.

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