updated 03:30 pm EDT, Wed August 31, 2011
We take an early look at the Tablet S
Sony's highlight of IFA on Wednesday was its introduction of the Tablet S and the Tablet P. Both Android 3.1 tablets are designed to be more portable than usual tablets as well as tap into Sony's existing services, like Music and Video Unlimited as well as Reader and even home theater equipment. Read ahead for our hands-on time with the Tablet S as well as launch details for both models.
The S is perhaps the most uniquely shaped tablet on the market, with a unique wrapped design meant to recall a folded-back magazine and a design deliberately weighted to make it comfortable to hold without feeling top-heavy. Right from the start, that shape becomes its defining feature. In our experience, although it's exactly as heavy as an iPad 2 (1.3 pounds), it's very comfortable hold in either ratio without the feeling that your wrists will hurt over time. The bulge created by the wrap shape is very useful for one-handed use, too: you can grip it very authoritatively in portrait mode without it slipping.
The display also bears mention. At 9.4 inches, it's just slightly smaller than the iPad or Galaxy Tab 10.1 but, as a result, feels just that much more portable without compromising the interface. Sony is using a technique it calls TruBlack that provides deeper blacks and overall higher contrast than a regular LCD. Generally, the blacks do look deeper, although in the loft-like environment we tried the Tablet S in, the overall quality wasn't as easy to discern. It's generally one of the better-looking tablet screens we've seen.
On the sides, expansion is minimal but more than you usually get on a tablet: there's a micro USB port to take in some low-power peripherals with an adapter and, importantly, a full-size SD card slot. Prying open the cover on it takes some effort, but it's an appreciated extra. Sony has managed to fit stereo speakers as well and should finally lead to clear sound, although we noticed that the sound at max volume wasn't as loud as we'd like.
Software customization isn't as extensive as initially thought: other than some (fairly convenient) shortcuts at the top, most of what's been added is contained entirely in apps. The biggest addition, to us, is a new "throw" media sharing feature. Much like a very visual AirPlay, you can hit a button in any of Sony's own media apps and get an interface that lets you drag your media -- music, photos, or videos -- to an icon representing the intended source. There's some significant lag if you try to throw a 1080p video, but it's as intuitive as Apple's equivalent. It uses DLNA, too, so you can push to a PS3 or any other device that supports the standard, not just Sony's equipment.
That includes speakers: one of Sony's introductions, the SA-NS500, is a completely wireless, battery-powered speaker that can take both DLNA and AirPlay sources for up to five hours.
The built-in IR blaster on the Tablet S could potentially be a Trojan horse. At present, it's mostly a faster, more responsive alternative to the Wi-Fi remotes others are made to use. The upside of IR, though, is that it can be programmed very easily; it has the same breadth as most programmable remotes and, in a fitting bit of irony, can even steer Apple iPod dock. We were disappointed, however, that it can't be set to run macros yet: it won't replace a Logitech Harmony remote, although there's a chance that might come in the future.
Other changes are subtler but do show Sony is trying to strike a fine balance between customization and what's good from Google's own work. The camera app for the five-megapixel rear and VGA front cameras has a "film strip" that makes it much easier to see earlier photos, although there isn't much customization for photo settings. The music player has either an efficient if conventional browser (slightly more so than the stock app) or a stylized album cover-based navigator; it has an iTunes Genius-style SensMe automatic playlist generator. The keyboard has been very lightly customized, but mostly to fit the Sony visual theme.
Performance is fairly brisk. Although it's a Tegra 2-based tablet like others (including the Tablet P), we didn't encounter much of the infamous Android lag like we have on the Motorola Xoom or a few others.
If there's a disappointment, it's the PlayStation Suite borrowed from the Xperia Play. A currently small game selection notwithstanding, it doesn't so far scale that well to the larger screen. Performance is fine, but the PlayStation 1-level games don't scale gracefully to the larger screen or to touchscreen-only input. We'd suggest holding out for tablet-native games in the suite or else Android Market.
Accessories are relatively few but do go beyond the basics. The $39 tablet dock is very easy to use -- there's none of the hunting around for the dock connector like on an iPad -- and can invoke either an alarm clock app or a photo frame mode. The Bluetooth keyboard ($79) isn't just a regular input device, either: it's one of the few to have native Android 3 controls built-in, so touching is only needed if it's something a keyboard couldn't do.
Our takeaway from the Tablet S at this early stage is that it may be one of the few to have a reasonable answer to the question "why should I get this instead of an iPad?" If you have an elaborate home theater or just want an easy way to push media without going the Apple route, the Tablet S looks to be a good early fit. Our main reservation is just that, for everyone else, it's down to ergonomics. There are many Tegra 2-powered tablets, and the iPad 2 is faster; you'll have to truly value the (admittedly well done) body to pick it over something else.
The Tablet S is due to ship on September 16 for $499 in a 16GB Wi-Fi version and $599 for a 32GB version also with Wi-Fi. Electronista hopes to have a full review before the launch.
The Tablet P, formerly the S2, still doesn't have definite release details. The dual 5.5-inch clamshell will be similar on the inside to the S outside of reduced camera and IR features, but it's still only due to ship sometime before the end of the year. Sony has already said that a '4G' version will be available through AT&T in the US.