This is an Android tablet. And as anyone who has followed this industry knows, it takes a lot to make an Android tablet stand out. Some, such as Motorola and Samsung, fight the hardware game, touting dual-core chips and high-end graphics. Other, such as HTC — and supposedly, Amazon — focus instead on software, modifying the Android experience just enough to separate their devices from other tablets on the market.
And then there is Sony, doing a little bit of both — trying to look unique and functionally different, with a radical curved design and Sony software suite. Make no mistake, the Tablet S1 is an interesting device — a different device — but that alone does not a good tablet make. You're still dealing with Android here, which bears the brunt of the Tablet S' problems, and Ice Cream Sandwich won't necessarily make the experience any better.
But the Sony Tablet S1 isn't all doom and gloom. It packs some good hardware, and there's a case to be made for the device's intriguing curved design. If you're in the market for a high-end Android tablet, there are worse decisions you could make — but it does come at a price. Let's take a closer look.
Look and Feel
The Sony Tablet S is not a thin device. Rather, it isn't iPad thin, but Macbook thin, which may be concerning for those of you who like shaving with your tablet's razor-sharp edge. This is intentional, as far as we can tell, though there's a method to the company's madness.
Instead of emulating the analog world with faux-leather UIs and page-flip animations, Sony has built the very notion of reading into the design itself. There is a thick, curved portion at the top of the device, that tapers down to depth of the screen. According to the company's marketing machine, this is meant to emulate the look of a folded magazine, one sided curved beneath the other — as they like to say, "all our innovations folded into one."
And it actually does work, to an extent. Holding the device in one hand, portrait style, feels more comfortable than the comparatively weighty iPad ever did, despite both devices weighing exactly the same — an illusion, where the bump shifts weight to one place. The textured grip on the back of the device also helps to keep things steady.
But that asymmetrical design comes at a price. You can't switch hands on a subway or bus without flipping the device 180°. It's difficult to hold from the thin, tapered side, and placing the device flat is also an impossibility. On the one hand, the curve acts as a built-in stand, raising the device by about 4°, and making the Tablet S inherently useful for landscape typing. But assuming you want to read or type in portrait mode — a legitimate use — the Tablet S bump works against you in this regard.
It's worth restating that the Tablet S is, in fact, the same weight as the iPad, yet feels much cheaper in terms of construction. The tablet is plastic through-and-through, which doesn't instill the greatest confidence for a $500 device — not to mention how hollow it feels when tapping your fingers across its back.
From an engineering perspective, the curve serves another purpose. The Sony Tablet S packs a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 chipset, the same found in the Motorola Xoom, and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10,1. These aren't necessarily thin devices, but the Tablet S' unique design allows most of those components to be pushed to one place.
The display is a 9.4" 1280x800 pixel LCD panel, using Sony's Bravia-style TruBlack technology — which competes surprisingly well against the iPad 2's IPS display, as far as colour and contrast are concerned. There is, however, one very important caveat. The Tablet S' screen is poorly protected, and an absolute magnet for scratches. One trip inside a messenger bag with a months-old iPad 2 produced a nasty scratch across the type of the device. The fact that Sony already sells a Tablet S screen protector on their website is insulting.
Worse still, a proprietary connector is required to charge the device, despite the existence of a perfectly good miniUSB port on the side. In typical Sony fashion, this can only be used for the purpose of transferring data, meaning you'll be out of luck without Sony's bulky charging brick on hand.
Sony has done well to include an SD card slot on the side of the device, theoretically for the purposes of expanded storage. And in a sense, that's exactly what it does. You can use a spare SD card to store various files, but here's the kicker — you cannot access them without transferring them to them to the device's internal memory first. This makes no sense, considering other Android devices pull this feat off without issue. Some Market apps seem able to bypass this restriction, for whatever reason, though the same can't be said for Sony's pre-loaded apps.
Finally, it's worth noting there are two cameras, a 5 MP back and VGA front. They're nothing special, with low-light quirks, and some serious auto-focusing woes woes in the back, but still there should the urge to capture something strike.
The Tabet S is running Android 3.1, the latest version of Google's Honeycomb OS. That said, you wont find a stock Android experience, but a lightly skinned Sony UI. And it's slow. The stock home screen is sluggish in a way that a dual-core tablet shouldn't be, the app drawer takes its sweet time presenting itself, and perhaps most maddeningly at all, it takes seconds for the power button to activate the display. Actual seconds. The number varies, depending on how long it has been since the tablet was last used, but it's inexcusable in any case.
Unsurprisingly, Sony has seen fit to bundle a variety of Sony-brand media with the device. A sampling of Sony Music artists has been preloaded onto the internal storage, in addition to a trailer for The Green Hornet — all of which can be removed.
What you can't remove, however, are any of the pre-loaded Sony applications. Crash Bandicoot, Pinball Heroes, Sony Reader and more are there to stay. The garish purple color scheme sticks out pretty easily, so you'll know what's been added or skinned, but good luck trying to make them go away.
That's not to say all of these apps are necessarily bad. One bright point — and indeed, the functionality with which Sony has been pushing this tablet the most — is the device's universal remote app, essentially, a glorified IR blaster. In a decidedly un-Sony move, this app is not only compatible with Sony devices, but almost any piece of home theater hardware imaginable. There's a database of codes preloaded onto the device, and more can be added and programmed if needed. We could even emulate an Apple remote and control our MacBook Pro without issue.
Conveniently, Sony is the latest manufacturer to bake DLNA streaming options into the tablet itself — though you'll have to use their own apps to do it. For example, Sony's Music app has the ability to "throw" currently playing songs to a PlayStation 3 or similar DLNA-supported devices. You can also do the opposite, and connect to DLNA servers to play remotely supported content.
We received our first glimpse of Sony's PlayStation Suite initiative with the Xperia play, a modest phone-meets-gamepad with the ability to play emulated PlayStation One titles — capabilities that have now come to the Tablet S. But with the absence of a physical gamepad, the controls have been shifted on-screen.
Surprisingly, the result isn't so bad. Because most PSX titles are rendered in an aspect ratio of 4:3, there remain black bars on each side of the screen — perfect for which to place on-screen controls. There's still some overlap with the action on-screen, but nowhere near the flurry of thumbs that tend to obscure gameplay on smaller screens. That said, you can still stretch the picture to fit the tablet's native aspect ratio.
However, Sony's Suite is marred by the same problems here as its pocket-sized predecessor — a complete and utter lack of support. Available titles are the same as on the Xperia Play, and the Market has been stagnant and devoid of updates. The sole exception is Pinball Heroes, a quirky PSP title that has been ported to Android.
Perhaps most concerning is what will happen when the next version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, is finally released. CES was full of so-called Android tablets, running ill-fitting builds of Gingerbread and lesser Android revisions. The experience was disheartening. And Honeycomb was supposed to fix all of that.
But that's clearly not the case. Months in, there are still no apps. First party functionality — the Google suite of apps that Sony has thankfully left intact — is good as ever. But beyond that, the Sony Tablet S functions like every other Android tablet. There are cosmetic differences, of course — in this case, some good, and some bad — but at its core, it is still an Android tablet. At this point, it's unclear what Ice Cream Sandwich can do.
This isn't all Sony's fault. The Honeycomb experience is simply overwhelmingly middling. It almost makes you wonder if Sony went out of its way to make a curved piece of plastic — a uniquely designed and functional piece of plastic, mind you — for the sake of being different.
The 16GB Sony Tablet S is available for $499.99, with optional dock and wireless Bluetooth keyboard, both of which are pictured below.