Sony's entrance into the tablet category should be applauded. Unlike it competitors, Sony has created genuinely unique devices, considering how its customers will use tablets rather than just slapping a big touchscreen down and calling it a day. But while its Tablet S is among our favourite Android tablets, the Tablet P is a novelty at best, destined only for mocking retrospectives.
The Tablet P's dual-touchscreen design is both its genius and its ultimate downfall. Like a giant Game & Watch, the Tablet P has two vertically aligned displays that interact with each other in a number of ways. Sometimes they work together, spreading the image of an app across the combined real estate on offer. Other times, they work to complement one another, where the top screen is the output screen and the bottom screen is for user controls. You find the latter layout in the Gmail app and the Sony-designed games.
The problem, though, is that third-party-developed apps have no idea of how to make use of this design. Many apps display across a single screen only, while other apps sit between the two screens, using half of the top and half of the bottom. There is a "zoom" button that appears when a third-party app is launched that offers the option to use a single screen or switch to full screen, but we found this to be imprecise, too, where some apps stretched to beyond the edges of the screen. A good example of this is the Dropbox app, which expanded so far past the viewing area that username-input boxes were unusable.
The Google Play app only ever displays on a single screen.
Choosing "full screen" for this video player stretches playback awkwardly over the dual displays.
With its clamshell design, the Tablet P isn't winning awards for thinnest or lightest, although its shape when closed, and its 372g weight, is much better in a small bag than other tablets on the market. Both of its LCD displays are lovely to look at, and although Sony isn't using the marketing jargon that Sony Ericsson has in the last 12 months, these screens certainly seem to be cut from the same cloth as the Reality displays on the Xperia Arc and others. These screens need excellent viewing angles, of course, given that you are likely to use the Tablet P with the screens at various angles of open. Happily, it excels in this area, with good colour and contrast at most viewable angles.
Interestingly, both halves of the plastic exterior casing are removable, with a SIM slot under the top half and a microSD card slot under the bottom half. The Tablet P is also the first tablet we've seen with a removable battery.
However, it's missing so many other features, too. It doesn't have an infrared transmitter, like the Tablet S, so you can't use it as a universal remote for your home-theatre system. It also doesn't have a physical TV-out option, leaving the media sharing to the built-in DLNA capabilities over Wi-Fi.
Despite the tablet's numerous physical shortcomings, it actually is a pretty solid performer. Sony's tablet user interface works well here, with smooth animations and nice touches, like the way the light appears to move over the icons when you first open the app tray. These aesthetic tweaks give the tablet an assured and professional presentation. Web browsing is also fast and seamless, with pages loading quickly and Adobe Flash elements playing without a hitch.
Sony chose an Nvidia Tegra 2 processor to power the Tablet P, and although this is a generation behind the quad-core Tegra 3 chip that we are already seeing in competitor tablets this year, it certainly does the job. Interestingly, the use of two independent displays has a noticeable impact on the performance as a whole, especially when we ran an OpenGL benchmark. With only a single screen active, the Tablet P completed the test at 9 frames per second (fps) — not a great result, but in line with the performance that we saw from tablets last year. But when we use both top and bottom displays to run the test, with the image spread across the two, the result halves, to 4.3fps.
Battery life is also a concern, with the Tablet P managing just four hours on both a heavy-duty video-playback test and a web-browsing test over Wi-Fi. This is several hours short of most other Android tablets, and half of the battery life you can expect from an iPad or Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.7. To make matters worse, Sony includes a bulky proprietary charger with the tablet; one that you definitely don't want to have to lug around with you all day long.
|Sony Tablet P||Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9||Motorola Xoom 2||Apple iPad (2012)|
|Android 3.2||Android 3.2||Android 3.2||Apple iOS 5.1|
|Tegra 2, dual 1GHz||Dual 1.2GHz||TI OMAP, dual 1.2GHz||Apple A5X, dual-core 1GHz|
|1GB RAM||1GB RAM||1GB RAM||1GB RAM|
|4GB storage, microSD||32GB storage||32GB storage, microSD||8GB, 16GB, 32GB storage|
Weighing up the differences between the numerous tablets available is difficult, but there is one thing that Sony tablets offer that the competition cannot replicate: Sony's entertainment platform. It's been a long time coming, but Sony has finally unified its digital content offerings, and it's all available on the Tablet P. Sony's streaming services, Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited, are both pre-installed on the P, alongside the free-to-use Crackle movie app. The Tablet P is also "PlayStation Certified", and although this doesn't mean much yet, it does come with the promise of unique PlayStation games for the tablet down the track.
Most of these apps are merely windows to storefronts where you'll be coerced into spending more money, but then, so is iTunes. The Unlimited apps are well laid out, though, with great navigation and good discovery tools for surfacing content buried deep in the archives.
Sony also pre-installs Crash Bandicoot as a taste for what's to come for Sony-exclusive gaming on mobile devices. It also showcases one of the better uses for the dual-screen layout, with the game playing up top and the virtual control pad taking up the bottom display.
Although we don't imagine that the quality of this tablet's cameras will have too great an impact on whether you choose to buy one or not, it should be noted that this shooter is a stinker. The photos we've taken show decent focus, but they all look washed out, with poor colour reproduction.
We applaud Sony for taking a unique approach to tablet design, and for trying to deliver a great user experience in a device that isn't just another big, black chopping board. That said, the Tablet P is more of a novelty than a successful experiment in computing, with more crosses than ticks against its name. While its dual, five-inch display layout may sound like you'll end up with a tablet comparable to one with a single 10-inch screen, this equation doesn't work out so neatly. Too often, the second screen remains unused, or renders apps unusable, and you're left with a single screen to work with.
We do like Sony's content offerings, though, so while the Tablet P may not be the device we'd recommend, we do suggest that you check out the Tablet S. You get the same user experience and pre-installed software, but without the numerous trade-offs.