Sony's track record in industrial design, hardware engineering, gaming and media makes it the best possible candidate to challenge Apple's iPad. A year and a half after Apple's tablet debut, Sony is striking back with an Android 3.2 slate that is bound to turn heads and win some fans.
Priced at AU$579 (16GB) and AU$689 (32GB) for Wi-Fi models with no 3G in sight, the Sony Tablet S isn't looking to be an inexpensive iPad alternative. It represents an elevation in the art of making Android tablets, and offers a genuinely fresh take on tablet design.
Sony's tablet is easy to spot in a line-up. Its unique wedge shape gives it a futuristic look and provides improved balance in your hand compared with the flat competition. As seen when placed on a table, the screen's forward slant minimises glare and makes it more comfortable to type. The trade-off is that the Tablet S doesn't achieve the same thinness as an iPad 2, though the Tablet S is just as light at 598 grams and feels more solid than the Android slate that Australia will never see, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
Sony's charging adapter is as unique as its tablet, but its proprietary design makes it tough to replace.
Around the sides you'll find buttons for power and volume, speakers, a headphone jack, and a tethered cover protecting a micro-USB sync connection and a full-size SD card reader. A built-in app handles moving files back and forth from your card. It's worth noting that unlike other Honeycomb tablets, the SD card reader here functions just for media transfer and isn't meant to act as a memory expansion port.
Sony also made an interesting choice by going with a 9.4-inch screen instead of the 10.1-inch panel used on nearly every other Honeycomb tablet out there. Its TruBlack technology tips up from its Bravia TV line too to make the screen contrast really pop. Though the screen is slightly smaller than those found on most of its Honeycomb cousins, you really don't feel the pinch while using it and it actually helps to bring the overall form factor closer to the iPad's dimensions.
You get Google's full Android 3.1 experience; everything from Gmail to Google Talk (with video chat) comes ready to go right out of the box. On top of that you get access to Sony's Entertainment Network, as well as the PlayStation Network. The Tablet S runs emulator software allowing it to play select PS One and PSP game titles. The original PS One hit Crash Bandicoot comes pre-installed, along with a version of Pinball Heroes.
Sony has also included some interesting options for pushing media content from these tablets onto DLNA-compatible speakers, PCs or TVs (and not just Sony's). You can think of it as Sony's answer to Apple's AirPlay media streaming, only more broadly compatible with third-party technology.
Also playing into Sony's focus on the tablet as a living-room entertainment device is the inclusion of an IR blaster and universal remote app on the S tablet. Having tried a demo of this feature personally, we can safely say that it makes the remote functionality of the Vizio tablet look like amateur hour. Essentially, Sony cannibalised its own HomeShare premium universal remote and slapped the same software inside the S tablet. The result is a graphically rich remote that you might actually want to use.
Sony's Tablet S includes a universal IR remote capability for controlling your home electronics.
In that same spirit of borrowing from its best technology to make a compelling tablet, Sony has borrowed the Exmor image technology from its digital cameras to make a tablet camera that's actually worth a damn. The touchscreen panels on both tablets take advantage of the TruBlack technology used on its Bravia HDTV sets, as we mentioned, providing richer contrast and minimising reflections between the LCD and the glass above it. Sony even threw in the Dash's Chumby widgets, transforming the tablet into a high-tech photo frame/widget display when the device is placed in an optional dock.
Sony's tablet is a mixed bag in terms of performance. For example, its beautiful TruBlack screen falls a little short in terms of overall screen brightness.
Another example is the optimised web browser, which prioritises image downloads so that pages appear to load faster, even if overall page download time isn't necessarily improved. Like the TruBlack screen, it's a feature we're glad to have, but doesn't come across as an improvement when measured objectively.
One standout feature that performed undeniably well was the 5-megapixel rear camera. Photos came to life with a vibrancy we hadn't seen on other competing tablets. Little extras, such as a digital macro, manual exposure adjustments and preset scene modes, offer the kind of flexibility you'd expect at this price.
In terms of battery life, Sony rates the Tablet S at around eight hours of mixed use. Full recharge takes around five hours of charge time using the included power adapter. The adapter uses a proprietary contact-only connection, which has the advantage of not wrecking the tablet if it becomes yanked. Unfortunately, the unique design means that you'll need to go to Sony for a replacement if your adapter goes missing.
Sony's tablet is uniquely its own. Beyond the eye-catching design, you can't help but see Sony's hard work in the attention to detail running throughout the subtle Android optimisations, software selections and feature refinements.
Now, Sony's timing isn't great. It's making the case for a premium Honeycomb tablet 10 months after the operating system made its debut. But you have to give it credit for really making something on its own terms that showcases the best of what it has to offer. Sony has the media content, the gaming legacy, an eye for elegant design and some solid technological advantages. Whether it can get us to open our pocketbooks remains to be seen.