Sony is a comparatively late entrant into the Android tablet fray, bringing forth two tablets of very different character. The Tablet S is the rather more conventional of the pair, but Sony does at least manage to differentiate. Is there a place for the Sony Tablet S in a market flooded with similar devices?
Design and build
The most obvious differentiator is in design. We heard of it likened to a folded newspaper and that's how it feels in the hand. It's interesting certainly, and the effect is something you feel as soon as you pick it up. Other tablets can feel a little difficult to grip sensibly with one hand, but held in portrait, the Tablet S sits very nicely indeed.
The design also suits landscape gripping rather well. It is lighter and more comfortable to hold than many similar specced tablets. At 598g it's noticeably lighter and more comfortable than something like the Motorola Xoom. That "folded" design gives you a little more substance to grip when holding the tablet to watch a movie or browse the Internet.
It's light, thanks to the use of plastics. It doesn't have a "premium" aluminium shell or anything else and it does feel a little cheap. There is some flex in the centre of this folded section which we imagine is largely empty inside - it certainly sounds hollow when you give it a knock. This has to be set in the context of weight however so that's the trade-off: it's lighter but has a plasticky feel to it.
Finally on the design we found that we often covered the speakers when holding the device. They're placed a third of the way up on the left and right sides, just about where you might want to grip the tablet. The opening is on the rear slope of the screen - inside the fold, if you will - so you don't muffle it entirely, but we did occasionally have to shuffle the tablet around to get the best performance. The speakers are typical for a device of this type and headphones will give you a much better audio experience.
Display, specifications and controls
The display is a 1280 x 800 pixel 9.4-inch LCD, resulting in nice sharp and colourful visuals. It isn't the brightest display out there, and once you get into the glare of the great outdoors or next to a big bright window, you'll find that it suffers. It gives you a pixel density of 160ppi, higher than most other tablets, so copes better with fine detail than some: text looks crisper and you can resolve more on a website with less zooming, for example. The design also means that when lying "flat" the screen is at an angle, much more practical for reading, typing or browsing. The only problem we found is that when typing, our heavy fingers were obviously causing some flex in the Tablet S, again bringing us back to that question of whether the plastics are sturdy enough.
Naturally, as this is a Honeycomb tablet (Android 3.2 at the time of writing), the controls are on-screen, so you are only left with the power/standby and volume controls.
Physical connections are on the light side. There is the 3.5mm headphone jack and then a Micro-USB and SD card slot hide under a flap. The decision to go with SD card is interesting, as we see this is aimed at those wanting to pull the card out of their digital camera, rather than at those who want to expand the internal storage.
Support of external storage cards was a recent addition to Honeycomb and in this case, Sony don't support it in the traditional sense. You can't expand over the internal memory, but you can copy files from the SD card using the File Transfer software on the Tablet S. This is simple enough to use, allowing you to copy folders to your internal memory.
If you happen to have a Micro-USB to USB adapter you'll be able to attach any USB thumb drive, but again you'll have to transfer the content to your internal memory. Our review model came with 16GB of internal memory although there is a more expensive 32GB option too, if you are willing to part with an extra £80.
Power comes in the form of a bespoke connector on the bottom left-hand corner of the device, ideal for those who want to dock the Tablet S. Sony do make a charging "cradle", the SGP-DS1, which will cost you £39.99. In terms of wireless connections you get Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1 and you can opt for 3G if you're willing to fork out the cash on the most expensive model.
Internally you'll get a fairly typical tablet hardware configuration: a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset, with 1GB RAM sitting in support. There is a 5-megapixel camera on the rear of the device and 0.3-megapixel unit on the front, average specs for Android tablets.
One thing that you won't find elsewhere is the IR transmitter, more on which later.
Sony takes on Honeycomb
Differentiation needs more than just a fancy design however, so Sony has added a few software tricks to try and set the tablet apart from its rivals. Sony has eyes on the Tablet S as a sofa companion: it's all about entertainment at home, the IR control meaning you can control your existing devices after setup and media support giving you a route to Sony's content.
Starting with the very basics, this is an Android tablet offering you the same Honeycomb user interface we've seen on any number of rival tablets, such as the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Asus EeePad Transformer or ViewSonic ViewPad 7x. We've covered this in detail previously, so we're not going to do so again here, save to say it works well on tablets, bringing the connectivity of Android to the fore, whilst giving you plenty of space to play. There is still a lack of apps specifically designed to cope with a larger display format, but that's never been a barrier to getting apps to work well on Honeycomb tablets.
Each manufacturer tries to bring some sort of software tweak and for Sony that comes in the form of some alterations to Android and apps to leverage existing Sony assets. In Honeycomb you'll notice additional icons across the top of the display, offering easy access to things like the browser, giving you more space on the main homescreen.
There is also a Favorites app, into which you can pile said favourites, although given that you can easily customise any of the five homescreens we have to wonder whether this has much real value. The app menu has changed visually too, and it seems counter-intuitive that Sony have removed the shortcut to the Android Market from the top bar, making it just that little more fiddly than the original.
The keyboard has also been changed and we actually found it very usable. A lighter take than the Honeycomb average, Sony haven't changed too much, but it is responsive and we found, thanks to the rake of the display, it's easy to type on. Alternate characters are available with a long press of various keys, and predictive/corrective suggestions are present.
Adding a little Sony magic
Sony has bundled a number of applications that access various parts of the existing Sony machine: Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited, for music and video downloads and Reader, for handling ebooks. A Social Feeds Reader will give you Twitter and Facebook and SelectApp offers app suggestions, although this is through the browser and isn't anything to get excited about.
The IR remote functions are a little more exciting. Like any universal remote, the Tablet S comes preloaded with hundreds of manufacturers and remote configurations and within minutes we had our Samsung TV and Blu-ray player, Virgin Media box and a second, much older, LG TV all set-up and running. You can also custom program remotes through a learning function. The beauty of this feature is that you can sit with your tablet on your lap and control your TV without scrabbling around for the remote: it's a one-stop entertainment shop.
Music Unlimited has spun out of Qriocity, but we found that tapping icon told us the service wasn't available yet, so we're guessing the app is yet to be developed, because you can access the music via the browser. Video Unlimited likewise is on offer, the app is there and ready to sell you videos on a rental, or permanent ownership basis at varying prices. Owning a movie can be expensive though, with titles costing more than a DVD would, and nearly as much as a Blu-ray. And that's for standard definition.
Finally you have Reader. The features that Reader offers will differ depending on where you live. If you don't have access to the Sony Reader Store in your region, you'll have no access through the app. Sadly, the Tablet S also didn't care that we connected it to a Mac running Reader for Mac, so there are no direct syncing opportunities that we could find with existing Reader devices.
More significantly, we couldn't find any way to authorise Reader on the tablet with our Adobe ID, so although it reads EPUB files, it won't read those with DRM in place, i.e, anything you might have purchased. Overdrive Media Console, Aldiko and the Kindle app may serve your ebook needs sufficiently and are universally available in the Android Market.
The Tablet S has the PlayStation Certified logo on the back, meaning you'll get access to games that you won't find elsewhere. Whether those are enough to draw you to this tablet is a different story: we weren't quite convinced that the offering was strong enough on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, a device built for gaming, Crash Bandicoot or not.
Elsewhere you get DNLA streaming integrated into the media players of the Tablet S, so you can effectively "send" your music or video to connected devices. This rivals Apple's AirPlay in function. It is neatly implemented and in a world where out-of-the-box functions matter, it's great to see it included and working so well, and direct from the music and video players.
The DNLA app had no problem finding our Cisco media server and playing back the content from it, with a range of video formats and audio formats supported. It isn't fully aware of all codecs however, and we can't help feeling that if Sony wanted a killer media tablet, then supporting more formats would be an obvious move.
Wi-Fi woes, browser, cameras, battery
One thing we quickly noticed with the Sony Tablet S was problems with Wi-Fi. The Tablet S consistently refused to connect to the BT HomeHub 3 but would connect to a second Wi-Fi point on the same network, even if the range seemed limited. This is the first time we've seen this in any Android device, so it's certainly something to look out for.
However, Sony has done some clever tweaking to the browser, so the page loading speeds are faster than you might expect and set alongside our Motorola Xoom, it loaded pages faster. We did find one oddity with BBC iPlayer: it would regularly flash a triangular tear in the upper left quadrant of the playing video. We didn't notice this on any other video websites, but it happened on every visit to BBC iPlayer, so could be a wider problem.
The 5-megapixel camera on the back is pretty respectable, even though we don't think photography from a tablet really holds much stock. It is autofocus and Sony has tweaked the interface slightly, giving you a gallery roll across the bottom of the screen to see the pics you've captured. Video offers continuous autofocus at 720/30p so puts in a good showing for itself.
Battery life from the Tablet S seems typical. We managed to get around 10 hours from it, which is quite decent really.
There is a lot going on in Sony's tablet. As a package, it's certainly appealing for those that don't want to mess around finding the right apps to do the various jobs that the Tablet S will do out of the box. But at the same time, there isn’t much here that you can't do on any other Android tablet: Spotify, Skifta, Aldiko and Lovefilm basically cover the elements that Sony brings.
The uniqueness comes in the form of that IR remote and the neat design, which do set it apart. We'd perhaps like it to be a little more sturdy, but we appreciate the lightness in the hand. We're sure that the Wi-Fi issue and the issue we encountered with BBC iPlayer can be addressed through software updates, but not being able to expand the memory with a card is a little inhibiting.
We're sure the Tablet S will be popular because it is convenient and competitively priced at £399 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version. But for us, there are a few issues that should be sorted out before we'd put it to the top of our Android tablet list.