(Pocket-lint) - Tablets, like smartphones, are ten a penny now. You can get a rubbish one for £80, or a really great one for £400. They usually all look pretty much the same, are mostly either about 10- or 7-inches in size and are mostly comprised of a screen. The Sony Tablet P, on the other hand, offers something unique: a folding clam-shell design.
The question is, does this unique-looking device bring enough to the table to justify its steep asking price, or is it just another niche product that will sell tiny numbers and disappear without a second version ever being produced?
The clam-shell design reminds us of a glasses case, to some extent. Within are two 5.5-inch capacitive touchscreens, a 1GHz, dual-core Cortex A9 processor and 1GB of RAM. But for the time being, let's look at the external gubbins.
The bottom of the tablet has a removable cover, under which the battery sits along with the microSD card slot. A 2GB card is supplied by the way, but you can fit as much as 32GB, should the mood take you.
The top cover is also removable, and it is under here that you'll find the 3G SIM card socket. This is a nice addition, and if you don't read the manual, it will take you a while to work out where it is.
On the external surfaces there are a few basic buttons and sockets. Sony has opted for a propritary 12v power connector and this can be forund on the right-hand side of the device. Next to it is a power button and there's a USB 2 socket too. There are also volume controls in the form of a rocker switch that's fairly hard to press.
On the front of the Tablet P, you'll find a headphone jack and, if you look really carefully, you'll see a notification light too. We really like this long, strip light. It's location is sensible for telling you when a message comes in. You can see it from a decent number of angles too, which is good and it's bright enough to really attract your attention.
There are two cameras here. A top-mounted 5-megapixel shooter, that does a decent job with images, and another, mounted next to the topmost screen. This is a VGA only, 0.3-megapixel camera, and it's pretty horrible to be honest. It will, however, suffice for Skype video calls.
Making use of the screens
It isn't a huge surprise that, to take advantage of the two screens, you really need to have a specially written app. Of course, Sony has gone to some effort to make sure that its apps are coded to use both, but the same can't be said about third-party apps.
And who can blame app developers for not seeing this one coming? Even now the Tablet P is out, we still can't really see developers being that interested in making their apps dual-screen aware. If in the future more dual-screen tablets hit the market, then we've no doubt support will grow. But until then, we can't see anyone really developing apps for the Tablet P.
That doesn't mean the tablet has no value, but Sony hasn't entirely managed to capitalise on it either. For example, when you're watching a video, the content plays on the top screen, and the bottom has some software controls. Those are semi-useful, but we'd rather be able to choose something else to go on the lower screen. Say, a Twitter client, or a web browser, to allow people to watch something, while surfing the web.
When it comes to typing in to a document, the keyboard pops-up on the lower screen and that actually works really well. The problem comes if you want to use a third-party keyboard, like Swiftkey X. Then, we discovered, that not only did the keyboard not stay on the lower screen, but the text we typed was invisible. It only became visible, once we confirmed we were happy, and switched back to the app.
Sony's apps are a mixed bag. There's a very nice music player. On the top screen you can see and control what's being played. On the bottom is a pile of cover art strewn around. You can rearrange it and touch an album cover to make it play. It's a quirky, but functional, interface. The music app also has DLNA streaming built-in, so you can stream music to network devices. This works brilliantly and is so simple to use it could be hugely popular.
DLNA shines here
Sony likes DLNA and it shows with the Tablet P. The company makes it so you can share video or music with another device as it's playing. When you're watching or listening to something in one of Sony's apps, you can simply select the "share" button on the second screen. This will change the video screen to a list of DLNA compliant devices on your network. From there, you simply pick one, and your file will start playing.
Gaming could be the niche
Sony cleverly installs Crash Bandicoot on the Tablet P. This is a good idea, because it's quite a nice showcase of how the dual screens can work. On the lower panel, you see controls for maneuvering Crash about the screen, while gameplay happens on the topmost screen.
Although touchscreens aren't the best way to interact with games, we found it worked reasonably well, and you could certainly learn to get used to it. The controls are certainly responsive, and you can slide your finger or thumb around, which gives you a more subtle control over the game.
Because the Tablet P is PlayStation certified, it's entirely possible there will be a raft of old PS titles making their way on to the tablet. That would be great, because this will give it something unique to trade on, as half-console half-tablet. It's that which will persuade people to buy it, rather than the niche clam-shell design.
Of course, the problem comes with standard Android games. These obviously do not understand the dual-screen system, so you're either forced to stretch them over the two screens, or play only on the uppermost screen. This isn't all that comfortable, and we'd ideally like to see a way to switch the screen you use for each task.
Build quality and the screens
One thing we noticed with the Tablet P was that a sharp tap would send a bright light across the whole screen. And at times, we even noticed that the plastic cover would bend inward, get stuck for a fraction of a second, then pop out again. This seems to be because the screens aren't a hard plastic, but a more flexible type.
Such things don't overly worry us, although it's a sign that perhaps the build quality isn't everything it should be. That said, elsewhere we have no complaints about the device. It feels sturdy and could probably withstand a drop or two, which is usually enough to see off the likes of the iPad or other Android Tablets. Keeping the screen protected in a clam is also likely to add to the longevity of this device.
The screens themselves have a resolution of 1024 x 480 and the means there's a pixel density of 221 ppi. That's incredibly high for a tablet and it shows: this device looks great for it. The games we played look great, on one screen. Obviously, with non-Sony titles the ability to stretch games over both screens is pretty useless. While it works fine, and we didn't see any noticeable problems running games designed for one screen on two, but it's hardly a captivating experience either.
Take Flight Control, for example. On one screen it looks good, but stretched over two the ratio is wrong and the gap between the two screens isn't properly compensated for. This means that you get bits of the screen that are duplicated which makes for a very ugly experience.
And, obviously, when you try to drag your finger from one screen, to the other, it simply doesn't work well, or feel good. With apps maximised to full screen, you feel compelled to do this, and it simply doesn't work.
Surprisingly, Sony has decided to provide only a single, tiny speaker on the Tablet P. This means that audio is incredibly quiet, and easily muffled if you place your hand over the speaker. Which you will do, because it's in the very place you grip the device to use it.
This is really quite disappointing, because this tablet isn't thin, and there are lots of other places Sony could have put the speakers. And good sound would really have sold this as a multimedia and gaming device.
On the plus side, chuck a set of good headphones in the front-mounted jack, and the Tablet P comes alive. The audio is clear, with masses of detail and a really good dynamic range. And, for the most part, we expect people will use the tablet with their headphones on, but we're still a little sad that the speakers aren't better.
Cameras and video quality
The still camera on the front of the Tablet P is a surprise. It's pretty good, and the design of the tablet means this is the most practical for shooting stills and video of any tablet. You can set the device down, and record yourself, and you can get it in to different angles to make for more interesting photos.
The application that runs the camera is reasonable enough. It's quite simple and the extras are kept to a minimum. The image preview is shown on the bottom screen, while your camera roll is shown on the top panel. This works nicely, and we really rather liked it.
Images do look good, on the whole. In outdoor light, there's amazing colour reproduction and reasonable levels of detail. The Tablet P doesn't disgrace itself here, but it doesn't achieve perfection either.
Video is okay. Auto focus works throughout, which is good and means you can use this more like a traditional camcorder, if you so wish. Video comes out at 720p, and is reasonable quality, if a little lacking in fine detail.
One oddity with the video, was that there was noticable lag between our movments with the tablet, and the video moving on screen. This means you can perform a pan, and when you stop, the video will still be catching up. It's weird to look at, but it doesn't seem to affect the overall output.
3G and Wi-Fi
As we noted with the Tablet S, the P has Wi-Fi that's not always entirely perfect. We found it was a little unreliable, and sometimes with low power signals - like those from mobile phones, offering "tethered" access - the tablet would protest about greatly.
We had fewer problems at home, on our strong Wi-Fi network. And 3G was excellent, and if you're going to the expense of buying a 3G tablet, you'll probably want to make use of its abilities. It's worth noting too, that the Tablet P is available with LTE in countries where there is a network to make use of it.
We have to say, on the subject of the battery, that we weren't blown away by its performance. We noticed that it disappeared very quickly indeed, and this must have at least something to do with running two screens at once. Add in 3G, and some gaming, and the 3080mAh battery really starts to struggle. We can't help think the Tablet P needs a battery twice as capacious as this one to really thrive.
We wanted to love the Sony Tablet P, and indeed, it's lovely to see a tablet that offers something that Apple does not. The problem is, without a lot of dedicated apps, the dual-screen approach just doesn't add enough.
For gaming it's great, if you can get used to the touch interface. For video and music the device works well, but the main screen is too small for films and the speaker is just diabolical. You are trading a normal sized tablet for something which is basically two phone screens hinged together.
Performance-wise, we have no major complaints. It works as it should and it feels snappy and powerful. It's upgradable in terms of SD card storage, so you can get lots of media on here for your travels. The Wi-Fi has some problems though, and we do think a higher capacity battery should be supplied, the one included just doesn't cut the mustard.