Look and feel
So what about that famous folded design? Well, the first time you pick it up, you'll wonder why all tablets aren't shaped like this. It fits comfortably and securely in either hand, with subtle dimples adding extra grip to what would otherwise be a slick, fingerprint-prone plastic back. If you're the sort who likes to hold a tablet in one hand, portrait-style, whilst tapping away with the other, you'll quickly feel right at home.
The Tablet S is also particularly well-suited to sitting on a desk in landscape, like a little keyboard. Sony thoughtfully attached a pair of rubber nubs on the top and, thanks to the gentle incline of the screen when placed on something flat, it makes for a decent typing surface -- much more so than other tablets that are less inclined to your touch.
But, try to use this slate in any other position and the design becomes something of a hindrance. Sitting on a lap in landscape, for example, we found the incline a bit too steep. Meanwhile, in portrait orientation you'll never manage to get the screen flat -- it's always angled one way or another.
Hold it in both hands and you'll also be struggling. We found the 9.4-inch screen to be a little too wide to comfortably type on with our thumbs. Turn it 90 degrees and it's much easier to opposably tap at the thing, but then the somewhat sharp edges on the skinny side start cutting into your palms. Unless we were sitting with this on a desk, we had a hard time getting comfortable typing on the Tablet S, and while that's a problem that can be assigned to any
tablet these days, the asymmetrical styling isn't much help.
Again, all this results in a bit of a chunky girl. At its thinnest, Sony claims it's 0.3 inches (7.62mm) thick, but it of course swells out from there, growing to about 0.8-inches (20.23mm). That means it's even plumper than the Motorola Xoom
on one side, but even its thinner end is no more slender than the Tab 10.1 -- unless you count the beveled edge, which we don't.
Its footprint on the other two dimensions is almost identical to the 10.1, measuring 9.5 x 6.8-inches (241 x 173mm). That means it's only a fraction of an inch narrower, despite giving up 0.7 inches on the diagonal of the screen size. Sure, you probably won't miss that extra space, but why settle for less?
Look between the black bars of the bezel and you'll be greeted with a 1,280 x 800 display that Sony says uses the company's TruBlack technology -- already a staple in its Bravia televisions. While such trademarked tech is usually fluff, we must say the results here are quite good. You'll get contrast ratios that hold up from any angle and very accurate color reproduction that surpasses the Tab 10.1. And, yes, the blacks are indeed about as good as you're going to get on an LCD these days -- no concerns about light leakage
You will, however, have to worry about getting a case. The surface that covers the screen is rather sadly not Gorilla Glass and, while Sony says there's a protective layer here to keep the display scratch-free, after just one trip into a messenger bag unprotected it came out with a few new fine lines. This is a trip the Corning-clad Galaxy Tab 10.1 has made many, many times before, and it's still looking as good as the day it came out of the box.
The rest of the Tablet S is similarly scratch-prone, with a few fine scuffs appearing on the pimply back, and should you make the mistake of tapping on it you're greeted with a sound that can only be described as hollow. Meanwhile, the sides are made of what can only be called plastic, with a fine matte silver paint job that offers a high-end look, but a low-end feel. This is best demonstrated with the flimsy door that covers the tablet's full SD card reader. But, we must make it very clear that this is not the storage augmentation you might be hoping for.
The tablet cannot directly play media from the SD card; it must first be copied to the internal storage. So, if you had dreams of buying the 16GB version then slapping a cheap 16GB SD card in there to make up the difference, let this be your rude awakening.
Performance and battery life
This is where we need to start the caveats. While the device we were given to review has final hardware -- the same you'll find in the box when this thing starts shipping in mid-September -- the software that's been flashed to it still has some revisions pending. That could certainly have some impacts on the performance and longevity of the thing, so bear that in mind as we say we certainly hope
some fixes improve the experience here, because things aren't always seamless.
Like the best of the rest at the moment, the Tablet S runs on NVIDIA's Tegra 2 SoC and so it proves more than adequate at tackling graphics-demanding applications, including HD video and games. Overall, though, we found the tablet to be less than responsive. For example, the screen is a bit sluggish to come on after you've prodded the power button, and the device is often slow to detect rotation. Neither of these things are deal-breakers, but neither do they result in a tablet that feels like a proper screamer. Hopefully a few code tweaks will help here.
When it comes to longevity the thing does a reasonably stout job of putting up with our battery torture test, lasting roughly eight and a half hours with a movie looping and WiFi on. That doesn't match the 10-hour mark put up by the Tab 10.1 or the even greater performance of the iPad 2, but it's enough to ensure that you won't have to worry about running for the plug.
And that's a good thing, because the plug here is a big, fiddly thing with two plastic tabs and four metal connectors. Those connectors are obviously meant to make life easy for the upcoming dock, but if you don't pay up for that accessory prepare to ask yourself why Sony didn't opt for something a little more standard here.
Again, Sony was quite clear that the stuff running on here is not final, so we're going to consider this more of an overview than any sort of judgement. We will of course come back with a full review in due time.
For now, the tablet is running Android Honeycomb 3.1, as you'd expect, and doing a reasonably good job of it. Sony being Sony, the Tablet S will offer a number of custom apps, starting with a Chumby emulation that can be run manually or set to go off automatically whenever the wedge is docked. It can also be used as a sort of remote control thanks to the integrated IR emitter and remote control software. There will be easy DLNA sharing, compatibility with the company's newly unified Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services, a pair of custom keyboards with word prediction (one with a number pad) and a bunch of other odds and ends that, by and large, have cool purple icons.
The most exciting addition in the software front, without a doubt, is the inclusion of the PlayStation Suite
. PlayStation Certification makes the Tablet S the first tablet capable of playing PlayStation and PSP games via the included emulator (Crash Bandicoot
and Pinball Heroes
are included), and this is definitely an area where the thing can stand ahead of the competition. However, it's disappointing that the company didn't take advantage of this situation by throwing some real gaming controls on here (that chubby binder edge has plenty of room for L1, L2, R1 and R2 -- if not more), and of course the PlayStation Suite continues to have a hugely disappointing selection of games. But, perhaps that'll change in the weeks between now and the release.
We're still not ready to give up our cameras and start capturing social events with slate devices such as this one, but should you find yourself at a birthday party with only a Tablet S, rest assured that those annual wishes will look decent. The five megapixel shooter on the back captures bright, clear (if a bit washed out) images that are reasonably presentable. Video, too, looked more than adequate, but came through largely without the accompaniment of audio -- despite recording on a rather noisy Manhattan street. We'll put that one down to software, too.