Sony S1 and S2 hands-on

Now that Sony has spilled the carrier-exclusive beans on at least one of its tablets, the S2 clamshell, the company kindly gave us a chance to get some long-awaited hands-on time with both it and its sibling, the S1 slate. And at time when it feels like we handle a new Honeycomb Android tablet every other day, these at least usher in some pretty unusual form factors. On the one hand, you've got the S1, a 9.4-inch number whose rounded wedge profile was designed to mimic a folded magazine. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there's the S2, which opens to reveal twin 5.5-inch displays -- all the more of a novelty since we've barely seen Android 3.0 running on devices that don't have 10-inch displays. Alas, we only had a few minutes to poke around, and in particular we would have loved to spend more time sinking our teeth into Sony's spin on Honeycomb. For now, though, enjoy those close-up shots below and head on past the break for some early impressions.

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Let's start with the S1, shall we? As far as hardware flourishes go, we'll take ergonomic genius over a gimmick any day, and in that department, the S1 delivers. You see wedges all the time on laptops, but with a slate, it's an unexpected, wonderful thing. It makes it easy to hold with one hand, and it improves viewing angles when you place it face-up on a table. What's more, the S1 feels simply airy in the hands. We know, we know. We often come away from these events saying a tablet is lighter than it looks. (We're looking at you, Toshiba Thrive.) But after handling some slates that are weightier than you'd expect (ahem, Touchpad), it's refreshing to pick up something that feels well-made, yet unassuming. Sony also decked the tablet out in a textured finish, as you might guess by looking at that dot pattern in the photos. That, too, makes this one of the easier-to-grip slates we've handled.

The viewing angles on that 9.4-inch (1280 x 768) display are also pretty good. You might get a taste of that in our gallery, but we didn't have a problem watching a movie from the side, or with the screen tilted away from us. We got to see it in a conference room with a mix of fluorescent and natural lighting, though, so we'll be curious to see how it fares in the great outdoors. Movie playback looked smooth, too, though it's too soon to say if the HD experience has anything on any of the other tabs on the market.

Moving on to the S2, it doesn't look quite like any other clamshell handheld we've seen -- not even Sony's own VAIO P series, one of the oddest takes on a netbook we've ever beheld. Closed, it has a long ovular shape with rounded edges, a silhouette that makes it look kind of like an enlarged eyeglasses case. The case opens quietly to reveal dual displays. Although they're bright, it doesn't look like Sony had any more success than Kyocera did with the Echo in minimizing the bezel separating the two panels.

Pulling it all together, there's the software. We still feel like we've only started to scratch the surface on what Sony's done here, so it's best if we dissect that in our full review. In brief, though, what left the biggest impression wasn't any cosmetic tweaks Sony made to Honeycomb, but the technologies it used to make the user experience better. Mainly, we're talking about Quick View, which loads photos on websites before the javascript to create the illusion of faster loading times. You can disable it if you like, though Sony swears up and down that leaving it on won't have a negative impact on battery life or overall performance. Next up, there's Quick Touch Panel, an algorithm that detects and analyzes finger gestures to make the panel more responsive. We'll be honest: the performance and responsiveness on both tablets was pretty zippy, but we'd say the difference between these and other slates is subtle at best.

Finally, we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that these are both PlayStation Certified, which means you'll have access to a host of familiar titles. Sadly, we were hustled out of the event before we could get lost in a game of Crash Bandicoot, but we did linger long enough to see how nicely the onscreen controls fill one of the S2's panels, with the game taking over the other.

So there you have it. We've at last gotten our hands on the S1 and S2 and have a pretty good feel (no pun intended) for the hardware, though we're still oh-so curious about how the software experience will be different from all the other Honeycomb tabs on the block. We'll get to the bottom of that in our full review -- whenever these finally hit the market, that is.