Sony Tablet P £499
29th Nov 2011 | 15:14
A highly portable yet imperfect dual-screen Android tablet
This time last year - when the Tablet P wasn't even a twinkle in Sony's eye - we were weeping into a mound of rubbish iPad rip-offs, begging for sweet release from our tiresome lives.
Every week we saw yet more rectangular lumps of plastic, fit only for use as door wedges. They ran outdated versions of Google's Android operating system, designed for the humble smartphone, so the blocky desktops and stretched-out apps looked truly horrendous.
But just as we were headed to the bathtub with our toasters, two miraculous things happened. First, Google released Android Honeycomb - a slick, tablet-oriented version of its mobile operating system. And second, manufacturers started paying attention to the slew of negative reviews and actually started producing decent devices.
The excellent Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, ViewSonic ViewPad 7, Motorola Xoom and the innovative Asus Eee Pad Slider are all fantastic devices, which we'd happily use as our personal tablets. At long last Apple has competition for its much-loved iPad 2.
Sony has further innovated the humble tablet by releasing this dual-screen Google Android beast, nicknamed the Tablet P. Unlike the folded-magazine design of the recent Sony Tablet S, this device folds in the middle, similar to Nintendo's handheld 3DS console.
However, the Sony Tablet P is up against some strong competition, coming after so many other great Honeycomb tablets. The £499 UK/$599 US asking price isn't doing it any favours either, with many of its rivals available for £299-£399.
So can the Sony Tablet P do enough to warrant a purchase from more than just Sony fanboys?
We were a little surprised at how chunky the Sony Tablet P looks, as our (admittedly useless) memory of the prototype models was a slim and sexy build. However, it still slips easily into a handbag, and we even managed to cram it into our jeans pocket.
The 375g weight makes it lighter than many competitors and comfortable to hold for extended periods. The Sony Tablet P is solid enough too - we only noticed a little flex when pushing on the exterior.
The Sony Tablet P's smart clamshell design is a great way to keep the dual screens protected on the move, especially if you throw your kit straight into a bag before hitting the road. You'll still want to take care of the tablet, however, since the silver finish picks up light scratches quite easily. Keys and other sharp items are its mortal enemy.
Google's Android Honeycomb 3.2 operating system runs the show and does a sterling job as usual. Barring a couple of little tweaks, this appeared to be vanilla Honeycomb. You have five homescreens to populate with apps and widgets, and our review tablet came with plenty of both.
We won't dwell on the operating system's functionality because we've said plenty about it already in our Android Honeycomb review. All we'll say is it's well implemented here, and the only issue we had was the occasional icon selection, thanks to the compact screens. More on that later.
You can browse the web using Wi-Fi, or 3G if you have a valid SIM card with a data contract. Web browsing is smooth, and as usual you can zoom in or out with a pinch of the fingers. Flash video is also currently supported in the browser, which is standard for Honeycomb tablets – for now.
Unfortunately, the Sony Tablet P's Wi-Fi receiver isn't great. Just 10m from our home router we had a full signal on our laptop, but the Sony Tablet P barely registered the network. Cue the occasional "No internet connection" message when loading pages.
We haven't noticed this problem with other Honeycomb tablets, making this doubly disappointing.
Despite the chunky build, you only get a single mini USB port and an internal microSD slot on the Sony Tablet P.
You'll want to use a memory card too, because the 4GB of storage fills up instantly if you're carrying music or movies around. Considering many rivals such as the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and ViewSonic ViewPad 7 have 8-16GB of storage space, this seems particularly stingy.
We were also disappointed to note that the Sony Tablet P doesn't charge via USB, only via the mains. At least we had no trouble copying files between the tablet and our computer with the USB port, using Windows Explorer.
Skimming through the Sony Tablet P's menus is a smooth experience, as expected from the Japanese giant. The desktop is split between the two screens, both of which are touch-sensitive. While we thought the bezel separating the two screens might be irritating, it rarely gets in the way.
Apps are spread across the two displays, which again takes a little getting used to but generally works fine. It can be a little disorienting when using the likes of Google Maps, with streets appearing skewed across the bezel, but we didn't encounter many problems.
However, we're unlikely to see many apps emerging soon that actually take advantage of the dual-screen setup, which is a real shame.
The dual 5.5-inch screens are supremely crisp, thanks to the sharp 1024 x 480p resolution. Photos and movies look fantastic, with realistic rendering. Sadly you can only view movies and photos on the top screen, with the bottom screen used for media controls.
Of course this makes sense - who actually wants to watch a film with a thick black line across the centre - but the compact upper display isn't an ideal way to watch a Hollywood blockbuster. Not only is there not much screen space, your films are also bordered either side by thick black lines due to the narrow aspect ratio.
Note that full-screen YouTube videos play over both displays, while 4OD TV shows are shunted to the top screen. Bizarrely, full-screen iPlayer videos are crushed into a tiny box on the upper screen, so you'll want to watch them in a pop-out window instead.
The Sony Tablet P is compatible with MP4 and WMV movie files, as standard for Android Honeycomb tablets. We tested a couple of Full HD 1080p films and they played perfectly, with no stuttering or smearing.
However, if you're watching movies we'd recommend using a pair of earphones even if you're nestled in your sofa at home. The Sony Tablet P's built-in speakers are tinny, so you'll struggle to hear if there's any kind of background noise.
We were impressed by the brightness of the screens. You can comfortably use the tablet even in bright sunlight, despite the reflective surface (which is a magnet for fingerprints).
Viewing angles are among the best we've seen on a tablet.
If you're looking for a tablet for instant messaging or bashing out emails on the move, the Sony Tablet P is a great option. Its compact build means it's comfortable to hold the device two-handed and type with your thumbs, while Honeycomb's virtual keyboard is one of the better efforts we've tested.
Predictive text brings up a row of possible words when typing to speed up the process.
However, the tiny screens make precision-selection a royal pain at times. For instance, the tiny Wi-Fi icon in the bottom-right corner often takes two or three jabs before the menu appears, and good luck trying to change the volume in the likes of 4OD.
We were frothing with rage after five minutes of prodding, and only a serious kitten-stroking session could calm us down.
One unique feature of the Sony Tablet P is the ability to download and play classic PlayStation 1 games. The compact build is well suited to playing titles such as Crash Bandicoot (which came pre-loaded), thanks to that comfortable grip, while the Nvidia Tegra 2 processor handles these games with ease.
Of course you're restricted to using virtual touchscreen buttons, which can be a little awkward during fast-paced moments, but it worked better than we expected. Our major gripe was the shoulder buttons, which are shunted to the top screen and are very difficult to reach with your thumbs.
Another niggle is the impending release of the PlayStation Vita, which costs considerably less than the Sony Tablet P, features proper buttons and thumbpads, and can do much of the same stuff - including surfing the web and playing media. Hardcore gamers should certainly wait for that to emerge.
The Sony Tablet P is certainly compact enough to carry around everywhere you go, but how does its battery fare?
We found it drained quickly when playing games or watching video, lasting just over three hours on average - although that's with screen brightness turned to max and Wi-Fi enabled. If you drop settings and don't push it so hard, you should get five to six hours of use before it gives up.
A 5MP rear camera on the Sony Tablet P takes reasonably sharp pictures, thanks to the built-in auto-focus, although this generally takes two to three seconds to lock onto your target/victim. We rarely found our subject was blurred, even though you can't select which area to focus on manually.
However, both interior and exterior shots often came out darker than expected. We usually had to take two or three shots before we had one that was light enough to see clearly. There's no flash, so good luck trying to take a photo in a dim interior.
You get an 8x digital zoom for distant shots, but photo quality dips considerably once this is in play. As you can see from our example photos, detail levels are poor and you get serious blur.
As with pretty much all tablet cameras, it's more of a 'snap an unexpected moment' device than a dedicated camera.
You can also shoot videos if the mood grabs you, which are pixelated but perfectly serviceable.
You also have a front-facing VGA camera for web chats, which does a good job of capturing your mug without motion blur or other side-effects. This is bizarrely located off to the side of the top screen, so you'll appear to be staring off into nothing during Skype calls. It's not ideal, but mildly comical for whoever you're speaking with.
We admire Sony for taking a more novel approach with both of its tablets, but £499 is a lot to ask for a Honeycomb device. With a price like that, the Sony Tablet P has to really perform compared to its rivals.
The clamshell design protects the dual screens, and means this is one of the few tablets you can squeeze into an (admittedly large) pocket. We found the compact build made it a comfortable device for typing and web browsing.
Those screens are bright, crisp and vibrant, like you'd expect from Sony. The capacitive surfaces are responsive to swipes and prods and the Nvidia Tegra 2 processor keeps things running smoothly.
A 5MP rear camera takes decent shots, although we wouldn't replace our compact camera or even our smartphone just yet. Video chat fans get a decent VGA front-facing camera.
Nostalgic gaming fans can also download and play classic PlayStation 1 games, for a small cost.
Although it's great to have the option to play PS1 titles on the Sony Tablet P, we weren't massive fans of the virtual buttons. They work better than we expected but the lack of tactile feedback is a pain in fast-paced action games, while the shoulder buttons are tricky to reach on the upper screen.
The Sony Tablet P isn't quite the ideal device for watching movies on the go, either. Videos are generally crushed onto the top screen, while the built-in speakers are rather rubbish.
We also found Wi-Fi reception was a little ropey, with signal swiftly dropping off as we moved away from our router.
If your current tablet has been scratched to ruins, you should definitely consider the Sony Tablet P. Its unique folding design makes it easy to carry and protects the dual screens, and the compact build makes it great for carrying around, getting online and social networking.
However, movie fans will likely prefer a single-screen tablet such as the Sony Tablet S, and we reckon gamers will wait for the Playstation Vita instead.