Sony Tablet S £399
30th Sep 2011 | 08:27
Can Sony's wedge-shaped Android tablet make a splash?
Overview and features
It has taken two years for Sony to enter the tablet market, and in that time every manufacturer and their budget Taiwanese spin-off have colluded to fill the tablet market with dross.
This presents both and opportunity and a threat to Sony, and while there are many sub-standard tablets on the market, some great work has been done by a few companies, and there's now a handful of successful, great value Android tablets to choose from.
You can check out our Android Tablet round-up to see how this slate measures up against three of its rivals below:
Aside from the obvious iPad 2, which is the gold standard of design and usability, Samsung has unleashed a flurry of tablets, from the excellent Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, to the imminent Galaxy Tab 7.7 which boasts a vibrant AMOLED display.
Other notable competitors also include the Motorola Xoom, which is now aggressively priced at £349, and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, and soon-to-be-released Eee Pad Slider, which both boast full, physical QWERTY keyboards.
To launch into this crowded marketplace, Sony had to release something different, and with the Sony Tablet S and the forthcoming Tablet P, that's exactly what its done.
The Sony Tablet S is a curvaceous, wedge-shaped tablet, which looks as if it has been folded out of a single piece of textured black plastic. It's thicker at one side, with a rounded edge, as if you'd taken a thin paper back, and folded the cover back on itself to really get stuck into the story.
Aside from making it look different to every other tablet on the market, the Sony Tablet S's unique appearance isn't purely aesthetic. The design means that typing is comfortable when laid flat on a table or desk, which is a flaw in most flat tablets.
The book-like design makes it easy to grip with one hand, making it perfect for browsing the web or reading ebooks.
The Tablet S weighs just 600g, which makes it identical in weight to the iPad 2. There's a plastic finish, which doesn't feel cheap, and it has a textured back which offers grip for your hand.
While Sony has done well to make the form stand out from its peers, the specs are a standard affair emulating their rivals closely. There's a dual-core Tegra 2 processor clocked at 1GHz, 1GB of memory, capacitive touchscreen, and an SD expansion slot.
The Sony Tablet S also comes with a range of other features, which make it really stand out from the crowd. There are front and rear cameras, 1080p video capture and playback, PlayStation certification, which enables users to access a range of exclusive titles, and a host of Sony created apps, including a universal remote for controlling other Sony products.
The tablet comes in two iterations, with 16GB and 32GB options available, and it has set pricing at £399 for the 16GB version. This in itself is an admission by Sony to the ferocity and difficulty of the tablet market.
Sony tends to market itself as a premium manufacturer, and set its pricing accordingly, but at £399, it has decided to compete directly with companies it would look down upon in other markets.
Interface and apps
The Sony Tablet S ships with Android 3.1, which is Google's dedicated operating system for tablet devices known as Honeycomb. This improves browsability on a larger screen, unlike the first tablets which ran the smartphone version of Android.
Honeycomb is a great operating system, and offers everything you need from a tablet, which is helping to put Android tablets on an equal footing with the iPad.
Press and hold on the screen, and you will be taken to a selection of widgets, apps, and other additions to your desktop. It's easy to get it set up your way, but we can't help but feel that Honeycomb has a long way to go until it's as usable as iOS.
Sony has enhanced the standard Android Honeycomb interface, without changing the design, so it feels more intuitive than other tablets. The home screen stays the same, with the addition of a favourites button next to the apps menu, so you can quickly access your most-used applications.
Sony has also placed some handy quick launch buttons in the top left, so you can access the browser, email and a social feed reader app, which brings together your Twitter and Facebook accounts into one manageable place.
In a bid to make the interface more intuitive, Sony has made some tweaks to Honeycomb which are unique to the Sony Tablet S. The apps menu itself has received a bit of a makeover, so it's a little more responsive to your finger, and you can sort the icons by newest first, A-Z, and even add your own separators in, to totally customise the look and feel.
Sony has also made some tweaks to the responsiveness of the touchscreen to your finger, and the effects are immediately noticeable.
The main area these tweaks manifest themselves is the on-screen keyboard, and this is one of the best in the business. You can type quickly and accurately, even in spite of the smaller screen size.
In landscape mode, the full QWERTY keyboard has a numeric keypad on the right hand side, which is a fantastic addition, and means you don't have to flick keyboard modes, like you do on the iPad.
This makes typing a lot easier, and combined with the wedge-shaped design offering up the keypad to a usable angle when aid flat, we have one of the best tablets for typing, without a physical keyboard.
The Tablet S ships with Android 3.1 and is instantly upgradeable to the latest 3.2 version, which enables all users to access to the Android Marketplace with its selection of 300,000 apps.
While the gap has closed between the iOS and Android app stores in terms of the number of apps on offer, we still feel that there's a long way to go before Google can match the quality of Apple's apps.
A browse of the Android Market doesn't yield the selection of big names that you'd find on the App Store, and scratching below the surface often means disappointing quality, which Apple simply would not accept. However, it by far surpasses the app stores of BlackBerry and HP.
Sony has tried to address this issue with a choice of its own apps. Proprietary app stores normally cause us to emit a disgusted groan, but this is an area which makes the Sony Tablet S really stand out.
There are feed readers and mail clients, which offer nothing which isn't already on the Marketplace, but also some great games and a handy universal remote app.
The Sony Tablet S is PlayStation certified, and the tablet has been released with a PS1 port of Crash Bandicoot and Pinball Heroes game.
The PlayStation factor makes the Sony Tablet S a great buy for gamers, but at the moment, the number of titles is quite pitiful. We really hope that the selection of games increases exponentially over the coming months.
Sony fans who have kitted their home out with the Japanese giant's wares will also love the universal remote. This uses Infrared to allow you to control your TV, PlayStation 3, Blu-ray player and other Sony gizmos, all from the comfort of your living room.
Sony has also added its own music service, which offers access to 9 million tunes for £9.99 a month, and also an on-demand video service, which is again available as part of a subscription.
Performance and gaming
When it comes to performance, the Sony Tablet S really comes into its own.
Using the operating system is fast, and every swipe is rewarded with smooth dragging of screens and apps, and there was no slowdown whatsoever.
Despite the great specs, rendering was an issue on certain websites, which caused strange half page displays and juddery scrolling.
One of the worst offenders was Sony's own app store called Select App, which is where you find the PlayStation titles, and this was extremely frustrating and slow to use.
We also found issues when rotating the screen, and it often stuck, before jerking into place- and while it didn't ruin the experience, it's touches like this that show why the iPad 2 is so good.
Battery life was a standard affair, and the boost in performance seems to have had a knock-on effect in longevity. We found the Sony lasted around 4 hours when playing demanding video, around 9 hours of web browsing and game playing, and around 30 hours of occasional coffee table web browsing.
The iPad is pretty light on media and connectivity, but this is another area where the Sony Tablet S excels.
You can add an SD card to the 16/32GB of built in memory, and there's also a MicroUSB connection for added files to your tablet. However, storage is an issue with the Sony.
The first bugbear is that a MicroUSB cable isn't sold with the tablet, which will be an annoyance for anyone who takes the Sony Tablet S home, to start transferring media, music and video.
The second is that an exploration of the file manager reveals that on the 16GB model, only 9GB is available to use. What's more, with everything that comes installed as standard, you only have 7GB to play with.
This is partly due to a partition that the Sony makes, to keep the operating system and file system separate. When we received the tablet, only 3.7GB was available for apps and system files.
With a total of 9GB for the file system, and 4GB for the system files, a whopping 3GB is M.I.A, presumably lost when formatting the system, which makes that SD expansion slot look all the more necessary.
We had high hopes for the Sony as a media tablet, but unfortunately, the Tablet S fell short of our expectations.
We loaded the Tablet S with three movies, but neither of our .MKV movies were recognised. The third, which was a standard definition .mp4 movie played fine, but the lack of support for this popular format left us disappointed.
The screen is also a bug-bear on the Sony Tablet S, and again we felt let down. It's sharp and clear, but it's just not very bright, and this really hit home while watching our movie. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 screen is much more vibrant, and a real media lover's tablet.
As we mentioned, the Sony Tablet S is PlayStation certified, which means there are a host of PlayStation titles to enjoy.
These games use a mix of touchscreen controls on the newer games such as Pinball, and an on-screen PS1 pad on ported titles such as Crash Bandicoot.
Using an onscreen joypad takes some getting used to, and with no tactile buttons to guide you, we were forever pressing the wrong button, and it did feel imprecise.
It doesn't take long to get into it, and with a bit of trial and error, the controls were soon mastered, and we ended up loving the gaming experience.
The size and shape of the Sony Tablet S really helps you play for extended periods, with the buttons well positioned near the left and right hand sides of the screen.
If you're a fan of old PS1 titles, this tablet is for you, let's just hope Sony honour their commitment, and keep bringing out good retro games.
Like most tablets, Sony has included front and rear cameras, and these tend to be a half-hearted affair, with dubious quality and limited use. The front camera is designed for video chatting with Skype or other clients, and the rear camera for taking snaps for sharing online.
Sony has gone with a 5MP camera on the rear of the tablet, which is capable of capturing high-definition video.
Video quality is good, with smart focusing and a fantastic frame rate resulting in smooth playback. Sony's heritage in video processing really comes to the fore here, as this makes up for what's lost in mediocre picture quality.
When it came to picture quality, good frame rates don't save the day, and shots looked washed out, and grainy, even in good light.
At 5MP we didn't expect much, and quality was very much on par with the equally uninspiring iPad 2.
Opting for 0.3MP sensor with VGA video quality on the front facing camera yielded the results one would expect. Picture quality was lifeless, grainy and noisy.
Video was slightly better, and anyone who has tried to chat with friends over a web cam will always appreciate smooth video over a higher quality, choppy feed.
With the Sony Tablet S you could enjoy a video chat on Skype with a friend, but the quality was no-where near that of Apple's Facetime.
Unlike Facetime, there's no built-in app for video chatting with friends, so you will need to visit the app store, to get one of the popular video chat apps, such as Skype.
We loved the Sony Tablet S and its wedge-shaped design, which really makes this stand out from the crowd. The responsive touch screen and unique shape combine to make this tablet extremely usable, and a joy to type on.
The tweaks that Sony has made to Android 3.1, to aid usability and performance have really paid off, and the Sony was enjoyable to use, and we kept on coming back.
What's more, the host of exclusive content, from the universal remote app to the host of PlayStation titles mean there's a genuine reason to choose this tablet over the slew of other Android devices on the market.
The lack of storage on the 16GB version was unfortunate, and we hope that Sony can address the amount of storage on offer to people who only choose the 16GB version.
Media playback was disappointing, and like the iPad 2, anyone who wants to watch video on their Sony Tablet will need to spend hours recoding their files.
Despite the form being ideal for web browsing, the rendering problems on many web pages ruined the experience, somewhat, and using the browser was no-where near as slick as on the iPad.
The final bugbear was not with the Sony, but with Android 3.1 itself. While it has come a long way, we still feel that iOS offers a better experience and a much stronger line-up of apps, supported content and quality accessories.
The Sony Tablet S has everything needed to be a fantastic tablet, and a front-runner in the Android race. The form factor makes it a superb buy for people who spend time on the move.
If you're choosing an Android tablet you won't be disappointed, but if it's a shoot out between the Sony Tablet S and the iPad 2, unless you're a hardened Sony fan, then your money is still better spent with Apple