Shaped like a folded over magazine, Sony's Tablet S is maybe the weirdest looking tablet we've ever seen. But it's also the most comfortable.
Why It Matters
It's Sony. After a rut, glimmers of the old Sony are peaking through. That crazy PlayStation display. 3DTV goggles! This is Sony's first real tablet (along with the Tablet P!), and they've designed something that's worthy of the Sony we love, with a unique and nearly genius form factor, saving us from the multitudes of same same same Android tablets.
Straight on, it looks just like any other tablet. But check it out from the side -- oh man, what the hell is that? It resembles a paperback that's been folded back at its binding, creating a thick side and a thin side. I thought it was dumb, for a minute. The heaviest components are moved into the thick part, which shifts the weight toward the strongest part of your hand. The Tablet S is 5g lighter than the iPad 2, but this optimised weight-distribution makes it feel much lighter and more comfortable to hold with one hand. And the slope means it's got better lap and tabletop viewing angles -- no smart cover required.
The 9.4-inch, 1280x800 screen is quite good -- less reflective than most -- but it's a bit dim. And soft. It got seriously scratched during a totally routine photo shoot -- we've put tablets through far worse without a nick. The 5MP rear camera is surprisingly decent. Otherwise, the guts are clones of basically every other Android tablet. But! It's got a full-size SD card reader.
The build quality doesn't seem up to snuff. It's extremely plasticky. It compresses too easily. Parts wiggle a little that probably shouldn't. Even the screen has a lot of flex to it if you give it a little pressure. They used some sort of thinner, cheaper glass to save on weight, but it felt like if you dropped this thing it would smash into a million pieces. This is definitely not Gorilla Glass, and it's obvious that it should be. Battery life was excellent -- I got days and days out of a charge with moderate use. No complaints there.
Sony packs a lot of custom software on top of Honeycomb. If you have a DLNA compliant TV (or other device) you can "throw" your media to it. That means wirelessly streaming video from your tablet to your TV (or music to your DLNA stereo). Unfortunately you can't mirror the tablet's screen on your TV for gaming. The IR port on the Tablet S allows you to use it as a real universal remote control. Setup was easy and I was pretty impressed with how well that worked.
They aren't all winners, however. They have tweaked out the web browser with Quick View, which should make your pages load faster (likely because of server-side compression), but this was hard to test as the Tablet S kept loading mobile versions of sites. Sony put a skin over the app drawer that made my eyes want to commit suicide. It's bright white, and when scrolling it somehow scrambles my brainwaves and makes everything much harder to read. It's pretty awful. They also put in a Favorites app, which I guess is supposed to be a more user-friendly homescreen, but it isn't really. I was really excited about playing some old PS One games on this thing, but man, those games really weren't built for touchscreen approximations of a controller. Poor Crash Bandicoot died many needless, horrible deaths.
Speed on the Tab S is a mixed bag. When you first boot it up it's easily among the fastest of the Android tablets. Scrolling is smooth, and even complex HD games play very nicely. But once it's been running for a while and you've opened a bunch of applications, things really start slowing down. There were also some strange anomalies, where email wouldn't always sync in realtime. Sometimes the screen would rotate the wrong way, or take a while to catch up. Again, most of this seems to be more Honeycomb related.
It's the first Android tablet to feel like it was designed. But whoever built it couldn't quite live up to the dreams of its designers, to the dream of Sony. It's still the best Android tablet since the Samsung Galaxy 10.1, though depending on where you're coming from, that either says a lot or very, very little. It's definitely too expensive given its build-quality (or lack thereof), but once it comes down in price, it'll definitely be worth checking out. And it's so nice to see you again, Sony, if only for a second.