The S is another one of many Android Honeycomb tablets on the market right now, but unlike most other models it has a 9.4-inch screen. Note that our Sony S came running Honeycomb 3.1 but an update is now available for version 3.2 of Google's OS.
The Sony S has a 1 Ghz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of memory for storing files. There's a 5-Megapixel camera for taking photos and shooting video (up to 720p) on the back of the tablet and a 1.3-Megapixel webcam on the front. Sony has also had the very good idea of equipping the S with an SD/SDHC memory card slot, which is more than can be said for most tablet makers (although there is an SDHC card slot on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer keyboard dock). Otherwise, the S has a micro USB port for file transfer and a 3.5 mm jack for hooking up headphones.
The screen has a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels and looks like it could be a PVA, MVA or even an IPS panel. Sony's Tru Black technology should make for high contrast levels too.
The tablet recharges using a proprietary adapter with a plug and connector system that's specific to Sony. Plus, the Tablet S is the only tablet to have a built-in infrared transceiver for use with a universal remote control app that's compatible with loads of audiovisual devices (made by Sony and other manufacturers).
All of this technology is packed into a product casing that's certainly got people talking. The S has a fairly chunky design and is thicker at one end of the tablet so it slopes down towards you when placed flat on a table. This in turn means that the tablet's weight is unevenly distributed.
All in all then, it's safe to say that Sony has taken quite a different approach to the touchscreen tablets already on the market. We tested the 16 GB Wi-Fi/3B tablet which sells for an RRP of £499, but Sony also sells a 16 GB Wi-Fi-only tablet for £399 and a 32 GB Wi-Fi-only model for £479. A 32 GB Wi-Fi/3G tablet is apparently in the pipeline.
Design & Handling
So is Sony's sloping design really so ingenious? On first contact, we liked the fact that the top of the product was heavier. When holding the S in portrait mode, you don't feel the tablet's weight (a little over 600 g) quite as much as with flat tablets of similar weights. Then again, who would use a tablet of this size and shape (apart from a 4:3-format model) in portrait mode most of the time?
When holding the tablet in landscape mode, its weight falls towards front of the tablet, with the palms of your hands acting as a kind of tablet-rest. This lop-sided weighting therefore seems like a pretty good idea ... so long as you don't have to hold the tablet for too long. In fact, the lower edge of the S is very thin and quite angular, which means it isn't necessarily the most comfortable of devices to hold over long periods of time.
However, this sloped design does, without a doubt, make the S the most comfortable tablet out there for typing without a separate accessory like a case or dock. The slope makes both typing and general browsing much more pleasant when using the tablet on a table or desk, and minimises annoying reflections on the screen. Note that several people in our office tried to fold the tablet up after use—no doubt tricked the 'fold-over' design on the back of the tablet.
Sony has clearly gone to great lengths with its product's design and finish, with a sleek, original look and finishing touches like connection port covers. That just makes it all the more of a shame that the tablet is made entirely from plastic. This lets the high-end image down, especially on the upper part of the tablet which sounds hollow when you tap it.
All in all then, we've got mixed feelings about the product's design and handling. Although it all seems like a very good idea, a few small details disappoint in practice.
It's difficult to tell exactly what kind of panel Sony has used in the S. We can't quite tell if it's an MVA, PVA or even IPS panel, and Sony doesn't seem to want to shed any light on the matter either. However, the average contrast ratio we measured makes us think it's probably an IPS panel, as at 767:1 it's really very similar to the contrast ratios we've measured on other tablets with IPS screens (apart from the iPad 2). The Tablet S is therefore on par with the Asus EeePad Transformer and Slider, the Motorola Xoom the LG Optimus Pad and Apple's iPad.
The viewing angles aren't the best we've ever seen but they're still wide enough for satisfactory use. Colour fidelity leaves a lot to be desired, though. With an average deltaE of 7.4 (the closer to 0, the more accurately colours are reproduced), the S doesn't do quite as well of some competitor tablets on this front, such as Asus' EeePad tablets and the iPad. Only the cyan and red shades stop things falling apart completely but, even then, there's still room for improvement. The S is the first tablet we've seen drop under 5000 Kelvins for colour temperature, with an average reading of 4949 Kelvins. That means that colours are pretty warm and the display has a general red overtone.
The S has an average ghosting time of 22 ms, which isn't too bad on paper. However, Sony helps smooth things out by alternating displayed images with LED backlight flashes—a technique sometimes seen in TVs. To the naked eye, everything looked perfectly seamless—so much so that we reckon the S is the best tablet for watching videos on as the display causes no judder or glitches.
One other good thing about the display is its maximum brightness of 350 cd/m2, which means that although the Tablet S will almost sting your eyes indoors, it can be used perfectly well outdoors.
Interface & Navigation
Like Samsung's TouchWiz interface or HTC's Sense, Sony has pasted its own custom layer over the raw Android OS. That's not immediately obvious on the homescreens when you first start using the tablet, but a few tiny shortcuts have been added at the top of the screen and there are icons for apps that we've never seen anywhere before.
Once you select and launch an app, Sony's subtle and rather classy custom interface becomes immediately visible, with a crisp white background, 3D-style icons and an animated wave effect that ripples across the background of the screen at regular intervals. None of this is strictly necessary, but it could make the tablet more pleasant to use and more appealing to certain users.
Exclusive apps added by Sony include Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited for downloading music and videos from services formerly grouped together in the firm's Qriocity platform. Then, there's Personal Space (1 GB free) for storing and sharing multimedia with contacts, an app for transferring files to and from an SD card, a universal remote app and the selectApp alternative app store containing all the apps Sony recommends for use with its tablets. There's also a simple and clear social network hub to keep you updated with what's going on in real time.
The PlayStation app for downloading PS1 games will only be available towards the end of October 2011. The games are all taken directly from the PlayStation for Android application that already features in Sony-Ericsson's PSP-style smartphone, the Xperia Play.
Music Unlimited only officially launched on 1 October so we didn't get chance to test it, we did manage to try out Video Unlimited (even though it's only being launched on 10 October 2011!) and, for the moment, there's not a huge amount of content available.
The graphics-based universal remote is designed to match Sony's white and rather minimalist product environment. You choose your type of product (TV, DVD and/or Blu-ray player, set-top box, Hi-Fi, home cinema system etc.), then select the brand (different lists of brands are available for different types of product), then pick the corresponding model of remote. In general, the buttons relevant to a given type of product are then displayed onscreen.
Sometimes, finding the right signal can be problematic, as you don't select specific models from a list in the Sony remote control app like you would in a regular universal remote. For example, for a small Samsung TV, we had to flick though around 15 different remote panels before finding one that communicated properly with the TV. On the other hand, our Sony Bravia TV was detected straight away, with one remote displayed an no options to work our way through. Anyway, once you've got the remote working the app is very easy to use.
Even if, in the end, Sony's graphic additions are fairly minor, this new interface inevitably has the scope to develop into a brand ecosystem, spanning across Sony products and their respective user interfaces. Plus, the prospect of Sony developing a content-rich multimedia library with interoperability across several of the firm's devices is certainly very interesting.
MultimediaSony promised web browsing like never before seen on a Honeycomb tablet and the firm has kept its promise in this field. While other browsers concentrate on displaying web pages as a whole, with text, images and enriched content all loading up simultaneously, Sony has decided to take a small step backwards, prioritising text, then images, then Flash, then all the other more heavyweight bits of the page. This makes web browsing look and feel fast and very smooth.
Sony had also promised an improved user experience within web pages and, once again, the firm has kept its promises thanks to technology that pre-prepares the web page as soon as your fingers get close to the capacitive screen, pre-empting any scrolling or zooming. On top of that, the zoom and scroll functions are very fast, and pages are accurate and pleasant to view in both portrait and landscape modes.
The video player has been treated to a nice new skin but it doesn't really do anything more than the standard Honeycomb player (mp4, H.263, H.264 in up to 1080p low profile). As ever, the Nvidia Tegra 2 chip coughs and splutters its way through 1080p playback, but keeps 720p pretty stable. For compatibility with a wider choice of file formats you'll have to look to a third-party app like moboPlayer.
The photo browser and music player have a new sleek design too, with music displayed as album covers scattered over your virtual desktop. We like it.
Finally, onto the rather thorny question of that 'PlayStation Certified' label, which basically means that the Tablet S supports PS1 games. The main problem is that it's difficult to get excited about games that are over 15 years old being ported onto a device with a 1280 x 800 pixel display. The result is that a classic game from Sony's first console, like MediEvil, becomes a mass of blocky pixels when played on the tablet. We can't imagine it getting much better either.
Those of you who can put up with the graphics may be interested to know that the touchscreen controls take the same form as the PS1 gamepad, although the controls can also be user modified. However, reaching the trigger buttons while playing isn't very easy unless you have really, really long fingers.
It's a shame that the camera isn't up to the same standard as some of Sony's excellent Cyber-shot compacts. That said, the 5-Megapixel camera really isn't that bad for a tablet-cam. There's a good level of detail with nicely defined contours. However, blacks do bunch into dark masses, smoothing is visible and there's a dominant red tone to the colours.
Videos are recorded in resolutions of up to 720p, and onscreen playback is smooth but isn't as good as on some tablets and smartphones that handle 1080p more effectively.
To be honest, coming from Sony, we were expecting great things in this field—or at least a bit more of an effort. In the end, the Tablet S has a decent enough camera for a touchscreen tablet but it's nothing exceptional. Plus, you'll need a very steady hand to get the best out of this snapper!
Sony really couldn't afford to scrimp on battery life with the Tablet S, and with just over 7 hours 10 minutes of video playback time it's certainly on the better side of average. For mixed use, the Tablet S holds out for almost 8 hours or even longer if you switch off Wi-Fi connectivity.
Just make sure you close any PlayStation games properly when you shut them down, as these tend to guzzle the tablet's power—even when inactive or when the tablet's on standby.
- General concept, Sony multimedia ecosystem and product environment
- Universal remote function works well / SD/SDHC card slot
- Responsiveness / Exclusive Sony apps
- Smooth web browsing / Simple DLNA system
- Decent battery life
- Screen is good but can't quite match the best tablets out there
- PS1 games are just plain ugly
- Plastic finish / 1080p playback glitches
- Speakers aren't positioned very well
- No USB charging connector / No HDMI interface
The Sony Tablet S is designed to be different from other Honeycomb tablets. With a promising interface and the prospect of Sony's multimedia ecosystem developing further, this tablet is certainly worth a look. The universal remote function is a nice touch that works well and the web browser is pretty good too. However, the display quality could still be better and a few debatable technical choices make the Sony S a generally decent product rather than an all-out success.