|Introduction & Specifications|
|Fans of Google's Android platform are proving to be a patient lot. It hasn't been easy pulling for Android in the tablet space, which for a period of time was limited to a few overpriced and underwhelming Gingerbread slates. Things began to change when Honeycomb came out, the first version of Android designed specifically for tablets, but even then it started to feel like if you've seen one Android tablet, you've seen them all. Lately we've found ourselves asking, 'Where's all the innovation that's supposed to be associated with an open source platform, and with so many different manufacturers concentrating on Android, where's the outside-the-box mentality?" Apparently over at Sony, that's where.
Sony's Tablet S looks different than any other Android tablet you've seen before. It feels different, too. Breaking away from the cookie cutter form factor employed by everyone else, Sony took a chance on a unique design intended to mimic what it feels like to hold a folded back magazine. More than a gimmick, Sony says this custom form factor shifts the device's weight closer to your palm, making it feel lighter and more comfortable while you read an eBook or watch a Netflix video. It also allows the tablet to sit slightly raised on a table, providing a more natural angle for typing, a task that's historically been poorly replicated on tablets with on-screen keyboards.
Kudos to Sony for trying something new and different instead of releasing another "me-too" tablet, but is a wedge-shaped design enough to stand out in an increasingly crowded Android market? We're going to tackle that question on the following pages. That said, this is a $500 tablet that's slightly smaller than the iPad, though significantly larger than Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, a pair of low(er)-cost slates that are finding their way into millions of homes. Where does the Sony Tablet S stand in relation to these devices? We'll try to size that up for you as well here.
The Sony Tablet S may look like a magazine or an oversized paperback book, but unlike the Kindle Fire, there's no question whether this is a glorified eBook reader or a dedicated tablet. It's clearly the latter, as evidenced by the 9.4-inch display, Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, built-in cameras, and the various input and expansion slots.
All of this comes wrapped in Honeycomb (Android 3.2.1), though hopefully Sony will unwrap an Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) update in the not-too-distant future.
|Design & Hardware|
We weren't expecting unicorns and rainbows to dance out of the box when we peeled back the cardboard cover, but something more than the bare essentials in a $500 device would have been nice. And we suppose the little carrying cord qualifies as an extra, though we would have preferred a set of headphones. But hey, including a power cord, documentation, and the device itself is par for course, so in that respect, the fact that Sony does include a wrist strap technically puts it ahead of some of the competition.
Screen real estate measures 9.4 inches with a 1280x800 (16:10) display resolution, which means the Sony Tablet S packs more pixels than Apple's iPad 2 with a 1024x768 (16:9) resolution. Both tablets employ LED backlighting, but only the iPad boasts an IPS panel for superior viewing angles. The Tablet S does not, but the effects of off-angle viewing aren't disastrous, just a little less bright. Otherwise, the display looks quite good with vibrant colors and crisp visuals, and the size is an acceptable compromise between smaller 7-inch tablets and 10.1-inch slates like the Galaxy Tab 10.1.
The slightly smaller form factor has its advantages, one of them being weight. Compared to other full size slates, the Tablet S weighs less than most at around 1.31 pounds, which is a little lighter than the Motorola Xoom (1.5 pounds), Acer Iconia A500 (1.5 pounds), Toshiba Thrive (1.6 pounds), and even the iPad 2 (1.33 pounds). But remember what we said about timing? By waiting so long to jump into the tablet market, Sony loses bragging rights to newer, thinner tablets like Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 (1.24 pounds) and the brand new Eee Pad Transformer Prime (1.29 pounds) from Asus. In the grand scheme of things, we're splitting hairs over a few measly ounces, and one thing the wedge-shape design does is allow you to plant a firm grip on the Tablet S, especially if you're able to rest your arm on a table or armrest. In the right position, the Tablet S is very comfortable to hold for extended periods without feeling awkward.A textured slab of plastic rolls around to the back of the Tablet S, providing a modicum of friction for a better grip. Our only concern is that the raised dots could wear down over time, though even if they did, it wouldn't make the Tablet S slippery. To avoid this scenario from playing out anyway, Sony slapped a pair of rubber feet along the top (in landscape mode) so the textured back never comes into contact with your desk or table.
A pair of stereo speakers with Clear Phase and xLoud technologies line the back of the Tablet S as well. These put out decent sound and get loud enough to watch videos and listen to music, but not so loud that you'll fill a room with volume. More often than not, we found ourselves cranking the volume to 10 (they don't go to 11).
Apple may have a vendetta against expandable storage, I/O ports, and Adobe Flash, but most Android devices don't, and all three are included with the Tablet S. On one of the sides you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack flanked by a mini-USB port and a full size SD card slot hidden behind a pull-away flap. Noticeably absent is HDMI output, a disappointing omission in a high-dollar tablet. It's also interesting that Sony opted for a full size SD card slot instead of a microSD slot, the latter of which is more commonly found on tablets.
Underneath the shell is a non-removable battery rated for up to 8 hours of continuous reading or 7.5 hours of video playback, both with wireless turned off and presumably with the brightness not cranked all the way up. The battery is non-removable because you can't take the back cover off, not without ripping into it and nullifying the warranty.
Over on the other side is the power button and volume Up/Down buttons, the latter of which are completely absent on the Kindle Fire. We like Sony's placement here, and we especially dig the decision to wedge them underneath the flap where it's all but impossible to accidentally press one of them, no matter how you hold the Tablet S. If you do manage to nudge one of the buttons by accident, there's a good chance you're doing something wrong, or have tentacles instead of fingers.
|User Interface & Software|
|Mmm, doesn't a freshly unwrapped Ice Cream Sandwich sound delightful? You bet it does, and we're not talking about the kind you get at your local dairy mart, we mean Android 4.0. But before you get too excited, you won't find ICS on Sony's Tablet S, not yet anyway (we're such teases). What you do get is the latest build of Honeycomb, Android 3.2.1, just like every other cutting edge Android tablet. Android 4.0 will begin rolling out to devices in early 2012, though Sony has kept quiet on when or if ICS will land on the Tablet S.
Armed with an Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor clocked at 1GHz and 1GB of RAM, it takes about 38 seconds to boot to the lock screen and 11 seconds to fully shut down. The home screen isn't cluttered with a ton of bloat, just a few Sony-specific programs and your standard fare icons, like YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, and the Android Market.
Navigating the five home screens is mostly smooth and responsive, though it's not as tight as iOS on the iPad 2. If you rapidly wiggle your finger back and forth, for example, you'll outrun the UI as it tries to keep up. This is largely a non-issue and will only be noticeable when skipping through menus at breakneck speeds. During normal usage, the screens scroll just fine.
Less forgivable is the overall performance. Even though the Tablet S wields a dual-core processor and a 1GB of RAM, it feels underpowered at times. We noticed a bit of lag in between pressing an on-screen button and hearing an audible click to let us know our finger tap registered with the device, and on rare occasions our finger taps would go unnoticed. The amount of lag varies, seemingly without rhyme or reason, and this sluggishness extends over to loading apps, which fire up a little slower than we'd like. It also plagues the virtual keyboard, but again, sometimes it's worse than others, and there doesn't seem to be a common denominator that would explain why it is or isn't being laggy at any particular time. Several times, however, typing would become an exercise in frustration, whether it was tapping out an Internet address or searching for an app in the App Market.
The Tablet S comes pre-loaded with a bunch of apps, all of which you're able to uninstall. Not a fan of Foursquare or Evernote? You can get rid of them if you want, along with several of Sony's own apps. Sony also includes a link to its Select App site, which "highlights new and unique Android applications in a number of categories, recommended for Sony Tablet devices." It's worth checking out if you're new to Android, but veteran users will want to skip the middleman and head directly to the Android Market.
While Sony did a good job with the physical design, the virtual side needs work. Sony is a media behemoth and so it makes sense that it would try to integrate services like Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, Sony Reader, and PlayStation gaming onto its device. But what's missing is cohesion between these different services. Instead of one account to rule them all, these service require their own individual logins. Even worse, registering is a headache, or at least that was our experience. It would sometimes take us multiple attempts to register one of the services, and were even blocked at one point because the device's time zone was wrong -- that's just weird. A forced account manager update helped with this somewhat, but even after jumping through several hoops (installing the account manager, updating apps), we still ran into issues with Sony's Video Unlimited (force closes) and Music Unlimited (eligibility errors) services. Grind it out and you'll get everything setup correctly, but hopefully Sony smooths this out in a future update.
Not all of Sony's Tablet S software was marred with bugs, however. Easily one of our favorites features is the built-in universal IR remote control application. Within a matter of moments, we had the Tablet S configured to control our Sharp HDTV, DirecTV DVR set-top box, and our finicky Onkyo receiver that uses a different signal for turning on and off the device. The Tablet S handled them all with aplomb and there was a definite gee-whiz factor from wielding a ginormous touch-sensitive universal remote from our comfy command center (couch). We truly became a master of the living room, and the only thing missing is a laser to fire at people who have the audacity to step in front of the TV.
Also of interest is baked-in DLNA support, giving the Tablet S further flexibility in the living room, provided you own a DLNA-compatible TV set. This is a great feature, though one that has us even more confuzzled at the lack of an HDMI output. If there's a natural habitat for the Tablet S, it's the living room (or man cave).
With a folded back magazine design, the Tablet S is begging to serve up eBooks, and Sony's Reader app comes pre-installed. We were immediately implored to update it and, once again, issue yet another login. Once we jumped through the hoops, the Reader app fired up without issue and worked well with eBooks.
The Tablet S is the first PlayStation Certified tablet and it comes with a pair of classic games -- Crash Bandicoot and Pinball Heroes -- pre-installed and ready to run. You can also download more classic PSone and PSP games online via the PS Store. This has the potential to be awesome, but so far there are only 10 games you can download, half of which are free and the rest priced at $5.99. They include:
The games we tried all ran well enough with Nvidia's Tegra 2 processor pushing pixels around, though these aren't cutting-edge titles by any stretch.
|Performance: CPU and Web Browsing|
|Test Methodology: In all of our test vehicles for the following benchmarks, we ran each tablet at its performance optimized settings where available, with the exception of the Eee Pad Transformer Prime, which was tested at Normal and Balanced power profile settings. Normal mode on the Prime offers the full performance of its NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, whereas Balanced mode compromises performance a bit to conserve power, capping the CPU at 1.2GHz max frequency. Beyond that, each tablet was also connected to a wall power source to ensure full performance. Here's a quick spec rundown for each tablet tested.
Let's get this benchmarking party started, shall we?
Sony's Tablet S posted the slowest score of them all, though it's roughly on par with similarly equipped tablets. Compared to two of the latest tablets on the market (the iPad 2 and Transformer Prime), however, the Tablet S doesn't fair as well.
Browsing the Web, however, felt faster than these scores would indicate. Pinch-to-zoom performance was very good in our tests, and so was scrolling up and down. Other than intermittent input lag using the virtual keyboard, we found navigating websites to be smoother on the Tablet S than with the Kindle Fire, for example.
|GLBenchmark is new to our 3D performance benchmark set. The test suite is an OpenGL ES 2.0 benchmark with a number of performance metrics incorporated in it. We specifically use the Fill Texture Fetch suite to measure raw texture fill rate of a graphics core and the Egypt Off Screen test to measure 3D performance in frames per second. The Off Screen test renders workloads at 1280x720 for all devices, but off-screen, so Vsync and screen refresh are not limiting performance.
There's no other tablet that can touch the iPad 2 in the GLBenchmark Fill test, that's just life. The Sony Tablet S does hold its own versus the other Tegra 2-based slates here and actually takes the lead position for its peer group.
Things pick up for the Tablet S in An3DBench XL, and while it doesn't keep pace with the Transformer Prime, it does run neck neck with the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and several other Tegra 2-based devices.
|In an attempt to quantitatively measure battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we ran a test in which we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics and text. The page automatically refreshes every three minutes. This is a simple baseline test that measures up time with web browsing.
With the display set to 50 percent brightness, the Sony Tablet S lasted just shy of 6 hours, which is about average. Keep in mind your mileage will vary based on your usage patterns. Playing games and cranking up the screen brightness will leech battery life faster than normal. Watching videos on the other hand, surprisingly might offer better battery life, since Nvidia's Tegra 2 SoC is generally very power-efficient in that usage scenario.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: We know Nvidia's Tegra 2 processor has enough wheels to run a modern day tablet, but for whatever reason, Sony's Tablet S doesn't seem to take full advantage of the hardware. That's disappointing for a device with a respectable processor and 1GB of memory. It's not that the Tablet S is slow, it just doesn't live up to its potential, and the intermittent keyboard delay is particularly puzzling. Perhaps Sony can wring this out in a future firmware update though.
So the Tablet S isn't going to win any benchmarking bragging rights, and there are some quirks to deal with. But in terms of usability, the Tablet S isn't a wash. Web browsing is excellent with pinch-to-zoom performance that's smooth and fast, which is something not all tablets manage to get right. Navigating Honeycomb generally feels fast, and we didn't experience any issues watching full screen videos, streaming or otherwise. This isn't a tablet for tots, it's a $500 slate that will run circles against all those low priced generic Android tablets coming out of China.
With so many Android tablets staring you in the face, it's easy to go cross-eyed trying to discern between product A and products B, C, and D. But once you get to S -- Sony's Tablet S, that is -- you're in a for a new experience, both visually and ergonomically. Sony rolled the dice on a unique design hoping to win over tablet buyers with a roll-back frame that mimics what it feels like to hold a magazine or paperback book, but with all the benefits of a modern day Honeycomb tablet. It seems gimmicky at first glance, and the trend is towards thinner tablets, not thicker ones, but there are some upshots that go with Sony's design. For one, the outer wedge provides a solid gripping point that's comfortable for extended one-handed sessions. So if you want to read War and Peace or sit through Legends of the Fall, you'll fall asleep long before your arm fatigues. It also allows the Tablet S to sit on a flat surface slightly raised like a real keyboard.
Internally, the Tablet S is rocking an Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of RAM, and a healthy assortment of inputs and expansion ports. If you read through the review and didn't skip straight to the conclusion, you'll notice we were critical of the overall experience. That's because performance didn't always jibe with the hardware. For the most part, the Tablet S trailed other similarly equipped slates, and in real-world tests, performance bounced back and forth between snappy (navigation, UI, streaming, Web browsing) to laggy (keyboard input, not registering taps on occasion, and app load time). We're also disappointed with all the hoops you have to jump through to use Sony's different services, many of which require separate logins and don't tie into each other in a cohesive manner.
Our other issue with the Tablet S is timing. At the time of this publication, Sony is selling the 16GB model for $450 and the 32GB model for $550, both of which are $50 off their regular price. Even after the markdowns, this is a premium priced tablet in an Android market that has seen two low-cost alternatives storm the castle: Amazon's Kindle Fire ($199) and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet ($249). And if it's a full-sized Android slate you're after, the just-released Transformer Prime is better equipped with a planned Ice Cream Sandwich update, something Sony has been mum on.
Getting back to the bright side, Web browsing performance is really good with exceptional pinch-to-zoom responsiveness and smooth scrolling. The Tablet S is the only PlayStation Certified slate, which has the potential to be really awesome, and we absolutely are in love with the universal IR remote application, that worked wonderfully with our home theater setup, including our finicky Onkyo receiver that's managed to stump some other universal remotes. In fact, if you're considering the Tablet S, this should be one of the reasons why. Take away the IR remote (and, to an extent, DLNA support), you're left with an average tablet that struggles to compete with better equipped full-size and lower price three-quarter size tablets.