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.