Sony Corp. (6758)’s new Tablet S captures much of what’s good and much of what’s frustrating about the one-time king of consumer electronics.
Not content to stamp out just another cookie-cutter iPad clone, Sony has come up with a distinctive design. The tablet also incorporates ties to the company’s vast collection of content, including movies and music. It even runs PlayStation games.
Yet, as with so many things Sony these days, the Tablet S sounds much more appealing than the reality turns out to be: Its good ideas are undermined by its execution.
The Tablet S, currently available for order and in stores next week, runs the “Honeycomb” operating system, Google Inc. (GOOG)’s tablet-optimized version of its Android mobile-device software. At $500 for a 16-gigabyte, Wi-Fi-only model and $600 for 32 gigabytes, it’s priced the same as Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad 2 and Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, the best of the current crop of Android tablets.
The Sony’s 9.4-inch screen is just a bit smaller than the iPad’s, and, at approximately 1.3 pounds, the Tablet S is actually a touch lighter: 598 grams, versus 601 grams for the iPad. There’s no mistaking it, though, for an iPad, a Galaxy Tab or any of the legions of other Honeycomb tablets cramming the aisles at Best Buy.
Leaving to others the competition to produce the thinnest, flattest device, Sony has created a sort of rounded-wedge case for the Tablet S. The metaphor is a folded-over magazine, with the teardrop-shaped thick side acting to prop the device up slightly when laid horizontally for typing or to watch a movie.
The shape takes some getting used to. It felt quite natural when I was holding it vertically, particularly if I was reading a book or online magazine. In landscape mode, though, I initially had a hard time. If the thin side was down, the thick part tended to dip. I eventually came to prefer holding it with the thick edge down -- opposite the way I positioned it when I wanted to tap out an e-mail.
Ultimately, I didn’t mind the shape and even give Sony extra credit for trying to, as Apple used to exhort us, “think different.” My real problem isn’t what they did, but how they did it.
Achieving its light weight, for example, means a case that feels cheap and plasticky on the sides and back. The on-off switch and volume controls are poorly placed along an inside edge. Plugging in the charger is difficult: You have to align its protruding tabs just so, and I kept accidentally yanking the cable out when I picked up the device or tried to use it while charging. And the pull-out door covering the micro USB port and SD card slot feels like it’s just waiting to break off.
The brain of the Tablet S is Nvidia Corp. (NVDA)’s Tegra 2 dual- core processor, the same chip that powers the Galaxy Tab. Yet the pre-production unit I was testing felt appreciably more sluggish than the Galaxy when scrolling through windows or launching applications.
Like the Galaxy, it has Flash -- as in the Adobe Systems Inc. (ADBE) software for viewing many Web videos and animations. But it has no flash -- as in a light for its rear-facing camera when you shoot stills or video. (There’s a front-facing camera as well, for video chatting.) I was easily able to get a full day’s use from the Tablet S battery, but at 8 hours, it isn’t quite up to the iPad 2’s 10.
Unusually for a Sony product, I found more to like on the software front. The S includes an app that turns it into a super-duper universal remote control for your various home audio-visual devices. I was able to control not just Sony products but also a Panasonic TV and Motorola set-top box with minimal effort.
The Tablet S’s performance felt considerably zippier when I was playing games than when I was doing more mundane tasks. You’ll be able to download PlayStation games directly to the device, and it comes with two pre-installed, the vintage “Crash Bandicoot” and “Pinball Heroes.”
Here’s some news you can use on the latter: Be sure to hold the tablet with the fat side down or to the right, to keep your thumbs from accidentally hitting the Home button in a flipper frenzy.
The pre-production model I was using couldn’t access Sony’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services, so I couldn’t tell you how well they work. Ditto for the app that turns the Tablet S into an e-book viewer compatible with Sony’s line of Reader devices; it wasn’t yet available.
The S is Sony’s first tablet, but not its last. The company is getting ready to introduce another, the P, with an even more unusual design: twin screens that fold up like an oversize eyeglass case. In a world of all-but-indistinguishable Android devices, it’s good to see Sony innovating and taking risks. But style points don’t overcome practical shortcomings.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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