Most tablets have followed Apple’s design for thinness and design: make it as light, and perhaps as small, as possible. Keep the screen big, but the size has to remain small. Tablets like Samsung’s Galaxy Tabs or the Motorola Xyboards are exactly like that. But Sony entered the tablet market in a completely different. Their tablet doesn’t follow the traditional norms, today’s industry standards. That is only one of the things that makes the Tablet S unique, and thankfully in a good way.

Hardware

Even the name – Tablet S – denotes a level of simplicity Apple has only realized publicly in the past few weeks with it’s newest iPad. The Tablet S looks more like a MacBook Air than a tablet in shape; it’s thick on one end and thin on the other. This size differential is made for grip, a notorious problem among all tablets today. Most rely on accessories and cases to hold these slate devices, but the Tablet S is the first, and still only tablet that’s comfortable to hold with just one hand for hours at a time.

The reason for this is simple: a dimpled textured surface that’s easy to grip, and a thicker surface properly shaped for the hand. It doesn’t look sleek or particularly advanced, but it feels infinitely more comfortable than large tablets like the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or the iPad. There is no comparison: if you want a tablet to hold one-handed with no limitations, the Tablet S is the only option.

And it’s a good option. After an extended testing period, I’ve put the Tablet S through it’s paces in every way imaginable, and there is a lot to enjoy and appreciate. But when it comes to the physical build, as comfortable as the Tablet S is to hold, it’s also a confusing device to use. Android devices still don’t have a simple lock mechanism for the direction the screen displays at (upside down, rightside up, etc.), so there is a lot of unnecessary twisting and turning.

The 9.4″ display is bright and provides excellent color contrast and visuals. I especially enjoyed streaming movies over Wi-Fi, both thanks to the numerous video apps (including Sony’s own Crackle, which comes standard with every Tablet S), and because the display provides rich color. The 1280×800 display is sharp and comfortable to view, and has very high viewing angles. It may sound like a sidenote, but I am also impressed with the strength of the built-in Wi-Fi antenna. Most tablets and phones I test have trouble getting through in some of my test areas, but the Tablet S always had a strong connection.

However, the screen isn’t as impressive to use. The screen itself is slightly abrasive, and isn’t smooth like many of today’s smartphones like the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy Note. Many of today’s phones have coatings to make the glass feel smooth, and less like kitchenware, but the Tablet S feels more like the latter. Cold fingers also make using the touchscreen very difficult, much more than competing tablets.

Unlike most tablets, the Tablet S is very unique and strange with it’s connectors. It includes upgradeable memory in the form of full SD cards, which will save users money and is far more convenient than the smaller MicroSD cards smartphones use. The Tablet S also connects via microUSB for data, which most tablets today don’t do. That’s huge. Then Sony muddled it by including a proprietary power connector, which is both hard to seat and poorly placed. Sony could have easily used the Tablet S to introduce some sort of magnetic power connector, which would snap in place like the MagSafe design, but all the Tablet S has is an ugly plastic snap-on connector. Like the Galaxy Tab, this power cable only works with the one device.

The design of the Tablet S gives it a front plate and two less visible sides, which hide all of the buttons and ports. On the right is power/standby and the volume controls, and on the left is an audio jack and the hidden SD card slot and USB connector. Stereo speakers are also discreetly placed on the sides, and provide clear but tinny sound. They can get loud but lack depth and are generally good enough, but nothing special.

Similar to most of Sony’s non-phone hardware (with rare exceptions like the Playstation Vita and upcoming Tablet P), the Tablet S is a Wi-Fi only tablet and has no 3G or LTE variant. If you need a connection anywhere, the Tablet S isn’t for you.

Software

Running Android 3.2.1, the Tablet S is stuck in Honeycomb and there is no word on when it will receive the Android 4.0 update. As far as Android is concerned, there’s very little worth noting. One improvement is the selection of quick-apps that can be placed at the top of the screen, which adds up to five apps to activate from any home screen, like most smartphones have.

However, Sony is perhaps the best company poised to introduce their own software to a device, and they do exactly that with the help of all of Sony’s other ventures. The Tablet S ships with a number of Tablet S-only apps, from the banal Wi-Fi checked and Personal Space apps to Sony’s Music and Video Unlimited and Playstation Store apps. Anyone who is part of Sony’s entertainment ecosystem in any way, and anyone who isn’t yet, will have access to a multitude of media not available on any other tablet, at least until the Tablet P releases.

The best of these apps include Chumby (for previous Chumby users and dock owners), Music Unlimited (which offers free music listening for members [free membership] from all Sony BMG records), Reader (which syncs with any Sony eReader hardware), and even a MediaRemote app that acts as an instant universal remote thanks to a built-in IR sensor. Sony also offers new apps regularly, though many are available in the Play Marketplace for all devices.

There are two additional stores available on the Tablet S, the Tegra Zone and Playstation Store. The former sells apps geared specifically for devices that run on NVidia’s Tegra processor, and is mostly for gaming. The latter is solely for gaming but only includes 11 games, all for the same $6 pricetag. The Tablet S does ship with two games pre-loaded, Crash Bandicoot and Pinball Heroes, but the Playstation store is barren and doesn’t really show off the graphical prowess of the device. As you’ll see in the benchmarks section below, the Tablet S may be too little too late for high-end graphics processing.

Android 3.2.1 is clearly too old to have for a tablet anymore, but the speed at which manufacturers are rolling out ICS is absolutely pathetic. Even today in the US there’s only three devices with ICS, and only one of those are tablets. Sony has no excuse for slowness in this area, but if they do it to ensure product quality, I’ll take it. The current software build is good enough for daily use, but it’s not nearly as good as what else is available.

Benchmarks

I ran a slew of benchmarks on the Tablet S, but users should note that it shipped with the Tegra 2 processor. Like most people fear, it was only a month later that Tegra 3 released and provided significant improvements, and made Tegra 2 obsolete.

For web browsing the Tablet S proves to be exceptional. It posts fairly high scores, beat out only by a few newer and higher-end smartphones and tablets, and even then by a small margin. General internet use if very quick and smooth, and especially in portrait mode very comfortable. What I most enjoy about the Tablet S is the “newspaper” or “book” feel that the devices gives the internet. With it, reading articles online on a tablet is actually comfortable, and the speed of the browser makes it fluid and convenient.

Thanks to having enough devices that share screen resolution, benchmarking graphics processing has been very easy with the Tablet S (and with future tablets). In many of the cases, however, the Tablet S doesn’t perform better than the competition.

 

In simple graphics tests like Nenamark 1 and 2 and Neocore, scores are very close and very similar, with the Tablet S neck and neck with Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1. Even raw processing has the two almost identical, practically matching Linpack scores (not shown). The two use the same 1GHz processor and same 1GB of RAM, so this isn’t a surprise. However, in the one test that covers all bases (both graphics and standard processing), Quadrant Standard, there’s a significant disparity. The 10.1′s beats out the Tegra 2 in overall processing, and the reason for that isn’t clear. My best guess is that the software processing is different, though the two share the same Android 3.2.1 architecture.

Throw in the biggest graphics test of them all, GL Benchmark, and the Tablet S is at the bottom of the list, but not by far. That test simulates gameplay at 720p, though NVidia has recently come out to say that, in regards to the new iPad scoring four times better in tests than the Tegra 3, that the benchmarks used don’t show accurate results based on how Tegra processes information. NVidia hasn’t released any publicly available benchmarking tools for Tegra (or Android, or any) devices, so until then we’ll rely on the available tests. Yet even then, the Tablet S lags behind.

In all fairness, the devices listed above are all newer, but again the Tablet S released with Tegra 2 when it could have had Tegra 3 and a significant boost in performance. No one wants last year’s hardware, and yet that’s exactly what the Tablet S has. Even with excellent performance, it is still beaten by similar and older devices like the iPad 2.

Battery Life

Normally I use the Basemark OS benchmarking suite to test battery life, but unfortunately some tablets, the Tablet S included, don’t time out or have automatic screen locks which can’t be overridden without rooting the device. I don’t root test hardware for two reasons: first, because it isn’t the experience the majority of users (and readers) will have with the device in question. The second reason is because our hardware partners like Sony, Samsung, Motorola, HTC, etc. don’t like it. Rooting is a cumbersome task, and reinstalling the primary software is equally challenging and time consuming.

However, tablet battery life is a serious problem for testing because they can last anywhere from 5-10 hours of continuous use. As much as I’d like to babysit the devices being tested, poking screens every 29.5 minutes because otherwise the screen will shut down is not really possible. I may yet find a solution around this, but for now this limits the scientific testing of some devices. That, today, includes the tablet S.

In non-scientific testing, the Tablet S has a decent battery lifespan per charge, lasting anywhere from 8-10 hours of continuous use with minimal stress (such as web browsing or email), and 5-7 hours of more stressful applications (Wi-Fi video streaming, gaming). Depending on your settings, the Tablet S can go a week without needing a recharge, which makes it a suitable living room companion. For all intents and purposes, the battery life is equivalent to what you’ll find on an equally sized tablet like the iPad or Galaxy Tab 10.1.

Camera

As I state with every tablet review, the camera is not a vital component. Sony didn’t go all out with the camera, but did stack a 5MP rear shooter and a VGA (640×480) front-facing camera. Take a look at my sample shots below.

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There are two basic problems with the cameras. First, they lose a lot of detail when viewed on a computer screen, which makes the pictures look pixelated and blurry. Second is the lack of color contrast, visible in the shots above. There are a lot of visible colors that are washed out. Light contrast is very easy to tell, especially in the shot with the tree, but even then the darks are overwhelming and there is a significant amount of color loss.

The front-facing camera is no better, but it has such a low resolution that it’s only useful for video chatting.

Actual shooting is also compromised by a very slow shutter release. It takes about two seconds after pressing the button for the tablet to take a shot, which for photographers is absolutely unacceptable. The options are pretty sparse, and there’s very little to do outside of taking very basic pictures.

Video quality is better, but not by much. With a maximum resolution of 720p, video has easily-noticeable blockiness when moving the tablet about which appears like pixelation. Focus is also very slow to adapt, and light and color contrast shifts are equally slow.

Overall regarding the camera, if you must have a good camera for a tablet…then you’re crazy, and the Tablet S isn’t for you.

Conclusion

It’s strange that the most stand-out feature of the Tablet S is it’s design. It’s shaped to fit a single hand, and it does so exceptionally well. It’s the first and only tablet that I would legitimately consider reading at the table or on the couch while eating or flipping channels. The design philosophy so closely matches Sony’s latest Reader – the perfect living room table companion – that I could clearly see it in every house around the country. In so many ways the Tablet S paints a picture for tablets that we’ve all expected, but haven’t really received.

The first is how the Tablet S is a multi-purpose tool. It has all of the traditional tablet utilities, but can also double as a universal remote, a full-screen Chumby alarm clock, a game console, and a digital reader. Unlike most tablet makers, who are just trying to copy Apple’s success, Sony has taken a clear direction and hit it’s mark, and frankly there are so many neat applications that I can see the Tablet S replacing the iPad in many ways.

What the Tablet S makes for ingenuity, it lacks in general function. The Tegra 2 processor is too little too late, and if Sony held off for just a while longer they’d have access to the newer Tegra 3, which powers the ASUS Transformer Prime. Minor things like the power connector are moot. The abrasiveness of the screen’s glass is a far larger problem, one that is a regular nuisance that is a constant frustration.

The Tablet S is a step in the right direction for Sony, though in some ways it’s a sideways step. The services included are genuinely useful and entertaining, and the overall quality of the device is very good. But what really sets it apart is the combination of those services and the design and a highly intelligent design that’s aimed at real people, and real potential uses for tablets. The Tablet S is the tablet we envisioned for years, and more; it’s the perfect living room companion. I highly recommend it.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: The most comfortable tablet on the market. The Tablet S is most like the tablet we envisioned when slate-style devices started appearing.

Pros:

  • Excellent design for one-handed use
  • Excellent software services, and good potential for future services
  • A solid line-up of unique features that make this tablet different from all other tablets, like an IR sensor and universal remote app

Cons:

  • Technology is dated, and was dated when first released
  • The glass is too abrasive, and isn’t slick enough for consistent use, especially for gaming
  • Some services, like the Playstation Store, are good concepts but still very shallow



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.