Meeting Sony's Tablet S and P (first impressions)

Summary:My thoughts on the pluses and minuses of Sony's new "magazine-inspired" Tablet S and dual-screen Tablet P. But the question is: Will consumers even care?

The first time I saw the newly announced Sony Tablet S and P in person, they were behind a glass cube so I could only take note of their very distinction form factors -- you certainly wouldn't mistaken them for an iPad. After seeing the tablets in action in New York last week, I came away impressed that the S and P are not just iPad clones but play to Sony's strengths: PlayStation, entertainment system and service integration. Read on for my thoughts on the two devices.

Sony Tablet S

It seems counter-intuitive for a new tablet to feature a sloping design where it's thicker on one end and tapers to 0.3-inch on the other, but Sony's reasons are not without merit. The "folding design" is inspired by one-handed reading of magazines so that one hand can easily balance the tablet while the other can make use of the device, plus its unique shape cuts down on glare when placed on a table. (No need to rely on a case to prop this tablet up.) It's the kind of design you either love or hate. Lefties will be happy to know the S is ambidextrously-designed so you won't have to look at things upside down in portrait mode.

With the unusual design, you would think the S has some heft to it but I was pleasantly surprised by how light it felt in my hand. Sony reps were happy to inform me it weighs exactly 21-ounces, which is lighter than the iPad 2 by almost 0.3-ounces. My HP TouchPad feels like a brick in comparison.

The S runs Android Honeycomb (will ship with 3.2) but Sony has its own customized UI, where the menu bar stays on top so that you can multitask without constantly going back to the home screen. (That's probably why the S does not have a physical "Home" button.) Its UI also doesn't disappoint on style with a graphic-centric tile design (see above) rather than just icons or a list of files. It helps that the S has a 9.4-inch display with 1280 x 800 resolution to show off its interface.

Along with the usual Wi-Fi radio and built-in Bluetooth connectivity, the S is also equipped with infrared and supports DNLA, which makes the S handy to have around the living room. It is preloaded with an universal remote app that lets the S centrally control your television and audio system even if your equipment is not from Sony. Simply place your remote next to the tablet and it can "learn" and replicate the buttons on the tablet via IR. With your Wi-Fi-enabled television and stereo system, the tablet also has a "throw" feature to transfer content between devices. For example, rather than listen to a song on your tablet's teeny speakers, you could enjoy it on your sound system by "throwing" the song from the S to the DNLA-compliant stereo.

The best part about the S is that it natively plays PlayStation 1 and PlayStation Portable games; the emulator is pre-installed on the tablet. Each game will be optimized for the tablet with on-screen game pad controls, which can be shifted around to fit better with your hand. Pinball Heros and Crash Bandicoot are included with the device out-of-box; future titles will cost extra though Sony is mum on pricing and availability at the moment. Since the S has built-in Bluetooth, I wonder if the PS3 Dual Shock controllers will work with the slate. If so, this would be make a great tablet for serious gamers. Of course, as an Android device, you will have access to the games on Android Market too so you can play Angry Birds in between PSP/PS1 titles.

There is an optional cradle for the S that not only props the tablet up but also transforms the tablet into a clock, photo frame or displays which ever Chumby widget you download (weather updates, for example) while charging the device. This cradle is available for $39. I also like that while the Sony Bluetooth keyboard includes Sony navigation buttons, the full-sized keyboard is interoperable with tablets from other manufacturers so you can get ore use out of this $79 keyboard. The Tablet S is Wi-Fi-only and will come with 16 GB or 32 GB internal storage, to be available mid-September.

Sony Tablet P

Sony's dual-screen Tablet P is probably the most innovative tablet design I've come across so far, so I was particularly excited to see it in person. Its curvy metallic exterior combined with a flexible screen design -- it can display two different sets of information or combined to create a large screen depending on need/function -- makes the device easy to like. For example, if you're writing an email, the bottom screen becomes an on-board keyboard with large enough keys that make for less errors, while the top screen displays your email as you write. In the reader app, the two screen in portrait mode each acts as a single page so you can get more reading done before flipping the digital page. Due to its built-in hinge and clam shell shape, you won't even need to budget for a stand or case.

Other than the P's foldable design (the Sony rep was able to stick it into his dress shirt pocket), it shares most of the same features as the S: a full-sized SD slot (though not for expanding internal storage but only for moving media content), micro USB, 5-megapixel rear camera, GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and include the remote control app and the same two PS1/PSP games. Both tablets also include a six-month trial membership to Sony's cloud-based Music Unlimited service, a free movie download from Movie Unlimited, and a free e-book from the Reader Store. That said, the P's two 5.5-inch screens are less sharp than the S because each is only 1024 X 480, has just 4 GB of internal storage and no SD card to expand its capacity. But it does offer a removable battery so you can swap in a fresh Li-Ion 3080mAh battery for extra juice; Sony is still finalizing its battery life. The P is slated to land in stores later this year but Sony won't offer anything more specific than that.

With the P being an AT&T-branded 4G (HSPA+) device, I hope the tablet can double as a phone or present a compelling reason for consumers to sign up for a data plan because you know full well one would be required. Though I wouldn't want to download a movie or game over 4G, the P is without a doubt the ideal form factor to toss in your bag to search for directions on-the-go, with a screen that is larger than any smartphone on the market right now.

And that's perhaps where the Tablet P stands: a cross between a traditional tablet/e-reader, smartphone and a Nintendo DS-esque handheld gaming console for grown-ups (assuming Sony releases popular AAA PSP/PS1 games). Unlike Rachel King, I actually prefer the P over the larger Tablet S because of its more flexible design, while the Tablet S is more suitable for those who tend to use their tablet at home and have a serious entertainment system to manage. $499 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi Tablet S and $599 for the 32 GB is not exactly a bargain (U.S. pricing is unavailable for the P), but at least Sony has a built-in fan base from its PlayStation, entertainment gear and content that may be more likely to choose a Sony tablet over say an iPad. That's a start. But will it be enough to help Sony sell tablets?

Did Sony's new tablets get it right or completely miss the mark on providing an alternative to the iPad or other Android tablets? Share your thoughts below.

[Source: Sony press release]

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Topics: Hardware

About

Gloria Sin is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes about the tech toys that you can't live without for ZDNet. She has little patience for poorly designed user experiences, and is not afraid of opening the guts of her own machines for repair or hacking her gadgets for new uses.She has written for FastCompany.com, Popular Scienc... Full Bio

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