Sony tablets are strong contenders to compete against iPad (review)

Summary:Sony is dishing more details about its two new upcoming tablets. Their designs go against the norm, which would very well please or deter many customers.

Way back in April, Sony announced its plan to enter the tablet game with a pair of uniquely-designed tablets that definitely go against the traditional look of the iPad and others.

Last week, I managed to get a hands-on look at both the Sony Tablet S and Tablet P. I only spend a small period of time with each device, so don't take this is as an end-all user review.

[Image Gallery: Hands-on look at Sony Tablets S and P]

Nevertheless, both tablets left me with strong first impressions. Because both devices are much different from what we have seen so far in the tablet market, Sony's entries might have a better chance than the HP TouchPad, RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook and even Samsung's Galaxy Tabs -- all of which have (or now, had) the very similar, completely flat slate design. Thus, Sony's tablets could be the strongest contenders to give Apple's iPad some competition.

However, just because they are contenders does not mean that Sony will win. Here's what I thought about each device:

Sony Tablet S

Make no mistake about it: both of these tablets are consumer-focused devices. Sony reps reminded me that Sony is an entertainment company, and these devices are in fact reflective of that.

That isn't to say that they can't be used for professional purposes. They are still Android 3.0 Honeycomb-based machines, and users can download productivity apps and such from the Android Market as they please. You have to at least give Sony credit for being honest.

The real benefit of buying a Sony-made tablet is that it fits well with in the entire Sony spectrum. Earlier this year during its presentation at CES 2011, Sony made a big point of keeping its gadgets connected within the home entertainment spectrum.

The Tablet S fits in completely in a few different ways. First, Sony has gotten the HDTV team involved as the 9.4-inch TruBlack display is made with the same materials as seen on Bravia LCD screens. This model also sports dual cameras -- a front-facing VGA cam for video chatting and a 5-megapixel rear camera with an Exmor processor seen in Sony's digital camera collection. Thankfully, Sony did not stick a Memory Stick slot but rather went with the more universal, built-in, full-sized SD card slot, which is woefully missing from most tablets.

On the inside, the Sony Tablet S is PlayStation-certified. So far, that means that the Tablet S is capable of playing PlayStation 1 and PSP titles. No, that doesn't mean you can insert a disc copy of Final Fantasy VII inside (although that would be awesome), but it does mean that you will be able download and play some of your favorite old games. Crash Bandicoot and a few others will be pre-installed upon purchase.

Additionally, if you have a PlayStation 3, Sony-branded speakers, TVs, Blu-ray players or basically anything DLNA-enabled, you can use the Tablet S as a remote control thanks to the integrated infrared to manage these systems. Even better, you can use these systems to playback audio and video that is stored on your tablet by dragging them over in a very simple to use app. Other integrated Sony features include its reader app, Crackle and both Video and Music Unlimited by Qriocity.

However, this tablet is unusual in some respects, which some consumers might love or completely dislike. The most obvious point here is the design. Instead of a flat surface all the way around, the back is curved significantly and the center of gravity is weighted to one side. The point here is that users could hold the tablet in one hand (by the curved, more heavily weighted end) like a magazine and a cup of coffee in the other.

Then there is the user interface. I'm not a big fan of Android to begin with  -- the only tablet I use regularly is an iPad, and I'm not ashamed to admit that. I'm also a lesser fan of tablet manufacturers that put their own UI touches on top of the Android platform, with the exception of HTC Sense, which is just less cluttered than most alternatives. However, Sony's isn't so bad. The gestures are intuitive, the main apps menu is easier to navigate and there's a unique QuickLaunch menu with nine squares (Brady Bunch-style) that represent the nine most-recently used apps for quicker navigation.

There's probably plenty more to cover here, including Sony's partnerships with several companies for specialized apps, including ones from FourSquare and Evernote.

Overall, I liked playing around with the Tablet S. However, that doesn't necessarily mean I would buy it. Some pros for me would be that it fits in with the Sony ecosystem, and I already have a PlayStation 3, so at least there is some connection there. That's mainly why I bought the iPad -- it syncs well with my iPhone and MacBook Pro. I even like the curved, wrap-around design for the reasons Sony boasted, but I don't like it because it won't fit in my bag as easily.

Sony Tablet P

Sure, the Sony Tablet S is portable. But the Sony Tablet P takes portability to a whole new level. This clam-shell gadget folds out to host dual 5.5-inch screens with a 1080 x 480-pixel resolution that can be formatted to run two applications simultaneously or combined for one big picture.

Sony's reps made a very smooth move when presenting the Tablet P to me by pulling it out of the inner pocket of a suit jacket. Thus, you can imagine how easy it is to tote this device around.

Many of the same features that are available on the Tablet S are also integrated on the Tablet P, such as the DLNA support, dual cameras and the Honeycomb operating system. However, it does not have built-in IR. All of the Sony ecosystem features (i.e. PlayStation 1 games, Music Unlimited, etc.) are also included here.

The big difference, besides the design obviously, with the Tablet P is that this one is 4G enabled. This Tablet S will be Wi-Fi-only, and that is what Sony is sticking with for now as it has found that most consumers have not opted for 3G/4G-enabled variants as much.

Thus, the Sony Tablet P might actually be a better option for business travelers on-the-go who always want to stay connected. Productivity might be a challenge with the small display, but it can still retrieve emails, support the same apps, be used for video conferencing and other tasks.

Availability

The Sony Tablet S will become available to consumers first in September. Pricing starts at the usual $499 for 16GB of installed memory and $599 for 32GB.

Additional accessories will also be available at launch time, including a keyboard for $79.99 and a cradle for $39.99.

Mystery still surrounds the launch of the Sony Tablet P. Although that one will be enabled with 4G HSPA+ connectivity on AT&T's network when it starts shipping, a launch plan hasn't been finalized nor has pricing. Note that the Tablet P will only have 4GB of onboard memory, but that can be expanded upon with the use of a full-sized SD card.

To go back to the original idea as to whether or not these devices could challenge the iPad's dominance, I don't think that they will supersede Apple's reign in this market. However, I do think that Sony's tablets, or at least the Tablet S, will have a good chance at selling well. I prefer the Tablet S primarily because it does fit in more with the existing tablet concept and would be better for productivity. Sony is right in the sense that 3G/4G connectivity isn't actually a necessity for a tablet as we might have originally thought. But the Tablet P's design is so different that it could be a bit off-putting and might only work as a niche product.

$499 still seems a bit much for an Android tablet as I don't think that version of the operating system is all there yet, and we're all still waiting to see what Ice Cream Sandwich can do. But considering that Sony products (like those from Apple) are usually expensive and sometimes overpriced, this could be considered a fair deal.

Related:

Topics: Hardware

About

Rachel King is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in San Francisco, covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet, CNET and SmartPlanet. She has previously worked for The Business Insider, FastCompany.com, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. Rachel has also written for MainStreet.com, Irish Americ... Full Bio

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