Sony’s Tablet S is an awkward device, but not because of its unusual wedge-shaped design. It is awkward because it catches Sony in the middle of a transition, from an iconic hardware maker to an Apple-like company that sells software, services and the devices to run it all. After playing with a Tablet S for review, it’s clear that Sony’s growth spurt isn’t anywhere near finished.
Because of the hardware, the Tablet S remains interesting among a sea of me-too Android tablets. Yes, the wedge shape looks weird next to every iPad imitator on the market, but Sony’s goal of making a tablet that feels like a magazine, folded over, is a success. When holding the tablet upright, an instinct takes over that makes me want to read things. It’s too bad Android Honeycomb is tailored toward landscape orientation, with some apps such as the Android Market only displaying horizontally. In that orientation, the Tablet S is less comfortable in the hands, but not unbearably so. The 9.4-inch display is roomy enough, while feeling less cumbersome than 10.1-inch widescreen tablets.
The Tablet S also hides a neat trick in the form of a built-in infrared remote control, which can operate pretty much anything in your living room. The tablet recognized my two year-old Sharp HDTV right away, and I was able to program volume controls on my decades-old Sony stereo system manually.
Just one hardware nitpick: unless you want to wake up to a blinking notification light in the middle of the night, you’ll have to disable notifications altogether on the Tablet S. There’s no way to turn off the light otherwise.
Hardware is only as good as the software it runs, and that’s where the Tablet S starts to degrade. Android Honeycomb lets you do some cool stuff, such as adding widgets to the home screen, but its slowly-growing tablet app library doesn’t compare with that of Apple’s iPad. The OS occasionally stutters when moving from one screen to the next, and it has some frustrating bugs, like when an app you acquire from the Android Market hangs in “waiting to install” limbo. Sony’s added a few of its own flourishes, such as a stylized “Favorite Apps” menu, and claims to have made the software run smoother and faster than other Android tablets, but these tweaks don’t amount to a major improvement over the stock version of Android, which itself still needs work.
Where Sony really tries to stand out is in services, which is tech jargon for “giving you stuff to consume on your device.” For a long time, Sony’s been trying to create a platform for music, movies, books and games, with the end goal of having all that content available on every screen you own. The Tablet S could be a piece of that puzzle, if only its services were enticing.