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.
Considering the weight of Sony’s PlayStation brand, gaming should’ve been a bigger part of the Tablet S. The entire PS Store consists of 10 games for the original PlayStation. Some are free, and some are $6 each, but all are hopelessly outdated next to the shiny graphics and keen design of modern video games. A lone PSP game, Pinball Heroes, is pre-loaded on the device, along with the PSOne classic Crash Bandicoot. But for now, Sony hasn’t made any effort to adapt its hits, such as Uncharted, Killzone, Ratchet & Clank or Infamous, to the tablet.
Even getting these games that are available is a challenge. The PS Store isn’t pre-loaded, and an option to download it only appears as a periodic notification message. If you dismiss it by accident, you’ll have to wait for it to come back later.
Getting a hold of Sony’s other services is even more frustrating. For example, to try out Music Unlimited–Sony’s answer to Spotify and other subscription music services–you must tap on the app that’s pre-loaded on the device, which takes you to the Android Market, where you download another app, in which you sign up for the service, and then return to the Android Market to update the original app, which finally gives you access after you create a login and agree to some terms of service. And then, the trial service is limited to 30-second samples. The process for getting Sony’s Reader app for e-books is similar, and my attempts to download Sony’s Video Unlimited service through the pre-loaded link only sent me back to the home screen. Whereas content consumption is supposed to be frictionless, Sony has raised nothing but obstacles.
Of course you can ignore Sony’s multimedia offerings, but without them the Tablet S is a lot like any other Android tablet, save for its unique hardware design. And as Sony itself has pointed out, it wants to be more than just a hardware company. “I spent the last five years building a platform so I can compete with Steve Jobs,” Sony CEO Howard Stringer said recently. “It’s finished, and it’s launching now,” If the Tablet S is what Stringer has in mind, I weep for Sony’s future.
Consider that tough talk for a company with grand aspirations. Compared to rival $500 Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Sony’s Tablet S holds its own. But if Sony really wants to make a different kind of product, one that can truly compete as a media platform with Apple and Amazon, it needs to do a lot better.