Sony’s new Tablet S: A handsome device with software issues

August 31, 2011

Sony has been a bit slow to get into the tablet game, but its first entry into the space — the unusually shaped, Android-powered Tablet S — has generated a lot of curiosity.

The excitement isn’t just about design, either. The company is one of the few with a footprint and ecosystem big enough to take on the Apple iPad.

From a hardware perspective, it’s clear that the company is making a statement about how you’ll live and work with this device. The basic shape of the Tablet S calls to mind a folded-back book or magazine, and it should immediately get you reminiscing about the days when people used outmoded and environmentally damaging products made from paper.

But does Sony’s first move in this space change the game or move the ball forward? Or is the company offering a familiar entry into an already-crowded space?

Whether you warm up to this design is probably a matter of taste, but I found myself liking the fold, in both two-handed and single-handed settings, as well as on a flat surface. The beveled shape makes for slightly easier typing when you have the S on a desk.

The Tablet S, which is scheduled to hit stores in September at a price of $499 (the same as the iPad 2), is the first of two uniquely designed tablets that Sony is rolling out this year. The company will also release another device dubbed the Tablet P, set to go on sale later in the year, which has two screens and can be snapped closed, not unlike a clamshell cellphone.

Sony’s reputation is of a company that has the ability to produce beautiful, high-end products that don’t work always that well. The Tablet S is no exception.

The Tablet S is a distinct device with a lot going for it in terms of industrial design, but there are also some missteps here that make the device feel a little cheaper than some of the competition.

The device sports a 9.4-inch screen and weighs in at 1.33 pounds, although Sony claims it feels lighter in your hands because of how the shape allows weight to be distributed.

It’s hard to say whether that’s true or not, but the mostly plastic device definitely felt less weighty in my hands.

The device is powered by a speedy processor, and the screen uses what Sony painfully calls “TruBlack” technology, a liquid-crystal display that the company says provides better contrast and reduces glare.

The device has two cameras: a 3-megapixel shooter on the front and a 5-megapixel model on the back.

But the Tablet S has stereo speakers that produced a remarkably tinny, unsatisfying sound. You would think the people who brought you the Walkman would cook up something a bit more accomplished in the audio department — but you’d be wrong.

Of course, most tablets these days must be judged on their software.

In the case of Android tablets, that’s not exactly a herculean effort, as nearly all of the recently released devices are running extremely slight variations on a theme.

Sony is no different in the sense that the company has opted for slight tweaks to Google’s operating system rather than a major overhaul.

For starters, Sony provides a set of customized applications geared toward playing to its strengths — namely, entertainment and gaming. I had a chance to play with some Sony-exclusive apps and content, such as “Crash Bandicoot,” one of the gaming titles ported directly from the original PlayStation version.

While “Crash Bandicoot” does a faithful job of replicating the graphics and sound from the console version, the controls left something to be desired. It’s clear that the game was never meant to be controlled via touchscreen, and trying to grapple with the myriad on-screen controls wasn’t much fun.

A tablet like the S is capable of great gaming experiences, but trying to replicate the experience of a multibuttoned joypad seems like a recipe for disaster.

The Tablet S reminds me that Google still hasn’t gotten its tablet operating system quite right, yet. Little details — such as sometimes not being able to properly select text or the scattered layout of navigational items — make it a generally more harrowing experience next to the iPad 2.

In Sony’s attempt to alter or improve the experience, the company has simply made it more messy. I didn’t feel like I wanted to pick the device up and work with it. I felt like I wanted to avoid it.

Sony is a company that’s ca­pable of making some very nice and handsomely designed hardware, and I would say that it has accomplished that with the Tablet S.

But as in past efforts, Sony seems to struggle on the software side, and that makes this device harder to recommend over other tablets.

There’s no question that Sony has the raw materials and the hardware know-how to deliver a serious competitor in the tablet space.

That competitor, however, is not the Tablet S.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and the former editor in chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

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