You would be forgiven for checking it’s not early April upon seeing a post by me on a newly acquired tablet. I have been an open tablet sceptic and overnight this has not changed. However, when Sony kindly sent a free Tablet S my way, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see whether there really is a place for one in my life without taking a £400 gamble.
Some criticise Sony for taking over a year to bring their tablet offering to market, but I applaud their more thoughtful approach rather than merely churning out another “me too” device. The first thing you’ll notice is the tapered “folded back magazine” design, which is excellent for holding in portrait mode for lengthy periods, particularly as the weight distribution ergonomically falls down the “spine”, but less useful in landscape mode. It does mean you need to rotate the entire tablet to switch hands, but the display will smoothly reorientate automatically. The screen is vivid and, while many reviews suggest the housing does not feel sufficiently “premium”, the choice of materials allows for easy grip when carrying it around. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether such aesthetic considerations trump usability. It sports the tablet-optimised Honeycomb flavour of Android, with resizeable widgets, a new notification system and a multitasking app switcher.
What’s it good at? Tablets are, of course, for media consumption rather than creation. Reading email and RSS feeds (via Pulse) is slick and comfortable. Magazines look great too, but with a backlit screen rather than e-ink I can’t see myself reading e-books for long periods. Web browsing is crisp and fast, though as on phones I prefer Dolphin Browser to the default. Music works well enough, but at home I have a full speaker setup and when travelling I have better sounding, smaller PMP so it will likely get zero use. With a good front-facing camera it makes a really neat portable Skype device (slight volume issues notwithstanding) that doesn’t keep you stuck in one place. I can control my home theatre system with it as a giant remote, though in practice it’s only for browsing the library and selecting shows since a dedicated remote is swifter for quick actions.
Where does it fail? The tinny internal speaker is somewhat inevitable given the slim nature of tablets and, although it’s adequate for embedded news clips, even YouTube videos suffer. Hiding the power button and volume controls under the edge looks tidy, but they are positioned too closely so you’ll often find yourself accidentally turning off the screen and, depending on the current orientation, they can be hard to reach. Despite access to the PlayStation store, the lack of PS3 controller support is a real shame and means this just isn’t really a gaming device — at least until I can get OnLive running on it with a dedicated controller. Touch controls may be intuitive when games are specifically designed for them, but shipping with Crash Bandicoot was a mistake since it tends to be more frustrating than impressive. Fruit Ninja draws more excitement from visitors.
How do I find myself using it? Primarily it’s to check email and Facebook, and to browse IMDb while watching films, without having to fire up my laptop. I can see it slotting comfortably into my daily routine – checking email, news and weather when I wake up and before bed. These are all things I would otherwise do with my smartphone, but they are far more comfortable on the tablet. Watching a short videoclip while holding a tablet is fine but for anything longer you need to dock or balance it somewhere (and its asymmetry makes the Tablet S harder to prop up than others), whereas angling a laptop screen remains much more comfortable. When docked it can also serve admirably as a digital picture frame.
The deal-breaking moment for me was when I found myself reading an email on the tablet and then, wanting to respond in more than two sentences, I got up from the couch walked into my bedroom and typed the email out on the PC instead. SwiftKey Tablet X is a fantastic thumb-friendly predictive touchscreen keyboard designed for tablets, but it seems even that wasn’t enough.
Verdict: This is a thoughtfully designed tablet and a worthy competitor to the other high-end products on the market. Beyond perhaps the internal speaker I have very little negative to say about the Tablet S by comparison to the competition. It seems there is a space for a tablet in my life but it is not “filling a need I didn’t know I had”. Ultimately it’s nice to fire up my laptop less frequently but £400 is still a lot of money for what a tablet does. Still, it’s a hell of a lot better than a netbook.
In closing, my personal views on tablets take nothing away from what Sony has produced and, if you are in the market for one, this is a model you ought to give serious consideration. However, I would highly recommend first holding one for yourself to decide whether its unique shape works for you.