Most manufacturers seem to be gradually morphing their tablets into one barely distinguishable design, but Sony continues to be different. After the wedge-shaped, media-focused Tablet S comes something more radical.
The Sony Tablet P is a dual-screened Android tablet that folds up, just like a big version of the Nintendo DS. It’s 22mm thick when closed and weighs 368g, with a curvy shape – Sony can genuinely claim to have a tablet that will fit in your pocket. The only blemishes on its edges are a power socket, micro-USB and headphone ports, plus a volume rocker button. It works over 802.11n Wi-Fi and 3G, and has GPS too.
The two 5.5in screens each boast a 1024 x 480 resolution, so when opened flat they combine for a large, almost square display, closer to the 4:3 aspect ratio of an iPad than the usual widescreen Android tablets. Sony says the Tablet P’s TruBlack display will blow you away, but that’s only half right: we measured a good 448cd/ m2 brightness and 800:1 contrast on the top screen, but only 370cd/m2 and 700:1 on the bottom screen. The discrepancy is only really noticeable on a white screen, however; colours aren’t as vibrant as Sony boasts, but it’s pleasant to use for long periods.
It has a few nice software features, too. Although it lacks the Tablet S’s ability to directly control your other home entertainment devices, the Tablet P can still be used to easily “throw” your media to those on your home network, which is a blessing as the tablet’s own mono speaker is weak and tinny. You get access to Sony’s Video and Music Unlimited rental services, and Sony’s Reader app has been tweaked to flow text down the dual screens. The tall, thin pages take a bit of getting used to, and a proper page-turn animation would have made it more immersive, but it isn’t bad as tablet readers go.
The calendar, contacts and a very nice music player app all take advantage of the dual screens, with menus on one and results on the other, as does the camera app. The main camera image appears on the lower screen, with the top turned into a film strip for the snaps you take. The icons are a bit small and fiddly for our liking, and the 5-megapixel camera is average – photos were grainy and a bit soft, although it handled different lighting reasonably well – but it’s good to see some thought going into the layout.
But what about apps that Sony can’t control? Although most open on the top screen alone, compatible apps will bring up a small symbol in the notifications area that lets you toggle full-screen mode on and off. The best examples are the browser and mail apps, which fill both screens when displaying a page, but bring up a large keyboard on the lower screen when required – it works well, and makes typing a very comfortable experience.
Unfortunately, in full-screen mode, apps span the 8.5mm bezel between the two screens, and while that isn’t an issue in the browser, it’s unwieldy with any app that relies on fast, accurate swiping. Try playing Fruit Ninja across the two screens: swipes that cross the bezel often stop dead, or register, but with a gap either side of the hinge. A few apps we tried simply crashed when trying to scale them. And some apps meant for smartphones scale horribly in full-screen mode, chopping off the top and bottom rather than using black bars to fit the aspect ratio.
You can still play the worst-affected games on a single screen, but that makes it little more than a very large and unwieldy phone replacement – and that’s if you find the games at all. For some bizarre reason the Android Market has no full-screen option, leaving you browsing its large tablet interface (it’s Honeycomb, after all) on a single phone-sized screen. It’s a horrible oversight for the most important app of all.
Then there’s the PlayStation Store, which Sony believes can make the Tablet P appeal to gamers. At the time of writing, it had only ten games – Sony’s glacial pace at launching new titles is well known to Sony Ericsson Xperia Play owners – and charging for unenhanced PlayStation classics is optimistic in today’s ultra-cheap mobile gaming market.
You get Crash Bandicoot and Pinball Heroes free with the tablet, and the latter works reasonably well in full-screen mode. Crash Bandicoot might hold nostalgic appeal, but it’s plonked in a small box on the top screen, with an awkward touch controller laid out on the bottom screen. That setup worked quite well with the Xperia Play’s physical controls, but here it’s difficult to keep your eyes on the main screen and your thumbs on virtual buttons that give no tactile feedback.
It’s this not-quite-there feeling throughout that leaves us scratching our heads. We commend Sony for trying to innovate, but where the Tablet S felt like a creative reworking of a well-honed formula, the Tablet P rips up the template with no real idea of how best to put the pieces back together. Yes, it’s uniquely portable, but the trade-off in user experience is simply too high, especially when Sony is charging $729 for it. That’s the same price as a 32GB iPad 2 with 3G. The Tablet P is inventive enough not to be written off, but it needs an awful lot of work before it can live up to that kind of comparison.