Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
2/2/2012 3:14:16 PM
Well made, cleverly optimised custom apps, class-leading screens
Form factor doesn't work, standard apps don't display correctly, video is limited to a single screen
There are fast becoming two types of tablet customer: those who want an iPad and those who don't. Those persuaded by Apple's powerful marketing rhetoric are largely untouchable, making those who aren’t hot property. As such, it presents everyone but Apple with a conundrum: how do you make something stand out against a plethora of similar seven-10-inch slabs of varying price and quality, the majority of which run the same operating system? Sony has a crazy idea…
It is called the 'Tablet P', and if the world thought the wedge-shaped Tablet S was radical, then jaws are about to drop. The Tablet P breaks completely from tablet tradition, taking a Nintendo DS-esque view of the world with a dual screen, folding design that the Japanese company claims offers ‘maximum mobility’. On paper the theory is sound: tablets are so thin that folding them in half greatly reduces the footprint without adding too much bulk. In practice, Sony is partially right. When closed, the clamshell Tablet P has a footprint of just 158x80mm, but at 22mm thick (at its widest point) only jacket and coat pockets stand any chance of a credible fit and at 372g it is actually 27g heavier than Sony's seven-inch Galaxy Tab Plus. Don't be put off too quickly though because Sony has built the Tablet P with its usual panache. The brushed aluminium finish may actually be plastic but the build quality is excellent, with rugged construction and curved surfaces that feel good in hand. Worthy of particular praise is the central hinge that opens and closes with a satisfying magnetic pull and is rugged enough to suggest only it and cockroaches would be left in the event of a nuclear holocaust.
Taking a leaf out of Apple's book, the Tablet P also keeps external ports to a minimum. Along the right side are power and volume buttons, an A/C input and Micro USB port. Most unlike Apple, however, the rear of the Tablet P slides off to reveal a removable battery and microSD slot. Sony gets bonus points for these latter features, but loses them for fitting a proprietary power connector – a mistake it repeated with the Tablet S. Like the Tablet S, the Tablet P also has a small power brick on its power cable, which takes further gloss off its claims of 'maximum mobility'. Inside the device, things get better. The Tablet P comes with 3G connectivity as standard (no SIM provided) as well as WiFi (802.11b/g/n), GPS, Bluetooth with EDR, a three-axis accelerometer, digital compass and gyroscope. Given that most tablets make 3G an optional extra, its inclusion is most welcome.
Sony has been less extravagant when it comes to horsepower. The Tablet P is driven by Nvidia's Tegra 2 platform with a dual-core 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and just 4GB of native storage. The aforementioned microSD slot can be used to boost the storage space, but in late 2011 it seems a little miserly and 1GHz is the bare minimum clock speed for a modern tablet – there are faster smartphones. Also fairly par for the course these days is a five-megapixel rear-facing camera, which incidentally takes wholly unremarkable pictures that wash out in anything but ideal lighting. The front-facing VGA camera for video calls (think Skype, not telephony) is also less than stellar.
Far more interesting than the specs is the Tablet P's most controversial aspect: its dual screens. Each screen measures 5.5-inches in diameter and has an impressive 1024x480 native resolution, making them the highest density tablet screens currently on the market. This may soon change with talk of the iPad 3 having a Retina Display and a subsequent 'pixel war', but for now the displays on the Tablet P are hugely impressive. Colours are rich and vibrant with natural tones, text is sharp and – depending on how you toggle the settings – brightness is superb. Interestingly, both screens can work separately or in unison. When separate, each display works independently and responds to gesture controls (pinch-to-zoom, for example) yet when working as a single display gesture controls still operate with one finger on each screen. This is a strange sensation when rotating a map or zooming in or out of a large webpage, but there is no lag in the response.
Happily, Sony's decision not to push performance boundaries isn't exposed when using the device. Like the Tablet S, the Tablet P runs on Android 3.0 Honeycomb, which is only gently modified by Sony's custom skin that brings extra transitional animations and a colour scheme akin to its PlayStation products. Navigation is swift and wonderfully smooth and even complex webpages render quickly. Sony has also confirmed the Tablet P will get Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but we await a timeframe. Key to the value of the Tablet P's dual screens is Sony's creation of custom apps. These work well, with a notable highlight being the Sony Reader app that displays an ebook page on each screen in portrait mode to recreate the feel of a book. The Sony email client is also well done, showing folders and mail in one screen and the contents of any selected email in the other. Less impressive is gaming with compatible PlayStation titles, with the Tablet P simply placing the game on the top screen and the controls at the bottom. Videos operate in the same way and unfortunately once these cracks are spotted, they spread quickly.
After some time with the Tablet P, two fundamental flaws arise. The first is the shape of the two screens when combined. Diagonally they measure seven inches together, but they don't fit any recognised aspect ratio (1024x960 pixels is almost square), meaning most apps are horribly stretched or limited to one 5.5-inch screen, which makes them only slightly larger than the five-inch displays fitted in some Android smartphones.The second even bigger problem is the distance between the screens. The Tablet P already has such a wide bezel that two larger screens could have been fitted, but where the bezels are thinnest between the screens it is still distractingly wide. As such, the illusion of a single large screen is never fulfilled and the dead area between the screens means scrolling, especially on webpages, cannot be done in a single smooth motion. Without a borderless connection between the screens and an established aspect ratio when combined, the concept simply doesn't work.
There are further practical implications too. In our tests, the Tablet P lasted less than seven hours on a single charge and while we cannot categorically say powering two screens is the cause, we suspect it is a significant factor. Rival tablets push 10 hours and above, so this really isn’t good enough.
All of which leads us to the price. Despite its flaws, the Tablet P is unique in a sector of lookalikes and for those seeking something different, we would be keen to recommend it. But we can't, as Sony is asking for a whopping £499, a figure bordering on foolhardy for a 4GB tablet (even with 3G) given that it costs as much as a 3G-equipped 16GB iPad 2.
The Tablet P dares to be different in a sector full of clones, so it saddens us to say Sony's experiment hasn't worked. The bezels between the screens are too thick to form an immersive single screen, mainstream apps don't display correctly and for all its design prowess, it isn't really any lighter or more convenient than the competition, especially when taking the power brick into account. Furthermore, integrated 3G can't distract from mediocre specifications and stingy storage while the £500 asking price kills all novelty value. We'd like to see a second generation Tablet P to correct these mistakes, but we suspect Sony won't make another.