The relentless advance of touchscreen technology has brought many advantages to the tech world, but the increasingly generic look of slab-like devices is a noticeable downside. So praise be to Sony for deciding thin definitely is not in.
The Sony Tablet S (previously known as the Sony S1) is Sony's long awaited first Android tablet and its primary defining feature is to snub its nose at the aesthetically pleasing but impractical race to be thinnest. Instead Sony has thought along more practical lines producing a tablet whose side profile is reminiscent of its wedge shaped Vaio laptops.
This gives the Tablet S a more natural typing and viewing angle when laid flat and the curved edge is noticeably more comfortable when holding the device one handed in portrait orientation - the natural way for reading books, magazines and other nicely formatted content. What's more, at 598g it has little practical detriment, weighing less than an iPad 2 (601g). Clearly its maximum thickness (20.3mm) is greater by some margin than most of the competition (circa 10mm) but in everyday use this hasn't proved at all problematic. Perhaps the only criticism we would made of this wedge shape is that it doesn't taper enough - the thin end feels chunkier that it perhaps needs to be.
What also lets the side down is the mediocre build quality. Aside from its glass screen, the Tablet S is all plastic, and mostly glossy plastic at that. This gives it a slightly hollow feel that just doesn't quite have the premium feel of most rivals - the pathetic plastic flap that covers the ports is particularly unimpressive. As ever, it isn't the case that the Tablet S will fall apart, its just about the feel of the thing.
Shape isn't the only place the Tablet S dares to be different. It may be a subtle point but Sony has eschewed both the usual 10.1in and 7in screen sizes for Android tablets and also ignored the 9.7in frame of the iPad. Instead it has opted for a 9.4in display. While 7in devices are clearly made to be used in a different way, this 9.4 form factor is still meant to compete directly with the other larger formats, and though it may sound like the start of a bad joke, giving up 0.3in does make a difference. That said Sony has a fondness for high resolutions and in fitting a 1280 x 800 panel the trade off results in additional pixel density and text looks razor sharp. It's also a high quality (IPS) panel so has great viewing angles and it produces strong colours with deep blacks as well, making it a good choice for movie watching and other multimedia activities.
The rest of the Tablet S is equally unconventional. There are familiar specifications such as the dual core 1GHz processor, 1GB RAM, micro USB and choice of WiFi/WiFi 3G and 16GB/32GB sizes, but everything else raises an eyebrow.
Most obvious of these is Sony's decision to fit a proprietary charge port. The benefit is it uses a MagSafe-inspired magnetic connection which disconnects if the cable is pulled. The downside is it means carrying the charger with you and this is no small burden given it is linked into a 105g power brick. You can at least get a nice dock for the system for a yet to be confirmed extra cost.
In addition Sony has opted for an SD card slot rather than the more typical microSD. Again there are pros and cons. SD cards are available in larger sizes and allow easy access to digital camera and video recorder content, but then microSD has become more of a standard for removable storage on these devices. Then again, unlike some other tablets the Tablet S can only use SD card space to store media files rather than to extend the main memory. Lastly Sony has omitted HDMI, but countered that with integrated DLNA network streaming. Should you have DLNA compatible devices like the PS3, or in fact may new TVs, this is a godsend. For others the lack of a more widely adopted connection will prove an irritant.
Thankfully what is less contentious is the software. Sony has gone down the well worn path of customising Android, but where many have failed it has produced a subtle and stylish upgrade which smoothes out the rough edges of Honeycomb 3.2. Critics are justified in saying such skins further fragment Android (which long term is self defeating for manufacturers), but Sony has unified the look with its PlayStation and Xperia Play devices. The result is a darker, more adult appearance than the defacto Honeycomb and a number of welcome extra animations make it run more smoothly.
Beyond these superficialities Sony has used its massive multimedia resources to equip the tablet with a wealth of potential market differentiators…