Monday, February 13, 2012

Sony Tablet S

Alongwith the rest of the tech industry, The Indian Geek has been following the development of Tablets as a computing device for quite some time. One of our first editorials wondered if Tablets were useful at all; we then watched with keen interest as the wraps came off for many Tablets at CES 2011. Less than a year ago, we opined that Tablets had become a useful alternative to portable computers (Notebook PCs or Laptops). Our thorough review of Windows 8 Developer Preview made us feel that it couldn’t get here soon enough, while salivating at the thought of the full force of Windows running on a Tablet. And of course, the Indian government’s attempts to get the Aakash Tablet from Data Wind into every student’s hands has spiked considerable interest in the value-conscious Indian consumer.

All said and done, most people in the tech world who actually have used Tablets agree that the iPad is hard to beat. RIM’s Playbook has not taken off like it was expected to; HP’s TouchPad has gone the way of the Dodo; Windows 8 is not going to make it to Tablets for close to a year, even if it is released on schedule and Android Tablet makers are struggling to gain just a percentage of the Tablet market that Apple has gained with the iPad. Also, most Tablets have very boring, similar form factors. You would then appreciate our excitement when we saw Sony’s announcement last year about their Tablet S and their Tablet P (the clamshell, folding design). We were excited that atleast one manufacturer was trying to differentiate – and not just for the sake of differentiating; but for actual utility purposes. So when Sony’s PR firm sent us this Tablet on New Year’s Eve, we happily spent several weeks in January devouring everything the Tablet could offer. It even accompanied us on holiday to a remote location as the sole entertainment gadget, convincing us to leave behind our Notebook computers. Let’s see what the fuss is about, shall we? All that you wanted to know about the Sony Tablet S is waiting for you past that “Read more” link.

Hardware

Sony Tablet S - Hardware

As can be expected from a Sony product, the build quality of the Tablet S is top-notch. The texturised back feels nice; the “folded magazine” design is different, useful and eye-catching for onlookers. This design also cleverly houses the Power, Volume Up and Volume Down buttons inside the cleft on the right side. The left side cleft houses the 3.5 mm headset jack, the micro-USB port and the full-sized SD card slot – the latter two have a plastic tab that pops open (Photos 08 and 09 below). This plastic “cover” is probably the worst piece of construction in the entire Tablet – and it’s pretty sturdy and well-made. That says a lot about the excellent construction quality of the Sony Tablet S. The way the plastic tab felt at touch, and while opening and closing, just worried us if we were going to break the hinge of the tab.

The black front face of the Tablet S is a highly-polished fingerprint magnet; nothing much could be done about it. The left side of the bottom edge of the Tablet S houses a very unusual “port”; this is the proprietary DC connection for charging the Tablet (Photo 05 below). Which brings us to the in-box contents, or the lack thereof. We were highly surprised to find out that Sony does not give you anything apart from a short lanyard strap, an AC adapter for the proprietary charging port, and the Tablet with its documentation. No microUSB cable, no earphones. Since most of us already own smartphones that use microUSB cables and 3.5mm headsets, I guess it shouldn’t make too much of a difference. But if Sony really expects this to be a replacement for a Notebook computer for the average Indian consumer, providing these two much-needed accessories would have gone a long way in furthering that goal.

There is a 0.3 MP camera at the center of the top bezel of the Tablet, while a 5 MP Autofocus camera provides imaging capabilities at the rear. There are a couple of speakers at the lower edges of the right and left clefts of the Tablet, which provided sufficient sound in some situations (more on that below). Couple of things that we felt were lacking during our use of the Tablet was the omission of a full-sized USB port (for Internet on the move and attaching USB drives and keyboards) and the lack of direct video output options; it was extremely easy and intuitive to bring across photos shot on a DSLR to the Tablet using the full-sized SD card slot – which we were very happy about; but sharing the same photos with everyone in the room became a pain with the Tablet having to be viewed by two people at a time. A simple HDMI port or even just composite video output would have completed the experience. Overall, we were very pleased with the hardware construction of the Sony Tablet S, and our misgivings with regards to the in-box contents and the lack of full-sized USB or HDMI output are minor quibbles of tech aficionados.

Sony Tablet S - Hardware 01 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 02 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 03 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 04 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 05Sony Tablet S - Hardware 06 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 07 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 08 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 09 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 10Sony Tablet S - Hardware 11 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 12 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 13 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 14 Sony Tablet S - Hardware 15

Click any image above to open a full-sized version in a new window.

 

Software and Performance

Sony Tablet S - Software and Performance

The Tablet S runs the latest version of Android 3.2 Honeycomb, and it was our first full-on experience with Android’s Tablet offering (Yeah – our first review of a Honeycomb device!). Simply put, we were amazed. The UI transitions, animations and general “style” were breathtaking. The fresh UI (User Interface) left us wishing that our boring old Android phones could have all these new flourishes and style-enhancements. It increased our desire to purchase and own Android 4 handsets, since Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) brings most of the UI enhancements of Honeycomb to the smartphone (Hello, CyanogenMod 9!). The onscreen buttons for Home, Recent Applications and Back are different from the standard Android button layout, but now that Android 4 is crossing over to this model, even for smartphones, we guess it will catch on soon. The Recent Applications list was especially nice; it provides a scrollable overview of thumbnails of recently used Applications. We’re not sure if all these Applications remain active in the background or if they are closed and waiting to be re-opened. We found the honeycomb panel-style switching between homescreens (left and right swipes, as on Android smartphones) a very cool UI element. However, our joy at the look and feel of Honeycomb evaporated very quickly. The software freezes, and quite often. This was inspite of the firmware update released by Sony (our Tablet came preinstalled with the update). We cannot stress enough our dismay at the number and frequency of freezing issues we experienced with the Tablet S. After a couple of major occurrences, we restricted ourselves to running just one game or just the web browser or just the music app at a time; with lack of truly functional multitasking, we really cannot suggest this Tablet (or any Android Honeycomb device) as an alternative to your currently owned portable Notebook PC.

Don’t get us wrong – the Tablet S handles several graphics-intensive Apps very well. All of the “HD” games that we tried out were rendered smoothly and were great fun. The issue with performance crops up when computer-like multitasking was attempted, with us being reminded with a shock that the Sony Tablet S is not a full-fledged computer. The fact that the Tablet tries to accomplish many full-fledged computing tasks is a big deal; the fact that it fails is a sad realisation that the Android Tablet platform has to mature greatly to be able to be considered as a viable alternative for moderately heavy users of computers.

A note to gamers looking to snap up this PS-compatible Tablet: the hand used for gaming begins to ache and pain a lot while playing games; touchscreen gaming on a smartphone is ok. Touchscreen gaming on a Tablet means moving the arm across the entirety of the screen, which is a huge strain on the shoulder. After an hour of continuous gaming in Defender, the arm feels like a couple of horses are trying to pull it out of its socket. And playing games like Asphalt 6 HD just seems plain silly with such a huge device – the motion controls go awry if one tries to lie down and play. These may sound like minor inconveniences, but if you’re a hardcore gamer – you might want to try things out on a friend’s unit before shelling out your hard-earned money.

Sony also provides some entertainment Apps; we found BigFlix and the Star TV App to be pretty nice for people interested in catching up on Indian cinema. The included 16 GB of storage is also something to be appreciated; we were able to dump several videos and music, download many Apps and still have breathing space on the Tablet S. Still, if Sony comes out with a 32/64 GB version – we’d suggest you spring for the higher-storage version.

Sony Tablet S - Lockscreen Sony Tablet S - Homescreen 01 Sony Tablet S - Homescreen 02 Sony Tablet S - Homescreen Editing

Sony Tablet S - Recent Apps Sony Tablet S - Portrait mode Sony Tablet S - Swiftkey X for Tablets

Click any image above to open a full-sized version in a new window.

 

Screen and Reading

Sony Tablet S - Screen and Reading

The screen appears pixelated when up close, but the general experience of the display in everyday use of the Tablet is stellar. It definitely makes people open their eyes wide, and they want to take the Tablet up and use it. Almost everyone who saw it during our review period wanted to own one – but the asking price of nearly Rs. 30,000 is too much. For the average Indian Notebook computer buyer, Rs. 30,000 is the standard budget for the Notebook. To then be informed that the Notebook computer-substitute cannot accept USB storage devices, cannot connect to a projector/external display is something that would definitely discourage the buyer from buying this otherwise-excellent, computing device. The display rotates into Portrait regardless of whether you’re rotating the Tablet to its left, or to its right; but the Tablet cannot be used in reverse-landscape mode (upside down, with the front camera bezel at the bottom). This wasn’t an issue really, due to the whole folded-magazine concept of the Tablet S’ construction… which brings us to the reading experience on the Tablet S. Sony claimed at the introduction of the Tablet S that it was built to make it easy for one-handed use, when used in portrait-mode due to the bulge at the top. What sounded like a possible marketing “gimmick”, is actually a useful function of the Tablet. The bulging edge of the Tablet allows most of the weight of the Tablet to rest in your palm, thereby making it feel as if the entire Tablet is held within your hand – so there’s no strain on the wrist when lying down and trying to read. We found it an excellent idea for a reading device. For the casual reading that we did via our Google Reader feeds, checking emails, etc. the screen and the Tablet S as a whole make a good combination. We did not experience much eye strain, and almost zero hand-strain (unlike some games played on the Tablet). Overall, if you’re looking to use the Tablet S to read, you won’t be too disappointed.

Sony Tablet S - Screen, pixel density Sony Tablet S - Reading, portrait mode Sony Tablet S - Reading, landscape mode

Click any image above to open a full-sized version in a new window.

 

Cameras and Media consumption

Sony Tablet S - Cameras and Media consumption

The rear 5 MP Autofocus camera is a decent shooter – it takes good-enough photographs. However, there is no flash and it does extremely poorly in low-light conditions. The front 0.3 MP camera is obviously good only for checking your hair/makeup, and for video calls. It was pretty useful when a friend from abroad videocalled us to wish us for the New Year. Without the Wi-Fi connection though, the videocall camera on the front becomes useless for such functions. We don’t yet consider the front-facing camera a dire need, but it is definitely a useful feature to have if you have plenty of friends and would like to see atleast some of them once in a while. We only used the included Android Honeycomb version of Google Talk for the video calls; we did not try out any other videocall solution. There is not much that did not please us about the two cameras on the Tablet S. If Sony’s listening, we’d request them to add a good-quality photo-light or LED flash to the rear of the Tablet.

Playback of audio and video was smooth, although audio output from video was lower-volume than required for comfortable two-person video watching. Sony’s included music App is nice, but we got our Google Music App installed and pulled down our music from the cloud. The Google Music app for Tablets has a very nice interface. For video playback, we tested out several video clips. Many supposedly MPEG-4  1080p videos downloaded from YouTube had issues with playback and refused to play. 1080p MPEG-4 videos of Big Buck Bunny, the open-source project played back very smoothly. YouTube and other online videos played back without stutter, after we had installed Adobe Flash from the Android Market, but 1080p videos of any kind were unable to stream smoothly on the Tablet S. As for some Divx files encoded in .AVI format copied onto the Tablet via USB, they played fine, but if you’re really looking to get into films on this Tablet, you’ll need either a good set of speakers with a 3.5 mm jack, or a good pair of earphones/headphones. Overall, as a media consumption device, the Tablet S did not feel lacking in any department – on the contrary, the Tablet S built a desire in us to consume more media on it.

Sony Tablet S - Rear camera, 5 MP Sony Tablet S - Front camera, 0.3 MP Sony Tablet S - Video playback 01

Sony Tablet S - Video playback 02 Sony Tablet S - Google Music Sony Tablet S - Music player

Click any image above to open a full-sized version in a new window.

 

Connectivity and Battery Life

Sony Tablet S - Connectivity 1 Sony Tablet S - Connectivity 2

The Indian Geek received the Wi-Fi only version of the Tablet S; so there was no 3G possible. However, GPS worked fine as long as we were within range of a Wi-Fi network. The lack of anywhere connectivity was disheartening, but for the amounts of data that we were pulling down through our Wi-Fi (each of those HD games ranges anywhere from 70 MB to 450 MB) we may not have been too happy with the 3G data bill the Tablet would have presented us with. As you can see from the images above, a single tap on the bottom-right corner of the Honeycomb taskbar brings up a short settings menu with the data and time, Wireless connectivity status and battery; tapping the 3-slider icon at the left edge of this dialog box expands the box displaying on-off options for Wi-Fi, auto-rotating screen, brightness levels, notifications and a link to the full settings menu. Since some of us like switching off auto-rotate while reading in bed, this was a quick way to switch on/off the auto-rotate screen option. The option to quickly switch on/off the Wi-Fi was also very useful.

Sony Tablet S - Battery Life

The best thing we loved about the Tablet S – battery life. It’s also the major reason we are willing to even consider the Tablet as an alternative to Notebook computers. A Rs. 30,000-costing Notebook computer may provide anywhere from 1-2 hours of Wireless connectivity. The Sony Tablet S goes on for hours and hours. We were unable to perform a continuous test, but with our usage, we needed to charge the Tablet S once every 3-4 days. After the Tablet S hits 10% and starts warning you of the imminent power-off, we were able to squeeze out more than hour of Wireless web browsing and playing certain graphics-intensive games. We were more than pleased. Heavy users may find that the Tablet S runs out of juice in about 7-9 hours, but nobody we know would use a Tablet at a stretch for so many hours – unless you’re travelling. Either way, it beats the battery life of most smartphones and most budget Notebook computers with their standard batteries.

Sony Tablet S - Settings Sony Tablet S - Expanded Settings Sony Tablet S - Battery use

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Final thoughts

Sony Tablet S - Final Thoughts

If you’ve not read through the above sections, and are jumping straight to this section, we’ll highlight the points that stood out for us during our time with the Sony Tablet S. The design and hardware is great, it is great for reading, battery life is excellent, the full-sized SD card slot is an added boon and the overall User Interface provides quite a bit of functionality and eye-candy. Where the Tablet S fails to live up to the expected norm of the “Post PC computing era” is that Android Honeycomb freezes indefinitely if multiple applications are open and running at the same time, the Tablet lacks full-sized USB and HDMI ports and gaming for long hours is a pain. If you can live comfortably with these quibbles, and if you’re just on the market for a portable, basic, budget computing device with truckloads of battery life – then you can get yourself a decent Android Tablet. If you want better-than-average performance, good build quality and a design that enables you to read comfortably for long hours – then by all means, buy yourself a Sony Tablet S. You will enjoy the overall experience, and you’ll use your Notebook computer less and less, as the days go by.

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