Editor's note: Thanks to the release of recent, high-quality tablets, the overall score of the Sony Tablet S has been adjusted down from 7.7 to 7.2.
Sony's track record in industrial design, hardware engineering, gaming, and media makes it the best possible candidate to make a tablet that can challenge Apple's iPad. A year and a half after Apple's tablet debut, Sony is striking back with an Android 3.2 slate that is bound to turn heads and win some fans.
Editors' note: As of April 2012, the Sony Tablet S is upgradable to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). For details on the advantages Android 4.0 offers over Honeycomb, check the Android 4.0 section of the Asus Transformer Prime TF201 review.
Priced at $499 (16GB) and $599 (32GB), and lacking cellular data compatibility (at least in the U.S.), the Sony Tablet S isn't looking to be an inexpensive iPad alternative. It represents an elevation in the art of making Android tablets, and offers a genuinely fresh take on tablet design.
Sony's tablet is easy to spot in a lineup. Its unique wedge shape gives it a futuristic look and provides improved balance in your hand compared with the flat competition. As seen when placed on a table, the screen's forward slant minimizes glare and makes it more comfortable to type. The tradeoff is that the Tablet S doesn't achieve the same thinness as an iPad 2, though the Tablet S is just as light at 1.3 pounds and feels more solid than the reigning Android slate, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
Around the sides you'll find buttons for power and volume, speakers, a headphone jack, and a tethered cover protecting a Micro-USB sync connection and a full-size SD card reader. A built-in app handles moving files back and forth from your card. It's worth noting that unlike other Honeycomb tablets, the SD card reader here functions just for media transfer and isn't meant to act as a memory expansion port.
Sony also made an interesting choice by going with a 9.4-inch screen instead of the 10.1-inch panel used on nearly every other Honeycomb tablet out there. Sony also uses the TruBlack technology from its Bravia TV line to make the screen contrast really pop. Though the screen is slightly smaller than those found on most of its Honeycomb cousins, you really don't feel the pinch while using it and it actually helps to bring the overall form factor closer to the iPad's dimensions.
Take it as read that you get Google's full Android 3.1 experience. Everything from Gmail to Google Talk (with video chat) comes ready to go right out of the box. On top of that you get access to Sony's Video Unlimited service. Ironically, video selection is very limited at launch, but plans are in place to offer video download and rental options from all the major studios. You get a six-month free basic membership to Sony's Music Unlimited service (a revamped version of Sony's Qriocity). Sony's own Reader software is included, alongside Google Books. And last but not least, both of Sony's tablets are PlayStation-certified, and run emulator software allowing them to run select PS One and PSP game titles. The original PS One hit Crash Bandicoot comes preinstalled, along with a version of Pinball Heroes.
Sony has also included some interesting options for pushing media content from these tablets to DLNA-compatible speakers, PCs, or TVs (and not just Sony's). You can think of it as Sony's answer to Apple's AirPlay media streaming, only more broadly compatible with third-party technology.
Also playing into Sony's focus on the tablet as a living-room entertainment device is the inclusion of an IR blaster and a universal remote app on the Tablet S. Having tried a demo of this feature personally, we can safely say that it makes the remote functionality of the Vizio tablet look like amateur hour. Essentially, Sony cannibalized its own $250 HomeShare premium universal remote and slapped the same software inside the Tablet S. The result is a graphically rich remote that you might actually want to use.
In that same spirit of borrowing from its best technology to make a compelling tablet, Sony has borrowed the Exmor image technology from its digital cameras to make a tablet camera that's actually worth a damn. The touch-screen panels on both tablets take advantage of the TruBlack technology used on Sony's Bravia HDTV sets, as we mentioned, providing richer contrast and minimizing reflections between the LCD and the glass above it. Sony even threw in the Dash's Chumby widgets, transforming the tablet into a high-tech photo frame/widget display when the device is placed in an optional dock ($39).