Review: Sony Tablet S

Initially, the Tablet S was supposed to be part of our big tablet roundup. Requests for review samples repeatedly ignored, so we went ahead and forgot about them. 

Well you’d never guess, but comments like “if you’re looking for the perfect tablet, you have two choices” tend to get to get a company’s attention. At least, when that company isn’t one of those two choices. 

Shiny new Tablet S in hand mere days later, I set off to find out if it could be a worthy contender against the Fire and iPad.

First, the Hardware stuff 

Sporting a gorgeous 9.4-inch 1,280x800 resolution IPS LCD, the Tablet S seems highly similar to the Galaxy Tab. But where the Tab is almost impossibly thin, the Tablet S is somewhat adorably plump. The top edge (when the S is placed horizontally) is actually almost an inch thick, while the bottom edge is half that. I rather like the airfoil design, as it props up the screen so you can see it better when on a desk, and angles it so it’s easier to type. Sadly, the extra chassis real estate isn’t used as much for connectivity as you’d hope; the device sports just a micro USB and a (admittedly welcome) SD card slot. These are hidden behind a difficult-to-access door that seems superfluous. With all that room an HDMI output would have been nice. 

Like many of the current crop of tablets, the S has a proprietary power supply. I don’t care how awesome your portable device is, if I can’t charge it via USB I’m taking points off. I mention this in the big feature too, so it’s not just a Sony thing.

Inside is a 1 GHz, dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 CPU. Normally I don’t mention the guts as who cares, but in this case it has a positive effect on the usability. The S moves at a lighting pace, rarely pausing while you tap and slide through the Android 3.2 OS. It’s got cameras and GPS and stuff, but as I said in the initial tablet feature, I don’t care.

What Really Matters

As I concluded with the other tablets, as far as we’re concerned, it’s the content that matters. Most people want to use their tablets to watch movies and TV shows, so the strength of a tablet lies directly (and almost solely) in its access to media. iPad and iTunes, Fire and Amazon, these tablets have potentially near-unlimited content. That’s what makes them so good, and so far they’re the only real tablets to consider. 

Sony has a potential “byte up” so to speak, given that the company has its own music labels and movie studios. This has been a blessing and a curse for Sony in the past, as it has lagged behind competitors when the hardware side of the business wasn’t allowed by the software side to implement certain features or compete with certain product categories.

The Sony Entertainment Network offerings are Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. Music Unlimited is a pay service, either $3.99 or $9.99 a month, that gives you access to a “global catalog of 10 million tracks.” You can stream these, Spotify style. I can’t speak to every taste in music, but selection seems to be pretty good. 

Video Unlimited allows you to rent or buy TV shows and movies, and download them to the S. Sony has licensing deals with many other studios, so it’s not all just Sony content. With no way to definitively cross-test iTunes, Amazon, and Sony’s VU, I took a stab searching for shows I would want to watch, and noting when I couldn’t find something. A few weren’t available on any platform, most were on all, but a few shows were noticeably missing on VU (Lost and Gray’s Anatomy) specifically. I doubt that these are the only two shows not on VU but available elsewhere. 

So can you find shows to watch on your next trip? Absolutely. Will they be exactly the shows you wanted to watch? Maybe. That’s a significant leap above all the also-ran tablet offerings (including Samsung’s meager Media Hub), though not quite reaching the bar set by Apple and Amazon. Perhaps more troubling is the inability to download HD, at all. True it’s a small screen and it looks plenty detailed, but it is an HD screen. 

You can also get Netflix. The SD upconverting is decent, though not quite as detailed as it is on the Galaxy Tab. At the moment there’s no Hulu Plus. 

Unexpectedly, the Video Unlimited service is going to be available on other Android tablets, in some ways diminishing the Tablet S’s “uniqueness” but at the same time a smart move for Sony as a whole. 

Bottom Line

The Tablet S is an interesting product, actually finding its own niche in the tablet landscape. It does a lot more than the Fire, and costs less than the iPad. The Video Unlimited service is surprisingly good, with great selection of TV shows and movies to rent or buy.

If, like I said in the original feature, the Fire and iPad are tied for first place in the tablet world, with all others in a distant last, the S is a reasonably close runner up. Available content is 99.9% of the reason to buy a tablet. With iTunes and Amazon, this is as extensive as currently possible. Sony’s Video Unlimited is bit more, what’s the word? lim... lim... let’s go with "abridged." It may be 90% to iTunes/Amazon’s 100%, but in that case, why would you, ahem, limit yourself to 90%? If you have to have a full tablet computer, but for some reason don’t want an iPad, then the Tablet S is your next best option. Once Video Unlimited becomes available on other tablets, this dully ringing endorsement will become even more muted. Would the Galaxy Tab with VU be a contender? Maybe, but I like the form factor of the S a bit better, personally.

I like the Tablet S, and in a world without the iPad it’d would be a real winner. But in a world without the iPad, ironically enough, the S wouldn’t exist either.