Sony had already sort of announced its new Android tablets again and again, but at the IFA consumer-electronics show in Berlin, it did the job officially . The 10.1″ model is the Tablet S, and will ship on September 16th for $499.99 (16GB) and $599.99 (32GB). The folding one with two 5.5″ displays is the Tablet P, and will be sold with bundled AT&T wireless service at an unspecified date (“coming soon”) and price.
I got some hands-on time with both Sony tablets, and don’t expect either to be the Great iPad Competitor that leads folks to conclude that it’s possible to compete effectively with Apple’s tablet. (In the phone world, the original Verizon Droid accomplished that, even though its reign as the iPad’s archrival was brief.) But neither one feels generic, either–they’re the sort of tablets you might expect Sony to come up with, and I mean that as a compliment. (If Sony had branded them as VAIO tablets, they would have felt right at home in its lineup of desktop and laptop PCs.)
One of the basic problems with building a tablet that’s a plausible iPad rival is that it’s tough to build hardware that’s anything other than an anonymous-looking rectangular hunk of glass and plastic. With the S, Sony has succeeded in building something with its own personality–and its unusual design has some genuine benefits. The wedge shape feels good in your hand, like a folded-back magazine, and allows the tablet to sit on a table at a gentle angle, allowing for comfy typing. It’s not like all tablets are going to ape this design from now on, but I do think that some people will really like it. (Intentionally or unintentionally, it also lets Sony opt out of the “Is this tablet thinner than the iPad?” race.)
Sony has tweaked Android Honeycomb a bit, but judging from my time with the S, it’s managed to improve rather than hurt the interface. (Sadly, that’s not a given with Android modifications.) It added a screen that lets you access your most-used apps quickly. It incorporated a feature for speeding up Web browsing that seems to help. It bundles its own Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, and Reader services; I haven’t used them and therefore can’t judge them, but doing so nudges the S closer than most Android tablets to the iPad’s fully-integrated package of hardware, software, and services.
(There are a bunch of ways to use an iPad or iPhone as a remote–I wrote about Peel–but they all involve extra hardware of one sort of another.) It’s also PlayStation-certified, which for now doesn’t mean all that much–it comes with a couple of old PlayStation games, with more on the way.
I still think that the iPad competitors who use widescreens–which is almost all of them except for the dearly departed TouchPad–are making a mistake. Wide is good for movies, of course, but it means that the tablet is unnaturally tall when held in portrait mode, leaving you with no aspect ration that works great for books, magazines, and other reading materials. But the S’s 9.4″ screen isn’t bad–it results in a tablet that fits well in your hands. And the S felt zippy and responsive when I tried it
Bottom line: As long as the library of Honeycomb apps remains sparse, every tablet that goes up against the iPad is a longshot. But if I were shopping for an Android tablet right now, the S would be on my list. It’s got a nice set of features–and, just as important, personality.
Meanwhile, the Tablet P gets an A+ for sheer creativity. It fits in a pocket, but its two screens add up way more screen real estate than on anything else that’s pocketable, including Samsung’s Galaxy Note. It has most of the same features as the Tablet S, except for the infrared port. And judging from my short time with it, I think you could learn to forget the fact that square-shaped display is really two screens with a hinge in the middle. (Sony is also promoting apps built to treat the two screens as a team–like e-mail with a message on one screen and an inbox on the other.)
The price that AT&T sells the P for will have a major impact on how well it does. Ultimately, I suspect consumers will regard it less as a foldable tablet and more as an iPod Touch alternative with two screens and built-in wireless broadband–and I I’ll bet that those with a strong affinity for gizmos will be more attracted to it than the teeming masses. It also strikes me as a spiritual successor to the company’s old VAIO P-series machine, a smaller-than-a-netbook device which didn’t catch on.
I’m not going to make any bets on how Sony’s tablets will do…even though the conservative bet at the moment is to wager against anything that’s not an iPad. No matter how well they sell, I hope that Sony is patient with them and with any additional models it has in the works. The company’s already succeeded in coming up with designs that offer a choice, not an echo. But it’s going to take a lot longer than six coughcoughtouchpad weeks to determine whether it has a shot at success, period.