You have to give Sony credit. Last year, the company debuted their first effort at creating a consumer tablet, hoping not so much to rival the iPad (something they sensibly realized wasn’t going to happen) but to establish themselves as the definitive #2 player in the space. To say they missed that target is an understatement.
While reviewers had kind things to say about the Tablet S’s physical design such as the innovative wedge shape that made it more comfortable to hold sideways, there was far more in the minus column, thanks mostly to some poorly executed and/or missing features.
The bottom line was that if you’re going to charge the same price as an iPad, you had better give users a compelling reason to pick your tablet. Apparently most consumers felt that had not happened and sales figures for the Tablet S barely registered on global tablet purchases.
That was then. Today, Sony comes back to the tablet table, this time with a new brand (their tablet is now part of the Xperia family of products which includes Sony’s Xperia smartphones) a new look (thinner, lighter) and has addressed at least some of the shortcomings of the Tablet S.
The Xperia Tablet S as the new model is called, comes in 16 and 32GB flavours, sells for $399 and $499 respectively and runs the more modern Android 4.0 operating system from Google.
The new form factor is mostly the same as the original. Screen size and resolution are unchanged at 9.4″ and 1280×800. But this time around Sony has reduced the “curled” portion of the tablet wedge to just the upper (or side) third of the case instead of the previous design’s nearly constant taper from one edge to the other. The overall effect is to make the new Tablet S appear thinner, though the official measurements seem to indicate this is mostly an optical illusion.
Sony has also made the Tablet S more robust. It now sports a splash-proof coating which Sony claims makes the tablet resistant to all kinds of splashes, from any direction, so long as the port covers remain securely in place. This is a very good idea given how many tablets end up in the kitchen as they serve the double-duty of internet appliance and digital cookbook.
Internally, the Xperia tablet gets a speed boost from the latest Quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, plus the cameras get a spec bump too going from 0.3 megapixels in the front and 5MP in the rear to 1MP up front and 8MP in the rear, which is pretty much standard on all smartphones, and much better than average for tablets.
The last of the (major) physical changes is the presence of a “multiport.” This replaces the micro-USB port from the first version and gives the Xperia Tablet S a critical feature: USB and HDMI-out via an adapter cable. The first Tablet S could only send video wirelessly to compatible displays like Sony TVs, lacking a physical way to do so. This is an improvement to be sure, but I’m not a fan of proprietary connections and accessories. Apple forces iPad owners down this road by only offering HDMI via a 30-pin cable and I’m really disappointed that Sony chose to follow them.
But on to better things!
One of the ways that Sony sought to differentiate their first tablet was the inclusion of an IR transmitter capable of controlling all of your living room devices via a bundled remote control app. It was a great idea, but for some unknown reason, Sony left out the ability to program “macros” – the powerful feature which gives a product like the Logitech Harmony line of universal remotes their broad appeal. Without macros, you’re forced to jump between remote “modes” as you operate each device in your home theatre separately. It’s the tablet equivalent of having all of your physical remotes sitting on your coffee table in front of you. In other words, it doesn’t solve any of the problems associated with owning multiple devices.
The Xperia Tablet S finally addresses this gap by introducing programmable macros such as “Watch TV” which will then automatically send the necessary IR commands to your various pieces of equipment. How intuitive this macro feature is to use is unknown right now. Let’s hope Sony took a page from Logitech’s playbook.
Finally, the one feature which I think proves that Sony is finally “thinking different,” to borrow Apple’s now defunct slogan, is the ability to create a “Guest Mode” account on the Xperia Tablet S. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the BlackBerry PlayBook’s best features is something called BlackBerry Balance, which lets you create a virtual wall between your work-related activities and your personal ones. Sony’s Guest Mode does the same thing by creating profiles for different users, much like you can do on Windows and Mac computers. Using Guest Mode, you can set access permissions for apps, widgets and even desktop wallpapers, for each user account.
This is a tremendously useful innovation which Sony claims is exclusive to the Xperia Tablet S. I can easily see parents justifying the purchase of this product based solely on the strength of Guest Mode alone. I’ve long believed that tablets, unlike smartphones, are communal devices that end up being used by everyone in the household. With Guest Mode, there is finally a way to hand over the tablet without handing over control of personal and/or sensitive information.
Oh, one more thing.
Sony has spared no expense in creating a dedicated line-up of accessories for the Xperia Tablet S ranging from dedicated chargers, desktop stands and covers that include built-in keyboards.
Of course, we’ll really only know how good the Xperia Tablet S is once we get our hands on one, hopefully very soon.
The new tablet goes on sale September 7, but you can pre-order online today.