Sony's Tablet S is the best Android tablet yet but it's no iPad killer, writes Asher Moses.
There are about 1000 movies on Video Unlimited ... but all that caught my interest was an obscure documentary about Absinthe. It was also strange to see old flicks like Cable Guy and Jurassic Park show up in 'New Arrivals'.
So the great Android tablet invasion didn't quite go to plan. Who would have thought that, if you line up a barrage of iPad competitors that look pretty much identical to Apple's model except not quite as polished, people would just buy iPads?
Slowly but surely, the iPad has faced new competition from rivals including HP, Acer, Motorola, LG, Samsung, RIM and others. The trouble is, consumers didn't want a bar of them.
HP only created demand for its webOS TouchPad when it slashed the price to $99, Telstra has killed its T-Touch Tab, Toshiba has been lucky to give away its tablet (bundled free with the purchase of a Toshiba laptop) and last week, Motorola slashed the price of its Xoom to $399.
While Android has been successful at challenging Apple in smartphones, with manufacturers like Samsung even out-innovating Apple on hardware, in the tablet market Apple couldn't be more dominant.
Enter the Sony Tablet S. It's an Android 3.2 Honeycomb device that is a little late to the party but offers some things the other Android tablet offerings don't, including a unique wedge-shaped design that makes the tablet much easier to hold vertically with one hand and creates a slight tilt when the device is placed flat horizontally on the table, making it easier to type.
But slight design tweaks can only take you so far. Sony has also realised that when it comes to mobile devices, software and content is just as important as hardware.
Apple's dominance is in large part due to the huge array of compelling apps on its App Store and the easy access to movies, music and other content through iTunes. Brands like Sony and Samsung have discovered that great content integration like this helps to sell lots more devices and both have rolled out digital content stores in Australia this year.
Sony, with its movies and music arms, is perhaps best placed among the Android players to make a solid content play.
The Tablet S hooks into Sony's music streaming service, Music Unlimited, and its video services, Video Unlimited and Crackle.
I fell in love with Music Unlimited. Tablets are well-suited to streaming content and Sony's service offers copious tracks and, handily, a plethora of pre-built playlists to help you discover new music.
All-you-can-eat access to about six million songs costs $12.99. I found the audio quality from the Tablet S speakers to be quite impressive for a portable device and I found myself often using the tablet at home in its dock like a jukebox (it can also be used as a digital photo frame).
But it was somewhat disappointing that the Sony tool that scours your iTunes library and replicates each of your songs on Music Unlimited, saving you from having to add them to your library again, doesn't support Mac.
Video Unlimited and Crackle weren't nearly as impressive. Watching video on the crisp 9.4" 1280x800 screen is fast and pleasurable (if not as bright as I'd like) but on both Video Unlimited and Crackle, I struggled to find anything I wanted to watch.
There are about 1000 movies on Video Unlimited and the new releases cost about $6 to rent and $25 to own, with older films just over half that. But all that caught my interest was an obscure documentary about Absinthe. It was also strange to see old flicks like Cable Guy and Jurassic Park show up in "New Arrivals".
While there are the expected blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean and Thor, the array of new release movies is quite paltry and it's clear that the studios haven't completely come to the party when it comes to offering their best titles to rent. I am much more satisfied with the range of titles offered at my local Blockbuster and can't help but think the studios will need to try harder than this if they want to deter people from piracy.
You can easily transfer your existing video files to the device but several of the most popular video compression formats (i.e. DivX and XviD) aren't supported by default. This is easily fixed by installing a third-party video player app like VLC.
One of the iPad's biggest selling points is the array of games on the App Store. Many of the same games are available through the Android Market but side-by-side with the App Store, there's just no comparison.
So Sony decided to turn the Tablet S into a portable PlayStation. A small but growing array of PlayStation 1 and PSP games are available and I had fun reliving old titles like Crash Bandicoot and Destruction Derby. Even on the touchscreen the controls are surprisingly workable but still no match for a physical controller.
Game developer Gameloft has also done a deal with Sony, giving users access to some quality high-definition games including Real Football 2011.
Google, for its part, is also working to improve Australian Android users' access to content. Last week it opened the Google eBooks Store in Australia, providing access to thousands of books including from well-known Australian authors.
The tablet is also pre-loaded with Sony's Reader e-book store application as well as another Sony app, Social Feed Reader, which aggregates posts on users' social networking accounts. Personally, I much prefer the separate Facebook and Twitter apps.
In a battle of the app stores, Apple's offering will for the foreseeable future reign supreme over the Android Market. iOS users are far more likely to pay for apps so developers have been focusing their best efforts on the platform.
There's a much bigger range of tablet-optimised apps on iOS and they are generally of a higher quality. But there are also some decent Android offerings and Sony has pre-installed a "selectApp" tool that allows it to highlight to users some of its favourite apps.
Many of the most popular iOS apps are also available on Android and with the platform performing strongly globally, its app store is only expected to grow. Personally, I don't really care how many apps each platform has as I largely stick to the cross-platform favorites – Twitter, Maps, Facebook, Pulse, etc.
One area where Android really needs work is media apps. The big media companies have thrown their weight behind iOS and there's plenty of interesting content available. I also love the iPad apps centred on interesting work by professional photographers, which you don't really get on Android. My most used iPad app has yet to hit Android.
I'm a big fan of Android Honeycomb, which was the first Android version to be fully optimised for tablets. The ability to add a variety of widgets to your home screens is something you don't get on an iPad and Sony has added a number of user interface tweaks to make the experience more intuitive and polished. The software keyboard is excellent.
With a 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM, it's more than capable of handling most tasks you throw at it. For a tablet, the rear 5-megapixel camera, which records 720p video, is exceptional, while there's also a 0.3-megapixel front camera for video chat.
Unfortunately none of the models have built-in 3G connectivity but unlike the iPad, the Tablet S has both SD and USB ports built in, making it much easier to pull content off third-party devices like digital cameras.
It's also designed to be more integrated with your living room home entertainment system. The tablet can automatically detect DLNA-enabled devices on your home network and using Sony's software you can easily "throw" music, videos and other content to TVs and speaker systems around the house – whether they're Sony-branded or not.
Sony is also crowing about its universal remote app, which lets you control virtually any brand of TV, Blu-ray player, stereo or set-top box using the tablet. It's easy to map controls for remotes that it doesn't have preset settings for, such as Foxtel.
While I'm impressed with the wedge-shaped design, I don't know if I'm sold on the cheaper plastic-y feel of the Tablet S. The gravelly back side of the device makes it easier to grip than the iPad but the iPad's metal back and overall build quality to me seem more solid. Using plastic certainly hasn't done much to lower the weight of the device compared to the iPad (the Tablet S weighs 598g, the iPad 601g).
The Tablet S isn't without its bugs. I could barely use Crackle as it kept crashing, while other apps like Music Unlimited and the camera app crashed on occasion.
At one point the device wouldn't even turn on, forcing me to use a paper clip to do a hard reset. The tablet is also often slow at switching between portrait and landscape, while the browser, though faster than most, sometimes renders pages funny (such as smh.com.au, which defaults to the mobile site). It's not clear which of these issues were specific to my review unit and which were broader bugs.
Battery life was solid and you can expect around four hours of heavy use, nine hours of light-moderate use and multiple days of occasional use.
At $579 (16GB) and $689 (32GB), the Tablet S is priced on par with the Wi-Fi models of the iPad. It's a risky strategy and relies on consumers identifying clear benefits over Apple's model.
Sony certainly has all the elements to succeed: a polished interface and custom apps that improves on Android Honeycomb but doesn't try to reinvent the wheel; better camera, extra hardware features like a USB port and SD card; an original design; solid home network integration and access to an array of music, movies and video game content.
But I was still left with the feeling that, if offered the choice between an iPad and Tablet S, I'd go the iPad every time. Sony itself is under no illusions that the tablet is an iPad killer, saying it aims to be "the number two tablet manufacturer in the Australian market by 2012".
As it stands the Tablet S is a competent challenger to the iPad – and the best Android tablet I've seen so far – but it needs a price cut and a bigger selection of content before it can even start to bring the fight to the 800 pound iPad gorilla.
This reporter is on Twitter: @ashermoses