One reason Apple's iPad continues to dominate the tablet market after 17 months may be that all the main competitors look like imitations but don't deliver as good an experience. They are typically flat slabs, like the iPad, priced about the same or more, but with many fewer apps, shorter battery life, usually greater weight and thickness and a weaker ecosystem for music, video, books and magazines. Whatever advantages they have—like added ports or the ability to play Flash video—haven't been enough to sway consumers or developers.
Now, Sony, whose brand and reputation for design have long resonated with consumers, is trying something different. On Friday, it is launching a handsome tablet with an unusual, asymmetrical design and some software tweaks and content services it hopes can set it apart from the pack. I've been testing this device, called the Sony Tablet S, and I generally like it, despite some weaknesses and some features that aren't yet fleshed out because they won't be fully rolled out at launch. The Tablet S will appeal to buyers who would like a distinctive tablet from a trusted company that doesn't look like an iPad wannabe.
However, the Tablet S looks nothing like the iPad 2 or any other current competitor. One of the long sides of its rectangular, plastic body has a thick, rounded edge that makes the device look like a folded-back magazine. In fact, Sony has carried this effect over onto the back, continuing the black curve with a molded black plastic sheet that looks like the rest of the magazine cover laying over a flat, gray surface.Like dozens of other tablets, Sony's new entry uses Google's Android operating system. And it costs the same as the Wi-Fi-only iPads—$500 for a 16 gigabyte model and $600 for a 32 gigabyte model. The Tablet S has no cellular-data option. It's also late to the game, and, in my tests, had significantly weaker battery life than the iPad 2.
While this design makes the Tablet S much thicker than many competitors, it has several advantages. When you hold the device one-handed in portrait, or vertical, mode, it feels much more comfortable and balanced than any other tablet I've tested. When you lay it on a flat surface in landscape, or horizontal, mode, the rounded edge creates a natural angle for typing, without a case or stand.
This clever design makes the Tablet S feel lighter than the iPad when you hold it vertically, because more of the weight is in your palm—even though the two tablets are almost exactly the same weight.
At 9.4 inches, the bright, vivid screen on the Tablet S is smaller than the iPad's 9.7 inch display or the 10.1-inch screen of Samsung's comparable Galaxy Tab model. But I found it plenty generous, and it didn't feel cramped. The Sony is about the same length as the iPad 2, but is narrower, and I found this proportion pleasing.
There are some trade-offs to this design. While it is beautifully balanced in vertical mode, it feels top-heavy in horizontal mode, especially because Sony forces you in that mode to hold it by the thin, lower edge. You can't rotate the screen in horizontal mode so the thicker edge is at the bottom. Performance was snappy, and the front and back cameras took acceptable still photos and videos.
Sony is planning a second, even more radical tablet for later this fall, called the Tablet P. It's a much smaller and lighter device that has no visible screen until you unfold it to reveal twin 5.5-inch displays that can either be used as one large screen or can have separate content in each. I have played briefly with this coming device, but haven't been able to test it.
Unlike the iPad 2, the Tablet S has an SD memory-card slot, which I used to move movies, photos, music and documents to the Tablet S from a Mac. It worked fine, though the plastic hinge for the little door that covers the slot sometimes got stuck.
While Sony, like Apple, has long been praised for hardware design, it has never been able to match Apple in software and services, except on its PlayStation game consoles. The company is hoping the Tablet S changes that perception.
The Tablet S starts with the same software disadvantages as its Android brethren. While Android has a healthy selection of over 250,000 third-party apps (versus 425,000 total for Apple's mobile devices), it has pathetically few tablet-optimized apps—estimated to be just a small fraction of the 100,000 tailored for the iPad.
But Sony has added some nice software features to the Tablet S. Some make navigation easier, but many aim to build on Sony's strengths as a media and gaming company. Unlike Apple, which takes a broader view of the tablet's potential, Sony sees its tablet as primarily an entertainment-consumption device.
For instance, Sony has added a small, customizable row of frequently used app icons at the upper left. At the upper right of the screen is a handsome, easy-to-use feature called Favorites, which highlight recently accessed or added songs, videos, pictures, books and Web bookmarks.
Sony also has tweaked the Android browser so it loads pages faster. In my tests, pages loaded slightly faster than on the iPad.
There is also a universal remote-control app that works with a built-in infrared transmitter to control TVs and other home-entertainment devices, even if they aren't made by Sony. In my tests, I easily configured it to control my Pioneer TV and my TiVo, though it was unable to mate with my Apple TV.
Sony also is bundling services for buying music, TV shows and movies, e-books and games to create a content ecosystem like Apple's. Unfortunately, these weren't available for me to test.
The music service won't be available until later this month, but it will be a subscription service with two monthly tiers, one for $3.99 and one for $9.99. The video service will be available with a very limited selection at launch, but the full service won't appear until next month. It allows you to rent videos starting at $2.99 each. The games service will come along later this year, and Sony couldn't provide details, except that it will offer PlayStation games meant for portable devices. The Tablet S will come with a trial membership to the music service and a free movie and e-book. It also comes preloaded with two simple games.
The Tablet S fell far short of the iPad 2 in my battery tests, where I play videos back to back with the network connection on and the screen brightness set at 75%. It died after 6 hours, 38 minutes, which is a whopping 3½ hours less than the iPad 2 lasted.
Still, Sony deserves credit for creating a novel design with real advantages and for building in some useful software. The Tablet S is worth considering when shopping for a tablet.—Find all Walt's columns and videos at the All Things Digital website, walt.allthingsd.com.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at email@example.com