Apple's iPad may have been the catalyst that started the tablet boom but other companies were quick to jump on the bandwagon, offering up their own takes on the mobile computing genre.
Sony is a little late to the game, but it's hoping to separate itself from the rest of the tablet world by offering alternative designs.
The Sony Tablet S comes packing a 1GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM. It's available now from £350.
Design and build quality
With so many new tablets looking almost identical to one another, it's difficult to tell them apart. Not wanting to get lost in the crowd, Sony has given the Tablet S a very different -- and a little unusual -- look.
Face on, its black front and glossy screen are unremarkable. Turn it to the side and the look is more offbeat. The black front bends around and folds back on itself, emulating the feel of a folded magazine. Sony reckons that it gives a more natural, comfortable hold.
The fatter edge certainly makes gripping the tablet more pleasant when you're holding it in portrait orientation, but it's less comfortable if you're clutching it in landscape. If you're planning to watch a movie on it, you might want to rest it on your knee.
The chassis is made of a thick glossy plastic that while not as premium feeling as the metal casing on the iPad 2, still manages to avoid appearing cheap. We poked and squeezed the casing and didn't detect any flex or unpleasant creaking so we're pretty confident it could put up with a few knocks and bumps. The rear has been given a textured dot pattern, making it more grippy to hold.
At just a shade under 600g, the Tablet S weighs the same as the iPad 2, so its weight is not going to be the deciding factor between the two if you're looking for a light tablet. At 20mm at its thickest edge, it's considerably fatter than the iPad though and it's not going to slide into your tiny bag next to your book quite as easily.
We're quite keen on the look of the Tablet S. While the whole 'magazine' style is unusual, we welcome any company trying to do something to stand out from crowd. It also makes sure Sony doesn't come to blows with Apple over copyright infringement like with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
The contrasting polished black against light silver makes it a handsome piece of kit. Around the edges you'll find a full-sized SD card slot, a micro-USB slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack. These two slots are hidden behind a big plastic flap that feels pretty flimsy. Make sure you properly click it away if you don't want it to accidentally snap off in transit.
Annoyingly, the tablet charges via a proprietary cable, which means you'll have to be careful about not losing the power adaptor. We'd have much rather seen a standard USB charger.
Storage options and 3G
Our review model came with 16GB of storage, without 3G connectivity, and will set you back £350. If you're after some mobile web surfing then you can plump for the 3G model, but you'll have to shell out a whopping £200 extra.
There's also a 32GB model for £430 if you reckon you'll be saving a lot of photos and videos. Bear in mind though that there's a full-size SD card slot on the Tablet S so you can always plump for the cheaper 16GB model and expand the memory with a removable card.
The 9.4-inch screen on the Tablet S offers an excellent 1,280x800-pixel resolution, which matches the effort on the excellent Asus Transformer Prime. It coolly trouncing the iPad's 1,024x768 resolution. We're chuffed that Sony has kept up with the competition in the resolution stakes. However, if the iPad 3 packs a super high-definition retina display as is rumoured, the Sony and Asus tablets won't be quite so smug.
The screen does a decent job at producing rich colours, making it an excellent device for showing off your latest family snaps or catching a few hilariously weird YouTube clips. It's not the brightest display we've ever laid our eyeballs on though so if you plan to enjoy some hi-def BBC iPlayer or settle back with a good film, you'll want to turn the lights out to enjoy it properly.
The viewing angles are pretty impressive too, so if you've got a bunch of mates crowding round, they'll all be able to see clearly what's going on. That also makes it particularly good for keeping the kids quiet in the back of the car on a long journey.
Android 3.2 Honeycomb
The Tablet S comes with Android 3.1 Honeycomb, which can be immediately updated to version 3.2. Honeycomb is the version of the Android operating system specifically designed for tablets, rather than small screen smart phones. Even so, Honeycomb is now outdated in the face of the shiny new Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which promises a unified experience over all devices.
While many people don't care that much -- or even know -- about the latest versions of the software, it's pretty galling for those of you spending upwards of half a grand on a new tablet, only to find out that it's running on outdated software. Sony Ericsson has promised that its whole line of Xperia smart phones will be upgraded to ICS in 2012, so fingers crossed that Sony does the same for its tablets.
If you're not fussed about having the latest updates on your device, then you'll be pleased with the Honeycomb experience. The usual five home screens are available for you to swipe through and fill up with all the apps and live widgets you could want. Adding an item to a home screen is a simple process of clicking and holding and selecting the desired item to put down. You can resize some widgets too so they can hide in the corners or dominate a page, depending on your mood.
Any apps you don't want cluttering up your home screen are displayed in a big grid. Sony has given this grid a brilliant white lick of paint that startled us slightly after our eyes had gotten used to the default dark background image. Apps can either appear in one long list, sorted A to Z or showing newest first -- handy additions when you start to fill your slate with apps and games.
The top left of the home screens permanently display four shortcut buttons for the web browser, email client, social media connectivity and a wireless remote function. It's quite handy having them there as you aren't forced to swipe through different screens looking for where you put each item. There's also a favourites window that gives you quick access to your games, bookmarks and most recently added items.
The remote function is a handy addition, allowing you to control TVs and other devices using the Infrared capabilities of the tablet. There's a massive list of TVs pre-programmed into the tablet -- many of which we haven't even heard of -- so you shouldn't need to spend your time programming it yourself. It worked immediately with our two-year-old Sony Bravia TV.
The Tablet S is PlayStation certified, meaning that you can access the PS Store and download old PS One titles for your gaming delights. At the moment, the PS Store is woefully under-stocked, but there are a few gems such as the original Coolboarders, Kula World and Destruction Derby. To play, you need to use the on-screen controls, which are pretty easy to get used to. However, using the shoulder buttons -- which are on screen above the other controls -- is nigh on impossible.
Stuffed inside the magazine-style body of the Tablet S is a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor paired up with 1GB of RAM. Considering many smart phones are packing faster, more powerful processors and quad-core processors are already being used in tablets like the Transformer Prime, Sony's offering is distinctly average.
Nevertheless, the iPad 2 also uses a dual-core 1GHz chip. Considering that it is still the undisputed king of the tablet hill, raw processing power clearly isn't everything.
When we ran the CF-Bench benchmark test, the Tablet S managed a score of 5,399. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S2 smart phone scored 6,442 and the quad-core Transformer Prime cleanly whupped it with a mighty 10,764. The Quadrant benchmark test also put the Tablet S among the higher-end smart phones with a score of 1,577, close to the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, which achieved 1,655.
These numbers aren't everything though. It's important to see how devices handle everyday tasks. We found operation was swift, with no lag when swiping between the various home screens and opening menus. Launching apps was immediate, even while running various processes in the background.
To see how it handles 3D gaming, we booted up the gory sword-slashing game Blood & Glory. The 3D graphics were displayed well, without any noticeable drops in frame rate. Playing Coolboarders from the PS Store was a similarly pleasing experience. So if you're after some gaming fun, the Tablet S will be happy to provide.
Once you start to fill the home screens with apps and live widgets, you can expect a certain amount of slowdown, but it shouldn't be much of an issue.
The fact does remain however that considerably more powerful tablets are already available and a whole raft of super-charged slates are on their way. When games and apps are built for the quad-core beasts, it's unlikely that a 1GHz tablet like the Tablet S will fare quite so well.
On the back of the Tablet S you'll find a 5-megapixel camera. Snappers on tablets are usually terrible affairs that are just about capable of a quick shot. The Tablet S isn't awful, but it's far from perfect.
The software is straightforward so there's not a lot of complicated functions to wade through, but it does mean you'll be more limited when it comes to getting all arty and creative. There's no flash either so don't expect to take shots in anything other than a well-lit room.
Even in a properly lit room, the image quality isn't anything to write home about. When viewed at full screen on a computer or TV, images lack sharpness and the colours are considerably less vivid then we'd like. The camera is certainly no match for the snapper found on the Transformer Prime so we wouldn't recommend you rely on it too heavily.
The Sony Tablet S doesn't push the boat out in terms of performance, but it offers a good screen, enough power for most applications and an unusual yet attractive design.
At £350 for the cheapest option, it's not the most affordable tablet, but if you can pick one up for cheaper, it's certainly worth a look.