March 20, 2012 -- In the days leading up to the unveiling of Apple's new iPad, it was easy to overlook Sony's release of the Tablet P. The tablet was officially announced last year alongside Sony's Tablet S, but unavailable to consumers until a few weeks ago.
Given the iPad's overwhelming popularity, it has become increasingly difficult to avoid comparing new tablets to Apple's ubiquitous device. Consequently, companies seem to be racking their brains in an effort to differentiate theirs from Apple's. Nowhere is that more evident than in the $550, Android-powered Tablet P.
The first thing you notice about the Tablet P is its unique shape. A rectangular, 3- by 7-inch clamshell device, it could easily be mistaken for a women's clutch purse. Open the "clutch" and you're faced with two 5.5-inch touchscreens, one on the top half of the clamshell and the other on the bottom.
These two screens will clearly be the deciding factor for consumers. The unexpected design could be linked to one reason why consumers are still on the fence when it comes to tablets. For those who already own a smartphone, the hesitation in purchasing a tablet usually rests on the logic that a tablet is simply a bigger version of a smartphone (e.g., the iPad is just a bigger iPhone). Why purchase what is essentially the same device when screen size appears to be the only differentiator? It's an interesting idea to consider in the case of Sony's Tablet P.
Upon first glance, it's as though Sony designers presumed that because consumers already derive a good deal of satisfaction from their smaller smartphone screens, a tablet screen does not necessarily have to be any bigger, but two might be nice.
Sticking with two small screens also means that the Tablet P is extremely portable. While it might not fit neatly into your back pocket, it is infinitely easier to throw into a bag or purse than the iPad or a similarly sized tablet.
Unfortunately, the two screens here actually make for a less than satisfying tablet experience, because of the unavoidable gap between the screens (here, about one-fourth of an inch). Surfing the Web means dealing with an annoying break in Web pages, graphics and text. And because most online videos aren't formatted for these two screens, some appear split if they don't completely fit in either the top or bottom screen.
The shortage of apps built specifically for the Tablet P (now about 40) also means there are fewer experiences that take advantage of the two screens.
It's possible that over time you could get used to the break between the screens. This is especially true if you have ever used a Nintendo DS or DSi, the device most reminiscent of the Tablet P.
At one point, the break between screens disappeared when I was engrossed in reading an online article (kind of in the way an optical illusion works when it "clicks" with your eyes). Movies and videos that are formatted for the Tablet P are viewed in the top screen, while the bottom screen is reserved for playback controls.
Having the controls on a separate screen is a nice option, but it could leave those who crave a more immersive viewing experience yearning for more screen real estate.
Reading and typing emails is one of the few experiences that benefits from the Tablet P's two screens. Checking your emails means one screen can display an email while the second screen displays your inbox.
When it's time to compose an email, the bottom screen becomes a virtual keyboard, while the top screen displays the email body. It's like having a mini-netbook, and it works well, especially when you grip the bottom screen on either side and type with your thumbs.
Alternatively, you can hold the Tablet P vertically like a book, and create a kind of flexible keyboard by typing with the two screens slightly bent towards each other.
Making video calls with Skype also works nicely on the Tablet P, because it has both front- and rear-facing cameras and one screen becomes entirely dedicated to video of the person you're calling, while the other displays video of you. As it was in other cases though, audio output is not the greatest here, so videoconferencing works best with some assistance from headphones.
The Tablet P runs on an NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core processor and uses Android's 3.1 (Honeycomb) software; the resulting experience is smooth and fluid. I found the user interface intuitive and easy to navigate.
Coupled with AT&T's 4G network (which the company claims is the fastest mobile broadband network in the nation), my overall online experience was snappy. Web pages loaded quickly and videos streamed with no issues.
The tablet has 1GB of internal memory with the option to add up to 32GB via microSD card.
Another nice extra is the ability to wirelessly sync the Tablet P with other devices that are DLNA-compatible, like a network-enabled HDTV. The feature comes in handy for viewing personal photos and videos on a larger screen, but stops short of letting you stream content, especially of the copyright-protected variety.
Sony deserves credit for pushing the design envelope here and wins major points for the sheer portability of the Tablet P. But whether this tablet succeeds depends largely on how many consumers can embrace a smaller, dual-screen tablet experience. At $550 a pop, that might be a tall order.