Sony Tablet P: At what price dual screens?

Sony's dual-screen Android tablet looks cool and can compact itself to fit into your pocket, but does its novel design preclude it from delivering a solid tablet experience?

"The Sony DS?" That was my first choice for the headline of this piece, but I felt it was a bit too cute and somewhat misleading.

No, it's not the Sony DS, but it does have dual screens, but do dual screens improve or hinder the tablet experience?

Design
The first thing you'll notice about the Sony Tablet P is the dual-screen, hinge-based design that allows the tablet to be compacted, like a clam shell.

The second thing is that, once folded, the tablet looks not unlike a large eyeglass case, which will likely fit into most large pockets.


Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus Toshiba Thrive 7-inch Sony Tablet P
Weight in pounds 0.76 0.8 0.82
Width in inches (landscape) 7.6 7.4 7.1
Height in inches 4.8 5.1 6.2 (Closed: 3.3)
Depth in inches 0.38 0.5 0.75 (Closed: 0.9)
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.75 0.75 1.1

Tablets with pointy corners are something of a pet peeve of mine. There's nothing that ruins potential comfort like pointy plastic corners digging into your palms and that's exactly what the Tablet P delivers. The pointy plastic things effect is lessened when the top screen is rotated 90 degrees, but you'd better have hobbit-size hands if you hope to get any typing done in this position, not to mention navigation.

Top half continues to rotate back a full 180 degrees and each 5.5 inch screen aligns perfectly parallel to the other, creating a nearly single square-shaped screen that spans 7 inches diagonally. I say "nearly" since there's about a third of an inch of dead space between the screens, making full-screen viewing of games, movies, and pretty much any app not optimized for dual-screen playback, a less than seamless experience.

On the right edge of the bottom section is the power button, power adapter jack, a Micro-USB port, and the volume rocker. The power button is embedded into the tablet a bit too deeply and sometimes proves difficult to press.

On the front edge, in the right corner lies the headphone jack. On the you'll find two black buttons, which when pressed simultaneously, unlock the bottom plate, revealing the removable battery and microSD slot.

Software features
While the Honeycomb operating system is displayed over both screens, some apps like the Android Market will annoyingly only display in the top screen. With other apps, like Marvel Comics, you're either reading about Captain America's latest adventure on a 5.5-inch screen or awkwardly stretched over both screens.

The same problem holds for Android games and most move players we tried, which look a lot less impressive stretched into a squared aspect ratio, with a disruptive black bar slicing the screen in two.

However, both the Sony-made movie player, music app, and photo app make good use of the dual screens by keeping controls and output separate and not allowing full-screen playback.

The Tablet P includes limited PlayStation Store support, with access to a scant few PS1 games. Games like Crash Bandicoot are well-implemented, placing most of the controls on the bottom screen with the actual game up top.

The tablet comes with Honeycomb 3.2.1 with no official word yet on when the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade will arrive.

Hardware features
The Tablet P houses the usual Android tablet suspects, including Nvidia's dual-core Tegra 2 CPU and 1GB of RAM, but includes only 4GB of storge. Also, it has 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, a gyroscope, and GPS.

The single speaker, located on the left edge of the bottom half is pumped through a quarter-inch long slit and the sound it delivers is as muffled and low as you'd expect, even at maximum volume. If you're thinking of using the Tablet P as a dedicated music player, you may want to invest in some high-quality headphones.

Performance
The Tablet P's dual 5.5-inch capacitive touch screens sport impressively high luminance ratings with low black levels. Each screen features a high-gloss, high-contrast look with wide viewing angles. Colors pop with a vibrancy that rivals some of the best tablet screen available. The glossy screen does prove quite reflective, however.

Tested spec Sony Tablet P Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus Toshiba Thrive 7-inch
Maximum brightness 388 cd/m2 214 cd/m2 350 cd/m2
Default brightness 152 cd/m2 50 cd/m2 141 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.31 cd/m2 0.17 cd/m2 0.45 cd/m2
Default black level 0.13 cd/m2 0.04 cd/m2 0.18 cd/m2
Default contrast ratio 1,169:1 1,250:1 783:1
Contrast ratio (max brightness) 1,251:1 1,258:1 778:1

Web and app download speeds matched most other Android tablets when within 5 feet of our test router and even when up to 20 feet away retains much of its strength.

Thanks to its hardware scalability, I used Riptide GP as a games performance benchmark. Depending on the speed of the CPU, Riptide GP will deliver a noticeable increase or decrease in frame rate. The Tablet P offered performance typical of a Tegra 2-based tablet by delivering a consistent, playable frame rate that unfortunately can't match the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus's smooth near-60-frames-per-second Exynos 4210-induced fluidity.

The Tablet P includes a front-facing 0.3-megapixel camera and a 5-megapixel back camera. Images and video recorded with the front camera looked washed-out and lacked detail. The back camera however uses the same back camera the Tablet S snapped such detailed pictures with. The Tablet P's rear camera delivers detailed, high-contrast, and colorful photos that go step beyond typical tablet fare.

Playback of 720p video from external sources ran smoothly and looked sharp on the Tablet P's top 1,024x480-pixel-resolution screen. Contrast was high and colors popped with a suitable vibrancy, without looking over-saturated or unnatural.

Incoming review
So far, I like being able to fold the Tablet P in two and fit it into my pocket, but its implementation of the dual screens with unoptimized apps leaves a lot to be desired. The dead space between the screens is, so far, its biggest Achilles' heel and affects how games, movies and apps are used.

I'll take some more time to use the tablet and get a more complete impression. Look for a full review later this week after I've had some time to dive a bit deeper into the Tablet P's features and more fully experience its performance.

 

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