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First Take: Sony S1 and S2 tablets

CNET goes hands-on with Sony's unique S1 and S2 Android Honeycomb tablets, due out this fall.

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Sony has taken some heat for being late to the tablet party, but we cut it some slack the minute we glimpsed the S1 and S2 tablet prototypes back in April 2011. Both tablets promise a unique spin on what has so far been a series of cookie-cutter 10-inch Android tablets. Sony may be late, but at least it's bringing something special.

Though they won't hit shelves until the fall, we were lucky enough to get our hands on both tablets today. Sony is mum on pricing, but given Sony's history, we think it's fair to say these tablets will not be positioned as a cheap iPad alternative. To give each tablet sibling its fair time in the spotlight, here's our separate take on each of Sony's Honeycomb tablets.

Sony S1

Photo of the Sony S1 Android tablet.
The Sony S1 Android tablet uses a wedge-shaped design. Sony

Let's clear something up right at the start. Sony insists that the names "S1" and "S2" are still product code names and not the final product names. We're glad Sony is finally seeing the light on bestowing genuine names to its products instead of the expected alphanumeric mess, but it's not terribly reassuring that the company hasn't pulled a name out of a hat yet.

One thing Sony is exceptional at, though, is designing elegant hardware. The S1 is a beautiful tablet. Its wedge-shaped design makes it one of the most comfortable Honeycomb tablets we've held. The 9.4-inch (1,280x768 pixels) touch screen offers great viewing angles and vivid colors, seemingly comparable to the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (though we couldn't get a sense of its brightness range). The back uses a subtle textured finish that offers a little extra grip and disguises smudges.

Whether it's a trick of the asymmetric design or some ingenious shrinking of the internal components, the S1 manages to feel relatively lightweight. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 still gets the prize for lightest design, but to Sony's credit, the S1 seems more durable while still maintaining a light and high-end feel. On the sides of the S1 you'll find a socket for the power adapter, along with a headphone jack, USB sync port, and buttons for power and volume.

Compared against the ever-expanding sea of Honeycomb tablets on the market, there are a few key features that set the Sony S1 apart, aside from its design. The Android 3.0 experience looks largely unchanged, but Sony has added a unique "Favorites" pane to the top navigation bar, displaying a quick view of your recently accessed and favorite content. It has also added an optimization to the browser called Quick View that gives the illusion of faster page downloading by prioritizing a page's images ahead of JavaScript. If you prefer to load your pages the old-fashioned way, the Quick View feature can be switched off under browser settings.

Photo of Sony S1 touch-screen keyboard.
A rare shot of the Sony S1's onscreen keyboard, which is a slightly stylized take on the stock Honeycomb version. James Martin/CNET

The S1 is also fully compatible with Adobe Flash and Adobe Air. To spur the development of tablet-optimized apps built on the Adobe Air platform, Sony is sponsoring an App Challenge in the hopes of reaping some unique content.

Sony also touts its proprietary Quick Touch Panel enhancements to the panel used on the S1 (and S2), allowing for more responsive multitouch input. With our limited time with the products, it's hard to say how much these optimizations mean for performance. If nothing else, it's nice to see that Sony is sweating small details like these.

Other features, such as front and rear cameras and an internal speaker, are nice--but expected. Sony is promising that both tablets will be PlayStation-certified for gameplay compatibility, though, which is certainly a feature that no other manufacturer will be able to brag about.

As far as disappointments go, we really wish Sony would give us a ballpark price. Assuming the S1 isn't the highest or lowest priced Honeycomb tablet we'll see this year, we can only cite the same issues that dog all the other Honeycomb tablets out there. The rate of development for tablet-optimized apps for Honeycomb seems slow to pick up momentum. The battery life of these devices still seems behind the iPad. Home ecosystem features, such as DLNA support, don't seem to inspire sales. And on that same note, the S1's lack of an HDMI output seems like a misstep. One surprise, though, is the inclusion of an IR blaster on the wide edge of the S1, which transforms the tablet into a giant DLNA-compatible universal remote.

Sony S2

The S2 is hands-down the most exotic tablet we've seen. Using a hinged pair of 5.5-inch screens, the Sony S2 offers the pocket-size portability of a phone, the total screen size of a tablet, and the dual-screen potential of a Nintendo DS.

Unfortunately, we're not entirely convinced the S2 is going to satisfy in any one of these roles. The Toshiba Libretto W105 springs to mind. These clamshell touch-screen devices always seem killer in concept, but it takes a lot of wizardry to make the sum of two good screens greater than a single excellent one. Once the novelty is exhausted, you're looking at a tablet with a big unusable strip right through the center of the screen.

The unique screen also presents a challenge when it comes to apps. Sony has put up a $130,000 bounty to inspire developers to create Adobe Air apps optimized for the S2's unique dual-screen format, but during our limited time with the device Sony would allow us to view only its in-house apps, such as its e-book reader, media player, and a demo of Crash Bandicoot that utilized the S2's bottom display as a virtual gamepad. It remains to be seen how Android's current catalog of apps will look. A Sony rep stated that users will have the option to scale third-party apps across both screens (citing Maps as an ideal example) or limit them to a single panel to prevent them from being divided by the bezel. Either way, existing third-party content will make for an awkward fit.

Another potential roadblock to the S2's broad adoption is the fact that the only version of it coming to the states is a 4G-capable model through AT&T. Though the carrier's data fees seem reasonable, it's one more sign that these tablets aren't going to come cheap.

Still, there's a lot to like about Sony's foldable tablet. It's a head-turner, for sure, and hopefully a signal that equally daring Android tablet designs are possible. Also, at the end of the day, at least it can't be accused of copying the iPad.

Photo of the Sony S2
The Sony S2 Android tablet uses a hinged design that can fit in your pocket. James Martin/CNET

Parting thoughts
Sony's tablets are the sexiest Honeycomb devices we've seen yet. They're also the latest to arrive in an Android tablet market that is quickly showing a focus on price over all other concerns.

But compared with an Asus or a Samsung, or even an Apple, Sony does have a few aces up its sleeve. Its legacy in gaming, digital cameras, and portable audio can't be matched by any competitor on all fronts. There's a sense from what we've seen that Sony intends to leverage these advantages for all they're worth.

Sony will likely stumble on pricing. The company's pride in its premium brand will probably prevent it from chasing Asus and others down past the $400 mark, which is likely to be the norm by the time fall rolls around. As the tablet market inevitably blooms beyond the iPad, there will certainly be room for two premium tablet brands, but we're not there yet.