There's a reason a lot of people don't leave home with their tablets. They're just not very portable. Enter Sony's Tablet P, which is more compact than the iPad and your typical Android slate because it packs two 5.5-inch screens inside a unique clamshell design. To keep you connected beyond your abode, the Tablet P connects to AT&T's HSPA+ network as well as Wi-Fi. Sony also provides access to its music, video and book services to keep you entertained, as well as PlayStation games. But at $399 with a two-year contract ($549 without), is the Tablet P as compelling after the novelty wears off?
You certainly can't do this with an iPad. The Tablet P is small enough that we could slip it into a inside blazer pocket. Then again, we certainly knew that it was there. Although Sony's device is lighter than the Kindle Fire (13.1 ounces vs. 14.6 ounces) it measures a bulky one inch thick when closed.
The Tablet P has a plastic chassis that feels fairly sturdy. The outside of the tablet is mostly silver with the exception of a black strip toward the hinge, while the inside and sides are all black. Using the device was made slightly uncomfortable by the sharp corners, which pressed on our palms when thumb-typing.
A power button, headphone jack, microUSB port and two volume buttons line the right side of the Tablet P, while the left side is clean with the exception of a small speaker. The front of the tablet houses the headphone/microphone jack, and there's an LED integrated into the area where you lift the top display. The back of the top screen is where you'll find the 5-MP camera, and there's a 0.3-MP camera on the inside for video chats.
Two small buttons on the rear of the Tablet P pop off the back cover, which protects the huge battery and microSD Card slot. If you pry off the top cover, you'll find the SIM Card slot.
The Tablet P pulls off a neat trick, giving users two 5.5-inch displays with 1024 x 480 pixels of resolution each. That's lower than the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note's resolution of 1280 x 800, but you get a lot more real estate with Sony's device when you're using an app that takes advantage of the two panels.
Thanks to Sony's Clear Black technology, we enjoyed impressive image quality when watching a trailer for "The Green Hornet." The black car gleamed, and the viewing angles were fairly wide. In this case, video played on the top display, and the playback controls were down below.
We have two issues with the Tablet P's screens: the panels picked up fingerprint smudges quickly, and the fairly large seam between the displays was distracting, especially when surfing the Web.
One of the benefits of the Tablet P's two screens is that the bottom half provides a large canvas for a touch keyboard. We found the layout easy to use, but we did have to stretch our thumbs to hit keys in the center. So you don't have to keep moving your eyes to the top display and down again to make sure you're not making any typos, Sony thoughtfully displays the last line of text you type directly above the keyboard on the bottom screen.
We also appreciated that a number row appeared when typing usernames and passwords, but wish that Sony would keep it on the screen at all times. Also, the @ symbol makes an appearance next to space bar when entering things like email addresses, but inexplicably disappears the rest of the time. We also wish Sony would add a .com key when typing Web addresses.
Software and Interface
Running a modified version of Android Honeycomb, the Sony Tablet P delivers five homescreens you can customize with application shortcuts and widgets. The default homescreen displays shortcuts to the browser and Android market, as well as Sony's Email, Select App, Reader and Gallery apps, all of which utilize both screens. Down below you'll find the standard Honeycomb interface features, such as the Back, Home and Recent app buttons on the left side, and the notification area on the right.
Along the top, you'll find shortcuts to Google Search, Voice Actions, a Clock app, Calculator, Camera and Settings on the left side and shortcuts to Favorites, Apps, and + for customizing the homescreens on the right. As with the Sony Tablet S, the Tablet P uses a white background for the app menu along with a nifty way of letting you know you've reached the end of the list with an animation that stretches the app icons wider apart.
Since the Tablet P doesn't run the latest Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS, you don't get features such as the ability to swipe apps closed from the Recent Apps menu.
The most unique aspect of the Tablet P is that it supports dual-screen apps. In some cases, such as the browser, they stretch across both displays, and in others, they display different information on the top and bottom panels. However, the Tablet P does not let you open separate apps on the top and bottom screens, which the Kyocera Echo phone lets you do. That's a real bummer for multitaskers.
One of the chief complaints we've had about dual-screen devices we've reviewed in the past was that there wasn't enough you could do with the two displays. Sony steps up with the Tablet P by bringing more than 40 third-party apps to the party, along with its own software.
On the Gallery app, for example, you can see the thumbnails of your photos on the bottom screen and full-screen images of the pictures you've selected up top. You can also opt for the main photo to stretch across both screens. In the email app, the Tablet P displays your list of messages below and the current message on top. The Maps application and Web browser stretch across both screens, as do the Reader Store and Music/Video Unlimited stores.
News 360 is a slick dual-screen app that displays "My Interests" on the left of the top display and All News categories running down the left on the bottom screen.The top stories run down the right side on both the top and bottom. When you select an article, you'll see a summary up top, the source article below and thumbnails running down the right rail, including any related videos. You can also share stories via Twitter, Facebook and other networks.
Other well-designed apps that take advantage of both displays include Foursquare, Evernote and UStream. On UStream, for instance, we watched TWiT! with Leo Laporte on the top LCD and checked out recent comments down below.
We did come across some dual-screen duds, such as Virtual Table Tennis 3D. While the basic graphics did the trick, controlling our paddle on the bottom screen proved quite difficult.
To help you find apps optimized for the Tablet P, Sony includes its Select App store, a website where you can browse through multiple categories. Unfortunately, you can't download apps from this Web portal; instead, you're directed to the Android Market, which only displays on the top screen.
There are a lot more apps that take advantage of only the top screen, from Pandora and Angry Birds to Facebook. When you have apps like these open the bottom display is blank, which is just wasted space.
Specs and Performance
Powered by a 1-GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM, Sony touts that the Tablet P offers swift and smooth performance, but we saw uneven results during use. Swiping through the various homescreens was responsive, and moving between apps involved only a second or so of lag. At times, though, we noticed significant delays, mostly with applications that required a connection to the Web. Multitasking bogged down, for example, while switching apps with tunes playing in the background from Music Unlimited.
In terms of benchmark performance, the Tablet P notched a score of 3,061, which is lower than the Iconia Tab A200 (3,137) and Galaxy Tab 10.1 (3,159), but higher than the category average (2,677). In An3DBench, which measures graphics performance, the Tablet P scored 6,129, which is lower than the Acer (7,713) and Samsung (7,526) and also below the category average (7,183).
The Tablet P comes with only 4GB of internal storage and a 2GB microSD card slot, but you can expand that to up to 32GB.
Web Browsing and 4G
Unfortunately, the Tablet P doesn't tap into AT&T's superfast 4G LTE network. Instead, it uses the carrier's slower HSPA+ technology for getting online outside of Wi-Fi range. It costs $35 per month for 3GB on contract and $30 if you buy the device without one. Stepping up to 5GB costs $50 regardless. Since our unit wasn't yet activated, we relied on the tablet's Wi-Fi connection.
On the plus side, the browser supports tabs, and it loaded sites fairly quickly. However, both at our office and at home, the Tablet P had trouble holding on to a Wi-Fi connection. In addition, clicking on links proved difficult unless we zoomed in. The black bezel between the two screens made watching online video less pleasurable.
Books, Music and Video
Just as with the Tablet S, Sony bundles the Tablet P with its own entertainment services, including Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited and Reader for e-books. Oddly, Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited share the same account info (Sony Entertainment Network), while Reader requires a separate account. So much for iTunes-like simplicity.
The Video Unlimited app has an easy-to-navigate interface and good selection of timely movies. During our testing, "Hugo," "Puss in Boots" and "Tower Heist" were all available ($3.99 to Rent, $14.99 to own). The TV show selection was more limited, but we found good stuff to watch, such as the latest episode of "Tosh.0."
Although it took about a minute for our purchase to kick in and start downloading, we like that you can start watching while the download is in progress. Just don't expect high-def playback; it's all standard-definition fare because playback is only on the top screen (1024 x 480).
Music Unlimited has two tiers. The Basic service delivers access to millions of tracks for $3.99 per month and access to Basic Channels for era, genre and mood. Stepping up to the Premium $9.99 plan adds access to Top 100s from every genre, unlimited search and playback and the ability to create playlists.
During playback of Fun.'s "We Are Young," we kept getting hit with Error messages that "A connection to the server could not be established." We assumed it was the weak Wi-Fi acting up again. Speaking of weak, the speaker on the left side is way too quiet.
Signing into the Sony Reader Store was downright annoying. Not only do you need to set up an account that's specific to this service, the Tablet P asks you for a separate Adobe ID and password. Why?
Reading on the Tablet P feels fairly natural, because you can hold the device like a book. You can also adjust the font size and brightness right from within a book. However, while you can highlight text and search (the book or Wikipedia), we didn't see any social sharing features that Barnes & Noble or Amazon provide.
Because the Sony Tablet P is PlayStation certified, you can download classic PlayStation One titles as well as PlayStation Portable games to the device. Nostalgic vibes notwithstanding, the experience ultimately feels flat.
On games such as "Cool Boarders" (circa 1996), a snowboarding title, we could literally see rips in the seams of the mountainous background as we tore down the mountain. Manipulating our character also proved challenging because most of the controls are located on the bottom screen and don't provide any tactile feedback as on the PlayStation Vita.
The Tablet P's back 5-MP camera didn't impress. While outdoor shots looked somewhat soft, an indoor shot of an orange juice container was fairly sharp. Too bad the Tablet P takes about 1.5 seconds to fire. There's no flash either.
The tablet can record 720p video, but our footage of New York City traffic looked out of focus. A 0.3-MP camera on the front is there for making video calls. Although our face had pretty good color accuracy, the picture looked blurry when we tried a video call via Google+.
Given its compact design, the Tablet P's 3080 mAh battery offers pretty good endurance. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi, we saw 7 hours and 10 minutes of runtime. That showing is higher than the 6:36 category average but lower than the Iconia Tab A200 (8 hours). We'll update this review once we're able to test the Tablet P over 4G.
We give Sony credit for attempting to forge a new category of portable tablet, but the company's ambition didn't quite pay off. On the plus side, the Tablet P backs up its dual-screen design with some compelling apps that take advantage of both displays. You can fit the device in a breast pocket or small purse, something you can't do with the Kindle Fire or iPad 2. Then again, the Tablet P feels fairly bulky for a handheld device, and it can't make voice calls (other than VoIP).
Our biggest beefs with the Tablet P are that you can't use the displays for running two apps simultaneously, and some apps (especially the browser) feel cut off by the large bezel in between the screens. In addition, there are a lot of other apps that run on just the top display. And while we appreciate the myriad entertainment options offered by Sony, the dated PlayStation games aren't worth $5.99 a pop. The lack of 4G LTE data support also hurts this AT&T device.
If you really want a big screen in a small package, we recommend the Galaxy Note over the Tablet P. Its 5.3-inch screen is sharper, it has 4G LTE and you can use it to make calls.