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Review

Sony's oddly shaped slate not suitable for everyone Add to ...

One can almost hear the grinding of chair legs against the floor as the rest of the players at the crowded tablet table reluctantly shuffle over and make room for Sony, the latest big-name electronics manufacturer to bring an Android Honeycomb device to market.

But I’m not sure they have much to worry about.

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While the Sony S is a strong competitor in terms of performance – it packs a speedy Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor that churns through web pages in a jiffy, plus a striking 9.4-inch screen based on the same tech Sony employs in its Bravia televisions – it has an odd physical design that makes it a niche machine best suited for a very particular audience: Avid e-book readers.

Whereas most of Sony’s competitors are attempting to mimic Apple’s proven ultra-slim design, Sony’s slate is uncommonly chubby on one side. It looks like a black plastic book, the cover of which has been folded back. Most of the people I showed it to actually tried peeling the back edge up, assuming it must be some sort of protective cover.

Sony’s engineers have not only succeeded in making the fat side look like the spine of a book, they’ve also made it feel like one by weighting the device more heavily on that side. This places the bulk of the slate’s 600 grams directly above your hand when held in portrait mode rather than to the side. Holding the S vertically feels much more natural than most tablets, and it’s much easier on the hand, wrist, and forearm during lengthy sessions.

Sweetening the pot for e-reading addicts is Sony’s Reader software, which has been ported over from the Japanese company’s dedicated e-reader devices and optimized for Android (sadly, the store wasn’t live during my pre-release evaluation, so I couldn’t test it). Still, Sony told me that anyone with an existing Sony Reader account will be able to easily access their library and can browse for new books simply by touching a small ‘reader’ icon on the main home screen.

But while the S makes for an excellent tablet reader, its funky form could keep it from succeeding as well in other applications.

I tried holding it in both hands while playing Crash Bandicoot – the S is the first official PlayStation-certified Android tablet, which means it can draw exclusive games from the new Sony Entertainment Network – and its chunky edge made it noticeably top-heavy when held in landscape orientation.

On the software side, Sony has created its own distinct skin for Google’s operating system and pre-installed several proprietary apps. In addition to the e-reader program, the home screen plays host to a launcher for Sony’s Video Unlimited service, which I was told will provide access to more than a thousand new releases in Canada at launch, and a portal for Android Market apps that Sony vouches will work well on its hardware – handy, since not all apps made for Google’s OS are designed for tablets.

However, some of the other pre-installed apps aren’t as satisfying. Social Feed Reader, a hub that combines a user’s Twitter and Facebook traffic, is much like other all-purpose social media amalgamators, and probably won’t satisfy folks used to powerful dedicated clients like Twitterator. And the ‘favourites’ button at the top right of the home screen, which brings up a none of commonly used apps, seems redundant, especially given that one can easily add apps to home screens and quickly access them without ever opening the favourites tab.

But there is one pre-loaded app that I’ve fallen in love with: Remote Control. It makes use of an infrared eye positioned on the top spine above the camera to allow the S to control just about any device with an IR receiver, from high-end home theatre hardware to swanky home lighting systems. It supports thousands of devices from scores of manufacturers, and it took just a couple of minutes to sync my TV, set-top cable box, and surround sound speaker system. People sometimes spend hundreds of dollars on dedicated touch screen universal remotes with similar functionality.

Still, I doubt Remote Control will be a feature that causes tablet shoppers to flock en masse to SonyStyle stores. It’s similar to the S’s book-like physical design in that it’s something that will appeal to a very particular kind of user: Those who regularly multitask with their tablets while on the couch.

There’s no question Sony’s slate is a competent contender in the tablet arena, but it has as many quirks as it does perks. It won’t usurp Motorola’s Xoom or Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, but instead snuggle in comfortably between them on store shelves. It’s just not quite the home run slate Sony was hoping for.

The WiFi-only Sony S is set to launch in the middle of September, starting at $499.99 for the 16-gigabyte model and ranging up to $599.99 for a 32-gigabyte edition, roughly in line with similar slates from several other Android tablet manufacturers.

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