The Tablet

A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to a Sony Tablet S. I wasn’t very sure why I should buy it, and even though I managed to keep my gadget lust under control until I spotted a relatively cheap price, I still left the shop having weak rationalizations go through my mind:

“I make websites, multimedia and stuff — I need a tablet for testing.”

“Perhaps I’ll use my desktop PC less, thus spending less electricity.”

“Now I’ll finally be able to read those PDF documents I find so tiresome in my big desktop monitor.”

“I don’t spend money on cigarettes — I know people who could afford six of these tablets if they just gave up smoking for a year.”

Indeed, I find myself using my desktop PC less. A tablet is a convenient medium for consumption — checking news, RSS feeds and Facebook, watching short YouTube videos, reading (but not composing) e-mail, all while listening to Internet radio streams. In short: a morning computer (the bedtime slot is, for now, firmly in the grip of my Kindle).

Anyway, why the Sony S? Wouldn’t the iPad fit the “tablet for testing” scenario much better, on its market share merits alone?

Yes. The high-definition new iPad would be much better for that. Its screen is all the superlatives you’ve read about everywhere else, and I it wasn’t that much more expensive. Alas, there’s something the iPad doesn’t have, and it goes right to the core of my ‘religious issues’ against Apple:

A SD card slot.

Meaning: a way for me to put stuff in my computer (that’s what a tablet is) without being dependent on iTunes, some specific OS, or any cloud service. Seeing a friend struggle to watch some videos on her iPad made me feel good about my decision. If I download, say, the new episodes of Mad Men on my PC, I can save the files to a SD card, insert it into the tablet, and watch Don Draper’s birthday party right away. That is how I use my computers. Anyway, what other impressions did the Tablet S give me so far?


The Good:

Removable storage was my requirement, so I’ll reiterate: the Sony has a proper SD card slot, allowing me to check photos I take. It’d be a nice bonus to be able to watch videos shot with my DSLR but the tablet’s 1GHz processor lacks the horsepower to display 1080p video encoded at good bitrates without going into a severe stutter — oh well. SD cards are also much better to handle than the mini/microSD used by other tablets, which are too fiddly to handle on a daily basis.

Honeycomb. This is highly controversial, but I found the Android 3.2 shipped with the tablet much better than iOS. Apple makes the highest-resolution displays on sale at your local electronics shop, and what’s in it? A grid. No recent emails, no calendar, no weather widget or whatever — no, a grid of icons. Desktop widgets make perfect sense in a tablet, probably more so than in conventional computers (I sure don’t miss widgets in mine), and Android wins here. Android also supports multitasking, and it works well in the S, the processor being quick enough to manage things at that level. And while I’m not a big fan of its often-praised notification system (sometimes it becomes tedious to clear notifications one by one — strange since the Android 2.1 running on my phone has a ‘clear all’ button), I’ll stand and see what improvements the promised upgrade to Android 4.0 holds.

The shape. The Sony Tablet S is really comfortable to hold. All reviews I had read mentioned holding it was like holding a folded magazine, and they are right. It’s screen is slightly tilted if I set it on a table, making its handling more natural. Still, there’s a downside to the unorthodox shape though: many third-party tablet accessories won’t fit, so — finding it unacceptable to spend 80 euro in an ‘official’ case — I had to settle for a somewhat ugly folding case that covers the back camera (not that I would make much use of it).

GMail and Google Calendar. These apps had to be good and they indeed are good and easy to use. And feel solid, unlike Google Reader.


The Annoying:

The charger. After purchasing the tablet I must have said some loud expletive as I opened the box and came across the dreaded proprietary charger and its weird and fragile-seeming connector. The Sony S won’t recharge through its USB port or through some other ‘standard’ charger, so you’re stuck. Still, I found that the battery lasts long enough that if I just leave the charger in my little nest of chargers the whole process is relatively painless. But beware, if I traveled a lot and had to take that… thing on my luggage, perhaps I’d choose another tablet.

The apps’ look and feel. Android is true to its Linux roots when it comes to the fragmentation of its applications’ look and feel. Many apps just seem weird as some UI elements are resized, while others go into strange alignments, since most are developed for phones’ smaller screen resolutions. Still, consistency is one of the things I hope that will improve with time.

YouTube. The official app is great — except it won’t let me browse and watch my own Watch Later playlist. What’s the point, then?


The Despairing:

The web browser(s). What the hell? Just because the tablet is a ‘mobile device’ I expected more than a ‘mobile browser’ — the kind that resizes and reformats webpages for your ‘mobile’ screen. I mean, the Tablet S has a 1280x800 resolution, which the same as the laptop I had until recently. I want to be able to see websites’ real pixels, — I want those settings that pretend to turn off resizing to actually work. And the problem isn’t exclusive to the stock browser — Firefox for Android brings the same half-baked web browsing experience.

Google Play. There’s something I like about the app store: the ability to browse it on my PC’s (proper) web browser, and having the apps I selected already installed the next time I pick up the tablet. It’s ‘magic’ and convenient. So it’s a shame I had to browse through Play in the process. And to clarify, I am not talking about the ‘Wild West’ mentioned in Apple vs. Google debates — I am sure the iTunes store is also full of crappo apps, apps that’ll steal your data, and both. Outside of places with strict open-source rules (ex. Linux distributions), the whole App Store model is wrong because, among other things, all App Stores end up being like Tucows circa Windows ME. Google Play is a worse implementation of a bad model. Its search functionality is a joke (search! — this is Google we’re talking about!), most of the stuff in the ‘Staff Picks’ sections looks like stuff that’ll steal my data, and I invariably end up googling — proper Googling — for blog posts on “good Android apps for <X>”.

Google Reader. Really, really buggy. Google Reader reloads posts while I’m still reading them — sometimes marking that post as read and advancing to the next post. Sometimes posts marked as read completely disappear. This app had to be good. And it’s the very opposite. There are alternatives such as Feedly, obviously (it does look good but also has some minor quirks of its own — ex. for all Google Reader integration they forgot to add a way to ‘star’/bookmark a post — facepalm!) — but it’s a bit worrisome that such an important reading app by none other than the tablet OS’ manufacturer can be such a failure.

Unexpected absences of apps. I don’t really care about Instagram or other iOS app blockbusters. A browse through Play will reveal lots and lots of apps that will make your bad digital photos look like bad analog photos — Pixlr-o-matic alone will ensure Tumblr currency for generations. But there are some glaring omissions of good, official apps that don’t look like they’re going to steal your data: Facebook’s app really needs a proper tablet version, so does Twitter. But Tumblr! Still in need of an Android app that works (tablet or otherwise) — it exists, but won’t even install.


Anyway. Except for the dreadful charger, most of the Sony Tablet S’ downsides concern Android apps and the Android app market. The hardware is pretty good, and with the possible exception of a HDMI port (offered by some competitors) there’s not much else I’d want — aside from the new iPad’s screen resolution, that is. I expect the software to improve in quality, while fearing the inevitable bloat of newer versions (the app versions I had on my phone when I first bought it were pretty snappy too), and I hope to be able to revise some of the bad things I wrote here. Still, the main questions remain:

Did I need a tablet?

Probably not.

What will I use it for?

Procrastination. Only procrastination.