Today's announcement of two PlayStation branded tablets demonstrates that Sony has genuine aspirations in making an impact in a market dominated by Apple's iPad. The question is, does the new hardware have enough under the bonnet to seriously challenge the current undisputed leader in the sector?
First impressions of the devices are positive. Whether it's televisions, games consoles or computers, Sony has a reputation for bringing a certain cutting-edge style to its devices, and the physical make-up of both the 9.4-inch S1 tablet and the dual 5.5-inch S2 clamshell suggest a high level of gadget chic and general build quality.
Sony is also attempting to innovate on tablet mobility with the shape of the S2 - a device you can fold up and stick in your pocket. The bulkier S1 appears to be designed for use mainly at home, while S2 is the machine you take with you on your travels. Both seem to use the same core architecture and feature front and rear-facing cameras.
Basic functionality comes via Google's Honeycomb Android operating system, boosted with additional offerings, such as being able to use the tablets as remote controls for Bravia AV kit. You can also to stream media content to TVs and wireless speakers. Sony's choice of core technology ensures that both tablets should be able to decode 1080p h264 content with little effort.
Further services are supplied courtesy of Sony's own stable of media outlets: Qriocity covers music and video, while PlayStation Suite offers a range of PSone games to download (we'll assume that the Android titles ported to Xperia Play will also function on the tablets). There's also eBook functionality via the Reader Store - Sony's bespoke eReader service.
These services give Sony an edge against a great many of its competitors in the Android market. From the consumer's perspective, however, the real question is whether these services can deliver market-leading quality and quantity against the iTunes juggernaut and its irresistible App Store.
Questions surround the technical make-up of the devices themselves. The Sony tablets appear to be operating with a similar specification to the Motorola Xoom, which uses an NVIDIA Tegra 2 SoC (system on chip). Assuming it is indeed the same tech and not the yet-to-be-released NVIDIA "Kal-El" chipset, we're looking at a dual core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU that matches the iPad 2, married to a GPU component that significantly outperforms the original iPad, but doesn't quite make the grade compared to Apple's latest tablet.
iPad 2's A5 processor utilises a PowerVR SGX543 MP2, a graphics processor that comprehensively bests Tegra 2 in these Anandtech benchmarks. The iPad 2 SoC represents an enormous leap in graphical power, designed to expand Apple's reach in the gaming sector. Few anticipated such a leap in performance, and it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Sony opted for an architecture it anticipated being competitive with iPad 2 as opposed to the technological monster that Apple actually unleashed - something we'll be looking at in more detail later this week on Digital Foundry.
Despite the PlayStation branding, the tablets lack a key unique selling point. The Xperia Play has a physical control interface designed for games, but screenshots of the S1 and S2 show a touch-screen-driven interface mimicking the Play's physical controls; exactly the sort of halfway house used by developers looking to bring a conventional control system onto touch-screen devices.
This is where we have real concerns about the viability of the devices as PlayStation products. The best games have divorced themselves completely from input mechanisms like this, while others have implemented a system where controls dynamically remap according to where the player rests his thumbs. What we've seen so far of the PlayStation S1 and S2 control mapping suggests a locked configuration.
Right now there's little else we can comment on. The grunt of Sony's S1 and S2 tablets may fall a little short of iPad 2, but it's far too soon to pass final judgement. With a Honeycomb OS, slick Sony enhancements and the potential of Adobe Flash compatibility, the S1 and S2 may gain a tangible edge in terms of browsing functionality. There are interesting opportunities for multitasking on S2, with the device potentially running bespoke apps on each of the 1024x480 screens. But will the market will embrace this over conventional smartphone on-the-go web browsing?
From a gaming standpoint, if we are dealing with the same core processor found in the Motorola Xoom then there's a clear power deficit compared to iPad 2. But whether any iPad 2 games will capitalise on all of that raw grunt any time soon remains to be seen. Remember that the lion's share of games still need to run well on old pre-iPad 2 iOS hardware, which both S1 and S2 should be able to effortlessly outperform. That said, it's going to require titanic momentum to oust the App Store as the number one destination for mobile gaming.
Sony's previously stated aim has been to catapult itself directly into the number two position in the tablet market, directly behind Apple. It's not the only company with such aims, however - there's going to be a colossal amount of competition from other Android devices.
As debut tablets, the S1 and S2 are both very promising. Now all we need to know is how much these tablets will cost and when this autumn we can expect them.
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