In technology, there's a fine line between innovation and eccentricity. Sony's new Tablet P boldly approaches the line, and then stomps all over it.
Overpriced and under-thought, the Tablet P -- which runs the "Honeycomb" version of Google's Android operating system -- is at least distinctive. No flat black slab here. Instead, its rounded case houses two screens, each measuring 5.5 inches diagonally, separated by a thick black bezel and two hinges that allow it to fold up like a clamshell. Or maybe an eyeglass case. Or a taco.
Folded, the Tablet P measures about seven inches long, three inches wide and an inch thick. That makes it compact enough to slide into a jacket pocket or purse, although at 13 ounces you won't forget it's there. Unfolded, each of the screens is able to display content independently of the other if the app you're running supports it. Sony has collected about 40 of them on a special website.
Most Android apps, though, don't take advantage of the split screens. In those cases, the open Tablet P is the equivalent of a seven-inch display, albeit one with a thick black line bisecting it.
Thick black line
While watching movies from Sony's online store is OK -- only one screen is used -- the hinge means that you won't want to use the Tablet P for watching, say, YouTube videos. Nor is on-screen typing, for e-mail and the like, much fun either.
When the tablet is oriented horizontally, it's a little too wide to comfortably type with your thumbs, as you might on a wireless phone, and a little too cramped if you set it down on a surface and try to involve the rest of your fingers. Turned vertically, you have to deal with that thick black hinge line running straight down the screen.
So just what is the Tablet P good for? It isn't an easy question to answer.
One obvious application is gaming. The two-screen configuration calls to mind Nintendo's three-dimensional 3DS handheld, which has a vaguely similar design and uses the lower screen for controlling the action displayed on the upper screen.
The Tablet P, which carries the insignia indicating it's compatible with Sony PlayStation games, uses that set-up as well with its pre-loaded version of the venerable "Crash Bandicoot."
Alas, the selection of games optimized for it via the online PlayStation Store is extremely limited. And anyone who's seen "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" running on Sony's new PlayStation Vita handheld would take one look at the Tablet P's gaming experience and toss it aside.
Web-surfing is a little more successful. So is video- chatting, thanks to a Sony-tweaked version of Microsoft's Skype service and the Tablet P's front-facing camera. (There's also a five-megapixel rear camera.)
The hinge is stiff enough so the unit will remain at whatever angle you've set it. The upper screen displays the person you're chatting with, while the lower shows you what they're seeing. Because the camera is offset to the right, though, it's sometimes hard to establish direct eye contact.
Reading e-books isn't bad, at least using Sony's own Reader app; holding the tablet in portrait mode puts a page on each screen in book-like fashion. But the Android version of Amazon.com's more popular Kindle app fares less well. You'll have to choose either to put your content on only one screen, or, if you go the full-screen route, put up with the black bezel running through the text.
Sony claims battery life of up to seven hours in general use, but, depending on what I was doing, I often fell short of that. Moreover, the charge plunged even when the Tablet P was in standby mode. I left the unit charged but unplugged a couple of times over night and once over a weekend. When I returned to it, the battery was dead.
You might, just might, put up with the Tablet P's shortcomings if it were rock-bottom priced -- if it, for example, took aim at Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire. But Sony and its US partner AT&T have instead positioned the device as a premium product, with a $400 price tag -- if you're willing to sign a two-year data-service contract.
If you'd prefer a month-to-month plan, the kind AT&T sells for Apple's iPads, the Tablet P jumps to a whopping $550. That's $20 more than the newly reduced price of an AT&T-connected iPad 2.
And while the Tablet P takes advantage of the souped-up 3G network that AT&T markets as "4G," it comes with a paltry four gigabytes of storage for your apps and content, compared with 16 for the iPad 2.
The tablet market is filled with so many iPad wannabes that there's a strong temptation to award extra credit to any manufacturer brave enough break from the pack and take risks. But the Tablet P is so deeply flawed it leaves the user with one inescapable question.
What were they thinking?
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.