Sony finally threw its hat in the tablet ring at IFA 2011 by announcing the market launch of the Sony Tablet S and Tablet P (previously codenamed S1 and S2). The biggest point-of-difference from other Android tablets and the heavyweight champ iPad is form factor - the Tablet S gets an unusual asymmetrical shape and the Tablet P throws the conventional tablet format away completely with its clam-shell, dual-screen design. Having stated its intention to become number two in the tablet marketplace and setting pricing identical to that of the iPad 2, Sony is certainly aiming high with this one.

The Sony Tablet S

The lightweight 598 gram (1.32 lb) Tablet S has a 9.4 inch touchscreen, runs the NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor and will be available within the month of September in Wi-Fi-only running Android 3.1 (upgradable to Android 3.2) and in November with 3G/Wi-Fi connectivity running Android 3.2.

It's most obvious departure from being a tablet me-too is its asymmetrical shape - the jury is out as to whether this is better or just different. Yes, moving the heavy bits closer to the user's palm is a good idea for people who use it in a particular way, but not everyone uses a tablet the same way, as is attested by the vast smorgasbord of iPad accessories out there. The folded-newspaper metaphor might not fly with all that many customers, and building accessories for the Tablet S will be harder than for a symmetrical tablet.

Does it have any other compelling points of difference?

Yes, it can be used as a universal remote control for televisions, cable boxes and audio systems. It is also has a compatibility with other Sony products that might entice owners of Sony's Bravia to be able to easily transfer content onto their TV, although it will only play PlayStation games if you're prepared to buy them for a second time.

The Tablet P

The Tablet P is a different form factor than we've seen before in a tablet. It is similar to a clam-shell dual screen phone, only it has two 5.5 inch screens, and hence folds to a pocketable size, with the portability further enhanced by its featherweight 372 grams (0.82 lb). It's a logical solution to getting more screen real estate from pocketable (79 x 180 x 26mm / 3.11 x 7.08 x 1.02-in) product and will probably splinter the tablet marketplace form factor even further. As we wrote yesterday, Samsung's
Galaxy Note looks to be bridging the traditional boundaries between phone and tablet and it's beginning to look like the mobile computer will come in many shapes and sizes with personal preference for the size, operating system and media connectivity playing a major role.

There's a lot to like about the clam-shell design of the Tablet P as the touchscreens can be used for different purposes, or combined as single screen. The Tablet P runs Android 3.2 on the same NIVIDIA Tegra 2 processor as the Tablet S, with both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity.

Late starter in the tablet race

Apple's iOS is still the dominant player in the marketplace - tablet sales are forecast to exceed 60 million units this year, and Apple is known to have ordered 20 million tablets for the third quarter alone. But Android's slice of the pie is growing. In July
Strategy Analytics put iOS at 61.3 percent market share compared to 30.1 percent for Android. A year earlier Apple commanded a 94% market share.

Sony's 16GB Tablet S will sell for $US499 and the 32GB version will command $US599 in the critical and highly competitive United States marketplace - these happen to be identical prices to Apple's iPad models with the same memory. Similar mirroring of Apple's pricing will occur in every other major marketplace and we already know from the experience of other tablet manufacturers that par pricing against the near invincible market leader doesn't work. One of the reasons for this is Apple's ecosystem of apps and content - it's broad and deep and has been refined over a long period to be very easy to use. Sony's counter is the rebadged "Sony Entertainment Network" services and a promised catalog of eBooks and periodicals which will begin rolling out this year for a few countries and next year for most.

The Sony Tablet looks competitive in the Android space, but selling tablets against the raft of manufacturers already using the same operating system is a very tough game. A walk through the aisles of CES, Computex or SinoCES leaves no one in any doubt as to how many Android-based competitors there are, all of them far more sharply priced than the iPad.

To meet its goals of reaching the number two slot Sony will need to sell more tablets than Samsung and Motorola. Samsung and Motorola use the same chip set. The now Google-owned Motorola might just begin producing product which is far more "tightly integrated" with Google's Android, and Samsung has a product which is at least the equal of Sony's and it has a 12 month head start. Then there are all the other manufacturers with access to the same chip and operating system with product already in the marketplace - product from manufacturers who might be beginning to think about dropping their pricing to a point where they can move sluggish stock from shelves, just as HP has already done.

So what do you think of Sony's uniquely shaped tablet offerings? How will they fare in an increasingly crowded marketplace? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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