By Isabel Reynolds and Liana B. Baker
TOKYO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sony's new tablet computers failed to excite gadget reviewers and analysts who criticized the pricing and quality of the devices, underscoring the battle Sony faces regaining its consumer electronics crown.
Sony Corp is already late to the game with its first tablet, which hits stores this month, more than a year and a half after Apple Inc launched the blockbuster iPad and almost a year since Samsung Electronics Co Ltd came out with the GalaxyTab. Samsung's Galaxy occupies the No.2 slot in tablets that Sony is targeting.
Reviewers and analysts highlighted a high price and features that suggested Sony would remain an also-ran rather than a leader in the tablet market. Two versions of Sony's main tablet cost $499 and $599, the same price as two lower-end Apple iPad models.
"Consumers want tablets, but they are not prepared to pay the same amount they'd pay for an iPad for something that's not an iPad," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi. "Despite the brand and different design, with its pricing so close to the iPad, it will be challenging for Sony."
Once a symbol of Japan's high-tech might, the maker of the Walkman and PlayStation gaming console is struggling under the weight of its money-losing TV division and badly needs the boost of a hit product.
"Sony really must be in the tablet market and must succeed," said Mito Securities electronics analyst Keita Wakabayashi.
Worldwide tablet shipments are forecast to more than triple this year to 60 million tablets and then rise to 275.3 million units by 2015, according to a report this month from research firm IHS iSuppli.
Sony's new tablets run on Google Inc's Android software, like the GalaxyTab and many other tablets from Acer Inc, Asustek Computer Inc and Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc.
It is trying to distinguish its tablets from other Android players with features such as having one model function as a universal remote, while another folds like a clamshell and offers access to some first generation PlayStation games.
Backed by a disco beat during an event in Berlin to unveil the devices on Wednesday, Sony CEO Howard Stringer brushed off concerns the company waited too long to get into the tablet market.
"We want to prove it's not who makes it first that counts but who makes it better," Stringer said.
Based on the initial reception, Sony has failed in that regard.
Tech reviewers credited Sony for coming up with a unique curvy design for the S tablet, which resembles a folded-back magazine and makes it easier to hold with one hand, but the quality of the hardware was questioned.
A review on the Gizmodo tech blog called the tablet "extremely plasticky" and said its screen scratched more easily than other tablets.
Sony vowed in January to become the world's No. 2 tablet maker -- behind Apple -- by 2012 and Sony executives stuck to that ambitious claim ahead of the tablet launch.
But research firm Forrester put out a blog post saying Sony's pricing "raises a red flag."
At a low-key Japanese launch of the tablets in Tokyo on Thursday, Sony hinted it could be flexible on pricing.
"We'll see and study how the market will react and we'll take any necessary action," said Hideyuki Furumi, deputy president of the Sony division in charge of the new tablets.
"But then again, we don't want to do competition simply on prices, because we have a lot of differentiation points," he added, saying the entertainment features would be expanded over time.
One expert who has played with the single-screen "Sony Tablet: S" also was doubtful it could compete with rivals that sell high-end tablets at the same price.
Tim Stevens, editor-in-chief of the Engadget tech blog, said the tablet's hardware was underwhelming and its feel and design trailed the iPad 2 and the Galaxy Tab.
"I honestly don't think this is going to be the tablet that really catapults Sony into the lead on the Android front, which is where it needs to be if it wants to be No. 2 in the tablet market," Stevens said.
Some tech bloggers anticipate Amazon will more likely prove a competitor to Apple, with a tablet that has not been officially announced but is expected in the next few weeks.
Sony joins a slew of technology companies hoping to win a share in a market where many have stumbled in pursuit of Apple.
Hewlett Packard's Co decision to drop its Touchpad tablet only weeks after it came out shows how easy it is to fail. Sales soared only after HP slashed the price to $99 from $399 and $499, prompting the company to announce a further "final run" of the tablets to meet demand.
Sony said the S tablet is unique because of a universal remote inside the computer that can be used to control stereos, cable television boxes and TV sets.
The wifi-only device has a 9.4 inch screen, weighs 1.33 lbs and has front and rear cameras.
A 16 gigabyte version of the tablet will cost $499 in the United States, while the 32 GB version will retail for $599. In Europe, the S will cost 479 euros. It can be pre-ordered on Wednesday and will be in stores in September.
Sony's second tablet, the P, comes with 4 GB of memory and looks like a clutch purse. It has two 5.5-inch screens that can be folded together and weighs less than a pound.
The tablet also offers 4G cellular service. In Europe, the P will cost 599 euros and be out in November. Sony said it would be in stores in the United States later this year, but did not provide a date or price.
Sony's tablets tap its entertainment library by offering music and movies services, which should give it an edge over rivals, according to Stringer.
"Apple makes an iPad, but does it make a movie?" Stringer said.
Sony shares rose 2 percent in a firmer Tokyo market on Thursday after the tablets were unveiled. U.S. listed shares closed almost 0.3 percent down at $21.95 after opening higher.
(Additional reporting by Nicola Leske and; Christoph Steitz in BERLIN; Editing by Lincoln Feast)