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Samsung Galaxy Tab

December 12th, 2010
Samsung rushes to lead Android tablets and partly succeeds.

In the mobile phone landscape, Android represents one of the biggest threats to Apple. With the introduction of the iPad, though, the battle has moved on to tablets; Apple has almost had the market to itself. Samsung's Galaxy Tab is the first honest, mainstream competitor using Android. It has some features that the iPad currently lacks, such as dual cameras and support for Flash, but we'll see in our Galaxy Tab review how well it holds up. Hardware, design, and the screen

From a design perspective, the Galaxy Tab is little more than a giant Samsung Fascinate sans the Super AMOLED screen. The two devices are remarkably similar, much like the iPhone 4 and iPad are, but that's not necessarily bad; it creates a continuity of experience in the hardware. Measuring nearly a half an inch thick, the Galaxy Tab is thicker and ‘beefier’ feeling than expected. The iPad, iPhone, and even the Samsung Galaxy S phones like the Fascinate are all remarkably thin; the Galaxy Tab is unexpectedly thick. The thickness doesn’t really distract from the user experience, it’s simply unexpected. It has a very solid feel despite the mostly plastic shell.

On the outside of the Galaxy Tab users are given a power button, volume controls and a microSD card slot, on the right side of the device. Having the power/wake-up button on the top right side of the device is not nearly as convenient as the placement of the home button on the iPad and iPhone. The bottom of the device may be the biggest clue as to Samsung's reactionary approach to design: it contains a 30 pin connector that is quite similar to the Apple Dock Connector and is used both for regular syncing and for cradle accessories like an HDMI dock and a keyboard dock. The Tab features two cameras; one on the back with a flash, and a lower resolution one just above the screen for video chat. Lastly, there is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the top left of the device.

The catch to the physical construction is simply the current state of Android. It currently needs at least three hardware navigation buttons for virtually every app, and while this works for the Galaxy Tab in its upright view, it creates problems when rotating the tablet on its side. The iPad's lone home button works because it's always the same at any position, hard to hit by accident, and isn't needed until you want to exit or switch. On the Galaxy Tab, pivoting changes the entire order, requiring you to briefly relearn the control scheme each time, and the area they cover means you need a more careful grip. It's not fatal to the experience, but it's something iPad owners don't have to contend with and which won't be fixed until Android 3.0 reaches tablets early next year, when the controls will be on-screen and relative to the position. Google has warned about companies rushing into Android tablets, and this is one reason why.

Powering the Galaxy Tab is Samsung's in-house 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor and a PowerVR SGX 540. These are fast for now, but they're also coming just before a wave of dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 tablets; we're worried the design will become somewhat obsolete. Samsung does give it enough storage and ships the Tab with a 16GB microSDHC card preinstalled and up to 32GB if you're willing to pay the current $100-plus premium. While we don't think many people will be swapping cards on what's primarily an Internet device, it's an advantage Apple doesn't have.

As we mentioned before, the screen on the Galaxy Tab is a traditional LCD screen and not a Super AMOLED screen; that's dictated mostly by Samsung's low AMOLED production levels and cost, but it has the upshot of producing more accurate colors versus the slightly oversaturated, fuzzy look of Samsung's current AMOLED technology. Because of the seven-inch screen size and thick feel of the Tab, though the device is very easy to hold in one hand -- a slight knock against Apple's criticism of small tablets, since we found it easier to treat like a paperback (useful for e-reading) or stuffing into a pocket.

At the same time, that screen size is also a decidedly limiting factor, and Apple's Steve Jobs wasn't entirely mistaken when criticizing the shape. An example comes from Swype, which comes with the tablet: it's very accurate due to the large screen size, but using it in such a big format in portrait mode is tiresome, and the small size makes it too small to be effective in landscape. Our subjective opinion is that it's just too small and too close to a smartphone. The size difference between the iPhone and the iPad makes more sense by creating an undeniable difference in usability and what can be seen onscreen. As a seven-inch device, the Galaxy Tab is more akin to a reverse Goldilocks, where the middle size is just wrong.

Our review version of the Galaxy Tab is the Verizon model, which is fundamentally similar in terms of hardware to others available worldwide save for its use of EVDO for 3G data; Verizon will let you share its connection to other devices over Wi-Fi, but only for an extra monthly fee. It won't make phone calls like European models, though, so this won't be a complete replacement for a phone if you're in North America.

Android 2.2, apps, and Flash

The Galaxy Tab currently runs on Android 2.2, which is no longer the most recent version but wasn't expected given Samsung's intend to ship its tablet while everyone else was waiting for 3.0. The OS is a lighter customization of the OS than what we've seen in the Fascinate and other Galaxy S phones, and borrows only lightly from the TouchWiz interface on those handsets while improving some apps for the larger screen. It's an improvement over the Galaxy S in that it doesn't get in the way and provides a cleaner experience, but it also feels almost too much like a supersized smartphone; Android fans criticize the iPad as being a "big iPod touch," but the Galaxy Tab is even closer to that concept. Still, it was stable and has the OS-level advantages that you would expect from Android, such as deeper multitasking, more freedom in what apps can do, and access to the file system.

Samsung itself includes software bundles, two of which were especially helpful: ThinkFree Office, a full mobile office suite, and Amazon's Kindle app. Both are usually free to download, but the quicker start is appreciated. It also has Media Hub, a primarily video-oriented store, and the Reading Hub, a portal for magazines and newspapers. They're positives considering the relative dearth of commercial services for Android, but the selection isn't as broad as on iTunes or Amazon.

Being a Verizon based device, Verizon loaded its V Cast set of apps on the slate, though thankfully it hasn't decided to force the use of Bing and still gives the freedom to use Google or other different search tools. Surprisingly, the default Google apps also worked well; GTalk, Gmail, and Google Calendar integration all worked flawlessly, and Samsung has again put in some efforts of its own to smooth out the experience on a tablet. Google Maps Navigation is a particular treat, and we could see it becoming a GPS unit replacement if you can get a suitable dash mount. You'll also get a handful of other advantages versus the iPad so far, such as Latitude and soon 3D map views.

Third-party apps, though, are where the Galaxy Tab starts to fall short. Unlike Apple’s IOS, there isn't currently a system in place to write specifically for tablets versus phones, let alone a universal development system. Virtually all apps from Android Market and most other apps on the Galaxy Tab were simply scaled up to the larger dimensions. Most apps, like Facebook, Twitter, and Pandora couldn't help but work well and were in some cases themselves massaged by Samsung. Other apps, like the Weather Channel app, simply couldn’t make use of the extra screen real estate.

We gauged the performance and suitability further using games. We tested two games on the Tab, one native and one not: we tried Sniper which we plucked from Android Market, and N.O.V.A., which was preloaded on the device. Android isn't well-known for games, but gaming on a seven-inch platform is certainly better than gaming on a smartphone with a four-inch or smaller screen. It's easy to hold and yet large enough to provide ample room for an on-screen interface. We’re excited to see what developments Samsung and Google have for gaming on tablets, although for Samsung it may hinge on keeping up with OS releases.

If there's a critical failure on the Galaxy Tab, it's the one area that's arguably the most important: web browsing. Using Google's WebKit guarantees that nearly every website we tested (including our own electronista.com) renders marvellously on the Tab in both mobile and traditional iterations. However, for the most part, the browser simply took too long to load content. Even on a Wi-Fi connection, most pages took far too long to load and we had the browser app crash several times during testing. Combine that with an occasionally stuttering scroll and browsing becomes a drawback.

The implementation of Flash on the Galaxy Tab is somewhat of a double-edged sword. While it is functional and can be handy in a pinch, intense implementations of Flash (such as Samsung’s own galaxytab.samsungmobile.com) play back miserably; the video and audio were both choppy. Smaller uses of Flash, such as simple banner ads, displayed just fine but could also lengthen the load time for a page. If Flash is to be supported, it needs to work consistently, and despite Adobe's feverish hopes, it just doesn't yet. Apple may be stubborn in refusing to allow Flash and insisting on HTML5, but when a lot of Flash content either works poorly or isn't wanted, having the plugin isn't really an edge. That there's an option to only enable Flash on a tap should tell you all you need to know about Samsung's confidence.

Camera and video messaging

By far the biggest selling point Samsung has touted when comparing the Galaxy Tab to the iPad is the dual-camera setup. The main camera has a three-megapixel autofocus sensor and an LED flash; the second camera is a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat and self-portraits.

The quality of the main camera is quite good, though. We took some quick test photos and were satisfied with both the camera controls and the picture quality, although like most smartphone cameras we didn't see it thrive in low light or fast action scenes. Common camera settings exist but aren't especially in-depth. Actually shooting images can get awkward. Since the camera app -- very similar to other Samsung phones -- is designed for landscape usage, the Galaxy Tab needs to be held with two hands for picture taking. It's most useful for those apps that need the camera to work: augmented reality, barcode scanners and visual search. Apple doesn't have this right now, although it's rumored to be catching up soon.

To test the video messaging capabilities of the Tab we downloaded Fring, a free cross-platform messaging application that supports video chat. We did two tests with Fring: the first was with two Galaxy Tabs in Ohio and Australia, and the other was with both the Galaxy Tab and an iPhone 4 located solely in Ohio. Here was another instance of rushing to have a technology without making sure that it worked well. We were unable to get a successful video connection for either test, even when using Wi-Fi on known good connections. We did manage to get audio connections, which were choppy at best, but the video chat was a non-starter. It's not nearly as simple and polished as it should be.

Other apps do video chat as well, such as Qik, but the very problem Android has today is a fragmented standard; there's no guarantee that the other user will have the needed app. iPad users don't have video chat at all, but they're expected to get FaceTime and will soon have the reasonable assumption that any modern iOS device owner will have support for video chat. If Samsung wants to sell the dual-camera setup of the Galaxy Tab as a truly meaningful advantage over the iPad, it needs to provide a much more reliable experience; ironically, it may want to use FaceTime when Apple opens it to other developers.

User experience extras: syncing, charging and battery life

As with any other Android device, syncing with the Galaxy Tab is excellent in the cloud as most of your information can come in through signing into a Google account. But local syncing is still miserable: in addition to having to find a third-party app like DoubleTwist or WinAmp, most aren't yet optimized for Android tablets. Drag-and-drop isn't really a viable substitute, either; it's powerful, but it's frustrating when you just wanted to load the latest video from a TV show or add albums and playlists. Apple doesn't fully understand the Internet so far, but it's hard to deny the appeal of automatically loading all new content just by plugging in.

One warning about those who do connect to a computer: like the iPad, the Galaxy Tab uses more than the 5W of power supplied by most USB ports. As such, it won't charge when connected to most computers and usually has to be plugged into its AC adapter to draw power. Somewhat ironically, Macs are usually in a better position since some of them have higher-powered ports.

Battery life does go down due to the smaller size. Samsung estimates about seven hours. That's realistic in our experience and better than some smarthphones, but it's a far cry from Apple's tablet. The iPad officially gets 10 hours of runtime that's considered to actually be pessimistic. It's not uncommon to see 11 or even 12 hours depending on the conditions. Tablets are ideally all-day devices, and the iPad can usually meet that goal where the Galaxy Tab can run short.

Wrapping up

With a retail price of $599 off-contract, the Galaxy Tab is $30 less than the comparable 16GB iPad, but we're not sure it's automatically a bargain. We’re really disappointed with the web browsing, Flash and video chat performance of the Tab and we’re still a little perplexed with the form factor of the device, especially since you pay only slightly less for what amounts to much less screen area. To really steal market share from Apple, the Galaxy Tab would need to have a larger screen, more dedicated apps, and keep its dual-camera setup all while maintaining or dropping its price point.

Moreover, without the promised Wi-Fi version available, the actual cost of ownership goes up considerably if you aren't careful about how you buy. The monthly data plans from Verizon offer more monthly data usage per dollar than AT&T, starting from $20 for 1GB, but it's also an all-or-nothing prospect: either you sign up and plan to commit to service or cancel and go offline. AT&T's prepaid 3G (based on the iPad plans) are more flexible since they let you stop and start at will, but they also cap off at just 250MB for $15 and $25 for 2GB; it also brings the price up to $650, something hard to swallow when the bigger iPad costs less. Trying to discern which product is a better value on paper is like trying to split fiber optics. There will often be someone who needs the online-anywhere power of 3G, but sometimes simplicity is the best idea.

The Galaxy Tab is a viable tablet computing solution and does have its definite advantages: it's considerably more independent than the iPad, with no need for computer-based setup or syncing, and will sometimes have apps that are more flexible. There's also inevitably some who want a large screen but still want something pocketable or with cameras. At this stage, there aren't many better options. Still, waiting for "Tab 2.0" may not be a bad idea. The iPad platform was clearly the result of careful, long-term planning to adapt iOS to a larger canvas. The Galaxy Tab feels as though it was rushed to market to plug a hole that the iPad created in Samsung's netbook lineup. As much of a pleasure Android can be, it's evident through the OS, cameras and apps that Samsung's goal was to be early, not the best. The company has promised 10-inch Galaxy Tab and is likely to jump on Android 3.0 quickly,. As such, get the current model if you're more comfortable with Android or think the iPad is too large, but know that many of its advantages will be short-lived -- especially once an iPad revision appears.

- Very portable.

- Reasonably fast.

- Android is flexible and somewhat optimized.

- Dual cameras with reasonable quality.

- microSDHC card slot.

- Flash as an option.

- Great for optimized games.

- Too close to a smartphone in size.

- Some OS elements, many apps not optimized for tablets.

- Slow, sometimes stuttery web browsing.

- Flash often a liability, not a help.

- Slightly awkward button layout.

- Expensive versus an iPad for what you get.