Over the past year or so, we’ve seen a number of companies release tablets running Google’s Android operating system. These machines range in side from 5 to 10 inches, and tend to engender comparisons to Apple’s iPad, because let’s face it — the iPad is probably the most popular tablet computer ever released, and like Android tablets, it basically runs an operating system that was initially designed to run on smartphones.
The difference is that Apple designed and built the iPad and optimized the iOS mobile operating system to run well on the larger display before releasing the product. Google hasn’t yet officially released a version of Android that’s optimized for tablets, which means that many apps don’t scale well to larger screens.
It also means that since many tablets don’t meet Google’s hardware requirements, Google prevents the manufacturers from installing a suite of apps designed to run on Android phones, including Gmail, Google Maps, and the Android Market — although someusers have figured out how to unofficially add these apps to tablets such as the latest models from Archos.
But a handful of companies have decided that rather than wait for Google to release a tablet-friendly version of Android, they would take the initiative and release their own Android tablets and custom software designed to improve the experience of using the smartphone operating system on a larger device.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab is probably the best known of these devices. In fact, the company has already sold over a million units worldwide since launching the Galaxy Tab recently. That’s not even close to the number of iPads Apple has sold, but it means Samsung has probably sold more Android tablets in a short period of time than any other company.
Samsung has done this largely by using its pull with mobile phone companies around the world. In the US alone, Samsung has partnered with five major telecoms (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular) to distribute the Galaxy Tab. Simply put, there are more opportunities to buy the Galaxy Tab than nearly an other Android tablet.
The device also comes with some of the best specs you can find on any Android device. It has a 1GHz Samsung Hummingbird processor, a 7 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel capacitive touchscreen display, 3G, WiFi, and Bluetooth connectivity, and a Gorilla Glass display which is nearly unbreakable.
All in all, as 2010 draws to a close, it’s hard to argue that the Galaxy Tab isn’t the best Android tablet available today. but is that good enough? Read on to find out.
Samsung sent me a demo unit to review. My model is connected to T-Mobile’s wireless network, but as I mentioned the Galaxy Tab is available from a number of wireless providers around the globe. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy S line of smartphones, which feature different physical designs depending on which carrier you purchase the phone from, the Galaxy Tab looks the same no matter where you buy it — although it may come with a few different apps loaded by each carrier. For instance, the model sent to me features the T-Mobile “My Account” app.
The Galaxy Tab is also priced differently by each carrier, with prices ranging from $399.99 to $649.99 in the US, and mobile broadband plans running between $14.99 and $59.99 per month depending on which carrier you choose and how much bandwidth you need. While in some parts of the world, you can use the Galaxy Tab to make phone calls over mobile networks, in the US the Tab is a data-only machine (although you can install third party apps including Skype or Fring to make VoIP calls).
Samsung is also expected to launch a WiFi-only version of the tablet, but it’s not available for purchase yet.
There’s one thing I want to get out of the way before I continue this review: I don’t own an iPad. I’ve used them in stores for brief periods of time, so I have an idea of what the user experience is like. I also do own an iPod touch, so I’m familiar with iOS. I also have a Google Nexus One smartphone, so I’m familiar with Android.
If you’re looking for a head-to-head comparison between the Galaxy Tab and an iPad, you won’t find it here. I will make some comparisons between the Tab and other Android tablets, as well as Android smartphones, but mostly I’m trying to judge the Tab on its own merits.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab’s most prominent features is the 7 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel capacitive touchscreen display. It’s bright and clear, and has a higher pixel density than the iPad or most netbooks.
The screen has a glossy finish , which reflects quite a bit of glare in bright sunlight, and while it offers excellent viewing angles, I found that the glare was too great to really see the screen at a 45 degree angle when I placed it down on a tablet in front of a window on a bright day.
The screen is made of Corning’s Gorilla Glass, which is heavy duty stuff. Not only is it scratch resistant, it’s also pretty hard to crack. The Dell Streak 5 inch tablet uses Gorilla Glass, and the folks at Engadget were kind enough to stab that tablet repeatedly with a pen to see what kind of damage it incurred. The answer? None.Your results may vary, but suffice it to say that the screen is pretty tough stuff.
Around the edges of the display you’ll find a bit of a black bezel, and before you complain that you want a tablet that’s all screen, you have to stop and think about how you’re going to hold the thing.
At 7 inches, you can wrap a hand all the way around the back of the Galaxy Tab and hold it between your thumb and fingers like you would a phone. But it’s not very comfortable unless you have enormous hands. It’s much easier to grip the Tab on one side, with your fingers on the back and thumb on the front, much as you would hold a book or a piece of paper.
The bezel also serves another purpose. At the top, you’ll find a front-facing 1.3MP camera. At the bottom there are capacitive touch buttons for Android’s Menu, Home, Back, and Search functions. The buttons light up for a few seconds when you tap the screen for easier viewing, but one thing that bugs me is that icons for these buttons are painted very dimly, so that it can be a bit tough to find the button you’re looking for after the button lights go away.
On the left side of the tablet you’ll find the built-in mic, and nothing else. The top is similarly sparse, with just a port for the headphone jack.
The right side is a bit busier, with a power button at the top and volume buttons just below it. Toward the bottom you’ll find slots for microSD and SIM cards, protected by plastic doors. The doors are held on by thin pieces of plastic and it feels like it would be easy to break them off, but honestly, I don’t expect most users will open these doors very often.
The bottom of the device has a docking port which you can use to connect the Tab to a computer’s USB port. This connector also works with optional docking stations accessories.
There are also stereo speakers on either side of the docking port, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the speakers are not only loud, but also quite clear. In fact, I’d say the Samsung Galaxy Tab’s speakers sound better than those on most 10 inch netbooks, even though there’s much more room in a netbook case for decent speakers.
No mini-speakers are going to be able to replace a good set of headphones or external speakers with 2.1 channel audio or better, but I found listening to music and podcasts as well as watching movies using the built-in speakers to be rather pleasant.
The back of the Samsung Galaxy Tab has a 3MP camera with autofocus capability and an LED flash.
The back is slightly curved so that the Tab is thicker in the middle than on the left and right sides. The corners are also rounded, but overall the Tab still feels a bit boxy, thanks to the 90 degree angles between the front and sides of the device.
There are no removable panels, which means the battery is not user replaceable. Fortunately, the Galaxy Tab comes with a 4000mAh battery which provides excellent run time (depending on what you’re doing with the tablet, but more on that in a bit).
The case is made of plastic and lacks the sleek aluminum look of some competitor’s devices, but the plastic is both sturdy and light, giving the Galaxy Tab a much more professional look and feel than cheaper Android tablets such as the Augen Gentouch78 or the WiiPad.
It’s kind of tough to tell from these photos, but when you hold the tablets in hand, the Galaxy Tab inspires much more confidence. The screen is also more responsive, reflects less glare, and doesn’t have that same cheap plastic feel as the displays on the WiiPad and GenTouch78.
The tablet has an ambient light sensor and an accelerometer and G-Sensor which let you control games and other apps by tilting the device. You can also quickly rotate the display by changing the position of the tablet from portrait to landscape mode. This even works when you’re viewing the Home Screen, even though most Android smartphones can only display the Home Screen in portrait mode.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab runs Google Android 2.2 (although Samsung will likely roll out updates to Android 2.3 and future versions of Android when available). I won’t delve into all the details of the Android operating system, but here are some of the basics:
Android was developed for touchscreen smartphones. The UI is basically divided into a few different sections.
- Home Screen with shortcuts to frequently used apps and widgets for things like weather, search, and news.
- Status Bar which shows up at the top of the Home Screen and is also visible from most apps, showing you some running programs, battery and wireless status, and the time.
- Pull-down menu which you can access by swiping down from the Status Bar
- Application Launcher where you can find a complete list of installed applications
- Settings Menu
The Galaxy Tab provides you with five virtual Home Screens, which you can flip through by swiping your finger left or right across the screen. The pull-down menu has been tweaked to give you quick access to your brightness settings, WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS toggles, a mute button, and an orientation lock — as well as notifications from various apps (email, music, etc).
Samsung has also replaced the stock Android program launcher with its own app which doesn’t automatically arrange apps alphabetically, but instead lets you order apps any way you’d like, by using an edit button. Each new app you install shows up at the end of the list, but if you’d like it to be the first item on your list you can just drag and drop it to that position.
While many Android tablets ship without access to the full suite of Google Apps, the Galaxy Tab comes with full access to the Google Android Market and other Google apps including Gmail, Google Maps, and Google’s turn-by-turn navigation.
Samsung did replace some of Google’s standard apps including the audio and video players, the calendar, and camera apps. While the calendar has been redesigned to take full advantage of the Galaxy Tab’s high resolution display, the audio and video apps are designed to not only make it easier to navigate through your media collection, but also to handle additional media formats. For instance, the Galaxy Tab, like Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphones can handle Xvid and DiVX video as well as MP4 and H.264 video.
Also like Samsung’s smartphones, the Galaxy Tab comes with the Swype keyboard in addition to Samsung’s own keyboard. Swype’s claim to fame is that you can form some words by swiping your finger across the screen from one letter to the next without lifting your finger first. The utility uses text prediction algorithms to help make text entry accurate and fast… but honestly, this feature seems like it would be a lot more useful on a smartphone than a 7 inch tablet. I had no problem typing with my thumbs in portrait mode on the Galaxy Tab, although landscape mode was a bit trickier since my fingers had further to move.
Touch-typing with all ten fingers is probably out of the question for most users. The screen and keyboard just aren’t large enough to do that comfortably.
The Galaxy Tab also includes a file browser, something which doesn’t come standard with many Android devices. The demo unit Samsung sent me also came with the Amazon Kindle app, Slacker Radio, ThinkFree Office, and a racing game called Asphalt 5 preloaded. I’m not sure if these apps come on all units, or if they were included on the review unit to give me a taste of what the Tab is capable of. All of these apps looked great on the Tab.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for all third party apps — at least not out of the box. Some apps scale perfectly to the Tab’s 1024 x 600 pixel display. The New York Times app, for instance, looked fantastic. Other apps were clearly designed with lower resolution displays in mind though. Robo Defense showed up in a small box in the center of the display, surrounded by thick black borders.
Not only did the game not take full advantage of the screen real estate, but it was actually harder to play than it should have been, because I had to reach my fingers further to interact with the game.
There is a hack available that will force all apps to show up in full screen mode on the Galaxy Tab, but it’s a bit tricky to implement, and this just shows that the Android operating system and many third party apps were really designed for smartphones, not tablets with larger, higher resolution displays.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab is quite zippy when flipping through Home Screens, launching applications, or running apps. The machine has one of the fastest ARM-based processors on the market today, and supports a decent range of audio and video formats out of the box.
The Tab also makes a great gaming machine… assuming the game you want to play has been optimized for a 1024 x 600 pixel display (or you’ve applied some sort of voodoo to make all apps run in full screen mode). The Asphalt 5 3D racing game that Samsung preloaded on the Tab played beautifully… or it would have if I were better at racing games.
I did have trouble getting some videos in my collection to play properly, so I downloaded RockPlayer and VPlayer which have support for even more video formats than the default video player. Unfortunately, these apps rely on software to decode video, rather than the default video player which has hardware acceleration for video playback. That meant that I wasn’t able to decode HD video streams using either app, and they both ran down the battery rather quickly. Whether you’re viewing HD or standard definition video, movies look great on the 7 inch tablet which, after all, doesn’t actually have an HD display.
Using these apps to watch videos with VGA resolutions, I was able to get about 5-6 hours of battery life out of the Galaxy Tab. But it’d be hard to tax the CPU much more than I was doing during those tests. In terms of normal day to day use, you should get much better battery life.
Samsung says you should be able to get about 7 hours of HD video playback when watching videos in officially supported codecs, and from what I’ve seen, I believe them. You should also get closer to 10 hours of run time when surfing the web or performing other less resource-intensive tasks.
When listening to music or podcasts with the screen off, you should get far more run time, since the screen uses more power than just about anything else.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab works great as an Android device. It has an excellent processor, good display, loud and clear speakers, and excellent battery life. The tablet can run virtually any app available for Android, even if some apps don’t scale properly to the display. In other words, the Tab is at least as good as the best Android phones on the market… except the US version doesn’t make phone calls.
There are a few things the Galaxy Tab arguably does better than a smartphone. Movies and TV shows are always going to look better on a 7 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display than on a 3.7 inch, 800 x 480 pixel screen. Newspapers, eBooks, and web pages will likewise look better on the large display.
But here’s the thing: it’s not really that much better than an Android phone. Over the past few weeks I’ve been constantly reminding myself that I need to pick up the Galaxy Tab and use it for the purposes of this review. But the truth is, most of the time I haven’t really thought to use it, because I’ve had my Google Nexus One or iPod touch handy, and they do pretty much everything the Galaxy Tab does.
When Apple launched the iPad, some people derided it as little more than an oversized iPod touch, but many fans have come to realize that just by increasing the screen size Apple has opened up the door to different types of apps and user experiences. For instance, you don’t need to view the mobile versions of web pages on the iPad, because the screen is much more like a typical laptop screen.
Musical instruments like virtual pianos or guitars also make more sense, because you can use all ten fingers on the iPad display, unlike the iPhone. And you can actually use all ten fingers to type on the iPad, assuming you can angle the device in a way that lets you see the screen without giving yourself neck strain.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab, on the other hand, really is little more than an oversized Android phone. That’s not entirely Samsung’s fault. The company went out of its way to develop apps like the custom calendar app which do take advantage of the larger screen. But the Android operating system is still designed first and foremost for smaller phones, and third party developers aren’t really writing many apps for larger devices like the Tab yet, which means that basically most of the apps you’ll run are designed for 4 inch and smaller displays and simply scaled up to the Tab’s 7 inch screen.
For instance, the web browser still identifies itself as the Android browser, which means that even though you have a display with the same resolution as most netbooks, you’re stuck viewing mobile versions of many web sites you visit unless you can turn off the mobile themes (or install a third party browser such as Dolphin HD which makes it easy to change the user agent).
While many of the people who are attracted to the iPad are people who already have an iPhone or iPod touch, I just don’t really see why I would want an Android phone and a Samsung Galaxy Tab.
On the other hand, if you don’t have a smartphone at all, the Galaxy Tab is certainly a good Android device for surfing the web, playing games, reading books, and running Android apps. But if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t have a smartphone, are you the sort of person who’s likely to be attracted to the Galaxy tab in the first place — especially while it’s only available from 3G wireless carriers?
My guess is no, but I could be wrong. Anyway, a WiFi-only version should be available soon, hopefully for a reasonably price, which could make the Galaxy Tab a lower cost alternative to the iPad for users looking for something a little smaller or a little less Apple and a little more Google.
I could also see people who shudder at the thought of reading books or even web pages on a 3 inch screen gravitating toward devices like the Samsung Galaxy Tab. So clearly, there are reasons Samsung has managed to sell over a million units so far… I’m just not sure I can see one fitting into my life very well. Your mileage may vary.
For a little more detail, you can check out my video review below: