Let’s face it. There’s very little difference in performance between the leading 10 inch Android tablets. Most have the same NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor and similar 10.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel displays. A few still run Google Android 3.0 while a handful run Android 3.1. But in terms of overall performance, they’re all pretty much the same and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is no different.
But here’s the thing: It still might be the best 10 inch Android tablet on the market right now, because style matters. The Samsung tablet is thinner and lighter than any other 10.1 inch tablet on the market and it features an attractive, minimalist design. That might not sound that important, but the result is that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 feels better in your hand than competitors such as the Motorola XOOM or Asus Eee Pad 10.1.
The Galaxy Tab 10.1 currently runs the same software and features nearly identical hardware to other top tier Android tablets. But its sleek and slim design aren’t the only things that set Samsung’s first Honeycomb tablet apart. Samsung also loads the tablet with a few custom applications and the company eventually plans to launch a version of its TouchWiz interface optimized for Honeycomb tablets — although it remains to be seen whether that will be a selling feature or not.
Update TouchWiz is now available for the tablet.
The tablet actually lacks some of the features some of its competitors have. For instance, the Motorola XOOM is often criticized for shipping with an SD card slot that simply doesn’t work — but the Galaxy Tab 10.1 simply doesn’t have an SD card slot at all. It also lacks a standard USB or micro USB connector. So if those features are important to you, this tablet might not be the best option.
Samsung sent me a 16GB WiFi model for the purposes of this review. The tablet retails for $499. A 32GB model is also available for $599.
The first thing that you notice about Samsung’s 10 inch tablet is that it’s surprisingly small for a device with a 10.1 inch display. It measures just 10.1″ x 6.9″ x 0.34″ and weighs 1.24 pounds.
By comparison, the Motorola XOOM is 9.8″ x 6.6″ x 0.5″ and weighs 1.6 pounds. When you lie the two tablets side by side on a tablet and look at them from above, the XOOM may actually look a little smaller. But viewed from the side the Samsung Galaxy Tab is noticeably thinner.
In fact the only other tablet that comes close at this point is the Apple iPad 2 which measures 9.5″ x 7.3″ x 0.34″ and weighs about 1.33 pounds — but Apple’s tablet has a 9.7 inch display with a 4:3 aspect ratio compared to Samsung’s 10.1 inch widescreen display.
When I reviewed the Motorola XOOM I complained that the 1.6 pound tablet felt a bit awkward and off-balance when you hold it in one hand — particularly in portrait mode. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 feels much better in your hands due to the thinner size and lighter weight. Don’t get me wrong, the most comfortable way to hold the tablet is still to place a hand on either side while the device is in landscape mode — but I didn’t feel like my arm was going to fall off when I tried holding the tablet in portrait mode.
Still, you can’t wrap your hand all the way around the tablet the way you would with a smartphone or a 7 inch device such as the HTC Flyer. That means that when you’re not propping the tablet up on your lap or another surface, you’ll probably end up holding it by the edge, and even the lightest of tablets can start to feel heavy when you hold them too long in that position.
That said, the tablet’s widescreen display is clearly designed to look best in landscape mode. Web pages and videos clearly weren’t designed to be viewed on screens that are longer than they are wide, and while the Android 3.1 software interface will rotate when you shift the position of the tablet, it really looks best in widescreen.
Many third party apps which were designed for smartphones running Android 2.x were designed to run in portrait mode — but they often look funny when blown up to a 10.1 inch, high resolution display.
The 1280 x 800 pixel display is sharp and bright and looks good from almost any angle. Colors are clearest when you look directly at the screen, but you can place the tablet flat on a table and continue reading a web site or eBook without too much trouble.
Like most touchscreen tablet displays, the screen is glossy which presents two potential problems: It’s nearly impossible to view in direct sunlight and it collects oily fingerprints like nobody’s business. In fact, if you try using the tablet outdoors on a bright, sunny day you’re more likely to see fingerprints than any video, web page, or app.
Around the edges of the display you’ll find a shiny black border. This gives you something to hold onto without putting your fingers directly on the touchscreen. There’s also a front-facing webcam built into the top of the bezel.
The cameras on the Samsung Galaxy Tab are decent but not spectacular. The front-facing camera has a resolution of 2MP, while the rear camera is a 3MP camera. Samsung had originally planned to put a higher resolution 8MP camera in its 10 inch tablet — and the Samsung Galaxy 10.1v actually has an 8MP camera. But in order to keep this tablet as thin as possible, the company opted for the 3MP camera instead.
The rear camera features auto-focus capabilities and an LED flash. The two cameras are good enough for video chats or snapping quick photos or videos, but I wouldn’t go replacing my DSLR just yet — especially since it’s pretty awkward to your hands across a 10 inch screen to press on-screen buttons to adjust settings and snap photos.
There are two buttons along the top edge of the tablet… or three, depending on how you count. The first is a power button. The second is a volume button — a single button with a rocker in the middle allowing you to push the left to decrease the volume or the right to increase it. A headset jack is also located at the top of the device.
On the left and right sides you’ll find speaker holes. Because the speakers are built into the sides of the tablet instead of the bottom, you can place the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 on a table, prop it up on a stand, or position it pretty much any way you like without fear of muffling the audio.
The result is that the speakers are loud and clear — although they’re lacking in bass frequencies as you’d expect from such tiny speakers. Still, I found that they were more than adequate for listening to podcasts and talk radio. Music sounds decent… but true music aficionados will want to use external speaker or a pair of headphones. Fortunately Samsung includes a pair of earbuds in the package with the tablet.
There’s a proprietary docking port at the bottom of the tablet. Samsung provides a USB adapter which you can use to charge the device or connect it to a computer for copying files. A standard micro USB port would have been nice, but this port is also designed to allow you to connect to a docking station or other accessory — such as a keyboard dock or USB host adapter. While the Google Android 3.1 operating system allows you to use USB peripherals such as a keyboard or mouse, you need a special adapter to do that with a Galaxy Tab since there is no USB port on the tablet itself.
You’ll also need to download software from the Samsung support site if you want to connect the device to your PC or Mac to transfer files or use the Android Software Developer Kit with the tablet.
Another thing that’s missing from the Galaxy Tab 10.1? An SD card slot. Samsung offers the tablet with 16GB or 32GB of storage, and that’s all you’re going to get unless you use that USB host adapter and an external hard drive or flash drive.
That’s true for the Apple iPad and several other high profile tablets as well, which has led to the introduction of a new class of mobile WiFi-enabled storage devices such as the Seagate GoFlex Satellite hard drive. But Android tablets from Acer, Asus, HTC and others all have SD card slots that allow you to expand the amount of available space for media and files, so it’s kind of unusual to see Samsung launch a tablet without this feature. Still, Android 3.x Honeycomb doesn’t allow users to install apps to an SD card, so you’re not losing out on extra space for apps — just extra space for file storage.
As you might expect from an ultrathin tablet, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 also has a battery that is not user replaceable. That’s not a huge shock, since most Honeycomb tablets have batteries that are inaccessible. The upcoming Toshiba Thrive tablet is the first big name device that will ship with a battery that can easily be replaced. But the Galaxy Tab does come with a high capacity 7000mAh Lithium Polymer battery which provides around 10 hours of battery life when surfing the web over WiFi or watching videos. You’ll probably get less battery life when playing graphically-intensive video games and much, much more battery life when listening to music with the screen off.
Samsung offers two different color options. The demo unit I was sent has a glossy white back plate, but there’s also a model with a brushed metal finish for the same price.
I got a sneak peek at metallic version a few weeks ago, and I think the metal version looks better, displays fewer fingerprints, and has a nice texture that makes the tablet easier to grip. But the shiny white plastic model is still pretty nice looking.
Both versions feature gray strips around the edges and bordering the camera and both feel very sturdy.
Samsung plans to offer a software update soon which will add the newest version of the company’s TouchWiz software to the tablet. This will include a new application dock at the bottom of the screen for launching certain applications, a new set of home screen widgets, and a new social hub which combines information from a user’s Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, among others.
The software update will also bring a new tablet version of the Swype keyboard, as well as Reader’s Hub digital book store and a Media Hub video service. The company is also bundling Amazon’s Kindle and Cloud Player apps with the update as well as mobile printing software.
Update: TouchWiz is now available for the Galaxy Tab 10.1. You can find out more about the new software in our hands-on post, and see how it compares with the standard Android 3.1 experience in our comparison article.
Right now though, the tablet ships with Android 3.1 software that’s virtually identical to what you get with the Motorola XOOM and the Android tablets. The TouchWiz update will roll out through an over-the-air update, but Samsung wanted to get the tablet to market with the latest version of Android and in order to keep its promised June ship date, the company opted to launch with a standard Android experience instead of TouchWiz.
That seems like a gamble to me — because while Samsung officials seem convinced that TouchWiz improves the user experience, I’m not sure everyone would agree. If you buy the tablet today, you may get used to the stock Android experience only to find it replaced in the coming months. You can always reject the software update, but your tablet will probably keep nagging you about it — an if you want to to update to the next version of Android, whether that’s Ice Cream Sandwich or something else, you’ll probably need to install TouchWiz as well.
For now, the software is so close to what you get on the Motorola XOOM that I’m only going to give a broad overview here and mention a couple of things that are different. If you want a more detailed review of the Android 3.1 software, check out my XOOM review.
In a nutshell, Honeycomb is what you get when you take the smartphone version of Android and blow it up to a larger display, optimize for the latest multi-core processors with high performance 3D graphics, and eliminate the need for physical home, menu, and back buttons.
The user interface has a slightly higher learning curve than iOS — which basically features a list of apps on a home screen, a settings menu, and not much else. But after spending a few minutes with Honeycomb the basics should be pretty clear: You can hit the Apps button in the top right corner for a complete list of apps, you can arrange app icons or widgets on your home screen, and you can use the home, recent apps, and back buttons in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen to navigate.
Still, some parts of Honeycomb feel a bit cumbersome or inconsistent. To access the system settings menu, for instance, you have tap the clock in the lower right corner of the screen than then click a settings icon that looks like it should be a volume icon… or equalizer or something. That will bring up a larger window which you can use to adjust brightness and a few other settings – or you can hit the settings button to bring up your complete system settings. It takes three clicks to do something that takes just two clicks on Android 2.x.
Also when you’re using third party apps designed for Honeycomb you’ll find a settings button in the upper-right corner of the screen… sometimes. Other times a button appears near the bottom left corner of the screen for app settings. There’s just not that much consistency in Honeycomb tablet app designs, which means that you may have to train yourself to interact differently with a number of different apps.
The biggest problem with Honeycomb apps though is that there still aren’t very many of them. The first Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablet hit the streets at the end of February, but four months later there are fewer than 300 apps in the Android Market that are designed specifically for tablets.
While most apps designed for Android smartphones will scale up to work with the larger display, some apps insist on staying in tiny windows and others simply look awful when you try to expand them to full screen on a device with a 1280 x 800 pixel display. Many don’t take advantage of the new menu system and other features baked into Honeycomb.
While Samsung hasn’t made many modifications to the standard set of Android 3.1 apps, there are a few extra touches. First, in addition to the latest Google Music app, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 comes with something called Music Hub, which is basically a branded version of the 7digital music store.
There’s also something called Samsung Apps, which is currently a really crappy alternative to the official Android Market. There are only a handful of apps available from the Samsung Apps service right now and I see absolutely no reason to use it instead of Google’s Android Market — but that could change in the future if Samsung works out promotions with app developers or wireless carriers.
The Galaxy Tab also comes with QuickOffice HD, a version of the popular app for viewing, editing, and creating Office documents. The app supports Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents and can also be linked to a number of cloud-based services such as Google Docs, Dropbox, or MobileMe, allowing you to open remote documents or save your local documents to the cloud.
The only other Samsung addition to the Galaxy Tab 10.1′s software at this point is a Samsung keyboard which features a brighter color scheme than the default on-screen keyboard that comes with Android 3.1. It also has a dedicated smiley button, a caps lock key, and a few buttons that are a bit larger than on the default android keyboard — but no voice icon on the keyboard that I could see.
I found touch-typing to be a little difficult on the keyboard, but I was able to tap out text much more quickly using 2-4 fingers on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 than I can using two thumbs on a smartphone keyboard. I still haven’t found an Android software keyboard that’s as conducive to touch-typing as the Apple iPad keyboard though.
There is a keyboard setting to enable voice input, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. You can also enable XT9 predictive text in the keyboard settings.
If you’d prefer to use the default Android keyboard, it’s still available. Just hit the keyboard icon that pops up next to the clock and choose the keyboard you want to use.
Almost every Android 3.x Honeycomb tablet on the market today has a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor and a 10.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display. You’d expect each device to offer very similar performance… and for the most part you’d be right. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 certainly feels just as responsive as the Motorola XOOM in most respects. Apps launch quickly, HD videos play smoothly, and web pages render quite nicely. But when I ran a series of third party benchmarks, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 notched lower scores than the XOOM across the board.
That said, it’s interesting to note that the XOOM came out ahead in every test I ran — although it wasn’t always very far ahead.
NenaMark is a graphics test. When I ran the test on a Motorola XOOM running Android 3.0.1, the tablet scored 27.8 frames per second, but Android 3.1 features better graphics acceleration support and the XOOM gets 35fps once it’s upgraded to the latest version of Android. For some reason the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, on the other hand, topped out at just under 30 frames per second even though it has the same processor and the same operating system.
Quadrant is a general purpose benchmark that looks at performance in a variety of CPU and graphics-specific tests. In this test, the XOOM came out well ahead of the Samsung tablet… but this time the XOOM actually did better with an earlier version of Android.
I also ran Linpack, an app designed to look at number crunching performance. The XOOM scored between 35 and 36 on this test no matter which version of Android the tablet was running. The highest score I got from the Galaxy Tab 10.1 using the same test was just under 31.
There seems to be a new dual-core test in Linpack that wasn’t available when I tested the XOOM though, and on that test the Galaxy Tab scored a 53.77. I’ll make sure to run the test again on the next dual-core Android tablet I review to see how Samsung’s tablet stacks up against the competition.
Again, the tablet feels just as responsive as the XOOM in day-to-day use, but the numbers appear to tell a different story. I’m not sure whether or not I trust the numbers.
Like the XOOM though, there’s one thing that doesn’t feel very responsive on the Galaxy Tab 10.1: screen rotation. When you move the tablet from portrait to landscape mode or vice versa, the tablet will redraw the screen. This takes almost two seconds — which is at least a second longer than it takes to rotate the display on my Google Nexus One smartphone which is about 18 months old and which runs Google Android 2.3.4.
Here’s the funny thing about the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1: It’s not the fastest Honeycomb tablet, nor the cheapest. It lacks some features that seem to be standard on other tablets such as an SD card slot. But Samsung got enough things right that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 still feels like one of the best Android tablets to hit the market so far.
The speakers on the side of the device are loud and clear. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 gets better battery life than most other Android tablets. While I don’t really care about most of the software Samsung preloads on the tablet, the keyboard is a little easier to use than the default Android keyboard.
But the biggest thing the tablet has going for it is style. This is the first Android tablet that feels like it truly competes with the Apple iPad 2 in terms of design. If you believe the specs, it’s 0.1 millimeter thinner than the iPad, and it’s definitely a bit lighter. It has a higher resolution display, an attractive case design, and a similar price.
When compared with other Android tablets, nobody has managed to make a device in this size class that’s lighter or easier to hold. If you value connectivity and expansion options over style, you might be better off with another device which supports USB host capabilities without an adapter, has an SD card slot, or even a removable battery.
If you’re a price-conscious shopper, the Tab might be a pass as well, since you can find other tablets which offer similar features in a bigger, heavier case for as much as $100 less. But if you’re shopping for an Android tablet and you have a chance to pick up a Galaxy Tab 10.1 and hold it in your hands, I highly recommend it. You’d be surprised how much difference shaving less than half a pound off the total weight can make.
That said, I’m still not convinced anyone needs an Android tablet. There are still only a few hundred apps designed specifically for this sort of tablet — which means that most of the apps you run on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 are also available for Android smartphones. If you have an Android phone and find yourself constantly frustrated by the limitations of the small screen, or if you want a tablet specifically because you want a mobile device that you can use without increasing your monthly phone bill, I suppose this type of tablet could fit the bill.