A few years ago Samsung released the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7, making it the first major PC company to launch an Android tablet. Running Android 2.2, it offered a smartphone-like experience in a tablet-sized device.
But with prices starting at $350, a smartphone-like experience wasn’t really enough to help the tablet compete with the Apple iPad, and over the last few years Samsung has introduced a half dozen additional tablets with different screen sizes and special features.
Now the company is returning to the 7 inch form factor with the Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) and Samsung’s latest tablet includes a TI OMAP 4 dual core processor, Android 4.0 tablet-friendly operating system, and a thinner and lighter case than Samsung’s original 7 inch tablet.
That’s impressive when you consider that B&N and Amazon’s similarly priced tablets run highly customized versions of Android meant to let users purchase content and apps from B&N and Amazon app and media stores. This helps those companies earn extra revenue from their low-cost tablets.
But Samsung’s new tablet offers a fairly standard Android 4.0 experience — complete with access to the Google Play Store for apps, music, movies and eBooks. Samsung offers its own app and media stores, but the selection is limited and you don’t need to use them if you don’t want to.
In order to install the Play Store on the Kindle Fire or NOOK Tablet you need to void your warranty by rooting the tablet or installing custom ROMs. And even if you do those things, no software hacks will add cameras or GPS to those tablets.
Samsung doesn’t quite offer a vanilla Android 4.0 experience. The Galaxy Tab 2 comes with the latest version of Samsung’s TouchWiz software which customizes the look and feel of the Android home screen, system menu, app launcher, and other items.
And the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) has some quirks. It’s not the fastest tablet around. It doesn’t have the best speakers. TouchWiz isn’t for everyone.
But Samsung’s new tablet may just provide a better out-of-the-box experience than any other Android tablet available for $250 or less — no hacking required.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) features a 7 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel PLS display, a 1 GHz TI OMAP 4 dual core processor, a 3MP rear camera and a VGA front-facing camera. There’s no flash or auto-focus, but the camera app offers a number of options including image effects, exposure settings, and panorama mode.
The tablet features 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0, an accelerometer, digital compass, light sensor, and proximity sensor. There’s also A-GPS support.
Samsung loaned me a demo unit with 8GB of storage — which is the only model currently available in the US. But the company also plans to offer 16GB and 32GB models. All three versions have 1GB of RAM.
The tablet measures 7.6″ x 4.8″ x 0.4″ and weighs 12.2 ounces. That makes it thinner and lighter than the NOOK Tablet or Kindle Fire, and noticeably smaller than the B&N tablet since that model has a thick bezel around the sides to make the NOOK Tablet comfortable to hold in one hand while you’re reading a book.
I really do find the NOOK Tablet more comfortable to hold, but that doesn’t make the Samsung tablet uncomfortable. I’ve been testing the tablet for a few weeks and during that time I used it to read a 300 page novel.
Of the three tablets Samsung’s looks the best. While it’s made of plastic, it has a metallic finish around the sides and a gray metallic looking rear panel.
The glossy screen has a black bezel around the 7 inch display. While Amazon and B&N chose IPS displays for their tablets, the Galaxy Tab 2 has a PLS display which offers similarly wide viewing angles. I was able to set the tablet flat on a table and view pictures and text from my seat without any noticeable loss in clarity or color saturation.
Unfortunately the glossy screen is a bit of a fingerprint magnet — and it reflects enough glare to make the Galaxy Tab 2 less than ideal for reading books or surfing the web outdoors. But Samsung is hardly the only company producing tablets with glossy displays. In fact, there are few companies that aren’t.
On the bottom of the tablet you’ll find a proprietary docking port and stereo speakers. While you can charge the tablet or connect it to a computer using a standard USB port you’ll need to use the special cable that comes with the Galaxy Tab 2.
The speakers are reasonably loud, given their small size. But they sound best at lower volumes. When I cranked them up past the 50 percent mark, music started to sound distorted.
The left side of the tablet has microSDHC card slot covered by a plastic door. You can use this to add up to 32GB of storage space for media and other files.
At the top of the tablet there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack and a tiny hole which is the built-in mic which you can use when recording audio or video or making voice or video calls using Skype or other VoIP apps.
Power and volume buttons are on the right side of the tablet. They’re a bit too close together for my tastes — at times I find myself turning off the display when I mean to adjust the volume, or vice versa.
There’s also an infrared port on the side. This lets you use the tablet to control a TV or other home theater device. Samsung ships the Galaxy Tab with the Peel Smart Remote app for this purpose.
One of the best reasons to buy a Galaxy Tab 2 rather than a NOOK Tablet or Kindle Fire is that Samsung’s $249 tablet ships with Android 4.0 software and Google certification. That means, among other things, you get access to hundreds of thousands of apps, a user interface optimized for tablet-sized screens, resizeable home screen widgets.
There’s almost nothing you can do with a B&N or Amazon tablet that you can’t do by simply downloading and installing the Kindle or NOOK apps from the Play Store. There are a few exceptions though — Kindle Fire users can stream TV shows and movies from Amazon Instant Video and borrow books from the Amazon Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.
Samsung’s tablet comes preloaded with a number of apps — some more useful than others. It includes the official Gmail and Google Maps applications, a Samsung file browser, Samsung’s custom calendar app, and Google’s music, movies, and eBooks apps.
Samsung also has its own media and app stores which it calls Games Hub, Media Hub, Music Hub, and Readers Hub, Samsung Apps. But I haven’t found a single reason to use any of these content stores instead of alternative offering from Google, Amazon, or others.
Customers that pick up a Galaxy Tab 2 will also get 50GB of online storage space for a year from Dropbox for no additional cost. This lets you store files online and access them on a PC, phone, tablet, or other device.
If you’ve used an Android tablet from Acer, Asus, Lenovo, or Toshiba you may notice that Android 4.0 looks a little different on the Galaxy Tab 2 than on those devices. That’s because Samsung has its own custom user interface called TouchWiz.
TouchWiz includes a custom home screen and app launcher, a series of home screen widgets, custom toolbar at the bottom of the screen, Samsung’s own take on the the Settings menu, and support for “Mini Apps” including a calculator or calendar which you can view in small windows without minimizing the app you’re currently viewing.
Overall TouchWiz for Android 4.0 looks a lot like the software Samsung unveiled for Android 3.0 tablets last year.
I like some aspects of TouchWiz. For instance the Quick Settings Panel offers easy access to some of the items you’re likely to use most often including toggles for WiFi, GPS, and silent mode.
But I’m not a big fan of the screenshot button next to the recent apps button in the toolbar.
I get what Samsung is doing here. Tapping that buttons doesn’t just grab a picture of your screen. It also opens that image in an app that lets you crop a picture or write or draw on top of it before sharing the image or sending it to a Samsung printer.
But I can’t imagine this is something most people are going to use very often, and placing the button right next to the recent apps button means there’s a chance you’ll take a screenshot when you simply want to switch between apps.
Android 4.0 also lets you take a screenshot by pressing and holding the volume-down and power buttons at the same time. So Samsung’s screenshot feature feels kind of redundant.
You can fire up the Mini Apps Tray by tapping the arrow icon in the center of the toolbar. This brings up list of apps including Alarm, Calculator, Email, Music Player, S Player, Task Manage,r and World Clock.
While you can remove apps from this list there’s no way to add apps.
Each of these apps pops up in a small window that hangs out on top of any other apps you’re running. They don’t disappear until you hit the X box to minimize them again.
I haven’t found the Mini Apps to be particularly useful, but I also haven’t managed to launch them by accident, since the arrow button is relatively far from the Quick Settings panel or the other Android function buttons.
If you really dislike TouchWiz you can install at third party home screen and app launcher replacement such as ADW Launcher Ex or GO Launcher Ex. These will change the behavior of the home screen and app launcher, and most will give you more customization options (for instance, letting you decide how many apps to display on the home screen or whether the app drawer should scroll vertically or horizontally).
Samsung also eschews the standard Android on-screen keyboard for its own custom solution. It crams more keys into the same amount of space, with a dedicated row of number keys and extra keys including tab, www, and caps lock keys.
Overall I find the keyboard to be a bit more cramped and difficult to use than the stock Android 4.0 keyboard — which offers a little more space between keys.
While some tablet makers include the option of disabling custom keyboards and using the standard Android keyboard layout, there’s no way to do that on the Galaxy Tab 2.
Fortunately you can download and install third party keyboards such as SwiftKey, TouchPal, or Swype beta. That’s something that’s difficult to do on an Amazon or B&N tablet.
On the bright side, Samsung includes a nifty clipboard button which lets you view text, images, and other items you’ve copied. This makes it easy to paste a URL or other text in an email, web browser window or other text area.
The Texas Instruments OMAP 4 dual core processor that powers the Galaxy Tab 2 is basically the same chip used in the Kindle Fire and NOOK Tablet. It’s a 2011-era chip that’s not exactly state of the art… Samsung, Qualcomm, NVIDIA, and even Texas Instruments all have faster mobile processors on the market.
But the OMAP 4 chip is certainly no slouch.
I ran a series of benchmarks including Quadrant and CF-Bench, two tests that aim to test overall CPU and graphics performance on Android tablets. The CF-Bench scores were nearly identical to those for the Amazon and B&N tablets, as well as the Toshiba Thrive 7. That’s another 7 inch tablet, but it features an NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor… another dual core chip released in 2011.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 came out way ahead of the other tablets in the Quadrant test… but that probably says more about the benchmark than the tablet. This type of artificial test is notoriously imperfect at gauging actual performance under real-world conditions.
But when I installed CyanogenMod and ran Sunspider again using the stock Android 4.0 web browser the NOOK Tablet scored 2249 — or about the same as the other tablets.
All told, all four of these tablets feel very fast. Not only do they score 1.5 to 2 times as high as my aging Nexus One smartphone in artificial benchmarks, but they feel downright zippy performing most tasks. Switching between apps, surfing the web, or playing games, the tablets all felt pretty fast — and there’s little to no performance difference between them.
The only real differences are in the software that comes preloaded — and the additional hardware elements. The NOOK Tablet doesn’t have cameras, GPS, or an infrared port, and the Kindle Fire doesn’t even have a microSDHC card slot, The Galaxy Tab 2 has all of those things.
On the other hand, the Galaxy Tab does seem to have a slightly over-active tilt sensor. Like most modern tablets the screen orientation changes automatically when you tilt the tablet. This lets you quickly shift between landscape and portrait modes. But I found that the Galaxy Tab had a tendency to flip the screen when I tilted the tablet just a little bit — which happened from time to time while I was reading a book or website. That’s a problem I haven’t really had with other 7 inch Android tablets.
I’m not really a fan of using 7 inch tablets to snap photos, but suffice it to say that the Galaxy Tab 2 isn’t going to replace your DSLR anytime soon. It’s capable of taking reasonably decent photos under the right circumstances, but without auto-focus capabilities you’re going to have to rely on luck as well as skill to get good pictures.
On the other hand, the front-facing VGA camera means you can place video calls over Skype or other video chat apps — something that not all tablets in this price range can do.
It’s tough to test battery life on this type of device since run time will vary depending on what you’re using the tablet for. While some tablets offer more than a day of battery life while listening to music with the screen off, the same tablets might top out at 6 or 7 hours of run time while watching videos.
But here’s what I learned from my time with the Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0). While listening to music, surfing the web, and performing other light tasks with the screen on all the time, I managed to get about 8.5 hours of battery life.
That’s better than the 7.5 hours I got with the Kindle Fire, and a little less than the 9 hours of run time I got from the NOOK Tablet. The Toshiba Thrive 7 battery died after just about 5.5 hours under similar conditions.
When I left the tablet unplugged overnight the battery drained very slowly. There were times when I didn’t plug the tablet in for a day or two — but didn’t really use the tablet either. When I checked the battery status, there was little to no change from day to day.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you could get several weeks of standby time.
If you’re in the market for a simple tablet that you’ll use primarily to access music, movies, books, and other content from Amazon, it’s hard to beat the Kindle Fire — especially since you can sometimes find refurbished models for $139 to $169.
But if you’re looking for a more full-featured tablet with support for the full Android software experience, the ability to snap photos, add storage with a microSDHC card, or remote control your television, the $249 Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) is currently the tablet to beat.
A handful of companies I haven’t mentioned yet in this review also offer 7 inch Android tablets for $300 or less. Acer and Archos spring to mind. And Asus is expected to launch a budget Android 4.0 tablet soon. But I haven’t found another tablet that has the speed, display quality, and looks of the Galaxy Tab 2 all in one package.
If I was in the market for a budget tablet today, this is probably the one I would buy — although I suspect I’d also install CyanogenMod or another custom ROM to get rid of TouchWiz as soon as the first custom ROM with full hardware support is released.