Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
The Samsung Galaxy Tab represents the first real competition to Apple’s highly successful iPad tablet. From the time it was leaked in June, the Galaxy Tab gained a lot of hype from users hungry for an Android tablet experience. Now coming to Canada on Bell's network, we review this much awaited device.
Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android have been around for over three years, they have each been successful in the smartphone space and now are poised to take the next logical step in the tablet segment.
In January, after the hysterical outing of prototype tablet devices at CES (Consumer and Electronics Show), we prematurely called 2010 the year of the tablet (accurate if you consider its been the year of the iPad) but heading into mid-November, this is clearly a two-way face-off between the well-established iPad and the just-released Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Nobody else has shipped anything as compelling and as widely available as the Galaxy Tab, which will be sold in selected locations in Canada by Bell for $649.99 plus taxes and a one-time $35 registration 'gotcha' fee.
Just like with the iPad, the Galaxy Tab is available on a month-to-month term with $15 (250MB Data), $20 (500MB Data) and $35 (5GB Data) plans attached. Bell likes to charge $2 a month for paper billing but you do have the option of receiving your bill through e-mail. What's more, if you go over your monthly data allotment, you'll be automatically bumped up to the next tier.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab is also available on Rogers for $499 for a three-year contract or $624 on a no term basis.
Sadly, there aren't yet any Wi-Fi only variants of the Samsung Galaxy Tab which would be ideal for most users who would enjoy all the all the perks of a 7' inch tablet experience without the of having to deal with pedantic data contracts.
Finally, a contender. But is it really?
The Samsung Galaxy Tab looks great on paper. A powerful 1GHz Hummingbird processor, 512MB or RAM, a high-resolution 7-inch multi-touch screen, 3G and Wi-Fi capabilities the ability to expand memory from 16GB to 48GB (with a MicroSD slot) plus dual-cameras for video chats. The Galaxy Tab runs Android OS 2.2 Froyo, the latest and most refined version of the Android OS for smartphones.
With its diminutive size and weight plus the addition of the two cameras, the Samsung Galaxy Tab addressed two of the biggest complaints about the iPad. That it was too big and heavy for prolonged one-handed use (i.e. Reading eBooks, websites and email) and that it couldn’t handle video chats (like Apple’s FaceTime which is now available on all their mobile devices, except the iPad).
We’ve had a Samsung Galaxy Tab (running on Bell’s HSPA network) to test for a week now. Our initial impressions were that it was smaller than we expected but also heavier and thicker than we imagined but not in a bad way.
It is still a device that you can easily hold with one hand and the thickness does make it feel rigid. It is small enough to fit a jacket pocket and is the sort of device we wouldn’t think twice about picking up and taking with us around town.
Wi-Fi strength was fair but the signal indicator on the Samsung Galaxy Tab displayed less bars than our other devices even if we were relatively close to the router. Its hard to tell if this is a common issue or something particular to our pre-production test unit but seeing that it is encased in glass and plastic, we are just surprised that Wi-Fi indicator reflected a poor signal.
3G strength was generally strong on Bell's network throughout downtown Toronto. Some readers have asked is the Canadian Samsung Galaxy Tab can be used to make phone calls, after all it has a SIM card and runs a smartphone OS. The answer, sadly, is no. Unlike the European variants, North American Galaxy Tab's have had this feature removed. You might be able to use software like Skype and you may quite possibly be able to use the tablet as a mobile hotspot to pair with other devices.
Build and Finish
The Galaxy Tab is solidly built, the Gorilla Glass covered touchscreen is tough and has been proven online to be particularly bulletproof, while the touch sensitive control and navigation buttons are responsive and light up only when they are needed or when your finger is hovering.
It is easy to trip these navigation buttons up when changing orientations. The Galaxy Tab also has accelerometers that automatically re-orient the screen depending on how you hold it. The screen also provides tactile feedback using short vibrations to acknowledge when keys have been pressed a nice, um, touch.
On the sides are the microSD and SIM card slots as well as the volume rocker and the power on/off button. The plastic enclosure doesn’t feel as premium as the iPad’s aluminum back and we found the device to be generally slippery. Our test unit had the black back which looked far nicer to the two-tone black front and white back models revealed earlier.
Placing the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab side by side, once really gets the impression that these cannot be competing products, not by a long shot.
The size disparity is just too large and aside from both being tablet devices with multi-touch features running a mobile OS, each device is clearly in a different segment. The iPad has its own specific version of iOS with features and capabilities that focus on its tablet specs.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab, on the other hand, runs your garden variety Android OS with some tweaks from Samsung’s TouchWIZ skin but 90 percent of the experience is identical to any other recent Android phone albeit on a larger screen.
The truth is, aside from the obvious size and the 7-inch screen, there’s very little about the Samsung Galaxy Tab that makes it feel different from any other premium Android device. You slide to unlock the screen, Samsung’s TouchWIZ overlay helps keep things nice and tidy and everything is fast and responsive.
The 600 x 1024 pixel TFT screen on the Samsung Galaxy Tab is impressive, it is clear and bright plus has a wide viewing angle. HD movies look great, Google maps render nicely and even if everything is shrunken down you can easily zoom and pinch the content at will. Most of the apps scale nicely on the slightly larger screen and don’t have the ridiculous forced-big look that iPhone apps have on x2 zoom on the iPad.
The OS and the user interface aren’t optimized to the tablet form factor and this is noticeable when you invoke the software keyboard in order to type. It looks and feels like a large, toylike Android smartphone. This is also reinforced when you use the browser since some websites think it is phone, they will send you to the mobile version of the site which are RSS feeds with no images or formatting. Touch scrolling, pinching to zoom and double-tapping pages all work as expected with very little lag.
Certain apps like games and maps work well on the 7-inch screen. We found Angry Birds and Raging Thunder II to be exceptional experiences on the larger screen. Games could be a big draw for this device, especially since it has phenomenal battery life (up to 7 hours surfing and watching YouTube with Wi-Fi and 3G enabled, fantastic!), 21 hours on Airplane Mode but with Wi-Fi and around 40 minutes with Wi-Fi + 3G.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab also comes preloaded with Kobo reader app and has a decent Amazon Kindle app as well which will make the device a viable one-handed backlit reader provided. For eBooks and PDF documents, this device will do a great job, but the narrow orientation of the screen will be an issue for anyone who wants to view magazines or comic books without having to side-scroll.
It has been said that the iPad is great for consuming content but not ideal for creating it. Well, with a smaller screen and odd implementation of the Android OS on a tablet, the same can be said of the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Users who think this will replace a laptop or netbook should seriously think twice or at least try typing on the device to determine if it will work for them. We tried, it didn't work well.
The tablet that supports Flash
We used the Samsung Galaxy Tab for surfing the web, checking Twitter and Facebook streams, viewing video from YouTube and checking out photos on sites like Smug Mug, Picasa and Flickr. Performance was good to great for most of these tasks. The Samsung Galaxy Tab also has Adobe Flash imbedded into its browser, a feature that iPad’s, iPhones and now even MacBook Airs famously lack.
Is this a big deal? For a lot of the Flash video on the iPad that runs through YouTube, it is mostly seamlessly substituted with a workable HTML5 version which works just fine. The problem is when you attempt to access Flash websites which just don't show up on the iOS devices.
Adobe Flash on the Galaxy Tab works as advertised but seems to force websites into a mild paralysis. As if dealing with Flash on densely rendered webpages engages so much of the processing power that navigation and touch gestures start to lag.
This varies from website to website as we experienced some that reacted more fluidly than others but we would say its really hit or miss. Of course, Flash is great for viewing video and video on this device is surprisingly good. 7-inches seems to be a sweet spot for watching video on a handheld device as smaller screens with their increased pixel density end up obscuring a lot of detail.
For other video source options, our test unit running on Bell’s network offered the choice of subscribing to a handful of TV shows and stations as well as the ability to control the Bell PVR remotely for an additional $10 a month.
Aside from the lack of any bona fide office productivity suite for an Android tablet, the 7-inch screen and the chunky software keyboard are less than ideal for typing documents, letters or anything substantially long.
We avoided having to use the keyboard to input information as the tight key placement and our large fingers were prone to errors. Being an Android device, the Samsung Galaxy Tab also has Google Voice Input, which means you can speak into the device to run searches, enter forms or send messages. It is a cool feature, one that is worth trying out. Although far from perfect, we were impressed at the accuracy of the technology.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab gives us a glimpse of where tablet computing on the Android platform is headed. It is a solid device with high build quality and a well-rounded feature set peppered with Samsung’s innovative hardware and software features.
Android OS 2.2, however, is not a tablet-specific OS and as a result, the Samsung Galaxy Tab acts very much like an oversized Android smartphone which means there isn’t much to differentiate it from premium Android handsets so we cannot recommend it as a standalone tablet device.
We are crossing our fingers for a tablet-specific version of Android to come soon as well as apps that will not only enhance but define the usability of this very impressive and promising yet fledgling device.
(December 2, 2010 - We've had a chance to spend more time with the Samsung Galaxy Tab (not the review pre-production model but an actual Rogers unit) and discovered a number of neat little features. The Reader's Hub applications (from Samsung) actually offers up hundreds of electronic versions of newspapers including Canadian publications like The Globe and Mail, National Post and the Toronto Star for $0.99 a copy.
The Reader's Hub also features a number of e-versions of popular magazines via the Zinio app. Add Kindle and Kobo eBook reader apps to the mix and the Galaxy Tab becomes a really compelling device for reading.
Rating: 3 out of 5