Hot on the heels of Apple's iPad, Samsung has released a tablet computer of its own, and just in time for Christmas. Not since the space race of the 1960s has there been such eagerness to create so specific a class of technology, leaving in its wake some excited and bewildered consumers.
A clean slate
The Galaxy Tab isn't the first Android tablet computer to have been manufactured and sold, but it does have the honour of being the first worthy of your attention. Unlike the Chinese knock-offs and re-branded cheapies, the Galaxy Tab is a refined example of tablet design, with a sleek white-coloured plastic backing and a 7-inch Gorilla glass capacitive touchscreen on the front.
Click through for a complete photo gallery. (Credit: Samsung/CNET)
Though some felt the twinge of disappointment when they learnt that the Tab wouldn't have the same AMOLED screen technology we find in most Samsung smartphones, we do think the Tab's screen is still quite nice to look at. It sports an SWVGA resolution (1024x600 pixels) LCD panel, which looks sharp and crisp, while the colour, brightness and viewing angle of this display are all very good compared with most LCD mobile phone displays. The touchscreen is also very responsive, in line with what we've come to expect from Samsung's latest mobile devices.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently cast aspersions on the 7-inch profile, telling an audience of capitol investors that Apple's research had found that "human fingers are too big to be able to accurately hit icons on a screen that size". We couldn't disagree more. Samsung's 7-inch tablet is more than adequate in size for tasks like reading and composing messages and email, web browsing and interacting with most apps. Plus, the saving in size translates to a huge decrease in weight; the Galaxy Tab weighs in at 380 grams, which is half the weight of Apple's hefty iPad.
Like Samsung's Galaxy S smartphone, the Tab has its power button on the right-hand side, alongside the volume rocker and above a SIM card slot and a space for a microSD memory card. There's a 3.5mm headphone socket on the top of the device and a pinhole for a microphone on the left-hand panel. The only part of this design that really baffles us is Samsung's use of a proprietary charging socket, rather than the standard micro-USB connection. The custom slot looks freakishly similar to an iPod cable connector and it doubles for making a connection to a PC for file transfers. Not only is this a pain for people who already own several micro-USB cables, but Samsung only include one in the box to share between charging and PC connectivity.
Plays nice with Android?
Running on the latest available version of Google's Android OS, the Galaxy Tab benefits from a few class-leading advantages over the iPad. For starters, the Tab can be used as a giant mobile phone, albeit one without an earpiece speaker. When making calls your options are to use the speakerphone, and share your conversation, or use a Bluetooth headset for some privacy.
It is also compatible with Flash video and animations, capable of delivering a rich internet experience. In the wake of the Flash debate surrounding Apple and its iPhone some may have been left wondering about how essential Flash is to their experience of the web. For us, it is a huge part of what we love about going online, and being able to access the vast majority of videos online is a huge plus. That said, Flash playback through the browser has been hit-and-miss during our review. CNET Australia's videos struggle to play smoothly, as do other videos from several sites we tested on. Then you have the excellent mobile Flash games available on Kongregate which work perfectly.
One area that the iPad has in its favour though, is compatibility with the entirety of the Apple App Store. Unfortunately, the Galaxy Tab struggles with a number of apps that haven't been designed for the higher screen resolution, and there is no easy way to rectify this. We did come across one very handy YouTube tutorial for adjusting the software's compatibility settings, and while this solved the small-screen problem for most apps, it also broke other apps we tested even further.
Scooter Bike: not all apps run as they should.
Out of the box
If you thought the Galaxy Tab looked like a giant smartphone, you'd have been closer than you might have thought. Not unlike the iPad, the Galaxy Tab is made up of hardware components very similar to those you'd find in a top-shelf smartphone. Samsung opts for a Cortex A8 1GHz processor for power and matches it with 512MB RAM. It also features the same connectivity options as most phones, with HSPA data speeds, Wi-Fi, A-GPS and Bluetooth version 3.0 with A2DP stereo audio streaming.
The tablet's 3-megapixel camera takes nice photos for viewing on the tablet itself, but they are images that ultimately fail to impress under closer scrutiny. The LED flash does a nice job of illuminating in low light without overpowering the photos, and there is definitely something exciting about having a 7-inch viewfinder to compose your shots. If you prefer your images moving, the Galaxy Tab also records video at 720p at 30 frames per second.
The hardware aside, Samsung has also thought to include a few unique pieces of software to sweeten the deal. There's a fully licensed version of Navigon Navigator maps with turn-by-turn directions and points of interest search, an app called Reader's Hub with a built-in Kobo ebook reader component and magazines by Zinio, as well as Swype keyboard input for thrashing out emails in record time.
But perhaps our favourite feature of the Galaxy Tab is its ability to stream media to and from compatible DLNA media servers. We successfully tested this feature with both a netbook running Windows 7 and a PS3 and saw video performance better than with any mobile device we've tested previously. When watching one 50-minute TV show episode we noticed that the player paused briefly only three times to buffer during playback, and at the end of the episode it had used 20 per cent of a full charge to stream the media.
In terms of everyday application processing and web page rendering, the Galaxy Tab does a fine job of keeping up with its smaller Android smartphone rivals. Our use of the Tab revealed no concerning issues and we saw none of the processing lag many users have experienced with the Samsung Galaxy S. Its benchmarking results suggest strong 3D graphics performance and processing performance akin to the other Androids from HTC and Samsung. To make sure this performance remains consistent, Samsung has added a Task Manager into the multitasking menu (found by holding the Home key), allowing users to close apps that remain running after you've finished using them.
Battery life for tablet use will vary greatly depending on usage. We installed a SIM card for our testing, but often used the Tab with data connectivity switched off while within range of a wireless network. We also managed to get about two days out of every charge with moderate to heavy use of the web browser, media streaming and some game time. The most successful part of this equation is the standby power; as a rough guide we found the Tab drains 1 to 2 per cent of the remaining charge every hour in standby, allowing it to retain a charge over several days.
Early adopters chasing the best Android tablet this Christmas should look no further than the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Its performance is on par with the best of this year's smartphones, and the size and weight suit a device you intend to lug around with you each day. It offers excellent multimedia support, decent app support and a great suite of pre-installed tools, like Navigon Navigator.
Our only reservations come from the tablets we can see peeking over the horizon and into 2011. Samsung is so close to releasing more powerful machines and Google has hinted that Android 3.0 will be designed with tablets in mind. Those who jump in run the risk of the Tab being superseded within a few months, and its AU$999 price tag certainly ups the ante on this gamble.