Samsung Tablet PC: Excellent, But No iPad Killer

Thursday Aug 18th 2011 by Gerry Blackwell
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Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a worthy standard bearer for Android but no killer competitor.

The new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, an Android-powered tablet PC with a 10.1-inch high-definition screen, may be the most attractive alternative yet to Apple’s iPad 2. The Galaxy Tab is priced from $499 – same as the iPad.

Samsung has models that connect to the Internet over Wi-Fi only (starting at $499), and also a model that connects over Wi-Fi or Verizon’s cellular network, including its high-speed LTE “4G” network (starting at $529 plus cellular data plan).

Like the iPad, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 comes in two different colors, white and metallic grey (although the Verizon version only comes in metallic grey). And like the iPad, it comes in models with different storage capacities: 32 or 16 gigabytes (GB).

In our estimation, the Samsung product is better in some ways than the iPad, but mostly small ways, and not as good in others.

On hardware, it may hold a slight edge. However, Apple’s iOS, the operating system of the iPad (and iPhone and iPod Touch), still has a clear advantage over Google’s Android operating system in terms of the number and, arguably, quality of apps available.

Still, if you’ve decided to go with the Android star – because it appears to be a more open operating system, or it supports Adobe’s widely-used Flash online video technology (which the iPad does not) – the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a very strong contender.

Microsoft Word

The Samsung Tablet PC

Brilliant screen

Unlike Samsung’s other tablet product, the Galaxy Tab 7.0, introduced in January, this new tab has a screen about the same size as the iPad – 10.1 inches diagonally, compared to 9.7 inches for the iPad. (The earlier Samsung product has a seven-inch screen.)

The apparently slight difference in screen size between the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the iPad 2 is in fact one of the most immediately noticeable differences between the two products.

The Galaxy Tab’s crisp, bright screen is longer and narrower, as are the unit’s overall dimensions: 10.1 x 6.9 x 0.34 inches, compared to 9.5 x 7.31 x 0.34 inches for the iPad. (The iPad also outweighs the Samsung product by an ounce or so: 21.3 versus 20 oz.) The Galaxy Tab 10.1 screen is slightly higher resolution – 1280 x 800 pixels compared to the iPad 2’s 1024 x 768 – although not enough to make a really noticeable difference to our eyes.

Power to spare

Inside, it runs a 1GHz dual-core processor (as does the iPad), and the latest Honeycomb iteration of the Android operating system (Version 3.1), with 1 GB of memory. Apple doesn’t officially state how much memory the iPad 2 has, but it is reported to be half as much, 512 kilobytes (KB).

Memory is sometimes an important determinant of overall speed of operation in a computing device, but in testing of the same or similar applications, such as Web browsing and file synching, there appeared to be little difference in computing performance between Galaxy Tab and iPad.

One of Samsung’s boasts is that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 offers a better, more computer-like, multi-tasking experience. It does give slightly easier and faster access to multiple running programs, but in real-world use, this delivers only a slight gain in convenience.

One place where most other iPad competitors fall down is on battery life, but the Samsung product promises 12 hours on a single charge, actually better than the iPad’s break-through nine hours of continuous use.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 includes all the now standard features for a tablet, including Bluetooth, and speakers and microphone for playing back multimedia content, recording voice notes and enabling voice over Internet telephony.

High-res cameras

It also has front- and rear-facing video-capable cameras to support video conferencing and video chat apps. Both are 3 megapixels, so are capable of producing HD-resolution video. And both are higher resolution than either of the two iPad 2 cameras. The iPad’s front-facing camera is significantly lower resolution (640x480 pixels).

However, Skype on Android devices, including this one, does not support video chat. (Skype on the iPad does.)

If the Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a hardware advantage over iPad, it’s slight. The more important differences are in software and user interface. And the user interfaces aren’t very different.

Multitouch interface

The Samsung product supports the same familiar touchscreen gestures as iPad – pinching, stretching, scrolling, tapping and so on – and features a very similar onscreen keyboard for inputting text.

We liked the Galaxy keyboard marginally better than the iPad’s. One of Apple’s great (empty) boasts around the iPad (and iPhone) keyboard is that while it’s not as convenient or efficient as a physical keyboard, it is able to change the array of keys depending on context, thus speeding input. When you’re inputting website addresses, for example, the keyboard can present a dedicated key for entering ‘.com’.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 keyboard does a slightly better job of anticipating what you will need to input and presenting a convenient key for it – ‘www,’ or ‘.com,’ or ‘@’ on the main alpha keyboard instead of buried in the number array. On the other hand, it doesn’t do quite as good a job as the iPad at guessing what you’re typing and filling in letters automatically to save you the trouble of typing them.

Physical interface

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 unfortunately fails to copy one of the iPad’s best physical interface features, the single, multi-purpose button on the front face, which, depending on context, turns the unit on, changes home screens, or allows the user to flip between running programs.

When the iPad automatically blanks its screen to conserve batteries – as it will after a certain amount of time without input – you can turn it back on quickly because the front button is easy to find and reach. On the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which by default blanks its screen after only 15 seconds, you have to grope for a tiny power button on the side.

The Android/Galaxy screen interface is different from the iPad and arguably more flexible. There are more different ways to display apps and widgets (such as the graphical weather summary) on multiple home screens, for example. Plus there’s an option to show all apps in a simple iPad-like array of icon buttons.

A toolbar at the bottom of the screen, always visible, gives access to key functions and commands such as displaying the home screens, displaying a pop-up bar with available apps and capturing a screen grab.

It also displays the time and status indicators for Wi-Fi and 3G networks and battery charge – and a button that pops up another bar with small icon buttons for Task Manager, Calendar, World Clock, Calculator and Music Player.

Samsung has announced new updates to the Galaxy Tab 10.1 software – due to be rolled out in early August – that it says will further enhance the user interface with new features and easier access to widgets and frequently used functions.

More intuitive?

For all its interface flexibility, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is no more intuitive or easy to figure out for new users, and in some ways less so. First-timers will be frustrated, for example, if they go looking for the Galaxy Tab 10.1’s main Settings menu.

Settings does appear in the optional icon button display of all apps. But by default, the Galaxy Tab shows the home screen, where the only way to access Settings is by tapping the time display on the bottom toolbar. It pops up a panel with mostly time-related settings – plus an icon button for general Settings. There seems little logic to this positioning.

How many apps?

One real point of contention between the iPad and Android tablets, including the Galaxy Tab 10.1, remains availability and quality of apps.

Some observers believe Android will ultimately overtake iPad/iPhone because Android is supported by so many more hardware makers, and has the might of Google behind it, and because Google supposedly makes it easier for developers to make and sell apps.

The number of Android apps – for smartphones or tablets – stood at about 200,000 in May. According to one report earlier this year, if the number of Android and iOS apps kept growing at the then current rates, Android would overtake Apple in mid-2012.

It hasn’t happened yet. According to one recent count, there are now over 100,000 iPad-specific apps available, and 300,000-plus more made for the iPhone, almost all of which also work on the iPad, if not as well because they don’t display full screen.

Most Android apps are made first for Android smartphones. The number of tablet-specific Android apps is difficult to count because not all work on all tablets, but it’s orders of magnitude smaller than the number of iPad apps.

And in our testing, more of the apps we tried on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 – many of them from the same companies as iPad apps we use – suffered from poorly executed interfaces and intermittent glitches that caused app crashes.

Bottom line

Android versus iPad is ultimately a religious war. The decision on which side to support should probably be made at the macro level.

The differences between this particular Android tablet and the iPad are very small. If you’re betting on Android and want a 10-inch tablet, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 should be at the top of your list.

But for fence-sitters, the Galaxy Tab is probably not enough better than iPad to push anyone over onto the Android side.

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