Thursday, July 14, 2011
Samsung Galaxy Tab: Is the Android Tablet an iPad Competitor?
The Galaxy Tab has been positioned by Samsung to be the first serious competitor to the iPad, and it's quite successfully living up to the hype. On paper, the seven-inch Android tablet (essentially a super-sized Galaxy S phone) has a lot going for it, like its impressively wide carrier support. Although Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T are offering versions of the Tab at different prices and with different amounts of storage, they're all more or less the same device (just as the Fascinate and Captivate are essentially the same phone). We were specifically using the Verizon-branded Galaxy Tab, but what goes for the Verizon model can pretty much be applied across all carriers.
Let's be frank here. We're hardly the first site to review the Galaxy Tab, and, in an effort not to waste your time, let's begin with a few basic givens about the device. Yes, the screen is gorgeous, the tablet itself is fast, and TouchWiz is atrocious. But those simple judgments don't answer the big question: Can the first serious Android tablet really keep pace with the iPad? Does it even offer any serious benefits over a high-end smartphone?
We won't lie -- the high quality of the build was pretty shocking to us. After handling the Galaxy S phones, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the Tab feels solid, not at all plastic-y or cheap (largely thanks to its Gorilla Glass screen). The device is, however, rather heavy. In fact, we found that holding the Galaxy Tab with one hand while lying down quickly became uncomfortable, which made the tablet less than ideal for reading. Further damaging its functionality as an e-reader is its incredibly tiny bezel, which forced us to grip the tab from behind (as illustrated in the photo above). This made reading in bed almost impossible. (We don't see this getting much use at night anyway.) Even with the brightness turned all the way down and your reading app of choice (be it Kindle, NOOK or FBReader) in night mode, the screen was still too bright to use in even a dimly lit room. During the day though -- in indoor, glare-free environments, while sitting up -- the Galaxy Tab was a fantastic reading device.
Another major flaw is that many apps don't scale up to fill the Tab's entire 1024x600 screen. (This includes major ones, such as the New York Times, that would be perfectly paired with the larger screen.) It should be said that there is a fix that forces all apps to fill the entire screen. (Install 'Spare Parts' from the Marketplace, turn off compatibility mode, and reboot.) However, the fact that this is an issue straight out of the box is a serious problem. Even if an app scales up, chances are it's not making particularly good use of the screen real estate. The only apps we've found that take advantage of the extra room afforded by the seven-inch screen are the custom Samsung e-mail, notes, contacts and calendar apps, all of which are a bit disappointing and seem like pale imitations of those found on the iPad -- especially in their virtual wood and paper textures. The messaging app, which lists conversations on the left and displays messages on the right, was great, though.
Weighing in at under a pound, and able to survive two days on a single charge, the Tab is plenty mobile. And, despite what you might have heard, typing on the Tab is not an unpleasant experience, as long as you don't switch to landscape mode. We had no trouble banging out messages in portrait, and some will certainly appreciate the inclusion of the Swype typing app. We're glad that the custom Samsung launcher allows for an extra row of icons, and flips the home screen to landscape mode when the Tab is turned on its side. Still, we really wish the app drawer allowed you to quickly sort apps by alphabetical order, instead of defaulting to list them in the order in which they were installed. You can rearrange the icons in the app drawer, but you can't move them to different pages, limiting how much you can actually organize them. Unfortunately, U.S. carriers don't let the Tab make phone calls over their networks. Text messages and data transfers work as advertised, but, if the Tab were able to communicate with a Bluetooth for voice calls, it would be a truly killer device.
Two apps in particular really highlighted the strengths of the Galaxy Tab: 'ACV' and 'Evernote.' 'ACV' is a comic-reading app, and, while comic books have been available in digital format for some time, we've never found it particularly enjoyable to read them on-the-go. The Tab is the first device we've encountered that has the right size, the right screen and the right form factor for reading digital comics.
We hope that 'Evernote,' our other favorite Tab app, needs no introduction. The universal capture tool just received a major update for Android, and we'd permanently install a Galaxy Tab in our kitchens, if it weren't so expensive. It came in handy for adding items to a shopping list as we ran out, and reading saved online recipes while cooking was perfectly simple.
If you consume a lot of media that could benefit from the Galaxy Tab's gorgeous screen -- such as magazines, movies and comics -- then it's certainly worth a look. At $600, it's priced competitively with the iPad (which starts at $629 for the 3G-enabled models). We found that its smaller size and higher pixel density made it a better e-reader than the iPad, but it does lack a catalog of apps that really take advantage of the larger screen. The Galaxy Tab is an attractive device; it's fast as hell, has a gorgeous screen and is actually capable of true multitasking (unlike some other tablets... ahem). But, at the moment, the lack of developer support really limits its flexibility, making it more of an oversized phone than a tablet.