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Samsung Galaxy Tab a great Android effort - with a price

The 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab fits perfectly one hunlike 10-inch iPad though 1 lb. you'll still need put it down

The 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab fits perfectly in one hand, unlike the 10-inch iPad, though at 1 lb., you'll still need to put it down during long reading or movie viewing sessions.

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Updated: January 1, 2011 10:52AM

Ten months ago, at the Consumer Electronics Show, a dozen companies were showing off a hot new slate computer, intimating that if things went according to plan, the company should completely have this whole market locked up by Valentine’s Day.

A few weeks later, when Apple showed off the awesome firepower of their fully armed and operational iPad, it was as if a million potential competitors cried out “Of course, the unit we demonstrated was just a concept device” and were silenced.

I’m surprised that it’s taken this long for the first serious Android tablet to hit the marketplace. As the first iPad-like thing to actually become available for purchase (let’s forget about the few cheap knockoffs that I’ve seen), the Samsung Galaxy Tab (available from multiple mobile carriers without contract for about $600) will have a lot of profoundly unfair burdens and expectations placed upon it.

That said, I like it a lot.

The Tab, running the latest edition of the OS (2.2), is certainly my favorite Android-based computer so far. Once you accept the fact that sensible men and women can design and build a tablet computer without any goal of driving Apple out of business, and you try to accept the Tab on its own terms, you realize that it’s a step towards something different: a kind of device that Apple seems to have no interest in making.

First Steps: Feeling your way around

Despite its all-plastic casing, the Tab is a solid, satisfying thing to hold and use. It has clean lines that will be reassuring and familiar to anybody who likes the Samsung Galaxy phone (or even the iPad).

One annoying bit that the Tab shares with the iPad: a proprietary data/power connector that’s similar enough in shape and size to Apple’s that I’m glad Samsung’s cable isn’t white; I’d definitely be mixing the two up. A standard mini- or micro-USB connector would have avoided the dreaded “one more damned thing to keep track of” problem that’s associated with all nonstandard connectors.

It’s surprisingly free of button and input-clutter. Apart from the dock connector, there’s a headphone jack and a nicely-accessible MicroSD slot and nothing else. Buttons? Power and volume. Other than discrete holes for a microphone and speakers, it’s a very clean device.

(But oh, Samsung: I have more than one pocket-sized phone in the office that offers an HDMI-out connector. Why doesn’t the Tab? Did you not imagine that people might want to play videos and presentations from this device?)

The weight sits squarely between the Papa Bear heft of an iPad and a Baby Bear insignificance of a Kindle 3. The popular yardstick for these devices is the ease with which you can read a book on it for a solid stretch. It’s half the iPad’s weight, but the Tab still weighs nearly a full pound. If your book is in any way interesting, you’re still going to wind up resting the Tab against something.

The 7-inch Solution

But those of us who exist in threespace have long come to expect that anything with mass has weight. The more important thing is the Tab’s size: you can park two Tabs side-by-side on an iPad with ease.

Apple has said that they chose the iPad’s 10-inch screen after testing out enough concepts to prove to themselves that this was the right size for a tablet. But what it isn’t is “the right size for any pocket in any garment that any rational human would own.”

Whether 10-inch is the right size for tablet software is separate discussion. But after two weeks with the Tab, I’m convinced that 7-inch is certainly the right size for portability. It’s right in the butter zone. You’ll take the Tab with you more often simply because you can; almost any jacket pocket or back pocket can hold the Tab comfortably and won’t force you to explain why you’re wearing a laptop bag — even a small, discreet one — at a wedding reception.

And you can do something with the Tab that I’ve been trying, and abjectly failing, to do with the iPad in the past nine months: use it in the car for navigation and media. I’ve tried all manner of jury-rigged and commercial mounting solutions. I’m stymied by the simple problem of finding a place for it on the dash so that it’ll be handy when I want to navigate to the next track or glance to see how far I’ve got until my next exit.

Even if I find a usable space (where the iPad only covers up all of the heating and air conditioning controls), glare will render the screen almost completely unreadable in any daylight hour. The Tab, however, fits nicely on that bit of dashboard between the steering wheel and the driver’s door. It’s even light enough that I can stick it onto the end of my existing phone cradle with a square of Velcro.

Why spend two paragraphs talking about the Tab’s potential as a car computer? Because like all Android 2.2 devices, it comes with Google Maps Navigation ... which is the best car navigator you never have to pay for. Hell, it beats most of the commercial apps, too. Hold down the Tab’s “Search” button in the middle of any task and say “Navigate to The Outer Limits in Waltham, Massachusetts” and seconds later, Ensign Chekov acknowledges that the course has been plotted and laid in. And on the Tab’s huge display, there’s never any question as to whether the (creepy, brittle voice) is telling you to turn right on this next street or onto the other next street just ahead.

When regarded as a functional computer rather than a physical object, the Tab’s 7-inch size works out to be a lovely compromise. Yes, the smaller display limits the scope of the Tab in the same way that the iPad’s notebook-like 10-inch display liberates it, but it’s more than large enough to justify carrying the device around with you. Movies feel like movies, not like peepshows, and you can happily lie on the sofa ad read with it for hours.

The screen’s pixel dimensions aren’t that much smaller than the iPad’s: 1024x600 versus 1024x768. I’m a bit thrown by its widescreen proportions, though. It’s alien; the only things you ever encounter in life that are in 1:1.66 dimensions are widescreen movies. Even after a couple of weeks, it still feels a little weird to be reading books whose pages are the “wrong” shape.

The screen itself is excellent, offering nice colors (with plenty of user adjustability), a wide viewing angle, and LCD technology’s cheerful tendency to mostly wash out in bright, direct sunlight.

Android Goes Big

But just as significant as any of my other reactions to the 7-inch inch screen was the realization that Android instantly felt cleaner, prettier, and easier on the Tab than on any other Android 2.2 device I’ve ever used. I observed this phenomenon earlier in the year, when I used HTC’s EVO phone, with its 4.3-inch display.

The Android UI is an absolutely unambitious one. It’s not terrible, I should clarify. But it absolutely reeks of a project team that decided to work exactly this hard on improving Android’s clarity and usability but not one single day longer. When you take the same UI and give it a lot more air to breathe in, it instantly seems less cluttered, less clumsy, and far more attractive. Your finger’s targets are more distinct and easier to hit.

It’s a cheap victory…but it’s a victory all the same.

Samsung, like most manufacturers, has improved upon the basic Android OS by adding their own interface tweaks, swapping out some of its core apps in favor of versions that are better tuned to the larger screen (most notably, the excellent mail client), and overall giving the house a highly effective sprucing-up.

All of these are valuable improvements and add up to the Tab’s designation as My Favorite Android Device. But dammit, fundamental Android squirreliness remains. The interface still isn’t as responsive as it needs to be and it’s full of small things that just don’t work properly. Example: I dragged a gigabyte of two or music onto the device. Cool. But why does the music player think that every individual album I own is its own separate Genre?

Potpourri: Battery, Cameras, Speakers ... and the Onscreen Keyboard

Let’s take a break during this long review with a small dish of evaluatory sorbet.

Battery life is excellent. It’s not enough that you’d use it with reckless abandon during an entire six-hour flight if you were going to rely on it as a navigator on the 90-minute drive from the airport to the conference afterwards, but I could count on a solid six to seven hours per charge.

One of the Tab’s strongest “nyah-nyahhs” against the iPad is its pair of front-facing (1.2 megapixel) and rear-facing (3 MP with autofocus) cameras. It shoots photos and videos that are about what you’d expect from most smartphones; they’ll meet all of your expectations if you’re showing them off on Facebook and Twitter, and some of your expectations if you want to show them on an HDTV or on a fridge.

(It’s a bit freaky taking photos with something the size of a license plate, though.)

Powerful speakers? On a 7” tablet? Oh, you are quite the card. The Tab’s built-in speakers don’t amount to much but they’re good enough to keep a podcast going on while you look around the office for your headphones or your external speakers.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Tab’s virtual keyboard. It still feels awkward. When you’re holding the Tab vertically, you can type with two thumbs quite comfortably. But you need to grip this nearly one-pound device by its bottom third. It’s a little awkward.

When you’re using the Tab in landscape mode, the keyboard’s size is a sloppy in-between. It’s too big to thumb-type on and too small to touch-type with.

But the Tab comes with Swype, that superb alternative text-entry system that allows you to enter text blazingly fast by sliding your finger from key to key instead of tapping. All in all, I didn’t find the keyboard to be any hindrance to typing ... short of doing any real writing with it. For that kind of thing, the Tab does work with Bluetooth keyboards.

Mobile Flash: Modern Miracle of the Jet Age

Here we come to one of the main events. Apple has consistently and firmly said that Flash and mobile devices go together about as naturally as any one thing and any other thing that obviously shouldn’t go with that first thing.

Adobe, for the most part, has responded by declaring Apple to be just a bunch of stupid poopyheads who are being stupid and wrong and mean. They released Flash Player 10.1 for Mobile. But what they hadn’t done was demonstrate any mobile device that can play Flash-based web content reasonably well.

I suspect that every Adobe employee will be required to carry a Galaxy Tab with them at all times from here on out. I’ve used Flash Player 10.1 on a wide range of devices and the results were consistently silly: even simple Flash animation would play as a stuttery slideshow, and then crash the whole device.

On the Tab? Well, I’ll be damned: it really works. I loaded up the same network TV streaming pages on both the iPad and the Tab, side by side, just to make sure that the content was truly Flash and not MP4. On the iPad: I got the Blue Lego of Introspection. On the Tab, I got an hourlong episode of a TV show.

Things were a little shaky for the first minute or so, but eventually the player had buffered enough of the content to produce smooth, perfectly watchable (if slightly subpar) video. Sure, this was on a WiFi network. It fell apart when I tried it on mobile broadband. That’s understandable; the content was encoded with the larger screens and wide bandwidth of a real computer with a real internet connection.

Overall: “Hunh.”

The Flash experience wasn’t universally-good. The Player is really only useful for video content. Mobile Flash steps on a rake every time it needs to truly interact with the user. Developers have designed all of these Flash apps and controls to be operated with a mouse pointer that can move without clicking down, and there’s no easy way to translate that to a touchscreen.

But let’s not diminish Adobe’s achievement. It’s not “the entire web on a mobile device” but Flash Player 10.1 on a Tab means that you won’t be aced out of watching a huge chunk of the Web’s vast library of online video content. Plus, when it’s 9:30 p.m. and you’re desperately trying to find out if a certain restaurant is open after 10, but the place’s idiot web designer put that vital information inside a cheesy piece of animation, you won’t be stuck with a rumbling stomach and a date who is singularly unimpressed by your organizational skills.

Clearly, the ball’s back in Apple’s court.

The Network

During my two weeks of playtime, I was using a Tab provided by Verizon. Samsung made the interesting move of making the device available from all US carriers simultaneously. It’s all the same device, and the purchase price is roughly the same (about $600 without contract) no matter where you get it. But it does offer consumers the chance to shop for the carrier of their choice. The practical upshot is that “Coverage for [name of this one carrier] is terrible out where I live” won’t stop you from buying a Tab.

I also had a chance to borrow a Sprint-connected Tab for a day. Side-by-side comparisons didn’t tell me much. There’s so much voodoo involved with carrier-versus-carrier speed tests that any one person’s tests are going to be at least 90 percent grain and fillers. Verizon did seem to have stronger coverage across New England. As usual, if the strength of the network were the sole deciding factor, I’d rather have a Verizon device than any other carrier’s

The biggest difference between these different carriers’ Tabs will be the contract terms. It’s way trickier than it needs to be. Unlike the iPad, there’s no “Wifi-Only” version of the Galaxy Tab. They all contain mobile broadband chipsets. The good news is that you don’t need to buy the Tab with a contract, nor are you required to sign up for a data plan (though Sprint, for instance, will sell you the Tab for $399 if you commit to a two-year contract). You can start or end mobile Internet service at any time, as often as you like.

Okay, but Apple and AT&T have made their activation terms simple and clear. If you own the 3G edition, the purchase price of the device is the flat purchase price of the device, with no additional fees. If you want 3G coverage this month, it’ll cost you $25 or $15 depending on the plan, and it’ll automatically-renew until you turn it off again.

If you’re trying to figure out the operating cost of a Tab, though, you need to read the carrier’s terms extremely closely. Most carriers will tack on a new-device activation fee. Some tack on taxes and surcharges for additional services and network maintenance.

Verizon, though, has a couple of serious gotchas. You must sign up for one month of mobile broadband at purchase. So you’re in for an extra $20. You can cancel it at the end of the month without a fee.

Cool. But anytime you turn the broadband feature back on, they’ll hit you with a $35 activation fee. Yes, that means that this “no contract” aspect of the broadband service is almost meaningless. The Big Win of no-contract iPad 3G service is that if I just need it for this one trip, the $15 plan will cost me $15. On Verizon, the $20 plan will cost you $55.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot ... ? It’s one of those pieces of information that sounds so absurd that I naturally assumed I hadn’t understood the answer, so I asked the question again. Good Lord.

On the plus side, like all Android 2.2 devices, the Tab includes a Mobile Hotspot feature. Tap a few buttons and it’ll share its mobile broadband connection with nearby WiFi devices ... for an added carrier fee, of course. You can also use the Tab as a phone via speakerphone or a headset.

And, assuming that the carrier hasn’t disabled that feature entirely. The Tab has the same terrible handicap as every other Android device: when it comes to features, Google proposes and the carrier disposes. No mobile hotspot function on the AT&T version of the Tab. You can use the hotspot feature on the Verizon version, but (what the hell?) they’ve disabled its ability to connect to Bluetooth keyboards.

I suppose as one of those struggling garage startups, Google lacks the sort of pull in this industry to demand that their OS lands in the users’ hands with the same number of features that it had when it left the factory floor.

Nice, but Hard to See

I kind of wish it were possible to try a new piece of gear for at least a week before I learn how much this thing is going to cost.

As a slate computer, the Tab is a wonderful thing. Its success is almost completely due to the fact that it’s a peppy bit of hardware in an extremely attractive size. When the iPad was first unveiled, people immediately, and very wrongly, claimed that it was “just a big iPhone.” It’s absolutely true that the Galaxy Tab is “just a big Android phone.” But that’s perfectly OK; it works. The added screen size is a considerable enhancement to Android on multiple levels.

Sure, it doesn’t have nearly the same range and quality of apps as the iPad. But must it? So much of the mobile computing experience is becoming nicely homogenized by the dominance of a few key, critical apps. If you consider books to be a device’s killer function, then honestly, any device that runs the Kindle app is just as good as any other ... and they all run the Kindle app.

I write all of that down. Then I break the wax seal on the envelope and learn that the Galaxy Tab costs an absolute minimum of $600. “Damn, that’s a pity,” is all I can say.

As a $300 device or even a $400 device — yes, I know: multiple carriers offer it for $399 ... with a monthly service contract — it’d be a welcome addition to the marketplace. It’d occupy a cozy niche between handheld devices and $500 devices like the iPad, and budget notebooks. There are many, many people out there who want a device that’s like an iPad, but one that’s pocketable.

As-is, though, I have a hard time ending my enthusiastic comments about the Tab with the phrase “... And it’s so totally worth the money.”

The iPad doesn’t put me in that position. The cheapest 3G model is $630. Pricey. But this is a machine that can work as my sole computer when I travel. With or without an external keyboard, I can happily research and write and submit whole columns and articles with it. I can design and drive presentations with it.

And the big price comes with a big screen. The iPad is less convenient to carry, but the added square footage opens up the iPad and makes it into a far more useful and immersive environment. When I use my iPad as a substitute for my laptop, it feels like I’m making a simple commute to work, and not like I’m jumping over 14 flaming buses in a motorcycle. I bet I could get by with just a Tab for a few days, but it’d be a stunt ...not the sort of thing a user could really expect from the device.

When I speak of the Tab alongside the iPad, I’m using the iPad merely as a point of reference. It’s completely inappropriate to judge the Tab on anything but its own terms. Samsung has built something useful and special ... but also overpriced.

But it’ll have an important impact regardless. Its mere existence raises questions about one or two of the iPad’s fundamentals. It proves that Flash can work on a mobile device, and it proves that a 7-inch tablet can be a glorious thing. I know that other manufacturers will pay close attention to these lessons. I hope Apple does, too.


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