As someone yet to be convinced that a tablet is something you really must have, I opted to take a bit of time with the Galaxy Tab before passing judgement.
If you’ve already been using an Android device for some time, the Galaxy Tab will be instantly familiar to you. If you’ve used a Samsung Galaxy S, it will seem almost identical.
This familiarity is no doubt a good thing, which is why iPhone users could so easily get to grips with the iPad (that, and being incredibly simple to use), but despite all the jokes about the iPad being nothing more than a blown-up iPod touch or iPhone, that is actually far more true with the Galaxy Tab.
If you think of it as a bigger Galaxy S, which now has a camera flash, you’ve just summed this tablet up. The fact is, Samsung has not really done much here. You can argue that there isn’t much that needed to be done, but whereas the iPad is a step-up, being able to run enhanced applications, the Galaxy Tab is an ordinary Android device, with a larger screen.
Some apps will use the extra resolution, including (as you would expect) all of the pre-installed apps, but many don’t. If you run these, you’ll get a black border around the edge and no scaling. The 7-inch screen jumps the resolution from 480×800 to 600×1024. It’s not a huge jump, but it is enough to improve the experience of web browsing, viewing pictures or playing video.
The problem is that when you increase the physical screen size, the pixels not only get bigger, but the text grows too. Samsung allows you to change the system font (including buying more from Android Market), and you can even play around with contrast ratios and saturation levels too, but there’s no ability to reduce the text size.
Android 2.2 does ship with an updated Gmail client that now allows you change the text size, but even when selecting ‘tiny’, it’s a little too big. It’s one of the few apps that even gives you any control at all. You still get large text in menus, pop-up windows and the notification bar. In Landscape mode, the addition of icons to control Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, ringer and enable/disable the screen rotation, plus a brightness control, means that you’ll have to scroll up and down to view the actual notifications.
LG said earlier this year that it wouldn’t be producing an Android tablet until Google released its new OS, Honeycomb (likely to 3.0), in the new year. This will have a redesign of the UI to take into account things like tablets. For now, the only way to change the text size will be to root the device, and run a third party tool to change the text. Hardly ideal, although developers may begin to offer text size options in the future, especially as more tablets become available.
Apple’s iPad offers a giant on-screen keyboard, and the Galaxy Tab is no exception. In landscape mode, it means a long distance from Q to P, and it is still quite large in portrait mode. It would have been nice to see Samsung considering a smaller keyboard to use with just one hand (allowing a firmer grip of the tablet with the other), as it’s only really easy to type when the Galaxy Tab is supported in some way.
Out of the box, Samsung has included its TouchWiz user interface (UI) that emulates the iPad/iPhone menu system. There’s no harm in that, but it is possible to customise Android and improve it even further, although the thought of doing things like that may put a lot of people off. However, it’s nothing to be scared of and it’s where the Android platform really shows the benefits of being open.
A third party launcher, such as ADW.Launcher or Launcher Pro (and there are many others too) will let you play around with more apps and widgets on the home screen, while the menus can be adapted to put apps in folders or categories. You can also replace the standard messaging application, the web browser (such as Dolphin HD, our personal favourite) and other apps.
In addition to the UI, Samsung has included a number of apps of its own. There’s an excellent email client, an eBook reader (with newspapers and magazines to follow), an ‘AllShare’ app that seeks out DLNA and UPnP devices on your wireless network and lets you play media on the tablet, or use it as a remote control. The video player is very similar to that of an iPhone, and Samsung has also installed a number of widgets for weather forecasts, news and your social media.
Beyond that, there’s a Samsung Games and Samsung Movies app, the first taking you to a dedicated Samsung store for downloading Galaxy Tab-friendly games (including a selection of demos from Gameloft), while the latter goes to a website powered by Acetrax. Here you can buy or rent movies, with rental prices around £3.49 and an outright purchase for £10.99. It’s not particularly cheap, and not as user-friendly as using iTunes, but nearly everything available on an iPad is here.
Talking of Adobe; the Galaxy Tab also supports Flash 10.1, but only when you’ve downloaded it separately – rather like Apple’s decision to ship the new MacBook Air without Flash installed. It’s quick and easy to do, which then gives full Flash support. Now you can view embedded Flash content and watch YouTube clips direct on a web page, although it did have the annoying side-effect that you now have to fiddle around clicking on the maximise icon to watch full-screen. In some respects, opening a separate YouTube app was a better way to view videos.
It also slows things down, perhaps proving that Apple had a point. However, given that Flash runs well on other Android devices (like the HTC Desire or the Nexus One), it may be more to do with the graphics drivers or the increased screen resolution – and fixable with an update in the future. Nevertheless, Flash is at least an option, and I like being able to make up my own mind on whether to use it or not.
A camera is one thing an iPad doesn’t have, and this has two. The front facing VGA camera can be used for traditional 3G video calling, or self-portraits, while the rear 3-megapixel camera can be used to take photos, or video at 720×480 pixels. It’s fine to have a camera just in case, but it really will only be used in an emergency. There’s no advantage in having such a huge on-screen viewfinder, and the Galaxy Tab is hard to hold in such a way as to not cover the lens. It also looks stupid using it as a camera, so even if it was fitted out with a 12-megapixel sensor and Xenon flash, I’d still not want to use it.
The other thing that might be rarely used is the 3G capability. This is something you might disagree with, but the Galaxy Tab is probably best suited for use at home (the metaphorical, or perhaps literal, coffee table) and when travelling, such as using it on a plane to watch movies. Until the networks offer a very cheap way to access mobile data (with most wanting you to sign up on a 30-day rolling contract), it’s really not something you’re likely to want to pay for. Wi-Fi access is plentiful these days, but – like the camera – it’s nice to have the option of 3G there, especially at no extra charge.
You can make calls, but there’s no earpiece and you’re limited to using it in speakerphone mode, or with a headset (wired or Bluetooth). Just as well, perhaps, as you’d look even more stupid trying to use this as a phone.
So what is the point of the Galaxy Tab? Well this is the million-dollar question. It really is nothing more than an oversized Android smartphone. Because of its size, it’s no good as a camera or a phone. The screen doesn’t make the best use of the extra resolution and it is sufficiently heavy to be awkward to hold when lying down in bed, a place where this might have been particularly popular.
For £500, it doesn’t sound very enticing then.
But, this isn’t a replacement for your phone or trying to be a digital camera. If you think of it as an additional gadget to add to your collection, it is actually quite cool. It’s a nicer size than the iPad, making it more flexible, and it also performs well in the battery department too. Our review model did keep asking me to connect the charger in standby mode, even when it had 98% charge, but you can use it quite happily without worrying that it’s going to run down – just as long as you get used to putting it on charger overnight.
Two words of warning; Firstly, while you can charge via the USB cable, it is an excruciatingly slow process and you should use the lead with the mains adapter wherever possible. Secondly, like the Dell Streak (and the iPad), Samsung has used a non-standard connector, so forget about using all of those micro-USB chargers and cables you may have been accumulating over the last year or two.
Part of the success of the iPad is that Apple complements its products with a range of accessories. Samsung has done this too, with a keyboard dock (featuring a full 83-key keyboard), desk dock with speaker outputs and mini-HDMI socket, TV-out cable, a case that will fold to create a stand, and much more. With Christmas approaching, anyone into technology would love to receive one of these as a present. However, it has to be questioned how much longevity there will be in this, especially when Google unveils its new tablet-friendly operating system.
Nevertheless, playing Angry Birds on the large display, playing back an HD movie (and, as with any Samsung, there’s support for a range of audio and video codecs), or merely browsing the web while sitting on the couch is an enjoyable experience. Because you can have any number of Android phones syncing phone numbers, appointments, emails and notes, the Tab can easily be a secondary device that you can pick up, then swap back to a mobile and vice versa without any bother. Any applications you’ve bought on one Android device can also be downloaded and installed on another.
Like the iPad, you’ll probably spend a lot of time convincing yourself that this is a worthwhile purchase, but will probably fail in the long run. It’s not something you need, and there are some limitations brought about by the OS, but if you have the money then you can equally say to yourself ‘why not?’. You’re highly unlikely to dislike the Galaxy Tab, even if you might have to find reasons to use it. In terms of build quality, speed, battery performance and the ability to customise it, it’s probably the best tablet on the market today.
Plus, given the huge sales of the iPad, there are bound to be a number of sales before Christmas, and if you don’t jump on the bandwagon, a high number on eBay in the new year. So, don’t be surprised if you can pick one up for a nice discount in the coming months.
Ratings (out of 5)