Samsung's latest Android tablet looks a lot like an iPad 2 - so much so that Apple has called foul. Now that the court injunction has been lifted, we examine how the former outlaw measures up.
After months of legal wrangling, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 can finally be legally sold in this country. The Federal Court of Australia has unanimously overturned an earlier interlocutory injunction that had barred the tablet from sale (read the full story here).
Now that you can actually buy the device, we thought it was time to run our review. In short; it's the slickest Android tablet yet. At last the iPad 2 has, almost literally, met its match.
The Galaxy Tab 10.1 certainly looks eerily, insolently similar to an iPad 2 – and it probably doesn’t help that its various capacities and 3G configurations are priced to precisely match Apple’s corresponding models.
Apple iPad vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Nevertheless, the Galaxy Tab has a lot going for it. The looks have been updated since Samsung first demonstrated the device in February, but it’s still lighter than the iPad 2 at 565g, and a fraction of a millimetre thinner. The plastic back isn’t quite as bulletproof as Apple’s metal casing, but like theAsus Eee Pad Transformer – hitherto our favourite Android tablet – it feels sturdy and warm to the touch.
The screen is a delight too – a multitouch 1,200 x 800 LCD panel giving more screen space than the iPad 2 and a sharper dot pitch. Based on Samsung’s Super PLS technology – the company’s own take on IPS – it’s as bright and colourful as you could ask for, offering excellent viewing angles and an arresting maximum brightness of 492cd/m2 (brighter than Apple’s display), with a punchy contrast ratio of 600:1. The only downside is that, predictably, the widescreen format feels slightly unwieldy in portrait orientation.
Under the hood
In practice, this makes Honeycomb a snappy experience. The scrolling and rotating animations appear slightly choppy compared to the iPad 2, and when you swipe to scroll up or down a page there’s a tiny delay before the movement registers. But these are general Android niggles, and they’re easy to live with. Overall, the apps and front-end are as responsive as you could ask for.
Features & interface
Samsung has also overlaid its TouchWiz 4.0 customisations onto the regular Android interface. These include “live panels” – large informational widgets for your home screens – and a “Mini Apps Tray” along the bottom of the home screen. The notification and settings area at the bottom right of the screen is replaced with Samsung’s own version, offering simpler one-touch access to frequently used settings.
Games like Angry Birds fare well on the Galaxy Tab 10.1.
A showy “tilt to zoom” feature has also been added to the browser and various interface elements have been spruced up with a clean black-on- white look. These changes aren’t too intrusive, but they add little to the experience. Potentially more useful is the preinstalled copy of Polaris Office, plus some bespoke Samsung applications. These include the Social Hub, which combines your social network services into a single interface, and the Music Hub, an integrated music store powered by the 7digital service.
If you want to transfer existing media files from your PC to the Galaxy Tab 10.1, it’s a breeze. Samsung’s Kies software offers wireless syncing, but once the drivers are installed the tablet also works as a regular MTP device, so you can use whatever media manager you like to sync the player over a regular USB connection. The speakers are excellent, delivering remarkable volume and presence considering the size of the device.
Many popular video formats can be played out of the box, and there’s support for Windows 7’s built-in transcoding capabilities to help with movie files in the wrong format. We also found that 720p YouTube videos played without a hiccup.
For shooting your own video, the rear-facing camera captures sharp 720p footage, but it’s a little grainy. Stills look better: the rear autofocus camera takes 3.2MP stills with crisp detail and good, realistic colour even in lowish light – and there’s an LED flash to help out if things get too dark. The front-facing camera is just as sharp, but uses a smaller 2MP sensor and a fixed focal length.
Inevitably, we’ve a few gripes about the hardware. The biggest disappointment is battery life: in our continuous video test, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 managed just 7hr 18min of playback off a full charge – less than half the life of the iPad 2, and 80 minutes less than the Asus Eee Pad Transformer.
It’s annoying too that the only regular connector is a 3.5mm headphone socket (plus a SIM slot on the 3G version). Otherwise, all power and data goes through a proprietary 30-pin socket. If you want to hook up an external display, you’ll need the external HDMI adaptor, sold seperarely.
There’s no microSD slot either, so if you want extra storage, you’ll need the similarly priced SD or USB 2 adaptor. The USB adaptor can also be used to connect a mouse, but it may not provide enough power for an external keyboard: if you need to do a lot of typing, you can use Bluetooth or buy a dedicated keyboard dock direct from Samsung.
The OS also has a few admitted shortcomings. The Android Market is smaller than Apple’s App Store, with no way to filter out smartphone apps that aren’t optimised for tablets. The interface lacks the ruthless clarity of iOS, and Samsung’s tinkering with the front end only complicates things further. On the other hand, you do get the freedom to install alternative browsers and soft keyboards, not to mention Flash. And of course you can sync an Android device with as many PCs as you like, using whatever software you like.
Overall, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a hugely likeable device. With its slick performance, lightweight chassis and excellent screen and speakers, it captures the instinctive, tactile appeal of Apple’s tablet better than any rival we’ve seen. It has its weaknesses – notably the battery life – and it’s hardly innovative. But if you can find one in the shops, it’s the best Android tablet we’ve seen, and a compelling alternative to the iPad 2.