Widely expected to be the main challenger to the iPad, read our full verdict on the 7in Samsung Galaxy Tab
"It's going to cost how much?" Given the number of times we've heard that this week, there's really no other way to begin a review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab than with its pricing. Yes, Samsung is asking you to part with $999 for the 16GB model. Or, to put it another way, $370 more than the cheapest Apple iPad.
Though both Galaxy Tab models include 3G, whereas that $629 iPad doesn't, for that outlay the final product would have to be something truly special to be a rival to Apple's groundbreaking device.
Fit and finish
Where the iPad looks and feels gorgeous, the Galaxy Tab is, well, okay. The black front looks nice enough, even if the bezel is a little plasticky, and the same goes for the white rear. It's fine, attractive even. But it isn't luxurious, and when you're paying more than $900 for a gadget you should demand luxury.
At least the screen is of high quality. Measuring 7in diagonally across, its biggest strength is its sheer brightness. Pump it up to full and photos pack a real punch, so much so that it could fool you into thinking it's a Super AMOLED panel rather than a plain old TFT.
But plain old TFT it is, and it isn't too readable outdoors in sunny weather. It also lacks the vibrancy of an AMOLED screen, but that's being a little picky: most people will have few complaints.
Size is everything
The main question for most users will concern the 7in size of the device itself. It isn't a smartphone, but it also isn't really a living-room tablet. Placed next to the iPad, the Galaxy Tab almost looks a totally new category of product. For a further sense of perspective, we've pictured the iPhone to its right.
Compared to the iPad, then, the Galaxy Tab feels tiny, so it's perhaps surprising that the screen doesn't feel cramped in use. That's despite it having a 1024 x 600 resolution to the iPad's 1024 x 768.
It's significantly lighter than the iPad as well (385g to 680g), but the key difference is that size: the Tab isn't for leaving on the coffee table. It should be out and about with you every day, all day. And because it's so small, it can comfortably fit in a jacket pocket. Believe it or not, it even slips into a jeans back pocket, although you'll walk funny.
So we don't see the size as a problem in itself. The problems come when you start using the Tab.
The first screen you see, once you've rushed through the setup session, is traditional Android: a selection of widgets and a handful of shortcuts to some carefully chosen apps.
The "Active applications" widget is arguably the most useful. Android 2.2 is built for multitasking, but that can mean apps sitting in the background chewing up memory and battery; Active applications let you dive in to check which apps are running and quickly kill them.
It works very nicely, but it also shows signs of being rushed. "Clearing RAM would finish some of the running applications" it reads on one page; "Battery life is related with CPU usage" is on another. It may seem pedantic to criticise poor English, but this is symptomatic of a lack of quality control throughout.
The floating Google search bar, complete with voice recognition, will be familiar to existing Android 2 phone owners, as will the ability to place icons onto five different homepages (you can add more as necessary).
One neat touch is the omnipresent trio of onscreen buttons that sit at the bottom: Browser, Applications and Email. Flick the Tab into horizontal mode and it rotates quickly and adapts sensibly; that trio of icons heads to the right of the screen, for instance.
Again, the luxurious edge is stripped away by a lack of finishing touches. Android's grid of apps looks fine on a 4in 480 x 800 smartphone screen, but increase the resolution and the text starts to look blocky and basic; there's no refinement.
This stretches to performance too. It would be wrong to call the Galaxy Tab stuttery, but there are moments - such as when it transitions from one home screen to another - where it appears to pause for thought. And, again, we have to compare it to the competition here: the iPad drifts from screen to screen with a silky smooth motion. We expect the same from a $999 Android tablet.
Bundled apps: the disappointing
This lack of smoothness extends to the bundled apps too. Not necessarily to their performance, but their usability. Compare, for instance, Samsung's bundled eBook app to the iPad equivalent, iBooks. You receive one bundled book with the Galaxy Tab, The Marvelous Land of Oz, in similar fashion to being bundled Winnie-the-Pooh with the iPad.
Winnie-the-Pooh looks fantastic with gorgeous illustrations, and is a great example of what can be done with a high-quality colour screen compared to the mono screens of most dedicated book readers. By contrast, The Marvelous Land of Oz is a pale imitation: it's straightforward text and even misses out the illustrations from the original.
If you're hoping to download books direct from this app then think again: you have to visit sites such as www.epubbooks.com and transfer them manually. This isn't a huge drag once you're used to it - and if you're an existing Kobo user then you'll be delighted to see all your books transferred instantly - but for the typical user this once again chips away at the Galaxy Tab's user-friendly sheen.
Bundled apps: the good
Some of the bundled high-resolution apps are far more impressive. Google Maps works brilliantly, with the 7in screen cutting a dash on top of our test car's dashboard; the biggest problem is its size, since it will block your view of the road in small to medium-sized cars. We'd also like the built-in speaker to be a little clearer, although the directions were still audible.
Need for Speed SHIFT looks stunning and is compellingly addictive; had this been our own Tab we'd have shelled out in an instant.
ThinkFree Office is another potentially useful inclusion, and like eBooks takes advantage of that high-resolution screen. This version lets you read PDF files and edit spreadsheets, presentations and Word files, and if the document you're reading is simple, you should be pleased with the results.
More complicated documents, particularly those containing graphics, won't look so great, but at least they'll be displayed; this is an ace ThinkFree currently holds over DataViz's Documents To Go, which wouldn't display a graph in our sample Excel document.
The only real annoyance is that you can't create new documents from scratch in the bundled version of ThinkFree Office, but it's still possible to work around by creating a blank Word document, say, and placing it in the Documents folder.
All these optimised applications highlight what Android tablets could be capable of in the future, and why they shouldn't just be dismissed as overgrown phones. For work, it edges up to netbook levels of usability (providing you don't want to enter much data) while gameplay is much more immersive than on a 4in screen.
It should be noted that you do also have access to the official Android Marketplace, which not all of the impending tablet deluge can boast. But bear in mind the quality of scaling may vary on apps designed primarily for smartphone displays.
Web browsing and the keyboard
Browsing is one area where the larger screen, compared to the 4in of a typical smartphone, becomes so useful. If you're on a fast Wi-Fi connection then the only time you'll find yourself wishing for a laptop is when you need to type a URL.
It isn't that the default onscreen keyboard is woeful, merely that it can be frustrating. There's no auto-correction, so you must hit the keys perfectly or hope that your chosen phrase appears in the predictive text.
Head into the input settings and you'll also discover Swype. It's a brilliant way to write text quickly, and doesn't even have a huge learning curve.
Another good thing, compared to the iPad, is that you can hold the Galaxy Tab in portrait mode and then use your thumbs to type. We found we reached a fairly good typing speed using this method.
The Galaxy Tab extra
The Galaxy Tab bears a stronger resemblance to a phone than the iPad, so it's no surprise to see extras such as a 3-megapixel camera, complete with LED flash, on its rear. We were pleasantly surprised by its quality: in strong natural light it produced good snaps (see the photo below), and in darker conditions the flash works surprisingly well.
The Tab can double up as a video camera, with a 720 x 480 resolution and 29fps frame rate. Quality is respectable rather than good, but it's fine for quickly capturing a scene. What's more, the 7in display makes a stunning viewfinder.
Slots and buttons
We appreciate the easily accessible microSD slot to the right of the unit, allowing you to add up to 32GB of storage, and Samsung makes it just as easy to swap out a SIM card: slip it in and the Tab reboots. Ten seconds later the system is up and running, with all settings correctly configured.
Aside from this the controls are minimal, with a volume rocker switch, a power button and a 3.5mm socket. Samsung also bundles a pair of good-quality in-canal earphones complete with discreet microphone, so it's actually possible to make a call using the Tab without looking a fool. The microphone isn't strong enough to clearly pick up your voice unless you move it close to your mouth, though, rather defeating the point of a hands-free set.
There's a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front for making video calls, but with no support for this in the Skype for Android app, it's currently of limited use.
As with smartphones, the amount of battery life you squeeze out of tablets will be dependent on what you use them for and how often. Over a weekend, we had to charge the Tab twice, but we were using it heavily: watching movies, using it as a satnav device, all the while with a SIM card plugged in and Wi-Fi switched on.
Our experiences suggest a battery life of around four hours per charge, dropping down to three if you pump up the screen to full brightness. That's acceptable rather than good, and it means we'd be sure to always carry the communication cable with us: the Galaxy can charge up over USB without problems.
Note the proprietary connection, though. So far, Samsung has announced four peripherals to take advantage: a keyboard, an in-car charger, a TV-out cable and a "Multimedia Desk Dock". The latter keeps your Tab in a portrait position and allows you to output videos over HDMI.
We'd be lying if we said the Galaxy Tab was a poor product; it isn't. There's a huge amount to like here, but the problem for the Galaxy Tab is that there's always a "but".
If you're looking for a large-screened entertainment device to take on journeys, we prefer the Dell Streak. Or let's put the Tab in direct competition with the Apple iPad. It does hold advantages: the openness of the Android platform; the pocket-friendly size; um, did we mention the openness of the platform?
But perhaps in its rush to produce something for Christmas, Samsung has taken its eye off the people who will actually be using the Tab. There's no smooth interface; no rich selection of HD apps at launch; no slickness at all.
As Google itself admits, Android 2.2 isn't yet optimised for slates. We badly need version 3 to appear, and for big-name hardware manufacturers such as Samsung to ensure customers aren't disappointed.
It would be easy to be soft on the Galaxy Tab. It's well made and is the closest thing yet to competition for the iPad. We suspect that, when the dust settles, it will be far and away the best "large" Android 2.2 tablet.
But that still isn't good enough, especially at this price. Hardware makers must appreciate they can't price their products head to head with Apple until they offer their users the same seamless experience. In this particular market, they're the Fords, Vauxhalls and Peugeots to the Apple's Porsche. The Tab would have to drop below $800 before we could even consider giving it a recommendation.