Samsung Galaxy Tab Review: Android takes the tablet world head-on

Posted Dec 29, 2010
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2010 was the year of Tablets – or more specifically, the Tablet. Yes I am talking about the Apple iPad, which completely redefined the concept of handheld tablets and opened up the market for dozens of other devices aiming to bridge the gap between the smartphone and a notebook. While Apple’s idea did stick with the masses, most of its competitors weren’t so lucky. Once thought to be a serious iPad contender, the HP Slate was relegated to an enterprise product. Other attempts to enter the tablet arena by manufacturers like ASUS, Acer and MSI also failed to deliver. Even Google itself claimed that its Android OS – which most manufacturers planned to use with their tablets – wasn’t ready for that form factor yet.

Another issue surrounding the tablet world is about the optimal size of a tablet. El Jobso believes that Apple nailed the perfect balance with the iPad’s 9.7 inch screen but the truth is that the iPad is difficult to use in one hand. That’s one of the reasons most other manufacturers are targeting 7 inch tablets as well because they allow better one handed operations at the cost of a smaller (but denser) screen. Apple claims that everyone is going for 7 inch screens because they can’t compete with iPad’s price if they go for a bigger one. This does appear to be true as the Galaxy Tab can cost as much as $700 compared to iPad’s (WiFi + 3G) $630 price tag. Then again, the Tab has two cameras and a MicroSD slot which the iPad lacks.

So despite all these technical differences, does Samsung stand a chance in a market already dominated by the iPad? Keep reading to find out if the Galaxy Tab is a worthy competitor.

  1. Introduction
  2. Specifications
  3. Design
  4. Hardware
  5. Camera and Media
  6. Operating System and Software
  7. Screenshot Tour
  8. Battery Life and Conclusion

Specifications

Primary Attributes

Dimensions

190.09 x 120.45 x 11.98 millimeters (7.5 x 4.7 x 0.5 inches)

Bounding Volume

274.3 cubic centimeters

Weight

380 g

Operating System

Google Android 2.2

OS Kernel

Linux 2.6.32

OS Skin

Samsung TouchWiz 3.0

Hardware

Processor

Samsung Intrinsity S5PC110 32-bit

CPU Clock

1000 MHz

CPU Core

Samsung Hummingbird

Instruction Set

ARMv7

RAM

512 MB

ROM (Internal Memory)

16 GB

GPU

PowerVR SGX 540

Display

Display Type

TFT LCD

Color Depth

24 bit

Diagonal Size

7” (178 mm)

Resolution

600 x 1024 (614400 pixels)

Pixel Density

169.4 pixels/inch

Video Out

1920×1080 Full HD (via proprietary connector)

Audio

Audio Channels

Stereo Sound

Microphone

Mono Sound

Loudspeaker

Stereo Sound

Audio Output

3.5 mm jack

Cellular Phone

Cellular Networks

GSM850, GSM900, GSM1800, GSM1900, UMTS900, UMTS1900, UMTS2100

Cellular Data

CSD, GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSDPA 7.2, HSUPA 5.76

Call Alert

40 chord melody

Vibrating Alert

Supported

Speakerphone

Supported

Interfaces

Expansion Interfaces

MicroSD, MicroSDHC up to 32 GB

USB

USB 2.0 Client Profile via proprietary connector

Bluetooth (802.15)

Bluetooth 3.0

Wi-Fi (802.11)

IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, IEEE 802.11n (dual band)

Satellite Navigation

Built in GPS

Supported

GPS Protocol

NMEA 0183

GPS Services

Assisted GPS, Geotagging

Digital Compass

Supported

Gyroscope

Supported

Camera

Primary Sensor

CMOS

Resolution

2048 x 1536 (3.15 MP)

Autofocus

Supported

Optical Zoom

1x

Macro Mode

Supported

Flash

LED

Camcorder

720 x 480 pixels at 30 fps

Secondary Sensor

CMOS

Resolution

1280 x 1024 (1.3 MP)

Camcorder

640 x 480 pixels

Power Supply

Battery Type

Lithium-ion Battery

Battery Build

Non user replaceable

Battery Capacity

4000 mAh

Additional Features

DLNA

Gorilla Glass Screen

mDNe Technology

Adobe Flash 10.1

Bluetooth 3.0 A2DP and AVCRP

Design

Most of the tablets which came out in 2010 seem to follow a very similar design language. Rounded corners and about an inch thick black bezel surrounding the large screen in the middle. The Galaxy Tab doesn’t deviate from this much, and I’m not complaining because it looks great.

The front of the Galaxy Tab has a large 7 inch TFT LCD display protected by a Gorilla Glass screen. While the screen might be strong enough to withstand a fall, it certainly isn’t fingerprint repulsive and my sample unit picked up smudges within a couple of hours. Samsung didn’t fit the Tab with its cutting edge Super AMOLED technology like it has in its recent smartphone line, the screen on the Tab is one of the best LCD panels I’ve seen. Color reproduction is very accurate and you got great viewing angles on both sides. There is a hint of over saturation in some shades but it isn’t as bad as what you get with a Super AMOLED display.

Right above the screen is a 1.3 Mega Pixel camera for taking self portraits and video calls. While the camera is technically capable of making HD video calls, there aren’t any apps that support it at the time of writing. Next to the camera is the ambient light sensor which is responsible for controlling the brightness of your screen automatically.

Below the display are four capacitive buttons for Menu, Home, Back and Search. There still doesn’t seem to be a standardized layout for these because every device seems to have them in a different order. I guess we can chalk this up to Android fragmentation as well.

The bottom of the Galaxy Tab houses the lone Samsung proprietary port which serves as the unified connector for the device. Every thing from the charger to the USB cable and the dock connect through this port. I’m not sure why Samsung decided to go with a proprietary port instead of a common industry standard like MicroUSB specially since its entire Galaxy S line features it. I just hope that they do realize that proprietary connections only hurt the device and the user. Surrounding the connector port are two stereo speakers which happen to be the only source of audio output on the Tab apart from the 3.5 mm jack located on top.

Speaking of the top side, there is nothing else here besides the audio jack. Not even the power button. Samsung is known to have its power button on the right side of their devices and the Tab is no exception to the rule.

Just below the Power/Lock button is the volume rocker. Both of these buttons do provide a good tactile feedback while pressing but there might be a slight learning cure before you can easily operate them in the dark because they are placed pretty close.

The Galaxy Tab also has a MicroSD card slot on the bottom right. It supports cards with capacities up to 32GB. Right next to it is the SIM card slot. Unlike the iPad, you can just throw in a regular SIM card into the Galaxy Tab and use your mobile data connection to access the internet or make phone calls – that is if you don’t mind being seen using a 7 inch “phone” in public. Still being able to make calls and texts is an added feature and again something which the iPad lacks.

The left side of the device only has a small notch for the microphone and nothing else. Given all the real estate available on the sides of the Tab, I don’t see why Samsung couldn’t have added a MicroUSB port or a mini HDMI port directly onto the device instead of relying on a proprietary connector and docking solution.

The back side is covered with white high quality plastic along with a little Samsung branding. The sample unit I got didn’t have any Google branding on the device or regular Google apps installed in the stock ROM. There’s also the 3.2 Mega Pixel auto focus camera along with LED flash on the top left corner. The white paint on the back provides a nice looking contrast to the glossy black front panel.

While the 7 inch screen size does make the Tab easy for single handed usage, it still isn’t pocketable by any means. You would still need to carry it around in a case or a bag. At under 12mm thickness and 380g weight, it is slimmer and lighter than the iPad and is actually a lot more easier to type on, once you get rid of the the stock keyboard. Steve Jobs may not agree, but I think 7 inch tables can also get the job done pretty well.

Hardware

Since tablets are supposed to replace mobile PCs and netbooks, hardware specifications play a very important role here. A decent tablet requires a fairly decent hardware to provide a good user experience and Apple set the bar really high with the iPad. Thankfully, Samsung was more than willing to take up the challenge and outfitted the Galaxy Tab with hardware that even outclasses the iPad in some situations.

The Galaxy Tab has a 1GHz Samsung Hummingbird processor at its heart – this is almost the same chip as the Apple A4 – only with a more powerful GPU, giving at least 1.5x the performance of the GPU in the Apple A4. It also boasts 512 MB of RAM compared to the 256 MB on the iPad. Then again, back then, iOS 3.2 didn’t have to multitask or have support for wallpapers etc. so I didn’t require much memory. Android on the other hand can get very memory hungry because of all the applications and services running in the background.

For wireless connectivity, we have dual band 802.11n WiFi on board, along with Tri-band 3G radios (or CDMA/EVDO depending on your model) capable of HSDPA 7.2 Mbps and HSUPA 5.76 Mbps. Thankfully, Samsung got the GPS right on the Tab and it only takes a couple of seconds to get an accurate fix on the device’s location. There’s also Bluetooth 3.0 connectivity on board along with support for DLNA streaming. Wired connectivity options are limited to USB 2.0 and HDMI via a proprietary connector.

Thanks to the built in cellular radio, the Samsung Galaxy Tab is capable of making phone calls and texting. Since there is not built in ear piece on the device, call audio is routed through the loudspeakers or a headset if you have one connected. While the lack of an earpiece may seem like a downside, keep in mind that the Tab is a tablet and not a phone. Besides, who would want to hold a 7 inch device to their face when walking down the street. Call quality through the loudspeakers on the Galaxy Tab was actually very satisfying and I could hear the voice throughout the entire room. Unfortunately, the on board microphone wasn’t that strong and I had to hold the Tab close to my face to keep my voice clear of any distortion.

Thanks to its powerful Hummingbird core, the Galaxy Tab scores pretty decently in most Android benchmarks without throwing on a custom ROM or overclocking the processor. It consistently scored around 14 MFLOPS in Linpack and landed a score of around 970 in Quadrant Standard edition, beating out its younger brother, the Samsung Galaxy S.

Camera and Media

Another competitive edge the Tab has over the iPad is the dual camera assembly. The 3.2 Mega Pixel camera on the back supports auto focus and comes equipped with a LED flash. The Camera app uses the stock Android interface and supports all the basic camera functionality along with a Panorama and Burst mode. There is no tap to focus in the camera nor any digital or optical zoom. Samsung clearly weren’t aiming to bake a high end camera features into the Galaxy Tab.

The front facing 1.3 Mega Pixel sensor is large enough to support HD video calling but like I said before, there aren’t any apps to take advantage of it yet. In fact, Video calling experience on the Galaxy Tab has been below par because most Android video calling apps haven’t been adapted for the Tab resolution yet and therefore the video gets pixelated when its blown up on the Tab’s screen.

Photos taken from the rear camera end up being over sharpened and give off an unnatural and processed look. Since there aren’t many options to fine tune the shot, the camera really suffers in low light conditions when the LED flash is disabled. Panorama and Burst mode only support photos with resolution up to 800×600 and you’d really need to keep your hands stable if you want the images to turn out okay. Speaking of stability, since there isn’t any dedicated camera button on the Galaxy Tab, keeping the device stable with one hand can be a challenging task.

As for videos, the Galaxy Tab can only do videos in 480p despite having the same hardware as the Galaxy S phone line. And just like with photos, the video recording quality of the Galaxy Tab also turned out to be disappointing. Samsung really wasted a lot of hardware muscle in the Galaxy Tab by not enabling at least 720p video recording.

Thankfully, the Tab can still play back 720p content. In fact, if you hook it up to a dock, it can even output Full HD content via HDMI. The standard Music, Video and Gallery apps get the job done pretty nicely, though you can always hit the Android market if you want something more.

Watching videos and movies on the Tab proved to be a good experience thanks to crisp colors and good stereo loudspeakers. The speakers were actually louder than any mobile device I had heard before and the sound quality was also great with a good reproduction of medium and high frequency sounds. Low frequency effects did seem to suffer a little with the loudspeakers but plugging in a headset solved the issue instantly.

The Galaxy Tab comes with Adobe Flash 10.1 support out of the box. While this may apparently give another advantage over the Apple iPad, there is no denying the fact that Flash does tend to hamper performance of the device. Enabling Flash support in the Android browser had a clear impact on performance and while being able to play embedded Flash content did have its advantages, I ended up disabling Flash for the sake of stability and performance.

Operating System and Software

Galaxy Tab runs Android 2.2 (aka Froyo) with Samsung’s TouchWiz 3.0 layer on top. Google had specifically said that Android 2.x is not optimized for larger devices like tablets and instead encouraged manufacturers to wait until Honeycomb comes out with tablet optimized features. And taking one look at the Galaxy Tab certainly confirms that. None of the stock Android apps support the 600×1024 resolution of the Galaxy Tab. That doesn’t mean that the apps don’t work or break – it means that they just try to scale to the Tab’s resolution and often result in ugly looking UI.

Besides, the most compelling selling point of the iPad was the fact that it had native iPad optimized apps at launch. There were iPad versions for all the core applications along with most major 3rd party vendors had their apps out in the App Store. Unfortunately, the same can’t be done for the Galaxy Tab yet – at least not that easily anyways. That’s because Google still doesn’t supply the necessary development tools for the Android SDK. As a result, the only tablet optimized applications for the Galaxy Tab are the ones by Samsung that are preloaded onto the Tab or available through the Samsung Apps application store.

These applications include Contacts, Messaging, Email, Calendar, Reader’s Hub, Memo, eBook, and Digital Frame. All of these applications support a slightly different two pane interface when flipped into landscape mode – just like most apps do on the iPad. The problem here is that these apps aren’t the stock Google applications that you get with a Google experience device. Instead, they are all developed by Samsung and don’t have a rich feature set like the ones by Google.

Samsung has slightly updated the TouchWiz 3.0 interface for use with Galaxy Tab. It is now much more smoother and faster compared to the Galaxy S phone line, but still looks a lot like the iOS springboard. I still prefer to swap TouchWiz 3.0 with LauncherPro as soon as I get the device in my hands. TouchWiz 3.0 does have a 5 column home screen design though which you can’t easily get with LauncherPro’s free version. Unfortunately, most home screen widgets only scale up to 4 columns and don’t fill the entire row.

Swype also comes preloaded on the Tab but you might want to install another keyboard like Smart Keyboard for example. The problem with Swype is that it gets harder to swipe and draw words on screen as the screen size gets larger. And 7 inch screens just aren’t meant to be used for Swype input.

Official Facebook and Twitter clients also come preinstalled in some markets but you can always hit the Android Market to download them if they aren’t preloaded on your device. I actually prefer using Seesmic over the official Twitter client though. Samsung Apps marketplace offers a couple of premium apps to download for free including Need For Speed: SHIFT. Even though Google apps don’t come preinstalled on the Galaxy Tab, you can still download them from the market if you like.

Speaking of games, I tried Angry Birds, Angry Birds Seasons, Need For Speed Shift and Raging Thunder 2 on the Galaxy Tab. While graphics in Angry Birds actually looked a lot better on the larger screens, NFS Shift and Raging Thunder 2 appeared to be pixelated probably because the textures and models were optimized for lower resolutions.

Screenshot Tour

Here’s a in depth screenshot tour of the Samsung Galaxy Tab showing various stock applications and a few downloaded from the Android Market.

Battery Life

Battery life on the Galaxy Tab was the most inconsistent part of the entire experience. That isn’t the fault of the hardware however. Hell, the Galaxy Tab stores its juice in a massive 4000 mAh battery. The main reason battery life varied so inconsistently for me at least is because how the Android OS manages it. All the applications and services running in the background sip CPU cycles and the more apps you have, the shorter your battery life would be.

On average, I would be able to get a full day’s worth of usage which includes moderate web browsing over WiFi, a little use of GPS (for geo-tagging etc.), data synchronization, EDGE connectivity and 100 percent screen brightness. When watching standard definition videos, I was able to get out about 5 hours of playback from a full charge.

Charging the Galaxy Tab actually proved to be a hassle. It turns out that you can’t charge the Tab via a computer, you need to plug it into a wall socket instead. And the supplied charger cable is about 1 meter long only. To make matters worse, the massive 4000 mAh battery takes a long time to recharge if its completely dried out. It took about 3 hours to get 100 percent down from about 2 percent charge.

Conclusion

The fact that I chose to type a part of this review on the Galaxy Tab itself should more than justify the conclusion. Most people argued that tablets are only meant for  consumption and not creation. The iPad did change that perception a bit when artists and musicians began using it to create new content – take the latest Gorillaz album as an example. Then again iPad had a size advantage that facilitated content creation. Is the 7 inch screen on the Galaxy Tab enough to separate it from the realm of consumption devices to a creative one?

Well the answer is both yes and no. The Galaxy tab has certainly proved to me that it is the best Android tablet out there right now. The problem is that Android OS isn’t fully ready for the tablet world yet. And wont be until Google adds some tablet specific optimizations in Honeycomb, which is expected to come out at Google IO in May 2011. Until then, the Galaxy Tab is at the mercy of 3rd party developers to release tablet optimized versions of their applications. Until that happens, being creative on the Tab is a fairly challenging task.

But then again, that doesn’t mean that the Tab has failed as a product. its quite the opposite actually. Apart from some minor kinks in the OS (nothing that an update can’t fix), the Galaxy Tab has an elegant design and powerful hardware under the hood. Throw in the ability to make phone calls and text message, plus dual cameras for video chat and you got yourself a self a solid product at a price point that stays fairly competitive with the iPad. If there is one product in the market which could challenge the iPad’s throne, it has to be the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

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