Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

Summary: The Samsung Galaxy Tab is an impressive piece of technology, but it's not really an iPad competitor.

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The Samsung Galaxy Tab is an impressive piece of technology, but it's not really an iPad competitor.

Yesterday, I decided to break down and purchase a Galaxy Tab, hoping it would finally fulfill the promises of being a general-purpose Android tablet that could fill the role that my iPad is currently performing today -- a device which I could use to browse the Web, do some productivity tasks, use tablet-style applications, and also use as an e-Reader.

Also See: Samsung Galaxy Tab (Gallery)

Also See: Samsung Galaxy Tab (C|Net Reviews)

Also See: Samsung Galaxy Tab (Jason Hiner)

As I am a current Verizon customer and I am happy with the carrier's overall 3G data coverage on my Motorola Droid, I decided to purchase the unit at my local Verizon Wireless store, in Paramus, New Jersey. It should be noted that unlike T-Mobile, which also just launched the device on their network, and can be purchased off-contract, that the Verizon model isn't currently being sold without an additonal data plan.

You can buy a month-to-month, contract-free $20 1GB data plan, but there's a $35 activation fee (unless you're a corporate customer with special terms) for each time you re-activate service, should you decide to terminate the data plan and then turn it back on later.  For those of you who don't want this device with 3G, a Wi-Fi only model is destined to hit the US shores shortly, and will be about $100 cheaper, so you should wait.

There are a number of comprehensive reviews of this device on the web already, most notably from our own C|Net sister site, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. If you're looking for a super nuts and bolts drill-down into this thing, stop reading this article and look at those instead.

What you're going to get here is not a review from someone who worked with Samsung PR to procure a review device and has had it in their possession for several days or longer who has been under non-disclosure until yesterday. This should be considered an off-the-street, first impression of someone who just laid down cold, hard cash for this thing yesterday morning.

So having plunked down $641.99 after taxes plus a $35.00 activation fee and a pro-rated $20 per month plan, I decided to give the Galaxy Tab a spin at my local coffee shop and on my home wireless network and see how the device performed in the real world.

First, a few observations about the hardware. I'm currently an iPad and a Motorola Droid user, so that's my two frames of reference regarding the software stack(s) and expectations about build quality. The Samsung 7" 1024x600 capacitive LCD touchscreen is absolutely gorgeous and extremely bright -- it's the first thing that jumps right at you. When compared with the iPad's 9.7" 1024x768 screen, it actually appears sharper, because of the higher pixel density. So no complaints there.

In terms of being able to use the device as an e-Reader, since the Galaxy Tab's Android 2.2 currently supports both the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook apps at native resolution, it has the same practical limitations as the iPad -- lousy outdoors in bright sunlight, but excellent indoors and during the evening. This is not a dig at backlit LCD technology, this simply is what it is.

Page 2: [Build Quality and User Experience]  »

As far as actual physical build quality I do have to say that I'm rather disappointed that for $600 I'm still getting a device with a plastic case. It's a high-impact polycarbonate type of plastic, but it still feels cheap and less refined than the aluminum casing of the iPad, which costs roughly the same amount of money.

The plastic also seems to conduct heat more than the iPad's aluminum body, and the device gets noticeably warm when used for extended periods of time. I've had the iPad since February or so of this year, and it's never gotten warm at all.

The Galaxy Tab runs on a heavily-modified version of Android 2.2 Froyo, which is the most current build of Google's device OS. In terms of general UI responsiveness, the Galaxy Tab is extremely fast, and is comparable to what you'd see in the most current high-end Android smartphones, but with a larger, higher-resolution display. It feels like a really big smartphone, and the Android 2.2 UI even with Samsung's tweaks lends itself to the user feeling like they aren't using something that was really designed to run on this form factor.

This is in stark contrast to the iPad's iOS, which was originally derided for being just a big iPod Touch or a giant iPhone, and is actually more optimized to the target device despite originating as a smartphone operating system. Apple has put in a huge amount of effort to make iOS 3.x and 4.x work well as a Tablet OS. To date, much of Google's efforts have been put into making Android an excellent smartphone OS, which it is.

In terms of its suitability for larger form-factor devices, even Google admits that Android 2.2 Froyo isn't the droid you're looking for -- 2.3 Gingerbread, which is expected to be released shortly, and 3.0 "Honeycomb" which is expected during the middle of next year, are supposed to bring us closer to a Tablet-optimized version of the OS.

With that understanding, Samsung went and built the Galaxy Tab with the objective of releasing it with a "Tweaked" Froyo and upgrading it to Gingerbread and Honeycomb later on. As a product, it very much gives the user the impression that this device is a work in progress.

In my opinion, the prime motivator for purchasing a device that bills itself as a Tablet or a Slate is to use an Internet browsing device first, and then an application platform second. If it performs sub-par as a web browser, then most of the utility of the device is sacrificed.

There are others which may disagree with my assessment and weigh the importance of the apps above the browser, but I'm in the camp where most of my activities with a Tablet/Slate are going to be web-related. I would have had a very hard time justifying the purchase of my iPad if it performed poorly as a web-browsing device.

That being said, I am of the opinion that the Samsung Galaxy Tab is a poor performer as an Internet browsing device.

Why? Well, for starters, let's begin with the device's built-in browser. It's the same Webkit-based one that is used on Android 2.2 smartphones. For the most part, I'd consider the built-in browser on Android 2.2 to be acceptable, but not on par with what exists on iOS 3.2.2 or 4.2. It doesn't render pages and graphics nearly as quickly and the scrolling of pages is jerky and stuttery, and not at all fluid-like on the iPad, or even on the iPhone.

On my first generation Motorola Droid, which only has a 854x480 3.7" display and a 600Mhz CPU with 256MB of RAM, I'm willing to forgive a slower rendering speed than on an iPad, which has a 1Ghz CPU, better integrated video acceleration on its SoC and also 256MB of RAM. They aren't comparable in terms of raw hardware capability.

However, on a device with comparable integrated electronics and a similar 1Ghz ARM Cortex-A8 processor (Samsung actually manufactures the iPad's A4) and TWICE the RAM of the current generation iPad, I'd expect the browser and rendering of web pages to be at least as good if not significantly better. That's unfortunately not the case.

Part of the problem may lie in the fact that the built-in Android 2.2 browser has Flash installed and turned on by default -- so when you hit a non-mobile optimized web page with a lot of Flash elements, such as moving advertising boxes and such, it bogs down the CPU.

Still, even when you turn off the built-in plugins, the browser runs jittery, and pinch-to-zoom multitouch doesn't feel as polished as its Apple competitor either. Again, it feels and behaves like a big Android smartphone, with all of the built-in weaknesses of its smartphone cousins but magnified onto a larger, higher-resolution screen.

I was able to dramatically improve the performance of the browser experience, at least in terms of page rendering speed and overall scrolling fluidity, by downloading and installing Opera Mobile from the Android Market. However, I still wouldn't compare it in terms of overall user experience to an iPad, if you look and use them side by side on a fast Wi-Fi network with extremely fast broadband such as mine.

Now, having said all this, it begs that we ask if the Samsung Galaxy Tab is really an iPad tablet competitor at all, but instead more of a handheld computer, like an oversized PDA on smartphone steroids.

Page 3: [Handheld Computer or Half-Baked Tablet?] »

We certainly and probably shouldn't compare the two devices in terms of form factor, since you really can't hold the iPad in one hand where you can with the Tab. However, since the iPad is currently the leader in the space, and the media and analysts are insistent in shoehorning the Galaxy Tab into the same market, it remains our only frame of reference.

Where the Galaxy Tab excels is in the native, optimized Android applications, which look and run great on the device. Games such as Angry Birds look and run fantastic, and Samsung has also put in a large amount of work into writing a entirely new email client, video/music players, a calendar and contacts manager for the unit which are polished and work very well.

Samsung has also added some really cool memory/process management tools to the device which I'd love to see in stock Android builds, as these utilities are sorely missing from most of the Android smartphones on the market. One of Android's biggest problems is since it is a fully multitasking OS, it's very easy to start spawning a whole bunch of processes that chew up your memory and processor time. So on a tablet, the ability to monitor and/or kill processes is extremely useful.

That being said, we expect Android 2.2-compatible apps to run well on the Galaxy Tab, because it's an Android 2.2 device, right? If you're really into the Android apps, and most of your activities are going to be App-centric, you might like this device a lot more than I do.

Unfortunately, I don't really need an over-sized, 7" smartphone which can't make phone calls to run Twitter, email and Android apps and still have a sub-par web browsing experience.

So what about the device's other neat features? Like the dual integrated cameras? Or the integrated HDMI dock?

Well the device does indeed record HD video with its 3MP rear-facing camera, but the custom camera app itself appears to be unstable because it crashes virtually every time I use it. And the front-facing 1MP camera for video calls?

Well let's just say it doesn't quite work as well as FaceTime does yet.

While I was able to capture images with front-facing camera and see my own facial image displayed on the screen, I wasn't able to have a successful video chat session, despite the frightening screen shot in the link above. You see, as it turns out, Samsung doesn't ship a video chat application with the unit and Android doesn't have one natively yet -- that function is actually slated for a future version of the OS, possibly 2.3 Gingerbread or 3.0 Honeycomb.

You can download applications such as Qik, Fring and Yahoo Messenger which have video chat capability and work on some of the other Android smartphones, such as the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G and the Sprint EVO 4G, but they won't work properly with the front-facing camera on the Galaxy Tab and you won't broadcast video to the other end.

While I was able to initiate video chat sessions with my Tech Broiler co-blogger on his T-Mobile G2 Android smartphone, he was unable to see video coming from my end even though I could see him, during the times which he had his rear-facing camera pointed at his face.

I will add that all three of these chat applications, Qik, Fring and Yahoo Messenger had horrendous, completely inaudible voice quality and what video I was able to receive from Scott was horribly pixelated.

It should also be noted that we tested this with the most optimal broadband conditions possible -- both of our Android devices were connected to 5Ghz Wireless-N networks at 65Mbps, and each of our broadband uplink speeds were at least 5Mbps -- and mine was 15Mbps up and 100Mbps down, where Scott's was 5Mbps up and 20Mbps down, during evening hours.

As for the HDMI dock, the store didn't have those in stock yet, so you'll have to look elsewhere for reviews of that feature.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab is certainly an impressive piece of technology, and if it meets your needs, and does what you want it to do, and your mobile activities are primarily app-focused, then it's a product you should consider. However, as the product is currently shipped, I'm not seeing it as a keeper, and if you're expecting something analagous to an iPad you're definitely going to be disappointed.

Additionally, the product's rough edges, particularly in the areas of the built-in cameras and its lacking support for video chat diminishes the device's advertised utility. I expect that with future software updates such as with the forthcoming Gingerbread and Honeycomb releases the Tab and future product iteration will significantly improve, but I'm not going to suggest you buy this device with the intention of waiting on future software releases. As a Tablet, the device isn't fully baked. So I'm returning it.

Have you purchased a Galaxy Tab yet or are you going to wait for a more mature Android-based tablet device? Or something else entirely? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: CXO, Hardware, iPad, Mobility, Samsung, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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89 comments
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  • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

    Thanks for a honest in-depth review, we will definitely have a lot of cool android tablets soon enough
    godzhesas
    • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

      @godzhesas I think where android based tablets are concerned, based on the smart phone market over the past few years, HTC are the manufacturer to watch. I hope they make an android tab, because what they have done with their android phones and sense UI has been so far beyond the Galaxy S mobile or any other android handset.
      blakjak.au
  • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

    That is a refreshing internet user's review. As a 1.0 first attempt it points the way forward and the next tab should get better once those kinks/shortcomings you mentioned are sorted out. Yes, I shall wait eagerly for the sequel !
    anonymous
  • iPad came first I believe.

    "...the iPad?s iOS, which was originally derided for being just a big iPod Touch or a giant iPhone, and is actually more optimized to the target device despite originating as a smartphone operating system."

    In fact the iPad came first. Steve Jobs, in his All Things Digital interview, said that Apple was desiging a tablet around 2002 then saw what the software engineer had done with inertial scrolling. He then shelved the tablet idea and continued development for a phone. So iOS was originally slated (pun intended) for a tablet device.

    Great review though. I'm living in Korea and Samsung are hammering the Tab for all it's worth, even though it has only just been released here. No official sign of the iPad yet except those of us who ordered one from another country. It will be interesting to see how the two devices will be compared over here.
    A Grain of Salt
    • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

      @A Grain of Salt

      Well as the owner of an ipad I would say they are not worth the money. Too much of the web is unable to reach due to Jobs refusing flash to be ported to the ipad. I have an andriod phone with flash. I can not wait to get an android based Pad
      rparker009
      • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

        @rparker009
        You should sell it. I now know four folks who have them and they love them. Sorry that you misjudged the purchase or underestimated how important Flash-using web-sites were to you; no need to to suffer any further.
        DannyO_0x98
      • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

        @rparker009 I have an iPad and actually the no flash was the selling point for me. I actually researched the product instead of doing an impulse buy. I did not get it day one, but it was worth the wait and every penny spent. I also am used to Apple's better safe than sorry attitude and agree with it. My only real dislike is some of the aps that they allow in the apstore. I don't like it when things quite. 4.2 ios is coming and I am hoping Safari runs smoother. I agree with DannyO you should sell it as I know people that love using mine that would not mind getting one. I hope the Android performs beyond your expectations. I know the iPad has for me.
        spikedstrider
      • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

        @rparker009 The no flash support was a selling point for me too. As others said, no need to suffer anymore. If you're into this kind of device you may take a look at other Android tablets like the Notion-Ink Adam, or even BB... I may be wrong, but I hardly see how these devices can make a good use of the high level Flash framework anyway, seems too resource intensive to be handled by this architecture, at least for now... And as soon as videos are concerned, sites like YouTube have theirs standardized [mp4] and handled by the hardware acceleration chip right away; and games are available for free or 80 cents as optimized native apps, so why bother...
        WillCroPoint
      • Having used Android with Flash

        @rparker009

        Not having Flash was a great selling point. I find Android web browsing almost unusable with Flash enabled and still eats resources when on demand. Perhaps RIM will make it work. Google failed.
        Bruizer
      • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

        @rparker009 The Flash you have on your Android phone is not the full fledge version of it.
        minardi
  • Heat

    I think your heat analysis may be a bit off. Aluminum is a much better conductor than plastic. What you are probably experiencing is the heat from the iPad being spread and dissipated over a larger surface area and therefore does not need to be as warm to dissipate the heat. The Galaxy on the other hand, having a lower conductivity case, needs a higher surface temperature in a smaller area to dissipate the heat generated.
    Economister
    • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

      @Economister Fascinating.
      jperlow
    • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

      @Economister
      That was exactly what I was going to say. Plus, with the plastic case, the Tab is actually insulating the heat inside... it might affect the performance in the long run.
      MikeyTheUnderdog
      • Very possible

        @MikeyTheUnderdog

        You may need a higher temperature inside the case to reach a steady state heat balance. With no fan, an aluminum case is probably a better design, everything else being equal.
        Economister
    • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

      @Economister Alluminum is great for keeping a device cool. Plastic prevents the heat from leaving the device. I believe what he was saying aluminum is the better choice for the same price. Instead of bouncing the heat back the device, the iPad distributes the heat to help keep it cool.
      spikedstrider
    • So the Tab runs hotter.

      @Economister

      Pretty simple. The iPad has a better heat sink. Sounds like a huge plus to me.
      Bruizer
    • @CFWhittman

      Slightly more flexible but substantially harder. It goes along way to why I still think of Android as a geek OS. Moving media to a Droid is a PITA. Flexible, yes. Easy? Not at all.
      Bruizer
  • Dolphin

    Jason have you tried Dolphin?
    :/
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • RE: Samsung Galaxy Tab: iPad Rival or Handheld Computer?

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate: He said he tried opera mobile (I hope he means mobile and not mini) in my experience the newly release opera mobile (beta) is better than dolphin in speed and rendering. Certainly the overall experience in opera mobile is in a different league to the build in android browser.
      blakjak.au
  • Not first

    This is getting old.
    Because a large company like Apple comes out with the iPad they were "first".

    WRONG!

    My Nokia N800 TABLET predates iPad by years. My Archos 5 running Android was out months before the iPad.

    The iPad was nowhere the first tablet device.
    Tim Patterson