Apple has had the tablet market to itself for a while, but that's about to change with the arrival of an array of Android-based devices. There are several on the way, in various different sizes, starting at around £100. The first to arrive for a full review is Samsung's Galaxy Tab.
All of the leading UK operators are carrying the Galaxy Tab, with prices ranging between £499 and £599 on a variety of contract and pay-as-you-go tariffs. You can also purchase the Galaxy Tab SIM-free for around £550 (inc. VAT; £458.33 ex. VAT). We saw review samples from Samsung and also from Vodafone.
The 7in. Galaxy Tab is much smaller than its most obvious current competitor, Apple's 9.7in. iPad, and arguably much more of a hybrid phone/tablet than fully one thing or the other.
It's too large to fit most pockets at 120.45mm wide by 190.09mm deep by 11.98mm thick, and certainly too heavy at 385g. It will fit happily into most bags, though, and is comparable in size to many e-book readers whose functions it can mimic, albeit with a better (colour) screen and worse battery life.
The 7in. Galaxy Tab, with a 3.7in. HTC Desire alongside for comparison
Every millimetre of size matters for a device like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, whose niche is yet to be established, and there's more than 1cm of clearance around all edges of the screen. Ideally, Samsung would have used a slightly larger display, or made the chassis a little smaller.
The screen measures 7in. across the diagonal and is visually stunning. It's capacitive, and therefore supports the pinch-to-zoom feature that so many smartphone users appreciate. The screen's 600 by 1,024 resolution makes it comfortable to read documents and web pages.
The Galaxy Tab runs Android 2.2 and applications are currently designed for lower resolutions such as 480 by 800. This means that applications you download will simply be stretched to fit the larger screen, rather than natively taking advantage of it. In time, this may change, as apps are tweaked for higher resolutions.
As you'd expect, there is a gravity sensor that causes the screen to swivel between portrait and landscape orientations as you turn the Galaxy Tab in your hand. It's extremely sensitive, and we found it often caused the screen to swivel when this was not intended.
This quickly became irritating, and we could find no way to calibrate or alter the sensor's settings. Hopefully Samsung will issue a software fix, otherwise this could become an annoyance for many users. There is a screen orientation lock option, available via the pull-down notifications window at the top of the screen. But it's a shame to disable a potentially useful feature.
The Galaxy Tab is intended to be used in a wide range of situations, indoors and out. The screen has a glossy coating, which makes it tricky to read when you're next to a light source such as a window or a lamp. The screen also loses a good deal of its vibrancy when outdoors, although it remains readable. The screen ris at its best indoors, in dull or dark conditions. In these situations it's simply superb — sharp, bright and clear.
The screen does attract greasy fingermarks: this is often the case with mobile phones, of course, but the issue seems somehow more serious on the Galaxy Tab's larger screen (just as they do on the iPad). Make sure you keep a cleaning cloth to hand.
Build quality is excellent. The chassis is made from a tough plastic, and feels as though it will take a few knocks. It could be a bit thinner, but there are no glaring flaws. The front and sides are black, while the backplate is bright white, punctured by the camera lens and LED flash. The design is generally clean, if workaday, although it's somewhat marred by the amount of text printed on the back.
The buttons and connectors are very similar to those you'd expect to find on an Android-based smartphone. Beneath the screen are usual quartet of touch buttons for Menu, Home, Back and Search.
The bottom edge houses a proprietary 30-pin connector for power and PC synchronisation, which may irritate those who would prefer (Mini- or Micro-) USB. However, Samsung does provide a range of accessories and adapter cables.
The Galaxy Tab uses a proprietary connector rather than USB, so you'll have to buy any accessories from Samsung; you can get a desktop dock and a keyboard, plus a number of cables, as well as a book-style cover
Also on the bottom edge are two speakers, while the top edge houses a 3.5mm headset jack. The on/off switch is on the right, along with a volume rocker aplus microSD and SIM card slots, each protected by a hinged cover. On the left side is a microphone that you can use for making voice calls (you can also use a wired or Bluetooth headset).
The Galaxy Tab ships with an AC adapter, a handsfree headset and a printed getting-started guide. Considering the price, we'd expect a soft case to give the device some protection.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab is powered by a 1GHz Cortex A8 processor with PowerVR SGX540 graphics, as seen in Samsung's Galaxy S Android smartphone. It has 512MB of RAM, 2GB of user storage plus a further 16GB of internal memory. The microSD card slot lets you add up to a further 32GB, so there's plenty of headroom.
Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n) is present, of course, along with Bluetooth 3.0, which potentially lets you share files further and faster than with Bluetooth 2.x (although Bluetooth 3.0 is currently rare and throughput will be dragged down to the lowest common denominator). Mobile broadband at 7.2Mbps down and 5.75Mbps up is supported, along with GPS. Google Maps, in particular, is rendered extremely well on the 7in. screen.
We found the Galaxy Tab responsive to screen presses and taps, and it switched between apps with no significant time lags. If you do find the device slows down, the main screen has an active applications widget that tells you how many applications are running and lets you close specific ones.
Video streaming is an important use for tablets, and the Galaxy Tab had no trouble rendering YouTube video (a client is preinstalled), streaming video from BBC iPlayer or playing video clips embedded in the BBC News web site. Adobe Flash 10.1 support clearly helps here.
The on-screen keyboards were responsive too, although there's an ergonomic issue with typing. It's feasible to hold the Galaxy Tab in landscape mode and work with two thumbs, but this is far more comfortable on a smartphone. In portrait mode, you have to hold the device in one hand and use the keyboard with the other.
As mentioned above, the Galaxy Tab runs Android 2.2, which means it has access to the latest apps and OS features. Samsung has skinned parts of Android to help make it more large-screen friendly, and has added some utilities of its own.
Up to nine home screens (shown here as thumbnails) are available on the Galaxy Tab
You can have up to nine home screens: to get an thumbnail overview, you pinch in on any home screen, whereupon you can add or remove screens. Each screen can be peppered with widgets and shortcuts: data-carrying widgets such as Feeds and Updates (which aggregates Facebook, Twitter and MySpace feeds) work well on the large screen.
Samsung has tweaked the look of some of the Android applications. For example, Contacts gives you a tabbed view that displays a lot of information with a few key presses and links directly to the dialler. Calendar also has a tabbed view. Meanwhile, in landscape view the general email application takes a two-column approach, allowing you to see your inbox and the content of messages at the same time. This is a good way of making maximum use of the available space.
Like the Contacts app, Calendar has a tabbed interface on the Galaxy Tab
You also have access to the Android Market and its thousands of applications. Downloading applications proved to be a somewhat stop-start affair, but once we got applications installed they ran properly.
A Market application we particuarly appreciate is Kindle for Android. This free e-book reader is available across a wide range of platforms, giving access to all the books you've bought via the Amazon Kindle store and automatically jumping to the place you left off reading — regardless of the device used. Samsung is touting the Galaxy Tab as an e-book reader and includes its own Readers Hub offering magazines, news and books.
Magazines and news were not available on our review device, but the e-book reader is powered by the Kobo ebook store, which includes a significant number of free books to explore.
For professional users, there's a copy of ThinkFree Office for viewing and editing Microsoft Office documents. Registered users also have access to online storage. You can't create documents from scratch with ThinkFree Office, though, so be prepared to carry templates for editing and renaming.
The Galaxy Tab supports DLNA via its AllShare application. This should allow you to send video, pictures and audio to other compatible devices, although we couldn't get it to find our Windows 7 notebook and so were unable to test this aspect fully.
There are two cameras: a front-facing 1.3-megapixel unit for video calling and a 3-megapixel main camera at the back. The latter's maximum video resolution is 720 by 480 pixels. The camera is lacklustre in both stills and video departments, and we feel Samsung could have included 720p video recording and a 5-megapixel camera.
Performance & battery life
In general the Galaxy Tab performed well. We like the large screen, the processor seems to be up to its task, and full Flash 10.1 support is welcome.
This device is no substitute for a mobile phone though. Making voice calls using handsfree and speakerphone is fine, but holding the device to the ear is definitely a non-starter. The ability to use the front-facing camera for video calls is handy though.
The Galaxy Tab has a 4000mAh battery. You can't take the backplate off, so the battery is not user replaceable. Performance is very much on a par with what you'd expect from a smartphone: starting with a full charge at the start of a day and doing some web browsing, music playback, using GPS a little and even a spot of gaming, we found that by mid-afternoon the battery was down to about 25 percnt capacity.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab is not a large tablet like the iPad, nor is it a pocketable device like many Android smartphones. It sits in between the two. It functions well as a media player, could be used for mobile email and document creation, and its calendar display is more accessible than on many smartphones.
But many professionals will already carry a notebook and a phone, so we're not sure it has a place in the business traveller's bag. It's more appropriate as a secondary device for use when the notebook is too heavy, or too 'corporate' to carry. However, in this scenario the iPad's larger screen might win the day — particularly after a quick price comparison.