review HTC might be the name to beat when it comes to mobile phones based on Google’s Android operating system, but Samsung is likely running a close second in the Australian Android space, with its Galaxy S device proving popular amongst the nation’s early adopter set and even the wider community.
But HTC hasn’t yet entered the tablet market, where Apple’s iPad has been the sole serious player in Australia for six months now. Can Samsung’s flagship Galaxy Tab — launched this month — steal a march on HTC in the tablet space, and even nab a little market share from Apple?
When you first pick up a Samsung Galaxy Tab, you feel as if you’ve just walked into the elegant Ivy series of bars and lounges in downtown Sydney. The device oozes sensual elegance and quality that will make your fingers tingle. It’s truly a magical and revolutionary product.
The back of the device is quality white plastic, slightly rounded and shaped so that it fits nicely into one hand if you’re holding it short-side up. The camera and flash are at the top.
The impression of elegance continues as you turn the Galaxy Tab over. The sides and front of the device are also of quality plastic — black, as opposed to the white on the back. There are no sharp edges; everything’s moulded so that it just feels nice to hand. A bit like the older generation iPhones before Apple went a bit more industrial with the iPhone 4; but more matte than shiny.
On the top right-hand side of the Tab, if you’re holding it short-side up and facing you, you’ll find the power and volume buttons, subtly inset so that you won’t notice them unless you’re looking closely. Slide your finger down and you’ll find similar slots for the Tab’s microSD card port and SIM card (yes, this device connects to 3G mobile networks).
On the top of the Tab is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and there’s a small pin-prick microphone on its left. On the bottom is an input which looks suspiciously like the connection port on Apple’s iOS family of devices, although we weren’t game to test out our iPhone charger on the Tab.
There’s a small camera on the top front of the Tab, and of course the 7″ screen. The whole thing is quite light (380g, almost half that of the 3G iPad’s 730g) and it’s just over 1cm thick, meaning it will slide unobtrusively into any form of hand luggage. Overall, the Tab feels like a thicker, classier version of many of the eBook readers currently on the market — and with about a bajillion more features.
There are four Android-standard touch-sensitive hardware buttons at the bottom of the device, which light up when the device is being used — for menu, home, return and search.
The awesome thing about the Galaxy Tab is that its feature list leaves almost nothing out. We’re used to noting specific problems with mobile phones and tablets that we’ve played with, the most notable being things like outdated versions of Android, a slow CPU or poor camera.
The Galaxy Tab suffers from none of these problems.
The tablet runs the latest version of Android (2.2, or Froyo), and comes with a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 CPU, which is suitably speedy. Its 7″ multi-touch capacitive screen has a display of 1024×600 (unbelievably, only slightly smaller than the iPad at 1024×768), and it supports all of Australia’s 3G mobile networks, with a maximum downlink speed of 7.2Mbps and 5.76Mbps up. The 802.11b,g and n standards are supported for Wi-Fi, as is Bluetooth.
512MB of RAM comes included, as well as 16 or 32GB of on-board storage space; and the microSD slot can add a stack more. The rear camera is rated at 3.0 megapixels, and the front camera at 1.3 megapixels — it’ll mainly be used for video calls.
And of course, Adobe Flash is supported; something you’ll never see on an iPad.
Using the Galaxy Tab is an absolute dream. The tablet feels and acts in the hand very much like a larger version of a high-end Android phone like the HTC Desire or Samsung Galaxy S.
Many Australians have come to be familiar with the Android operating system through these handsets over the past year, and will find that user friendly experience replicated on the Galaxy Tab. However, the Tab’s screen is so large, bright and clear, and its buttons so responsive, that you’ll feel as though you’ve instantly been upgraded into a higher definition world.
Using the Tab after using an iPhone or Android handset is like switching to a LCD or plasma TV after using a CRT screen for years, or upgrading to the HD signal of the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 after using a last-generation model. Everything is just bigger, clearer, bolder, brighter. And we love it.
The Galaxy Tab also comes with some specific applications that instantly allow you to take advantage of its bigger size. On the model we were sent, for example, the app of The Australian newspaper was pre-loaded, giving easy access to its content. The app is very similar to the newspaper’s iPad application and is broken into sections.
However, we much preferred reading The Australian through the PressDisplay app, included as part of Samsung’s Readers Hub app. This fantastic app will download what appeared to be PDF versions of most large Australian newspapers (the exception being The Australian Financial Review) for just 99c a day, and lets you flick through the pages and zoom in on articles as though you had a paper copy. We can’t recommend it highly enough as a way to read newspapers digitally — it’s fantastic.
Also in Samsung’s Readers Hub app is the Kobo app for eReading, and a magazine library provided by Zinio, in which we found limited Australian content.
After a while playing with the Galaxy Tab, it became apparent why Samsung seems to have attempted to focus users’ usage of the device on eReading applications in this way.
It’s apparent that the Galaxy Tab allows users to carry out many of the same tasks that they would already use a smartphone for — casual browsing of the web in transit, reading email and composing brief replies, map reading and so on. But the device’s larger screen size also allows it to be used as a highly versatile and functional device for consuming forms of media such as books, newspapers, magazines and video that are hard to access easily on a smartphone and sometimes even on an eReader (and of course, the Galaxy Tab has much higher functionality than any eReader).
This extensibility also makes the Tab very competitive with the iPad, because Apple’s device is being used for many of the same tasks — as well as document sharing. And, at almost half the weight of the 3G iPad, it’s not hard to see why many would prefer the Tab if they’re carrying it around all day.
The battery life on the Tab is excellent — we used it casually here and there for 2-3 days at a time without needing to charge it, and if you’re just using it for Wi-Fi browsing and reading, you’ll get even more. It’s using the 3G connection and playing video that will drain the Tab faster.
We were also happy with the Tab’s camera. It’s unlikely that you’ll be doing a lot of video or camera work with the Tab — after all, smartphones are much more likely to be easily to hand when you need them. But although the Tab’s main camera isn’t top of the road, it was more than serviceable for taking photos and video, and its front-facing camera is generally fine to above average for video calling.
Typing on the device was a little hard if you use your thumbs as many iPhone users do — but if you use your fingers you’ll likely find a comfortable spot. The on-screen buttons are big and hard to miss. And of course — unlike the iPad — it can also function as a mobile phone, although you wouldn’t hold it up to your ear, but instead use the speakerphone, which functions acceptably well.
Not everything was perfect, however — we had three areas of dissatisfaction with the Galaxy Tab’s performance. Firstly, its screen attracts fingerprints like flies to a pot of honey; it will quickly lose its lustre and take on a well worn look. So if you’re showing it off to friends, apply a tissue first so they get the full glamor effect. Otherwise the Tab will look as if it’s been pawed by a dozen drunks in a Kings Cross nightclub.
Secondly, we experienced a number of bugs with the Tab — applications that would quit sometimes, and weird ongoing errors from the Android operating system. Clearly, Android for tablets is a work in progress. Having to manually kill apps that are sticking around as background processes is not fantastic for a device that is aimed at consumers. As far as we could work out, none of the errors seemed related to apps designed for smartphones but not for the larger tablet form factor; but the larger screen size did make some traditional apps look a little weird sometimes.
And lastly, Flash. Steve Jobs was right — Flash is a dog, and every time we loaded a web page that was using it, the Tab slowed to a crawl and scrolling and zooming in and out became an exercise in frustration. We’re not sure what’s going on there, but it needs fixing.
Up until this point, you might be thinking that Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is that rarest of device; a very high-quality first-generation release in a new product category with few problems, and even some those likely to be taken care of with time and Android software updates.
And you’d be right — except for one thing: Pricing. Australians will be facing a wealth of undesirable options when it comes to buying the Galaxy Tab.
Outright, the device will cost $999 for the 16GB model — that’s $200 more expensive than the 16GB 3G iPad model, which has a larger screen size and better third-party application compatibility (for now). Frankly, we can’t see any reason why Samsung would consider this a fair price. Apple is known for owning the premium end of the market. Pricing higher than Steve Jobs is not going to win you any consumer sentiment.
The Galaxy Tab’s build quality is high — but Apple high? That’s a big call.
Secondly, you can buy the Tab on a monthly plan from Optus or Vodafone, for a total cost ranging from $1080 right up to $2376, depending on how much data and voice quota you sign up for. But with existing smartphone plans being what they are, we’re betting many people don’t want to sign up for a second pricey smartphone-ish device on a plan that will add to their monthly bill. In some ways, Apple has gotten its retail iPad strategy (divorced from the carriers) right in this way.
With this in mind, we’re issuing a qualified ‘buy’ rating on the Samsung Galaxy Tab. That is, we think this is a fantastic device and well-worth buying — when the price comes down to at least the level of the iPad ($799) and preferably even lower.
(PS: Yes, we know the Galaxy Tab is coming from Telstra shortly as well. We’re told the telco is waiting for a version that will work well on its Next G mobile network, with the funny 850Mhz spectrum. It should be here soon.)
Other reviews of the Samsung Galaxy Tab we liked:
Image credits: Samsung