Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1: Slim and sexy

Samsung's new tablet is the thinnest currently available -- but is it actually worth buying?

In the realm of Android tablets, standing out from the pack is becoming an increasingly challenging task for manufacturers. With its new Galaxy Tab 10.1 device, Samsung has managed to set itself apart with a quality few have achieved: sexiness.

That's right: The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is sexy. At a mere 8.6 mm in thickness, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is even thinner (by a hair) than Apple's celebrated iPad 2, which is listed at 8.8 mm.

It weighs about 1.25 lb., making it 6% lighter than the iPad 2 and a whopping 20% lighter than the Motorola Xoom, the current flagship device for Google's Android Honeycomb tablet platform. When blindly holding the Tab and the Xoom flat in your palms, like plates, it's tough to gauge the difference in weight. But holding the tablets individually in front of you, as you would when actually using them, the new Tab's light form is impossible not to notice.

And the Tab 10.1 practically begs to be held. This thing is all smooth curves: Its silver metallic trim forms a gently rounded border around its 10.1-inch screen. The trim extends about half an inch down the Tab's back, covering the rear camera area. The back plate itself is shiny white plastic; a dark gray model is also available.

So the Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a rockin' body; that much is clear. But will it also wow you with its brains? Let's take a look.

Under the hood

Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 is powered by an Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core 1GHz processor, the same processor used in the Xoom and numerous other high-end Android devices. Like the Xoom, the Galaxy Tab has 1GB of RAM.

As you'd expect, given those specs, the Tab's performance is impressive: I found that swiping through home screen panels was fast and fluid, and apps loaded almost instantly. Resource-intensive games such as the Tegra-optimized Riptide GP and Pinball HD played smoothly, showing off what Nvidia's GeForce GPU can do.

Web browsing on the Tab 10.1 was speedy and hassle-free (aside from some Web sites loading as mobile versions -- a Web development problem that's solvable with a simple fix). With the separately downloaded Adobe Flash Player in place, Flash-based videos played effortlessly in the Honeycomb browser; I watched several clips without so much as a single blip in the playback.

(Flash content on Android, it's worth noting, loads only on demand; as such, you don't end up seeing things like Flash-based ads unless you choose to tap and load them.)

The only performance-related issue I noticed was a tendency for the screen to sometimes take too long to rotate when turning the device, particularly on the home screen. This seems to be a common hiccup with Android Honeycomb tablets, however, and not exclusive to the Galaxy Tab 10.1.

In terms of battery life, the Tab can last a solid nine hours with continuous video playback. For regular day-to-day use, you should easily be able to go a good few days without needing to charge.

The Tab's display

The core component of any tablet is its display, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 shines in this department. The Tab's 1280 x 800-pixel LCD is bold and vibrant, with brilliant colors and crisp definition. The color-intensive configuration makes the Xoom's screen (also 1280 x 800) look almost muted in comparison.

That said, the Tab's display did seem a bit oversaturated at times. In photos, for instance, skin looked significantly more orangey than it should -- not necessarily a bad thing for the pale among us -- while the Xoom's color representation was far more true to life.

Like any glossy-surfaced gadget, the Galaxy Tab looks worse in the sun. But while the screen appeared more washed out in outdoor conditions, I was able to view images and read text with relative ease, even in direct sunlight. Still, I found the Xoom to generally fare better in bright conditions.

I had no qualms with the Tab's touch-screen responsiveness; it struck me as roughly comparable to that of other high-end Honeycomb tablets.

A sweeter Honeycomb?

As with all Android devices, setup and synchronization was simple: After inputting my Google account credentials, the system automatically imported my preferences from my Android phone. It pulled over all of my emails, contacts and calendar information -- even the home screen wallpaper I had set on another device. Apps that I had downloaded to other devices appeared within five to 10 minutes. The Tab easily synced up with my Chrome browser bookmarks and with my recently created Google Music account, too. Thanks to the latter connection, I was able to stream anything from my entire music collection within minutes of turning the tablet on -- no waiting or downloads required.

Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 runs Android 3.1, the updated version of Honeycomb released by Google one month ago. With the 3.1 release, Honeycomb has evolved tremendously from its initial rough-around-the-edges form. The system is smoother, and glitches present in the early release have largely been ironed out. A smattering of new features is also available, including the ability to resize home screen widgets and to turn the tablet into a fully functioning USB host, capable of connecting to cameras, keyboards, joysticks and other external devices.

(For a more thorough overview of the operating system and how it differs from Apple's iOS, see my full Android Honeycomb review.)

In its rush to get 3.1 on the Tab, Samsung opted to ship the device with stock Honeycomb, leaving off its trademark TouchWiz overlay for now. If you like a "pure" Google experience, though, you may be in for a disappointment.

First of all, while the new Tab is lacking Samsung's full custom interface, the company did -- contrary to initial impressions -- make some subtle modifications to the OS. Most immediately noticeable, the default Honeycomb camera app is replaced with a Samsung alternative. I wouldn't say it's really better or worse in any significant way; it's just different -- and that's the problem. Samsung's camera app is inconsistent with the overall Honeycomb interface; unlike the rest of the system, it doesn't have the standard set of navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen to let you step back, return to the home screen, or multitask. This inconsistency hurts the user experience and makes me wonder why Samsung meddled with the software in the first place.

Other OS modifications include the addition of a Samsung virtual keyboard, which uses Nuance's XT9 text-prediction technology. It is set as the primary keyboard by default, though you can switch back to the standard Honeycomb keyboard if you prefer. (Personally, I found the regular Honeycomb version easier to use.) Samsung also added in a setting that lets you specify separate wallpapers for your home screen and lock screen -- a fine if somewhat unnecessary feature.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a handful of Samsung-added apps preinstalled, all of which are set as system applications and thus are unremovable. These include Samsung's Music Hub, a rather clunky and superfluous Samsung app store, and a couple of third-party programs for word processing and news.

Hang on, though: This stuff is all small potatoes compared to the Samsung software modifications on the way. The company still plans to add its TouchWiz user interface onto the Galaxy Tab 10.1; the interface will be sent as an over-the-air update to Tab users at some point "in the near future." The update will integrate the company's full custom UI into the Android software, adding such features as a dock-style app tray for quick access to commonly used applications, a series of custom apps and widgets for the home screen, and seamless access to Samsung mobile services like Media Hub, Social Hub and Allshare.

Prerelease previews indicate the TouchWiz-enabled Tab will have a redesigned e-mail app and a revamped system settings menu as well.

Tablets galore

Want more tablet info? Get specs, ship dates, prices and other details for the latest tablets in Computerworld's sortable tablet database.

So are those modifications good or bad? That depends on your preferences. Some people think manufacturer-added skins like Samsung's TouchWiz enhance the software and make for a better experience; others, myself included, tend to view them as unnecessary clutter with unfortunate repercussions. User experience aside, manufacturer-added skins have the potential to cause delays in future Android upgrades, since manufacturers have to spend extra time baking their modifications into each release before it can be distributed. The fact that Samsung decided to temporarily remove its TouchWiz UI from the Tab in order to get the 3.1 update ready fast seems to reinforce this notion.

Samsung says it hasn't yet determined how the upgrade will work and whether users will be given a choice to stick with the stock Honeycomb experience. Consider, though, the extra time and expense it would require for the company to support and upgrade two separate paths of software for the life of the device. Anything's possible, but that certainly doesn't seem probable.

(Incidentally, someone from Samsung told PCWorld that the company may let users "opt to use elements of [TouchWiz]" after the update. I suspect that means you might end up being able to knock out things like the widgets and added apps but would be stuck with the OS-level modifications. We'll find out for sure soon enough; for now, the take-home message is that there is no guarantee.)

Cameras, multimedia, and more

Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a 3-megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash and 720p-quality HD video recording. The Tab also has a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat, which can be accomplished through Google's preinstalled Google Talk program or through any number of third-party utilities. A gyroscope, accelerometer, ambient light sensor and compass are also all on-board.

The Galaxy Tab has stereo speakers along its side edges, about an inch and a half from the top of the device. I found the sound quality to be decent -- better than most mobile products, but still a bit tinny. The speakers on the Xoom, for instance, produced a fuller and richer sound to my ears, though their placement -- on the back side of the tablet -- is undoubtedly inferior.

In terms of connectivity, the Galaxy Tab is pretty limited. A headphone jack sits on the top edge of the tablet, alongside the power button and volume rocker. The bottom of the unit has just a single port for Samsung's proprietary charging/connection cable. The cable -- included with the tablet -- allows you to connect the unit directly to your PC, where you can access it like an external hard drive and drag and drop files as you wish.

What's missing

For all its assets, Samsung's new Galaxy Tab is missing several significant elements that could go a long way in differentiating it from Apple's market-leading iPad tablet. The Tab 10.1 has no microSD card slot and consequently does not support external storage. It lacks a USB port, meaning Tab users won't be able to natively take advantage of Android 3.1's USB host functionality. The Galaxy Tab has no dedicated HDMI out port, either, and -- unlike the Motorola Xoom -- has no LED indicators to alert you of new e-mails, the tablet's charging status or other relevant messages.

Some of these omissions will be corrected with third-party accessories Samsung will sell in the future. But they're not built into or included with the tablet, as is the case with some of the Tab's competitors.

The bottom line

Available now only at New York City's Union Square store, Wi-Fi versions of Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 will be available nationwide on June 17. The 16GB model will sell for $499; a 32GB edition will run $599. Verizon Wireless will also offer 4G versions of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 starting in July; those models will cost $529.99 for 16GB or $629.99 for 32GB and will require two-year contract commitments.

All considered, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is an impressive tablet with an outstanding form. Its slim profile and sleek appearance make it a standout item in a field of often indistinguishable contenders. The Tab's "sexy" factor is sure to catch the eye of many an eager buyer, and -- combined with its $499 starting price and Samsung's past success with Android smartphones -- may very well position the Tab to become Android's first breakout star in the booming tablet market.

For casual users who want to venture outside of Apple's carefully controlled walls, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is an excellent option -- easily the best available right now. For users who want extra bells and whistles and don't mind taking on a little extra weight for those features, a more robust tablet like the Motorola Xoom or the upcoming Toshiba Thrive may be a better choice. Frankly, the differences in design are subjective; as smartphones have shown us, some people prefer a sturdier, more heavy-duty look over the shiny and smooth curves employed by the Tab.

At a Glance

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

Samsung

Price: $499 (16GB, Wi-Fi only), $599 (32GB, Wi-Fi only), $530 (16GB, Wi-Fi/4G), $630 (32GB, Wi-Fi/4G)

Pros: Slim and sexy design; crisp, vibrant display; excellent performance; ships with Android 3.1

Cons: No USB or HDMI ports; no support for external storage; colors can appear oversaturated; OS upgrade path still unclear

Finally, for Android enthusiasts who prefer Google's stock Honeycomb experience -- and who place great importance in receiving quick updates to the Android operating system as they become available -- it is difficult to wholeheartedly recommend the Galaxy Tab. Samsung is offering no guarantee that it'll provide a stock Android upgrade path into the future, and even the software on the tablet at launch, while technically stock-based, has a handful of OS-level modifications in place.

The Xoom is the reference model used by Android engineers; if you want "pure" Google software and the first shot at future upgrades, it's probably still your safest bet.

JR Raphael is a syndicated writer and the author of Computerworld's Android Power blog. You can find him on both Facebook and Twitter.

Tags hardware systemsSamsung Electronicslaptopstablet PCs

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JR Raphael

Computerworld (US)

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