Competing with Apple on quality, elegance, and innovation is nearly always a losing battle. By comparison, most products feel awkward and substandard. And so it is with the Samsung Galaxy Tab, a 7-inch, Android 2.2-powered touch-based slate device.
The Galaxy Tab does show some promise, but its flaws far outnumber its positives. Part of that is due to Samsung's hardware design, and part of the blame goes to the Android 2.2 OS that Google says never was designed for tablets. After using Android 2.2 in a tablet, I understand why Google is telling device makers to wait for a tablet-oriented Android. Samsung should have heeded Google's warning.
[ Also on InfoWorld: See how Apple iOS 4 and Android 2.2 compare: "Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2." | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]
The Galaxy Tab is very portable, with a 7-inch widescreen display, and it weighs just 12 ounces -- about half the mass of the iPad. It's also exactly half the size and roughly the same thickness. Anyone familiar with the iPad will be struck by the smaller size of the Galaxy Tab. Plus, the Tab's overall fit and finish is very nice: sleek, comfortable, and precise.
The Galaxy Tab even includes features the iPad lacks, such as front- and rear-facing cameras and support for removable storage. Nonetheless, at $600 versus $630 for the equivalent iPad, the Galaxy Tab feels overpriced.
Galaxy Tab: Portability over usabilityThe Galaxy Tab's portability comes at a big price: usability. I had to put on my reading glasses to use the device because text is too small, even after I increased the text size. The screen size also makes it hard to use the Web browser. In vertical orientation, the browser window is impossibly tiny, and in horizontal orientation, only a small strip of a Web page fits. The iPad's 9.7-inch screen can feel cramped, but the Web is quite usable on it.
I also found the Galaxy Tab screen's 16:9 aspect ratio awkward to use for everything except watching movies. In either vertical or horizontal orientation, the display feels too cramped. The 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad's screen is a better fit for most apps and content, though not movies.
For simple messaging and basic games like Angry Birds, the Galaxy Tab's screen is fine. But if you do any amount of typing, such as for notetaking, the on-screen keyboard is too small, even in horizontal orientation. In contrast, the iPad's on-screen keyboard is full size at horizontal orientation, and touch-typing is reasonably possible on it. Due to the Galaxy Tab's size, you'll be typing one finger at a time, as you would on a smartphone or iPod Touch -- it's doable, but slow.
I also found that the touchscreen was not responsive enough, especially when compared to an iPad, where my fingers can fly without the device missing a beat.
The Android OS's on-screen keyboard design is also an issue. The keys are crowded with information, yet the labels of alternative characters are difficult to read; they're a shade of a gray too light and the fonts are a bit thin. I like that I can tap and hold a key to get an alternative character (something the iPad and Galaxy Tab both do), and I like it even better that keys on the Galaxy Tab show me in advance what the alternative characters are (the iPad's do not). However, I wish I could see them more easily.
The Galaxy Tab's screen is clear and luminous, but you'll want to turn off the autobrightness control sensor. When the sensor is on, the device constantly changes brightness, which is both seriously distracting and hard on the eyes. The savings in battery life is not worth the visual struggle. The good news is that the Galaxy Tab's battery lasts a long time, easily matching the iPad's 11 hours on a full charge.
Galaxy Tab: Slow performerWith fewer pixels to push around, you'd think the Galaxy Tab would be a strong performer -- but it's not. There's a noticeable lag in almost every action, especially in what appears on screen. I routinely got ahead of the on-screen keyboard when typing, and I often had to wait for the screen to reorient itself as I turned the device. Samsung's 1GHz ARM-based Hummingbird just can't keep up with Apple's 1GHz ARM-based A4 -- ironic, considering Samsung manufactures the A4 for Apple.
I also had trouble with Wi-Fi and 3G networks using the Galaxy Tab. Both were sluggish compared to network-related performance on the iPad. On both Sprint's and Verizon Wireless' 3G services, downloads of Kindle books took 10 minutes or more, versus 1 or 2 minutes over the iPad's AT&T 3G. The connections also timed out on several occasions. I don't think the cause is AT&T network superiority, given that I've experienced better performance on the Sprint and Verizon networks with smartphones than I have on the AT&T network in the same area of the country.
The Galaxy Tab could not connect to some Wi-Fi networks that my other test devices -- an iPad, iPod Touch, BlackBerry Torch, Google Nexus One, Mac, and Windows XP PC -- access with no issue. There's no way to troubleshoot a Wi-Fi connection, as there is on the iPad, so I was stuck.
Galaxy Tab: Inferior Android apps There's a huge difference in quality between the apps available for the iPad and those available for the Galaxy Tab. I installed a bunch of apps available for both devices and in every case found the Android version inferior.
For example, the Android Kindle app doesn't let you change fonts, and its only selection is hard to read. The iPad Kindle app supports multiple fonts, and all are much more legible. The New York Times app for the iPad is a wonderful adaptation of the traditional newspaper design, making it easy to peruse, as well as read individual articles in. The Times' special version for Android tablets is basically a list, as you'd find on the New York Times' smartphone versions -- except on the Galaxy Tab's bigger screen, the list is awkwardly wide. The USA Today app on Android displays only in vertical orientation, whereas the iPad version automatically repositions as you rotate the device.
Few Android apps take advantage of the Galaxy Tab's larger screen to provide a richer context or extra capabilities, yet such adaptation is common on iPad apps, even many that also run on the iPhone. For example, the YouTube app on Android obscures favorites and other navigation aids that are accessible on the iPad version.
As a result, many apps on the Galaxy Tab feel crippled or just plain awkward compared to their iPad counterparts because they've been blown up to fill the large screen. Over time, once Android tablets gain traction, tablet-savvy apps will become more common -- but that's the future, not the present.
Galaxy Tab: Mail and ExchangeThe built-in Mail app on the Galaxy Tab can't properly handle folders; subfolders are not distinguishable from their parents, and all appear in an alphabetical list that ignores their actual hierarchy. That may seem like a small thing -- unless you rely on nested folders to stay organized. (On the iPad, nested folders work just like they do on a PC or Mac.) The Tab's calendar and contacts apps are perfectly serviceable.
The Galaxy Tab does support Microsoft Exchange accounts and, according to reports, on-device encryption, as recommended by many companies. Android 2.2 does not support on-device encryption natively, so it's unclear how the Galaxy Tab accomplishes this. One possibility is that it is misreporting compliance, as some Android devices have been found to do. We put the question to Samsung, but the company did not provide an answer.
A key difference between the Galaxy Tab and the iPad is the support infrastructure for the user's installed applications and stored data. I've really come to appreciate iTunes' role in backing up and securing my iPad's apps and contents, as well as acting as a waystation for all sorts of documents and media and serving as my master library. There is no such comparable repository for Android, whether in the cloud or on a computer. A tablet is a natural hub for rich media and content, as well as for apps, and it needs an iTunes equivalent, even if a smartphone may not. Although that's ultimately an Android issue that Google should address, it will affect the usability and experience of the Galaxy Tab.
I have one kudo for the Galaxy Tab when it comes to apps: Its adoption of the iPad's and iPhone's approach to the application screens, where you scroll horizontally from one screen to the next, is much easier than the stock Android OS's technique of scrolling vertically.
But I really disliked the numeric pad's layout for entering a PIN to unlock the device. The OK button is on the lower left -- not on the right side as it is in most interfaces. I ended up pressing Backspace most of the time because it was where OK should be. I know that's standard Android behavior, but it's annoying.
Where the Galaxy Tab shinesAlthough the Galaxy Tab is disappointing at several levels, it has a few positives worth noting -- if only to remind everyone that the iPad is not perfect.
First, I like how the "home row" that contains the Email, Application, and Browser buttons reorients itself when you hold the Galaxy Tab in horizontal orientation. It's a small thing but an indication of usability-oriented thinking.
Second, I like how the four standard control buttons -- Menu, Home, Back, and Search -- light up in a dim environment. That makes it much easier to use the device for reading or couch-surfing, especially since those buttons are all behind the glass, so you can't feel them.
I also like some of the Android capabilities that come with the Galaxy Tab. The voice search works quite well, for example, and the navigation app's ability to talk you through directions while you are driving or walking is much nicer than the iPad's "follow the position globe" approach.
Android's 3G tethering capability is notable, as is its support for Flash, which played smoothly on the Galaxy Tab. Although neither feature is a deal-clincher for me, many people will appreciate them.
Wait for a real Android tablet -- or get an iPadSamsung erred in its 7-inch widescreen "tweener" display -- it's too small for the Web and rich apps but too big for smartphone apps. Samsung also erred in releasing a device using an operating system that is not tablet-oriented, especially since the operating system's maker, Google, has warned companies not to use it for such devices.
The result of these two decisions is a device that's neither really a tablet, nor really a pocket computer à la the iPod Touch. Unlike in the Goldilocks story, the size in between is not "just right." The Galaxy Tab is widely considered to be the best Android tablet available today. That's absolutely true -- which is why if you buy a tablet now, it should unquestioningly be an iPad.
This article, "Samsung's Galaxy Tab makes a strong case for buying an iPad," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.
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