'Ice Cream Sandwich' makes the Galaxy Tab a little sweeter

Samsung Android tablet hardware is essentially unchanged, but new UI is easier to use -- except for Web browsing

Samsung's original 7-inch Galaxy Tab from late 2010 was an awkward animal, fusing the Android 2.2 "Froyo" smartphone operating system onto a tablet too big for the phone-sized UI and too small for Web browsing and other computer-type work. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 released in spring 2011 with the tablet-optimized Android 3 "Honeycomb" OS became the first credible Android tablet, although it still paled next to the iPad. Then last fall came the Android-derived Kindle Fire, a 7-inch tablet from Amazon.com that was cheap and limited largely to Amazon offerings. It quickly became the dominant Android tablet, though many argue it's not an Android tablet at all.

Why the history lesson? Because the new, $250 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 model released on April 22 is Samsung's response to that lineage. The Galaxy Tab 2 7-inch and the $350 Galaxy Tab 2 10.1-inch model due in May show Samsung largely giving up on competing with the iPad, which represents more than 70 percent of tablets in use today -- and that percentage goes past 90 in business adoption. Instead, Samsung has redirected its energies against the Kindle Fire, which has done so-so by e-book reader standards but well by Android tablet standards.

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That means the new Wi-Fi-only Galaxy Tab 2 tablets use the same hardware as their predecessors, with the addition of an infrared port to control home stereo equipment and an SD card slot, along with reductions in built-in flash storage capacity and in the front camera's megapixel rating. Using that old hardware lets Samsung reduce the price to be more in line with the $199 Kindle Fire. This would suggest businesses should not bother with the Galaxy Tab 2 series, and I'd agree -- with one exception.

Enterprise management and security now available for the 7-inch tabletThe Galaxy Tab 2 series come with Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich," which brings corporate-class management and security capabilities to the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 model. The original Galaxy Tab 10.1 had essentially the same capabilities as the forthcoming 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab 2 version, thanks to its use of "Honeycomb," on which "Ice Cream Sandwich" is largely based, but due to the 2011 version of the Galaxy Tab 7's use of first "Froyo," then "Gingerbread," it could not be managed or secured. This all means that the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 tablet can be used in many corporate environments, a first for an Android tablet of this size.

The Galaxy Tab 2 devices support Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) protocol, used by Exchange and dozens of mobile device management (MDM) servers to impose policies such as requiring use of a complex password or enforcing use of on-device encryption. But as is the case in other Android "Honeycomb" and "Ice Cream Sandwich" devices, enabling that encryption requires a 45-minute initialization process (unlike an iOS device that's on from the get-go). If your EAS policy requires the user to have both encryption and a password lock, the user will have to enter both passwords to access the device -- not one as in iOS -- when restarting a powered-off tablet.

As with other "Honeycomb" and "Ice Cream Sandwich" devices, the setup of VPNs and certificate-based Wi-Fi access is difficult, requiring network admin knowledge. Plus, Android does not work with Cisco IPSec-based VPNs or Cisco certificate-based Wi-Fi access points. By contrast, iOS lets users handle this setup easily.

Samsung provides a better calendarThere's not much business software included on the Galaxy Tab 2 tablets. The Contacts and Email apps are the stock Android versions, which are serviceable but unsophisticated. Well, almost stock: The Email app has a floating Top button that appears when you scroll through a message to bring you back quickly to the top -- a nice touch.

Samsung provides its own calendar app instead of Google's standard client -- and Samsung's S Planner is superior. The calendar display is quite readable, even on the 7-inch tablet's small screen and in the default text sizes. Believe me, that's not usually the case on Android. Navigation is easier, and the integration of the task manager is quite nice. Plus, a quick-view mode makes it even simpler to navigate your calendar regardless of your current view.

Then there's the ability to set sophisticated repeating patterns for events, such as every weekday or every third Tuesday, unavailable in the stock Android calendar or in iOS; there's also a year view unavailable in the stock Android calendar. S Planner for the Galaxy Tab 2 is much better than Samsung's poorly designed business apps for its Galaxy Note 5-inch "phablet" smartphone/tablet hybrid.

Android 4 and custom Samsung UI improvementsBeyond the surprisingly nice S Planner app, Samsung adds its own Task Manager app, which works like the OS X Dock or Windows 7 taskbar on which you pin frequently used apps for easy access. The task bar is hidden by default, but tapping an icon at the bottom of the screen brings up the scrollable tray of pinned apps for easy launch. You can edit the tray's apps easily as well.

The Galaxy Tab 2 tablets also use the running-apps dock that "Ice Cream Sandwich" debuted. When you tap its dedicated icon button, a vertical panel appears showing the running apps and a preview of their screens, again for one-touch access. The running-apps dock and the Task Manager are complementary capabilities, which I'm glad Samsung realized. You also get the customizable widgets capability from "Ice Cream Sandwich" that gives you quick access to the weather, new emails, and the like -- one of Android's key differentiators from iOS.

The Android 4 onscreen keyboard is nicely designed, with a row of numerals always visible to reduce mode switching when typing. But on the 7-inch version, it's too easy to tap the wrong key even when typing with a single finger; I routinely tapped Caps Lock instead of A, for example. You also can use the decent handwriting recognition tool that debuted in the Samsung Note, though you'll have to provide your own stylus.

The only weird thing that Samsung has done to the Galaxy Tab 2 series is add a dedicated icon button to take screenshots. Android 4 lets you do that by pressing the volume and power buttons simultaneously, so the rationale for an always-visible icon button for this task is a head-scratcher.

A browser that's hard to use on the small screenThe stock Android browser is a major disappointment on the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2. The text is too small to read on most desktop sites, so expect to zoom a lot. I could forgive that, considering the 7-inch screen, except that the text on mobile-optimized sites -- those designed for smartphone viewing -- is also too small. For the most part, you can't zoom in on such sites. The bottom line is that it's hard to read anything on the Web. Plus, the feature to enable the browser to request a desktop website version rather than a mobile-optimized rendition rarely worked.

An annoyance common to both sizes of the Galaxy Tab 2's Android browser is that the Back and Forward buttons for page navigation scroll off the screen when you move through a Web page, so you have to scroll back up to navigate. Yes, you can use Android's dedicated Back icon button, but that risks leaving the browser entirely.

The Android browser also is not as HTML5- or AJAX-savvy as the iOS Safari browser, which becomes noticeable as you use websites for work purposes, such as a content management system.

Software for (mainly) the living roomThe rest of the software is either stock Android or app-based services provided by Samsung to compete with the Kindle Fire. For example, there's a Readers Hub app that combines the Zinio magazine app, Kobo e-books app, and PressDisplay news app into a common storefront. Samsung has two online-only apps for content, one for games and one for music. Plus, of course, you can buy games, music, and videos in Google's own Google Play store, as well as access that content through the native Android playback apps. It's not well-integrated like iTunes, but it's comparable to the Kindle Fire.

Samsung includes two living-room apps: Peel Technologies' Peel and Samsung's own AllShare. Neither are very useful. Peel lets you control home-theater equipment via the IR port added to the Galaxy Tab 2 series (and available in the fall 2011 7-inch Galaxy Tab Plus tablet, which is essentially the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 without the SD card slot). The setup is not difficult as long as Peel recognizes your equipment, but the control over programming is horrible. You get large badges for each program now available for your cable or satellite provider, so it's hard to survey all your options in a manageable view. Plus, at least for my cable provider, only the non-HD channels are shown, so all I could watch via the Peel remote app were standard-def programs from analog channels -- not exactly why you have an HDTV, is it? Just use your regular remote.

AllShare is Samsung's client for DLNA (Digital Living Room Network Alliance), a competitor to Apple's AirPlay for wireless streaming of content across devices. DLNA is a real mess, with most TV equipment vendors implementing only the client portion, forcing users to set up a Windows or Linux PC as a DLNA server on the network. It's amazingly kludgy and uncertain, as everyone's interpretation of DLNA is not the same. The bottom line is that AllShare is useless unless you've already handcrafted a DLNA network at home. Only a home-theater geek will bother. The rest of us will buy an Apple TV and connect it to our home-theater for no-muss, no-fuss streaming.

If you play games, you'll find a decent selection of apps at the Google Play store (formerly named the Android Market), but far fewer business-capable apps than for iOS. Note that the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 faces another limitation on available software: Not all developers have made compatible versions of their apps on this tweener-size device. For example, the latest version of Quickoffice, the iCloud-like iteration called Quickoffice Connect, won't run on it yet because the developers haven't gotten around to it. Part of that slow pace is due to the general failure of 7-inch tablets in the marketplace, here compounded by the slow pace of "Ice Cream Sandwich" upgrades on existing devices (such as the previous Galaxy Tab series). Be warned that your ability to get compatible apps for the Galaxy Tab 2 series may be hindered for a while.

Run-of-the-mill hardware with awkward touchesThe Galaxy Tab 2 has an unmistakenly iPad-like design, though the outer bezel is no longer chrome, so it doesn't look quite as identical as before. The weight and feel of the 7-inch model is quite nice, even when held in one hand -- which is key, as the onscreen keyboard is too small to type with both hands, assuming you have a stand on which to rest the tablet. You'll type mainly with one finger, holding the tablet in the other hand.

To lower the price to $250 for the 7-inch model and $350 for the 10.1-inch unit, Samsung uses the same hardware as for the previous Galaxy Tab models but cuts the onboard storage from 16GB to 8GB and reduces the front camera's quality even as it adds an SD card slot. (You'll have to use that SD card to store your videos and music.) The competing 7-inch Kindle Fire uses even less capable hardware to achieve its $199 price; therefore, I think most users will forgive the middling performance and screen quality. But if you pay $400 -- $50 more than the 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab 2 -- you get the much better iPad 2, so I believe the real competition is between the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 and the Kindle Fire.

But there are flaws in the Galaxy Tab 2 series hardware design that you can't blame on the lower-cost components. The most annoying involves the power button, which is located where you tend to hold the device. I and other testers repeatedly found ourselves turning off the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 accidentally as we picked it up or moved it from one hand to another. The autobrightness feature doesn't work well; it always had the screen too dim to read easily, no matter what the lighting condition. I had to turn off autobrightness and set the brightness manually to get a usable setting. And I found the Galaxy Tab 2 less able to establish and keep Wi-Fi connections than the iPad in areas with weak signals.

The Galaxy Tab 2 is no iPad-killer. It's not even an iPad wannabe. Instead, it's a Kindle Fire competitor that happens to allow email, calendar, and contacts access to many corporate environments. If you get a Galaxy Tab 2 for your living room and your company supports BYOD without highly stringent policies, the tablet could serve as a convenient way to check on email without having to get up from the couch to use an iPad or a computer.

But for business users, that's all the Galaxy Tab 2 series is really good for: occasional computing while you're surfing (with reading glasses on) from the couch. Many of us use an iPad in that mode as well, but an iPad can do much more than a Galaxy Tab 2. Still, with the adoption of Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich," coupled with some of Samsung's nice additions, the Galaxy Tab is a sweeter tablet than its predecessor. But its business usage is now more than ever just icing on the cake.

This article, "'Ice Cream Sandwich' makes the Galaxy Tab a little sweeter," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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Galen Gruman

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