Samsung is aiming for a tablet sweet spot with this mid-sized Android Honeycomb device. It squeezes full-fat power and an HD display into a slim, portable package, as well as some motion-sensitive innovations. The entry-level 16GB Wi-Fi model is a hefty £400 though, rising to around £500 for 3G.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9?
Take a shotgun approach to tablet computing and sooner or later you'll hit something -- and with the Galaxy Tab 8.9, Samsung's aim is true. Larger, friendlier and more practical than a 7-inch device, and cheaper (barely) and more portable than a 10-incher, the 8.9-inch tablet feels just right.
Anyone who finds the iPad too large, heavy and slippery for one-handed use will be reassured by this Tab's comforting portability. Whereas Apple's tablet is made for sitting on the sofa, the well-made 8.9 is up for a stroll -- although perhaps not outdoors as it's Wi-Fi only, with a screen that lacks daylight punch.
That's about the only complaint with the 1,280x800-pixel multi-touch LCD display, which is sharper than the iPad 2 and very responsive. It also comes with a couple of Samsung touch innovations. Grab the Tab two-handed and put your thumbs on the screen to zoom in and out of web pages by simply tilting the tablet. You can also relocate icons on the five home screens by wobbling the screen from side to side. Gimmicks, perhaps, but nicely done.
Films look fantastic on the widescreen display, multi-tasking is nippy and the Tab 8.9 is a genuine step up from a smart phone for gaming. If your Angry Birds high score doesn't improve, demand your money back. Its mid-sized build and media focus pits this Tab 8.9 directly against the upcoming Kindle Fire.
While Samsung has done its best to build a good video store and music library, the Media Hub, it will never be quite as efficiently integrated as Amazon's single sign-in services. Where the Galaxy Tab wins out is in flexibility -- it has a decent 3-megapixel 720p camera, a webcam, microphone and GPS. Basically, anything the iPad or the larger Galaxy Tab 10.1 can do, the 8.9 can take too.
Samsung's TouchWiz interface doesn't get in the way too much. In fact, its resizable widgets and dedicated screen grab button give a sneak preview of key Ice Cream Sandwich features. The pop-up mini apps are nothing short of excellent.
Ultimately though, the inescapable truth is that for the same money, you could buy Apple's larger, classier, metal-bodied iPad 2. If size and portability are all-important, check out the Tab 8.9. But for the majority of users, the luscious build of Apple's tablet and the range, and quality of apps available for it, will still have the edge.
Android home screens get better all the time, especially compared to the sterile grid of icons and folders that Apple still insists on. The Galaxy Tab 8.9 has five screens, with nice fading 3D transitions between them. Samsung has succeeded in giving them a magazine-y feel with several large, clear widgets surrounded by smaller icons -- think a low-rent Pulse or Flipboard.
The central screen is dominated by four live widgets (or Live Panels, according to Samsung). The digital clock speaks for itself (actually, sadly, it doesn't), although selecting it dumps you into an ugly, basic alarm clock app with no time-zone options -- not the best start. The Gallery app is much better, flicking through Picasa or local images. The AccuWeather app is smart and easy to customise. An AP news feed completes the quartet.
In Samsung's TouchWiz skin, these widgets can be resized on the fly. Even ones with dynamic content, like AP, can be adjusted. They spring back to default shapes if you try anything too crazy. Other screens have mail, browser and calendar widgets pre-loaded. There's also a Social Hub network aggregator -- more on this later. You can choose from 20 other widgets, including the news reader Pulse itself.
Notifications and mini apps
Samsung's TouchWiz skin gives Honeycomb several power-ups. The first is a long-overdue screen grab icon in the bottom left system bar -- images land in the Gallery as you'd expect. The notification area on the bottom right also gets an upgrade. Tap the clock to expand it, showing your latest downloads, messages and updates.
Above those is a screen brightness slider (with auto tick-box), plus battery and Wi-Fi strength meters. Better still, five icons give one-tap toggles for Wi-Fi, GPS, mute, auto-rotate and notifications.
Also in the bottom bar is a small upward arrow. Hitting this calls up a menu of six mini apps, each of which opens on top the home screen. It's just like Windows except that they remain open even when you scroll to another screen.
Task Manager lets you tinker with memory settings and end active apps.
Calendar gives a lovely colour-coded view of the current month, with each day's event and an Add Event icon -- although it doesn't recognise the 24-hour clock.
World Clock has a search box to add new cities but if it doesn't recognise a place, it just sits there sullenly. Pen Memo is a great little notes app that accepts keyboard or finger scrawl input, and then stores or shares them.
Calculator handles basic arithmetic only, and the Music Player starts playing MP3s stored locally, starting from A. Opening one mini app automatically closes another, except the Music Player, which can work in the background.
It's easy to imagine these mini apps becoming more sophisticated and taking over from some widgets.
Samsung has loaded the Tab 8.9 with digital Hubs, designed to combat information overload by aggregating content. The Social Hub comes with a home screen widget that shows a rolling list of feeds from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and email. Sadly, you can't do anything from the widget itself -- tapping a post merely opens the full-screen app. Here, you can 'like' posts, read direct messages or add comments, but there's no access to apps, chat, events or anything more advanced. The feed is also a bit jerky to scroll through.
The Media Hub is more successful. This is Samsung's film and TV store. It has a fair selection of recent blockbusters, older titles and American TV shows (we tested the Tab 8.9 Stateside). Prices are competitive with iTunes -- from $10-18 to buy a film and $2-4 to rent. TV shows are for purchase only, at $2 each. You'll need to set up an account with Samsung to buy anything.
Streaming quality is excellent. The 1,280x800-pixel display is detailed, colourful and has no visible lag, and the widescreen (16:10) ratio means you're not even losing much real estate compared to the square-ish iPad.
Tapping the screen brings up navigation and audio controls, and options for the picture format. There's a 5.1 surround mode if you have the HDMI video-out adaptor (sadly not supplied for this review).
The Music and Readers Hubs, while just as slick and easy to navigate, are little more than portals to partner services. Music Hub is an iTunes-alike skin for 7Digital, and Readers Hub is just a splash screen re-directing you to Zinio (magazines), Kobo (books) or PressDisplay (newspapers) -- each one requiring its own account and a separate log-in. It's a far cry from the one-click simplicity of the iPad or Kindle Fire.
Browser, mail and keyboard
There's always a Google search box hovering in the top left corner of the home screens, or you can click on the Browser icon to get surfing. A slim progress bar at the very top appears while pages are loading. Beneath that, the default view shows a tab bar with a menu icon and tabs -- just tap to the right to open a new one.
Underneath that, a menu bar has back and forward arrows, URL/search box with favourites, then search and bookmark icons. Everything works simply enough and pages generally load and render swiftly. Flash may be disappearing from mobile platforms, but while it's still around, the Tab 8.9 handles multimedia video and games with ease.
The Labs tab is worth visiting, letting you activate Google Instant and Quick Controls. This last feature replaces the default with full-screen browsing. Now, if you want to do anything, just swipe a thumb in from either side of the screen to pop-up a semi-circular menu with navigation and bookmark icons. However, the tab browser in this mode is truly tiny; bringing up options like the new incognito tab requires some digital dexterity.
There's another reason why Quick Controls are hidden away in the Labs menu -- it occasionally caused the browser to crash during our tests.
The Samsung mail app has a clean, easy-to-read interface. However, it lacks advanced features, such as searching within messages, junk mail management or sorting by attachments. We also had trouble viewing some inline images.
Thumbs up to Samsung for pushing the boat out on text options though. There are no less than five input methods, including a TalkBack keyboard for those with vision issues and the ever-excellent Swype -- we recommend switching to this immediately.
Build and design
Size isn't everything, but it does count for a lot in the world of tablets. Apple has made 9.7 inches the default dimension by the sheer virtue of selling millions of iPads. But there's no doubt that a smaller build would make sense for many -- especially anyone on the road a lot.
We really like the Samsung's 8.9-inch widescreen design. It's large enough to read emails; you can take in the full width of most web pages without squinting; and even big-screen Hollywood movies don't feel cramped. At 447g, the Tab 8.9 is solid without feeling heavy. It's perfectly fine for occasional one-handed use (you wouldn't want to read an ebook on its overly glossy screen anyway).
Build quality is also first rate, or as first rate as you can be with a brushed plastic grey casing that wants very, very much to be made of metal instead.
As the Galaxy is a landscape device, rather than portrait, like the iPad, the power and volume controls are found on the top. The volume rocker is fast, always handy when you need to mute a game in a hurry, but the power switch is somewhat spongy and sometimes needed a second press to bring the Galaxy Tab to life.
The screen shows excellent levels of detail and superb colour saturation. In some lights, you might even think you're looking at one of Samsung's legendary Super AMOLED displays. But then you'll tilt the screen to one side and see a marked loss in contrast, or notice a black that isn't quite rock solid. Still, its 1,280x800 pixels are sharper than the iPad, and have a 30 per cent higher pixel density.
It's also worth noting that the Tab 8.9's widescreen display is a mere half a centimetre shorter than the iPad's along its landscape side. You're not losing much space when it comes to reading web pages. Switch to vertical content though and it suddenly feels noticeably smaller.
When turning the Tab 8.9 it takes about a second to rotate the screen and a beat longer to populate the content. We found the auto-brightness system to be overly sensitive; we turned it off to avoid annoying fluctuations. Also on the minus side, the bezel feels oversized (it's actually the same size as the iPad's, making it relatively larger), and the front glass is prone to fingerprints and smears.
The multi-touch screen is responsive, and Samsung has added two new motion settings to the standard pinch-to-zoom. Tilt lets you tap and hold the screen then tilt the Tab forward or back to zoom in and out. It's meant to work in the gallery and browser, although we found several sites that remained stubbornly full-sized.
This is no great loss as the whole concept is a bit strange. The moment you tilt the screen, presumably to zoom into a paragraph or image, you sacrifice a dead-on view and the contrast drops. It's also difficult to focus on words that are suddenly at an angle. And like pinch-to-zoom, it requires two hands so you don't even gain any usability.
The other motion setting, pan, works only with icons on the home screens. If you tap and hold an icon then waggle the screen left or right, the icon stays still while the home screens rotate. It is exactly zero per cent easier than simply tapping and dragging an icon between screens.
Power and performance
The Tab 8.9 is home to a 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 with 1GB of RAM. It is a joy to use an Android tablet that doesn't always feel as though it's racing to catch up with itself. There are rare stutters and lags, especially on the busy, widget-laden home screens, but apps generally blaze away.
On the benchmark tests, the Tab 8.9 gave an uneven performance. The Linpack test, which assesses raw number-crunching power, saw the Tab 8.9 deliver single-thread results of around 30MFLOPS and multi-thread speeds of 45MFLOPS. That puts it comfortably ahead of its Galaxy Tab 7.7 little brother but behind the Samsung Nexus S and the nippy Motorola Droid X.
We prefer the Quadrant benchmark, which gives a more rounded set of results, covering the CPU, graphics processing and memory performance. Here, the Tab 8.9 simply blew away the opposition, including the Nexus S and Droid X.
In practice, this means you can feel safe downloading the latest 2D and 3D games without feeling held back by the chipset -- and multi-task without having to constantly check the task manager. The Tab 8.9 is available in 16GB or 32GB flavours and, notably for an Android tablet, has no card slots to add to that.
Audio and video
The Tab 8.9's two cameras strive for mediocrity. The 3-megapixel snapper on the back is lower resolution than some competitors, while its 2-megapixel front-facing webcam is higher than average. The camera app is basic but functional, with a selection of feature icons on the left side, controlling the flash, shooting mode, self-timer, exposure and ISO/white balance; shooting controls are on the right.
The three built-in effects -- sepia, negative, and black and white -- and an old-school panorama mode are just begging for Ice Cream Sandwich updates. Toggling into video mode takes 3 seconds, and cuts your options down to just white balance adjustment. Shutter lag is a disappointing 2 seconds and the app was buggy, crashing out on numerous occasions.
For all that, images are not bad at all. Exposure is excellent, the tap-to-select autofocus works well and colours are rich and natural. There's even a nice amount of detail.
Try anything too ambitious -- distant trees or brickwork as in our test shot below -- and a mushy vagueness soon dominates.
In terms of video, its 720p resolution is high definition in name only. Colours and exposure again are good, but there's a strange ghostly quality to fine detail, even in the brightest conditions. Sound is fine, with just a hint of wind noise.
The Tab 8.9 does a better job of playing back pre-recorded audio through two speakers on its bottom edge. In fact, we'd go so far as to say it's one of the best tablets around for listening to music -- and especially speech. Keeping the volume low gives the best experience but if you don't mind tinniness, the Tab 8.9 cranks up surprisingly loud.
Battery life and accessories
The 6,100mAh battery on board the Tab 8.9 holds up well. We regularly managed a solid 8 to 10 hours of use on each change, with a constant Wi-Fi connection and occasional processor-intensive tasks. Looking at the stats, the screen took over 70 per cent of power -- which is maybe a touch more than typical seeing as we had fixed the brightness for the duration. The battery is not user replaceable.
Samsung is selling two branded accessories for the Tab 8.9 -- and don't expect too many aftermarket add-ons for this odd-sized one-off. A multimedia desk dock (£30) charges the tablet and provides a 3.5mm stereo line-out port, but bizarrely doesn't offer video connectivity. For that, you'll have to add the standalone HDMI adaptor (£28 -- ouch!).
A Keyboard Dock (£50) includes a soft-touch keyboard and charging, and comes with Android hot keys for features like internet, e-mail, music and video controls.
Samsung tries to make products to satisfy every possible taste and budget. This time, they got it right. The Tab 8.9 is a welcome addition to the crowded Android tablet marketplace. It's nicely designed and very well built. Its size is a nigh-on perfect balance between performance and portability.
If you want something smaller than an iPad but almost as assured, or something larger and more capable than the incoming 7-inch Kindle Fire, the Tab 8.9 deserves consideration. Where it might come a cropper is its high price -- the same as the gorgeous iPad and around twice as much as a Fire.