It seems like a long time since Apple's iPad propelled tablets headfirst into the mainstream consciousness. In fact, it was released in the UK only five months ago. Since then, we've been bracing ourselves for the inevitable tsunami of rival tablets from other manufacturers. The first offering to appear on the crest of that mighty wave is the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which runs version 2.2 of Google's Android operating system.
The Tab will be released on 1 November. Pricing for the Tab, which will come in 16GB and 32GB versions, is far from certain, but Carphone Warehouse is offering a model with unspecified memory for £530 unlocked and SIM-free, or £500 on a contract with TalkMobile, as part of which you'll pay £10 per month for 1GB of data on a 30-day rolling contract. By way of comparison, the 16GB iPad with 3G and Wi-Fi costs £530.
Can the Tab duff the iPad up good and proper? Let's find out.
Lucky number seven
Measuring 120 by 191 by 12mm, Samsung's 7-inch tablet is significantly smaller than Apple's 9.7-inch device. There's only a couple of inches between the screen sizes of the two machines, but it actually makes a huge difference -- the Tab is about half the size of the iPad.
On the whole, the Tab's design is good. It's well-built and, at 380g, reassuringly weighty. Unless you have the weak arms of Mr Burns, you'll find holding the Tab up with one hand perfectly comfortable.
On the Tab's right-hand side, you'll find two slots, for a SIM card and microSD card. The Tab comes in 16GB and 32GB flavours, and you can expand that out-of-the-box storage by up to 32GB if you're prepared to shell out for a microSD card. That means you can potentially have a total of 64GB of storage. Also on the Tab's right-hand side are mechanical volume keys and a button that's used to lock the device or wake it up when you're ready to start using it again.
On top, there's only one feature -- a 3.5mm socket for plugging in your headphones. We approve of the Tab's barren bonce, as your headphones' jack won't get in the way of anything else you might want to connect, such as the Tab's 30-pin charging and PC-connection port, which is located on the bottom of the device.
Also along the bottom, you'll find four touch-sensitive buttons (menu, home, back and search) that will be familiar to anyone experienced with Android devices. Each button glows white while you're using the Tab. We were initially wary of these touch-sensitive buttons -- often they turn out to be less responsive than physical keys. But the Tab offers haptic feedback, so you feel a vibration with each button press, which helps in terms of responsiveness. The lack of physical buttons also means that the front of the Tab is completely smooth.
Thin it to win it
The Tab isn't as slender as we'd hoped, at just shy of 12mm at its thickest point. It's not disastrously podgy, though, and Samsung has given the Tab a curved back, so it's slimmer at the edges, which is where you'll be gripping it.
The second design hiccup is the bezel that surrounds the Tab's 7-inch display. Between the very edge of the display and the edge of the Tab itself there's about 14mm of black plastic. When you first fire up the Tab's display, you'll probably be taken aback by how small it looks inside that bulky surround.
This wide bezel and the Tab's thick dimensions combine to make a device that feels rather chunky. On the bright side, that gives the Tab a sturdy feel. On the other hand, you can't help but feel that an expensive tablet should feel more like an After Eight than a Yorkie.
The 7-inch TFT LCD screen has a maximum resolution of 1,024x600 pixels, which isn't particularly high. Text and icons are rendered clearly enough, but the resolution didn't blow us away -- if you're used to something like the iPhone 4's 'retina' display, you'll notice the slight blurring around individual icons and characters.
Resolution aside, there's much to like about this panel. At maximum brightness, it's suitably vibrant, and there are options to adjust the contrast and even saturation, if you like your tablets positively drenched in colour. We spent plenty of time watching movies on this panel, and found it very comfortable. We thought we'd suffer agonising eyestrain, but we didn't.
Watching video on the iPad is a more comfortable experience, though. That's to be expected because the iPad has a much larger screen. But the software used to control video on Apple's device is also considerably smoother and more intuitive than the Tab's offering.
Still, there are some definite advantages to watching video on the Samsung device. For instance, thanks to its expandable memory, getting videos onto the Tab is a simple and speedy matter of dragging and dropping, and the device supports a broad range of video formats, including DivX, Xvid, MPEG-4, H.263 and H.264. Even if it's not via the most beautiful and elegant process in the world, the Tab makes it easy to load up new episodes of your favourite show before hopping on the train.
The same goes for audio -- the Tab's on-board music player isn't a patch on the iPod software you'll find in iOS, but, if you have a vast music library already, getting those tracks onto the Tab is simple, with no need to go through iTunes. As with video, the Tab supports a huge range of audio formats, including AAC, OGG, FLAC and AC3.
The Tab runs Android 2.2. That software was developed for smart phones, and it shows -- some menus even refer to the Tab as a 'phone'. But, despite that and our fears Android wouldn't translate well to a larger screen, we were actually impressed by the software. For the most part, the operating system is intuitive and easy to use.
Beyond the lock screen, you'll find five customisable home screens, which you can fill to the brim with widgets and app shortcuts. Along the bottom of the screen are dedicated shortcuts to the Web browser, email and the full application menu.
How quickly you're able to navigate to the item you want will be largely down to you. If you make a habit of pinning your favourite apps to a home screen, you'll never be too far from the application your heart desires. If you decide not to customise the Tab, you could end up spending a few extra seconds clicking around menus, hunting for what you want.
We're big fans of Android. It's simple, powerful and customisable. But it does lack the buttery smoothness of iOS. Swiping through menus on the Tab proves swift and there's noticeably little lag, but it still doesn't feel quite as responsive as the iPad.
Switching from portrait to landscape orientation automatically, via the built-in accelerometer, is also less elegant than it is in iOS. Switching often takes a while, with the screen disappearing before reappearing a moment later in a different position. There's also no hardware button to lock the display in one particular orientation, as there is on the iPad. That's a feature you'll quickly miss if you want to read something on the Tab while lying on your side.
There are some usability areas in which the Tab really excels. Despite Steve Jobs' recent claims that 7-inch tablets are too small for human hands, we found typing on the Tab extremely pleasant. That's because, when held in portrait orientation, it's easy to grip the sides and tap out text using your thumbs. The 1GHz processor lurking inside this tablet also keeps the keyboard feeling responsive. Throw in haptic feedback and you've got an on-screen keyboard that's more comfortable than the one you'll find on the iPad.
Another neat feature is the 'active applications' widget on the Tab's home screen. It will let you see every app that's currently running, as well as how much memory each one is eating up. You can shut apps down from this widget too -- something it's not always easy to do with the vanilla version of Android. Shutting down memory-gobbling apps will also stop them sucking up all the Tab's juice.
One of the iPad's fortes is Web browsing. Thanks to multi-touch zoom and its big display, cruising around websites is great fun. The Tab doesn't offer as much space or speed, and zooming in and out of websites doesn't feel as smooth. But it does have one huge advantage over the iPad -- Flash support.
Yes indeed, thanks to Android 2.2, the Tab supports Adobe's Flash player. That means you'll get access to the vast majority of online video. We expected Flash to deliver an ugly and slothful experience in the Tab's small browser, but, in fact, we were impressed -- video loaded and played smoothly, and pausing and skipping around online footage caused no problems. If your favourite sites rely heavily on Flash video, consider the Tab's ability to handle it as a serious mark in its favour.
On the back of the Tab is a 3-megapixel camera with an LED flash. Now, if you're thinking that, in this day and age, 3 measly megapixels doesn't sound like a great deal of camera, well -- you'd be right. Still, in our tests, the Tab took reasonable pictures. Crucially, the software itself is snappy, so you won't miss the moment waiting for menus to load. Another bonus is the camera's ability to capture video at 30 frames per second. Our test footage looked silky-smooth.
Provided you've whacked in a functioning SIM card, the Tab also serves as a phone. Our thorough testing revealed that you will indeed look like a total berk holding a 7-inch tablet up to your face, but, thoughtfully, Samsung has bundled a set of headphones with an in-line mic and call-answer button, so you can bark commands to your stockbroker wirelessly.
You can also make video calls over 3G, thanks to a tiny camera just above the Tab's display. Sadly, though, video calling is only supported from one Galaxy Tab to another. If you want to use this feature, you'll have to persuade your friends to buy Tabs too.
The camera and phone capability (both lacking in the iPad) are just two things that make the Tab an excellent choice if you want a tablet to take on your travels. Chuck in Google Maps Navigation, and the whole bundle becomes an appealing prospect for those who want big-screen Web access on the move.
A decent tablet needs apps. It needs many thousands of apps, it needs them to be easily accessible and it needs them to be intelligently organised.
Thanks to the Android Market, Tab users will indeed have quick access to thousands of downloadable apps. Once you've found an app in the Market, you're only one button press away from downloading it, and, once installed, it'll appear, as if by magic, in the applications menu.
It's on the organisation front that things go slightly awry. Samsung has seen fit to include its own app store, distinct from the Android Market, and a second store for games. The aptly titled 'Samsung Apps' is pretty barren at the moment, and its layout is far from intuitive. This division of the Tab's app offering into several separate stores will only confuse and annoy users.
Well, two out of three ain't bad.
Knowing we'd be able to have a whole bunch of apps running at the same time made us think the Tab's battery life would be short and brutal, like an enraged dwarf. Samsung reckons you'll get around 7 hours of video playback, which is just about the most intensive task you can set the Tab. In the few days we had the Tab in for testing, we didn't notice the battery draining too quickly, despite Samsung telling us that our particular review sample suffered from an abnormally weak battery.
We reckon you'll get a couple of days of normal use out the Tab before it needs a recharge. We want tablets that last for weeks on a single charge, but, nevertheless, the Tab's battery life is far from disappointing.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab is a great device that packs neat hardware and well-integrated software into an appealing little bundle. We're not going to say the Tab is better than the iPad, because it isn't. But it isn't any worse either -- it's just different.
The iPad is undoubtedly slicker and simpler. If you're looking for a tablet to keep on your coffee table, and let you browse the Web on the sofa, the iPad is king. But, if you're a gentleman or lady about town and want something more nimble yet more feature-packed, the Tab will make a fine companion.
Edited by Charles Kloet