Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 review

It’s time to reboot the tablet. Right now, the same word applies to everything from 6-inch jumped-up ebook readers to hulking great 10-inch slabs of glass. Pocket-lint is drawing a line in the sand: everything 9-inches and up is a tablet, everything smaller is a tablette – and here’s one of the finest, the 8.9-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, er, 8.9.

Like Samsung’s original (7-inch) Galaxy Tab, the sleek 8.9 screams to be picked up, fondled lightly and tossed into a bag. It’s smart and powerful, with 1.2GHz dual-core silicon running Honeycomb 3.1 and Samsung’s impressive TouchWiz skin. It’s got a superb screen and some fun motion features, too.

But with no real USB or HDMI ports, weak cameras and a scarily high price tag (£20 more than the iPad 2 and just £70 shy of its 10.1 big brother), can the 8.9 persuade today’s big screen tablet users that what they really want is an ultra-portable tablette?  

Inbetweener

Don’t tell the PRs but our first test with any new tablet involves both hands and a modicum of torsion. Try a gentle flex test on the metal-backed iPad 2 and you get zero motion, nothing, nada. Try it on the Galaxy Tab 8.9 and there is the faintest hint of a creak. It’s absolutely nothing to worry about but it is what happens when you build your tablette with a casing of brushed plastic instead of the shiny cold stuff.

Otherwise, build quality is top notch. The screen bezel is the same size as the iPad’s, although with a touch more gloss to it. Unlike the iPad, the default orientation of the Tab 8.9 is landscape. The power and volume rockers are on the top edge towards the left, and the front webcam beneath them is slightly offset to the right.

Size and weight are pretty much perfect for one-handed use. This Tab is a fraction of a millimetre thinner than Apple’s tablet but weighs about 150g less, tipping the scales at a solid and comfortable 447g.   Screening room

Like many new Android tablets, the Tab 8.9 has pixels to spare. Its 1280x800 panel has a higher resolution than the iPad 2 and much higher pixel density (169ppi vs 132ppi). And because of its widescreen (16:10) format, the screen is only 5mm shorter along its long edge than Apple’s tablet. This means that web pages and email are just as easy to read, even if they sometimes feel cut off at the knees.

The multi-touch tech is fast and responsive, and Samsung has added two new motion-sensitive features. Plop both thumbs in the screen while reading a web page and you can zoom in or out by tilting the Tab towards or away from you. It’s a nice effect but really no easier than pinching to zoom – and it still needs two hands.

The other motion feature is even less useful: press and hold an icon then tilt the tablette from side to side to scoot it through the five home screens.  

A touch of wizardry

The Tab 8.9 is running Honeycomb 3.1 but with Samsung’s impressive TouchWiz skin on top, you would be forgiven for thinking you had an early preview of Ice Cream Sandwich. TouchWiz includes such Android 4.0-esque features as resizable widgets (full marks to Samsung for NOT calling them ‘wizgets’), a scrollable multi-tasking list and easy screenshots (here with a soft button).

The 8.9 has five home screens with the usual swish animated transitions between them. Tap the middle of the system bar at the bottom of the screen to pull up a mini apps tray containing a task manager, calendar, clock, memo pad, calculator and music player. These pop-up Windows-style over anything in the screen - nice.

Another thoughtful addition is an expanded notification area with one-tap toggles for Wi-Fi, GPS, mute and screen rotation, although not Bluetooth. You can also control the brightness from here.

Samsung’s Social Hub widget aggregates feeds from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It manages to efficiently extract the fun from functional but will do if you really can’t be bothered to switch between separate apps. Other Hubs - Music and Reader - are a pale reflection of pre-loaded Google and Amazon apps for streaming tunes and downloading ebooks.  

Performance

The 8.9’s 1GHz dual-core Tegra silicon keeps things moving swiftly. There are rarely lags even when several apps are open, graphically intense games are running or there’s music streaming in the background. Video in particular looks fantastic. However, we did have several crashes during our test and the Android Market widget seemed particularly flaky.

Voice search worked well enough and the Tab 8.9 comes with no fewer than five different keyboards, although once you’ve switched to the ever-awesome Swype you’ll probably never look back.

The rear camera is a low res 3MP affair but does a surprisingly good job capturing colour and detail, and there’s a small LED flash for indoor portraits. The front-facing 2MP web cam is better than most but still very grainy in low light. I wonder how long it will be before a tablet manufacturer realises that it’s more useful to have a LED light on the front, for video chat, rather than round the back where it never gets used? In video mode, 720p capture is just fine, apart from very weak audio. Shutter delay is around a second.

For music playback, you have the choice between loud, tinny sound through the built-in speakers or mushy audio through the supplied in-ear headphones. To be honest, the speakers aren’t terrible for listening to the occasional song or YouTube video, and come into their own for speech - either radio or video chat via Google Talk (pre-installed).

Bits and pieces

We're not sure how much use GPS is without 3G, but the sat nav was sensitive enough to lock on indoors. It didn’t seem to hammer battery life, which was good at around six to seven hours between charges. The 8.9 has a useful power use graph in Settings, an automatic power saving mode that kicks in at low levels, and an ambient light sensor to adjust the screen brightness.

Apparently, the world has completely embraced DLNA wireless sharing, as the Tab 8.9 has no HDMI or other video output. Its only port is an Apple-alike custom USB connection that serves to recharge (via its wall socket adaptor only) or transfer data to and from your PC.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is impossible to dislike. Unlike some Honeycomb tablets (or tablettes even), it doesn’t make a virtue out of being confusing or crashing randomly. It’s well made, light and extremely portable, with a screen that’s big enough for web, email and films, but small enough to hold one-handed.

Samsung’s TouchWiz skin is genuinely useful, and I’d even think twice about upgrading to Ice Cream Sandwich if it meant losing the Mini Apps Tray and pumped-up notifications. Videos and games look great and, if you use your own headphones, the Tab makes a decent music player, too.

So why no five stars? The problem isn’t the Sammy’s average cameras, its lack of 3G or even the absent HDMI port. The problem is its price. At nearly £400, the Tab 8.9 should be virtually perfect: a cut-down, slim-line tablette to complement the macho power of the Tab 10.1 or the iPad 2.

The Tab 8.9 is a great device that showcases the benefits of a smaller, more efficient screen but it needs to a touch more magic to deserve its price-tag.