Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 review

Samsung would like you to think of its tablets as the Android market leaders. To some extent, the firm has earned that right. It was early putting devices on sale, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 remains a consumer electronics classic, proving valuable even a few years on.

But Samsung hasn't done all that much to push boundaries. We find the Asus Transformer range to be more inspiring, both in looks and in the little extras of functionality. It's not that you can't put a keyboard with the Galaxy Tab, but there's not the same panache you get with Asus.

So here we are with a Galaxy Tab 2 in our hands. This one is the 10.1-inch, Wi-Fi only model, with 16GB of storage built in. You can get 3G versions, or larger capacity models too. But, the question is, should you, or is your money better off being splashed on another tablet?

Design

Samsung currently has a penchant for grey. From laptops to tablets, there's a lot of grey around. We have to say, we're not fans. Take the original Tab. It's white back wasn't for all, but it looked different, and it didn't look like a business tool. The 10.1 looks like it's designed to be used in board meetings and sales "huddles". It's not going to scare a middle manager into early retirement.

But that means what you get is a sensible, thin and well-balanced device. The screen dominates, there are no physical buttons anywhere to be seen and the lines of the front are only really broken by a pair of silver-coloured speakers on either side. These, it has to be said, are exceptionally well placed, and it's very tricky to block them with your hands. Samsung has clearly been listening to our grumbles on such matters.

Our latest moan though, is about how few sockets there are here. You get the docking port, for which you can get several other bits and pieces, but that's pretty much it. There's no USB port - fitting in a full-sized one would be out of the question, but there's room for a micro-USB socket. You get a microSD card slot too, which is great for storing media, but it's not so hot when it comes to using photos from a camera. A minor point, but here the Asus is king.

On the top edge, along with that microSD socket, there is a power switch, headphone jack and volume rocker. On the back, there's a simple camera lens and nothing more. And that's your lot.

Custom fit

Samsung has, as usual, employed its own user interface tweaks. Everything here looks a lot like Ice Cream Sandwich, but scrape beneath the surface, and things start to get a little different. But when we say different, it's incredibly subtle. For example, the menus aren't in the same place as on other ICS tablets and everything is a bit chunkier. That's not to say it's bad: it's actually very clear and easy to use. If you're used to a more "pure" version of Android, you might find it odd, but newcomers to the OS will like it, we think.

As part of its tweaks, expect to see ChatON, which is Samsung's answer to Apple's messaging service. There's also "Readers Hub", where you can read or buy books, newspapers and magazines. This area pulls in content from PressDisplay for papers, Zinio for magazines and the Kobo bookstore. We like the way it does integrate everything; we just don't like the faux bookshelves model. Apple does this, and it's ghastly. We're not idiots, we can understand the notion of reading, without the whole service being contextualised, and spoon-fed to us like we're newborns.

The video hub will help you play videos but it also allows you to share content with DLNA-capable media devices. That's quite cool, and it means that at the touch of a button you can play something on your TV with minimal effort. Beware though, DLNA is a pain, and works very infrequently in our case. Others report better luck with it though.

Almost predictably, the hub brand carries on to music, and there's a place here for you to get music and play it, too. There's also a tablet-designed music player. This takes over from the Google app, and is quite sensibly laid out for use on the larger screen.

You also get Samsung's "mini-apps" which are always tucked away, waiting to pop up when you press the arrow at the bottom of the screen. Here you'll find little pop-up apps that help you do things, while not taking over the whole screen. We like it, and it works well.

The one thing we really didn't get on with was the Samsung touch keyboard. It was so bad that we had to ditch it in the end and get a third-party app from the Play store. The problem was the predictive text, that was pretty rubbish at guessing what we were typing, but incredibly insistent it knew what it was talking about. This was a dangerous combination that could have easily seen us throw it out of a train window.

Of course, the lack of Jelly Bean - the Tab runs Ice Cream Sandwich - is probably down to the Samsung suite of customisations. This does make us a little bit cross, but it's a fair bet that there will be an update to the OS at a later date. ICS is fine though, and is well designed for tablet use.

Picture and sound quality

The screen on the Galaxy Tab is nice enough to look at, but it's quite obvious in so doing that the quality isn't up to the standard of the iPad or the Asus Transformer Infinity. Having said that, on a 10.1-inch screen, it's arguable that 800x1280 is pretty decent. While you can see individual pixels, normal humans won't really notice, or care about that.

It's a TFT panel too, so we're not talking about the latest IPS technology. Does that matter? Almost certainly not. Viewing angles are absolutely fine - you'd need to be at a pretty obtuse angle to miss out on any of the action because of it.

To watch video, all concerns really go away. For the most part, that's because most of the video you'll watch on the Galaxy Tab isn't 1080p anyway. So having a high resolution, for video, is pointless. Of course, for using the OS and other tasks it does make much more of a difference. And there still aren't all that many high-resolution apps for Android anyway, something that's quite disappointing. In short, you won't miss the extra resolution of the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity or the Apple iPad, at least not most of the time.

Sound, it has to be said, is very good indeed. For one, the audio from those sensibly located speakers is clear, crisp and very audible. There's more than enough volume too, which is terrific if you're watching with friends.

Video playback

Now, here's a strength of the Samsung: video playback. Too many tablets ignore what people want to playand focus on things that they may never really be interested in. By far the most popular video online is delivered in what is known as the MKV "container". This is a bit confusing, but the container isn't really anything to do with the video itself. It's actually just where the video is stored, and the mechanism through which other functionality is provided. For example, subtitles or chapters. Too many tablets can't handle this container, in spite of supporting the underlying video - say MP4, which is the most common.

Obviously, MKV files are associated with files that are illicit, like downloaded movies and TV shows. But no matter, we don't buy consumer electronics for a lesson in copyright law, or morality. We buy them to do what we ask of them.

Happily, the 10.1 is capable of playing such files. And what's more, the demo material we played - which is 720p, at reasonably high bitrate - played like a dream. No judder, just smooth and amazing detailed. It was a treat. Sufficed to say, if you like video, the Tab is a winner in this category. It's by far the most hassle-free experience we've had recently.

Cameras

We always say, with tablets, that we know the quality is going to be utterly rubbish. The problem is, as long as tablet manufacturers keep putting cameras on tablets, we're going to keep testing them, and continually be disappointed by how poor they are.

Aside from the obvious size-related problems with wielding a large tablet and trying to take a meaningful shot, there are also some quality concerns with the Galaxy tab. We noted, in low light, results were quite bad, with grain and a lack of detail. In good light, things improve, as you'd expect, but too much light, and you'll see a decent amount of bleed on the image. This is fairly typical of cameras on phones and tablets, but it doesn't make the results any less bothersome.

The rear-mounted camera is 3.2-megapixels, which is more than enough. The front camera is good for video calls though, and we could happily use it for Google+ Hangouts or video calls.

Battery

Lack of 3G - in the model we tested - and a modest screen resolution mean that the Galaxy Tab 2 does a decent job with its built-in 7000mAh battery. We found that in normal use it would stay charged for days. Even on our home Wi-Fi, it would make a decent job of going to sleep so it was ready for use when we turned it on again.

A full charge on Thursday night, followed by a full day of use on Friday and we still had 87 per cent charge when we came back to it on Monday. Good result, we think.

Verdict

There's no doubt at all that the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 is very capable indeed. The screen is clear, bright and has great viewing angles, although it lacks that super-high resolution that's all the rage these days.

Perhaps best of all though, is the price. Samsung hates the idea that people think it is a budget brand. It sees itself as producing equipment equal in quality to that of Sony and Panasonic. And that might be true, but the firm can't deny that it makes things that are sensibly priced too. And this is true of the 10.1 more than anything in recent history. The £300 asking price is impressive for a tablet this capable, and while it lacks 3G there's more than enough here to make this tablet a worthy addition to your electronics collection.

Video playback is exceptional, and the web browsing experience is great too. So if you're someone who uses a tablet to browse, and watch video, then we would suggest that the Tab 2 is a great choice for you.