The limited edition of the Samsung Galaxy tablet handed out to developers at the Google I/O conference gives a good example of what you can achieve with an Android tablet, as well as the limitations.
When we first tried out the 10-inch Galaxy Tab in and around Google I/O, people frequently mistook it for an iPad, even with the army of marching Androids on the back. After extended use, the differences are more obvious. The slim design and large screen look very like an iPad, with the broad black bezel and sleek silver curves. It’s unnoticeably slimmer than the iPad 2 (8.6mm thick) and an ounce lighter, but the 16:9 ratio of the 10.1-inch screen is longer than the 9.7-inch iPad 2 screen. It’s also thinner, lighter and sleeker than other 10-inch Android tablets like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and the Motorola Xoom. Either way, at 595g it’s light enough not to weigh you down, although it is far bulkier to carry around than a 7-inch tablet like the BlackBerry PlayBook.
There is not much else to say about the chassis because there's so little there; just the proprietary dock connector and microphone on the bottom (no problem for video chat but you have to tilt the tablet and speak directly into it for voice search to work accurately) and the power button and volume rocker switch on the top. The power button is a little too shallow (we found we usually had to tap it very firmly more than once, particularly when cold booting), but the volume rocker stands out nicely so you can find it quickly with your fingers and it has a nice positive action. The headphone socket takes standard 3.5mm headphones.
The 32GB of storage makes up a little for the lack of a memory card slot but the lack of standard USB ports is disappointing, especially as Android 3.1 will add support for connecting USB devices like keyboards and flash drives (so you’ll be restricted to compatible Samsung accessories). We were able to connect to most PCs with the proprietary USB cable; that uses a custom Samsung interface (called Kies) rather than USB host mode, and we did find on a couple of PCs and Macs that connecting to transfer files wasn’t straightforward but we did succeed on all our test systems in the end.
There will be versions with both 16 and 64GB of storage in the final version, as well as models with 3G, but the limited edition has only Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth 2.1. The 1GHz dual-core processor and Tegra 2 chip coped well with the range of apps and video we threw at it; playing 1080p HD video from YouTube is smooth and fluid with excellent crisp detail. The screen is excellent: bright and vivid with saturated colours and good viewing angles. We did notice contrast in dark images wasn’t as strong as it could be, and the glossy coating that gives Samsung screens their vivid colours means you get a lot of reflections and very noticeable fingerprints. We also know the Tegra 2 can output full HD video to a big-screen TV and you’re going to have to pay for the proprietary Samsung dock to do that because there’s no HDMI port (at least on the limited edition). Sound is nice and clear, with a reasonable amount of detail in the mid range from the tiny speakers on either side, although the volume isn’t more than you need for enjoying a movie.
Recording your own videos and photos is more disappointing. Slimming the Tab down has meant dropping to a 3-megapixel camera and neither the colour balance nor detail is really good enough (plus the 10-inch form factor looks absurd when you use it as a camera, even with a tablet light enough to use in one hand). We’ve tested smartphones with better still cameras. We’re still puzzled by the Samsung camera app; the control strip works better than the circular layout of Honeycomb and you can set macro mode, use a timer, and change a lot of settings including the metering and white balance, but we can’t find a way to zoom. The 720p video recording is better quality, but the front-facing camera for video chat in Google Talk is only 2 megapixels.
As always, battery life depends on what you’re doing; carry it around with you all day with the Wi-Fi on so it’s up to date on email and Twitter but only turn the screen on and use it for a couple of hours of messaging and browsing and you can still have 75% battery life when you get back in the evening. Crank up the screen brightness and the 7,000mAh battery will get you through an 8-to-10 hour day with Wi-Fi on (the screen brightness will really determine quite how long it lasts, and we found we had to turn the ambient light sensor off to enjoy using the ultra-glossy screen). The large battery does take a while to charge (3 to 4 hours from flat).
The standard Samsung version of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 goes on sale in the US on 8 June 8, in 16 and 32GB versions. By then we expect it to come with Android 3.1, which adds a scrollable task switcher (at the moment only the most recent open apps are visible to switch back to), lets you play HTML5 videos inline (even on the 1280 x 800 screen of the 10-inch Tab you currently get a mobile version of YouTube because HTML5 videos only play full-screen in Android although Flash videos in a Web page play normally) and lets you save Web pages and resize widgets (useful on a large screen like this). It will also have Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface instead of the plain Honeycomb skin (and by then the Samsung Apps store may have more than the peculiar Korean content that’s still all we can find there).
The Samsung effect
The main customisation Samsung has done on the Tab is adding its own touch keyboard. The black characters on white keys are a little easier to read and secondary keys are in more logical places, plus we like the haptic feedback as you type (and you're not likely to do enough of that to run down the battery noticeably) but it also has fewer punctuation characters available without bringing up alternative layouts. Overall, we’re not sure this is an improvement as we found it wasn’t always responsive when you tab into a text field in the browser or in some apps (we couldn’t log in to the Kindle App until we rotated the screen to portrait with the Samsung keyboard), so you may prefer to switch to the standard Android keyboard. You will need large hands to be able to type at any speed, even in portrait mode; the keys are almost too widely spaced and not well placed compared to a physical keyboard.
Standard Honeycomb is what we’d call an understated interface; usable and functional but not particularly exciting. Tap the clock in the bottom corner for battery and Wi-Fi details; tap those to jump to the most useful settings, tap yet again to open the full Settings. You can add dynamic wallpaper and arrange widgets over five screens (although there aren’t many new widgets in Honeycomb) but it’s less about glitz and gestures and more about tapping to launch apps, open menus or press the on-screen Home, Back, Switch and Menu buttons. Having these in the standard position (bottom left) on every tablet is consistent but we didn’t always find it the most convenient place. And while we had only occasional app crashes and the odd occasion when the browser stopped scrolling when we swiped the screen - far fewer than on pre-release Honeycomb demos - we did have more problems than we’d like.
The Android browser is excellent and - unlike the iPad - it has built-in Flash so the majority of web pages load and look the way you expect. Some sites don’t work perfectly though, and that’s where you’re reminded that you're using an over-sized mobile phone rather than a super-slim PC - which is what you’ll unconsciously expect from a screen this size. There are some tablet apps that take great advantage of the larger tablet screens, like Google Earth and Google Skymap and the Pulse newsreader that’s preloaded on the Tab; we also like the Feedly newsreader and the Plume Twitter client. But many Android apps just spread out over the larger space; that gives you big controls that are easy to tap but not the sophistication we’d like to see on a screen that has the resolution to let you tackle something more powerful. (We've been keeping a running list of our favourite Honeycomb apps here). The reason Google handed these limited edition Tabs out to developers is to give them tablets to develop for, so expect to see more powerful apps on the way.
The Galaxy Tab doesn’t have any of the clever features of some tablets, like the touch-sensitive bezel of the BlackBerry PlayBook or the iPad2’s magnetic cover (or even the convertible keyboard docks of other Android models) and neither the Honeycomb version of Android nor the range of Android tablet apps are what we’d really call mature at this point. What you do get is a tablet that’s good for email, ebooks, Web browsing, browsing through Twitter and feeds of news stories - dipping in and out of content - and watching videos. It’s light enough to hold fairly comfortably while you’re doing that, at least for a reasonable time.
The big disappointment is how mean Samsung is with the ports, especially when so many tablets have USB, HDMI and SD Card slots, which would be handy for storing content and viewing it on a larger screen; we may see these in the final version and we’ll certainly see a dock that adds those ports (at a price). At the same price as the iPad, the Galaxy Tab is a credible alternative, especially if you prefer the promise of a more open ecosystem to the more polished but also more restrictive Apple world. Of course, you might struggle to get your hands on this model of Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but we will also bring you a full review of the retail version when it launches.
Photos taken from our original Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Tab (Google I/O edition).