Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Galaxy Tab (Sprint)

THE GOOD: Samsung's 7-inch Android tablet is a serious contender to the Apple iPad, boasting two cameras, Flash compatibility, and a more convenient size.

THE BAD: The Tab behaves more like a supersize Android phone than a Netbook alternative. The Android OS and its apps aren't yet optimized for the larger screen. Depending on your plan, you may be in for a two-year contract and a commitment to monthly charges.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Galaxy Tab is a beautiful product with features that will make iPad owners envious, but its in-between size and possible carrier commitments hold it back from broad appeal.

Since the arrival of the Apple iPad in April of 2010, we've seen a handful of competitors step up with inexpensive tablet alternatives in all shapes and sizes. With the Galaxy Tab, Samsung has created a true peer of the iPad–an uncompromising product that stakes out new territory in terms of both design and features.

Unlike the 9.7-inch iPad and its Apple iOS software, the Tab's screen measures 7 inches diagonally and runs Google's Android 2.2 operating system. Sprint's version of the Tab goes on sale November 14, priced at $399 with a two-year contract and a monthly data plan, or as an off-contract model for $599. Data plans come in two versions: a $29 plan with a 2GB cap, and a $59 plan with a 5GB cap. Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T will all have similar versions of the Tab, though pricing and availability may vary.

Tablets are only as good as their screens, and the Tab's screen is a glossy beauty with the strength of a beast, thanks to a protective layer of Corning Gorilla glass. The LCD underneath it is a crisp 1,024×600-pixel resolution, which is on par with the iPad, but since the screen is about half the size, the pixel density is much tighter. The screen uses a capacitive, multitouch technology that can match the iPad in both response time and usefulness. Not once did we catch ourselves cursing at it–at least, not in the same threatening tone as we used with the Dell Streak or the Archos 7 Home Tablet.

Above the screen you have a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera, perfect for video chat with the included Qik app. Across the bottom you have the typical Android-style buttons for menu, home, back, and search. There's a standard headphone jack on the top, and volume and power buttons on the side, along with a microSD card slot. For this model from Sprint, a 16GB card came installed. Samsung's dock connector and a pair of built-in speakers are located on the bottom edge. The dock connector works with the included USB adapter and power brick, but can also be used for accessories, such as a keyboard dock or video output adapter.

On the back of the Tab you'll see a smooth white plastic back and a more impressive 3-megapixel camera with an integrated flash. The camera can capture video at a maximum resolution of 720×480 pixels at 30 frames per second.

Overall, the Tab, at 7.5 inches tall by 4.7 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, has a solid, paperback book feel that can be comfortably grasped in one hand. Unlike the Apple iPad, we never felt that we needed to set the Tab on our lap or cross our legs just to use it comfortably. For better or worse, it operates and behaves just like a giant Android smartphone, requiring little-to-no learning curve to navigate menus, type e-mails, or browse the Web.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of what the Tab has to offer, let's state for the record that the two best features of the Tab are the least complicated to understand. First off, you have the size–which is smaller, lighter, and more convenient than the iPad. Second, there's the full, undiluted Android 2.2 experience, complete with third-party apps, and the official Android Market for all the latest and greatest apps. We've seen other Android tablets this same size, but none running Android 2.2 with Market support. Similarly, we've seen tablets like the Dell Streak that offer the Android Market, but the size is cramped and the OS isn't yet up to 2.2. Currently, only the Galaxy Tab hits this "just right" Goldilocks zone among Android tablets–and that's what makes it exciting.

When you unlock the Tab's touch screen, you'll find a familiar home screen with a floating Google search bar, dock icons for e-mail, Web browser, and a drawer for apps. Hold the Tab in either portrait or landscape view and the built-in accelerometer sensor will reorient the screen automatically. By default, the Tab includes three main home screens, which you can jump between by flicking left or right. Beyond the core apps in the dock (mail, Web, drawer), the first of the three home screens comes preinstalled with apps for Market, Messaging, Sprint Zone (a Web link for relevant Sprint and Tab news), Contacts, Free Games (crippled Gameloft demos you'd do well to skip), Gallery, Amazon Kindle, and Samsung's video download portal, Media Hub. Aside from the Kindle app, these are all the same home screen apps you'd find on Samsung's Epic 4G smartphone.

You have to dig a little deeper to appreciate the work Samsung did to differentiate the Tab experience from its line of premium Android smartphones. Spend some time in the app drawer, and you'll find that seemingly benign apps like Contacts, Calendar, and Memo have all been optimized by Samsung for the larger screen, using split-screen views and nested tabs to take advantage of the added screen real estate.

Most Android apps, unfortunately, aren't yet designed for the larger screens of tablets. It's a complaint you'll hear echoed in all of our Android tablet reviews so far. With all the extra room, some apps stretch unnaturally to fill the space (Pandora), whereas others appear like large print versions of their original smartphone incarnations. Until Google commits to the tablet form and offers developers and consumers a way to distinguish tablet-optimized apps from smartphone apps, this is going to be a recurring headache for everyone.

In spite of some frustrations, there are quite a few things the Galaxy Tab nails dead on that will get Apple fanboys flustered. Because the Tab includes GPS, the included navigation app does an excellent job as an in-car navigation device, offering turn-by-turn directions, points of interest, and voice search (via the integrated microphone).

Another little advantage the Tab has over the iPad is Adobe Flash 10.1 compatibility, allowing all of the Web's Flash video content to play natively in the browser. The results are a little choppy in some cases, but it's nice to have the option.

Predictably, when you add up the Flash video playback, GPS, and 3G (not to mention Bluetooth and 720p video decoding), battery life can go downhill quickly. By pulling down on the home screen you can access a menu for quickly activating or killing off GPS, Bluetooth, and 3G, helping to squeeze the most from your battery life. Keeping yourself to core features such as Web browsing, music, and e-mail, Samsung expects you'll get around 7 hours of battery life with Wi-Fi active.

As far as media playback performance is concerned, audio, video, and photos all work beautifully. Transferred content–whether by USB or microSD card–is immediately scanned by the device and accessible in the appropriate app. Samsung's years creating highly rated portable media players is evident in little extras, such as audio enhancement settings, video bookmarking, and a mosaic view of video stills for quickly skipping to the perfect spot in a movie.

The movie and video content available through Samsung's Media Hub is priced competitively with Apple's iTunes offerings. Most movies are available to buy for between $9.99 and $17.99, or rentable for between $1.99 and $3.99. A decent selection of TV shows are also available for download, with content from NBC, MTV, Warner Bros., Comedy Central, and others, all priced at $1.99. All of the videos in the Media Hub have been optimized for playback on the Galaxy Tab.

As an e-book reader, the Tab has plenty going for it. The included Kindle app grants you access to one of the most popular e-book retailers in the world. Through the Android Market, e-book software from Barnes & Noble and dozens of other sources can be installed. As an alternative to a dedicated e-book reader, such as the Kindle, Nook, or Sony Reader, the Tab's paperback-like dimensions make it a natural fit. On the downside, the Tab's battery life is relatively low; it's considerably heavier than most e-readers; and its highly reflective backlit LCD isn't as revered by book lovers as e-ink screens.

If productivity is your thing, you'll be happy to know that the Tab's calendar and e-mail apps readily took to our Gmail and Exchange accounts. We're also happy to see the ThinkFree Office app preinstalled, which allows you to view and edit any Microsoft Office documents. That said, for serious document editing, it makes more sense to spend the same amount on a Netbook with a larger screen and peripheral support.

Tabs versus Pads
Now for the big question: iPad or Galaxy Tab? The short answer, in our opinion, is iPad. It's offered at a better range of pricing options–none of which requires any form of carrier contract. Apple's catalog of apps optimized for tablet-size screens number in the thousands, whereas the Tab has just a handful–and they're not terribly exciting. If you feel that a tablet computer should be more than just a supersize smartphone, the iPad is still the best game in town.

In fairness, what we enjoy most about the Galaxy Tab is that it's not trying to exactly copy the iPad's blueprint for success. Sure, Samsung's notepad, calendar, and photo apps look like pixel-for-pixel reproductions of the iPad's, but let's not overlook the fact that the Tab is half the size of the iPad. It's a different type of product that presents a different use case, one geared more for portability. That said, the Android smartphone market seems to cover a lot of this territory already.

The Tab is also reaching out to all of the people who winced at the iPad's lack of Adobe Flash support, video camera, memory expansion, and drag-and-drop file support. If these are the features that have been holding you back from purchasing a tablet, then the Tab should be a perfect match.

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