Galaxy Tab 10.1 – A Full Review

A whole new world: Ars reviews the Galaxy Tab 10.1

” The Tab 10.1 is a much more credible product than the Xoom, but it’s not quite competitive with the iPad. If Google wants to compete, it still needs to build a vibrant third-party application ecosystem in order to make Android tablets a good option for regular users.”

When it released the original Galaxy Tab last year, Samsung became one of the first mainstream hardware vendors to deliver an Android tablet. With its new Galaxy Tab 10.1, Samsung kept the Galaxy Tab name and branding, but the new device has little else in common with its predecessor. Don’t let the “10.1” fool you—this is all new.

The Tab 10.1 is built atop Honeycomb, Google’s tablet-optimized version of the Android operating system. Samsung ships the device with Android 3.1, a Honeycomb point update that addresses some of the technical weaknesses of the original Honeycomb release. And unlike the Motorola Xoom and other Android tablets that we have tested, the Tab 10.1 feels more like a finished product—it’s still incomplete at launch, but it’s not a half-baked tech demo.

In this review, we’ll focus on the Tab 10.1 hardware, the OS improvements in Android 3.1, and how Samsung’s shiny new tablet compares to its chief rivals. (Earlier this year, we took an in-depth look at Honeycomb in our Xoom review, so we won’t reiterate all of the details about the software platform here. You can skim the Xoom review if you want a closer look at what Honeycomb offers and how it differs from the Android phone experience.)

Hardware

Under the hood, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 looks quite similar to the Xoom. An NVIDIA Tegra 2 SoC with a dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 CPU powers the tablet, and it has 1GB of RAM and either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. The 10.1-inch TFT CD display renders at 1280×800. The Tab 10.1 also has two cameras, a front-facing 2.0MP camera for video chat and a 3.0MP rear camera with an LED flash.

The tablet scored 1,428 on the Quadrant benchmark, which put it just behind the Xoom in terms of raw performance.

Quadrant benchmark

The non-removable 7000 mAh battery is rated for 9 hours of use, and we got just under that during our tests with mixed usage scenarios (the new Tab lasts about an hour longer than the Xoom). Connectivity options include WiFi, BlueTooth, and A-GPS.

The Tab 10.1 also comes in several variants. Vodafone offers a 3G-enabled Tab 10.1 model and Verizon plans to launch one with LTE connectivity later this year. Samsung has previously released a separate hardware build called the 10.1v, which was very briefly sold by Vodafone in a handful of regions. The 10.1v had slightly different dimensions and a better 8MP rear-facing camera.

Then there’s the Tab 10.1 developer edition, which has a custom robot design on the back plate. The dev version came with Android 3.0 instead of 3.1 and its bootloader was already OEM unlocked. Samsung gave one of the special edition developer units to every Google I/O attendee.

I received a developer unit at Google I/O, but this article is based on a review unit we received from Samsung and reflects the standard 10.1 model available to consumers. Our review unit is WiFi-only and has 32GB of storage. The WiFi-only model with 16GB of storage retails for $499 and the 32GB WiFi-only model retails for $599.

Ports and buttons

The Tab 10.1 has a slim power button and a volume rocker embedded next to each other in the edge of the device’s frame. When the tablet is held in landscape orientation, these buttons are on the top left. The Tab’s power button is much easier to find than the oddly positioned one on the Xoom. We didn’t have any issues accidentally hitting the buttons during use. Because Honeycomb incorporates the relevant features into the software interface, the Tab 10.1 doesn’t have or need physical buttons for the standard Android home, search, back, or menu functions.

A regular headphone jack, positioned slightly off-center, is integrated into the same edge as the power and volume buttons. The tablet has a pair of speakers, one on each of the tablet’s short edges. The dual speakers are a nice touch, because it means that you get full left and right stereo audio when you hold the device in landscape orientation to watch a movie.

Unlike the Xoom, the Tab 10.1 doesn’t have a microSD slot for expandable storage. As some readers might recall, the Xoom’s microSD slot was not functional at launch and had to be enabled later with an update. It’s possible that Samsung opted to avoid that mess by omitting the feature entirely.

The Tab 10.1 comes with a proprietary 30-pin connector that can be used for charging the device or connecting it to a computer. Samsung also includes a USB power adapter for charging and a set of black earbuds. As we’ve come to expect from Samsung, the quality of the earbuds is somewhat higher than those normally provided with Android devices from other vendors.

There are a number of first-party Tab 10.1 accessories that are not included, but are available separately from Samsung’s website. These currently include a multimedia dock, keyboard dock, an HDMI adapter, and a USB adapter.

Design

The Tab 10.1 is impressively slim and light. It’s about 0.2mm thinner than the iPad 2 and weighs 35 grams less. This arguably makes it the sveltest mainstream tablet available to consumers.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 (left) next to an iPad 2
The Galaxy Tab 10.1 (bottom) is slightly thinner than the iPad 2

The general build quality is high, though the plastic back plate feels a bit cheap. The Xoom’s understated black design and rubberized finish are more elegant, but the Tab 10.1 has much better dimensions than the Xoom.

One of our complaints with the Xoom’s design was the odd tapered profile which made the device awkward to hold in portrait orientation. The Tab 10.1 fortunately doesn’t have the same annoying tapering—it’s uniformly slim all the way down. Although the widescreen ratio still makes the Tab 10.1 a bit unwieldly in portrait orientation, the device’s consistent shape and extremely light weight largely address the comfort problems.

But what really counts is the code running inside.

Software

The Tab 10.1 ships with Android 3.1, the recent Honeycomb update. Samsung is developing its own stack of applications and user interface customizations to differentiate its tablets from competing products—they are collectively referred to as TouchWiz, the same name that Samsung uses to describe its custom Android phone shell.

We typically devote considerable space in Android product reviews to discussing vendor-specific customizations, but we can’t this time. The TouchWiz layer for the Tab 10.1 simply wasn’t ready at launch. Samsung chose to ship the first units with stock Android and will deploy the software customizations later in an over-the-air update.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 home screen

This move is part of troubling trend emerging in the consumer electronics market—hardware companies finish products only after they are released and increasingly treat early adopters like beta testers. The problem isn’t confined to Android tablet vendors; when I reviewed the BlackBerry Playbook, for example, RIM was pushing out frequent software updates to fix technical issues during the entire time that I was writing about the product.

This makes it extremely difficult to evaluate products shipped in such incomplete form. We currently have no way of knowing how Samsung’s software customizations will impact the Tab 10.1’s performance, reliability, or battery life when TouchWiz eventually gets rolled out to consumers.

Android 3.1

Honeycomb, Google’s tablet platform, had a poor start when it launched in February on Motorola’s disappointing Xoom tablet. The platform did a fine job of translating the Android experience to a tablet form factor, but it suffered from poor stability and other technical problems. Honeycomb was clearly incomplete at launch and was largely unfit for regular consumers in the form that it was delivered on the Xoom.

Despite the basic problems, we still saw a great deal of potential in the platform’s tablet-centric design. We remarked in our Xoom review that maturation and bugfixing could eventually make Google’s tablet operating system a serious contender.

The single biggest problem with Honeycomb at launch was the platform-wide instability. Many applications, including Google’s own first-party software, crashed repeatedly during use. The number of force-closes that we encountered while testing the Xoom made it look like the software was pushed out the door without enough testing.

Stability has fortunately gotten a boost in Android 3.1. Application crashes still cropped up during our week of testing the Tab 10.1, but these were well within tolerable boundaries. The software is finally stable enough for comfortable day-to-day use, and this is frankly the level of quality that should have been in place for the Xoom at launch.

In addition to bugfixes and stability improvements, Android 3.1 also brings some welcome feature enhancements and more polish for the user interface. Animated transitions and interaction with the home screen and launcher—which were already quite good in 3.0—feel smoother and more responsive in 3.1.

Google is paying more attention to detail as it refines the core of the Honeycomb experience. Certain interactions, like dragging an icon from the launcher to a home screen, feel more natural due to a very slight reduction in latency. These kinds of positive improvements seem trivial in isolation, but collectively they have a noticeable impact on the user experience. Not that Honeycomb is perfected yet; things like the severity of the transition from one home screen to the next, where the new one snaps into place, remain a bit jarring.

On our Android phones, we tend to replace the stock home screen with LauncherPro, a nice third-party alternative that offers a great feature set and superior flexibility. One of our favorite features in LauncherPro is the built-in support for resizing widgets. It’s such an obviously useful feature that we suspected Google might add it to the stock launcher. It finally did so in 3.1, spurred by the need for greater display flexiblibility on Honeycomb’s larger home screen.

Android 3.1 doesn’t let you arbitrarily resize any widget like you can with LauncherPro, however. The feature is designed for larger scrolling widgets, such as the calendar schedule widget and the browser bookmark widget. Despite the limitations, this is a nice improvement. Widget resizing makes it easier to organize the home screen—it no longer feels like I’m trying to solve a geometry puzzle when I reconfigure the home screens to make the best use of available space.

Resizing the bookmarks widget on the Tab 10.1 home screen

In addition to the user interface tweaks, the e-mail application got a number of minor improvements, including more flexibility for configuring IMAP folder prefixes and better support for handling replies and forwarding of formatted messages. IMAP support is still extremely poor, however, something that hasn’t been remedied in the 3.1 update. Users who need reliable IMAP or Exchange mail support still need to use third-party alternatives such as TouchDown and K-9. TouchDown has a multi-column user layout for devices with large screens, but it doesn’t use native Honeycomb interface elements.

Android’s more flexible multitasking capabilities are a major selling point of the platform compared to iOS. As we described in our review of the Xoom, Google put a dedicated task switching button—one that displays application thumbnails—in the Honeycomb notification panel in order to make the feature more accessible to regular end users.

The task switching interface got another nice improvement in 3.1. The application list is now scrollable, which means that users can go back much further in their application history. The thumbnails also seem cleaner.

The new multitasking interface looks like the old one, but it scrolls!

One of the coolest features in Android 3.1 is the addition of USB host mode support, which will allow users to plug USB peripherals into Android tablets. Unfortunately, the lack of a conventional USB port prevented us from testing this feature on the Tab 10.1, something worth keeping in mind if this feature is important to you.

Google Music

When we reviewed the Xoom, we were quite impressed with the slick new native music player that Google introduced in Android 3.0. It makes use of the device’s advanced graphics capabilities to deliver a great visual presentation of your music albums. Much like Android’s image gallery, its modern aesthetic sets it significantly above the rest of the platform.

Honeycomb’s shiny music player

Our only major complaint with the music experience on the Xoom was the difficulty of getting media onto the device in the first place. Fortunately, Google’s new music locker service addresses this complaint wonderfully. Google Music works beautifully in Android 3.1 on the Tab 10.1.

I uploaded some of my favorite albums to Google Music last month when I reviewed the service. The albums automatically showed up in the music player on the Tab 10.1 without requiring any special configuration.

The Google account credentials that I supplied to the device during the initial setup process were all that it needed. The Google Music cloud service is a first-class part of the Android tablet experience, operating just as seamlessly as calendar and contact synchronization.

I was able to play my songs right away, streaming them directly from Google’s servers. When I selected “Available offline” from an album’s context menu, the tablet downloaded the tracks for local playback. The whole experience was far more convenient than having to plug the device into a computer and copy the music over by hand.

Pinning an album for offline playback in the music player

The Google Music service is currently in closed beta, but Google seems to be providing invitations to many Honeycomb device owners. For users who can get into the service, it’s a great feature for the Tab 10.1.

Flash

Support for Adobe’s Flash browser plugin is often touted by Android hardware vendors as one of the advantages that their products offer over Apple’s mobile devices. Although the Flash plugin is now relatively mature on Android smartphones and works largely as expected on handsets, its transition to tablets hasn’t been entirely smooth.

Adobe’s track record with mobile Flash is spotty and the company hasn’t been able to deliver a consistently good Flash experience for its tablet partners. Despite working closely with RIM in a high-profile partnership, Adobe’s port of Flash to the BlackBerry Playbook was abysmally poor at launch. Adobe also let down Motorola by failing to make Flash ready for the Xoom in time for the tablet’s release.

Although Samsung’s marketing material for the Tab 10.1 prominently highlights support for Flash, guess what? The plugin isn’t included out of the box. Samsung says that Flash will be added to the device in a future over-the-air update. For now, consumers who want it can simply install the Flash plugin themselves from the Android Market. We had no difficulty installing Flash 10.3 on our Tab 10.1 review unit.

We tested several different kinds of Flash content on the Tab 10.1, including streaming video, games, and interactive Flex applications. The performance of Flash content was generally acceptable, aside from some slight lag that we noticed occasionally during video streaming and graphically intensive games.

The only Flash-based site that really matters
ZOMG CUTE

Embedded Flash elements in webpages do tend to slow page scrolling, however, especially on sites with a lot of Flash content. This situation isn’t nearly as bad on the Tab 10.1 as it was on the Playbook, but it was still noticeable during use.

The Honeycomb browser has an option in the “Advanced” section of its settings panel to switch browser plugins into an “on-demand” mode. This mode, which works much like popular Flash-block browser add-ons, makes embedded Flash elements in webpages display a placeholder instead; they won’t actually load unless one of the elements is tapped. This feature largely fixes the power and performance problems that result from Flash.

Our tests of Flash on the 10.1 demonstrate that it can work reasonably well on mobile tablets—and that its undesirable aspects can be easily avoided by toggling a single browser option. The fact that Samsung hasn’t baked Flash into the ROM yet was a bit irritating and might prove confusing to novice users, but it’s not a serious obstacle for Android enthusiasts.

QuickOffice

Samsung licensed the full version of QuickOffice for Android and includes it by default with the tablet. QuickOffice is a mobile office suite—with document, spreadsheet, and presentation support—designed for compatibility with standard Microsoft Office document formats.

Changing the formatting of a document in QuickOffice

QuickOffice has some cool features, including support for syncing with Dropbox and Google Docs. This makes it especially useful for people who have it on both a phone and a tablet. Although its document compatibility isn’t perfect, it works well enough to provide real mobile productivity.

The QuickOffice file browser, with Google Docs and Dropbox accounts

QuickOffice has a full Honeycomb-native user interface, which worked very well on the Tab 10.1. Samsung’s decision to include it in the default installation is sound—it adds value and makes the device more immediately useful to enterprise adopters.

Samsung’s custom software

As we explained earlier, Samsung didn’t ship its TouchWiz user experience layer on the Tab 10.1 at launch—it’s coming later in an over-the-air update. There are, however, two Samsung applications on the device.

One is Samsung Apps, which appears to be a pitiful attempt by Samsung to create its own application store. It looks terribly out of place on the Tab 10.1., and it only has a a few third-party applications in it, most of which are already in the Android Market. Samsung Apps looked like a trainwreck from the moment I opened it, but the thing that’s really mind-blowing is that it doesn’t even work out of the box.

Kill it with fire

When I attempted to install an application from Samsung Apps, I got a security error message informing me that the installation was not permitted because the device is configured to block software installation from sources other than the Android Market. In order to use the Samsung Apps store (though I can’t imagine why anybody would want to), you have to enable side-loading by ticking the “unknown sources” checkbox in the system settings panel. You’d think that Samsung would hardcode an exception for their own curated application store, but it seems that they didn’t.

The other Samsung application bundled with the device is the Samsung Music Hub. This is basically a music store backed by 7Digital. It has a (rather garish) Honeycomb-native tabbed layout, but it at least looks like it was designed for a tablet. The hub allows users to purchase music to add to their library.

Samsung’s music store is less hideous than its app store

Given the low quality of the bundled Samsung applications, it’s not surprising that the company has delayed rolling out their full set of customizations and branded software. As an Android user, I’m not particularly attached to the stock configuration and often like the customizations offered by manufacturers. In this case, however, I’m not so impressed. Frankly, the parts that Samsung let through the door don’t leave much room for optimism about TouchWiz.

Third-party software

Thanks to the stability improvements, Honeycomb is no longer a non-starter. The platform is on much better footing today than it was at launch, but it’s still not fully competitive—in large part due to lack of third-party software designed for the tablet form factor.

When we reviewed the Xoom, only a handful of applications even existed that were optimized for large screens, and even fewer used the actual Honeycomb user interface elements. Several of the ones that we looked at, such as the Flixster application, were well-implemented and did a nice job of showcasing the look and feel of Android tablet software. Unfortunately, the number of available tablet applications hasn’t grown by much in the months that have passed since Honeycomb’s launch.

The Featured Tablet Apps section of the Android Market has a bunch of fullscreen games that stretch to fill the space, but there aren’t a whole lot of new conventional applications. To make it seem like less of a ghost town, Google has started throwing in applications that aren’t tablet-optimized at all; for example, Dropbox is now included in the tablet section even though it hasn’t been adapted for larger screens and merely stretches.

Note-taking applications seem to be a bit ahead of the curve. The best-looking new native Honeycomb applications since Honeycomb’s launch are the client apps from Catch and Springpad. These both look great and make excellent use of the Honeycomb user interface elements. As we reported from Google I/O, the folks at Evernote also have a really slick Honeycomb update coming soon.

Catch’s note-taking application

Aside from these programs, the Honeycomb application ecosystem hasn’t made much progress. Particularly frustrating to me is the lack of Honeycomb support in Google’s own official Google Reader client. One of our readers recommended Newsr, from Locomo Labs, which provides a native Honeycomb interface for Google’s news feed service. The interface is cobbled together rather badly and has some odd glitches, but it basically works.

The Newsr RSS reader displaying my Google Reader feeds

Locomo also has a multicolumn Twitter client called TweetComb that uses the native interface elements. It’s got a bit more fit and finish than Newsr and worked basically as expected.

A multicolumn Twitter client for Honeycomb

These applications are step in the right direction, but they aren’t even on the same playing field as the equivalent iOS software. It’s tempting to be simplistically optimistic and just assume that it’s only a matter of time before Honeycomb’s third-party software catches up, but it’s not really clear yet.

Platform fragmentation is a key part of the problem. Google hasn’t released the Honeycomb source code yet, so a number of hardware vendors still build tablets on top of Android 2.x. Third-party developers want to reach the largest possible audience and aren’t willing to alienate buyers of Android 2.x tablets by using Honeycomb-exclusive APIs.

This means that a lot of the third-party software, including the applications that are being designed for tablet users, won’t deliver optimal integration with the Honeycomb user experience. Google has taken some good steps to reduce the scope of the problem by backporting Honeycomb’s critically important Fragments framework and making it available as a static library that can be used on previous versions of Android.

The Fragments framework allows developers to break their Android application user interfaces into components so that less effort is required to make them work across multiple form factors. For example, developers can use Fragments to take a list-driven phone application and stretch it out into multiple columns on a tablet.

The ability for developers to use this feature on previous versions of Android obviously helps encourage development of tablet-friendly interfaces, but it doesn’t address the issue of Honeycomb-native user interface idioms—like the application toolbar and new menu system—not working on Android 2.x tablets.

Third-party developers also cite the abysmally poor performance of the Android SDK’s emulator—which is generally used for application testing and debugging during the development process—as one of the biggest challenges that has discouraged them from making more progress on tablet application development.

Google and Samsung put a Tab 10.1 in the hand of every Google I/O attendee, which means that 5,000 developers now have direct access to an Android tablet. That by itself might increase the application count a little bit. In the long run, however, we think it’s unlikely that the application availability issue will get better until the release of Ice Cream Sandwich—if it is remedied at all.

Ice Cream Sandwich is the next major version of the Android operating system. Google says that the update will converge the Android tablet user interface and other new Android 3.x features back into the Android mainline, and that the source code will be available. That would pave the way for reducing the fragmentation among Android tablets and probably help to combat the uncertainty that exists today among third-party developers.

As things stand now, too many killer applications—like Flipboard and Netflix—on the iPad have no tablet-friendly Android equivalent. Users have to rely on Android phone software for almost everything, which generally offers a poor user experience on Honeycomb.

Held back by the apps

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 easily has the best hardware of any Android tablet on the market today. Samsung has really outdone itself—the Tab 10.1’s svelte profile and impressively light weight (it weighs less than an iPad and has more RAM) are sure to attract the attention of consumers. Hardware excellence isn’t the only measure of a good tablet, however; software is arguably just as important—if not more so—on such a personal device.

Google has moved Honeycomb forward with Android 3.1 and has thankfully fixed the stability problems, but that’s still not enough. Honeycomb’s barren third-party application landscape really hobbles the Tab 10.1 and other Android tablets.

The main users who will find the Tab 10.1 appealing are Android enthusiasts who like the platform’s flexibility, are tightly bound to Google’s Web service ecosystem, and are comfortable using Android phone applications on a 10.1-inch screen. The Tab 10.1 is also a good choice for third-party Android developers looking for real-world hardware on which to test and develop their applications.

The 16:10 aspect ratio and dual speakers also make the Tab 10.1 a reasonable choice for users who watch a lot of mobile video. One problem, however, is limited content; no compatible Netflix or Crackle applications exist for the Tab 10.1—just Google’s nascent video rental service and whatever content is available via Flash in the browser.

The Tab 10.1 is a much more credible product than the Xoom, but it’s not quite competitive with the iPad. If Google wants to compete, it still needs to build a vibrant third-party application ecosystem in order to make Android tablets a good option for regular users.

 

Source – Arstechnica

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