Samsung Galaxy Tab Properly Reviewed

Note: This is a review unit loaned to me by Verizon Wireless, the device and internet access was no cost to me while I had it.

How do you review something that doesn’t fit any predefined category for a device?

Samsung Galaxy Tab 1

This is the problem that the Samsung Galaxy Tab presents: it is a tablet, but not in the same way that the iPad is. In fact these two devices are so very different that I don’t think they really ‘compete’ with one another in terms of how you use them. With that in mind it is rather easy to see why so many others failed at doing a proper review of the Tab – it turns out the device is quite the enigma.

The Difference

There are two major reasons that the Tab and iPad are not direct competitors: size and app stores. This may seem like it should not be that big of a difference, what’s three inches after all – additionally the Android Market is a pretty robust app store right? Well no, not really. There may be a lot of apps in the Android Market, but there are not many good apps. Oh, and three inches turns out to be a huge difference for a tablet.

The iPad is a companion device, but a companion device that is both large enough and powerful enough to serve as a primary computer for many people. Just take a look around the web and you will see a good number of Geeks like myself who have left behind their laptops on recent travels, preferring instead to take along their iPad only.

The Tab is not that type of device, it is not able to span the category of both companion and possibly a primary computer. As I see it the Tab isn’t even a secondary computer. That does not make it a bad device, I actually rather like it under the right circumstances.

Sizing Up

If you own an iPad and you pick up the Tab you are probably going to get a grin on your face – I know I did. The size just feels very natural to hold in your hand. It is almost the same thickness of the iPad, yet its surface area is just a fraction of the size. From day one the iPad has always felt like a device that required two hands, a stand, table, or lap to use properly. The Tab though is a handheld computer in the truest sense, it looks down right absurd to try and rest on your lap while you use it. I certainly grinned the first time I picked up an iPad too, but something about the Tab feels right from a size standpoint. The size though is more troublesome then it is good.

There have been a ton of arguments between Apple and seemingly every other tablet maker about 7” screens, with Apple (and I) both arguing that 7-inches is just not a practical size for a tablet – it is too in between to work. I still feel that such an assessment is accurate, but I would add that, as with everything, there is a time and place for each.

I just plopped the Tab on top of my iPad and the first thing that came to my mind was MacBook Airs. If you go to the store and look at the difference between the 13” MacBook Air and the 11” MacBook Air then I think you will get a good understanding about the difference between these two tablets. The Tab is the 11” Air, that by itself would be silly to own, but for the right people makes and excellent computer, so too then does the Tab make an excellent tablet for the right user.

If you are on the go all day and rarely create any content (more on this in a bit) then I think the Tab would suit you well. I can picture political aides running around with these things, emailing on their Blackberries and then grabbing the Tab to gulp down some news and policies while going from meeting to meeting.

To me the Tab makes the iPad feel like the type of device that you grab when you want to ‘settle in’ with something, whereas the Tab is the device you grab when you are ‘go, go, go’. If that makes any sense. Let me try explaining it another way, if I am going on vacation to a city I have never been to here is how I would use the iPad versus the Tab:

  • The iPad would be the device I would want for lounging around the hotel, or going to Café to catch up on the world.
  • The Tab is the device I would want while running around the city and exploring it.

The iPad would be too big to take with me, especially if I don’t want to be a mugging target. The Tab though could slip in a purse, or large pocket while stilling being every bit as useful – perhaps even more useful given the ease of carry. I am not talking about sticking it in your back pocket either, it fits in a few of my jackets pockets.

App Stores

The Android Market is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the entire Tab experience for me. I did not find one single suitable replacement for any of the third-party apps that I use on the iPad. Angry Birds is the same, save for that really ugly add that sits atop while you play. Twitter (official app) is similar, except that it never remembered my position correctly, nor does it allow for multiple accounts. Turning to other options in the Market was of little help to me, and I think John Gruber summarized why best on Daring Fireball when he said:

In fact, the Android Market, as a whole, bears a lot more resemblance to the Cydia app store than it does to Apple’s official App Store. This is both in terms of content (system hacks, geek utilities, lower-quality UI design) and audience (the sort of users who put “task killers” and home screen replacements at the top of their favorite app lists). Browse the Android Market apps listed at sites like DoubleTwist and AppBrain, particularly the most popular lists. Then browse the listings in the Cydia app store, and tell me there isn’t a strong similarity.

That is a dead on accurate look at what the Android Market feels like. There are a few scattered good apps, but most of the apps felt like things that only real nerds would want to use, not the average users. Perhaps the best example was when I was trying to figure out how to take a screenshot on the Tab. After googling for some answers it became clear that you needed a third party app to take a screenshot. I hopped into the Market and did a quick search (which to Android’s credit is far faster than Apple’s iOS App Store search mechanism) and up popped a lot of screen shot apps. Not one of which worked – I tried about 12 or so of them, only the free ones. Most every screen shot app said that I would have to gain Root access to the device before I could use the tool – something I was not willing to attempt on a review unit.

There are very few apps that have been optimized for the Tabs larger interface, so most of the time you are looking at a scaled version of an Android phone app. In fact the Market is lacking the universal apps that Apple has. I did a quick search to find out what the best Tab apps were and among the ones listed I was told to download the New York Times app. So I did, and it was a small rectangle on the screen – which I found odd. I searched again and found that there are two version, one for tablets and one for phones – yet these two version were separated by 5 other apps in the search results. Confusing and annoying me at the same time.

What I am saying is this: you don’t buy the Tab to use apps, you buy the Tab for what it has built-in and the web. The apps that are available are serviceable, but lack compelling design or features (such as send to Instapaper which seems to be quite the enigma in the Android Market). There is a very good reason that Apple has commercials only displaying third party apps for iPad and Samsung does not advertise the same thing, I have yet to find a single compelling Android app for the Tab that was made by a third party developer.

Stephen Hackett may have said it best:

The biggest thing Android has going for it is its integration with Google’s cloud services.

That is very true.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4

Typing

The meta thing to do would have been to type this entire section on the Tab – so I tried to do just that to keep my ‘geek cred’ high. I decided though that the attempt was futile and I should stop before I pulled out all of my hair. Typing anything longer than a sentence (if even that) on the Tab is a frustrating experience – no matter which orientation you are using the device in.

In setting up the device I noticed that there is an option to turn ‘haptic feedback’ on and off, this is the little buzz the device does in response to you typing or hitting the menu keys. To be honest with you, I really like the haptic feedback. It is a really nice reassurance that you are actually pressing something. The haptic feedback was also very helpful in letting me know when I hit a button that I didn’t want, or mean, to press.

Haptic feedback is where the pleasantness of typing on the Tab ends. This is not just a matter of getting used to the keyboard. The device is simply too small to house a practical and functional landscape keyboard. I have typed many 1000+ word documents on my iPad onscreen keyboard in landscape mode with only minimal frustration. Trying to type even a paragraph though on the Tab was irritating for me – to the point where I had to go do something else for a bit. If you want to know what it is like to type on the Tab’s landscape keyboard and you own an iPad, you are in luck – flip your iPad into portrait view and pop up the keyboard, what you are looking at is faster to type on than the Tab’s landscape keyboard. This has to do with both the size and layout of the Tab keyboard. The layout should be a non-issue after using the device for a while, however the size will always be an issue.

The portrait mode is better though, in fact I am convinced that one should only use the Tab in portrait mode as landscape offers little to no benefit. So let’s talk about the portrait keyboard on the Tab – it is much better than the portrait keyboard on the iPad. It is a thumb typing keyboard that looks and feels like a jumbo version of the iPhone keyboard. It will be a bit to big for those with small hands, and troublesome for those with fat thumbs. That said I would guess that most people could get up to reasonable speed on it with practice. It is far easier for people with big thumbs to use than something you would encounter on a smartphone.

The Tab has Swype installed on it, and when I first started using it I found Swype to be in the way. Once I turned it off my typing speed substantially increased as the keyboard layout more closely mimicked iOS’s keyboard layout. The Tab’s keyboard is simply too large to use Swype with if you want to use it for speed. However, if you just want to use it because you don’t like lifting your finger, well by all means…

The last bit about typing, perhaps the most important, is the auto-correct mechanism. iOS utilizes a dual auto-correct method. The first line of defense on iOS is that the target areas for the predicted next letter increase in virtual size (meaning you don’t see the increase). So if you are typing fast and you meant to hit ‘a’ instead of ’s’, if the iOS device thinks there is a larger chance you meant to hit ‘a’ than ’s’, the letter that will appear will actually be ‘a’. 1 This leads to a lot fewer typos and a lot quicker typing. The second line of defense that iOS has is a very aggressive spell check engine that suggests and word and inputs that suggestion if you don’t actively tell it not to.

The Tab must be utilizing a similar method as iOS, but the auto-correct suggestions work in a vastly different way. In fact the suggestions appear below where you are typing, just above the keyboard. The problem with that is you must take your eyes off of the sentence you are typing to watch the suggestions – they are just as aggressive as iOS’s are. This slowed my typing speed significantly, having to look away from your sentence is very annoying. The nice part about Android is that you can tweak a lot of these settings to your liking.

Overall I have had great success tapping out most words – with a bit more practice, shooting out one to two sentence emails should be a breeze. That said there is one last annoyance with the keyboard – lag. I mentioned above that I like to keep haptic feedback on, the reason being that if you are typing fast (which I try to do) the keyboard illumination (glows blue around keys when you ‘press’ them) will lag behind my fingers – haptic feedback has yet to lag behind so I get a better sense that the Tab is keeping up with me. That said I find the portrait keyboard to be very serviceable, but the landscape keyboard to be abysmal.

Usage

Everything that I have been talking about so far has led us up to the most unique, interesting and troubling aspect of the Samsung Galaxy Tab. How, where and when do you use the Tab?

That is not an easy question to answer. As a Kindle reader it works great, the smaller footprint and lighter weight of the chassis makes for a very enjoyable experience. The lack of a quality RSS reader and Instapaper app though will certainly limit the usage of this device.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 5

Web Browsing

One huge downfall of the device is how the browser reports itself to websites – most websites will automatically kick you to a mobile version that is truly formatted for small phone screens. This usually is not a problem as you can click the full site buttons, but some sites lack those (why people, why?). Facebook was particularly troublesome for my Wife as it kept forcing her back to the mobile site with each page on the site she moved to. This seems to be much less of a problem for the iPad as many people have checks to see if you are using an iPad these days.

I am not entirely sure if it is possible for web developers to set rules for Android Tablets as I am not sure how they report to sites, or if they even report differently than other Android devices. What is clear is that something needs to be done to improve web browsing experiences on the Tab – my guess is that both Google and web developers need to work on this. Of course web developers will need to have a compelling reason to do more work (though 600,000 opening month sales is a good start).

Scrolling seems to be somewhat of a contentious topic for Tab reviewers as people are all over the board about it. Here is the bottom line on scrolling: if you use iOS devices the scrolling will disappoint you to the point of frustration, however if you are not coming from an iOS device you should be fine. That said there are significant problems with scrolling on graphics heavy pages, Engadget.com is one such site that is particularly laughable to navigate. 2 Even this site was problematic when I scrolled by images. I should note that scrolling on the mobile versions of sites is very pleasant.

One last thing about scrolling: the ‘inertia’ scrolling on the Tab (the scrolling that keeps moving after you stopped moving your finger, allowing for ‘momentum’ to stop it) is much different from iOS. It seemed a lot less “real” if that makes sense. It scrolled much to fast when I flicked it, often just sprinting down to the bottom of the page. Oh, and that remind me, there is no shortcut I can find for quickly moving back up to the navigation bar at the top, which is a bit annoying. Actually it was really annoying come to think of it.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2

Purpose

In my usage of this device, which has been very extensive at this point, I can see why many reviewers either seem to love it or hate it. There is a lot to like about this device, and I do think that it is a very good device. The problem though is that the iPad re-defined the tablet landscape when it was launched and the Samsung Galaxy Tab does not fit within that definition, which is not a bad thing. Samsung could simply be trying to re-define the market once again.

The Tab is more mobile than the iPad, while being easier to use than mobile phones – in the sense that it has a larger screen that is much easier to see. If you want to know where you would use the Tab over the iPad the best way to think about it is like this:

The iPad requires a bag for the most part, otherwise you will have to carry it in your hands. The Tab though could fit in most jacket pockets and thus does not require a bag for traveling. Now think about all the times you have been out and about, think about the times when you had wished you had the iPad with you to look something up. That is a Tab situation. Think about the times you had the iPad with you and you wished you had somewhere out of the way to put it – the Tab again eliminates the frustration ten fold.

That is why the Tab stands to have a nice size market, and I would guess why they sold 600,000 on opening weekend.

General Thoughts

One really interesting thing that I noticed in using the Tab is that unlike in iOS everything seems to be buried under at least one layer of menus. Be it the main App view, the menus and settings. Everything is one more click away than I am with iOS. It is a little annoyance, something like trying to get to the settings on Twitter’s app for iPhone and having to back out to the account screen first, a minor annoyance because you have to think about where you need to go.

The ON/OFF button is in the wrong spot. It sits just above the volume rocker along the right side of the device. It might be because I am so used to ON/OFF being on the top – I still have yet to get used to the side ON/OFF and it drives me crazy. I constantly hit the top edge of the device to try and turn it off, and then I would hit volume up trying to do the same on the side. Annoying.

Unlike the iPad the Tab is not really a device that you use in any orientation, the bottom row of home keys really spells out how the device is to be held: in portrait view. This is a not really a bad thing I found this view to be the best with just about everything I did on the Tab.

There is no hardware switch for mute or orientation lock – Samsung though has made it very easy to get to these settings and more. On the lock screen you can slide to unlock, or slide to Mute/Un-Mute the device which is a very nice touch. The volume switch if held mutes the device incredibly quick or drag down the top bar with your finger and you can silence the device. This is also where orientation lock is stowed away.

I want to talk a little about the four buttons along the bottom of the Android standard: Menu, Home, Back/up, Search. At first I thought these buttons were stupid, but Android does a great job utilizing them (as well as Android app developers). I found the menu button to be OK, but menus in general seemed silly and overly large. The home button was a home button (surprise!). The search button is a great addition and after getting used to the fact that it was there I really found that I liked having it. The back button though, I hate that back button. In iOS developers use a little button usually at the top that is in an arrow shape pointing left, and all iOS transitions lead you to feel that you advance to the right 3 in Android that little button is replaced by a hardware button. In all the hours I spent with the Tab I never once got used to that, nor the behavior that button had. Like how if you keep hitting it you eventually return to the home screen. Why not just stop working when you get back to the first screen for the app, I will press the home button when that is where I want to go. Odd.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 3

Hardware

To be honest I set my expectations for the hardware pretty low from the outset. I have been using Apple products so long that it is very rare that other consumer electronics impress me when it comes to hardware. Having said that the build of the Tab is solid. Like the iPad it is not a device that feels fragile in your hands, in fact the Tab feels quit cozy in your hands. 4

There is a gradual curve along the back of the device and a slight texture as well (see the dots in the pictures). The Tab is not ‘grippy’, but at the same time it does not feel ready to slip out of your grasp. As with most Android devices the Tab has four ‘physical’ buttons along the bottom – these are actually touch sensitive buttons and do not depress. They act as the menu, home, back, and search buttons for the device. Along the right side you have a volume rocker and the power button.

The most interesting thing about the Tab though is the bezel around the device. It is about a quarter of an inch smaller on each side than the iPad. That quarter of an inch though makes for a dramatic difference. I measure my thumb when it is resting on a ruler with the normal pressure I would use to hold the iPad or Tab, my thumb is almost 7/8” wide. The iPad has a 3/4” bezel, while the Tab has a 1/2” bezel. That means that on the Tab my thumbs get in the way a bit more than on the iPad. This is not a nit-picky thing, it has caused some unexpected results when browsing the web. I find that I often accidentally click on ads when I am browsing because one of my thumbs is actually on the touch screen. This is something that you most certainly would learn not to do in time as you use the device. I strongly feel though that you should never have to learn how to hold something in order to use it. 5

Of note the Tab uses a dock like interface, the connector is almost identical in size and shape to an Apple dock connector (no they are not the same that I could tell). This has no bearing on usage of the device, but I was very curious to see this and thought it was rather interesting.

Overall the hardware is very well done. The Tab is not a beautiful piece of art, it is a black rectangle. It does however win where it counts, the Tab feels right in your hand, feels solid, looks solid, and seems very well made.

Miscellany

  • I found setting up email accounts a bear, as I am sure it is on iOS but the lack of being able to sync over all your email accounts like you can in iTunes was a really annoying problem. Setup is a bear if the Tab cannot auto configure the account for you.
  • The camera is more or less a joke on the device and without a FaceTime app I was not able to test the front facing camera. You can see some example shots here, here, here and here that I took with the rear facing camera.
  • I am not sure if this is a hardware or software issue, so I am tossing it here, but the backlight sensor is overly…sensitive for lack of a better word. My hand moving in the wrong spot always makes the screen dim in situations where it needs to be bright, this is not a major problem, but it is a tad bit annoying. Especially given that the Tab dims faster than it brightens back up.
  • As I mentioned on Twitter this device was incredibly frustrating for my wife – she hated the Haptic Feedback and found the web browsing on Facebook less than stellar.
  • Being able to attach things to emails from within the email composition screen is amazing. I can’t tell you how many times I start an email in iOS and then realize I want to attach a picture, which means starting all over again. [Updated: 11/26/10 at 9:52 AM] A reader writes in to say that you can do this in iOS if you just use copy and paste after you start an email.
  • The send button, it is right above the keyboard and that is perfect, love that.
  • Mobile hotspot, this thing can be a MiFi, so can many other Android devices. Why this isn’t the case on iOS I don’t know, but it really should be.
  • I loved not having to worry about Internet access, my next tablet will have 3G it is way too convenient.

Bottom Line

The biggest deciding factors for whether you should buy the Tab need to come down to two things: what is your intended use and why do you want a tablet. A person that hates bags should probably go with the Tab, a person that is indifferent or loves bags should go with the iPad. If you carry a laptop anyways, perhaps a Tab instead of a larger iPad to save room. If you are all about Apple then why are you reading this?

Do not be confused however, I think the tab is an awesome device – much more impressive than I had initially thought it would be. That does not mean it is better than, or even as good as the iPad – it is not. The iPad is still the ‘bees knees’ if you will, that though is due to the superior app store. iOS has an excellent app store, and you might as well forget about Android’s as it is rather pathetic right now. If you want a tablet to get cool apps the Tab is the absolute wrong choice for you.

The Tab truly is a large smartphone and most everything it does reminds you of that fact, though a very good large smart phone. The Tab for me doesn’t come close to fitting in my workflow, I think it’s good, but the app store is pathetic and typing is too poor to make it any better than using my iPhone. Again this is a device for specific people not for the masses.

[Updated: 11/26/10 at 9:46 AM]

I didn’t mention anything about Flash, sorry about that I had meant to. Flash is irrelevant, when it worked it worked. When it didn’t work it crashed the browser or ran like crap. Flash on a tablet is like a website that uses a lot of the ‘:hover’ attribute in CSS, just doesn’t work all that great for touch interfaces, but most of the time you can get by without noticing the pitfalls.

  1. Usually
  2. Full site, not the mobile version.
  3. Which must really screw with the heads of countries that read right to left, like Japan
  4. Having a plastic back helps.
  5. Just to save myself some emails yes I use an iPhone 4 and no I have had no antenna problems no matter how I hold it.
Originally posted for members on: November 26, 2010
Follow along on RSS, App.net, or Twitter.
~I would appreciate it if you considered becoming a member.~