And now for something a little bit different: The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7″ Review

Posted on 10/20/2011

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The Hardware

The Galaxy Tab 7″ ( herearfter referred to as just the Galaxy Tab) is a touchscreen slab dominated at the front by a 7″ Super AMOLED screen. To give you an idea of dimensions the Galaxy Tab is just smaller than a standard issue paperback and the same thickness as said book if it’s around 100 pages or so. The end result is a device that is actually very nice to hold in the hand. It’s weighs just under 400 grams which in real world terms means that it’s not particulary and you won’t be getting arm ache from holding the device. Even though it is quite clearly made of plastic it’s nice and thick, meaning that unlike certain devices, it doesn’t feel like it might break if you look at funny.

As you can see from the gallery, the Galaxy Tab is a nice to hold in one hand and manipulate with the other. I found with the bigger tablets, sinec I couldn’t get my one hand around the whole device, it was two handed for the most part which I found a touch unituitive. I know there is a general drive towards tablet sizes around the 10″ mark but I feel like 7″ hits the sweet spot for the easiest operation, and I would sacrifice the extra screen real estate for the increased usability. I hope that manufacturers don’t bury tablets of this size.

Internally, the Galaxy is powered by the same stuff that drives the Galaxy S,  1Ghz processor with dedicated graphics and 512 Mb RAM. I was using the 16Gb model but it’ also comes ina 32Gb variant both with support for microSD expansion. The model I had, the P1000, is the more expensive 3G model but there is the Wifi only option, P1010. There’s bluetooth support, accelerometer support from screen rotation and a camera. I will say no more about the camera other than that it is to be used only if it is the only option you have.

              

The Software

The Galaxy Tab unit I received was running  version 2.2 of Google’s mobile OS, affectionately known as FroYo. You see it was clear at the time, and still is today, that FroYo is optimised for small screened devices with lower resolutions that the 1024X600 found on the Galaxy Tab but more on that later. FroYo on the Galaxy Tab is not an unmitigated disaster, though it does feel less nimble than when on a phone.

I will have to say that I was not blown away. Being blown away is not a criteria for something being good, but for an OS that has gained so much traction in such a short space of time and is loved by millions of people, I just expected a little bit more. To be fair this is the Google way. I have been a dedicated Google user since Gmail was launched all those years ago, and every product, the success like Gmail, Calendar, Contacts, Chrome, Google+ or the failures like Wave and Buzz, make one feel a permanent beta tester. When the product is as engaging as Gmail is that’s not a problem, but when you enter Buzz levels then you have a problem.

Android to me feels like neither of those two, not quite in the middle, more towards the Gmail side of experiment. A noble is somewhat flawed effort. There is a lot to love about Android but also frustrating elements that I found even on Gingerbread in the SII and very noticeable on a device running non-optimised software.

The default apps were nicely done. Google integration as expected is as tight as anywhere. I was not particular impressed with the built in mail client however, I had to manually set up my Yahoo account but it was fine with my Ovi account, which is powered by Yahoo. Mail delivery compared to the Gmail client was also not as expected. Going further with productivity, contacts are handled well, I’m not a fan of integrating with social networks so did not explore this further but it works as one would expected. The calendar app was also quite nicely implemented.

The media side of things was good. The music player is excellent but I found the video player a touch on the minimalistic side. However both apps handled much of what I threw at them so well played. Sound quality was good, though not excellent. For video, the screen real estate helps a lot, with videos crisp and vibrant.

Browsing was very good. I’m a dedicated Opera Mini user, but played with the default browser and Opera Mobile. Despite once again being a touch on the minimalist side from a UI perspective I found browsing superior on the default browser compared to Opera Mobile. I don’t benchmarks and that sort of thing though a couple of timed tests confirmed the speed and generally found it more responsive.

The notification system on Android is superlative. To get this right, the system has to let your known that something has happened, what it is that has happened and do so without. It was such a pleasure having  a single avenue that collates all of the information from all apps installed to just give you a heads up, ‘something’s happened here’, and unlike other systems (though Symbian and iOS have looked to correct that with their Belle and iOS 5 updates), you don’t feel the need to act NOW! There is nothing worse than an obstructive notifications system that is more than distracting.

The notifications system also illustrates how well integrated Android is. I just love that all accounts and services that I am signed into can talk to one another via Android’s tight sharing system. Of course other systems are catching  up but this was the pioneer and is well implemented. Being able to dump posts in Facebook, send links from  anywhere to Read it Later etc was a pleasure.

Lastly the Android Market. While it was hit and miss, mostly hit, in terms of quality, just the sheer volume of apps is impressive. It’s rewarding from a user perspective knowing that most services that come out will have an app in the Market. And even if it’s not an official, those most are well serviced in this regard, there is an intrepid third party developer somewhere who has tapped into available APIs to create something. App discovery is not cumbersome, the search filter works well, as does the categorisation. Ultimately though, I actually preferred to go through the more curated and palatable Samsung Apps portal. It does mean having an extra login but is easier than sifting through a portal with more than 250 000 apps.

It wasn’t all joy however.

As I mentioned running a phone OS had it’s limitations. For one many of the apps just did not feel right. And this began with the hub, the Android Market. Some of the screenshots for apps were horribly pixelated as were the headers. While some apps like Pulse and the BBC app felt and looked beautiful, others like the official Facebook and Twitter clients look wrong, cleared not scaled for such high resolution large screened device. I also encountered a bit of lag sometimes. One expects some sort of delay when opening apps and such but sometimes when scrolling or tapping on lags I was not sure if these were registered. It is that sort of delay that can result in a user confusing the system by spuriously tapping when not sure if gestures have been recognised. Overall performance was very good though.

One thing that drove me mad with the Galaxy Tab was Google’s approach to multitasking. It’s there, you know it’s there but you have no control over it. Google believes it has the smarts to manage memory consumption with their OS and have thus taken this out of the hands of the user. This means that on long pressing the home key, one is presented with just the last 8 run tasks. No contextualization here, meaning you have no idea of what’s running or what has been closed. And since there is no option to close an app from within the app it really is a lottery. I understand you can download third party task managers, but these don’t work that well, and I must say something as fundamental as multitasking should not have to be ‘fixed’ with third party apps.

What’s even worse is the back button which carousels through every instance of every page of every running app. In some cases a long press sends you back to the homescreen/menu, other instances just back to the previous screen. Couple that with the flaky multitasking and it left me frustrated to say the least. An app like Opera Mini for example is left running in the background when you push the back button, unless the system decides it’s time close it down. Others like Tweetcaster are banished from memory. This inconsistency drove me mad. I understand that a lot of people are happy to let the system take care of things but for more experienced and heavy users having a say on what stays open or nor is paramount. And I’m all for the OS freeing up memory when I hit critical levels, but in all the time I used the Galaxy Tab I always had a healthy amount of memory left.

Contextualising the Tablet Experience

Every gadget, be it a calculator or an Alienware monster laptop, has to have to some context within which it excels. A standard Casio calculator will be no use for complex graph mapping, while that Alienware PC would be a little wasted if all you played on it was Angry Birds from the Chrome store. Context is such an often forgotten criteria for acquiring or selling gadgets, and so often gets lost amidst an excellent advertising campaign.

And this is perhaps where I have struggled with the Galaxy Tab. I’m a gadget freak and as such I have had great fun with it, but that’s really been about. I have yet to happend upon compelling enough use case with the device to convince me to part with my hard earned cash other than to have another toy to play with.

Let me expand further.

I’m at the shops, and being tech aware have long since stopped scribbling my list on pieces of paper. I have an interactive app for that. What do I pull out when I get to the shops. Not my tablet.

I’m at the work cafeteria, and while I’m waiting in line I want to quickly check my twitter feed, peruse my facebook news feed. What do I pull out.

I want to get some quotes to buy some chemicals for the lab, so I need hop online to the catalogue, will probably have to check through multiple sellers etc, and then send emails through to some of the companies. Then once that’s done, print the ones I’m interested in to submit to my line manager. Not my tablet.

I want to churn out a blog post, say a review for a tablet I’ve playing around with. Or an assignment, or a report for work on the last term. Most certainly not my tablet.

And of course I expect to get flamed for picking use cases that might not be applicable but think about how most tablets are positioned. They make your smartphone seem like your toy, and in the words of Steve Jobs we are entering a post PC era. So my expectation, when picking up one of these things is that I can lock up my laptop, dumb my smartphone for something that just makes calls and sends text messages.

Mmmm not quite.

What I have found from my time with the Galaxy Tab and I believe can be applied to the tablet industry in general, is that these are devices with an identity crisis, more so devices like the Galaxy Tab that’s powered by a version of Android optomised for smartphones. So are they just big phones and in the case of the 10 inchers very big phones, or are they less capable computers. The answer for me lies somewhere in the middle.

Some more use cases.

I’m on the Gautrain, I want to go through my Gmail inbox. The tablet actually does this really well.

I’ve been marking articles on the web for offline reading and want to hop on to Read It Later to through my list. The tablet is out again.

I’ve bought my food from the cafeteria, back in the staff common room, have the room to myself and want to to some light reading on the web. I think I’ll put my legs up and fire up the tablet.

I’m at home in bed, have a movie I want to watch, or view some clips on Youtube. Lying in bed, the  best option is the tablet. Likewise if I’m reading a book I bought from Amazon.

My mention of Amazon there was not random there. Think back to the Kindle Fire and how that has been represented. I personally believe with where the technology is now, Amazon hit the nail on the head with how they pushed the Fire. A media consumption device. And that has been my experience with the Galaxy Tab. As soon as I am consuming media, light browsing, video, reading, then the Galaxy Tab shines. Try and do anything with it and the user experience is dented.

Closing Remarks: Comfort and Covenience

At the end of the day, the tablet is not as portable or convenient as my smartphone, and I will never be convinced that right now can be as powerful or as productive as a dedicated laptop. Looking at the first set of use cases I presented above, I want a device that fits into my pocket. I’m not about to get a man bag anytime soon. When I’m on the move, I can still manage my social networks, do some light browsing, send texts, short email replies, take photos, videos you name it on my little smartphone. A smartphone is the very definition of a mobile computer and in fact are internally as powerful as tablets. And these days smartphones have reasonably last screen, the latest monster being the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, with a frightening 4.65″ of screen real estate. Small enough to fit into a pocket, yet with a reasonably large vibrant screen with a decent WVGA resolution. And just about stretching the limits of one handed use, and with all the phone bits still there.

When I’m at home or in the office, and I want to get productive, the tablet is slaughtered by the laptop or desktop. Typing on the touch screen is still fidly and will never be as efficient as a full size keyboard, a keyboard and a mouse make manipulating multiple windows, using office suites etc much easier, and because of the powerful internals, desktop applications are just more powerful than the tablet variants. Another big problem is capacity and support for peripherals. My laptop has a 250 GB hard drive, LAN port, four USB ports, VGA port, HDMI out, an optical drive, as well as the usual bits like Wifi. As an office computing device the laptop is still streets ahead of the tablet. The storage issue can be dealt with by cloud storage, cross platform services like Google Docs, Dropbox and Sugarsync, proprietary ones like Skydrive and iCloud, but that’s impractical for people that don’t have access to on the tap internet and certainly here in South Africa it will be a while yet because transitioning fully to the cloud is viable for a lot of people.

So where does that leave tablets? The advantage over a phone is actually not that big and I just do not see myself giving up my laptop anytime soon .

Context.

I have to say that I am most likely not the target market for these things, with my love for gadgetry being it. But strangely enough I believe there’s a market for tablets, and Amazon has shown the way forward. And I don’t think anything has to change fundamentally with any of the current devices other than how they are positioned.

We have to stop this idea of relegating the smartphone and this ‘post PC’ business, because while it makes for great marketing it’s bordering on fabrication. When allied to a great media content platform like say iTunes or Amazon, tablets are in their element, but those are not the only options out. Google Music, Google Books and Samsung own portals are content rich avenue and that’s what should be focused here. For me that’s where the extra 3 odd inches really comes into play over a smartphone and the relative portability is an advantage over a traditional laptop.

And at 7″ I have to say the Galaxy Tab  was a perfect fit for casual use.. I find the bigger tablets cumbersome, but this felt right. Add in the superb build quality and this is a great casual device. With the 7″ plus announced this could become a decent choice for those on a budget income as well.

Ultimately though tablets, even ones like the Galaxy Tab not at the cutting edge, remain luxury items, but there is nothing wrong with that. I take a more pragmatic outlook with gadgets, and I’m still firmly focused on the ‘one device to rule them all’ mantra. But for some people, transferring a few select use cases away from the smartphone and the computer, to an intermediary device, that actually has more comfort and practicality for those uses, even at a premium is not a big deal. And in a modern cosmopolitan, I believe that that is actually more people that we might think.

Long live the tablet. The tablet is here to stay.

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