Apple has caustically derided the idea of a 7-inch tablet PC. In the wake of the iPad’s insane, nearly unexplainable success – a year ago, few could figure out why anyone needed or wanted a tablet PC, its purpose and function unclear, and its name mocked as scatalogical – I would have agreed with them. Why buy a 7-inch tablet, whose screen is more like a third the size of an iPad’s?
Then I got a Samsung Galaxy Tab and started to use it. And I now understand a 7-inch tablet. I’m not saying the Samsung Galaxy Tab, available from all four major cell carriers in the U.S., is better than an iPad or even worth the price. But I understand its primary usage case – you can fit a Tab and any other 7-inch tablet PC into any pocket of a sports coat or other jacket or overcoat (other than the front breast pocket), or into the rear or cargo pocket of a pair of pants. That’s not exactly geeky, but being able to quickly access the device is what drove the cellphone itself to such popularity 20 years ago. The only question is, does Tab or any coming 7-inch tablet offer much more than pocketablility?
At CES, everyone but Acme seemed to have a new 7-inch Android tablet PC for sale (I guess Wile E. Coyote isn’t thinking of buying one). These would-be 7-inch tablet makers are missing a huge buying rationale: people don’t want a tablet PC, they want an iPad. Why? An iPad is a combination of experiences, not merely some technology wrapped in a pretty case. And its 10-inch screen size plays an important role in these experiences.
Samsung knows this (although I’m not sure other coming tablet PC makers do) and, judging by its commercials, is trying to sell the Tab as an experience. So while specs are important, they are irrelevant if they don’t deliver an experience in which consumers will be interested.
Being able to stick it in your pocket alone makes the Galaxy Tab compelling. But Galaxy Tab suffers three important experiential deficiencies, as will all 7-inch Android tablets: they are too small to be a laptop replacement, they are two big to be a camera/camcorder replacement (even if it were good at either), and there’s no Andoid desktop client to make it easy to move your personal media onto and off of the device. For an Android phone, media-syncing isn’t critical – a phone has a primary usage beyond its apps: making calls. A tablet PC has no such primary usage and therefore requires an easy way to sync multimedia apps.
Sleek with a gleaming virginal white plastic rear, Tab is one slippery sucker. It’s not easy to grab to either slip or lift into or out of pockets without it slip out of your hand – and that’s a huge problem.
You’ll want to shield Tab with a case, but any external protection short of a Wrapsol or other protective skin would make it too big to fit into a pocket, removing its primary advantage over iPad.
At 13.6 ounces, Tab is heavier than I expected, although still about half the weight of the iPad. It didn’t feel heavy after a week of toting Tab inside a suit and leather jacket pocket. But in a suit jacket, a third of the Tab stuck up above the pocket brim; if I hadn’t been careful, it may have slipped out when I bent over.
Tab has a bright 7-inch 1024 x 600 pixel screen. Inside is Android’s 2.2 Froyo OS, run by the same Cortex A8 1 GHz Hummingbird processor powering Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones. Storage-wise, it’s got 2 GB internal and the Sprint version (the model I reviewed) has a 16 GB microSD card pre-installed.
Considering Tab runs a phone OS, it’s not surprising Tab works just like any Android phone, only larger and without the phone, of course. Since the screen is bigger, its designers felt it could get away with only three home pages.
There are about nearly 100 Tab-optimized Android apps, but I couldn’t see any immediate differences between optimized apps and not. I queried Google, Samsung and even some individual app developers, but couldn’t get a clear answer to what, exactly, constitutes an “optimized for Tab” app.
Tab is equipped with 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, and a Sprint mobile hotspot that can support up to five WiFi users. A WiFi-only version is supposedly coming in the next couple of months.
Web Browsing (fair)
Apple went with a squarish screen rather than “widescreen” for one reason – iPad’s designers figured you’d do more of nearly everything than movie watching. This philosophy is borne out by Tab’s awkwardly long/skinny movie-centric screen.
Unlike iPad’s optimized Web sites, Tab thinks it’s displaying Web pages on a smartphone. Instead of full pages, Tab’s browser loads m.-sites of The New York Times, CNN and ESPN, et al. Tab’s long screen displays a long list of headlines and, when held vertically, is the perfect width for reading articles. But held horizontally, Tab is too squat and too wide for Web surfing without a lot of up-down scrolling.
Since it accesses primarily mobile sites, pages loaded via Sprint’s 3G network in a speedy 2-3 seconds. Non-optimized pages, however, took a sluggish 20-25 seconds to load.
Computer Connectivity (poor)
Given the hue and cry over the Apple’s closed, proprietary technologies, it’s somewhat shocking Samsung opted for an iPod-like connector rather than the industry standard micro USB.
And, as aforementioned, with no sanctioned desktop client, less tech-savvy users might have a difficult time loading their Tab with their photos (unless they uploaded them to Google’s Picasa photo sharing site), music and videos and there are also no easy ways to get the photos and videos you shoot, off the tablet.
Photo & Video Capture (poor)
I had no one with whom to test Tab’s front 1.3 MP camera for QIK video chatting, which may be a good thing since my previous experiences with QIK aren’t good antecedents.
But why, oh why, didn’t Samsung simply include the same imaging sensors and functions available on its Galaxy S cellphones? Instead of a 5 MP camera and 1080p video recording, Samsung installed a lousy 3.2 MP still with low-res 480p video capabilities.
Poor decision, poor stills and poor video. Outdoor photos and videos are hazy, with flat colors, contrast and detail, and often are bleached. Unusually, shots taken indoors are a little better, but that’s faint praise.
All that can be said for Tab’s photographic capabilities is the giant videwfinder. But that giant viewfinder is attached to camera that’s way to clumsy to wield as a point-and-shoot camera. Check out photo and video samples on Flickr.
The biggest continuing issue for Tab and its 7-inch Android ilk is its lack of laptop replacement value. Industry types are in a quandry about whether to classify iPad as a PC; they’ll have no such classification problem with Tab and other 7-inch tablets. Tab will never be confused with a laptop, primarily because it’s tough to touch-type on.
Held vertically, you can comfortably thumb tap on the Tab for email and messaging. But held horizontally, Tab is too wide for thumb-tapping; sitting vertically on a lap, its viewing angle is too narrow (you can’t see the keys) and the keypad too tightly-packed to touch-type without some sort of angled case or kickstand (or even with).
Entertainment (very good)
Widescreen movies display without letterboxing on Tab’s wide 1024 x 600 pixel screen, compared to iPad’s squarer 1024 x 768 pixel 9.7-inch screen, on which widescreen movies are displayed letterboxed. So despite its screen being three inches smaller, widescreen movies on the Tab are just a bit smaller than they are on the iPad.
Tab’s other display problem is a narrower screen viewing angle when compared to iPad. If you’re viewing the Tab from an angle of more than 45 degrees or so, its screen starts to polarize while iPad’s remains clearly watchable.
Tab does have one pocket-sized advantage over the more backpack-centric iPad – because it’s handy, it works better as a music player. It’s just not better than an iPod.
Battery Life (very good)
Sprint says you’ll get 13 hours of “active” use on a single charge. This amorphous claim is frustrating since different functions, involving any use of 3G or WiFi, suck juice at different rates. But 13 hours is longer than the 10 hours Apple rates the iPad for video playback.
Fortunately, Tab doesn’t stay continually connected – it pulls wireless power only when you’re actually connected. This means Tab can last days between recharges, which means it makes an excellent eBook reader.
So, what does Tab do that a Galaxy S phone (or any Android or iPhone) doesn’t do as well or that a laptop does better? Maybe video watching and, maybe, game playing. In other words, what does it do? What function does it create or improve upon? It can’t be a laptop replacement, it’s a worse camera than any Android phone or iPhone, there’s no desktop ecosystem supporting it, and, worst of all – it’s expensive.
Sprint’s version with a 16 GB card is $649 for a giant Android phone that doesn’t make phone calls. The only customers are those with a “dumb” cell phone who want the benefits of a larger screen for Web surfing, movie-watching and game play. And in a few months, Tab is going to have a LOT of cheaper, better endowed competitors.
Update: The Tab 10.1 is much better, check our Galaxy Tab 10.1 review