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Samsung has achieved a happy medium with its Galaxy Tab 8.9, size-wise. It’s small enough to fit in the side pocket of a businessman’s suit jacket so it’s readily handy, but much larger than the original 7-in Galaxy Tab and nearly as large the iPad 2′s screen. It’s a brilliant “duh” tablet PC size compromise.

The 8.9 also is (slightly) lighter, (slightly) thinner and (slightly) cheaper than iPad 2 (see all the comparitive specs here). It has higher resolution front and rear cameras than iPad 2, including the welcome repositioning of the front imager from the top of the bezel in portrait mode to landscape, it’s easier to grip than iPad 2 thanks to a ridged rear, and supports Adobe Flash 10.2. In most of its specifications, the 8.9 is more than or equal to iPad 2.

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Galaxy Tab 8.9 (left) and iPad (right)

But in their short life as a next-big-thing, tablets have not been about specs – as defined and proved by Apple not once, but twice – it’s about the experience. I got a chance to play with the 8.9 at the CTIA show wrapping up today in Orlando, and found the experience of 8.9 is not nearly as impressive as its specs.

Design and features

Instead of iPad 2′s portrait-centric design, Galaxy Tab 8.9 is more landscape-centric. Like iPad 2, the volume control is on the left perimeter, but so is the on/off button and the 3.5mm headphone jack, which means they’re actually on the top when you hold the 8.9 horizontally. On the left (portrait)/bottom (landscape) is the SIM card tray and the multi-pin proprietary Galaxy Tab jack between the twin stereo speakers.

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Galaxy Tab 8.9 has no buttons marring its bezel – all navigation and menu access buttons are located on the touch screen: Back, Home and the Samsung TouchWiz Task Manager touch icons in the lower left of the home screens, app and a customization view (a “+” sign) on the upper right. This means you don’t have to worry about which side the “Home” key is on as you turn it, as you do with the iPad.

As noted, the 8.9 rear is ridged to makes it easier to grip than iPad.

8.9′s best improvement vs. iPad is the repositioning of the camera to the landscape side, which HTC also has done on its new 7-inch View tablet: the HTC Flyer. Both companies have discovered the front camera most often is used for self-portraits, not video chatting, especially groups of people. In fact, while a tablet is usually ridiculously clunky to use as a regular camera, it’s big screen is perfect for catching yourself and your friends partying down. Which means you want a wide view, not a narrow portrait framing.

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Sizing Problems

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While 8.9′s size is nearly pocket perfect, it’s not so good for typing. With 8.9 in landscape you can touch or two-finger type, but you’ll need to boost it somehow with a case. Since few case makers will be rushing out with 8.9 cases, and Samsung didn’t show one of its own, Samsung missed an ergonomic bet by no installing a kickstand of some sort on the back to create both typing and video viewing angles.

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But 8.9 is clearly designed to be whipped out of a pocket like the 7-inch model and typed on while being held – and that’s a problem. You can’t thumb-type (obviously) holding it horizontally unless you have a NBA player’s hand span. You can thumb type holding it vertically, but its badly balanced – 8.9 is so long, its top tends to tip back unless you consciously boost it with the inside of your index fingers while simultaneously concentrating on thumb tapping. But after a few minutes, holding it in this awkward position gets to be painful as well as awkward.

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Multimedia

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8.9′s screen is beautiful, crisp and colorful and bright. Videos and still images shine, and the screen offers decent off-angle viewing.

The added screen size also enhances Web viewing, especially in landscape mode, a major issue with the 7-inch original Tab.

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Even without snapping any photo samples, it’s easy to see the superiority of 8.9′s cameras over the iPad 2. Almost all indoor scenes in the iPad 2 look grainy on its screen. On the 8.9, viewfinder images from both the front and rear cameras are as crisp and clean as any other photos and video you load onto the tablet.

Multiple Interface Disorder

Galaxy Tab 8.9′s major issue, however, is the operating system – or, should I say, operating systems.

8.9 will run Android 3.0 Honeycomb, designed (or, in my mind, over-designed) for tablets. Early adopters, tweaks and geeks will love the flexibility and customization Android 3.0 brings. You can easily move and resize widgets, for instance. In the customization view, you can drag widgets from the lower half of the screen onto the home screen of your choice arrayed across the top, and under each widget on the bottom row are the varying aspect ratios each widget can be resized to. To me, TMI, but to each their own.

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Widgets in Android 3.0 aka Honeycomb

Added to the customization user interface mix is Samsung’s own TouchWiz 4.0 UX. Gear heads could have more fun futzing with the interfaces than actually using the 8.9.

And therein lies the problem. It will be hard for 8.9 to move beyond a loyal core techie audience because of this extreme customization. Mainstream consumers faced with apps, widgets and mini-apps and fail to grok to subtle differences between them. They’ll fail to understand why there are so many ways to get to the same place to do the same things.

For instance, there is the Task Manager, which piles up open widgets on a vertical column on the left. But not only are all these widgets also on the easily accessible home screen, I could not figure out to scroll the Task Manager list up and down (the “down” carat is not a scroll control, it brings you back to the Home screens), nor could I figure out how to add or eliminate items from the manager – and neither could any of the demonstrators.

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Android 3.0 Task Manager / App Switcher

Then there’s the “Live Bar,” an icon dock ala Apple Mac, that pops up horizontally across the bottom of the screen when you swipe from the bottom. There are seven mini-apps in Live Bar. Where did these mini-apps come from? A demonstrator called over a fellow from Korea to explain – but he couldn’t except to say the seven mini-apps are pre-installed and cannot be changed (that doesn’t sound right, but that’s what I was told), deleted, re-arranged, or moved from the tray (which disappears in about five seconds, so choose fast – perhaps you can increase the lag time in the settings) to the Home screens for easier access.

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Live Bar

What are mini-apps? Where do you get them? What do they do that a regular app or a widget doesn’t do? No one knew, not even my Korean explainer.

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Mini Music App

Multiple operating systems and multiple points of entry lead to redundancy. Exhibit A: On the third Home screen on the demo unit I used, for instance, you see a Google search icon as part of the OS, a Google search widget right next to it, and right next to the widget a Google Search app. That’s two Googles too many. I rest my case, your honor.

Conclusion

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I’m sure there’s a logical reason for everything the 8.9 user interfaces are capable of. And I’m sure either commentators to this piece or Samsung folks will try to tutor me (some non-too gently).

But the reasons behind this OS, well, mess, even if perfectly logical and reasonable, are besides the point.

There should be no confusion, no redundancy at all. Over the last 25 years, I’ve used my share of gadgets. If an interface confuses me, I can’t imagine how a less sophisticated buyer would cope, and those are the buyers who determine the success or failure of a gadget.

If Android tablet PC makers want to even dent Apple’s mind and market share, they need to understand appealing to tweaks with clever customization options and multiple points-of-entry will repel everyone else. K.I.S.S. is the key to iPad 2′s success, not it’s hardware specs. If only the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 ran iOS…

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Filed in Tablets >Top Stories. Read more about ctia, galaxy, galaxy tab 8.9, Hands-On, hands-on, preview, Samsung and Tablet.

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