Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 gets stock Honeycomb -- for now

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

Samsung officially announced the launch of its Galaxy Tab 10.1 Android tablet today -- and dropped an interesting little surprise as well.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

First, the basics: The Galaxy Tab 10.1 will become available in limited quantities next Wednesday, June 8, at the Best Buy Union Square store in New York City. The Tab will launch nationwide on June 17. The Wi-Fi version will sell for $499 for 16GB of storage or $599 for the 32GB model. Verizon Wireless will also offer 4G versions for $529.99 (16GB) or $629.99 (32GB), with two-year contracts; you can pre-order those editions starting on June 8.

Now, back to that surprise: Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 will ship with a stock version of Android Honeycomb -- not with Samsung's TouchWiz interface. This is actually a pretty significant twist.

[UPDATE: Contrary to initial impressions, the new Tab's software isn't completely stock. See my full review for details.]

Samsung, you see, had originally planned to offer the new Galaxy Tab with TouchWiz baked into the operating system (like it is on most of the company's Android phones). That's what Samsung showed off when it demoed the tablet at the CTIA tech show in March. But Samsung wanted the new Tab to ship with Android 3.1, the updated version of Honeycomb launched by Google last month. And that's where this gets really interesting: In order to get the latest edition of the Android software on its tablets quickly, Samsung decided to drop its custom interface -- for now -- and go with an unmodified stock version of the Honeycomb OS.

For some perspective on this, I've long argued against the idea of manufacturers baking their custom UIs into the Android operating system. To me, these "skins," as they're called, tend to add unnecessary clutter that can't be removed (short of hacking the device). In many cases, they slow down the system. And, perhaps most important, they have the potential to slow down the Android upgrade process for the life of the device.

It's really quite simple: When Google releases a new version of Android, manufacturers start preparing it to work smoothly on their products. That takes a certain amount of time. If the manufacturers want their own custom interfaces baked into the software, they have to spend more time integrating that skin into the code before it's ready for release. As a user, this frequently means a longer wait for the latest Android update. Samsung users in particular know the feeling all too well.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 TouchWiz

The fact that Samsung opted to temporarily drop its TouchWiz skin from the Tab in order to get the new release ready in a short amount of time may be the clearest illustration of this principle we've seen. Sammy showed us that it can make a speedy transition to a new Android release. It just can't, from the looks of it, do it with its proprietary interface intact.

Now, Samsung will eventually bring TouchWiz to the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Getting Android 3.1 ready in a hurry just meant ditching TouchWiz for now.

"Ensuring that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 launched with Android 3.1 Honeycomb was part of our constant commitment to meeting the needs of our customers," Samsung Mobile CEO Dale Sohn said in a press release. "We're going to make the Galaxy Tab 10.1 even more powerful, entertaining and secure through a series of upgrades coming to this device."

Those upgrades will be sent to Galaxy Tab 10.1 users over-the-air "in the near future." They'll add tablet-optimized editions of all the standard TouchWiz stuff as well as other Samsung services like the Media Hub, Readers Hub, and Social Hub programs.

To be clear, I'm not saying those features are bad. Heck, you might like Honeycomb better with them in place; that's ultimately a matter of personal preference. What I'm suggesting isn't that manufacturers get rid of their own distinguishing touches.

Android Manufacturer Skins

What I'm saying is merely that if they were to include those touches as standalone widgets, launchers, and apps -- rather than integrating them into the core OS -- it'd lead to a better experience for users in the end. Users could decide whether they want the extra stuff or would rather stick with Google's "pure" Android setup. Users could pick and choose which features they keep and which features they ditch. And users could get future Android upgrades more quickly and reliably, since the manufacturer's additions wouldn't have to be baked into the software each time a new version rolls out.

(See also: "It's time for the baked-in Android UI to die")

TouchWiz or not, Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 promises to be a compelling new addition to the Android tablet family. Given its sleek, thin form, combined with Samsung's history of Android success, it may even stand to be the first Android tablet to gain serious traction in the mobile market. Though I'm somewhat wary of its skin-covered future, this is certainly not a tablet to ignore. 

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I'll be reviewing the Galaxy Tab in full detail next week. I'm looking forward to spending some time with the device and seeing how it compares to the Motorola Xoom and other tablet contenders. Maybe the TouchWiz UI will be a worthwhile tradeoff for the experience the Galaxy Tab delivers. Maybe it'll even be an asset, pushing the Tab to heights its "pure" Honeycomb brethren can't achieve.

One way or another, I promise you this: I'll definitely be candid in sharing my thoughts.

UPDATE: Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1: The verdict is in 

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on both Facebook and Twitter.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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