Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1: A slim and sexy Android tablet

Samsung's new tablet is the thinnest currently available -- but is it actually worth buying?

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A sweeter Honeycomb?

As with all Android devices, setup and synchronization was simple: After inputting my Google account credentials, the system automatically imported my preferences from my Android phone. It pulled over all of my emails, contacts and calendar information -- even the home screen wallpaper I had set on another device. Apps that I had downloaded to other devices appeared within five to 10 minutes. The Tab easily synced up with my Chrome browser bookmarks and with my recently created Google Music account, too. Thanks to the latter connection, I was able to stream anything from my entire music collection within minutes of turning the tablet on -- no waiting or downloads required.

Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 runs Android 3.1, the updated version of Honeycomb released by Google one month ago. With the 3.1 release, Honeycomb has evolved tremendously from its initial rough-around-the-edges form. The system is smoother, and glitches present in the early release have largely been ironed out. A smattering of new features is also available, including the ability to resize home screen widgets and to turn the tablet into a fully functioning USB host, capable of connecting to cameras, keyboards, joysticks and other external devices.

Galaxy Tab
The Galaxy Tab currently runs a stock version of Honeycomb (Android 3.1); however, Samsung may add its TouchWiz overlay later.

(For a more thorough overview of the operating system and how it differs from Apple's iOS, see my full Android Honeycomb review.)

In its rush to get 3.1 on the Tab, Samsung opted to ship the device with stock Honeycomb, leaving off its trademark TouchWiz overlay for now. If you like a "pure" Google experience, though, you may be in for a disappointment.

First of all, while the new Tab is lacking Samsung's full custom interface, the company did -- contrary to initial impressions -- make some subtle modifications to the OS. Most immediately noticeable, the default Honeycomb camera app is replaced with a Samsung alternative. I wouldn't say it's really better or worse in any significant way; it's just different -- and that's the problem. Samsung's camera app is inconsistent with the overall Honeycomb interface; unlike the rest of the system, it doesn't have the standard set of navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen to let you step back, return to the home screen, or multitask. This inconsistency hurts the user experience and makes me wonder why Samsung meddled with the software in the first place.

Other OS modifications include the addition of a Samsung virtual keyboard, which uses Nuance's XT9 text-prediction technology. It is set as the primary keyboard by default, though you can switch back to the standard Honeycomb keyboard if you prefer. (Personally, I found the regular Honeycomb version easier to use.) Samsung also added in a setting that lets you specify separate wallpapers for your home screen and lock screen -- a fine if somewhat unnecessary feature.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a handful of Samsung-added apps preinstalled, all of which are set as system applications and thus are unremovable. These include Samsung's Music Hub, a rather clunky and superfluous Samsung app store, and a couple of third-party programs for word processing and news.

Hang on, though: This stuff is all small potatoes compared to the Samsung software modifications on the way. The company still plans to add its TouchWiz user interface onto the Galaxy Tab 10.1; the interface will be sent as an over-the-air update to Tab users at some point "in the near future." The update will integrate the company's full custom UI into the Android software, adding such features as a dock-style app tray for quick access to commonly used applications, a series of custom apps and widgets for the home screen, and seamless access to Samsung mobile services like Media Hub, Social Hub and Allshare.

Prerelease previews indicate the TouchWiz-enabled Tab will have a redesigned e-mail app and a revamped system settings menu as well.

So are those modifications good or bad? That depends on your preferences. Some people think manufacturer-added skins like Samsung's TouchWiz enhance the software and make for a better experience; others, myself included, tend to view them as unnecessary clutter with unfortunate repercussions. User experience aside, manufacturer-added skins have the potential to cause delays in future Android upgrades, since manufacturers have to spend extra time baking their modifications into each release before it can be distributed. The fact that Samsung decided to temporarily remove its TouchWiz UI from the Tab in order to get the 3.1 update ready fast seems to reinforce this notion.

Samsung says it hasn't yet determined how the upgrade will work and whether users will be given a choice to stick with the stock Honeycomb experience. Consider, though, the extra time and expense it would require for the company to support and upgrade two separate paths of software for the life of the device. Anything's possible, but that certainly doesn't seem probable.

(Incidentally, someone from Samsung told PCWorld that the company may let users "opt to use elements of [TouchWiz]" after the update. I suspect that means you might end up being able to knock out things like the widgets and added apps but would be stuck with the OS-level modifications. We'll find out for sure soon enough; for now, the take-home message is that there is no guarantee.)

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