Samsung's Galaxy Tab (T-Mobile version): Elegant, promising Android tablet

Can Samsung's Android tablet challenge Apple's iPad?

The Samsung Galaxy Tab ($399 with a two-year contract on T-Mobile as of November 11, 2010) is the first Android tablet that has what it takes to challenge Apple's dominant iPad. Available from five domestic wireless carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon -- the Galaxy Tab's hardware is similar across providers. The big differences lie in service pricing, whether the carrier takes advantage of the Tab's mobile-hotspot capability, and whether the device has a SIM-card slot (CDMA-based Sprint and Verizon units lack this feature). Overall, you can expect the Tab models to be similar in use, with minor differences in which apps are installed from the get-go.

Samsung Galaxy Tab
Samsung Galaxy Tab

As for pricing, T-Mobile has set its rates in a way that makes its Galaxy Tab stand out from the crowd in several noteworthy ways. For one thing, you can use the mobile-hotspot feature (also known as Wi-Fi sharing) at no additional charge under both monthly and prepaid mobile broadband plans; in contrast, Sprint charges $30 extra per month for the feature. Also, the device supports HSPA 7.2 and can benefit from T-Mobile's HSPA+ network in the markets that have the service.

Judging from my extended use of the Tab, it's clear that Samsung has succeed in delivering the smoothest implementation of Android on a tablet to date -- and it has done so on a smoothly designed piece of hardware that's a far cry from the generic slabs that have cropped up from Asia. What's also clear is that, while the Galaxy Tab is a fine 1.0 product, the tablet has room to grow.

Hardware: The specs

Inside, the Galaxy Tab has Samsung's 1GHz Hummingbird Application processor, two SIM slots, a 3G radio for data connections, and Wi-Fi and DLNA support. The Tab runs Android 2.2, supports Adobe Flash 10.1 and Microsoft's PlayReady DRM, and features a tablet-optimized version of TouchWiz 3.0, the interface found on Samsung's Galaxy S smartphones. (More on the interface later.)

With gentle curves and smooth finishes, the Galaxy Tab exudes a basic elegance. It takes design cues from the Galaxy S phones, and it's certainly more stylish and less clunky than the aforementioned off-brand Android tablets we've seen pop up across the Web. The back panel of the T-Mobile Galaxy Tab is shiny black plastic; it's there where you'll find the only outward T-Mobile branding on the device. The sides are matte black, while the front panel is glossy black, with a row of four touch-sensitive buttons along the bottom of the screen, just as on the Galaxy S smartphones.

The first thing that jumps out about the Galaxy Tab is its manageable size. The Tab measures 7.5 x 4.7 in. and stands at a half-inch thick. That depth is the same as Apple's iPad; admittedly, though, in this comparison the latter benefits from rounding conventions, as the iPad measures 13.4mm to the Tab's 13mm.

The dimensions and weight allow you to hold the Tab and type on it with your thumbs at the same time, using two hands or even one hand. Users with smaller hands will have to stretch to type one-handed; for larger hands, the arrangement is no problem. I found the keyboard very usable and responsive -- a far cry better than many Android on-screen keyboards I've tried, and definitely more manageable for holding in two hands and efficiently thumb-typing.

Two things held back my speed and accuracy, though. First, the keyboard lacks stock Android 2.x's pop-up letters, as found on iOS; their absence hindered accuracy. Second, I found that the screen's sensitivity made it easy to activate keyboard buttons accidentally (something that also proved to be a big issue with the capacitive touch menu buttons when I held the device in landscape orientation).

Not surprisingly, the front face is all screen. With a 7-in. display and a weight of 0.8 lbs., the Galaxy Tab is small enough to fit into some tight spaces (such as a roomy pocket), light enough to hold with one hand, and large enough to provide satisfying viewing. I found the Tab particularly comfy to hold in one hand, unlike the Apple iPad, which at 1.5 pounds is just too heavy to grasp with a single hand for any length of time. That said, as time wore on and I read a tome on the Amazon Kindle app, I realized that in an era of half-pound e-readers, I couldn't see myself holding the Tab for lengthy reading sessions of 30 minutes or more.

The wide, Super VGA, 1024 x 600-pixel TFT display appeared bright, with pop-out, borderline oversaturated colors at the default settings. It had a pleasing angle of view; I could tilt and share the screen without altering the display.

In use, however, I found that it didn't handle the glare of sunlight particularly well. (It also clearly shows fingerprints--lots of fingerprints.) The screen was slightly more viewable in daylight than the higher-resolution iPad, but it's for use in a pinch only. To say it's better than the iPad outdoors is a stretch -- I could make out the time, but not how to adjust the time. In the end, I'd recommend neither product if your routine will take you outside, or into rooms that always have serious glare.

In contrast, the Galaxy Tab looked gorgeous in ambient and darkened lighting. Yes, I noticed some pixelation in Android games. And I noticed the dots that make up the letters -- but I see that on the iPad, too, and the effect is worse there because of the iPad's lower pixel density. My observations come as someone whose eyes have been spoiled by the resolution on the iPhone 4.

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