In 2010, Samsung was one of the first manufacturers to bet big on a premium Android-based tablet, the Galaxy Tab. Equipped with a beautiful and conveniently sized 7-inch screen, Android 2.2, Adobe Flash, and 3G support from every carrier under the sun, the Galaxy Tab was poised to draft behind the success of the Apple iPad and capitalize on the growing legions of Android fans.
Unfortunately, the first-generation Galaxy Tab wasn't a runaway success. One reason commonly cited for Samsung's inability to gain Apple-like traction with tablet buyers was the lack of an inexpensive Wi-Fi-only version of the Tab to compete directly against the Wi-Fi-only iPad. To remedy this, Samsung is releasing a 16GB version of the Tab without 3G for the enticing price of $349.
Strategically, we wish Samsung had presented this model (and this price) at the outset, especially since consumer attention has now shifted to tablets running Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). Still, the Galaxy Tab is one of the best-performing 7-inch tablets on the market and from its low price it gains a unique advantage over the more expensive BlackBerry PlayBook and , while outgunning low-end competitors like the Nook Color.
What gives us pause, though, are the increasingly inexpensive prices for Android 3.0 tablets, including the $399 Asus Eee Pad Transformer. Unless you're specifically shopping for a 7-inch device, Honeycomb is the way to go when it comes to Android tablets.
Tablets are only as good as their screens, and the Tab's screen is a glossy beauty with the strength of a beast, thanks to a protective layer of Corning Gorilla glass. The LCD underneath it has a crisp 1,024x600-pixel resolution, which is on par with the iPad 2, but since the screen is about half the size, the pixel density is much tighter. The screen uses a capacitive multitouch technology that can match the iPad in both response time and usefulness.
Above the screen you have a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera, perfect for video chat with the included Qik Plus application. Across the bottom you find the typical Android-style buttons for menu, home, back, and search. There's a standard headphone jack on the top (in-ear headphones come included), and there are volume and power buttons on the side, along with a MicroSD card slot. Samsung's dock connector and a pair of built-in speakers are located on the bottom edge. The dock connector works with the included USB adapter and power brick, but can also be used for accessories, such as a keyboard dock or video output adapter.
On the back of the Tab you'll see a smooth white plastic surface and a more impressive 3-megapixel camera with an integrated flash. The camera can capture video at a maximum resolution of 720x480 pixels at 30 frames per second.
Overall, the Tab, at 7.5 inches tall by 4.7 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, has a solid, paperback-book feel and can be comfortably grasped in one hand. Unlike the Apple iPad, we never felt the need to set the Tab on our lap or cross our legs just to use it comfortably. For better or worse, it operates and behaves just like a giant Android smartphone, requiring little to no learning curve to navigate menus, type e-mails, or browse the Web.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what the Tab has to offer, let's state for the record that the Tab's two best features are the simplest to understand. First off, you have the size: smaller, lighter, and more convenient than the iPad. Second, there's the full, undiluted Android 2.2 experience, complete with third-party apps, and the official Android Market for all the latest and greatest apps. When it comes to tablets, though, Google is now throwing its weight behind the tablet-optimized Android 3.0 operating system and spurring the development of apps designed specifically for larger screens. In 2011, buying an Android 2.2 tablet isn't an investment in the future of Android tablets, because they are heading elsewhere. That said, at $349, you're still getting a lot of tablet.
When you unlock the Tab's touch screen, you'll find a familiar home screen with a floating Google search bar, and dock icons for e-mail, Web browser, and a drawer for apps. Hold the Tab in either portrait or landscape view and the built-in accelerometer sensor will reorient the screen automatically. By default, the Tab comes with five main home screens, which you can jump between by flicking left or right. Beyond the core apps in the dock (mail, Web, drawer), the first of the three home screens comes preinstalled with apps for Market, Amazon Kindle, Maps, New York Times, Camera, Calendar, and YouTube. Samsung also throws in its own Samsung App store (stocked with a measly 16 apps at the time of this review), and an AllShare app for streaming content to DLNA-certified devices, including televisions.
You have to dig a little deeper to appreciate the work Samsung did to differentiate the Tab experience from its line of premium Android smartphones. Spend some time in the app drawer, and you'll find that seemingly generic apps like Contacts, Calculator, and Memo have all been optimized by Samsung for the larger screen, using split-screen views and nested tabs to take advantage of the added screen real estate.
Most Android apps, unfortunately, aren't yet designed for the larger screens of tablets. It's a complaint you'll hear echoed in all of our Android tablet reviews so far. With all the extra room, some apps stretch unnaturally to fill the space (Pandora), whereas others appear like large-print versions of their original smartphone incarnations. If you're really looking for tablet-optimized apps, you'll need to step up to an Android 3.0 device.