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Samsung Galaxy Tab: An Android contender

It's got its rough patches, but the Samsung Galaxy Tab's size, screen, and performance shows Android tablets can work. Here's a hands-on look, with video.

Editors' note: Sprint announced that it will offer the Samsung Galaxy Tab starting November 14. Pricing for the Android-based tablet is $399.99 with a two-year contract, and customers will be able to choose from two 3G Tablet Mobile Broadband plans: a 2GB data plan with unlimited messaging for $29.99 per month or a 5GB data plan with unlimited messaging for $59.99 per month.

BERLIN--After more than an hour putting the Samsung Galaxy Tab through its paces, I have to say I'm impressed.

It's no iPad-slayer, but it's an elegant tablet with conveniently compact dimensions, good performance, and a bright, responsive multitouch screen.

Samsung debuted the Galaxy Tab Thursday at the IFA electronics show here with strong words showing it plans to compete directly with Apple's iPad. Just how well it'll succeed depends in large measure on how well developers embrace large-screen Android devices: the Tab's most awkward moments came with applications designed for a smaller screen, and there will have to be a lot more games before Android tablets can take on the iPad.

First, some Samsung Galaxy Tab details. Front and center is its 7-inch, 1,024x600 touch screen. For a tablet to be competitive, it's got to respond quickly to touch, and the Galaxy Tab does--most of the time. The screen is bright and text is easy to read. It's not as spacious the iPad's, but it's a big step up from mobile phones.

The brains of the operation are a 1.0GHz Cortex A8 ARM-based processor paired with a PowerVR SGX540 graphics processor. Game developers take note: The two made the Tab the fastest and most responsive of Android devices I've used. Applications loaded fast and responded to input moderately fast. Internal memory of 16GB or 32GB is supplemented by a microSD port that can accommodate flash cards with up to 32GB more.

Speaking of mobile phones, note that the Tab is available only through carriers that provide mobile phone service. There's no Wi-Fi-only option, though the Tab does support 802.11 a, b, g, and n. For cell networks, it can use 2.5G (GSM/GPRS/EDGE) and 3G (HSUPA at 5.76Mbps, and HSDPA 7.2Mbps). I found Wi-Fi and 3G both worked well at Samsung's booth.

Whether customers warm to this sales approach and the prospect of another monthly payment remains to be seen, but Samsung is confident it's at least the right way to start based on survey data: 52 percent want to use a tablet while on the go, 90 percent for e-mail and Web browsing, and 70 percent for communication functions. Clearly a network connection was a priority.

Samsung is leaving final pricing up to the carriers who'll ship the Tab starting in late September, so we don't know anything about its cost beyond Samsung's promise it'll be competitive. The smaller size might appeal to some prospective iPad customers, but with the iPad's incumbent advantage, my guess is the Galaxy Tab will have to be a notch cheaper to meet Samsung's promise.

Portability is the reason Samsung made the Tab smaller. It weighs 380 grams, or about four-fifths of a pound, which is half that of a 3G-enabled iPad.

Samsung expects people to use it as a phone, and it comes with a dialer. If it's small for a tablet, though, it's large for a phone, and you'll look pretty conspicuous with a Galaxy Tab glued to the side of your head. Happily, it supports Bluetooth earpieces.

Typing is nicer on the Tab than on a mobile phone. I found it best in portrait mode, where it was easy to wrap both my hands around the bottom and touch-type with my thumbs. Swype fans will be delighted to see the drag-over-the-letters text input method, but to use it you have to skip back and forth between watching your finger rather than the text that's appearing. It's a powerful input method, but not as compelling on a tablet than a smartphone with a smaller screen.

Turning the Swype keyboard off through the Settings control panel reverts the keyboard to XT9 predictive typing, which suggests completed words as you type. My biggest beef with typing was that I couldn't get the Galaxy Tab to type a period when I hit the space key twice, as with regular Android phones.

When it comes to productivity, the Tab needs some software work. Both the built-in e-mail and Gmail applications squandered the screen real estate with a large font size and an airy layout. It's easy to read, but I'd at least like options for a more compact view. One exception to my gripe: when the tablet is horizontal, the e-mail application will show the in-box on the left and the selected message's content on the right.

Samsung's Galaxy Tab, an Android-powered tablet
Samsung's Galaxy Tab, an Android-powered tablet Samsung

The calendar application seemed to make better use of the bigger screen, though. And the Google Earth app is nicely immersive on the larger screen, taking advantage of multitouch as well.

Telling the Tab how bright to be was clunky. In Settings, it can be adjusted both with the brightness control and with a power-saving control that can cut screen brightness to extend battery life. And for reasons that escape me, the e-mail app and browser both have their own screen brightness settings.

The Galaxy Tab is black on front and white on the back, with a polished, sleek exterior. Buttons for power and volume are on one edge, and Android-standard menu, home, search, and back buttons are on the front. It's got a 3.2-megapixel back camera and a 1.3-megapixel front camera for taking photos and for video chat.

The tablet plays video well, either stored on the device itself or streamed from YouTube--though with occasional stutters--and it can pump 720p video to a TV with its HDMI port.

The music player was unspectacular, but it worked reasonably well using 7Digital's music purchasing service. Getting search results seemed to involve some needless extra steps wading through album lists, but it does work, and you can listen to 30-second or 1-minute clips before buying.

The reader application, which taps into 2,500 magazines, 1,600 newspapers, and 2 million books, worked well enough. For those who like to read in bed, there's a white-on-black mode, and the Tab's orientation can be easily locked using an option on the Android status bar.

Browsing was better than on a small screen, but still not as fast as with a laptop. Double-tapping and two-finger gestures were effective for zooming in and out. Although the device includes Adobe Systems' Flash Player 10.1, that company's Flash mobile promotional site showed only this message: "We're sorry, but your device does not support Adobe Flash Player software." It wasn't immediately clear whether the issue was with Flash on the tablet or with the site being able to recognize it.

One big difference with the faster processor is that mobile applications such as Gmail work a lot better than on smartphones. Don't expect the Web-app era to eclipse the native-app era any time soon, but good Web application performance is still very important.

The Tab is a credible tablet product, and it'll be more compelling once more applications arrive. Samsung has done a good job showing not just what Android tablets can be, but what Android overall can be.