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Making sense of Samsung's tablets

Too many tablets to track? Don't get Samsung's system? CNET editor Donald Bell tackles the task for you.

Tab 7.7 and Note
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 (left) and Galaxy Note. Donald Bell/CNET

Samsung's prolific output of Android tablets can be confusing to navigate. Honestly, I have a hard time keeping them straight myself, and it's my job.

Samsung has no fewer than seven tablets that are either available now, or on their way. And that's not even counting Wi-Fi-only and cellular models separately.

You can make the argument that this abundance of Samsung tablets offers consumers more choice, but it's all really the same stuff. It's like congratulating Taco Bell for figuring out a dozen ways to organize beef, cheese, and tortillas into separate menu items.

By contrast, Samsung's biggest competitor (Apple) releases just one tablet each year, like clockwork. Sure, you can supersize it with more storage, or add a side of 3G data--but the choices are minimal, and they don't change with the seasons.

Still, in spite of Samsung's spastic hemorrhage of tablets over the past year, the company's managed to put out some great products. Hopefully, this post will serve to highlight these accomplishments and give you a sense of where things are heading.

To start things off, here's a chart of Samsung's tablets that are either currently on sale or recently announced.

Model Base price OS Processor Cellular
Galaxy Note $249 2.3 1.5GHz Snapdragon AT&T 4G
Tab 7 Wi-Fi $350 2.3 1GHz A8 Cortex Carrier models discontinued
Tab 7.0 Plus $350 3.2 1.2GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos T-Mobile 4G model available
Tab 2 (7.0) TBD 4 1GHz dual-core TBD
Tab 7.7 TBD 3.2 1.4GHz dual-core Verizon 4G
Tab 8.9 $450 3.2 1GHz dual-core AT&T 4G model available
Tab 10.1 $450 3.2 1GHz dual-core, Nvidia T720 Verizon 4G model available

For the newly initiated, I should point out that the numbers included in each product name are an indication of the tablet's screen size. For example, a Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a tablet with a screen that measures 10.1 inches across on the diagonal. The Galaxy Note listed at the top is the exception. It has a 5-inch screen, and is arguably more of a smartphone than a tablet. Since Samsung is keen on including it in the tablet camp, I figured I'd oblige.

Once you've correlated the whole name-size thing, you'll probably notice that Samsung has a total of four tablets sized at or around 7 inches. The reality is that only two of these (the original Galaxy Tab 7 and the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus) are actually floating around on store shelves. The Galaxy Tab 7.7 and Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) are due out this year, and will likely enter the market once the original Tab 7 has been fully retired. So really, for most of 2012 there will probably be only be three different Samsung tablets with the number seven included in the product name. I mean, four 7-inch tablets would be ridiculous, but three is manageable, right?

Not helping things is that Samsung is now coming up on its second generation of tablets named after numbers. This is leading to a naming convention in which the new tablets will have a "Samsung Galaxy Tab 2" prefix, followed by their screen size in parenthesis. For example, the Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) is Samsung's second-generation Galaxy Tab with a 7-inch screen size. That is, of course, if you don't count the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, which precedes it, but follows the original Galaxy Tab 7.

Rest assured, there is some twisted logic to all of this. I'm just not sure what it is.

Now playing: Watch this: It's the Galaxy Tab 7.7, for the Goldilocks in you

Interestingly, one thing all of these tablets share is either a 1,280x800-pixel or 1,024x600-pixel screen resolution. Those numbers aren't such a big deal for 10-inch tablets (especially with the iPad 3's rumored 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution possibly on its way), but when you squeeze that many pixels onto a smaller 8- or 7-inch display, the results are impressive.

The two Samsung tablets that really show off in terms of this pixel density are the Galaxy Tab 8.9 and Galaxy Tab 7.7, which pack a 1,280x800-pixel resolution. Really, the best screen of the bunch is on the Galaxy Note, which shrinks a 1,280x800-pixel resolution into a 5-inch screen--but I'm still convinced that the Note is too small to qualify as a proper tablet.

Another bit of buying advice when shopping for a Samsung tablet: beware the microSD card slot. Most of Samsung's tablets include some form of microSD memory expansion, but a few go without. The notable examples here are the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Galaxy Tab 8.9. As with the iPad, you can buy dock adapters that allow you to transfer SD content to these tablets, but it's not as handy as popping in a microSD card.

Finally, recognize that Samsung likes to give each carrier an exclusive to a slightly different model. Verizon has the Tab 10.1 and the upcoming Tab 7.7, AT&T has the Tab 8.9, T-Mobile has the Tab 7 Plus. Maybe this profusion of Samsung tablets can be blamed on each carrier needing to feel special. Whatever the explanation, history has shown that these exclusive arrangements eventually give way to a more consumer-friendly (that is, contract-free) Wi-Fi-only model down the line.

In my experience, the pattern typically goes like this. Samsung announces Tablet X, featuring some new hotness and the unique ability to feed your pets while you're on vacation. The announced price is about $100 more than you were hoping for and it's available exclusively from Carrier X either on a two-year contract, or at an absurdly high contract-free price. The excitement generates buzz for Samsung and gets people motivated to visit their local carrier store. Then, once the buzz has run its course, Samsung releases a Wi-Fi-only version of the product to considerably less fanfare while soon thereafter announcing Tablet Y, exclusively for Carrier Y.

Point being, if you can stand not to have the latest and greatest, Samsung does seem to inevitably produce a Wi-Fi version of all of its tablets. Patience is a virtue.