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Samsung Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi review: Samsung Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi

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The Good The Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi Android tablet offers a bright, responsive 7-inch screen, GPS, Bluetooth, and full access to Google's suite of mobile apps, including Android Market.

The Bad This Galaxy Tab is an Android 2.2 tablet living in an Android 3.0 world, and bigger and better tablets are priced in the same ballpark.

The Bottom Line Samsung's 3G-free version of its 7-inch tablet, the Galaxy Tab, offers an appealing mix of price and horsepower, but it's overshadowed by the wave of inexpensive Android 3.0 devices.

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6.0 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6

Editors' note: Due to the changing competitive landscape, we've lowered the Tab's overall score to 6. Check out CNET Tablet page for our latest tablet reviews.

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 Dell Streak 7, 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.

Design
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.

Features
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.

In spite of some frustrations, there are quite a few things the Galaxy Tab nails dead-on that will get Apple fanboys flustered. Because the Wi-Fi-only Tab includes GPS, the included navigation app does an excellent job as an in-car navigation device, offering turn-by-turn directions, points of interest, and voice search (via the integrated microphone).

Another little advantage the Tab has over the iPad is Adobe Flash 10.1 compatibility, allowing much of the Web's Flash video content to play natively in the browser. The only hiccup in the Flash implementation is that the majority of popular sites treat the Android 2.2 device as a mobile phone and serve up bite-size Web content instead of full, desktop versions of sites. Android tinkerers will know how to force their way around this limitation or install third-party browsers, such as Firefox, but the out-of-the-box Flash-enabled Web experience of the Tab doesn't compare to that of its large-screen Android 3.0 siblings, or the similarly sized BlackBerry PlayBook.

Performance
Predictably, when you add up Flash video playback, GPS, Bluetooth, and 720p video decoding, battery life can go downhill quickly. By pulling down on the home screen you can access a menu for quickly activating or killing off GPS and Bluetooth, helping to squeeze the most from your battery life. If you keep yourself to core features such as Web browsing, music, and e-mail, Samsung expects you'll get around 7 hours of battery life with Wi-Fi active.

As far as media playback performance is concerned, audio, video, and photos all work beautifully. Transferred content--whether by USB or microSD card--is immediately scanned by the device and accessible in the appropriate app. Samsung's years of creating highly rated portable media players is evident in little extras, such as audio enhancement settings, video bookmarking, and a mosaic view of video stills for quickly skipping to the perfect spot in a movie.

The movie and video content available through Samsung's Media Hub is priced competitively with Apple's iTunes offerings. Most movies are available to buy for between $9.99 and $17.99, or rentable for between $1.99 and $3.99. A decent selection of TV shows is also available for download, with content from NBC, MTV, Warner Bros., Comedy Central, and others, all priced at $1.99. All of the videos in the Media Hub have been optimized for playback on the Galaxy Tab.

As an e-book reader, the Tab has plenty going for it. The included Kindle app grants you access to one of the most popular e-book retailers in the world, Amazon.com. Through the Android Market, e-book software from Barnes & Noble and dozens of other sources can be installed. As an alternative to a dedicated e-book reader, such as the Kindle, Nook, or Sony Reader, the Tab's paperback-like dimensions make it a natural fit. On the downside, the Tab's battery life is relatively low; it's considerably heavier than most e-readers; and a highly reflective backlit LCD like the Tab's isn't as desirable to most book lovers as an e-ink screen.

If productivity is your thing, you'll be happy to know that the Tab's calendar and e-mail apps readily took to our Gmail and Exchange accounts. We're also happy to see the ThinkFree Office app preinstalled, which allows you to view and edit any Microsoft Office documents. That said, for serious document editing, it makes more sense to spend the same amount on a Netbook with a larger screen and peripheral support.

Here are our official CNET Labs test results for the Galaxy Tab with 3G. More tablet-testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours) Web site load time (in seconds; lower is better) Maximum brightness (in cd/m2) Default brightness (in cd/m2) Contrast ratio
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.8 8 364 123 674:1

Tabs versus pads
Now for the big question: iPad or Galaxy Tab? The short answer, in our opinion, is iPad. Apple's catalog of apps and games optimized for tablet-size screens number in the thousands, whereas the Tab has just a handful--and they're not terribly exciting. If you feel that a tablet computer should be more than just a supersized smartphone, the iPad is still the best game in town, followed by tablets running Android 3.0.

In fairness, what we enjoy most about the Galaxy Tab is its efficient, handy size. It's a different type of product, one geared more for portability. That said, the Android smartphone market seems to cover a lot of this territory already.

Final thoughts
The Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi is a full-feature tablet with great system performance and above-average screen quality. However, in spite of its attractive, contract-free price, Android's future on tablets lies with Honeycomb. With Android 3.0 devices priced as low as $399, saving $50 to get half the tablet with half the processing power just doesn't make sense. Still, if you're on a budget and you like the idea of a smaller tablet, and you can score one for closer to $300, the Tab has plenty to offer over $250 options such as the Nook Color or the Archos 70.

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