Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 on par with Apple on design

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Wi-Fi is the first Android tablet to effectively challenge Apple’s iPad 2 at what Apple does best: Design. Let’s face it, when it comes to tablets, design is the attribute that’s squarely at center stage. And the Tab 10.1-available in limited distribution starting today, starting at $499 for a 16GB version– has that in spades. In fact, its design, together with its Android 3.1 operating system, vaults the Tab 10.1 to the head of the Android pack.

The Tab 10.1 achieves perhaps the greatest design compliment an Android tablet can hope for; namely, it was often mistaken at first glance for being an iPad 2. Even by Apple iPad users. This is remarkably understandable when you see and hold the Tab 10.1 for the first time. The Tab 10.1 has a slim profile, 8.6mm, or 0.34-inches-a hair’s breadth slimmer than the iPad 2 (technically, 0.2mm slimmer for those keeping the scorecard).

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From the side, the two tablets look very similar. The Tab 10.1 has a more rounded edge, though, to the iPad’s tapered edge. The tablet comes in two colors: Shipping first is white, which couples a silver-painted plastic edge with a white plastic black (identical to the limited edition Google I/O version of the Tab, sans the Android graphic imprint); available on June 17, when the Tab 10.1 ships in volume, you can choose a Metallic Gray, with edges and back that more closely match. I actually preferred the Gray varietal, even though that model would be less likely to be mistaken for Apple’s ultrahip tablet. I liked the feel and texture of the dark backing, as opposed to the more chintzy feeling plastic white backing.

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The Tab 10.1 edges the iPad 2 on weight, too: 1.25 pounds, to the iPad’s 1.33. And it stands slightly taller and narrower than iPad, dimensions you’d expect simply by virtue of its 10.1-inch display. It measures 10.1 by 6.9 inches, compared with iPad 2’s 9.5 by 7.3 inches.

Using the Galaxy Tab 10.1

All of this is meaningless, though, compared with the reality of actually handling the Galaxy Tab 10.1. The Tab 10.1 feels lightweight and extremely well-balanced in-hand. I found it conducive to hold in one hand or two, and found it lightweight enough that I hardly noticed it was in my bag. I’d still like to see the weight on tablets of this size get closer still to the one pound mark, while adding even more built-in functionality (like additional ports), but this is a good start towards that goal. Especially considering the Tab 10.1 is Samsung’s first mass-market tablet of this size (I’m not counting the region-specific, heavier and thicker 10.1V).

The Tab 10.1’s overall design takes a minimalist design cue from Apple, as well. Beyond the docking port, you have a power button and volume rocker at top (horizontal) or along the right side (vertical). Also along the right top is the headphone jack; it’s awkwardly situated if you’re holding the tablet horizontally and video chatting at the same time, since the jack is just off to the right above where the camera is. But if you flip the orientation to put the jack at the bottom of the horizontal display, or hold the tablet vertically, with the jack running along the right side, the jack’s location works fine).

The stereo speakers are situated a little more than an inch down from the top, along the left and right horizontal edges. This position proved a good one, since my hands didn’t get in the way of the speakers. The speakers sounded surprisingly good, among the better I’ve heard on Android tablets, far better than iPad 2’s single rear-facing speaker. But that’s not saying much; audio still sounded too tinny on my test tracks.

The 1280 by 800 pixel resolution display looks bright and brilliant, two characteristics we’ve come to associate with Samsung displays on its phones and tablets. Like the 7-inch Galaxy Tab before it, the display also has oversaturated colors. On a color chart test image, most of the colors, including reds and blues, were blown out. In our test images of sights and scenes, this tendency translated to images that popped, but had a bit too much red and blue thrown into the mix. In side-by-side comparison, the Apple iPad 2 generated better color reproduction, especially when it came to the soft browns for skin tones.

However, the Tab 10.1 rendered images with terrific sharpness and detail. This is the first Android tablet to ship natively with Google’s Android 3.1 update. And images clearly benefit from the updated OS: Images were crisp, with no signs of the fuzzy rendering issue that plagued earlier the earlier Honeycomb versions.

Inside the Galaxy Tab 10.1

Like other Honeycomb tablets, the Tab 10.1 runs Nvidia’s Tegra 2 platform, with a dual-core 1GHz processor and 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. The Tab 10.1 has many of the now-standard tablet accouterments like a rear- and front- facing cameras (3- and 2-megapixels, respectively, with rear flash), gyroscope, accelerometer, digital compass, and ambient light sensor.

Impressively, the specs for the Galaxy Tab 10.1 have actually changed-for better and for worse–since its initial introduction at CTIA just a few months ago. Most notably, the weight has decreased-from 1.31 pounds to 1.24 pounds. Unfortunately, that weight reduction might be due to the now-gone microSD card slot, a disappointing omission given that would have provided a significant edge over the Apple iPad 2. Also missing so far: Any mention of a 64GB version, which was previously announced.
The Tab 10.1 supports Adobe Flash, but I was surprised to find my test unit came without Flash preinstalled. Nor did it have a shortcut on the desktop linking directly to Adobe’s Flash Player on the Android Market, as other Honeycomb tablets have handled the Flash installation conundrum (since it’s not native to the Android OS).

And yet, other file support surprises abound. The Tab 10.1 actually comes with support for Windows Media audio and video files (including .WMA, .WMV, and .AVI); these files are not natively supported by Android 3.1, so it’s impressive that Samsung jumped in to the fill the void. It also can read Xvid, another format not noted on Android’s official list.

The Tab 10.1 comes pre-loaded with Quickoffice HD, for reading and editing Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files as well as serving as a functional file browser. (Interesting observation: Files I downloaded via Gmail appear only in the Download folder, even though the images and videos appear directly in the Gallery app, and the music shows in the Music app.)

As initially shipped, the Tab 10.1 comes with stock Android 3.1 on-board, and very little to distinguish it. It is the first Honeycomb tablet to ship with Google’s facile Android Movie Studio (the Google answer to Apple’s iMovie on iOS). And it does have a customized keyboard from Nuance, with trace typing capabilities. This keyboard is the default keyboard, although you could switch to the native Honeycomb keyboard if you prefer. I found I liked the Samsung keyboard; it’s gray, with black letters, large keys, and mostly useful shortcut keys (for example, @, .com, and 🙂 in the e-mail keyboard).

Beyond that, you get Samsung’s attractive orange-and-blue sunrise-like wallpaper scheme; Samsung Apps, Samsung’s nascent and for now, irrelevant app store; Samsung Music Hub, a music store and player powered by 7digital; and Pulse news reader.

Samsung’s more customized overlay, TouchWiz UX, will be available later this summer as an over-the-air update. It’s not available pre-installed at launch, Samsung says, because the company didn’t have enough time to test it with Android 3.1. When the overlay does arrive, Samsung says the current plan is for users to be able to opt to use elements of it, or they can go back to stock Android. That said, we won’t know the implementation for sure until it arrives.

TouchWiz UX will add a variety of interface customizations to improve Android 3.1’s usability. It will also add Samsung’s Media Hub movie and TV purchase and rental service, as well as Reader Hub (powered by Kobo Books and Zinio) and Social Hub (for accessing social networks under one roof).

Of note for business users: The Tab 10.1 can be set to encrypt user data, and supports enhanced Exchange ActiveSync, Cisco AnyConnect SSL VPN, and F5 SSL VPN.

What You Sacrifice

By going slim and light, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 makes some trade-offs. And those tradeoffs may limit, or at least temper, the Tab 10.1’s appeal depending upon your needs. For starters, like Apple’s iPad 2, it has no ports beyond its docking port, located centered along the horizontal bottom edge. To add connectivity, you’ll need to invest in the optional dongles coming later this month.

Samsung will have docking port dongles to add USB, SD Card, and HDMI. Unfortunately, all of these feel like the afterthoughts they are; it would be nice to get to a point where at least HDMI and USB connectivity can be integrated directly into the tablet. Many competitors in the red-hot tablet space build in at least one such port, but those competitors are also far heavier, at 1.5 to 1.65 pounds. Once the dongles come available, I’ll update the review with hands on.

Another thing I noticed in my casual testing: The 7000 mAh battery took inordinately long to charge. After two hours plugged in, my test unit only came up to about 30 percent charged. The battery is rated for up to nine hours of use.

Stay tuned for our full PCWorld Labs performance test results, including battery life and recharge times.

The full-scale launch of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Wi-Fi comes June 17, when you’ll be able to buy the tablet at Best Buy, as well as at Fry’s Electronics and Micro Center; and online at Best Buy, Amazon.com, Tiger Direct and Newegg. The 32GB version is priced at $599, $100 more than the 16GB model; both prices match Apple’s comparable offerings. Additional mobile broadband versions will come; Verizon starts its presale today for 4G varietals of the Tab 10.1, at a $130 premium over the Wi-Fi prices (same premium as on iPad).

Bottom Line

Whether you go Wi-Fi only or opt for a connected version, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the first Android tablet that makes a credible, and successful, run at competing with Apple’s iPad 2. It matches iPad in most every way-design, price, and even that intangible IT factor. Where it falls short lies is in sacrificing ports, but that alone isn’t a dealbreaker; heck, Apple’s been doing that from the outset.

Google’s Android Market continues to make it more difficult to find tablet-optimized apps than Apple’s App Store does, but again, that may not be a dealbreaker. If neither of those constraints phase you, then the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is one of the top tablets you can consider buying today. And it becomes the flagship Honeycomb tablet for showcasing what Android 3.1 can do.

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