Samsung's tablet: No serious regrets

A month after buying the Galaxy Tab, I still use it every day

Published December 29, 2010 5:30PM (EST)

As I wrote here in November, the Samsung Galaxy Tab is the first serious competitor to Apple's iPad. I've been living with this device, which I purchased, for more than a month. Bottom line: No, it's not nearly as slick a combination of hardware and software as the iPad -- no one beats Apple in this regard at the moment -- but it's vastly better than good enough.

And, yet ... While I can recommend it in many ways, I have some lingering reservations.

First, let's look at the Tab's positive features. At the top of that list, from my perspective, is its size: almost three inches smaller (in diagonal screen measurement) than the iPad. It weighs half a pound less than the iPad, and is easy to hold for long periods with one hand. (It fits nicely into a jacket pocket, but with the padded case even that becomes a bit of a stretch, figuratively and literally.) In area, the Tab is roughly half the size of the iPad. But it has a 1024-by-600 screen resolution compared with the iPad's 1024-by-768, which means that it's displaying about 615,000 pixels compared with about 785,000 on the iPad -- still less to see but not nearly as much as the difference in screen sizes suggests.

The Tab is available around the world as a mobile device. It has Wi-Fi, of course, and Samsung promises vaguely to release a Wi-Fi-only version at some point, but it's currently sold in the U.S. mostly through the mobile-phone companies. The 3G radios differ from model to model, since the 3G networks differ among the carriers, which remains one of the most backward and progress-thwarting aspects of American mobile service. Mine is a T-Mobile version. I bought it without a service contract at the full $600 price. (Several retailers have dropped the Verizon pay-as-you-go model to $500, according to several news reports, but you have to sign up for a month of wireless service plus a setup fee.)

Google insists that its Android 2.2 operating system, which powers the Tab, is not suitable for tablets. Samsung has tweaked Android in some clever ways, and from my perspective it's just fine for a first version of the hardware.

The apps that come standard with the Tab are good enough, but I've ended up replacing many of them with apps from the Android market, among other places. For example, I prefer Opera's mobile browser rather than the one that Samsung installed. If you're a heavy Google user, especially for e-mail, Android devices are excellent, period; I'm not much of a Gmail user, and while the e-mail client software that Samsung bundles with the Tab is OK, I prefer an open-source package called K9, which I also use on my Android phone. A key benefit of using Android, of course, is that I'm not bound by Apple's control-freakery in the software I can choose. I just wish the app developers would take as much care with their Android versions as they do with their iOS software; the differences are often striking.

Speaking of phones, one of the huge annoyances with the Tab is what Samsung allowed the U.S. mobile carriers to do: They've disabled the phone part of the standard Android system. The carriers want you to subscribe to an entirely new data plan, just as AT&T and Apple have contrived to do with the iPad, despite the fact that Tabs sold in other countries work just fine as phones; of course, the way people do this is with headsets, as a 7-inch tablet looks pretty weird if you're holding it next to your face. The carriers' brazenly anti-customer stance is unsurprising, but it's a shame that Samsung is unapologetic about it. The hacking community is hard at work on a fix for this, of course.

Another annoyance is the charge-and-sync connector that comes with the Tab. It appears to be proprietary, just as the iPad and iPhone connectors are. Samsung's U.S. public relations firm denied this in an e-mail, but didn't respond to my follow-up queries about whether third-party companies need Samsung's permission to create devices using the Tab's connector port, and many reviews of the Tab have called the connector proprietary, with no apparent push-back from Samsung.

I get good battery life with the Tab, though not as much as the larger (and therefore more room for a battery) iPad offers. I've averaged around eight hours of normal use, though I don't have the 3G radio turned on. This means I don't typically charge it for several days. When I watch videos on airplanes, however, the battery doesn't last nearly as long, but it does better than my smart phone in that regard.

The two cameras in the Tab -- one front and one rear -- are OK, but nothing special. That doesn't bother me, because buying a smart phone or tablet for the camera seems bizarre in any case. I hope Samsung will soon offer better video-calling software than what's currently installed on the Tab, because this is another area where Android trails Apple.

My favorite activity with the Tab is reading -- books, that is. I have several e-book apps including Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, and they are just as good on Android as on the iPhone, iPad and other platforms. The screen size is just about perfect for books.

So why would I not want to recommend the Tab without reservation? There will soon be a host of new Android tablets on the market, and they'll cost much less than this one (unless Samsung responds by drastically lowering its own price). Early indications are that they won't be as slick or have the overall quality of the Tab. But a tablet that costs half (or less) and is more than half as good will be a compelling proposition for lots of customers.

I'm not sorry I bought this device, other than having the standard early adopter's regrets at paying a higher price than what I could surely find a few months from now. That's the nature of gadgets, of pretty much all technology.

My spouse bought an iPad earlier last year. She told me (and isn't the only one who's said this) that she wishes she'd waited for this tablet. That's only one reason why I'm sure that Apple will, sooner or later, release a tablet computer that's smaller than the current iPad. For the same reason that Apple sells iPods of various sizes and capabilities, the tablet space -- which bleeds into the smart-phone arena and vice versa -- will be about different devices serving different needs. Samsung has found a smart niche, for the moment.

By Dan Gillmor

A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here.

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