Thursday, 14 July 2011

Review: Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch

I got my paws briefly on a Galaxy Tab 7-inch recently. It belongs to a friend in the construction industry (Alan, not to be confused with Allan) who initially raved over it and in two weeks began fault-finding. This is one of the tablet devices released in response to Apple's iPad. It was a fine alternative to the iPad-I in terms of it's market pitch, but since the iPad-II came out, it looks like an expensive me-too with a smaller screen. The question is, has Samsung compromised too far in the attempt to be distinctive...?

This Samsung Galaxy Tab runs version 2.2 of Google's Android operating system, not yet updated to either 2.3 or 2.4, so that's down to Alan's carrier. It's crying out for version 3.0 Honeycomb. Released in 16GB and 32Gb versions, Alan got the 32Gb, on a business contract including a basic £10 per month for 1Gb of data. A smaller device, the Galaxy Tab is still expensive by way of comparison with a 16GB iPad with 3G and Wi-Fi.

Measuring 120mm by 191mm by 12mm, the Tab with it's 7 inch display is significantly smaller than Apple's 9.7-inches. The difference in inches is huge, as the Tab looks and feels about half the size of the iPad. It weights 380g, so you can hold the Tab up with one hand comfortably. The 7-inch looks the part and is small enough to fit comfortably in a large pocket, making it more portable than the iPad.

Compared to an iPad, the Tab looks chunky, although with a curved back, the edges are actually thinner than the deepest 12mm of the case.

What does disappoint the thickness of the bezel that surrounds the Tab's 7-inch display. Between the edge of the display itself and the edge of the case there's about 14mm of black plastic, which is a decent surface to grip, but, when you light up the Tab's display, it looks small inside that bulky surround.

Unlike the iPad, the Tab had a camera from day one, but only at 3-megapixel resolution, reasonable picture quality, but nothing special.

The design is aesthetically and functionally minimal. On the right-hand side of the chassis are two slots, SIM card and micro SD card so you can expand the storage by up to 32GB if you feel rich enough. That give you up to 64Gb of storage. There are two volume buttons and a lock button to sleep or wake the Tab. On top, is a lone 3.5mm headphones socket for plugging in your. On the bottom is the Tab's 30-pin charging and PC-connection port. The front of the Tab is completely smooth, there are no physical keys.

The Tab is sold on the strength of the display. Along the bottom of the screen, there are four touch-sensitive buttons (menu, home, back and search) that will be familiar to any Android users. But the Tab has haptic feedback, so you feel a vibration with each button press. The buttons glow white while you're using the Tab.

The display is the thing that most disappointed me. The 7-inch TFT LCD screen has a maximum resolution of 1,024x600 pixels, which is first generation netbook resolution, but not great. Although Text and icons are rendered clearly enough, it doesn't match my old JVC netbook screen and certainly doesn't compare well to the iPad. Also, Alan's Tab has an issue with the automatic brightness adjustment under indoor lighting, randomly adjusting up and down. I couldn't work out where the light sensor is, and thought as I'm left-handed, I was interfering with it, but Alan says he gets the problem as well.

Crank the display to maximum brightness, it's good but heavy on battery use; anything less and I found it disappointingly murky indoors in low ambient lighting. There are options to adjust the contrast and saturation.

I'm not sure I'd want to watch a lot of video on this thing, even though it has definite advantages. Given the expandable memory, there's no worry about getting videos onto the Tab which you can do by simple drag and drop when connected to a PC. The Tab supports a range of video formats including DivX, Xvid, MPEG-4, H.263 and H.264. The Tab support Flash video, the iPad doesn't.

The music player isn't great but with Android, you don't need to go through iTunes. The Tab supports a most audio formats, including AAC, OGG, FLAC and AC3.

The Tab runs Android 2.2, which is a smart phone operating system. I have it on my HTC, so I dived right in. The Tab can make phone calls, which is a feature that the iPad lacks. Although you will look like one of 'the Borrowers' or a hobbit, which is why Samsung has bundled a set of headphones with an in-line mic and call-answer button, so you don't have to hold it to your ear shouting "buy, buy, bye-bye!" You can also make video calls over 3G, using the second tiny camera just above the Tab's display, but bizarrely video calling is only natively supported from one Galaxy Tab to another.

The trouble with Samsung's re-spin of Android 2.2 is some menus still refer to the Tab as a 'phone' although it is intuitive and easy to use. Beyond the lock screen, you get Android's five customisable home screens, to arrange how you will with widgets and app shortcuts, with dedicated shortcuts to the Web browser, email and the full application menu along the bottom of the screen.

I liked the 'active applications' widget which serves as the Tab's task manager; it shows every app that's currently running along with the memory consumption memory each one is eating up and you can kill misbehaving apps from here. It's not the stock Android task manager.

Android is easy, powerful and customisable and it's not IOS (a benefit in my book). Swiping through menus on the Tab is smooth but I expected less lag than on my phone. That goes for the portrait to landscape switch which often takes a while, with the a momentary blackout. Being Android 2.2, there's no hardware button to lock the display in one orientation, as there is on the iPad, so changing position whilst reading can be a flickery affair.

The Android 2.2 on-screen keyboard is fine for thumb-typing and almost works if you lay the Tab down on a surface - the back isn't flat so it wants to move about under your fingers. Haptic feedback is good if you like that feature.

For web-browsing, the Tab doesn't have the display-size or the speed of an iPad, and browsing doesn't feel as smooth. With Android 2.2, however, the Tab supports Adobe's Flash player. Video loads and plays smoothly and pausing and skipping around was a little laggy but stable.

The 3-megapixel camera (with LED flash) is pretty poor resolution for a new device. It takes reasonable pictures but at least the camera software is fast and stable. Motion video mode captures video at 30 frames per second and at the modest resolution is very smooth.

How Many App Stores is Too Many?
A decent tablet needs apps. Everyone expects thousands of apps to be available, which is what you get in the Android Market and since the Tab thinks it's a smart phone most of the time, that's fine.

You also get Samsung's own app store, separate from the Android Market and a third store for games; 'Samsung Apps' is still sparse and the layout nothing like Android Market. Three app stores, unlike each other - why???

Battery life
Samsung reckons you'll get around 7 hours of video playback. Out and about it is meant to last for days, but with the data connection always on, it's hugely variable from two days to between three and four. Alan doesn't risk it and keeps putting the Tab on charge when he's close to the mains.

Verdict
The next generation Tabs, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1-inch and Galaxy Tab 8.9-inch have since appeared running Android 3.0, which means the original 7-inch is now hitting affordable pricing. The question is, do you get one?

I have an issue with the 1GHz processor in the tab. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch is powered by a Cortex A8 1GHz processor with 512MB RAM. This is pretty much standard in a lot of Android devices, but here it feels laggy and makes the whole thing less slick that we've come to expect. That's not the real problem, though.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab is always going to compare unfavourably with the iPad, especially in the game of leap-frog now iPad-II is out and is undoubtedly slicker and simpler. If you're out and about, the Tab is a feature-packed device that does most things well; for a glorified smart phone. It feels like a half-way device like the old Palm Pilot and Hewlett-Packard PDA's, albeit a very capable one; just not a phone or a tablet. No doubt the newer tabs are more serious competition fo the iPad, which leaves the 7 trailing in their wake. For me it's that screen, it's just not up to expectations. Samsung might say that's my problem. I say it's theirs. RC

Specifications
  • Android 2.2
  • 7-inch TFT LCD screen
  • 1024 x 600 screen resolution
  • 16m colors
  • Accelerometer and 3-axis gyro sensor
  • Multi-touch interface
  • ARM A8 Cortex 1GHz processor
  • 512MB RAM
  • 16 GB or 32GB version
  • Expandable memory through micro SD card up to 32GB
  • PowerVR SGX540 graphics chip
  • HD video playback + TV-out
  • Digital compass
  • Flash 10.1 support
  • 3.1 megapixel LED flash and Auto focus camera at the back
  • 1.3 megapixel SXGA camera at front
  • 802.11 b/g WLAN, 3G (HSDPA) 1o.2 mbps, GPRS, EDGE, bluetooth 3.0 (A2DP)
  • 1 x headphone out
  • Battery life up to 150 hours standby and around 7 hours video
  • Size: 190 x 120 x 12
  • Weight: 0.380kg