T-Mobile G-Slate review

T-Mobile introduced the world to its first Android 3.0-powered tablet at the Consumer Electronics Show this past January. Unfortunately for T-Mobile, however, the G-Slate was announced amid a flurry of similar announcements — remember, over 100 tablets were introduced at CES this year — so the LG-built tablet got a bit lost in the fray. What’s more, Motorola’s XOOM tablet was the star of the show, thus positioning the G-Slate as a second-class citizen at CES. Later this week, however, T-Mobile will finally embark on its virgin Honeycomb as it pushes the device out to market. It looks as though the launch will be a quiet one compared to the XOOM, but that doesn’t necessarily mean LG’s tablet is unworthy of some attention. I’ve spent a few days putting the device through its paces and while I must admit my expectations weren’t terribly high to begin with, T-Mobile’s tablet definitely managed to surprise me in a few areas. Does that mean you should consider stepping off one of those iPad 2 lines still forming outside retailers and consider the G-Slate instead? Read on for my full review.

THE INSIDE

Android 3.0, or “Honeycomb” as Google affectionately calls it, is a stopgap build of the Android operating system. I am not implying that this version of the Android OS is a poor effort on Google’s part, I’m simply stating that it seems like a rushed effort intended to tide us over while Google prepares to put its best foot forward.

Google had no choice but to bring Honeycomb to market with haste. Manufacturers were looking to Android in their efforts to respond to Apple’s iPad and in doing so, they were using an Android build designed for cell phones. Froyo, as any one of the millions of Galaxy Tab owners around the globe will likely tell you, is not ideal for tablets. It’s not terrible per se, but it certainly does not provide an experience as fluid as iOS on the iPad, webOS on the upcoming TouchPad or even RIM’s new QNX-based OS on the PlayBook, despite its faults.

Honeycomb’s layout is very familiar; it’s basically the same UI as the one found in earlier versions of Android, but bigger. Thankfully, however, it also features a few interface tweaks and refinements that improve what can be, at times, a somewhat dull UI on older Android builds. Honeycomb also makes good use of the larger canvas afforded by tablets, providing larger widgets and an all-new system bar with a revised notification system. I like the new system bar, which places navigation controls and a task manager button in the bottom left corner of the display and a status panel in the lower right corner. Notifications that would normally be listed across the top of an Android phone are now placed next to the clock on the right side of the system bar.

I also like the revamped notification system in Honeycomb. It works just like the notifications in other versions of the OS but the UI has been revamped to fit better with Honeycomb. Notifications pop up briefly in the lower right corner, and they are then reduced to single icons if no interaction is made. A tap on one of these icons will cause the notification to reappear, and then a tap on the notification body will launch the related app while a tap on the X in the corner of a notification box will dismiss it. My only complaint is that the system badly needs a way to dismiss all notifications with a single tap. When I go on app-installing binges, it’s a huge pain to dismiss each of the related notifications one at a time.

While I do find the Honeycomb UI to be an improvement over earlier Android builds in many respects, I also find it to be a bit too juvenile for me, for lack of a better term. In its current state, Honeycomb looks like a vision of the future from the 80s — like something out of Bladerunner, perhaps. The base colors of black and blue are dated, the muted tones and thin blue lines that separate certain elements are elementary, and some of the fonts used are borderline ridiculous, such as the one on the digital clock. Basically, the UI looks like an odd cocktail consisting of 90% Android and 10% Else Intuition. This complaint is a superficial one, of course, and many will love the new UI.

A complaint that is certainly not superficial, however, is the lack of apps.

Apps, apps, apps. UI design used to be the infantry in the smartphone platform wars, but now applications find themselves on the front lines. For a platform to succeed it must have a solid developer ecosystem and an abundance of apps, pundits repeat ad nauseam. For Honeycomb, this is a problem.

There are hundreds of thousands of apps in Google’s Android Market. In fact, there are so many apps that third parties apparently have a need to launch app stores of their own to house them all. There are not, however, a tremendous number of apps optimized for use on a tablet; the number is somewhere in the low hundreds right now. Compared to almost 85,000 iPad apps, this is not promising for those who believe apps make or break a tablet experience.

Luckily, almost all Android apps made for smartphones can run on the G-Slate, not just those optimized for Honeycomb. More on that later.

THE OUTSIDE

LG has a history of hits and misses when it comes to the build quality of its mobile devices. Some are rock solid while others feel unbearably cheap. Thankfully, the G-Slate falls squarely in the former category.

The face of the device consists entirely of a single sheet of glass. Though it is in desperate need of an oleophobic coating, the glass is strong and slick, just as it should be. The edges of the slate are wrapped in a gray hard plastic bezel that doesn’t feel cheap or plasticky at all, and the back of the tablet has a great soft rubber feel to it. There is also a brushed metal strip across the center of the back containing “with Google” branding.

The right edge of the G-Slate is home to thin volume rocker and the left edge contains a microUSB port, an HDMI-out port and contact points for the optional dock accessory. A speaker and a microphone are located on the bottom edge of the device while a second speaker is found on the top edge between the power/lock button and 3.5mm audio jack. Finally, a 2-megapixel front-facing camera is located in the top right corner of the face of the tablet while two 5-megapixel cameras are found on the back next to an LED flash.

Why are there two 5-megapixel cameras on the back? The G-Slate features 3D video recording capability and it ships with a pair 3D glasses and a 3D video player. This is not a glasses-free 3D experience like the upcoming HTC EVO 3D, the LG Optimus 3D or the Nintendo 3DS, but it works reasonably well. In the end it’s just a novelty though, and I enjoyed the standard 1080p HD videos I recorded with the G-Slate much more than the 3D videos.

The 8.9-inch, 1280 x 768-pixel HD display on the G-Slate is fantastic. Video playback is gorgeous and high-resolution photos look great on the screen as well. Brightness and contrast don’t quite match Samsung’s Super-AMOLED displays or similar panels, but it’s still quite impressive. My only complaint here is that the dimensions of the screen are a bit odd. The G-Slate’s display sports a 15:9 aspect ratio, which means a lot of content won’t be able to make full use of the screen real estate. It’s great for browsing and reading eBooks, but most video playback will be accompanied by black bars.

THE UPSIDE

As I mentioned earlier, there are not many Android apps made specifically for honeycomb tablets at this point. Thankfully, just about any Android app will run on the G-Slate — though the experience will not be ideal. It’s nowhere near as sad as Apple’s solution for running iPhone apps on the iPad — apps can either run at their original size in the center of the iPad display or you can zoom in to view a full-sized, pixelated mess — but it’s not great.

Android smartphones ship with a variety of screen sizes and as such, their UIs are designed with scaling in mind. So apps like the official Twitter app, for example, will fill out the full display on the G-Slate, but fonts will be incredibly tiny and interfaces will not be ideal for a device with an 8.9-inch display.

In addition, there also needs to be a better way to distinguish Honeycomb-optimized apps in the Market from other apps. Right now, the only apps you can be sure are made for a tablet are the ones highlighted in Google’s small “Featured Tablet Apps” section, which was home to just 62 apps at the time of this writing.

The G-Slate does not ship with Flash support. Instead, users will find a link on their center home page that points to Flash Player 10.2 in the Android Market. While some might not find this optimal, it’s smart of LG and T-Mobile to ensure that the user’s first experience with Flash will make use of whatever the latest version of Flash Player is at the time of purchase. Once installed, Flash videos played reasonably well in the Android browser with minimal bogging. Zooming and panning did, at times, cause problems with video playback, but this can be resolved by simply resizing a video before playback begins.

The build is likely my favorite thing about this tablet. It’s remarkably solid and it has a very high-end feel. It can get a bit hefty during prolonged usage, but this also helps the G-Slate feel substantial and high-end. What’s more, there’s a reason the device is so heavy: the battery life on T-Mobile’s tablet is terrific. It doesn’t quite measure up to the iPad, I found, but I’m confident that the G-Slate will run for several days on a single charge. During a 24-hour period where my heavy testing included streaming video, hours of streaming Pandora radio, 3D video recording, some gaming and several large file downloads, I only managed to drain about 75% of the G-Slate’s juice.

Last but not least, having integrated 4G HSPA+ is fantastic if you often find yourself in areas with solid coverage. In and around New York City, I regularly saw download speeds between 3Mbps and 6Mbps according to Ookala’s Speedtest.net app. Upload speeds were equally impressive, ranging from 2Mbps to nearly 4Mbps. It really seemed as though I was able to stream video, download email attachments and upload large files on the go just as fast as I was on my home Wi-Fi network. In terms of perception, this is due in large part to the extremely low latency I was experiencing on T-Mobile’s 4G network. Newer technologies like LTE and WiMAX offer several benefits over HSPA+, but T-Mobile’s network is definitely narrowing the gap where speed and latency are concerned.

THE DOWNSIDE

I won’t beat around the bush here… the G-Slate’s user experience is hurt tremendously by the sluggishness of the UI. LG may deserve part of the blame as the XOOM was not quite this bad when I used it last, but the bulk of the problem likely lies with Google. Android’s UI is not fluid, and the lag issues carried by most Android smartphones are amplified on the G-Slate tablet.

The touchscreen is the main interface on any Android device, and yet the G-Slate does not provide a good touch experience. By that, I mean that a touch UI should come as close as possible to delivering the famous paper on a table experience. If you place your finger firmly on a piece of paper sitting on a table, the paper will move in sync with your finger’s movement in any direction across the table. iOS, for example, has received tremendous critical acclaim as it comes very close to delivering this type of experience. Honeycomb on the G-Slate, however, does not.

There is often a considerable disconnect between the user’s touch on the G-Slate’s display and the reaction of the UI. One example is swiping side to side through Honeycomb’s home screens when one or more widgets are present. If I give the display a brisk swipe to one side, as I would normally on any touchscreen device, the animation that takes me from one home screen to the next doesn’t even begin until my finger is no longer in contact with the display. Live wallpapers seem to exacerbate the problem, and I highly recommend using a still image instead.

A worse example reared its head when I tried to play Glow Hockey, which is one of several “featured tablet apps” found  in the Android market. The game is similar to air hockey and the user’s finger controls the mallet. When I tried to play, the mallet was so delayed as I moved it that I gave up after scoring on my own goal twice.

To be frank, it’s simply pathetic that a device with a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor has such a sluggish interface. There are many areas of the OS where touch response is acceptable, but these areas are beyond overshadowed by the bogging and sluggishness in problem areas and in some third-party apps.

My only other notable qualm came when I tried to use the G-Slate as an eReader. While I love solid feel and the sturdy build of the device, it does get a bit heavy at times. Yes, this is due in large part to the battery, thus affording very impressive battery life, but after holding it while reading a few chapters of Peter Keller’s Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story in Amazon’s Kindle app, my hands and arms definitely got tired.

While the G-Slate is almost an inch and a half narrower than the iPad 2, it manages to weigh 30g more than the lightest iPad 2 model and almost 20g more than the heaviest iPad. All that heft definitely takes its toll after a while and I sometimes found myself wanting to rest it in my lap after just a few minutes of reading in portrait mode. This also becomes a problem when typing while holding the G-Slate — the device gets very heavy when your thumbs are flying around the keypad, and I thought I was going to drop it once or twice. Landscape isn’t quite as bad since the weight becomes more evenly distributed, but I found it to be far too wide to thumb-type in landscape mode.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It has only been a year since Apple’s iPad breathed new life into the consumer tablet market and we’re already seeing reports that manufacturers are starting to come to their senses after the chaos that ensued following the iPad’s launch. Initially, it seemed as though every consumer electronics company on the planet was rushing to get tablets out the door. Now that they’ve had some time to think, however, we may begin to see delays as companies take a step back and assess the market.

As I have mentioned in the past, consumers have not yet proven that they have any real interest in tablets. They have shown plenty of interest in the iPad, but with only one other confirmed success story to date — Samsung’s Galaxy Tab — it remains to be seen if the consumer tablet market as a whole will indeed be the next big thing, as analysts still predict, or just a bunch of DOA slates that will gather dust in warehouses.

The G-Slate, I fear, is ahead of its time. The hardware really is terrific and the build is quite impressive. The software, unfortunately, just isn’t ready for primetime yet. Google’s tablet build of Android needs serious refinement before it will be able to provide a user experience that will appeal to the average consumer.

If the G-Slate hardware carried with it a polished operating system with unique features and a few key distinguishing functions, it would be a fantastic device. Instead, it’s a song without a chorus. The musicianship is there, the build-up is there, but it lacks a hook to ensure that the melody gets stuck in your head.

I know what analysts are saying about the tablet market this year, but I believe their collective expectations are far too high. Delays caused by the earthquakes in Japan may play a role in curtailing production, but I also believe consumer adoption will be far slower than projected. Manufacturers and analysts seem to expect the tablet market to act just as the smartphone market has in recent history: slap Android on as many devices as possible and consumers will buy them by default since they’re making smartphone purchases anyway. The key difference, however, is that smartphones are now essentially a commodity. Consumers don’t just want smartphones, they need smartphones.

Consumer tablets, on the other hand, are anything but a commodity. They are absolutely unessential at this point in time, and truth be told, they still sit squarely in the “jack of all trades, master of none” category. Laptops outwork them, televisions out-entertain them, eReaders out-eBook them and smartphones take care of the rest.

Without a massive marketing push, I don’t see the G-Slate going very far with average consumers. It’s also a bit pricey at $529.99 with a two-year data contract. I can see why T-Mobile priced it there — this price point lines up with Apple’s 16GB iPad 2 Wi-Fi + 3G, and the G-Slate touts twice as much internal storage. Apple’s iPad doesn’t require a two-year data plan, however, and it also has ridiculous amounts of hype and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and marketing to support it. The G-Slate, of course, does not.

For the Android enthusiast who has been waiting for a well-spec’d tablet from T-Mobile, it’s a different story. Honeycomb tablets don’t have much competition yet, but the G-Slate will likely still be near the top of the heap even once more competition begins to trickle out. The lag and bogging in certain areas will be the biggest barrier to overcome, but I’m sincerely hoping these issues are addressed in software updates. I also hope those updates come quickly. With a more refined OS and a smoother UI, the G-Slate could truly be a great tablet.

The T-Mobile G-Slate launches online and in stores on Wednesday, April 20th.

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