Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 review

The BGR team picked up the new and improved Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 from Google’s I/O conference earlier this week, and I have been using it non-stop for the past few days. There’s a lot to discuss here: the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the third Android Honeycomb-powered tablet launched by a major OEM in the United States, and Samsung went to great lengths to revise the design and slice off the extra bulk. The unit I have measures just 0.33-inches thick, which makes it the thinnest tablet available on the market today. It’s powered by a dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor, contains 32GB of storage, and Samsung promises that there will be an Android 3.1 update coming in the “next few weeks.” Is the Galaxy Tab 10.1 the best Honeycomb tablet yet? Check out our gallery below, and then read on to find out!

Hardware / Display

If you’re looking for a tablet that resembles the iPad 2 but with Android Honeycomb on board, Samsung has nearly nailed the aesthetics with the Galaxy Tab 10.1. My special edition unit has a glossy white back with an army of Android figures marching across it. Most Galaxy Tab 10.1 units will likely have a brushed metal finish, however, which I’ve found to be much more appealing. The border of the tablet is metal, as is the area surrounding the rear 3.2-megapixel camera and its single LED flash — a nicety that adds to the premium look and feel of the device.

There are volume buttons, a power button, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 — when it’s held in landscape view — and there’s a proprietary Samsung charging port on the bottom. I don’t typically use HDMI-out very often, but I love having the option and I was stunned to see that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 doesn’t have a dedicated HDMI-out port. I’ll revisit this in the multimedia section.

The tablet’s display was nice and bright, but when I took it out on my terrace to relax and check email, I found it was a bit hard to see under direct sunlight. I really like the 7-inch display on the BlackBerry PlayBook — it makes the tablet much easier to tote around in a jacket pocket, but I quickly got adjusted to the 10.1-inch 1280 x 800 resolution screen on the Tab 10.1, and especially liked it while browsing websites and playing games.

The Tab 10.1’s hardware spec sheet is impressive, too. It packs a dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, 32GB of onboard storage, and a 7,000 mAh battery. Unfortunately there isn’t a microSD card slot to be found, so I wasn’t able to add any additional storage. Similarly, while Android Honeycomb 3.1 promises support for USB devices, there aren’t any USB ports on the Galaxy Tab 10.1. That means you’ll be left in the cold if you want to use USB devices with your tablet, unless Samsung can come up with a dongle solution of its own.

Software

I had used Android Honeycomb for a few minutes at times on various tablets, but I had not spent a great deal of time with the OS until the Galaxy Tab 10.1 landed in my lap. The current 3.0 version definitely needs work, so I’m glad 3.1 is promised in the coming weeks. You’ll call me crazy, but I prefer the BlackBerry QNX UI to what Honeycomb has to offer so far. Yes, I know there’s a lack of apps available for RIM’s tablet, but QNX feels so much more spry, especially when it comes to multitasking and flipping around the user interface.

Honeycomb’s UI is easy to use, but I hate that the navigation buttons are on the bottom left of the screen. I love the option to swipe up from the bottom panel in QNX to move back to the home screen. It feels much more intuitive than searching for a button to leave the current app. That reminds me — the app selection for Honeycomb tablets is still pretty slim.

I used the original 7-inch Galaxy Tab, and I wasn’t impressed with how it ran apps designed for smaller displays. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed a whole lot with the Galaxy Tab 10.1. As it stands there are just a few dozen Honeycomb apps available, most of which cost between $0.99 and $4.99, and none of which were all that exciting. Apple’s iPad offers a totally different experience, but the app selection makes it more attractive and more versatile.

Despite the dual-core processor, Honeycomb was sluggish at times. Sometimes apps would randomly crash back to the home screen, and sometimes new ones wouldn’t install at all. I also had a number of lockups while browsing the web: the website would just freeze so that I couldn’t pan or zoom, and on multiple occasions the keyboard failed to pop-up when I was trying to type in text fields. The only solution for this problem was to reboot the device entirely. I don’t think I used the Galaxy Tab 10.1 for 45 minutes without seeing at least one of these bugs pop up. That’s bad.

The default Honeycomb keyboard was nice and large and I was able to type — slowly — with two hands at once. Most of the time, though, I found myself pecking at the keys, and I couldn’t type nearly as fast as I could with a smartphone. I still peck to type on the iPad, too, but I’ve heard of more than a few people who can cruise on that keyboard, and I’m not sure they’d have the same success with the Tab 10.1.

Honeycomb 3.0 allows you to customize five different home screens with widgets. Version 3.1 will allow you to resize the widgets on the fly, and that’s going to be a welcome addition. I enjoyed most of the widgets, particularly the email ones that allowed me to flip through my inbox, but they don’t branch too far away from what’s available on an Android smartphone. There’s also a useful, albeit ugly, notification system on the bottom right-hand of the screen. It works well, although I hate the look of the clock and buttons for Home, return, and the task manager. The icons are blue and retro-robotic, and I hope Google has plans to make them skinnable.

So what can we expect from the next version of Honeycomb? On May 10th, Google took the wraps off of Android 3.1, the next update for tablets. It will add support for aforementioned resizable home screen widgets and will also allow users to use input devices like keyboards, mice, trackpads, and gaming controllers — provided there’s a USB interface in place. Similarly, multitasking will be enhanced to reduce crashes and improve transitions. Hopefully this also addresses a number of the bugs I discussed earlier. What remains unclear, however, is if this will be available for the regular edition Galaxy Tab 10.1, which may sport Samsung’s custom TouchWiz user interface on top of Honeycomb.

During the Consumer Electronics Show in early January, Samsung gave me a close look at its custom “TouchWiz UX” skin for Honeycomb, the first such UI overlay. I really liked several of the enhanced widgets for social networks, email, and more. I have a feeling this will be used in the European versions of the tablet, but perhaps it’s being saved for a future update.

Camera / Video chat

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a 3-megapixel camera that took decent shots, but it wasn’t very impressive. There was noticeable grain in a lot of the images, and while night shots came out OK with the flash, the quality was on a par with a run-of-the-mill smartphone camera. I’m not so sure that it’s a huge deal to offer 5-megapixel cameras capable of recording HD or 3D video, as is the case on the T-Mobile G-Slate, because I’d rather use a more compact phone or dedicated camera for snapping photos instead of a 10-inch tablet. Still, I’m sure more than a few users would enjoy the option.

The 3-megapixel camera is capable of recording 1280 x 720 video (720p HD), and a few quick clips that I shot outside looked decent when I played them back on my computer. The frame rates were smooth and there was just a little distortion when I panned around with the camera. Again, most people will probably use a more compact smartphone for recording video, but the Galaxy Tab 10.1 does a fine job also.

There’s a forward-facing 1.3-megapixel camera for video chats, and it worked well during a test call to a friend over Google Talk. My buddy said the quality was “typical” and that I looked more crisp when I sat still talking directly into the cam – as opposed to moving around. The audio was solid, the video coming through to my display was crisp, and I was pleased with the performance overall.

Multimedia

Google recently announced its new music locker and video rental services, both of which will be available on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the future. I haven’t had access to the music beta, but I did load up a few movies and tunes on the tablet to test out its speaker and screen. A quick viewing of the movie “Hackers” looked just fine on the screen, and the viewing angles were sufficient enough that two people could easily watch a movie together. The default movie player didn’t have an option to blow the video up to full screen, though, so I was limited to watching it with large borders above and below the clip.

Google’s new Music player application — not to be confused with the aforementioned music locker service — looked excellent on the Tab 10.1’s large display. Album art was displayed nice and large, which made it easy to find the artist I was looking for. The speakers were loud, but not as crisp and full sounding as those on the BlackBerry PlayBook. I also appreciated that Honeycomb places a small music icon in the bottom right-hand side of the screen for easily controlling music from the home screen.

As I noted earlier, I don’t think the lack of an HDMI-out port is a deal-breaker, but it is a bit of a shocker. I’ve seen the dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 chip used in the Galaxy Tab 10.1 output full HD video, pictures, and games to a big screen HDTV. It’s a nice option to have, especially if you want to share content on your tablet with a room full of people.

Battery

When I used the Galaxy Tab 10.1 regularly to surf the web, play a few games, chat, and check my email, I was able to get through about two full days. That’s about what I expect from a tablet with a 7,000 mAh battery, and you’ll no doubt see longer life out of its battery if you use it lightly and leave it idle more often than I did. Unlike a few of the other tablets, which offer more portability thanks to support for 3G connections, you’ll probably be using the Galaxy Tab 10.1 with a Wi-Fi hotspot most of the time, and that means an outlet shouldn’t be too far either. You won’t need to look for one too often, though, as I found the battery to be more than sufficient for my needs.

Conclusion

This is one of the tougher conclusions I’ve had to write. Here’s why: the Galaxy Tab 10.1 itself is a beautiful and thin tablet with an industrial design to die for. But Honeycomb 3.0 definitely isn’t ready for primetime. It was slow and sluggish at times, apps crashed regularly, and the web browser froze often. Hopefully the forthcoming Honeycomb 3.1 fixes those issues, but we’ll have to wait and see.

If you’re in the market for a new tablet, you need to do yourself a favor and go hands-on with Honeycomb first. The hardcore Android enthusiast community will enjoy the tablet, and rightfully so, but I don’t think everyday consumers will appreciate the frequent crashes. The BlackBerry PlayBook’s QNX user interface is more fun, more polished, and more intuitive right now. Apple’s iOS is also dead easy to use and has a much more robust application catalog.

When it comes down to it, is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 worth buying? If you want the thinnest, sexiest Android tablet available today, then yes — but only if you can get around Honeycomb’s current faults in hopes that coming builds will smooth things out.

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