Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 review

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 8.9 made its retail debut in September and it is nearly identical to its larger predecessor, the Galaxy Tab 10.1. It mostly packs the same hardware but, as its name suggests, has a smaller screen. I enjoyed the original Galaxy Tab 10.1 when it launched earlier this year: it was thin, powerful and it offered a brand new tablet experience. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t get on board with Android Honeycomb and I’ve since stopped using the tablet, and the operating system, altogether. Can the Galaxy 8.9′s smaller size and TouchWiz user interface rekindle my love for Android tablets? Read my full review to find out.

Hardware

Before I get started I should note that this is something of a lightning round review. As I mentioned above, the Tab 8.9 is nearly identical to the Tab 10.1 beyond display size, so there are plenty of things that simply don’t need to be rehashed. With that behind us, there isn’t a single part of the Galaxy Tab 8.9 hardware that blows me away.

The Galaxy Tab 8.9 is sized perfectly for fitting in a backpack or small shoulder bag, but I wish Samsung used more premium materials. At its $469.99 price point I expect uni-body aluminum or at least a nice sturdy plastic instead of cheap-feeling plastic. The Galaxy Tab 8.9 also has an awkward button layout. Its 3.5mm headphone jack and power button are on the top of the tablet when held in landscape mode, but so are the volume controls. Since I usually consume media holding the tablet lengthwise, it would make more sense if the volume buttons were in easy reach on the left or right side of the tablet.

The 8.9-inch display has a fairly sharp 1280 x 800-pixel resolution and is nice and bright, although it’s not terribly impressive. I’m definitely looking forward to Samsung’s 7-inch Galaxy Tab with a Super AMOLED display.

There’s a fairly snappy dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor under the hood, which makes the navigating the UI as good an experience as I’ve seen on a Honeycomb tablet. In terms of ports, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 has an audio jack and the Apple-like 30-pin port, but it doesn’t offer an HDMI-out solution out of the box. This means you can’t take advantage of the processor’s ability to display games and media on an HDTV.

Overall the hardware is just satisfactory. I wish Samsung added an HDMI-out port, or at least included an accessory in the box, and I also would’ve liked to see sturdier materials to help justify the high price point.

Software

Samsung has added its TouchWiz UX on top of Android Honeycomb, which improves the stock user interface in a number of ways. The Tron-like blue accents are gone and the icons are much cleaner. Additionally, Samsung provides a number of useful and good-looking widgets that can be applied to the home screen.

There’s a small area with a few useful shortcuts to your calendar, the task manager, a world clock, a notepad, a calculator and the music player that’s easy to lift up from the bottom of the screen, which I appreciated. Also, the browser is much cleaner and feels faster than the stock Android option.

While I love what Samsung has done, it still isn’t enough to mask Honeycomb’s weaknesses. The OS is still sluggish at times, scrolling and animations are often choppy, and it’s really lacking in terms of compelling features. The quality of tablet apps has definitely improved over recent months, and that helps a lot, but it’s still a tough sell.

Thankfully, Google recently announced its latest Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS during an event in Hong Kong, and it should be available on tablets in the coming months. It remains unclear if Samsung will update the Galaxy Tab 8.9 to Android 4.0.

As I mentioned earlier, the operating system still feels sluggish, even on powerful hardware, and it’s terribly unintuitive. And while the app situation is getting better, there still aren’t enough high-quality applications available to provide variety and flexibility. The Galaxy Tab 8.9 has spent plenty of time sitting on my coffee table because I can’t bring myself to want to interact with Honeycomb.

Camera

The 3-megapixel camera on the Galaxy Tab 8.9 is the same found on its larger cousin. Pictures turned out OK, but they obviously aren’t as good as what you can expect from Samsung’s Galaxy family of smartphones. In addition, the Tab 8.9 records 720p video but the camera zooms in incredibly far, which means you have to step back a bit while recording. It is definitely very annoying and made recording video more of a pain than it was worth.

Battery

The Galaxy Tab 8.9 is equipped with a 6,100 mAh battery that affords users “hours of entertainment.” I was able to get through about three days using the tablet to surf the web, play with apps and listen to music, and your mileage will vary depending on your usage.

I also found that the tablet idles very well. After three days of idle time the battery meter had dropped only a few percent. There is one drawback, however: just like the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 seems to take an eternity to fully charge.

Conclusion

I was a big fan of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet when it made its debut because it was the thinnest tablet on the market and one of the first Honeycomb tablets. Unfortunately, my joy for Honeycomb has long since diminished. That isn’t Samsung’s fault, it’s Google’s.

The tablet itself packs decent hardware and my biggest complaint is that it feels a bit cheap. Overall, I’d choose the Galaxy Tab 8.9 over the Galaxy Tab 10.1 because it’s more portable and because of Samsung’s improvements to the software. In that sense, I suppose it would be one of my favorite Honeycomb tablets yet. That really isn’t saying much, though. Even my favorite Honeycomb tablet is going to collect dust on the coffee table.

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