Apple has blocked it from going on sale in Australia, and Samsung postponed the launch event, but we did some probing and were lucky enough to get our hands on the hotly-anticipated Galaxy Tab 10.1 Android tablet before its official release in Australia. Thinner and lighter than Apple's iPad 2, and equipped with a slightly larger screen, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a superb piece of industrial design and so far, the only real credible alternative to the iPad. The Google Android platform remains less polished compared with iOS, and the lack of native tablet applications is an issue, but these faults lie with Google and not with Samsung: the latter has done a fine job of producing a credible tablet that isn't emblazoned with an Apple logo.
Note: The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 unit we are reviewing here is a European 3G model (GT-P7500) supplied by online store MobiCity. It is NOT an Australian version. A Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 for the Australian market will be released in the near future, but no timeframe has been provided.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1: Design and display
From the moment you pick up the Galaxy Tab 10.1, it's clear that this is a very different beast from the wealth of Android tablets already on the market. It shares a similar screen size (10.1in) and many of the same specifications as its competitors, but the build quality and design of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is simply superb — something we can't say about most of its competitors.
The Galaxy Tab 10.1 immediately stands out amongst the pack for all the right reasons. First of all, at just 8.6 millimetres thick, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is thin enough to be described by Samsung as "the world's thinnest mobile tablet". That is ever so slightly thinner than the 8.8mm thick iPad 2. Although a mere 0.2mm doesn't seem like a deal breaker if you're comparing it directly to the iPad 2, the Galaxy Tab 10.1's weight of just 565g is a big deal. The lightweight design makes it easy to use single-handedly, and very comfortable to hold for long periods. The overall design makes the Galaxy Tab 10.1 look much smaller than it really is — it really does not look or feel like a 10.1in tablet.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Android tablet is constructed largely from plastic, but still manages to feel extremely well built. The materials used are of a high quality, right from the glossy black bezel surrounding the display, to the soft feeling, rubber-style plastic that adorns the rear, and the stylish, curved edges. The finish on the rear may not look as flashy as the glossy front of the tablet, but the soft feel makes the Galaxy Tab 10.1 easier to grip, particularly if you're holding it with one hand. We like how the rear-facing camera and LED flash is built into an attractive silver strip towards the top, while both the left and right side houses a speaker, both covered by glossy silver mesh that adds to the overall quality feel of the tablet.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1's svelte frame definitely made it tough for Samsung to include extra ports, but the tablet covers most of the basics. On the top edge of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 you'll find a headphone jack, volume buttons and a power/screen lock key. On the 3G model, you'll also find a SIM card slot that's covered by a relatively sturdy plastic flap. The buttons fit in well with the rest of the tablet's excellent design: they feel sturdy, are well placed and provide good tactility. The bottom of the device houses Samsung's proprietary dock connection. This connector looks remarkably similar to Apple's 30-pin connector port used on both the iPhone and iPad.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a 10.1in, capacitive, PLS TFT touchscreen display (yes, that's a mouthful). Samsung says that the inclusion of PLS (Plane-line-switching) technology gives the Galaxy Tab 10.1 better viewing angles and increased brightness compared with regular IPS screens. For most part that's true, as the Galaxy Tab 10.1's screen is bright and crisp, and can be clearly seen from even the most obscure angles. Sadly, the screen can't escape a common issue with most tablets, including the market leading iPad 2: it quickly becomes a grubby mess after use, and has poor sunlight legibility. The glare also affects use in an office environment under fluorescent lighting.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1: Software and TouchWIZ UX
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 runs the 3.1 version of Google's Android operating system, and will be upgradeable to future versions of the Honeycomb platform (including the now-available 3.2). Like every other Honeycomb Android tablet on the market, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is capable of Web browsing with full Flash support, provides excellent notifications, the flexibility of live widgets and offers access to the Android Market for third-party applications. However, the key software feature of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is not Android, but Samsung's own TouchWiz UX user interface. This software is implemented on top of the Android 'Honeycomb' platform, makes it among the first Android tablets to run a customised version of Google's Honeycomb operating system.
Samsung's TouchWiz UX overlay brings a number of new features to the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Firstly, the "quick panel" adds a handy set of toggles in the notifications pop-up. There are toggles for Wi-Fi, notifications, GPS, sound vibration, auto rotation, Bluetooth and flight mode, making it very easy and direct to access these settings. Samsung has also added a screen capture button next to the standard back, home and recent apps keys: tapping this button will immediately capture a screenshot of the device. The clock also displays in a much more readable font than the standard Android interface, though strangely, this change hasn't reflected in the lock screen: it remains unchanged from the standard Honeycomb version.
A nice feature of TouchWiz UX is what Samsung calls "Mini Apps". Tapping a small up arrow at the bottom of the screen brings up a tray of mini apps — a task manager, calendar, world clock, pen memo, calculator and music player. The mini apps tag applies because these apps appear as an overlay on top of the screen, allowing you to continue working on any other open applications. The mini apps can be dragged to any part of the screen, meaning you can theoretically have two apps open side-by-side, negating the need to switch between apps like usual. The mini apps also remain active until they are closed by pressing an X in the top right-hand corner. Though the concept itself is a good one, the mini app tray can't be customised, and right now there are only six mini apps available. We'd love to see more of these developed, and we can only hope Samsung will eventually open them up to third-party developers — there's only so much use you'll get out of a world clock and a calculator, for example.
Samsung has added its own set of widgets to the TouchWIZ UI, and called the home screens a customisable "live panel". The most notable widgets are AccuWeather, a Bookmark widget, a Buddies now widget, a digital clock that allows you to set an alarm with one touch, and Samsung's Social Hub, which aggregates e-mail, instant messaging, contacts, calendar and social network connections. We love how all the Samsung widgets are resizable, so you can fit them on the screen as you wish, though we did notice the screen jitters when scrolling through home screens. This is mainly evident if there are more than two or three widgets on a home screen, and is an issue we've come across on all Honeycomb tablets.
Despite all the positive aspects of both Android Honeycomb and Samsung TouchWIZ UX, the overall user experience isn't as slick or complete as it should be. The Galaxy Tab 10.1's browser still automatically switches to mobile versions of many Web sites, the home screen jitters if there are too many widgets on the screen, and performance is often questionable: the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is sometimes sluggish, especially when using the browser. A more pressing issue is the lack of third-party apps in the Android market that have been designed with a tablet in mind. Many common apps have not yet been optimised for the larger screen size the Galaxy Tab 10.1 offers. The default Google apps like Maps, Gmail and YouTube all work excellently, and there are a few downloadable apps like Angry Birds, Pulse News Reader and Evernote that filled the screen perfectly and worked without issues. However, many apps in the Android Market simply resize to fit the Galaxy Tab 10.1's screen. This issue will, of course, change over time as the platform evolves and develops, but means the current user experience offered by Android tablets is still very much a work in progress
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1: Other features
Unfortunately, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 doesn't have a full sized USB port, or even a micro-USB port: both charging and connecting the unit to a computer via USB is achieved through the included, proprietary cable, much the same as an iPad. The main disadvantage is that you'll need this included Samsung USB cable to charge and synchronise the tablet and can't use any old micro-USB cable. However, on the plus side, the proprietary connector charges the Galaxy Tab 10.1 much faster than a standard micro-USB port could. Sadly, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 does not have a HDMI-out connection, so it can't be connected to a high definition television or projector. Samsung however sells an optional HDTV adapter that includes a HDMI-out connection, while its multimedia dock accessory for the tablet also includes HDMI-out.
Under the hood, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is powered by a 1GHz dual-core processor, has 1GB RAM and features Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS connectivity, with 3G models also an option. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a 3 megapixel rear camera and a 2 megapixel front camera, and is capable of recording 720p HD video, and playing back 1080p HD video. Disappointingly, it does not have a microSD card slot for extra memory, so you'll have to make do with the internal memory. 16GB and 32GB models are likely to be sold in Australia, but it is not yet known if Samsung will sell a 64GB variant of the tablet.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 was initially expected to launch sometime in August, but the lawsuit by Apple has meant Samsung has been forced to postpone the unveiling. "A Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 for the Australian market will be released in the near future," the company said in a recent statement. Pricing and carrier details have yet to be announced.