The iPad Finally Has a Worthy Rival: Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1

5/13/11Follow @wroush

Apple may be the world’s largest electronics company as measured by market capitalization, but Samsung is the largest by sales. So it makes sense that the Seoul, Korea-based giant—not Microsoft, not HP, not Motorola, not Dell—would the first to compete seriously in the market that Apple invented last year with the introduction of the iPad. If Samsung wants to stay on top, it needs a tablet device that compares well not just with the iPad, but with the sleeker, more powerful iPad 2.

And that, I can now tell you first-hand, is exactly what the new Galaxy Tab 10.1 does. When you hear “Galaxy Tab,” erase any thoughts you may have of the awkward, plasticky, overgrown phone that Samsung brought out under that name last September. The 10.1 is so different from its predecessor that it really deserves a new name rather than a number (the “10.1″ refers to the screen’s diagonal size in inches, which is slightly larger than the screen on the iPad 2). My vote would be to call it the “Me2Pad”—that’s how similar this device is to its Apple cousin, at least in outward appearance and physical characteristics. The software inside is another matter: the Galaxy Tab’s Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” operating system couldn’t be more different from Apple’s iOS. But more on that in a moment.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 will be available in U.S. retail stores starting June 8, at price points that match Apple’s: $499 for a 16-gigabyte unit, $599 for 32 gigabytes. (There’s no 64-gigabyte version.) I’ve been testing the device since Tuesday, when I was one of 5,000 attendees at the Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco who were given free units, courtesy of Google and Samsung.

Don’t worry, we haven’t changed our policy on gifts at Xconomy—we don’t accept them, and as soon as we’re done reviewing this unit, we’re probably going to give it away to someone in our community (stay tuned for the details). Meanwhile, though, I wanted to describe some of my early impressions of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and tell you why I think it’s the first device worth considering as a serious alternative to the iPad 2. I’m not necessarily saying you should spend your $499 on a Galaxy Tab rather than an iPad; I’m just saying it’s the first iPad rival that can’t be dismissed out of hand.

Let’s start with the hardware. With its aluminum rim and its black bezel, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 can easily be mistaken from a distance for a black iPad. Once you get closer, though, you notice that the screen has a different shape: it has a widescreen 1.6:1 aspect ratio, in contrast to the iPad’s 4:3 ratio. I think that gives the Galaxy Tab an advantage in some situations, such as watching a wide-screen movie in landscape orientation or reading long Web pages in portrait orientation.

In most other physical respects, the Galaxy Tab and the iPad 2 are effectively identical. The Galaxy Tab weighs slightly less (595 grams compared to 601 grams) and is thinner by a hair (8.6 millimeters compared to 8.8 millimeters). Its screen has a few more pixels, meaning the resolution is slightly higher—1280×800 compared to 1024×768.

But a tablet computer is really just a magical glass touchscreen; it’s the apps that run on it that count. And in this department, Apple still has a huge advantage. There are more than 80,000 apps designed specifically for the iPad, compared to just a few hundred optimized for Honeycomb, the first version of Google’s Android mobile operating system designed specifically for tablets.

So why would you even think about spending $499 or $599 for a Samsung tablet, when the same money spent on an iPad gets you access to so many more tablet apps? Actually, there are a few reasons. In order of least important to most important:

1. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 has two speakers, compared to the iPad’s single speaker. So you can get stereo sound out of the device without having to don headphones—and the sound is a lot louder than the iPad’s.

2. The Galaxy Tab’s cameras are way better than the iPad’s. The front-facing camera, used mainly for video chat, has a resolution of 2 megapixels, compared to 0.3 megapixels on the iPad. The rear facing camera, used for shooting video and photos, is 3 megapixels, compared to a paltry 0.7 megapixels on the iPad. (I’m very glad the iPad 2 has cameras—their omission crippled the original iPad, in my opinion—but it’s still a mystery to me why they’re so poor for anything other than shooting video.)

3. Some people simply dislike Apple. Whether it’s because of the company’s secretive, almost totalitarian corporate culture; Steve Jobs’ reputation as an imperious and demanding manager; the company’s strict control over which apps can be distributed through the iTunes App Store; the substantial cut the company takes on each sale through iTunes; or just the high-end hardware prices—a lot of people would rather spend their money elsewhere. I get that. It doesn’t stop me from buying Apple products, but I get it. With the Galaxy Tab 10.1, you can have an iPad-level product experience without enriching Apple.

4. Android. In the post-PC era, there is a war going on for the hearts and souls of mobile device users. The question is whether people will get most of their mobile apps from a closed ecosystem like iOS/iTunes, where Apple maintains strict control over which apps can run on its devices, ostensibly in order to maintain high quality, or from a semi-open system like Android, where Google maintains looser control, equipment manufacturers get to put their own spin on the operating system, and no one polices the app developers. (Eventually there could be a third possibility—Web-based apps delivered via mobile browsers, as advocated by players like OpenAppMkt. But right now, Web apps are crippled by restrictions on the way they access mobile devices’ native functions, such as graphics processing.) If you’re a hardcore believer in openness, then an Android device like the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the ideologically purer option.

A word, however, about Android from a user’s point of view. I was an Android virgin before I got my hands on the Samsung device, and I’ve spent a lot of time this week stumbling over the operating system’s disorienting quirks. Let’s take navigating between apps as an example. On the iPhone and the iPad, which are the mobile devices I’m most familiar with, the home button on the front of the device always pops you out of whatever app you’re in and gets you back to the home screen. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 doesn’t have a home button. Instead, there are three inscrutably designed soft buttons in the lower left corner of the screen. One seems to function like a “back” button in a Web browser, taking you back to whatever you were doing just previously. Another sends you to the home screen. The third brings up a tray showing the last five apps you accessed. But I’m not quite sure about all that—the functions of these soft buttons seem to change depending on the context I’m in.

It’s overkill, and it provides a perfect contrast between two competing design philosophies—let’s call them Simplicity and Flexibility. If you believe in Simplicity, you pare everything down to one button, you make its function drop-dead obvious, and you funnel the user toward that one choice. If you love Flexibility, you go with three buttons, you layer on the options, and you give users an array of possible paths to the same end goal (say, opening a new app). Generally speaking, Apple’s culture values Simplicity and Google’s culture values Flexibility—and those competing philosophies are baked so deeply into their products you can almost smell them.

So it comes down to a question of which aroma you prefer. The nice thing about the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is that it’s the first non-Apple tablet where the rest of the ingredients don’t stink.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • pacificstorm

    C’mon Wade, the Samsung Galaxy Tab is the monkey’s nuts. You dare compare the 10.1 against an aging Ipad 2? With it’s VGA camera against 8 megapixel, (can I say that again in case you missed it) 8 megapixel compare to a bloomin’ VGA from Ipad? There just no comparison to be made ’cause there simply isn’t none to be made. The Tab and S2 are the standards now that everyone must be follow from now on and that includes Apple if they want to stay competitive. The i (phones and pads) series are all Samsung’s anyways, rebadged as Apple.

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  • Szetolf

    One simple reason:
    iTune-less

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @pacificstorm—I’m finding conflicting reports about the resolution of the rear camera on the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Some spec lists say it’s 3 megapixels, other say it’s 8 megapixels. I went with the more conservative one for this article. If you can cite an official answer, send me a link. As for whether the iPad 2 is just a “rebadged” Samsung product, tell that to the developers of Apple’s zippy dual-core A5 chip, which clocks in at the same or faster speeds as the Nvidia Tegra 2 chip inside the Galaxy Tab.

    @Szetof—excellent point. I’m on the record with my dislike of iTunes(http://www.xconomy.com/national/2010/09/03/the-leaning-tower-of-ping-how-itunes-could-be-apples-undoing/). If I hadn’t stayed up so late last night writing this, I would have remembered to put this on the list. I haven’t had a real chance to try out Google’s Music Beta service yet, but it seems clear that all music, app, and sync management is heading to the cloud, and Google is ahead in that department.

  • DD

    One question: Battery life?

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @DD: Officially, the battery capacity of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is in the same neighborhood as the iPad 2 (6800 mAh for the Galaxy Tab compared to 6930 mAh for the iPad 2). In practice I’m going to bet that the Galaxy Tab’s battery life is about the same or slightly less than the iPad’s. Of course it all depends on which apps you’re running and how much they use the 3G and Wi-Fi radios. I’ve only had to recharge the device once in four days, but I haven’t been using it for constant music streaming or anything like that.

  • AndroidFan

    You forgot to mention a very huge advantage of 10.1 (Android) over iPad2. Its called FLASH support on browser. So next time you open a website which does not load in you IPAD2 you dont have to look for you computer. Just use 10.1 :)

  • Kappadon

    The Specs are Incredible, better specs equal a better device, this is the IPAD KILLER us Techno Geeks have been waiting for, The Galaxy Tab will sell in the hundreds, get yours now before the lines get 3 people long, Order now and once all the promised upgrades, rooting, jailbreaking and hacks are completed you should be able to run over 5 of the available 50 Tablet Apps available in the Android Store.
    Android Rules, Apple Fans Drool.

  • AC

    I read that the Samsung Galaxy 10.1 will not have HDMI-out (or any other means of outputting in HD to an HDTV/Monitor/Projector, at least none that have been announced thus far).

    I was holding out for the SGT 10.1 assuming it would have some sort of HD output mechanism, but it looks like Samsung didn’t deem the feature important enough to warrant any extra girth. I understand the logic behind it, but it’s a deal killer for me. I’d gladly take on an extra 5mm of thickness if it meant having HDMI-out.

  • Scott8586

    Take a look also at the BGR review for a more critical evaluation of the OS (Honeycomb), in it’s 3.0 state.

    http://www.bgr.com/2011/05/13/samsung-galaxy-tab-10-1-review/

  • Cliffy

    @ Wade Roush
    The conflicting reports about the camera resolution are because there are two different versions of the Galaxy tab: 10.1 and the 10.1v. From what I’ve read, Samsung redesigned their original 10.1 tab after the announcement of the iPad 2 in order to make it more competitive. The result was a thinner lighter version that they dubbed the 10.1 and its original version they dubbed the 10.1v (the one with the 8MP camera). In order to accomplish the lighter and thinner properties of the new tablet, they had to sacrifice pixel resolution on the cameras (a small price in my opinion because I don’t care too much about resolution, compared to size and weight). Hence the conflicting stories.

    On another note, you said:

    “On the iPhone and the iPad…the home button on the front of the device always pops you out of whatever app you’re in and gets you back to the home screen. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 doesn’t have a home button. […] Another [Honeycomb soft button] sends you to the home screen.”
    This seemed a little contradictory to me, because it seems that on the one hand you’re saying that it doesn’t have a home button that functions like the iPad, but then you described a soft button that did (I’m assuming) what the iPad home button does. Because you’re a self-described virgin to android, I thought I’d offer some advice/clarification (not sure which) on this. I’ve used both Honeycomb and IOS quite a bit and from my experience so far, the home button for both OS’s operate the same way: when pressed, they take you back to your home screen. Also, when you’re at the home screen on Honeycomb, and slide over to your other pages/screens of apps, pressing the home button snaps you back to the default home screen. This is the exact same function as with IOS if I’m not mistaken. I’m not sure what happened with you, but both home buttons should do the same thing.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Cliffy—Thanks for all this info. To settle the megapixel question, I took a still photo with the SGT 10.1, emailed it to myself, and opened it in a graphics program on my Mac. it’s 2048×1536 pixels, which is 3.15 megapixels. So I guess the devices that Google was giving out at Google I/O were not the “v” version.

    Regarding the home button, what I meant was that the SGT 10.1 doesn’t have a hard home button. The middle soft button in the SGT’s version of Honeycomb does have the same function as the iPad’s home button, as far as I can tell. My bigger point was that as long as I have that function, I don’t need the other two buttons, which just clutter things up and force me to pay close attention to which one I’m selecting. They add cognitive load.

  • Gerard

    For those of you who are confused about the camera on the galaxy tab, there are two versions of the galaxy tab 10.1. The US version and the UK version. The UK version contains the 8mp camera and the US version has sacrificed that 8mp for the 3mp in order to have a slimmer tablet. Love the Galaxy tab 10.1

  • Jason D

    It seems like little and i hate apple with a passion rarely felt outside of a $2 romance novel…but Netflix…i have the subscription and its going to be the movie watching way to go and Apple has it….android doesnt….which annoys me but a lot of people will want these tablets for movie watching and if they cant get the subscription from one they are going to choose one that does provide it…get netflix in an android and ill buy it..till then im not buying an apple (cos i hate them just too much) but ill wait till netflix get some balls and get a deal with android or blockbusters inept managers decide to do a netflix subscription service over its price per movie….after all we all play games or watch movies..even if its a works tablet

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