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

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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