Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 full review

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a cheeky rival to the iPad 2, now available in the UK. 

Apple’s attempt to erase the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 from the history books is a compelling reason to take a long hard look at this upstart tablet. See also: New iPad review.

Since Apple created the iPad, there have been numerous attempts by jealous competitors to emulate Apple’s innovation. Yet it’s the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 that’s most conspicuously fired up the Apple legal artillery to remove a product from sale. But why Samsung, why this tablet? A recap of recent history may suggest why. See also Samsung Galaxy Nexus review

Before the iPad launched in April 2010, just 18 short months ago, the instant-on fingertip-controlled tablet PC did not exist. A successful smartphone based on the concept, on the other hand, had been around for three years.

In a June 2010 interview, Steve Jobs revealed that Apple’s R&D team devised the tablet first, then shrank it down to telephone proportions, to make the iPhone the debut release. But Apple already had long experience of handheld computing, making one of the very first PDAs, the Newton, from 1993.

(There had been tablets before, of course, but they were rightly slated for being of little practical use. Microsoft tried to press its hardware allies into service to build the Windows tablet after its 2001 developer conference.

The results were fat, heavy, short-lived on battery, and needed a stylus to press into their murky, dull screens. Crippling them more than their chunky hardware was an operating system unsuited for the job.

Nevertheless these slabs were rolled out to businesses indoctrinated into wanting Windows everywhere. Ultimately, the effort petered out, and PC makers lost interest. The necessary screen and battery technology did not exist, while the very promoter of the concept didn’t get the fact that its desktop OS was entirely unsuited to the tablet space.)

Sincere flattery?

A few months from the release and ensuing meteoric success of the iPad, other tech giants hastily tried to copy the product. From a standing start, suddenly everyone thought they knew how to make a tablet. Samsung was one of the first to release a copycat tablet six months later.

Except, Samsung’s original Galaxy Tab was more like the unholy offspring of iPhone and iPad. Its 7in screen and telephone operating system created a Dom Jolly affair that, while a country light year behind either Apple product, was still about the best that any other technology brand could muster.

First it made limited amounts of what’s now called the Galaxy Tab 10.1V, an 11mm-thick tablet with 8Mp camera. Realising it must try harder, Samsung went away and oiled its photocopier.

So now, in August of 2011, it has the one true Galaxy Tab 10.1.

Where the original 7in Tab was a chunky slab with plastic screen and matching creaky back, the Tab 10.1 is ultra-slim and has a glass front.

Where every Google-sponsored tablet to date has found room for memory card slots and USB sockets – as much to appease techheads who say they can’t live without such expansion – the Tab 10.1 follows Apple's lead, and has none. And in place of high-gloss plastic casework, Tab 10.1 has satin-finished detailing: if only cod-metallic plastic.

In short, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is about as close as you can get to an iPad 2, short of handing £399 to Apple. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 curiously costs £399 but runs, instead of Apple iOS, Google’s presently closed-source Honeycomb Android software.

In the UK, the Dixons Stores Group (DSG) comprising PC World, Dixons and Currys has exclusive retail rights for the moment, and is matching Apple UK’s prices, spec for spec.

That includes other versions of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 too, such as with 32GB storage and 3G modem, the latter still pending release.

Handling of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 feels good in the hands. In its bid to outdo Apple, the Tab’s been craftily designed to be even lighter and thinner than iPad 2 – but by spookily narrow margins: Samsung knows the importance of waving superlative specs under the eyes of undiscriminating consumers.

Where iPad 2 now weighs a comfortable-to-handle 597g on our digital scales, Samsung’s reprise of plastic for the case rear – now in softer rubber finish – has meant it can shed a few grammes from the blueprint’s weight, to 559g.

In real terms, that 38g is impossible to detect when judging the pair by hand. In fact, the longer body of the Samsung leads some to think it heavier due to a cantilever effect.

Laid down on a flat surface, Tab 10.1 and iPad 2’s thicknesses are indistinguishable to the eye. Our measuring calipers show a 0.15mm – just 150 micron – average difference, in Samsung’s favour: 8.70 versus iPad 2's 8.85mm.

Unlike the 4:3 aspect-ratio iPad that works well in landscape or portrait orientations, the 16:9-widecreen Tab 10.1 is essentially a  landscape device.

Like iPad, it has an accelerometer that can tell how it’s being held and rotate on-screen rendering accordingly. Yet a 16.9 panel used upright in portrait view looks wrong, and feels more cramped when you try reading webpage or text content that way.

Samsung wants you to use it landscape, and puts its name along the bezel bottom to remind you how to hold it. A very Apple-like slot lies below, a 30-pin dock connector for charging and PC syncing.

Note that unlike the iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 must be charged by a separate adaptor, with no recourse to using a computer's USB socket. Charging time is slow. We left a drained Tab 10.1 on charge for seven hours, and it still showed only 80% capacity available.

In place of iPad 2’s mono speaker, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 has smaller stereo speakers placed on its sides near the top corners. This brings some welcome spaciness to the sound, although in actual volume it’s no louder than iPad 2. In overall acoustic fidelity, we judged it a tie.

The touchscreen is well-suited to 16:9 widescreen content: that is to say, films and video. It’s similarly bright at maximum setting, although Samsung’s auto-brightness control leaves it slightly dimmer than an iPad. You can override this easily and set your own preference here.

Thanks to Super PLS display tech, a development of in-plane switching (IPS) technology that gives the iPad 2 such clarity from every angle, Tab 10.1’s display is as clear and colourful, and even renders small text in webpages slightly sharper.

Handily, a gently TouchWiz UX addition to otherwise near-stock Google Honeycomb includes a touch-activated shortcut to useful settings such as brightness, wireless, and battery meter in the screen bottom-right corner.

What make the Galaxy Tab 10.1 tick?

Inside, iPad 2 and Tab 10.1 have near-identical batteries, 25 and 25.9Wh respectively.

For an Android device, battery life is very good. It’s particularly difficult to benchmark lifespan meaningfully, but we found at least one whole day, sometime two or more, of ‘normal’ use was possible, all without having to get obsessive about switching off every battery-draining facility like Wi-Fi or manually killing apps. Perhaps tellingly, we couldn’t even find a way to do the latter with the default software setup.

The processor is from the same family as that used in the iPad, a dual-core ARM Cortex A9-based system-on-a-chip (SoC), also clocked at 1GHz. Samsung’s choice has a slower ultra-low power nVidia graphics processor against Apple’s PowerVR engine.

The iPad 2 benefits from a much faster graphics engine that helps accelerate such screen rendering, an effect felt throughout the tablet experience.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 inside shot

Inside the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

Benchmark tests performed by AnandTech suggest that Apple’s graphics are not just a little faster; they’re around four times quicker than nVidia Tegra 2-based tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. That translates into far more fluid and realistic gaming for iPad 2 users.

Screen sensitivity is poorer on the Samsung, requiring a tad more finger pressure to scroll around web pages, for example. And while Android in this 3.1 incarnation has gotten smoother in its interface animation, it still just falls short of the slick frictionless feel that make the iPad so natural to control.

The Samsung’s cameras are more than capable, the rear-facing 3-megapixel especially, which can also take advantage of a neat facility to take well-stitched panaroma shots.

Web browsing is a touch slower than on an iPad, sometimes taking perceptibly twice as long for pages to load: our selection of pages took an average of 7 sec against iPad 2’s 4 sec.

But the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 does have the ability to play Adobe Flash content in web pages, which it does mostly well. Some pages filled the space reserved for Flash video with messages like ‘This content doesn’t seem to be working’, but at least the farcical lip-sync issues of mobile Flash video were less in evidence across numerous sites we tried.

NEXT PAGE: Earlier reviews from PC World US and PC World Australia >>

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