Running the current version of Android (2.2 or Froyo), the 7-inch plastic-encased tablet is notably smaller than the iPad but that also means it’s a comfortable fit for one-handed operation, or a rear jeans pocket, and at 380g it's roughly half the weight of the iPad.
Physical buttons control power and volume, and aside from the usual four Android softkeys, the rest of your interaction is touchscreen based, Haptic feedback feels positive and reassuring, and responsive to pinch gestures, taps and swipes.
The 1024x600 screen is bright and sharp, and interpolated HD video playback is surprisingly smooth and watchable thanks to the 1Ghz processor, even within the confines of the smaller screen. Samsung is betting that video will be a big selling point and thus there’s a dedicated Samsung Movies app – or browser shortcut, if you prefer – to video download service AceTrax. A currently US-only video on demand service is set to launch early next year, according to Samsung.
There’s plenty of storage for all that video too, with 16 or 32GB of onboard memory, and an expansion slot for another potential 32GB MicroSD.
Samsung Galaxy Tab: Music and browser
Music playback comes courtesy of the Samsung Music hub (and accompanying 7digital deal) which features an iTunes-like music store and a player. The store offers a medley of download options including Top 10s and album previews, and has a credible range of tunes for all tastes. The player is compatible with non-downloaded tunes too, so your existing music collection can be incorporated as well. Samsung's decision to bundle a player is a wise one, as the standard Android player is basic at best, and even refused to play in the background on this test model - a problem Samsung assures us is a one-off.
A standard-size SIM – hear that Apple? – tees up voice/text and 3G. Hands-free voice quality isn’t bad, but even more so than the oversized Dell Streak, it’s really hard to see who’ll actually use it for voice calls. A Bluetooth headset is essential to avoid inevitable Dom Joly comparisons.
The supplied virtual keyboard is adequate, but a swift Android Market download later – we chose the Smart Keyboard – things were much improved and we were rattling emails at speed.
The stock browser is swift and renders sites competently enough – Flash is also included thanks to Froyo, and this really boosts the experience. Pinch-to-zoom or double-tap resizes pages swiftly and accurately, although cracks begin to show when presented with very densely-linked news sites. As with all Androids though, a new browser from the market is recommended to really open up the possibilities of a larger screen. Dolphin HD in particular makes the 7-in web really sparkle, with tabbed browsing and customisable gesture controls.
Samsung Galaxy Tab: Camera and Readers Hub
The rear-facing 3-meg camera grabs a decent snap in daylight, but an over-enthusiastic LED flash floods close subjects at night. A front-facing 1.3-meg cam should make video calls a snap but as it stands, Skype doesn’t support video calls on Android; it’s voice only. But you can download Tango or use Fring.
The Samsung Readers Hub fronts up the Kobo ebooks app, with newspapers and magazines “coming soon” via Zinio. A simple registration gets you access to an Amazon-style digital bookstore with a huge range of free titles as well – it’s an entirely solid and user-friendly offering. The ereader functionality is basic, but generally works well.
The hardware is, despite a slightly cheap, plasticky feel, excellent. The Galaxy Tab really sets the bar high for other manufacturers.
However, the Android OS, though very good, is not optimised for tablets. It’s built for phones and it’s hard to get away from the sensation that this is an oversized handset – even the power-down splash screen refers to “your phone”.
High operator contract prices at launch will only increase this feeling. Cost is very much where the Tab will stand or fall – pre-order prices are set at £529 SIM free, and CarphoneWarehouse plans to charge £499.99 with a Talkmobile 30 £10 per month rolling contract. Considering the £529 + similar operator deals of the established iPad, this squeezes the potential market for the Tab pretty hard.
The problem extends to apps as well – a vital area if you’re taking on Apple. Most we tried upscaled perfectly well but there’s still the occasional optimisation glitch where landscape switches back to portrait for settings, grey bands appear under the Spotify player, or Skype’s splash screen is two inches shy of the screen borders. With the range of other Android tabs incoming, hopefully this will be only a temporary setback.
Overall though, the Galaxy Tab is the best non-Apple tablet to date, and it plays well against Apple’s impressive iPad. As the Android OS and app developers catch up with the new form factor, the gap is certain to narrow further.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab launch date is November 1st