Hands On Review: Samsung Galaxy 10.1 Tablet


Excellent navigation and personalization make this one of the most dynamic tablets on the market.

Aug. 30, 2011 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

It’s got to be tough to be a tablet these days, unless you’re an iPad. HP’s recent eviction of its tablet business after barely giving it a go had to cause some consternation in the board rooms of any other tablet manufacturer. 

But that ship certainly hasn’t sunk yet. While Apple may have eaten up all the MP3 player competition like the Blob ate teenagers (including promising devices from Samsung and Microsoft), the smart phone market is another monster movie entirely. Android phones are doing quite well against the iPhone, and there are lots of good reasons the same thing will develop with the tablet market.

The Samsung Galaxy 10.1 is one of those reasons.

For this review, I used the 16 GB Galaxy 10.1 with Wi-Fi. A 4G LTE version is also available through Verizon.

First, if the iPad2 is the bar to meet, this Samsung does that. It performs some tasks differently and some the iPad doesn’t do, so shoppers will need to decide which matches their use style more.

Look and Feel

The Samsung Galaxy 10.1 looks very similar to the iPad2. It sports a 16:9 screen shape, while the iPad2 is a bit more boxy. In fact, at a casual glance, it’s easy to get the two units confused. The Samsung is a hair thinner and lighter, and the back is white while the iPad2’s back is metallic gray. Both have front and back cameras, though the Samsung’s is a higher resolution at 2 MP on the front cam and 3 MP on the back with an LED flash (nice touch). The wake up button on the Samsung is on the side, which means that if you flush mount it in a wall (for home control uses), that important button will be covered.

The real differences between this unit and the iPad2 are in the functions of the operating systems and the apps. If you’re familiar with the iOS world, then an iPad2 will feel completely natural. It functions essentially like an overgrown iPhone or iTouch.

The Samsung, on the other hand, uses the latest Android 3.1 OS, called Honeycomb, which was designed from the ground up for tablets (rather than a smartphone OS ported over to a tablet), and as such it’s got a few unique features built in.

Among the things Honeycomb adds is improved navigation and a high level of personalization the iPad2 doesn’t offer.

For instance, at the bottom left of the screen you get a System bar that includes Back, Home and Menu buttons making it easy to get around quickly.  Opposite those buttons are notifications for things like emails, updates and alerts. A Recent Apps button takes you to, obviously, the most recently used apps, so you can easily jump back and forth for multitasking. Other options will appear in the system bar depending on the application you’re in. For instance, when in the Huffington Post app, a button in the system bar adds tools for comments, Facebook sharing, saving and adjusting the font size.

A firmware update added more features to the System bar including a button that brings up a task manager, calendar, world clock, memo pad, calculator and music player. There’s also a button that takes an instant screen shot.

At the top of the screen is an Action bar, which also changes depending on the app you’re in. Apps optimized for the OS will get more out of this than others. When in the Sonos music player app, the Action bar essentially disappears. When in Gmail or YouTube, additional options show up.

The Action bar also lets you customize how you access your apps and widgets among five different homescreen panels. Unlike an iPad, the Galaxy 10.1 provides five separate screens on which you can arrange your stuff. You could simply rely on the main home screen which piles the apps up the same way an iPad or iPhone do, or you can organize them, for instance, by placing email notifications and web page favorites on a panel with your most frequently accessed news apps.

All this makes bouncing around multiple apps pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Remembering what all those little icons mean and where they take you will require some practice, but the Home button (it looks like a little house) is a good failsafe if you get lost.

Apps Matter

If basic functionality was where the review ended, then this Samsung tab would come through with flying colors. But you don’t judge a bookstore by how many bathrooms it has. The content counts a lot here.

So there’s good and there’s bad, especially for an Electronic House reader who’s interested in audio, video and home control issues. The Android app marketplace is mature, but not nearly as mature as the Apple app store. Apple currently has tens of thousands of apps optimized for the iPad platform, while apps for Android tablets number in the hundreds, and many of them not optimized for Honeycomb. Still, many of them are very good—the Sonos app (read a review of the Sonos iPad app) for instance is excellent and offers complete control of a Sonos music system.

The app market is loaded with games, many of them free. If you don’t adjust the unit’s maturity setting you’ll also run into a wasteland of NSFW apps. News and media junkies won’t find as much to digest here, but the news aggregator News Republic is a good place to start. So is Pulse, which helps you sort through a variety of media outlets. The Kindle reader and QuickOffice apps are also excellent.

A few new ones that really take advantage of the high resolution screen on the Galaxy include Google Body (I wish I had this way back in biology class) and Google Earth. There’s also Talk, an easy-to-use video chat app.

AMX has an excellent-looking control app in the marketplace. Other A/V or control companies with Android apps include Lutron, Crestron, HAI, Vantage, Homeseer, LG, Onkyo (I’ll be trying this one in a forthcoming review), Pioneer, Logitech Alert and of course Samsung (which I’ll also be trying out as soon as I unpack the TV). You can also find TV service provider apps from Verizon FiOS and Comcast Xfinity.

A few missing apps really standout. There’s no Facebook (though you can access it through the Web browser) or Twitter (Note: both Facebook and Twitter are now available). Despite the perfectly-suited 16:9 screen, video options are in short supply. You’ll find no Netflix (update: Netflix is now available for the tablet) or other major streaming video service except for YouTube. Samsung has included Media Hub, which is a pretty decent video rental/purchase service with a large collection of movies and TV shows. Movies run around $4 to rent, $12-$18 to buy.

New apps are showing up daily, so hopefully these gaps will be filled soon. In Samsung’s defense, Apple had a significant head start in the app market, and the original iPad launched with even fewer optimized apps.

Overall, Samsung (with some Google help) has built a very attractive device here by considering the strengths of the iPad and building on its shortcomings. This doesn’t mean the Galaxy is better, but it does do things differently, including some things the iPad2 doesn’t.

The one place where the device isn’t competitive is in price. At $499 it’s exactly the same price as the equivalent iPad. Reason would suggest that to beat an entrenched competitor the device would have to be a little better and a little cheaper. Last week, for a brief period, Samsung teased people with a Best Buy offer that tossed in a free tablet with the purchase of a 3D plasma TV. I’m sure a lot of people are hoping that or similar deals come back.

Basic Specs and Formats:
• $499
• Dual-core NVIDIA Tegra processor
• Front Camera: 2.0 Megapixel
• Rear Camera: 3.0 Megapixel Auto Focus with Flash
• Wi-Fi
• Android 3.1, Honeycomb
• 10.1” (W) x 6.9” (H) x 0.34” (D)
• 19.9 oz.
• Li-Polymer, 7000 mAh battery
• 16GB Internal Memory
• 10.1” Widescreen HD WXGA TFT Display
• Widgets, Smart Unlock, Accelerometer, Bilingual: Spanish/English
• 1080p playback, 720p capture Video Codec: MPEG4, H.264, H.263, XviD, WMV7/8, VP8, MP43, VC-1 Format: 3GP(MP4), WMV(asf), AVI
• Full HTML Web Browser, Books, Browser, Email, Gallery, Gmail™, Google Maps™, Android Market, Google Search™, Google Talk™, Voice Search, Latitude, Music Hub, Navigation, Places, Pulse, QuickOffice, Samsung Apps, YouTube, Music Player
• Word File: doc, docx, xml, txt, rtf, dot, dotx Excel File: xls, xlsx, csv, xlt, xltx PowerPoint: ppt, pptx, pot, potx, pps, ppsx PDF: pdf

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