For the first time since its introduction, the iPad (s aapl) finally has a serious competitor in the market for that magical third device that’s more than a phone, but not quite a laptop or netbook. This self-declared Apple fanboy got some serious hands-on time with the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and while I probably won’t be selling my iPad anytime soon, I can seriously see myself buying a Tab of my very own, despite its drawbacks. Read on to find out why.
Operating System and Software
The obvious drawback of the Galaxy Tab is that it runs Google’s Android OS (s goog). While this article isn’t a comparison of Android versus iOS, the fact still remains there are many more applications available on Apple’s operating system.
My typical repertoire of basic apps were available for the Tab: Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds, Documents to Go, QuickOffice and a few others. However, more specialized niche apps are severely lacking on Android. Take Jewish-related applications for example. While I’ve already written two roundups of these types of apps for the iPhone (and could probably write many more), I could find very few for Android. As Android grows more popular, gaps like that will probably be filled, but Google’s mobile OS just hasn’t caught up to iOS in the app arena yet.
Of course, the Galaxy Tab’s freedom from Apple’s ecosystem was also a huge asset. The device seamlessly connects with Gmail, making the need for MobileMe completely unnecessary, and you never have to connect it to a personal computer for the initial setup–it worked right out of the box. That might be a big draw for users who don’t want to have to check their device in with other machines on a regular basis.
Speaking of syncing, another problem with Android is its lack of a dedicated, native companion client on the Mac. While iTunes serves as a universal gateway for managing content and functions on the iPhone, the equivalent doesn’t exist for the Android platform. Workarounds, especially for the Mac, are clunky and inelegant in my opinion. If you love iTunes and use it often, you’ll hate managing your Galaxy Tab’s media. Although you can’t use iTunes to manage your tablet, moving multimedia content was very easy using the MicroSD card, but not as simple as syncing through iTunes would be.
Size and Hardware Design
Android is developed primarily for phones, and the apps don’t scale well. Take for example QuickOffice, one of my favorite productivity apps for the iPhone. Unlike the iPad version, the Android app simply doesn’t take advantage of having more real estate.
Physically, the device felt like a large phone rather than a true tablet. It’s in an ergonomic dead zone. Holding the Tab with just one hand didn’t feel right because I couldn’t fully grasp it, and was constantly afraid it would slip out of my hand, something not helped by the slick plastic backing on the device. The iPad’s aluminum shell feels grippy by comparison. Holding the Tab with two hands didn’t feel right either, because my hands were simply too close together and the smaller screen bezel meant my fingers were always getting in the way.
While I could comfortably type on my iPad, almost as if it were a full keyboard (especially in landscape mode), the Galaxy Tab felt much more like a phone due to the smaller size of the virtual keys and their rectangular design. After a few minutes, my hands were tired and cramped. Hands with daintier fingers might not run into such a problem.
However, the Galaxy Tab’s smaller size often turned out to be a great asset, as well as a liability. Although I consider my iPad a highly portable device, I carry it more like a hard cover book than a paperback novel. Many people who commented on the Tab pointed out that it could fit in their purse. While I don’t have a purse, I shared the intended thought — I could imagine carrying this device everywhere. I started slipping it into a three-ring binder, a coat pocket, and even a gym bag. The Galaxy ended up tagging along with me more places than the iPad. I wasn’t using it as a true portable computer, though, in the way I did my iPad, due to typing problems and a lack of software, mentioned above.
The Galaxy Tablet may not have the apps or the greatest keyboard, but it does has many functions that the iPad is lacking. The front- and rear-facing cameras were handy, though in reality, it’s a very awkward device when used as a camera. I was able to use its mobile connection to create a wireless hotspot, which isn’t possible with the iPad, and of course Flash (s adbe) worked just fine. Battery life was similar to the iPad, though using it as a wireless hotspot drained the battery after just a few hours.
As for multimedia, on the Tab the sound was tinny and the screen simply not as vibrant as the iPad, but still clearly a step above the average smartphone. Purchasing commercial video content on the Tab often depends on the carrier, and requires more steps than on an iPad. It isn’t nearly as simple as just opening up the iTunes app and browsing for content.
As an e-reader, the Galaxy was outstanding. The Android Amazon Kindle (s amzn) and Google Books apps rivaled the experience of using a physical Kindle or paperbook book. Of all the devices I’ve used, I preferred the Galaxy tablet when I wanted to get reading done. The iPad is too big and the iPhone too small; the Galaxy was just right.
As a portable computing device and laptop replacement, the Galaxy Tab simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to size and apps, and in particular, apps designed for the tablet form factor. The Galaxy Tab is simply a larger Android-based mobile phone, without the ability to direct dial. The next version of Android, 3.0, is supposed to have more features designed specifically for tablets, and will likely greatly enhance the Galaxy Tab, however, in its current state, the Galaxy Tab OS shows its phone-based limitations too frequently.
The Galaxy’s real competitors are other smartphones, and in particular, Android-based devices. The Galaxy Tab provides a mobile computing experience on a much larger screen than the average smartphone while retaining nearly all the same portability and functionality. The iPad, by contrast, offers a considerably different experience than does the iPhone, and feels much more like a true laptop replacement. They genuinely feel like they occupy two distinct device categories, which is why I mentioned earlier that I’d consider owning both. If you have to pick one, though, the iPad gets my vote.
Check out the gallery below for some shots of the two devices, and a video comparison published earlier on GigaOM.
Disclosure: The Galaxy tab was provided for review by Verizon of Kansas and Missouri and was returned upon completion of this article. Actual carrying of the Galaxy Tab in a purse was not tested by the author.
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