Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Review

When it comes to mobile technology, for me, it’s all about convenience, usability, and dealing effectively with information overload. I want the smallest, lightest, most simple device I can carry that still puts everything I want at my fingertips when I need it.

While I love my iPhone 4, the fact is that for many applications the screen is just too darn small. Sure, I watch these teens furiously typing away on phones that I can barely see and wonder if they’ve ever even seen a full-sized keyboard. I, on the other hand, cringe whenever I think about diving into email, Twitter or Facebook on my phone. I have this recurring nightmare that mobile devices continue to shrink until I need a jeweler’s magnifying loupe and pointy finger extensions to use them. I’m sorry, but I just can’t seem to adapt to teeny-tiny screens and keyboards.

The home screen on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 can be easily customized based on personal preferences

If you’re like me (or even if you’re not), there’s hope for us yet. With the introduction of the Galaxy Tab 10.1, Samsung has come remarkably close to revealing the “missing link” in the desktop / laptop / smartphone range of products. For those of us who are just a little too…um…mature…to rely exclusively on a 4″ x 2″ (or smaller) smartphone screen as their primary window into the digital world, the new Galaxy Tab may be just what you’ve been waiting for…and unlike the iPad, it supports Flash!

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 featuring the newest version of Android (3.1, aka Honeycomb) is an impressive new addition to the mobile marketplace. Overall, it compares quite favorably to the iPad 2, and is roughly equivalent in size, weight, battery life, and price.

Those who favor Google’s Android OS will likely prefer the Samsung Galaxy Tab, while fans of Apple (and its iOS) will undoubtedly lean toward the iPad. The good news for Android lovers is that finally there’s an alternative to the iPad that doesn’t require making sacrifices in form, function, or even sexiness.

The mobile market is currently at a point in its development where the number of Android apps, while still lagging in some respects, are rapidly gaining on those for iOS. I found that most of the apps I looked for (ranging from productivity to utilities to games) were either available on both platforms or had reasonable equivalents.

Web Browsing
Now that we all understand my feelings about smartphone screens, I have to say that it’s pretty nice having the option of choosing between mobile and full websites on a single device…and did I mention you have access to Flash? Although many websites correctly identify the Galaxy as a mobile device—and therefore offer up their mobile versions—with a 10.1″ diagonal screen you’re really not in the same class as a smartphone.

The web browser on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

Unlike a full-sized computer or smartphone, the web browser on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 offers the best of both worlds: a large, high-resolution display as well as a touch screen convenience.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 makes it a joy to surf the web, pretty much exactly as you would on any full-sized computer (with the possible exception of opening up 50 different browser windows as I often do, but let’s not get crazy here). Hey, maybe even better than a computer, because with a touch screen and Android’s “pinch to zoom” and “tilt to zoom” features, you have a lot more control than with a mouse and keyboard.

There’s even a new Google Labs feature called “Quick Controls” (see my Tech Notes section at the end of this article) that lets you operate exclusively in full-screen mode, for those of us who will always take all the screen real estate we can get.

Front and Rear Cameras
One area in which the Galaxy 10.1 excels is in its front and rear facing cameras. While I can’t honestly say that the size and shape of any large-format tablet is ideally suited to serious photography, once you get past the initial awkwardness of shooting photos and videos with something reminiscent of a small cooking skillet, it’s really not so bad. In fact, it’s downright addicting! (And this is coming from a photographer who has shot with just about every type of camera you can imagine.)

Whereas the iPad 2 has both a front 0.3 Mega-Pixel (MP) and a back 0.7MP fixed focus cameras, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 boasts 2MP (front) and 3MP auto-focus with LED flash Both devices are capable of shooting 720p HD video. I was actually quite impressed with the flash photos I was able to take with the Galaxy’s rear camera.

Low-light flash photo taken with the Samsung Galaxy Tab's rear camera

An example of a low-light flash photo taken with the Samsung Galaxy Tab's rear camera

In addition to the Galaxy’s superior hardware, its built-in photo software was a pleasant surprise. Aside from all the basics you’d expect from a modern digital camera (self-timer delay, auto-focus / macro mode, scene mode, white balance, special effects, metering, and even GPS tagging), the Galaxy’s rear camera even includes a pretty slick panorama feature. Set panorama mode, press the shutter button, and then simply move the camera in any direction while the Galaxy tab automatically snaps off up to 8 shots, which are then stitched together and displayed as a panoramic image. The Galaxy’s screen even displays guides in the form of arrows and lines that make it ridiculously easy to create a clean panoramic image. And not surprisingly, the Galaxy integrates seamlessly with Google Picasa software to easily transfer your photos to a computer.

Portrait taken with the rear camera on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

With the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, you can capture those unexpected candid shots even when you don't have your regular camera. And let's face it—it's just more fun having your picture taken with a tablet.

Entertainment (Music, Movies, Video, Gaming….)
Let’s face it. You’re probably not going to rush out and buy a Galaxy Tab 10.1 because you’re looking for a great portable music player. This is not to say that the Galaxy is not a great portable music player but, for instance, I can’t imagine running a marathon with one strapped to my arm.

And unlike many of the more portable music and video players out there, the Galaxy does have a large, high resolution screen, the ability to easily obtain media from almost unlimited resources across wireless networks and the Internet, and let’s not forget about the built-in stereo speakers. Granted, the speakers have limitations and are not likely to be mistaken for those in your local movie theater, but they produce surprisingly good output for their size and even emulate surround sound. Besides, if you want to watch a movie or listen to music without having to worry about headphones, it’s nice to have that option.

But put on the included ear buds, turn off the lights, and it’s a whole new ballgame. Watching movies suddenly becomes an immersive experience that’s perfect for viewing in bed, on a plane, or just about anywhere else. And unlike a laptop computer, the Galaxy doesn’t generate much heat at all, so it’s comfortable to hold while you enjoy the show.

Video game aficionados shouldn’t be disappointed with the Galaxy Tab 10.1 either. The Galaxy’s NVIDIA Tegra dual-core processor can handle some of the more advanced games available on the Android platform quite nicely. Animation is smooth and vivid, and the large screen ensures that gamers won’t miss any of the action.

Video game displayed on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

The Samsung Galaxy Tab provides plenty of power and a nice big display for maximum enjoyment of video, movies, and most Android-based games you're likely to encounter.

Speech Recognition and Dictation
Speech recognition has finally come into its own as a usable technology, and here Google’s Android seems to have the upper hand, at least in terms of OS integration.

What I find especially cool about the Android interface is that you have a microphone icon in the upper left-hand corner of the home screen (it’s also easily accessible from the virtual keyboard as well as other places). Tap the icon and the Galaxy Tab goes into speech recognition mode. Quickly and easily get directions, send a note to yourself, find nearby businesses, set an alarm, listen to music, or open a website using your voice. They also have a nice little tutorial that walks you through using some of the apps that support speech.

You can even send an email, although I found that attempting extensive dictation using speech recognition alone can be a bit challenging. At least for me, the Galaxy Tab had trouble understanding complete sentences (it got them mostly correct, but usually missed a word or two). However, it worked extremely well when giving simple commands. “Set alarm for 2:45″ or “navigate to airport” worked quite nicely, for example.

GPS Navigation
This last example brings up another nice built-in feature, Google Maps Navigation (Beta), which takes advantage of the Galaxy’s GPS. Unlike previous versions of Google Maps, this GPS-based navigation software behaves much like a stand-alone GPS. It even talks to you, providing turn-by-turn directions.

Although I cover this topic in more detail in the “Portability” section below, I should mention here that not having a 3G or 4G data connection can seriously limit your ability to use the GPS features. After all, how often do you need a GPS while you also have access to Wi-Fi? And while in theory the GPS shouldn’t need an Internet connection to work, the mapping programs it relies on to give directions do.

Battery Life & Charging
All this GPS talk leads nicely into the issue of battery life, which overall I consider to be quite good. As with any mobile device, battery life is going to depend heavily on what you’re doing with it, so for me to tell you “You’re going to get 10 hours on a single charge” would be ridiculous, as I have no idea what you’ll be doing during that time.

If you are using the Galaxy Tab as a GPS, Google warns us that “We recommend the use of a power adapter while using Google Maps Navigation (Beta), especially when your trip will take 30 minutes or longer.” They go on to add, “To conserve your device’s battery power, you can turn off the display by pressing the power button…. Google Maps Navigation (Beta) will still track you along your route and provide audio instructions through your [device’s] speaker.”

So there you have it: “It just depends.”  If you’re doing nothing but listening to music, you might get the full 72 hours listed in Samsung’s specs.

And if you’re just watching movies, say, on a trans-continental flight, you’ll probably get around the listed 9 hours (maybe even a bit more)…but then again, don’t those flights all have Wi-Fi now? So maybe you’re streaming movies from the Internet, and of course that changes everything. I think you get my point.

My findings were that battery life is generally long enough so that an “average” user doing “average” things should be able to get through the day on one charge. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want the ability to charge your battery in the car, and you may want to plug in whenever you happen to be sitting near an outlet (just to play it safe…).

The thing is, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 does take a while to fully charge…as in several hours if you let it drain all the way down. So in my experience, you either will want to charge it overnight, or whenever it’s convenient throughout the day as mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The bottom line is that the battery lasted long enough so as not to be a serious concern in any of the varied uses I came up with for the Galaxy Tab. I give it 2 thumbs up.

Just one other observation regarding the charger included in the package. Samsung gives you a nice wall charger with a detachable USB jack, so it doubles as a data transfer cable with which you can connect the Galaxy Tab to any USB port. Although I did not perform extensive testing on this, I did plug the Galaxy directly into a desktop computer’s USB 2.0 port. This is the same port I use to charge my iPhone 4 with no issues, but to my surprise, the Galaxy Tab does not show a charging symbol, but instead an “X” over the battery indicator when connected to this port. Basically, in this state, the battery sort of trickle charges very, very slowly. At least in my limited testing, the USB port seemed to provide just enough power to prevent the Galaxy from discharging, but not enough to actually charge it.

Accessories & Add-ons
While my intention here is not to give a comprehensive listing of all possible accessories available for the Galaxy Tab 10.1, there are a few that I think are worth mentioning. At the very least, you’ll probably want to spring for a protective case. As slick and streamlined as the naked Galaxy is, I found myself in constant fear of dropping it whenever I had to carry it somewhere. For around $30 or $40 I was able to find several suitable options online; some even doubled as multi-angle stands, which would come in handy for watching movies, video chatting, etc.

The virtual keyboard on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 provides a nice big virtual keyboard that's great for most basic text input operations such as web surfing, text-messaging, email composition, or note-taking.

If you plan to write your next novel on a Galaxy Tab 10.1, an external keyboard is another must-have. Not that the virtual keyboard isn’t great for the kind of casual typing most people do on a daily basis. And I imagine with enough practice you could probably become fairly proficient on it. It’s plenty big to type comfortably on, but for touch typists the lack of tactile feedback will undoubtedly take some getting used to.

In external keyboards, I’d probably go with the full size keyboard dock that lets you charge while you type (no surprise there—we’ve already established that I’m something of a charging freak), but don’t forget that any Bluetooth keyboard should work. I found several online sellers offering keyboard docks in the $50-80 price range. Bluetooth options were even less.

Oh, and a car charger. I found a cool universal mini USB car charger adapter on Amazon for less than a dollar that should work with the Galaxy. Since I haven’t actually tried charging the Galaxy from a car charger, I can’t say with certainty how well it will work. But if a standard or USB car charger turns out not to be sufficient for your needs, another option would be a DC to AC inverter. These can be purchased at Radio Shack and many other retail outlets fairly inexpensively, and – in my experience – seem to provide a faster charge than just an old-fashioned “cigarette lighter” style charger.

On Portability & Not Being Tied Down
My biggest issue with the Galaxy Tab 10.1 was that the model I tested lacked 3G/4G capabilities, which can be quite frustrating when no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signal is available. This, however, can be easily—if not inexpensively—resolved by purchasing a data plan to accompany the Galaxy Tab with HSPA+.

Features such as Internet-based applications (most notably browsers and social media apps), mapping and navigation software, communication utilities, and online games, are unavailable outside of Wi-Fi coverage unless a data plan is included. The increase in availability of personal Wi-Fi hotspots (quite possibly from your very own cell phone) may eventually reduce the need for a dedicated data plan, but regardless of how this issue is addressed, it’s probably worth considering before making an investment in any tablet device. Some data providers may even offer a discount if a data plan is purchased along with a tablet, so planning ahead might literally pay off.

At the time of this writing, Verizon offers 4G LTE coverage in many metropolitan areas throughout the US, which the HSPA+ Galaxy can access, with 3G available in many more locations. T-Mobile, Vodafone (UK), and Telus (Canada) are among the other carriers that support or plan to support the Galaxy Tab 10.1 on their 3G and/or 4G networks.

One Final Tech Note (Techie Warning:  Geeky Stuff Ahead)
Toward the end of my testing of the Galaxy Tab 10.1, I did some poking around under the hood and made some interesting discoveries. One thing is for sure about Google:  they are always pushing the envelope when it comes to R&D, and they always have a whole slew of products in beta that are often made available to the public via Google Labs. It takes some digging, but adventurous users of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 will find some powerful and surprising features—some helpful, some not so much—but if you’re anything like me you won’t be able to resist looking and trying them out.

I won’t take away all the fun of discovering these hidden delights for yourself, but I will share one noteworthy example. While studying the browser, in the “Settings” section, I found there are four categories to choose from: “General,” “Privacy and Security,” “Advanced,” and “Labs.” Under “Labs” is a setting titled “Quick Controls” that reads, “Swipe thumb from left or right edge to access quick controls and hide Application and URL bars.”

To be honest, I skimmed this so quickly that I didn’t really understand what it meant, but assumed that swiping a finger across the screen would hide or display some sort of menu. I selected this option, closed the “Settings” window, and was presented with a lovely full-screen browser window…that had absolutely no menus, options, address bar, or any other type of control icons. I began swiping my finger across the screen, but alas, no menus appeared. I tried swiping at the top of the screen. I tried swiping the bottom of the screen. I tried swiping horizontally and vertically and every way I could think of. Nothing.

Screenshot of the full-screen browser available by activating Quick Controls

The full-screen browser display (accessed by activating the Quick Controls option) maximizes screen real estate and allows you to view web pages in their full-sized glory, without wasting any space on menus or toolbars. But wait...without menus or toolbars, how do you control it?

Just as I was entering panic mode, I happened to notice something pop out from the side of the screen as I casually passed my thumb over it. Like a drowning man grabbing for a life raft, I swiped my thumbs around the edge of the screen, and voila! A little blue semi-circle thingy popped out under my thumb (see image). It took some studying, but I managed to figure out what all the symbols meant, and now that I understand it, I think these “Quick Controls” might just catch on!

Detailed image of the Quick Controls menu from Android Labs

Close-up of the Quick Controls Menu: Simply swipe a thumb over the edge of the Galaxy's screen, and voila! This handy little blue menu pops out to offer all the features normally found in a traditional browser. What could be easier? Well, okay, you do have to figure out what all those little symbols mean. But hey—if you weren't adventurous, you wouldn't have found it in the first place, now would you?

Final Words
Overall, I found the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and its strong array of features to be a fine new addition to the tablet class of mobile devices. The Galaxy’s combination of power, portability, multimedia muscle and battery life go a long way toward filling the gap between the smartphone and the notebook computer.

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Bob Kurtz, in reality, is not as old as this article makes him seem. He is semi-retired from the technology world, and now runs a bed and breakfast and helps visitors plan adventures on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. He is also a photographer and offers photographic workshops and Hawaii photo tours. You can find him online at www.KauaiBeachInn.com and at www.dotNetHed.com

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GLOSSARY

Flash:  Flash is a popular standard for delivering video over the Internet. It allows visitors to a website to view animated content on their computer. Developed by Adobe Systems Incorporated, it is supported by most modern web browsers. Recently, however, Apple has discontinued support for Flash in their iOS, thereby encouraging software developers to explore other options for video presentation.

Apps:  Short for “Applications” (software programs). Most commonly used for programs that run on a portable device such as a smartphone or tablet.

Mega-Pixel (MP):  A unit of measure commonly used to specify the resolution, or pixel density, of a digital image. Digital cameras are typically given MP designations based on the size of the image they are capable of producing. Generally speaking, the larger the number of mega-pixels, the better the image quality. For example, all else being equal, a 12MP camera can produce images of a higher quality than a 3MP camera.

LED Flash:  A acronym for “Light Emitting Diode Flash.” This refers to the light source used in digital flash photography on many smartphones and tablet computing devices.

White Balance:  A setting available on many digital cameras that allows the user to define what the camera will render as pure white. It is typically used to adjust for various lighting sources and/or conditions (flourescent, daylight, flash, etc.)

GPS Tagging:  Marking a digital photograph or other data object with Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates indicating the physical location in which the object was created. In other words, in photography, GPS Tagging identifies where the photograph was taken.

GPS Navigation:  Using a Global Positioning System (GPS) for guidance in traveling from one location to another.

4G/LTE Coverage:  An acronym for “Fourth Generation / Long Term Evolution,” used to describe a wireless standard for transmitting data at very high speeds over a cellular network. One significant aspect of this technology is that smartphones and tablet computing devices supporting this standard can theoretically access websites and other Internet-based data at speeds equal to or greater than those of high-speed home Internet connections.

Wi-Fi Hotspot:  An area in which a wireless data signal is available to which a supported device can be connected to a larger network, typically the Internet. A coffee shop or other business offering wireless Internet would be an example of a Wi-Fi hotspot. A “personal” Wi-Fi hotspot can also be created by some smartphones. A person using such a phone can create a hotspot that can be accessed by nearby devices to access the Internet.

  • Douglass Doggett

    Thanks Bob for depth of your review and the objectivity used to help us understand this fantastic tablet.  Doug

  • LaRita Jacobs

    Helpful review. Thanks!