Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Posted by Jon Westfall in "Android Slates/Tablets & Accessories" @ 07:00 AM
But How Does It Work?
Two weekends ago, our esteemed Contributing Editor Karey Westfall and I were out browsing at a local retail establishment (one that prominently features a yellow price tag in its logo). We marveled at all the Android tablets that were on display, and especially at how crappy some of them were. I'm sorry - I can't think of any other word to use. When I drag my finger across the screen to switch home screens, I do not expect to see my tablet jerk around like a seizure patient! I expect a nice fluid transition, just like my Nexus One provides. Out of all the tablets we saw, the Galaxy Tab was one of the only ones (if not the only one) to provide such an experience, and I think that is a good indicator of the overall speed and quality of the device. The Tab is responsive and fast, and I've yet to be able to lock it up or crash it. That's a good thing.
The screen is nicely responsive, although with it being larger than the average Android, you do find some ways in which Samsung could have helped out. For example, PIN entry to unlock can be annoying since the keypad takes up the whole width of the screen (as opposed to an iPad which brings up a smaller PIN entry panel). This caused my finger to jump up and down a bit as I punched in my code.
Samsung includes only a few apps that you'd otherwise download from the Market, so one of my first tests was to download a few of my favorite apps and see how they played on the big screen. The first, the game Fruit Ninja, ran well with no lag. Again though, my finger had to slice fruit over a larger area than I was used to!
Usability-wise, the device gets a high grade. The major complaint though comes in connection and charging. Samsung decided to ditch Micro-USB for the Tab (for some reason I can't explain), and even when connected to a computer with Samsung's cable, the device does not charge! I left my device in my bag with WiFi on and found that it would last around 2 days without a charge and with moderate use. Without WiFi on, you can probably go around 5 days with moderate use before needing to charge. It's just annoying to me that I've got to add a proprietary cable and USB charger to my bag when travelling - get with the program Samsung, even if I don't have to charge your device very often!
Cameras and Radios Oh My!
The device ships with two cameras, although disappointingly the rear camera only has a 3 MP resolution. In my test shots the pictures came out clear and crisp, with one small oddity: A burn in the camera's CMOS sensor, which caused a small "hole" in any photo I took! This is no doubt a quirk of the review unit I received and isn't indicative of the Tab as a whole - still it makes me wonder about the CMOS sensor as I've never seen this in another other device (perhaps a previous reviewer was taking pictures of the sun?). The front-facing camera was a little harder to test as the built in software doesn't let you easily switch from rear to front to take a self portrait (one must go to scenes, then choose "self portrait", I'd prefer just a simple slider!). The Qik software though, came through here. I was able to look at the front facing camera and, well, it is as grainy as you'd expect 1.3 MP to be. In general the Galaxy Tab isn't going to be replacing your camera anytime soon, although it is useful to have the cameras (if for no other reason than to taunt iPad users).
The device has a WiFi radio that, as I mentioned, can be left on without too much battery drain. If you don't have a 3G data plan, this is probably the best option for you. The device also includes a Bluetooth radio and GPS!
Samsung & Sprint Customizations
If you've never used a Samsung Android device before, you probably will be nicely surprised by the TouchWiz interface additions that Samsung adds to the stock Android applications. The calendar and contacts, downright ugly in stock Android 2.2, are pretty and more usable thanks to Samsung's additions. Samsung also includes a nice setup wizard that walks the user through initial setup and into using other email systems than Gmail. This is a nice addition for the non-Google crowd, although the wizard does perplexing things in cleanup - for example, after setting up my Gmail account, the wizard left the stock email icon on my home screen. This might confuse users - they tap on email and it takes them to the Android email setup wizard, while Gmail sits patiently in their app drawer, already set up and ready to go.
Samsung also does a few questionable things, such as putting a "free games" icon which merely directs one to a webpage where they might buy games. Aside from a bit of ad-related bloatware, the device runs smoothly - which is in contrast to other OEMs that might bulk up a device in the interest of affiliate sales at the expense of speed.
Sprint has also contributed a few customizations, including the hotspot app, allowing the Tab to be used as a hotspot for a number of other devices. Sprint also ordered their Tabs with white back plates, while other versions (e.g., the T-Mobile) has a black back plate.
Exercise In Usability: Reading a Kindle Book
One of the first things I thought of when I saw the size of the Tab was reading ebooks. I've used a number of devices over the past 3 years I've been reading ebooks, and they've all shaped my expectations about what the experience should be like. First came the original Kindle, which I still pull out from time to time to take advantage of the e-Ink screen. It was nice, small, and fit nicely in my bag. The only annoyance was the screen refresh rate, and the fact that it really could only read books - no surfing, no web browsing, etc... My next reader was an iPod Touch, however with the small screen, reading could get quite annoying. Since June I've used my iPad, which is big enough to be a comfortable experience, however it's a bit bulky, especially to use in bed.
The Tab looked like it might be the balance between the portability and usability of the iPod Touch, and the screen size of the iPad. So I bought a medium sized book on Amazon, had it sent to my Tab, and read it over the course of a week, both at home and on a plane. The results were encouraging, especially in a cramped airplane seat - I could hold the device in a myriad of ways (even one-handed, between my thumb and middle finger, using my forefinger to flick the pages. In the end though, one must be realistic about reading on any device that requires you to hold it - you'll be shifting around with the Tab just like you would with any paperback or small book. The difference between it and the iPad though is in weight - imagine the difference between holding a paperback and holding a textbook. No doubt one of the reasons iPads and Textbooks are read propped up on a table!
So the exercise in Kindle usability resulted in this: You can read books quite nicely on the Tab. The smaller screen size may mean a bit more finger flicking than on an iPad, but it's easier to find a comfortable position to do so in.