For the first time since the iPad went on sale earlier this year, it has a competitor. And I’m not talking about a thin and light laptop or netbook or even an eReader no matter how fancy they may be. I’m talking about the Samsung Galaxy Tab: an Android 2.2 powered touch screen device that rivals the iPad in all but a few areas and even manages to up the game with some features that the iPad lacks.
But when everything’s said and done, has Samsung managed to beat Apple at the tablet game? I wish the answer was an easy “yes” or “no”, but as is the case with so many Apple-Android comparisons, the answer is “Sort of, well, maybe… um you might want to sit down.”
So let’s begin at the beginning, with a quick look at the specs for these touch-screen devices. For the purposes of this review, we’ll look at the iPad WiFi+3G 16GB and the Galaxy Tab 16GB, since the Tab isn’t available as Wi-Fi only:
|Apple iPad||Samsung Galaxy Tab|
|Size (H/W/D/weight)||242.8/189.7/13.4/0.73 kg||190.1/120.5/12/0.38 kg|
|OS||iOS 4.1||Android 2.2 “Froyo”|
|Processor/speed||Apple A4 1Ghz||ARM Cortex A8 1Ghz|
|External storage||n/a||Up to 32GB (MicroSD)|
|Cameras||none||3.2MP rear/1.3MP front|
|Audio support||HE-AAC/AAC/Protected AAC/MP3/MP3 VBR/Audible/Apple Lossless/AIFF/WAV||MP3/WAV/eAAC+/AC3/FLAC|
|Video support||H.264 (mp4/m4v/mov) MPEG4 (mp4/m4v/mov) Motion JPEG||MP4/DivX/WMV/H.264/H.263|
|Battery life (claimed)||10 hr||7 hr|
|Price*||$679 (Apple)||$649 (Bell) $674.99 (Rogers)|
*Pricing is based on n0-contract. Discounts may be available with locked-in contract terms. See mobility dealers for details.
Okay, so without getting too deep into the above chart, you’ve probably already identified the key differences between the iPad and the Tab: The Tab is smaller, slightly thinner and much lighter than the iPad and it has two cameras whereas the iPad has none. It also has less screen resolution: 172,032 fewer pixels than the iPad to be precise, and for those who like relative terms that’s 21.8% less. That might be an important number later on. While Samsung has not used the same wonderful AMOLED screen on the Tab as they did on the Vibrant S (a rumoured 2011 update to the Tab will have it), the LED-backlit LCD screen gets the job done and I think compares favourably if not perfectly to the iPad’s larger display.
The Galaxy Tab’s form factor is probably the best argument against Steve Jobs’ now-famous claim that the “current crop of 7″ tablets will be DOA – dead on arrival.” With all due respect to the Apple research and development team, I think a 7″ device can provide a very good user experience for most tasks and frankly, a much better user experience than a 9.7″ device for a few specific tasks. The Tab is ideally sized and shaped for holding in a single hand. Most adults will be able to grasp both sides easily. The curved back not only helps in cradling the Tab but reduces fatigue too. The iPad is heavier and wider which means your hand can only hold it like a dinner plate, or cradled in the crook of your arm clipboard-style. Neither is ideal. Somewhat ironically – considering the fact that the iPad was never conceived as laptop replacement – an angled lap remains the most comfortable position in which to use it. And by the way, if you prefer to type with your thumbs as on a Blackberry or other phone-sized device, you can do that on the Tab in portrait orientation. Try that on an iPad. On a related note, the Tab has a vibrate function – something that Apple chose not to include on the iPad – and it’s a welcome addition. You can use it for alerts (the Tab is actually small enough to fit in a jacket pocket) or as haptic feedback when you type or my favourite use: to enhance gaming. While playing Labyrinth HD, I was delighted to find the Tab vibrating subtly when the virtual metal ball hit the walls or other objects. Now that I’ve had this experience I think it would be foolish of Apple not to include vibration in the next release of the iPad – it would be a boon for game developers.
The smaller form factor also enables the Tab to be used as a true e-reader. Now I know you can read books on the iPad, and according to one recent study 66% of iPad owners use their device for reading books. That’s a pretty impressive stat. But does it mean that the iPad is a great e-reader? No. It simply means that people who own iPads probably don’t own dedicated e-readers like the Kobo or Kindle. We’ve got an iPad and a Kobo at home and when it comes to reading there’s no contest, the Kobo wins. The e-ink screen is far less fatiguing on the eyes, but it’s the weight of the iPad that is the real barrier. Trying to hold that thing in your hands comfortably for more than ten minutes? Impossible. The Tab’s lighter weight and smaller screen make it a genuine competitor to the Kobos and Kindles of this world. The LCD screen is still no match for e-Ink, and there are no dedicated buttons for page turns, but I don’t think you’ll mind most of the time.
In terms of pure muscle, these two gadgets are definitely in the same weight class. In fact, Apple’s A4 processor – the same one it uses in the new iPhone 4 and iPod Touch, is essentially the same chip that Samsung has packed into the Tab. Yes, the Tab does have twice the RAM as the iPad, but keep in mind, RAM is less of a factor when it comes to overall performance of a mobile device like these units than it would in a PC. What matters most is how well the OS manages that CPU. I’ll get to that in the software section.
Apple boasts that the iPad will give you up to 10 hours of constant use when on Wi-Fi. The Tab’s power is good for 7 hours according to Samsung. But do those claims hold up in the real world? My experience with the iPad is that the battery is at least as good as Apple suggests, and maybe even a bit better. The Tab on the other hand seemed to under perform the brochure. My feeling is that 5.5 is probably a more realistic number.
And no doubt you’ve noticed the presence of not one but two cameras aboard the Tab. This is where most Apple faithful were let down by the iPad. Of all the criticisms levelled at the device on launch, the lack of a forward-facing camera for video chats was universally agreed upon. The other big irk was no USB port. Samsung has obviously learned from Apple’s trailblazing by ensuring that the Tab addresses the camera issue, but unfortunately they botched the implementation. Neither the front or rear facing cams produce decent images, even under good lighting conditions – something that is truly surprising given the success they’ve had with on-board cameras on their mobile phones. Worse still – and this should be a cautionary note for other manufacturers – the forward facing camera produces an awkward looking image of the person holding the device for a number of reasons. First, the offset of the camera from the screen means your subject (probably you) appears to be looking away from the lens – slightly to the left or slightly down. We’re used to this effect when people use laptop or desktop-based cams, but on a small, portable device the effect should be minimized – try the FaceTime cam on Apple’s iPhone 4 if you doubt me – it’s nearly perfect. Secondly, whether you hold the Tab in landscape or portrait mode, the image captured by the front camera is always in portrait mode. Again, they should have taken careful note of how the iPhone 4 does it: rotating automatically to match the device’s orientation. As an aside, I mentioned the lack of a USB port on the iPad, and the Tab lacks this function too but what it can do is recharge over a regular USB 2.0 port on your PC, something the iPad can’t do: it needs a dedicated 10W power supply. Traveling with the Tab means only bringing along the sync cable which is one less accessory to remember.
One area where the Tab has a real chance of improving on the iPad is media-file compatibility. The iPad, as with so many i-devices, supports only two standards of video (well three if you include Motion JPEG but I don’t know anyone who uses that format) and five standards of audio. While most of us can get by on the audio support, the video limitations can be frustrating – no DivX, xVid, MKV, avi, mpg playback. So I was pretty pumped to see a new player open this space up. The Tab improves upon the iPad’s efforts with DivX and WMV support but then disappointment sets in when you go to play videos on the Tab. The image quality itself is good, but there were noticeable stutters in the overall playback. It wasn’t awful and some people might not even notice it. But when you compare it to the iPad’s super-smooth video performance it definitely comes up short. One last note on videos: Even though the iPad offers native support for a few codecs, there are now a handful of great 3rd party apps including the very capable VLC Player that can handle many of the popular formats that aren’t supported. They do this via software as opposed to hardware which means that playback isn’t quite as smooth as the iPad’s native video app, but they give users a solid option for broad media support on the iPad.
Form-factors aside, the actual user experience is defined by software. But there are two components to software: the OS which regulates the way the hardware is manipulated and governs the basic functions such as volume levels, touch input, copy/paste, multi-tasking etc., and apps which are the programs that actually give the device the functionality you need (web browsing, watching videos, facebooking, email etc.)
On the app side of the equation, it’s hard to compare these two devices. In the iTunes App Store, there are over 41,000 apps that are designed either for the iPad or both the iPad and iPhone. There are few apps designed for the Tab itself and the Android App Store is just not set up for this relatively new category. I’m sure over time this will change but for now, I’m going to focus on the core elements of the iPad and the Tab – namely the OS and the apps each device ships with.
Android vs. iOS
This is the part where we come dangerously close to religion or politics in terms of topic sensitivity. These two competing operating systems are like flip sides of the same coin. They both strive to offer a powerful yet simple touch and gesture-based way of interacting with mobile gadgets along with easy access to growing libraries of free and paid apps that leverage the capabilities of each device. The philosophy behind each couldn’t be more different.
With Apple, it’s their OS running on their devices. The OS has been tuned for precisely the device that runs it and every single app in the iTunes App Store has been verified to run on every device listed in the compatibility portion of the description. If you like a neat, orderly and practically bullet-proof experience on a device, iOS is the way to go.
Android was born out of the belief that a mobile OS should be open, with as few rules and regulations as possible. It’s the Wild West compared to Apple’s walled garden. The upside of course is that you can choose from a growing list of devices that run Android and there is no one calling the shots but you when it comes to the apps you can install and run. Hardware developers are free to run their own “skin” on top of Android. In Samsung’s case that skin is called TouchWiz 3.0. This means that though Android devices are similar to one another, they all exhibit unique characteristics.
Now that we’ve discussed our two camps, what does this mean for the iPad and the Tab? It really comes down to elegance and sophistication.
The iPad runs a smooth as butter. Flicking between app screens, scrolling, transitions – these all happen beautifully and seamlessly. The combination of the iPad’s vibrant screen and iOS’s interpretation of your touches on the glass is a thoroughly elegant and sophisticated experience. It’s like driving a luxury-class European sedan.
Android 2.2 + Samsung’s TouchWiz on the Galaxy Tab performs more like sports car. The power is there, and you never feel like you’re waiting for things to happen, but everything is just a little more jarring. Turning the device from landscape to portrait orientation results in a “snap” transition on-screen to the new layout. When scrolling web pages, the text loses its edge smoothness until you stop moving and only then does it return.
If you’ve never used an iPad, I doubt very much that these things will bother you or cause you a moment’s concern. But it’s hard to get out of the lap of luxury and get comfortable in a little two-seater.
But of greater concern to me is the way the Tab handles Android apps. For the most part, apps run well and the Tab seems to manage its larger resolution (compared to Android phones) with the same “doubling” that the iPad performs on iPhone apps. There was a notable exception however. The racing game Asphalt 5 however, could not decide where it wanted to display itself on the screen. Consequently there were large white spaces at the top of the screen and buttons were no longer mapped for touch correctly. To stay with the car analogy, it was a wreck.
That’s something that has always worried me about Android. Similar to Microsoft’s Windows, which has to run on a vast number of different machines and processors, with thousands of programs and at least as many peripherals, Android needs to work well on lots of different mobile devices. Steve Wozniak, Apple’s other co-founder, recently made the same observation and even went so far as to say that he thinks Android will eclipse Apple’s iOS as the dominant force in mobile computing. Can such a system ever be as reliable as one where both OS and gadget are paired from the start, the one designed for the other? Time will tell.
One area however where Samsung’s implementation of Android beats the pants off the iPad is text-input. The Tab includes Swype. I’ve said this before: every device with a soft-keyboard should be equipped with this software. While I’m getting pretty good at tapping on those imaginary keys, being able to just drag your finger from one letter to the next and voila – your chosen word appears – is simply marvellous. Of course if you’d prefer not to use Swype, that’s fine – the standard soft keyboard layout is excellent and includes a feature which I sorely wish the iPad and iPhone had: the ability to press and hold a key to access a secondary character instead of switching modes. Physical keyboards can do this through alt and ctrl keys and I’ve just never understood why Apple clings to their first-generation keyboard.
Much like the iPad, the Tab ships with a minimal set of apps – just enough to get you going on email, calendaring, web browsing and other standard activities. Some of these apps have been well thought out – the calendar for instance gives you a great layout for looking at your day, week or month and makes navigating your appointments a breeze. Others don’t perform as well: the Photos app has trouble keeping up as you swipe from one photo to the next and the slideshow option produces jerky, stepped transitions that absolutely pale in comparison to the iPad’s presentation skills.
The email app is a mixed bag. The layout and overall readability Is excellent both in portrait and landscape mode, but there are some frustrating drawbacks such as no ability to individually delete emails from the inbox view without first entering a delete mode from the menu options. It can also be tricky to differentiate unread items from the ones you’ve read since the only difference is a slight bold treatment to the subject lines of the unread messages. What’s odd here is that the mail app on the Galaxy S Vibrant avoids both of these pitfalls. Hard to know if this is an Android 2.2 issue or just a mis-step on Samsung’s part in porting their mail app to the Tab.
One of the big surprises on the Tab is an app they’ve called the “Music Hub.” The first surprise is that this is Samsung’s answer to the iTunes Store – at least as far as music purchases are concerned. It’s the first time I’ve seen the app on any Android device and Samsung hasn’t made much effort to highlight it in any of their press. The second surprise is how good it is. Powered by a company called 7digital, the store offers downloads in DRM-free MP3 format. The store is easy to browse, has a decent if not comprehensive selection of artists and tracks and the whole thing has been optimized for use on a tablet. Given that Android users don’t have access to iTunes from their devices – at least not currently – Samsung’s Music Hub is the next best thing.
If you’ve patiently read through all of my observations on the Galaxy Tab vs. the iPad, and are still wondering where I stand, let me summarize:
- Android 2.2 with Samsung’s TouchWiz skin is a great OS for multi-touch devices but this combo running on the Tab is still no match for Apple’s iOS running on the iPad for overall smoothness and sophistication
- Some of the Tab’s included apps are not as well executed as those on the iPad
- The smaller footprint of the Tab does not hold it back as much as many anticipated and even gives it an advantage when it comes to e-reading and text input using the two-thumbs or Swype method. The Tab can be pocketed which might be a huge plus for some ultra-mobile types
- Ignore the addition of the two on-board cameras. They work, but they don’t work well enough that you would choose them over the camera on your phone.
To decide if the Tab is right for you, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you value a smaller, lighter device that is pocketable and can double effectively as an e-reader?
- Do you prefer the idea of Android’s flexibility and customization over the locked-down nature of Apple’s iOS – even if it comes at the price of a less elegant interface?
- Are you more interested in a productivity tool and place less of an emphasis on high-end multimedia capabilities?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions you owe it to yourself to check out the Samsung Galaxy Tab before making your final decision.