Review: Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet
Sony’s latest Android tablet is a worthy successor to the Xperia Z, with unique features, an incredibly thin and light design and a gorgeous screen. But battery life is not as good as it could be.
The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet ($529 16GB) is a remarkably thin and light device. At 426 grams, the Z2 is significantly lighter than the comparably equipped Apple iPad Air (469 grams) even though it has larger overall dimensions.
The chassis exterior is coated in a rubberized finish on the back and uses edge-to-edge scratch-resistant glass on the front. The sides (what little there are of them) is finished in a metal-look plastic material. Unlike the iPad, there is no metal shell.
Although this results in an amazingly light device, the problem with this design is that the Xperia Z2 gets all of its rigidity from the internal framework and the glass screen itself. Which it to say, you can actually flex the tablet without exerting much pressure at all. I suppose this isn’t necessarily an issue of quality – I wasn’t able to come even close to damaging it through normal use—but it doesn’t give you a tremendous feeling of confidence.
The New iPad: Our review and everyone else's too
The new iPad is already on sale. In Australia, that is. And while the enthusiasm for the product was lessened by the fact that the Aussie’s 4G network isn’t quite ready to play with the iPad, people still lined up for the latest “magical and revolutionary” device from Apple.
In fact, if pre-order numbers are to be believed, this may well be the most successful iPad ever. But before you get all carried away by the hype, check out our own Marc Saltzman‘s video review of the new iPad. He’s had a week to play with it and here’s what he thinks…
Now, if you’re still wondering if this device is worth the $519 entry price, we’ve taken the liberty of rounding up some of the web’s leading reviewers so you can take a survey of the various opinions (spoiler alert: it’s all about the display)
The Wall Street Journal (Walt Mossberg)
It has the most spectacular display I have ever seen in a mobile device. The company squeezed four times the pixels into the same physical space as on the iPad 2 and claims the new iPad’s screen has a million more pixels than an HDTV. All I know is that text is much sharper, and photos look richer.
The Verge (Joshua Topolsky)
Yes, this display is outrageous. It’s stunning. It’s incredible. I’m not being hyperbolic or exaggerative when I say it is easily the most beautiful computer display I have ever looked at.
TechCrunch (MG Siegler)
What we have is a 9.7-inch slab of aluminum and glass that when illuminated, becomes an absolutely stunning display of light and color.
New York Times (David Pogue)
If you’re in the market for a tablet, here’s the bright side: For the same price as before, you can now get an updated iPad that’s still better-looking, better integrated and more consistently designed than any of its rivals.
CNET (Donald Bell)
The iPad’s new screen is a stunner. That’s really all you need to know about the new iPad
Apple to debut iPad 3 in March, 2012
Details are thin, but AllThingsD writer John Paczkowski is reporting that next iPad will be unveiled next month at a special event in San Francisco and the betting is that the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will be the venue as it has been for previous Apple events.
The launch is expected for the first week of the month, and while no dates have been leaked for retail availability, based on Apple’s track record it’s conceivable that the first units will ship in early April.
In case you haven’t been following the non-stop trail of Apple rumours in recent weeks, check out Marc Saltzman’s post on the all of the features and specs the tech community expects to see in an iPad 3.
Will the next magical and revolutionary device from Cupertino be a must-have gadget? That will really depend on who you are.
As we’ve seen from the progression of Apple’s iPhone models, a certain leap-frog mentality accompanies each successive model. In other words, iPhone 4 owners for the most part didn’t see the iPhone 4S as necessary upgrade, but iPhone 3GS owners and those who had never bought an iPhone before were probably very enticed by the 4S’s features.
It’s very likely that Apple will continue this formula with the iPad 3 – it will have enough new features that an original iPad owner will feel the urge to trade up, but iPad 2 owners won’t feel that their tablet has just been rendered obsolete.
It’s a fine line, but one that Apple walks with unparalleled success.
iPad 2 goes on sale Friday, but beware the backlight leaks
It’s almost tragic. The iPad 2 has proven yet again that Apple’s “magical” device is still magical – at least as far as sales are concerned. The line ups for the latest Apple tablet in the U.S. have been unprecedented, and perhaps predictably, have led to shortages across the country and online where wait times are now pegged at 4-5 weeks.
And while many who have shown up at their local Apple store have been turned away disappointed and empty-handed, it has now come to light that still others who successfully acquired the much sought-after device are also disappointed – but for a very different reason.
Apple’s online support forums are slowly filling with complaints from iPad 2 buyers regarding a backlight leak problem.
Light leakage is a problem that can happen with any back-lit device. It occurs when the glass of the screen isn’t completely adhered to the chassis of the device – often a result of uneven or inadequate adhesive during the manufacturing process.
When this happens, blotchy pale areas can appear on the edges of the screen. Typically, it’s only noticeable when the screen is trying to show very dark background colours – effectively “blocking” the backlight. But because light is managing to escape around the edges, it becomes visible as a localized “halo” effect.
A lot of people might never notice the problem. Some that do might not be bothered by it. But if you are the kind that notice it and dislike it, it can be a huge frustration – especially if you just spent 24 hours in line to drop $499 USD on a new gadget.
Now I have no doubt whatsoever that Apple will do the right thing for these customers and replace the defective units. But given the supply problems in the U.S., it’s hard to say when that replacement will come.
My advice to you if you are determined to be first in line for Friday’s Canadian launch of the iPad 2, is to ask your sales associate to let you open the box and turn the device on before leaving the store. Given the insane crowds the stores will be faced with, this won’t be a popular request. But the good news is that you should be able to tell if your unit has the problem almost immediately.
The start-up screen on i-devices is black, with the silver Apple logo in the middle. The start-up sequence takes about 15 seconds. During that time take a good look around the edges of the screen. Even in the bright store lights, you should be able to detect a bad leak as a slightly pale area on the otherwise dark screen, near the edge.
Good luck, and happy shopping!
Verizon’s iPhone 4 gets Wi-Fi hotspot feature
Oooh, colour me jealous! Today, Verizon announced to the relief a huge number of U.S. residents, that they will (finally) be carrying the iPhone and breaking the exclusivity that AT&T has enjoyed since the first edition of the device back in 2007. That’s a long time to wait.
But that’s not the part that has me excited. Thankfully Canada is one of the few markets where Apple has not continued its practice of exclusivity for such a lengthy period of time. But I digress..
What really gets me pumped is the fact that the Verizon edition will include a feature called “Personal Hotspot”, which as the name suggests, allows up to 5 users to connect to the phone via WiFi for the purpose of internet tethering. You can also tether via USB or Bluetooth, but these connections are one-to-one, not one-to-many.
There is no word yet whether Apple will release this feature to iPhones on other carriers via the next version of iOS (4.2.5) which the Verizon model will run at launch. But I believe we have reason to be optimistic. The HTC Desire Z, for instance, has this feature too and you can use it freely (i.e. without any additional data fees) on the Bell network. Likewise, devices such as the MiFi offer the same functionality.
Why am I so keen to get this feature on the iPhone? Simple: It’s all about choice. I bought an Apple iPad without the 3G option because 99% of the time I know I will be using it with WiFi networks. But on the rare occasions when I can’t connect to a Wi-Fi network, I want to be able to use the iPad, and I didn’t think paying the extra $150 for a 3G version (plus a data plan) made any sense for such limited use. But there is no way to connect that device (or any other Wi-Fi only gadget) to my iPhone.
A WiFi hotspot feature would be the answer to a lot of problems.
Here’s hoping that Apple sees the intrinsic value to its users and makes this an upgrade to all iPhones with the next iOS release. After all, if Android can do it….
Update Jan 12, 4:16 p.m.: BGR has claimed, and we have confirmed with Apple – that this feature will be made available on existing iPhones, but that it will be subject to carrier approval. No word yet on which Canadian carriers will support it, or if there will be additional fees involved.
We do know that Rogers requires a separately purchased plan in order to use the hotspot feature on the new Palm Pre 2, so that may be an indicator of how they will treat the feature on their customers’ iPhones. Rogers and Bell include tethering on their smartphone data plans.
- Verizon Wireless to start selling iPhone in U.S. in early February
- Winners and losers: What a Verizon iPhone means for consumers, companies
- AT&T shares fall on Verizon iPhone announcement
disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada
Parrot AR.Drone hits Canada for the holidays
I confess, at the age of 41 I am still completely drawn in by cool toys, even if they are targeted to a much younger audience.
It’s not that I didn’t get some great toys as a kid – I did. But my dreams always seemed to exceed reality and most of the toys I had were less exciting than I wanted them to be.
One example from my youth is the VertiBird, a remote-controlled helicopter that was tethered to a central base station by way of a rigid control arm. The tiny chopper could rise and fall through the air and circle forward or backward around the base station. It even came with a tail hook that could be used to lift the plastic “getaway” car and obstacle that came in the package. It was hours of fun, but I have always wished it could fly around the room with complete freedom.
Until a few years ago that wish was nothing more than that – a wish. Then suddenly, onto the toy scene burst a wave of remote helis that were the same size and shape as the Whirlybird but this time they really could go anywhere and stay aloft for up to 5 minutes assuming you could keep them from crashing – not an easy thing to do. But they were super fun, and unbelievably cheap at between $25 – $50. The one I bought for myself my son two seasons ago is still limping along having long since exceeded all my expectations for amusement.
But naturally a remote heli enthusiast like me (and now my son) wants even more. And until I saw a YouTube demo of Parrot’s AR.Drone Quadricopter, I had no idea what “more” could mean.
The AR.Drone is a remote controlled chopper like no other. It is controlled by Wi-Fi via an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad (NOT included) and soon other platforms like Android devices. It can be flown indoors and outdoors my adding or removing special “hulls” that surround the 4 propellers and protect them from impacts. It has two on-board cameras – one facing front, the other facing down. If this isn’t already sounding like the most awesome toy ever you must be from the future.
The app that controls the AR.Drone is called AR.Freeflight which is free on Apple’s App Store. The app gives you full control over the choppers movement and camera views. But wait, it gets better. Parrot has released their AR.Drone SDK, which allows any developer to create additional apps that layer functionality on top of AR.Freeflight’s basic controls. One example of this is the AR.Pursuit app which uses an augmented reality system to superimpose missile and gun-based dogfighting over the front camera’s feed. I’m giddy just describing it.
The good news is that Canadians can now get their hands on the UK invention from big box retailer Best Buy. The bad news – this is not a flyweight purchase. At $349 the AR.Drone won’t be making its way under tons of trees this year – especially if an i-device isn’t already in the hands of the prospective new pilot. But for those who are willing to invest the money, bragging rights – and some awesome flying experiences can be… had… with… a… click.
Hands-on with Apple's AirPlay
Of all the features that launched with last week’s iOS update to 4.2, the one I was most eagerly anticipating was AirPlay.
In case you haven’t been following along, AirPlay is the ability to wirelessly stream audio and video from a device like an iPad to your 2nd generation Apple TV. It’s essentially and enhancement on the existing AirTunes feature that already let you stream audio from iTunes to an AirPort Express router so that you could pipe your tunes directly into a connected receiver. AirPlay takes that framework and expands it to include video.
The system is dead-easy. Just make sure that your i-device and your Apple TV are on the same wireless network. Then choose your app: iPod for video or music, the Photos app for, well, photos and the YouTube app for, uh, you get the idea. Once your media is playing or your photo is displayed, simply tap the little rectangle pierced with a upwards-pointing triangle icon and choose “Apple TV” from the list that pops up.
The result is nothing short of spectacular. I tried AirPlay using my iPad as the source device and played back a high-quality version of How To Train Your Dragon. For the techies out there, the file specs are: 1280×544 in .m4v, @155kbps with 5.1 Dolby. In short, it’s a file that has been optimized for Apple TV. Once I had selected Apple TV from the AirPlay list, the movie started playing on my plasma TV within 2 seconds.
I didn’t watch the whole movie but I did let it run for several minutes during which there was no observable glitch in audio or video. Both were perfect. In fact, the video compared so well to the HD version we had rented via Bell TV’s on-demand service, I couldn’t tell the difference.
Sounds great right? Yes – it really does exactly what is promises. But (you knew there had to be one…) I’m extremely disappointed by the lack of AirPlay video support for 3rd party apps.
That’s right. As of right now, the *only* apps that can send video wirelessly via AirPlay to the Apple TV is the Video app on the iPad (iPod app on the iPhone/iPod Touch) and Apple’s own YouTube and Photos apps.
While 3rd party video apps such as the excellent VLC Media Player, CineXPlayer or even YouTube inside of Safari can stream the audio portion of their program to the Apple TV, none can stream video.
Here’s why this stinks: Apple TV is, out-of-the-box, able to stream any content that iTunes can play on your PC. It also has it’s own YouTube app. Lastly, it can present photos from your PC if you enable iTunes to stream that content too.
So what exactly has AirPlay done to extend Apple TV’s capabilities? Nothing. Well, almost nothing.
If you have content on your iPad or iPhone that you don’t have on your Mac/PC, then I suppose it’s handy to be able to stream that content to the Apple TV without the need of a middle-man device. But let’s think about this: If you bought an Apple TV, it’s fair to assume that you were already using your computer as your primary media repository and you were okay with managing that media via iTunes. Now I’m not suggesting that you would *never* use just your i-device to download new content – thereby skipping the iTunes-PC step, but I’m guessing it will be rare.
I real promise that AirPlay held for me, and I suspect many other Apple TV owners, was the ability to use all of the 3rd party apps that have popped up in the App Store that support all of the media file types that iTunes (and thus Apple TV) don’t support.
I was frustrated by Apple’s decision to limit Apple TV to just a few video formats when they announced the product, but I immediately thought “okay, no problem, Apple doesn’t want to support other formats, I can deal with that since it looks like AirPlay will enable other companies to take on that burden through 3rd party app development.” With AirPlay being limited to just Apple’s trio of native apps, what would have been an otherwise perfect compromise between what Apple was willing to do and what consumers wanted, is now almost superfluous. A neat trick of engineering that will rarely be used or needed.
For the sake of being optimistic, I hope that this limitation with AirPlay is merely temporary while 3rd party apps are updated by their developers to be compatible with the new feature… but I’m not very convinced this will happen. Some other blogs have pointed out that 3rd party video *was* working in the beta of 4.2 but was subsequently disabled in the final release. Apple, what say you to this?
Update: Apple got back to us rather sooner than we thought, or at least, MacRumours thinks Steve Jobs has gotten back to us. In an email reply reportedly sent to one of their site’s readers, who asked about Safari YouTube and 3rd party support, the iCEO himself said he “hopes to add these features to AirPlay in 2011.” I don’t know if we can bank on one as-yet unvalidated email, but here’s hoping!
Okay, your turn: Have you used AirPlay yet? If so, do you think it’s a feature you’ll be using on a regular basis? Let us know.
Find your lost iPhone 4 for free
What with all the excitement around iOS 4.2’s new features such as multi-tasking and folders (on the iPad) and Air Play (all devices) and wireless printing (all devices), not enough attention is being paid to what is possibly the most valuable new feature: Find My iPhone (or other device) which is now free of charge.
The feature was previously only available as part of the $100/year Mobile Me subscription package. Now that it’s free, I strongly suggest you take the few quick steps that are required to enable it on your device – there’s no telling when you might need it and it isn’t turned on by default.
Now I hate to do this to you if you just read the above and got all excited, but here’s the bad news: The free service is only available for current generation devices (iPhone 4, iPad, iPod Touch 4th gen). All other devices can still use the service, but they need the paid Mobile Me subscription.. I know, it sucks :-(
Here are the links to the full set of instructions for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices. But in a nutshell, you simply:
- Set up a free Mobile Me account using your existing Apple ID (this is your iTunes/App Store ID)
- Configure your device to allow location-based services
- Verify your Mobile Me account
- Log on to www.me.com to try it out
As with any service like this, there are a couple of provisos, specifically:
- Your device must be powered on
- Your device must be connected to the internet either by Wi-Fi or 3G
- Your device must be in a geographic area where the service is supported (some countries don’t support it)
If this is not the case, you won’t be able to locate your phone.
Another cool aspect to the Find My iPhone tool is the ability to force the device into “locked” mode (but only if you’ve assigned a Passcode previously), wipe the entire contents of the device remotely (you’ll be able to restore all of it from the backup on your PC if you get your device back) and – perhaps most useful of all – you can send a message to the device that will appear on its screen and play a sound for two minutes (this works even if the device is locked and even if it’s set to mute).
This last feature will appeal to people who routinely misplace their devices but can always find their way to a computer.
iOS 4.2 hits i-devices today
While iPhone users have been benefiting from some of the new iOS features such as multitasking for a few months now, iPad owners have been patiently waiting for today’s launch since iOS 4.2 was announced back in September.
In case you’ve forgotten in the intervening months, here’s what’s in store for you if you connect your iPad to iTunes later today (after 10 AM PST):
- Multitasking: double-tap the home button and a scrolling list of all your open apps shows up at the bottom of the screen, letting you hop between apps
- Folders: sort all those apps into logical groups by dragging one app onto another. The new group can be renamed, added to, edited or deleted. Up to 12 apps per folder.
- Unified inbox: All of your mail accounts can show up in one combined screen, or you can see them individually
- Game Centre: Apple’s answer to Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation network
- AirPlay: If you have an Apple TV, you can stream any video playing on your iPhone or iPad (or iPod Touch) to your TV over WiFi
- AirPrint: wirelessly print from your device to any available network printer that supports the AirPrint feature
- Find my iPhone (or i-Device): this previously subscription-only service is now free and helps you locate a lost device and/or remotely wipe its contents to keep it from prying eyes
You can bet I’ll be getting this update ASAP and be back to tell you what I think, but in the meantime, please leave your thoughts below.
Samsung Galaxy Tab vs. Apple iPad: Battle of the Tablets
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.