Game on! The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 running the slightly updated Android 3.01 OS is about as close as you can get to an iPad 2 without having an Apple logo on the device. Samsung will release the new tablet on June 8, but InfoWorld.com got early access to a final unit.
The Galaxy Tab 10.1/Android 3.01 combo shows that Google and its hardware partners have been listening to the complaints about the awkward first generation of devices like the original Galaxy Tab 7 and about the rough edges in the Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" OS that debuted with the good, but not great, Motorola Mobility Xoom. I'm curious what further refinements are coming in the Android 3.1 update due later this spring.
Sleek hardware a close copy of the iPad 2
The Galaxy Tab 10.1 as a device is very much like the iPad 2: the same thinness, with roughly the same dimensions (due to its widescreen display, it's wider but shorter than the iPad 2). But the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is 12 percent lighter, shaving 2.5 ounces off the iPad's 2's 21.5 ounces -- you can really feel the difference when you hold one in each hand.
The bezel is simple and clean, like the iPad 2's, with just the hardware features you need: well-positioned power and volume controls at the top, front and rear cameras placed unobtrusively (and they have much better image resolution and quality than the iPad 2's), an audio jack at the top, small speaker notches on the sides, and charging/syncing connector at the bottom. Unlike the iPad 2, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 orients its jacks and buttons to working in landscape (horizontal) orientation.
Neither vertical nor horizontal orientation is more or less right as the primary one, though I find the widescreen of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 to be problematic, as I did with the Xoom. There's not enough depth for websites and textual apps when in landscape orientation, and there's too little width when in portrait orientation. Except for playing video, the 16:9 ratio of the Android tablet screen feels wrong compared with the iPad's 4:3 ratio.
Both the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the iPad 2 have speedy processors, and both devices feel comparably responsive, though Web page loading seemed faster on the Galaxy Tab 10.1.
From a hardware perspective, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 does a good job of competing with the iPad 2, and it makes previous Android tablets like the Xoom and Galaxy Tab 7 feel downright bricklike. I can see why Apple sued Samsung over the similarities, though I'm not sure how many ways there are to design a thin tablet. Besides, no one but Apple seems to do original hardware design any more, so what else would Samsung use as inspiration? The Samsung bezel is quite nice, but it offers nothing comparably innovative to Apple's really cool magnetic Smart Cover.
When the Galaxy Tab 10.1 goes on sale in June, it'll cost $499 for a 16GB model and $599 for a 32GB model -- basically the same price as the comparable iPad 2 models. Unlike the iPad 2, Samsung plans no 3G models, at least not initially, so you're limited to Wi-Fi connections. As with the iPad 2, you can't expand the Galaxy Tab 10.1's internal storage.
An improved Android OS, but some earlier flaws remain
As you might expect from the ".01" label, Google's Android 3.01 and its included apps are not a lot different than the (pretty good) 3.0 version that shipped with the Xoom. But it is more polished in some ways. For example, when you set up a Microsoft Exchange email account, you get a list of all the permissions you're granting IT over your tablet before you choose to accept them. It's a great way to make sure employees and businesses are on the same page on how shared devices are managed. Android 3.0 and iOS don't provide that detail.
The onscreen keyboard is very nice, with a clean layout that takes advantage of the widescreen orientation to offer keys like Caps Lock and Tab that the iPad 2 omits. I also liked the way Android 3.01 handles text selection: When you tap on text, a slider now appears so that you can reposition the text cursor easily. It's thus easier to work with text than in Android 3.0 or on smartphones running Android 2.x. (As before, a long-tap selects all the text and provides the selection tabs.)
But this text-selection method isn't universal: The demo version of Quickoffice that's included, for example, doesn't support it, so I fear that some of the nice UI changes in the Galaxy Tab 10.1 work only in the core apps, such as the browser. They need to be universal.
Samsung complements Android 3.0's already nice ability to see thumbnails of active applications with a custom UI element called live panels, which are widgets you can place on a home screen that show the current status of, say, your email inbox or the weather. One aspect of the Android user interface I admire is the at-a-glance indicators that show you what is going on in the tablet (system info, battery life, and so on) or in the outside world (such as news and weather); the iPad 2 is more single-minded in that you have to switch to whatever app or website you want to see that -- and only that -- information.
But some annoyances of Android 3.0 persist. For example, it takes about 90 minutes to encrypt the 3.01-based Galaxy Tab 10.1, as it does with the 3.0-based Xoom, and you can't use the device during that period. By contrast, the iPad's iOS comes pre-encrypted, so there's no delay before you can use the device.
The Futuremark Peacekeeper benchmarks showed a marked improvement in the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (score of 1,063) versus the Xoom (score of 897), increasing the gap with the iPad 2 (score of 807 with the iOS 4.3.3 update installed). But Adobe's Flash Player 10.2 continues to suffer from the problems it experienced on Android 3.0.
Although it's not Google's or Samsung's fault, a lot of websites -- including InfoWorld.com -- see the Galaxy Tab 10.1 as an Android smartphone, automatically substituting their smartphone-optimized pages when you go to them, resulting in an unsatisfying presentation on the tablet screen. (Hint to developers: Look for the user agent string Android 3 rather than just Android to determine that the device is a tablet. You can use InfoWorld's free Web tool to check the user agent from any device.)
But you can criticize Google for the lack of iTunes equivalent for backup, media management, and the like that makes any Android tablet less part of a complete ecosystem than an iPad. That's one of the iPad's major strengths, though it's often unappreciated by users who've not experienced it.
And Android apps still lag behind their iPad equivalents. As an example, the Kindle app for Android still doesn't display pages in two columns when the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is in landscape orientation, resulting in overly wide text columns. Likewise, the Twitter app offers none of the finesse of its iPad version, and instead provides a hard-to-read, too-wide window in landscape mode. Android developers need to pay a lot more attention to both user experience and quality -- this Microsoft level of quality should not be tolerated by anyone. There's also no note-taking app on the Galaxy Tab 10.1, a dumb omission common on Android devices.
But Android developers and users alike finally have a really nice tablet platform for their applications. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the first tablet that can truly compete with the iPad 2 -- and one that even an Apple fanboy could love, not just respect. Now if only the Android apps could do their part.