Samsung latest Galaxy Tab: Sleeker than the Xoom, still no iPad

Usability problems plague Android tablets, but potential is clear

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is set to be released June 8, and while this may be the best Android tablet so far, it still doesn't match the intuitive experience offered by the iPad 2. 

Having tested the device for the past couple of weeks, I can see several benefits over the iPad. These range from advantages provided in Google's Honeycomb software, including widgets and better multi-tasking, to benefits resulting from Samsung's manufacturing decisions (hint: Angry Birds looks better in a bigger, wider screen). 

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The Galaxy Tab, given out in a limited edition to Google I/O attendees earlier this month, has a plastic back that feels less sturdy than the iPad's metal one, and seems easier to hold, perhaps because of the wider screen. It also feels less clunky than the thicker Motorola Xoom, but the glass front is more easily scratched than the iPad's. 

The wider screen is likely great for watching movies, but the thinner portrait mode damages the Web viewing and application experience, in my opinion. 

Android offers a theoretical advantage over Apple's iPad in that users can "side-load" applications, i.e., install things that weren't approved for the app store, or have been yanked from the app store by our digital overlords. This has proven to be quite useful with Android phones, but the number of excellent games and productivity applications built for the iPad dwarfs those built for Android tablets, side-loading or not.

All in all, the Android user experience is still less refined than that offered by the iPad. While iTunes provides an easy way to transfer data and applications between a computer and iPad, there is no equivalent for Android. 

Google developed an Android File Transfer tool for Mac computers, but the tool is incapable of recognizing the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the tablet is not recognized as a USB storage device on Mac OS X, in my testing. Perhaps this will be fixed by the time the device launches. I was - occasionally - able to transfer files to and from a Windows 7 computer, but in other cases the device drivers weren't recognized, making file transfer impossible. (Toggling the USB debugging mode didn't make a difference.)

Lack of working file transfer (think: movies, music) is a potential deal-breaker for a device that costs at least $500. This also limits the ability to side-load applications. Oddly, my Android phone shows up on my Mac as a storage device, even without the Android File Transfer tool, and has no problems being recognized by my Windows computer. The inconsistency in experience across Android phones and tablets, not to mention Mac and Windows, is a problem that Google must solve. This isn't just me, by the way: the guys over at Engadget got the same results. 

The limitations of software built specifically for Android tablets becomes quickly apparent after using the Galaxy Tab for an hour or so. While Apple's App Store neatly divides apps into categories, letting you know which ones are optimized for the iPhone, iPad or both, it is less clear in the Android Market whether an app is optimized for tablet devices. There is a "featured tablet apps" section on the Market home screen, but once you start using the search function or navigating through categories it's not as clear which apps are for phones and which are for tablets.

Some are great on both, Angry Birds for example. But others will look distorted. In one case, an Android phone game called "Jewellust," about a third of the application gets cut off on the right side of the screen when displayed on the Galaxy Tab. iPhone apps don't always look great on the iPad, but you at least have the option of viewing them in half- or full-screen mode, and they are typically usable. 

My favorite aspect of the Galaxy Tab, compared with the iPad, is the ability to create widgets, for example allowing you to see new emails or weather updates on your home page. I also like the ability to see a list of currently open applications complete with an image of their previous state - with the iPad, you can only see the icons of your currently running applications. 

No tablet really has true "multi-tasking," in my mind, meaning the ability to view and manipulate two programs at once. For example, you can't use an iPad or Android to view multiple Web pages at once, to look at two documents at once, or to view a Web page and a document simultaneously.

But Android does offer one further step toward multi-tasking. When you're in an application, the bottom of the screen shows notifications and provides access to the device's settings. 

The limited edition Galaxy Tab runs Android version 3.0, but will be upgraded to 3.1, complete with the ability to rent movies. Google's new cloud music service is live, offering a credible alternative to iTunes. We can expect further improvements from Android as the months go by, but my experience with the Galaxy Tab did not make me regret my decision to purchase an iPad 2, which also has greater battery life.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is expected to come in 16, 32 and 64 gigabyte configurations, with reports indicating a starting price of $500, on par with the iPad 2. Like other Android tablets, it supports Adobe Flash (unlike the iPad), and has a dual-core, 1 GHz processor, as does the iPad 2. The Samsung Tab provides 1GB of ram, twice as much as the iPad 2, but I didn't notice any significant difference between the two devices in terms of speed. While the iPad has some limitations, everything you can do on the iPad works perfectly, with none of the hassles I've experienced with both Android phones and tablets. 

From what I can tell, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 will launch as a Wi-Fi-only device, with 4G models coming later this year.  

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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