Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Samsung Galaxy Tab Android Tablet First Impressions

I picked up a Samsung Galaxy Tab Android tablet at the Santa Barbara AT&T store today. These are my first impressions of the device.

I've been using the Apple iPad since it first came out in April of this year and I still think it is a fantastic device and the leader of this new mobile wireless form factor that is taking off. It was clear to me when Steve Jobs announced the iPad in January of this year that the tablet device was going to be an amazing next step in the evolution of computing. I felt at that time that there would be a big rollout of these tablet devices and today I am trying my first Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab:



I picked up one of two units that were delivered to the AT&T store in Santa Barbara. I had dropped by yesterday and they had not yet received any units. Cost out the door was USD 706.86.

They do not have any accessories in stock. I found this the case on release day for the AT&T iPhone 4 at their stores as well, I think they are really missing the boat on profits in these accessories on launch day. Best Buy really understands this.

I played around with the Verizon and Sprint version of the tablet yesterday at Best Buy before dropping by the AT&T store to see if they had any. Best Buy was well stocked with both the Verizon and Sprint units and accessories.

I reviewed the costs of the unit via the various wireless providers and decided to go with the AT&T version for two reasons:

1) Even though it was the most expensive to purchase, the fact that the service plan is completely without strings, like the Apple iPad's service, is a big plus. On a 2 year plan, it appeared to me that the subsidy only comes out to about USD 10 to 15 dollars per month and the lowest cost plans seemed to be in the USD 30 up amounts [plus the taxes]. So even purchasing a subsidized  unit would still cost ten or more dollars per month from the other carriers.

2) I figured that a unit on the GSM network such as AT&T would be more flexible, for international travel and possible resale than the USA centric CDMA units.

I walked out of the AT&T store with the device in hand and went over to a nearby Starbucks to give it a first spin. This is where I ran into my first problem, after getting a cup of coffee. I open the box to find the unit powered on and on a screen that said 'Downloading.... do not turn off Target!!!' The salesman at the AT&T store did not power the unit on and the SIM card was already installed. In hindsight, I should have had the guy at least turn it on. The box was sealed when he bought it out to the counter, so I'm not sure where or when this update started. I waited for 15 minutes to see if the screen changed, there was no progress indicator. After that period, I crossed my fingers and powered the unit off. When I powered it back up, it came up to a normal initial setup screen with no problems.  But not a good first impression, hopefully others are not seeing similar.

So I got it up and running to the initial Android desktop and played around with it a bit. As I had found the day before at Best Buy, the unit is very spry and responsive.

My next step was to purchase a 1 month of wireless service on the unit. This I found a bit difficult to get done on the device, partly due to my lack of experience with 'typing and swiping' on it and part due to the fact the registration was done in the web browser window, not in a dedicated and formatted web window as I remember the iPad AT&T service registration being done. After three tries reentering my info, I finally was successful.

I found the unit to be at 50% charge level after I rebooted it from the 'downloading' screen, so I plugged it in to a wall socket at the Starbucks and did all of my initial 2 hours of testing while the unit was powered on A/C. I find the supplied cable to be a bit short, the one with the iPad seems to be longer. The A/C adapter is a nice small size with an exchangeable wall plug for international use, however like the Apple unit, it is a unique format that will require buying adapters from Samsung. However, it is 100 to 240 volt universal. The prongs on the A/C adapter do not fold down like some of the Apple units do, I realize this easier for the USA plug format, but is a nice feature to see on A/C adapters.

The unit got to a full charge in less than the two hours I spent at the Starbucks. It connected to the free AT&T Wifi service at Starbucks fine, although the first time it did require me to acknowledge the service agreement in the browser, I did not think the iPhone and iPad require this at Starbucks. I will see if it continues to require this in the future.

I downloaded several apps and synced my two Google accounts while at Starbucks. One of the apps I tried was Skype, which made a phone call just fine over the wifi. The USA versions of the Galaxy Tab do not include any voice calling via mobile, so it was nice to see that VOIP service seem to work fine. I tested to see if Skype would make a call over the AT&T wireless network and NOPE, Skype says that 'In the USA, voice calls are only available via Wifi'.

The Android market worked fine, both on the Wifi and AT&T network, I was able to purchase 'Doodle Jump' via my Google account.

After getting used to the size and operation; web browsing, email and apps are working well. To Steve Jobs point, that this size screen will not be as effective for the basic productivity functions I will agree. However, there are other aspects of this size device that I do think beat out the iPad. The smaller size is easier to carry and for some operations including video, audio and dedicated apps I have the feeling and so far my experience support that this size device will find a useful niche. The iPad can get a bit awkward at times and tiring to use for extended periods. I think the Amazon folks research that ended the up at this size for the first Kindle book reader is correct, so that Steve is not 100% accurate in his statement that this size device is not useful.

My second negative experience came when I tried to register the device at the Samsung web site, when I went to enter the serial number of the unit in the registration form, the web site came back and said that it was not a valid serial number. I used the online chat service at the Samsung web site and with the help of the 2nd level tech on chat I was able to register the unit using the IMEI number rather than the serial number as was requested.

So my only two real knocks on the overall experience so far are not related to the operation of the Galaxy Tab  or Android, but rather due to the overall initial fit and finish of the service aspects of the experience. But, these are important, as many returned and unused technologies are due to these side problems. Apple continues to do a fantastic job of making sure the complete experience is good, they really understand this.

I am now into the 5th hour of operation of the device, figuring two hours of that were on charger, I have been on battery for 3 hours and the battery level indicator says that 31% of the battery remains. I have been using the GPS, navigation, wifi and music player functions for a considerable part of this time on battery.  So my initial impression is that I will see about 5 to 6 hours of continuous use under medium to high power use functions. Not as good as the iPad.

I have not found any screen size issues with apps running on the Galaxy Tab, a number of reports knocked the unit and apps for not being formatted for the larger screen. The apps I've tried, from games like Angry Bird to productivity apps like Facebook and Twitter are very useable. As a matter of fact, having the fonts size up is a good thing for folks like myself with diminishing near vision. I have not seen any pixelated fonts or images so far. Some of the startup splash screens do show the 'blown up' effect, but once the apps are running Android 2.2 is doing a good job of scaling fonts, text and menus. Overall, the Android 2.2 experience on the tablet format is good. I do think it is missing some usability functions that Apple refined for the iPad in iOS, but these lacks have not been as big as I had heard they were.

I am going to use the Galaxy Tab more over the next days and refine my impressions and then I will move to the really interesting aspect for me, developing apps for this device. The combination of the size and the far more openness to connectivity of the Android platform are the parts that make me think that some very powerful uses of this platform can be done. This is where I think the Android tablets have an advantage over the closed Apple iPad. While for general use, the walled garden of the iPad is a good thing. For specific vertical uses of the tablet format, being able to control and mod the Android devices will be extremely powerful. That combined with the refining of the Android software that is occurring will give Apple a real run for leadership. Fundamentally the hardware is going to be very similar from all vendors, the advantage that Apple has had in the area of unique and leading edge hardware is reducing. They may well still lead out the gate, but the window of this lead is narrowing with each new hardware release.

I will close out this initial post on the Samsung Android Galaxy Tab by giving it a 4 and 3/4 star out of five rating. I will use the iPad as my 5 star perfect score for comparison. Not because I think the iPad was perfect the day it came out seven months ago, or even today, but it is fair to say that it is the standard that other tablets will be measured against for the next year or so. That is fair, as it was first out the gate.

I think that Android tablets in the 7 inch form factor is going to be very popular and my initial impressions are very positive. Congratulations to Samsung and Google!



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