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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

Samsung’s Galaxy joins growing universe of touch-screen tablets

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver February 1-7, 2011 issue #1110 High Tech Office column

Apple didn’t invent touch-screen tablets, but 2010’s iPad was the first tablet people wanted to buy in large numbers. The result: January’s Computer Electronics Show (CES) featured 100 iPad-wannabe models.

Most aren’t available yet, but Samsung has sold over a million of its Galaxy Tabs (not to be confused with the company’s Galaxy S smartphone) since last autumn’s release.

I was predisposed to discount the Galaxy Tab. It’s built around a seven-inch screen and Apple’s Steve Jobs (who ought to know, right?) called that form factor “dead on arrival,” telling us his company’s tests showed it was too small for people to use productively. Google – which makes the Android operating system used on the Galaxy Tab (and most of the upcoming models on display at CES) – says its current Android 2.2 (“Froyo”) version used on the Galaxy Tab isn’t suitable for tablets, urging manufacturers to wait for Android 3.0 (“Honeycomb”) later in 2011. Finally, while more than 35,000 apps have been developed with support for the iPad screen, there are virtually no apps customized for tablets on Google’s Android Market app store.

I was wrong.

Samsung has packed 1024 x 600 pixels onto the Galaxy Tab’s seven-inch screen, almost as many as the 1024 x 768 on the iPad’s 10-inch screen. The result is a smaller, lighter tablet (380 grams compared with 680 for the iPad) that can display nearly as much content. The smaller size and lighter weight makes it even more portable, letting it be held with one hand for extended periods. (Try that with your iPad!)

And Samsung has done a good job customizing Android 2.2 and a key set of apps to make them more tablet-friendly. Most of the apps that I downloaded from the Android Market worked surprisingly well scaled up from their smartphone origins.

Like the iPad, the Galaxy Tab works nicely for displaying video – in fact, it is a better fit for widescreen video than the iPad’s standard-definition screen. Having Amazon’s Kindle app pre-installed makes it straightforward to buy e-books for reading on its bright colour screen.

Unlike current iPad models, it has a pair of cameras. While the front-facing camera will be useful for video chat, both the Galaxy Tab and the rumoured upcoming camera-laden iPad 2.0 seem too large and awkward for me to want to take many photos or video clips with them. Also unlike the iPad: you can view Flash videos, though performance isn’t great and Flash viewing will cut your battery life. (Tip: set it for “on-demand” so Flash loads only when you want it.)

It’s offered locally by Bell with 500 megabytes of 3G access costing $20 a month (or $35 for five gigabytes) – no contract required. While some international versions of the Galaxy Tab include a built-in phone, there’s none in the Canadian or U.S. versions. Unlike Apple’s iPad, there are no lower-cost Wi-Fi-only Galaxy Tab models – at least not yet.

You might think that the Galaxy Tab, with a seven-inch screen, would cost less than the 10-inch iPad. Think again. Bell sells the Galaxy Tab for $649, not much lower than the $679 price for a 3G-capable iPad.

Battery life is about seven or eight hours, a bit lower than the iPads; not surprising since the smaller size means a smaller battery. But like Android-powered smartphones I’ve used (and unlike the iPad), it dies after a couple of days on standby. Not going to use it? Plug it in.

And some disquieting news out of CES: Google’s upcoming Honeycomb may have some stiff hardware requirements that will make it impossible to upgrade current generation tablets and smartphones. A related problem will be if upcoming must-have tablet-centric Android apps require Honeycomb.

Despite these caveats, Samsung has done a great job with the Galaxy Tab; it’s the first tablet to successfully compete with the iPad. It’s going to have a lot of company soon, though. 

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