Image: iPad and Galaxy Tab
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
iPad and Galaxy Tab
Image:
By Wilson Rothman
msnbc.com
updated 11/10/2010 7:12:31 PM ET 2010-11-11T00:12:31
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The iPad needed a nemesis, and this month Samsung offers up the first credible one.

To some, the Galaxy Tab is a compact — or just too small — iPad wannabe; to others, it's a stretched-out version of the popular Galaxy S Android phone, minus the ability to make calls. But to Steve Jobs, it should be a flaming arrow in the iPad's thatched roof. One little fire may be easy for Apple to douse, but it's the first of many arrows. Things are gonna burn.

I've been playing with Sprint's version of the Galaxy Tab for a few days now, and while I was immediately struck by its likeability, it's far from perfect. As I'll explain, every minor advantage over the iPad comes with a potentially major tradeoff. And while the 7-inch tablets are "cheaper" than Apple's 10-inchers, that's only because they are attached to wireless plans and two-year contracts. iPads generally come with no strings attached, even if you buy the cellular-capable 3G ones. But it's a strong first move, and a more serious contender than the first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, which ended up kicking off a pretty major revolution. People will buy it, either now or in a Wi-Fi-only model that hopefully arrives by the end of the month.

Starting today at T-Mobile, you can buy one. Sprint sells theirs Nov. 14, followed by AT&T ("in time for the holiday season") and Verizon Wireless ("soon!"). Announced pricing for the first two is $399.99, but that's after rebates — and your commitment to a two-year contract. Up front, it's $100 less than the Wi-Fi-only iPad, and $230 less than the 3G iPad, but neither of those burden you with the requirement to pay a monthly bill for 24 straight months. (In addition to carrier links above, here's Samsung's main Galaxy Tab page.)

Tablets are different
To better understand why the Galaxy Tab is a contender, it's important to seize on the things you actually do with a tablet, that you wouldn't do with a smart phone. An iPad has a surface area that makes it conducive to reading, to playing games, to watching movies and to making you interact with your fingers in a way that goes beyond the staccato chicken pecks of a 3.5-inch smart phone's screen.

In fact, the Galaxy's screen has about three times the surface area of most smart phones, including the iPhone. In this sense, even though it runs mostly the same apps as the Evo, the Droid, the MyTouch and others, the Galaxy Tab is a tablet — it's imperative that you feel like you can do more with it.

The iPad of course is much larger, and clad in aluminum, it weighs slightly more. Most importantly, that 3-inch difference in diagonal screen size actually means that the iPad has twice the touch surface. If Galaxy Tab is a tablet, iPad is still the tablet.

When it comes to tablet fundamentals, here's how the Galaxy measures up to the iPad:

Books
While reading on a tight-screened smart phone is annoying, reading on an iPad suffers from a different problem: It's too big and unwieldy for many people. The Galaxy is about the size of those larger trade paperbacks, and can be loaded with the Kindle and Nook apps for "just right" reading of e-books. Android's OS makes it easy to access system brightness, a must for people who read at night. Reading with an iPad requires some extra jiggling (which will hopefully go away when the new iPad OS turns up).

But battery life is key when you use a tablet as an e-book reader, and the Galaxy Tab is not impressive in this regard. Though boasts reach as high as 13 hours a charge, Laptop Magazine's battery tests estimate it closer to 7 or 8 hours, notably less than an iPad.

Image: Galaxy Tab tablet shown front view
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Movies
Again, smartphones are not great for movies, especially when there's a reasonable alternative. But Apple was criticized for giving the iPad a 4:3 aspect ratio, because it doesn't go well with widescreen movies. There's a lot of dead screen. The widescreen Galaxy uses more of its screen to show movies, so if anything it looks better.

That is, provided you can find enough movies and TV shows to actually watch. Android still has something of a media problem. Those of you who rip DVDs or use BitTorrent to illegally download movies will probably have the easiest time, since you'd figure out a way to sideload the content via a third-party app like doubleTwist. It looks enough like iTunes. But it's not an actual iTunes equivalent, because there's no way to buy or rent movies, something I do frequently when going on long flights.

For this, Samsung provides its own semi-solution, the Media Hub. It offers a handful of studio and broadcast content at prices similar to iTunes, and you can even own movies, and store them in the cloud. But you have to download them directly to your Galaxy to watch them (or store them in internal memory), and you have to activate their licenses over Wi-Fi before you can watch them. The app itself is limited to select Samsung products, and even then only when Samsung and the carrier agree. (Right now, it's just Galaxy S phones and Tabs on Sprint and T-Mobile, but Verizon and AT&T should be on board soon.) Bottom line: if you leave the Galaxy family of devices, you lose your media.

Worst of all, there's no Hulu Plus or Netflix for streaming subscription video that won't nickel-and-dime you to death.

Web browsing and Flash video
UPDATED 11/11/10: I realize that some readers were upset that I didn't address the issue of the Web browser, and particularly the fact that the Galaxy Tab supports Flash, while the iPad doesn't. In truth, I didn't get into it because the Galaxy's performance is not remarkable — its browser is functional, pages load fast, but scrolling is not the smoothest. Flash video playback happens, in most cases, but I wouldn't say it was enjoyable, certainly not while you're connected on 3G. Also, if the Galaxy had Flash playback in addition to Hulu Plus, Netflix and other great streaming video apps, it would be a fine bonus (and in future tablets with more horsepower, it'll look nicer too). But for now, the tradeoff is not a good one. I'd always choose premium video apps over mediocre video browser capability, if that's the decision.

Interactive programs
Here's where the Galaxy's size puts it in jeopardy, and where the content is basically nonexistent. Programmers have begun to think of the iPad's surface differently than the iPhone's, and that has led to interactive books, games and other tools that feel like a whole new experience heretofore relegated to the realm of sci-fi. In addition to the kids' stuff, and of course games, there are music creators, cooking programs, immersive books and other apps for grown-ups too.

At launch, there aren't many notable examples of this for Android, beyond games like Angry Birds, which work on any screen but look better on a tablet. Pretty much everything available for the Galaxy Tab is an uprezzed version of a phone app. Some apps aren't even updated for the Galaxy Tab: The de rigueur cooking app Epicurious only displays on part of the screen.

Laptop-replacement apps
The iPad has spawned apps that help people leave their laptops behind. Apple started it with finger-friendly versions of its iWork suite. Others fell in line, with photo editors, drafting tools, blog publishers and database managers. Just compare recent best iPad photo editing apps to recent best Android photo editing apps — no fault of the individual reviewers, the former look professional, the latter look unfit for gradeschool art class.

But there's hope for Android. Already Samsung is pre-loading the ThinkFree Office, and presumably the larger screen size will attract other pro-minded developers too. (See app discussion below.) Samsung also added a nice-looking contacts app and a larger calendar, making better use of the screen.

But perhaps of greater importance to those who wish to replace computers with tablets, Android's file system is a lot easier to access than the iPad's. You can save and access files in the system's memory, and "side load" whatever you like from a computer. With an iPad, file access is limited or locked down altogether. A great example of that is Joel Johnson's Gizmodo piece about how the iPad finally let him down, just as he was trying to upload photos and publish a story.

Video conferencing
The final frontier of tablet magic is face-to-face communication, and the Galaxy has a leg up on the iPad here. It's got two cameras, one facing you, the other facing away, and you can use the Qik app to videoconference with other online members, or send pre-recorded messages to anyone. There are a handful of Qik enabled phones out there, but it still might be harder to find someone to talk to than if you had an iPhone 4 or iPod Touch — or a Mac — and wanted to chat via Apple's FaceTime. You can't use your iPad though, because FaceTime isn't on it. That said, I would be shocked if iPad 2 (presumably due out by April) does not have a front-facing camera and FaceTime capability. For now, though, Galaxy beats iPad in the camera game, two to nuthin'.

Image: Galaxy Tab tablet shown side view
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Developers, developers, developers
As I mentioned, the biggest problem Android's going to have is software. This isn't because the developers aren't out there — they are — but because they've so far been timid about delivering content-driven apps to the Android platform. That is to say, Android may have 100,000 apps available by now, but the proportion of high-quality apps that you have to pay for has not gone up significantly. Sure, most of the marquee service apps are on Android, but they are free. The content apps you'd happily pay for, the games, the enhanced books, the creative tools, they're just not there.

I blame Android's steward, Google, which doesn't do enough in the Android Market to point out great apps. In fact, Google hasn't even created a "tablet" category for its apps, which means you really have no way of knowing if an app was even optimized for a tablet. Apple leans way the other way on this, limiting some of its 300,000 apps solely to iPad distribution. That makes sense, and the over all control has stimulated developers to build apps that people actually buy. Apple likes this, because according to a report from app tracker Distimo, the vast majority of iPad apps come with a sticker price, and developers (and therefore Apple) make more money on iPad apps.

A telltale sign that Android doesn't really know what to do with the tablet business yet is that even the Google widget isn't sized to fit the screen. It hangs to one side or the other, the digital equivalent of a camper's short sheet. Either Google's sending a message that it doesn't care ... or Google simply doesn't care.

Carriers and phoneyness
The ones who do care about the Android tablet format, perhaps most of all, are the cell phone carriers. This is a problem.

A phone has to be connected. You need someone to rely on for important communiques, and someone to blame when they don't get through. You need dependability when you're anywhere, not just for calls, but for the increasing number of data streams for navigation, news and social connectedness. But even if a tablet can provide these things, it's not about these things. It's not a whip-it-out-and-look-at-it device, it's a sit-down-take-a-deep-breath-and-relax-into-it device. You can premeditate the movies and music you might need on a journey, and you can wait until you're somewhere with Wi-Fi to answer less-than-pressing e-mails. My iPad time almost always occurs when I'm in reach of Wi-Fi, and when it doesn't, like when I'm on a plane, my phone's data connection is useless too.

"These are mobile devices, but they're not pocketable devices," NPD's Ross Rubin told me. "We tend to see a lot of the usage in areas where there's Wi-Fi coverage — at home and at school — but we also see the download model on trains and planes, where consumers are downloading the content when in Wi-Fi hotspots, or sideloading like with iTunes file sharing, and then consuming the content when they're not [connected]."

But for those people still tempted to pay for that extra monthly data plan, remember this: You already have a phone, and you're not going to ditch it for a tablet. I don't even feel the need to put music on an iPad, let alone do e-mail on it. Buying a tablet means finding new experiences, not duplicating ones that work mostly well already.

Image: Galaxy Tab tablet shown rear view
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My fear is that by selling Galaxy Tab like a phone, Samsung and its carrier partners will distort the tablet message. These are unfettered gadgets, like MP3 players or computers. If you're dying for anywhere access,buy a tethering subscription for your smart phone. That way you can provide the same anywhere wireless to multiple gadgets, using a device you already need a data plan for.

Samsung's carrier approach may keep it down, and keep the iPad shooting ever higher. In its iPad Owner Study last August, NPD saw that people chose Wi-Fi-only iPads 3 to 2 over their cellular siblings. And that's with the no-strings-attached approach Apple has taken in selling the 3G version: Owners can turn on and turn off AT&T service, a month at a time, with no penalties — or even any service charges or taxes. The iPad sales approach being taken by Verizon this fall is similar: You get an iPad and a Verizon 3G MiFi bundled together starting at $630 (same as the AT&T 3G version), and the no-contract pricing is $20 to $80 per month for 1GB to 10GB of data (for any devices), but there is an activation fee of $35, and applicable taxes.

Apple has its cake and eats it too. Carriers love to sell a product that's already selling, and customers get a clear choice. Soon Samsung will have a similar opportunity, if leaks about it selling a Wi-Fi-only version at Best Buy and other retailers are true.

A Wi-Fi-only Galaxy should be cheaper, but it might be hard to tell, since carriers are selling their Galaxy Tabs like phones, with a subsidy that they will make back during the life of the contract. A 7-inch competitor to the 10-inch iPad will have to cost less than $499, because the cameras and expandable memory alone aren't enough of an upsell. What would be great is if they sold the Wi-Fi-only version for $399, just like the subsidized carrier one, but it is highly unlikely.

Tablet war
The Galaxy Tab isn't the end of the story, but it's certainly a beginning. As I said, this is the first retaliatory shot fired in a war that will soon turn bloody. Seeing how the smart phone war has turned out, I am thrilled at the notion of what may come from the Android camp, as much as I am at Apple's no-doubt persistent upgrades. Let's not forget, there's a software update due any time now that will make the current iPad even better. And anyone who doesn't think Apple will have a new iPad — with a FaceTime camera — by April just doesn't know Apple.

But it's a two-sided war.

Forget the BlackBerry PlayBook , forget anything that may possibly show up running Windows 7 — Microsoft (co-owner of msnbc.com) has had too long to make that a success, and has failed miserably. Just keep an eye on the hardware companies with dibs on the Android OS. When phone makers start applying their phone know-how to systems with larger screens (10 inches would be nice!) and start shaking that need to think of these things as oversized phones, we're going to have an amazing selection of options.

At that point, the iPad might not look as good. For now, though, Apple's got the fire under control.

If you made it to the end and still want to talk tablets, Wilson is all ears. You can catch him on Twitter at @wjrothman, or send e-mail to wilson.rothman@hotmail.com.

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Video: Samsung Galaxy Tab video review

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