When it comes to consumer electronics, there's Apple and Samsung -- and everyone else.
No wonder these two have been at each other's throats lately. Whether in laptop computers, tablets or smart phones, Samsung has emerged as Apple's principal competition in terms of design, performance and user experience.
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The South Korean company's latest weapon is the newly upgraded Galaxy Tab 10.1, which lays legitimate claim to the title of Best Tablet That Isn't an iPad.
The Galaxy Tab is the first hardware that compares favorably to the iPad 2. At 8.6 millimeters (about a third of an inch) thick and 565 grams (about 20 ounces), it's a smidgen thinner and lighter than Apple's tablet, which is to say it's very thin and light indeed. I found it easy to hold, even for extended periods, and maneuver.
The Samsung also has a higher-resolution display than the iPad 2 -- 1280 by 800, vs. 1024 by 768 -- and a better camera. The screen measures 10.1 inches diagonally, compared to the iPad's 9.7 inches, though the Galaxy is narrower. As with most similarly shaped devices, I found it better for watching movies and TV shows than for reading or Web surfing.
The main drawback is the battery, which is significantly shorter-lived than the iPad 2: seven to eight hours of normal use, compared with 10 to 11. Prices are comparable: $500 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage and a Wi-Fi connection; $600 with 32 GB. You can also buy a version that runs on the Verizon Wireless LTE 4G data network, but expect a further hit on the battery. The LTE version is $200 more unless you buy a pricey data contract, in which case there's still a $30 premium.
All in all, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a lovely, well-designed device. There's more to a tablet than hardware, though, and it's on the software side that the gap between it and the iPad widens.
The Samsung runs "Honeycomb," Google Inc.'s tab-optimized version of its Android mobile operating system. While attractive to users, it has proved less so to application developers. While Apple claims more than 90,000 apps specifically designed for the iPad and its iOS operating system, the best guess is there are fewer than 1,000 for Honeycomb, six months after it hit the market.
That shortage, and a desire to separate itself from the flood of competing Android tablets, are behind a major software upgrade Samsung just began pushing out over the air to users. (The company this week temporarily halted distribution after some users reported installation problems. The version I tested was installed by Samsung.)
The upgrade adds a company-customized user interface, called TouchWiz, as well as access to Samsung's Music Hub and Media Hub stores for acquiring songs, movies and TV shows, and a bunch of new widgets and apps.
I found the most useful of these to be Live Panels, large, self-updating windows overlaid on the Honeycomb desktop. You can get weather from AccuWeather and stock quotes from Yahoo! at a glance, as well as a quick look at your calendar and photos. Another Live Panel connects you to Samsung's Social Hub, which commingles feeds from your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts.
Less successful is the Mini Apps Tray, a set of shortcuts you can summon at the touch of a button to launch apps from within other apps. It's a decent idea in theory, but the performance is sluggish and you can't customize the tray: Having one-touch access to a world clock is nice, but how often do I really need to know it's 8:32 in Lisbon while I'm in the middle of a game of Words With Friends?
And although TouchWiz has been designed to coexist with Honeycomb, having two user interfaces makes the Galaxy Tab feel less polished and more disjointed than the Apple.
As Steve Jobs has shown, the sweet spot in mobile devices is in neither the hardware nor the software; it's in the interplay between them, which is much easier to control when the same company creates both. With Google acquiring Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., maybe it will someday achieve that plane; in the meantime, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is as good as we're likely to see in an Android tablet.