Samsung is changing its approach to tablets. Rather than compete at the highest end with the iPad or the Transformer Prime, Samsung's aiming for a happy medium: all the features we've come to expect from an Android tablet, without necessarily top-notch performance or specs, for an appealing price. The tactic worked really well with the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, a $249.99 7-inch tablet that outpaces the Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, or BlackBerry PlayBook.
The bigger brother in the Tab 2 line is now upon us in the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. Like the 7.0, it has solid but unspectacular specs (a 1GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, 1280 x 800 TFT display, 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, dual cameras), plus Android 4.0, all for a very reasonable $399.99. Of course, even at that price there's competition from the still-on-sale iPad 2, the Transformer Pad TF300, and a handful of others. Does the 10-inch Galaxy Tab 2 find the same balance its 7-inch sibling did, or is your $400 better spent elsewhere? Read on to find out.
Whatever the reason for the new look of Samsung's tablets, it's clearly a good new direction for the company: The Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 is a much more original-looking tablet than previous Galaxy Tabs, and it's an attractive one at that. The 10.1-inch display is surrounded by a small black bezel that is every bit as fingerprint-prone as the screen itself. Surrounding the bezel is a gray edging that covers the sides of the tablet, and peeks slightly out onto the face as well. As you hold the slate in landscape mode (as the logos indicate you should), there's a camera lens above the display, a Samsung logo below, and long, thin, silver speaker grilles on either side. The Tab 2 will certainly never be mistaken for an iPad, and whether that's legally required or not it's a good thing for Samsung.
The silver back has a brushed metal look, and though it's plastic it's quite smooth without being slippery or feeling cheap. Samsung never uses particularly high-end materials, but it builds its tablets really well, and the Tab 2 feels sturdy and solid, without any bending or creaking to speak of. The sides of the tablet are completely empty, which is a nice look but not entirely practical — I wish the company had carried over its penchant for placing power buttons on the right side of its phones.
Most of the Tab's ports are crammed up on top, save for the standard Samsung dock connector on the bottom. The top of the tablet has a power button and volume rocker, which are located so close to each other that I nearly always pressed a different button than I was aiming for. Next to those are a covered microSD slot that lets you add up to 32GB of storage to the 16GB or 32GB of internal memory, an IR blaster, and a headphone jack. The headphone jack is located right in the middle, which is a bit odd — your headphone cable will always naturally go either on top of the screen or directly underneath it, and it's awkward either way.
The Tab 2 weighs 581g (1.3 pounds) and is 9.7mm (0.38 inches) thick. That's lighter, but thicker, than both the iPad and the Transformer Prime. The differences are tiny, though, and I certainly didn't notice the Tab feeling particularly big or light as I used it. It's a nice, svelte tablet, though because it's so large it's tough to hold in one hand for any length of time; 7-inch slates in general are much better suited to that.
The two silver speakers along the side of the display output impressively loud, clear sound for a mobile device. Some of that is certainly due to the fact that the sound is actually coming toward you, whereas most tablets have speakers on the side or back that direct audio away from you. The speakers are also set high up on the tablet as you hold it horizontally, so your hands won't get in the way. There's not much in the way of a stereo effect, but it's loud and good enough for watching YouTube videos or feeling more immersed as you play games.
The Tab is available in black or white — my review unit was black. I like both looks, though, and really like that there's a gray stripe around the edge regardless; it lends a bit of flair that uniform tablets don't have, especially on the white model.
Samsung has made one tablet with a truly fantastic display and unfortunately it's not the Tab 2 — it's the Tab 7.7, a Verizon-connected tablet with a gorgeous AMOLED screen. The Tab 2 instead has a 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 TFT display, which is good without being particularly exciting. It has great viewing angles and gets pretty bright, but it can't measure up to the Tab 7.7 or the new iPad. The Tab 7.7's contrast is extraordinary, with blacks that look like the depths of space; the Tab 2 is a bit gray. Similarly, the iPad's display is so high-res that you can't pick out pixels as you read — on the Tab 2, I can all but count the pixels in the letter "M" in the Maps app icon.
This isn't a bad display by any stretch, but now that I've seen screens that don't have jaggies on text or slightly yellowish tints on whites, and screens where even tiny text is readable and dark movies look amazing, making those sacrifices with the Tab 2 is a little hard to justify.
Samsung's apparently buried the mess that was Honeycomb, and has loaded Android 4.0 onto both sizes of the Tab 2. Thank goodness. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: Ice Cream Sandwich is a massive leap forward from Honeycomb. There's almost no lag or stutter as you move around the operating system, and the tablet as a whole feels far more usable. Android 4.0 is the first version of Android that feels ready for a tablet, and that's a big deal.
Samsung's ubiquitous TouchWiz UI skin is here too, and though I'd always rather have a stock Android experience, TouchWiz has been scaled back over the years and is actually quite helpful in some ways. I like that Samsung added connectivity toggles to the settings pop-up, and the mini apps that pop up over a window and let you quickly take a note or check your email without leaving the app you're in. There's also a handy button for taking a screenshot, and a simple way to annotate and share those screenshots. Samsung also redesigned app and system icons, though, and changed the Tab 2's keyboard, two changes I'd rather live without (though I like the persistent row of number keys on the keyboard). In general, Samsung's changes tend to be more unnecessary than actually problematic — and given how problematic TouchWiz was in the past (and often still is on phones), I'll take what I can get.
Since this isn't a carrier-branded device, the bloatware load on the Tab 2 is relatively light. Samsung preloads its standard handful of apps, like Media Hub (for buying movies and music) and AllShare Play (a useful DLNA app for sharing files with other devices). There's also S Suggest, which recommends apps you might like based on... something. Then there are the standard third-party apps, like Amazon Kindle and Netflix. A couple of preloaded apps are a little more interesting, though.
I'm thrilled that Samsung decided its tablets make perfect remote controls, because it's absolutely correct — you probably already have it on your lap, plus it has a big screen, internet connectivity, and all manner of cool apps. Peel uses the Tab 2's IR blaster to control your entire home theater stack; there's a simple setup wizard that gets everything connected. Peel's also a clever TV Guide app, sorting the guide by what you want to watch — tell it you want to watch How I Met Your Mother, and it finds it for you, and switches to it no matter what channel it's on. I love Peel especially for sports – figuring out which channel the game is on is a constant pain — but it's a great app in general, and is really well implemented on the Tab 2.
Next Issue is the "Hulu for Magazines" we've been hearing about forever, and it comes preloaded on the Tab 2. You pay $9.99 / month for unlimited access to the service's monthly magazines, or $14.99 for weekly and monthly issues, and though the selection is small it's a pretty great deal for a heavy reader. The app is still brand new, and it's a little clunky and crash-prone at the moment, but it's a clever idea and magazines look great on the Tab 2's big screen. I was reading the latest issue of Esquire — so many grooming tips! — in only about five minutes, and the app automatically downloads new issues as they become available.
Unfortunately, the list of great and useful tablet apps is otherwise still too small, especially compared to the huge ecosystem of 9.7-inch apps designed and optimized for the iPad. Android has a handful of good apps — games in particular — but you're still going to be dealing primarily with upscaled phone apps that don't look very good on a 10-inch screen.
The 7-inch Tab 2 has a pretty terrible camera, even for a tablet, so my expectations weren't high for the 10-inch model either. Sadly, I was right. The Tab 2's rear-facing 3-megapixel camera doesn't even take very good pictures in great lighting — every picture is just a little bit too dark and too saturated, and photos are soft enough that it's hard to tell what's actually in focus. For bright shots of distant landscapes, it's not bad, but it falls pretty flat on any shot more complex. There's also no autofocus to speak of, which means anything close to your camera is near-impossible to get in focus. The VGA-resolution (read: less than one megapixel) front-facing camera is bad, but fine for video chat and checking your teeth. The Tab 2 also shoots 720p video, which isn't really a badge of honor — at least 720p is just expected at this point. Footage looks the same as still photos: everything's soft and over-saturated, but it'll work in a pinch.
The Tab 2's camera performance indicates a clear point: Samsung doesn't think you're going to use your tablet's camera, so the company skimped on its performance in order to hit the $399.99 price point. I'm all for that decision and that tradeoff.
Performance and battery life
The same 1GHz dual-core TI processor powers both Tab 2 models, and though it works well enough on the Tab 2 7.0 it's not quite as up to the task of powering a larger device with a bigger display. In general things worked okay, but there were some definite quirks: the Tab 2 10.1 would occasionally take several seconds to wake up, and two or three taps to register the "Swipe on screen to unlock" motion. Widgets would also disappear and re-render every time I rotated the tablet, which is kind of jarring. Many things are fluid and fast — the camera's quick, as are the browser and multitasking menu — but there are just enough performance hiccups to be frustrating. Simpler games like Temple Run work well, but complex and intensive ones like Grand Theft Auto III led to a lot of skipped frames and stuttery performance. It feels like the processor was capable of powering a 7-inch device, but is ever so slightly overwhelmed by a 10.1-inch tablet.
Our benchmarks tell a similar story, depicting a tablet that's about as powerful as the very first Galaxy Tab (and actually less capable than the original, Tegra 2-powered Galaxy Tab 10.1), and that performs similarly to a high-end phone from a year ago.
The Tab 10.1 also has the same audio quirk as the Tab 7 — occasionally sound will just shut off with no explanation, and you're forced to go back to the home screen before the volume controls will even activate again. It happened a handful of times while I used the tablet, and it was incredibly frustrating each time.
The Tab 2 has the same size battery (7,000mAh) as the last-generation Galaxy Tab 10.1, and it works to similar effect — this is a tablet you'll only need to charge every few days, unless you're really pushing it hard. Playing games tends to kill the battery as the processor chugs along, but I got two full days of browsing, email, taking pictures, and watching YouTube clips before the Tab died. Put simply, you won't need to stress much about charging the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1.
Though I didn't get to test it, I should mention that there's a 3G-capable version of the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 available as well — though we're not sure of the carrier, the price, or the availability. There's also a voice calling option on the 3G version, and some very slight weight and thickness differences. Other than that (and the two-year contract you'll likely have to sign), there's no difference between the models.
Samsung does a number of things right with the Galaxy Tab 2 – the pricing makes more sense, and most of the sacrifices Samsung made to hit that number are ones I'm willing to accept (though I'd love to have that AMOLED display). Android 4.0 is a huge improvement, too, even though its tablet app ecosystem isn't up to par yet. There's also some nice tweaks in TouchWiz, and Peel's excellent universal remote capabilities are definitely worth paying for. There are some real problems with the device's performance, though — enough that I enjoyed my time with the Tab 2 7.0 far better than the 10.1, and have trouble recommending the 10.1 for power users or gamers.
At $299 or $349, the Tab 2 10.1 could be an incredibly compelling 10-inch tablet, but at $399 it has some solid competition. I'd still recommend the iPad 2 over the Tab 2, because Apple's tablet app selection is so superior to Android's, and if you're leaning that way anyway it's worth spending $100 more to get the latest-generation iPad, with the gorgeous display and improved performance. Samsung's on the right track, but the price might still be a bit too high.
This article originally appeared on theverge.com as Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 review .