The Galaxy Tab 8.9

One of the difficult things about reviewing technology products objectively is when your brain starts saying, “I’m not used to this. I don’t like it.” It’s the first hurdle to overcome when you switch from using a Mac to a PC, from an iPhone to an Android device, or vice versa. The first instance you hit something you’re not used to, there’s a strong inclination to give up and retreat back to the safe harbor of your preferred device. We tend to equate bad with unfamiliar, and, while the tendency applies to things other than operating systems, the hesitancy with which many approach technology in general only strengthens the unfamiliarity aversion.

This is the perspective I am trying to avoid in covering the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9. As a longtime Mac and iOS user, I’ve made sure to use the device for several weeks before finalizing this post, continuously returning to my thoughts, cuttings some things as purely subjective, and firming down precisely where I feel the strengths and weaknesses are. And, despite my bias for iOS, there are some things Google undeniably does very well in their Android operating system. There are also some areas where things fall short, however, and your values as a technology user will ultimately inform your decision between an iOS device and an Android device. I’ll be inevitably comparing the two operating systems, but I also want to look at the Tab’s merits on its own. How does it stack up against the variety of other Android tablets on the market?

The Hardware

Samsung’s tablet hardware is generally good without noticeably standing out from the crowd. I’ve always like the looks of Samsung’s televisions, speaker systems, and media players, so I was surprised how ambivalent I felt toward their tablets. The front has the usual black bezel with a power button, headphone jack, and volume slider along the top. The bottom has two small speakers and a dock connector. The back is plastic with a faux brushed metal texture. The Tab weighs very little, but feels solid in my hands. Still, I’d recommend getting a case for the device as carrying it bare feels like daring gravity to have its destructive way with the Tab.

Samsung lists the Tab 8.9 at $399 (when I started writing this review; it’s now gone), and that price nets you a dual-core 1 GHz processor sitting on NVidia’s Tegra 2 chipset. It has 16 GB of storage and 1 GB of memory. The 8.9″ screen comes in at 800 x 1280 pixels for roughly 170 pixels per inch. It’s not Retina Display, but the pixel density is better than the similarly priced iPad 2. All expansion is handled through the dock connector at the bottom with mixed results – video out can be terribly flaky when it works. The price is not bad for the hardware, but it’s strange that Samsung lists the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 for the same price with more up-to-date hardware and software.

The only gripe I have about the device build comes with the power button, which also functions to wake the device up like an iPhone’s home button. The button is not recessed at all, and it is very easy to push. Before I picked up a folio case for my Tab, the button’s design led to several accidental activations while being toted around in something. This, in turn, led to an unexpectedly depleted battery at times. Either the power button should be recessed like the home buttons on Apple’s mobile devices, or it should offer more resistance to being pushed.

The battery is good. I didn’t calculate hard numbers, but I pay attention to its battery no more than I do my MacBook Air. Samsung claims a 9-hour battery life, and I have no reason to doubt that. The cameras are acceptable but nothing to shout about. If you are considering using a tablet as your main camera (and shame on you for thinking that), you can do better than the Tab 8.9. The rear camera is 3.0 megapixels and uses an LED flash, and the front camera is 2.0 megapixels. The results are images and videos that are fine for uploading to Facebook, but you won’t be winning any photo contests.

an image taken by the Tab’s rear camera

The real differentiating feature with the Tab is its distinctive size. As far as I can tell, only the LG Optimus shares a size with the Tab 8.9. Unfortunately, the uniqueness is not necessarily a good thing. While it still comfortably fits in my glove compartment, it’s definitely bulkier to carry around than a 7″ tablet, being just slightly too large to cradle under my arm like a book. Also, the size makes buying a case difficult unless you are okay ordering a case online without feeling the build quality first. In searching from store to store, I found only one store that had a case for an 8.9″ tablet and none that actually stocked the Tab 8.9. The size factor makes this device a niche product in the already niche Android tablet market, and nothing I’ve done with it really makes a case for a size between 7″ and 10″.

The Android Experience

There’s a temptation to evaluate Android tablets as if they exist in a vacuum. You see things like, “Scrolling through webpages is better than on other Android devices, with only occasional stuttering,” and iOS advocates will look at that and claim Android is being graded on a curve. There is some merit to that criticism, for many reviews assume that you’ve already decided between iOS or Android. Perhaps that’s the case for some readers, but, since I’m switching between iOS and Android, it’s impossible for me not to compare their unique merits and drawbacks.

The Stock Apps

The Galaxy Tab 8.9 runs a modified version of Android 3.2 “Honeycomb” and comes with a mixture of Google apps, Samsung apps, and promotional apps. I’m going to be honest with you; for the most part, I don’t know which apps come from Google and which are from Samsung, though the Moviefone app sticks out as an obvious promotional placement. The apps that are certainly Google’s – GMail, Play Music, Play Movies, Play Books – look great. On the other hand, they sometimes suffer in terms of functionality. The GMail app, for example, seems to have no support for a unified inbox; so, if you have multiple GMail accounts, you have to browse each inbox individually. The media apps fare better, but there is a dearth of content available through Google Play when compared to Amazon’s or the iTunes ecosystems. Still, each Google app is definitely tablet-friendly, and they get the job done. They look good without being iOS clones.

The quality begins to drop off when using Samsung’s apps. Social Hub, Readers Hub, Music Hub, and Media Hub vary greatly in user interface designs, and they all seem to miss some major functionality. The Social Hub app integrates with a variety of social networks but implements that integration at a very shallow level. Media Hub repeatedly showed me incorrect information for the movies I was browsing, and the selection of films seems even poorer than Google Play’s. I suspect the stock email app and file browser are also Samsung’s, and they too feature awkward design and inconsistent functionality. A couple other media and reading apps are included – even one just called eBook that requires an Adobe ID – but they bring little but redundancy to the system. Samsung even includes their own app store to supplement Google Play, but I have no idea why. The selection is far worse, and the vast majority of apps are not tablet-ready.

One interesting thing Samsung does with their TouchWiz UI is bring some mini-apps to the system. These are apps that don’t run in full screen and behave much like windowed apps on a desktop would be expected to. These include a task manager, a calendar, and a calculator among others. I really like this approach for these apps that don’t necessarily need all of the real estate provided by a tablet for their full functionality. Some app developers have done some really great stuff on iOS, trying to justify using the full screen for simple tools like calculators, but the ability to run these mini-apps enables simple applications to run without any fullscreen awkwardness. In addition to the mini-apps, Samsung’s custom software keyboard is good too. I find myself alternating between it and the default Honeycomb keyboard regularly.

The default browser is decent. It’s no mobile Safari, but it gets the job done, and it no longer renders the mobile version of Facebook’s homepage, instead bringing up the desktop version. It offers private browsing, bookmarks, Flash (for now), tabs, and the other features you would expect in a modern mobile browser. Also, the included office suite, Polaris Office, is pretty good. It capably handles Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. The only odd thing I’ve noticed about it is that there is no easy way to sync with services like Dropbox or Google Drive from within the app.

The main problem I have with the included apps is that not one of them is user removable. You can have the same criticism of an iPad, and it does come with twenty preloaded apps. All of them, however, are optimized for a tablet experience, and none of them duplicate each other’s functionality. Yes, it’s a pain they can’t be removed, but they create a full experience out of the box. The included apps on the Tab, in contrast, are redundant and heavily mixed when it comes to quality. The included Moviefone app, for example, is a phone app through and through. It has no business on a tablet screen, so why include it on such a device? I appreciate the choice of multiple e-readers and music players, but, once I’ve settled on the one I like (Play Music if you must know), let me delete the others. I’m up to 120+ apps on my Tab, and over a third of them cannot be deleted. Even when manufacturers were at their worst installing bloat on Windows PCs back in the 90s, it was all removable. Android is about freedom, and Android manufacturers need to respect that philosophy by making their stock apps removable.

The Good Stuff About Android

Make no mistake, I still prefer using iOS over Android, but there are some things I feel Google does very well with their software. Multitasking works great almost all of the time, and few apps drain battery life when in the background. The interface is beautifully minimal, and Samsung does nothing to get in the way of Android’s natural great looks. Widgets are great, and the iPad’s screen seems incomplete without them now that I’ve had a chance to use Android. Sharing is another strong point that leapfrogs the current version of iOS. Any app that has sharing capabilities automatically populates a system share menu that can be accessed by any other app. It’s great and makes maintaining data across multiple devices a snap.

Another detail I love is the ability to choose a different default app for completing certain actions. Let’s say you download a different browser. The next time you click on a link, a prompt screen will appear asking which browser you want to open the link in; included is an option for Android to remember your choice, so that browser opens every time you select a link. On a related note, I also enjoy the ability to browse the file system. This is one feature I would like to come to iOS, but I also wish the Android file system was friendlier to browse. Part of the problem is that Android is essentially a Linux-based system, and the file structure in most Unix-like distributions is very complex. Mac OS X, however, is also a Unix-based operating system, and presents a very friendly file structure to the user, hiding much of the complexity and creating a shell that is both logical and easy to browse.

I cannot stress enough how much potential Android has at being a stronger tablet OS than iOS in its current form. Google does a nice job skirting a fine line between desktop and mobile interfaces to bring something truly unique with the tablet version of Android, and they seem committed to keep improving the tablet experience. Now if they can only get developers on board with the same level of commitment. Even with their first attempt at a tablet OS, Google has made a system that is very attractive, fairly easy to use, and makes good use of the tablet’s larger screen.

Quibbles & Bits

Despite the promising start, Honeycomb still feels like an emergency landing in many ways. While I admire Google’s flexibility and innovation, there are a number of small issues that hold Honeycomb back; and I don’t know which of these have been resolved with subsequent Android releases. I’ll also admit that some of these issues may have more to do with Samsung than Google, but most users don’t stop and think where a problem originates. They just think, “Why doesn’t this work?”

  • The number of home screens is locked at five in the default launcher. If you are only using two or three screens, the extras will always be there unless you download a third-party launcher.
  • There is no support for folders in the launcher or on the home screen. Again, you have to download a third party app or launcher to gain folder support.
  • I can count the number of hard crashes my iOS device has had on one hand. I’ve already lost count of the number of times I’ve rebooted the Tab.
  • Setting a custom desktop is a pain. The OS scales nothing, so you’re left often using only a portion of the image you downloaded.
  • Multitasking is great, except for when it isn’t. Occasionally, it forgets what the last open app was and will not display it in the switcher.
  • The other problem with multitasking comes with apps running without the user asking. I cleared memory thirty minutes ago, and I now have 23 apps running, using 620 MB of the available memory. I launched only three of them.
  • Notifications can be a bit invasive, and managing them is an app-by-app task. There’s no central location to manage notifications like in iOS.
  • I’ve run into more than a few apps on Google Play that require additional large downloads at launch after downloading the app from the store. Why is this okay?
  • The Gallery app is decent, but it loads every image on the machine without the option to filter out certain folders, so you may end up with albums of app resources.
  • Emailing to a group from the Contacts app is a pain. Choose the group, and then individually select every recipient. Then only one of them may appear in the address field when you choose to compose a message.
  • Samsung places the button to activate their mini apps in the dead middle of the bottom of the screen, right where you might tap if you miss the spacebar by a millimeter while typing. That never ends well.
  • The back button is like the green window control in Mac OS X. You’re never quite sure what it’s going to do when you tap it. You know what you want it to do, but it might have other ideas.

Let’s talk fragmentation. Put simply, I can’t legally download Bejeweled for my Android device, and I have no idea why. Google Play just says it “isn’t supported.” I get this more often than I’d like. Part of the problem may be the in-between nature of the screen, but I run into phone apps I can’t download; I run into tablet apps I can’t download. I run into things I can download but immediately crash the device because they were designed for a stronger chipset than the Tab has. To further befuddle matters, I’ve successfully side-loaded a couple blocked apps as experiments, and they worked fine. What apps can and cannot be downloaded for the Galaxy Tab 8.9 feels entirely arbitrary, and I don’t see that situation improving as Samsung has discontinued the device.

Speaking of apps, the quality in the Google Play store is wanting when compared to the iOS App Store. Yes, the axiom is true that it is just as easy to find junk on the App Store as it is Google Play. The problem for Android is that the reverse is not true. It is more difficult to find quality on Google Play than in the App Store, and the problem is compounded when you are using a tablet. The vast majority of Android apps are phone apps that have to run in a ridiculously pixelated mode, or they will have distorted interface elements, or they will simply run in a portion of the tablet’s screen. You need look no further than the Twitter or Facebook app on iOS verses the same official apps on Android to see a stark contrast, both in quality and in the developers’ usage of the tablet form factor. At this time, Google Play doesn’t even separate out tablet-optimized apps the way the iOS App Store does, making tablet app discovery all the more challenging. I find myself frequently appending tablet or hd to the end of every search query in Google Play in the hopes of finding more high resolution apps.

miss the spacebar by a bit, and you find things in the way.

I also have a love-hate relationship with the ever-present task bar at the bottom of the screen. It’s great to quickly access the software control buttons, notifications, and system controls, but there are times I wish I could make it go away. For example, my daughter loves to draw on the tablet, but her motor control is still developing. On my iOS device, she has caught on that her drawing screen will stay in place as long as she doesn’t touch the big round button at the bottom of the device. On the Android tablet, however, she may get energetic with her strokes, and the stylus will brush something in the task bar. Suddenly, the app disappears, or a calculator appears on the screen, or the notification center appears – and she doesn’t know why. Even I feel this pain while typing. On an iPad, I can type fairly quickly, but on the Android keyboard, I catch myself slowing down to avoid tapping the bottom of the screen when going for the spacebar. It would be nice if you could dismiss the task bar in some way.

Finally, the issue of system updates is a serious weakness in the Android ecosystem. By Google’s own stats, roughly 10% of Android devices are running version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich at the time of this post. 64% of devices are still running version 2.3 Gingerbread, and Honeycomb only ever made it to 2% of devices. This Galaxy Tab arrived almost a year after Android 4.0 was released, and it shipped with Android 3.0. Running a system update bumped it to version 3.2 (which resolved a great deal of app crashes), but version 4.0 is yet to make an appearance. I’m going to write about this in another post, but Google has ceded too much control over the Android experience to the carriers and manufacturers, leaving users in the dark. Could you imagine Microsoft letting Dell dictate when Windows updates roll out? Google should be in control of which devices get updates.

Syncing

Samsung makes an app available, called Kies, designed to make syncing media and data with the Galaxy Tab easier. I’m happy to say that it works pretty well. You can add music, photos, and movies to the app at any time, and, when you next plug the Tab into your computer, it will begin transferring those files. I’m especially happy that they make a Mac version of Kies since the Tab does not appear as a mounted volume in the OS X Finder, and other methods of mounting the device, such as Google’s Android File Transfer for OS X, have proven ineffective.

There is also a Kies Air app available for the tablet that makes it possible to transfer files from your computer to the Tab through a wireless network. It works with your machine through a brwoser plug-in, but it should be reserved for relatively small tasks. It did not support selecting multiple files at once, meaning transferring twenty photos would involve selecting each file to sync individually. Also, the plugin became a resource hog on my MacBook, utilizing about 90% of the CPU when not in use and all browsers closed.

When not using Kies, I find apps like Google Drive and Dropbox incredibly useful. For example, when writing this review, I shared my folder of screenshots with my Dropbox account. Within a couple minutes I had a full folder of Android screenshots sitting on my Mac. I also use it and Google Drive to keep important documents available across both devices, and I’ll occasionally move music and video over to my Tab using Dropbox. The trick with tools like Dropbox is that you have limited space on their server (5 GB for a free account), so you have to remember to remove items from your Dropbox folder when you’ve put them where you want.

Wrapping Up

The Galaxy Tab 8.9 would not be my first recommendation for someone looking to buy a tablet – not even if they insisted on an Android tablet over an iPad. It is a curious product, and one that has no future in Samsung’s lineup. If the transition to the Galaxy 2 tablets is any indication, it looks like Samsung is wanting to simplify their offerings to the more standard 10.1″ and 7″ devices that have been standard among other Android manufacturers. The Tab 8.9 is no longer even listed on their website (which I think speaks to how long it took to write this review). It was an experiment, and they’ve abandoned it.

Even after nearly 4,000 words, I’m sure there are nuances and features of the Tab I’m neglecting. I don’t want you to come away from this thinking I have no interest in Android or that I think it is a poorly implemented mobile operating system. It’s very competent, and, as I’ve written before, Android is an amazing accomplishment for such a disrupted development cycle. Google is nimble on their feet. Even Honeycomb is a testament to this, and I’m sure the Android tablet experience will continue to improve. Right now, if you love tinkering and tweaking your system, Android is the way to go. If, on the other hand, you prefer simplicity and predictability, then iOS is the way to go.

If you want a larger tablet, my recommendation is still an iPad. iOS has as many limitations and quirks as Android, but the difference is one of consistency. iOS’s limitations are consistent with its own design philosophies. Android’s seem arbitrary. (“We’re all about customization! But you can’t group apps into folders or even rearrange them…”) The developer tools for Android 4.1 may help change this, but Android is still very much a phone OS in terms of third-party apps. The Android tablet ecosystem is still floundering. If you insist on going Android (and there are many reasons you may want to do so), I’d either go with the inexpensive Lenovo IdeaTab S2 or a high-end Asus Transformer if you’re serious about performance. If you’re looking to go smaller, the Asus Nuxus 7 is the way to go. It’s very price competitive with Amazon’s and B&N’s offerings, and the Nexus’ performance will run circles around either the Kindle or the Nook. The Tab family is neat, but I feel like other manufacturers offer more compelling products at similar or better prices.

Notes:

  • Don’t forget to check out my gallery of Galaxy Tab 8.9 screenshots. (74 images)
  • I’ll be following up this post with some apps and customizations I’ve found useful, allowing for a very different user experience than the stock software.
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