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Tech Lab

Galaxy Tab 7.7 an admirable also-ran

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 15, 2012
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A sleek new tablet computer recently landed on my desk. Alas, it’s the wrong one. Which seems a mighty unfair thing to say about a machine as impressive as the new Galaxy Tab 7.7 tablet computer from Samsung Corp.

By any standard, this is a marvelous device. It’s decisively the best minitablet I’ve tried. It’s razor-thin, sleek, and light, with a gorgeous touchscreen capable of true high-definition video.

But it’s not the new iPad from Apple Inc., which goes on sale Friday. Indeed, using the Tab reminded me why the iPad is the world’s dominant tablet computer, and probably will be for years to come.

The Tab works on high-speed 4G LTE networks, with speeds approaching home broadband levels; so will the new iPad. The Tab looks great, with an organic light-emitting diode screen that produces richer colors; but Apple says the new iPad’s screen will look even better. The Tab’s battery life is so-so. After streaming two full-length movies, it was down to 27 percent power. Apple is claiming that its next-gen iPad will deliver nine-hour battery life even when using LTE, a notorious battery hog.

And while the Tab 7.7 is larger than most other minitablets, it feels not quite big enough.

The new Tab is the sequel to Samsung’s first minitablet, released in 2010. The original Tab had a 7-inch screen wrapped in a bulky plastic case.

This new edition is clad in gleaming metal, and is notably thinner and lighter than its ancestor. But it’s bigger where it counts, with a 7.7-inch screen.

Still, you miss the extra acreage of a full-sized iPad. And since the Tab is still too big to fit in a pocket or hold easily in one hand, the size reduction doesn’t deliver much of a payoff. Apple has repeatedly said that it’s not interested in building minitablets. The Tab 7.7 proves once again that Apple’s skepticism makes sense.

Check out the software. The Tab 7.7 carries the Honeycomb edition of Google Inc.’s Android operating system, a version that was tailored especially to run on tablets. The result is a user interface that provides quick access to all key functions. I find Honeycomb tablets easier to navigate than the iPad. I particularly like the lower right corner of the screen, where I can instantly access all my settings, and the upper left, which serves up a complete inventory of apps.

There’s an even better version of Android for tablets and phones called Ice Cream Sandwich, which was released about three months ago. Yet this brand-new Samsung tablet doesn’t have it yet. How’d that happen?

It’s all because Google doesn’t exercise total control over Android, the way Apple does with its products. Google provides the software at no charge to dozens of manufacturers who have produced hundreds of different phone and tablet designs. That has helped to make Android the world’s most popular smartphone software. But it’s also made the Android universe an unholy mess, with different phones and tablets often running different versions of the software. When Google issues a new version, some Androids get upgraded immediately, others in a few months, some not at all.

By contrast, all Apple devices are pretty much on the same page, with iPad and iPhone users getting upgrades right away. Some new features, like the Siri speech recognition service, may not work on older iPhones, but overall, Apple devices offer a delightfully consistent experience - one more reason to choose the iPad.

Then there’s the price problem. The new Tab costs $499.99, the same as the Wi-Fi-only iPad, but the Tab requires you to buy two years of 4G service at a minimum of $30 a month. The upcoming 4G version of the iPad costs about $130 more up front, but there’s no long-term contract; you can buy a month’s worth of 4G when you need it and cancel the service when you don’t.

The Galaxy Tab 7.7 is an excellent piece of technology, in a market where technical excellence isn’t enough. What’s needed is a tablet that delivers superbly integrated hardware and software at a good price. Apple has already sold 55 million of them. Starting Friday, it will sell quite a few million more.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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