Samsung getting close with new tablet

If any company can build a full-sized tablet computer capable of rivaling Apple Inc.’s iPad, it is Samsung Electronics Co. Except it didn’t.

It is not because of a lack of effort. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, running Google Inc.’s Android operating system, was the best non-Apple tablet of 2011. Apple thinks it’s because Samsung violated their patents, and in June a federal judge halted US sales of the Galaxy Tab, part of a broader legal battle between the two tech giants.

Samsung has already moved on, with a tablet that is even better. The Galaxy Note 10.1 adds a more powerful processor, a stylus for drawing or writing on the screen, a handwriting recognition program that actually works (sometimes), and honest-to-goodness multitasking that lets you do two things at once. All in all, this is one nice tablet — but still not nice enough to topple number one.

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The new Samsung is priced about the same as the iPad: $499 for a version with 16 gigabytes of built-in data storage, or $549 with 32 gigabytes. It’s sheathed in plastic; the one I tried came in gleaming white. It feels warm and comfortable in the hand, though not as solid as the iPad, with its metal case. A pair of stereo speakers are discreetly mounted up front. Along the upper edge, there’s a MicroSD slot for up to 32 gigabytes of additional data storage, an extra that the iPad lacks.

Also, there is an infrared emitter, the kind that can talk to home TV sets. An iPad can also double as a remote control, but it requires the use of a Wi-Fi home network. With the Samsung, it’s just point and tap, once you’ve set up the built-in software to work with your TV or set-top box.

The memory slot and remote control feature are nice technical touches, but have you ever heard an iPad owner complain because it does not have them? Me neither. Yet the owners of the newest iPads would complain if you tried to take away the laser-sharp high-resolution display screen. Apple calls it the Retina display, and users love its exceptional clarity. Samsung has responded with a screen that’s decent enough, but nowhere near the Retina’s resolution.

Then again, the iPad only allows you to run just one app at a time, with others shut down or running in the background. The Galaxy Note’s smartest new feature, Multiscreen, gives you a better option. Multiscreen works with a handful of the tablet’s standard apps, such as the Web browser, video player, and e-mail program, and lets you run two apps side-by-side. For instance, you can run a movie download on one side of the screen, while looking up fun facts about the movie on the Wikipedia website. I routinely do such things on my laptop, and it’s about time for a tablet with this kind of serious multitasking.

Multiscreen works especially well with S Note, a program to write notes on the screen using a plastic stylus tucked into the body of the tablet. I did not like the cheap feel of the stylus or the badly placed control button that I constantly pressed by accident. But S Note, which I tried last year on an Android phone, seems much more useful here.

Jotting on a tablet screen is a good substitute for tapping a virtual keyboard, and the handwriting recognition software worked much better this time around. It is far from perfect, but it deciphered my cursive handwriting a lot more accurately than it did last year.

You can also cut and paste from one Multiscreen app to another. It is easy to drag an image from the photo gallery and drop it into a document you are editing. And speaking of images, the Note 10.1 comes with a tablet-friendly version of Adobe Systems Inc.’s Photoshop editing software at no extra charge.

With so many strong features, Samsung may hope that it has finally developed a serious threat to Apple’s dominance in tablets. But for the same price, you can get an entry-level iPad with the splendid Retina display.

And Samsung’s got an even bigger problem: Android. The software just doesn’t have the elegant, intuitive look and feel of the iPad. Besides, relatively few of Android’s hundreds of thousands of apps have been optimized to run on tablets; Google won’t say exactly how many, but it is surely not nearly as many as Apple, which boasts 225,000.

Samsung is already drawing blood from Apple in the vital smartphone market, with superb handsets like the Galaxy S III. Perhaps it can attain equal success in tablets. But not yet.