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Samsung’s tablet isn’t ready to take on iPad yet

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / November 18, 2010

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Know somebody who owns a Zune? Well, Samsung Electronics Co. has created the perfect tablet computer for anyone who does.

What’s a Zune? That’s Microsoft Corp.’s portable music player, the one that was supposed to be a worthy rival to Apple Inc.’s iPod. Zune players are actually quite good, but they’ve never caught on.

Which brings us to Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. Priced at up to $650, the Tab is widely considered the first device with a chance to rival Apple’s iPad tablet. Sure enough, it’s a nice piece of hardware, with a bright, colorful multitouch screen, a fast processor, and Google Inc.’s reliable Android operating system, all stuffed into a 7-inch-wide device that’s half the size of an iPad. But it’s overpriced and underdeveloped — a Zune in the making, unless Samsung and its partners wake up.

The Tab is designed for use with the wireless data services offered by the nation’s cellphone carriers. All the majors are on board; you can get the Tab through AT&T Inc., T-Mobile USA, Sprint Nextel Corp., or Verizon Wireless. It’s even available through one of the biggest regional cell companies, US Cellular, which doesn’t offer service in the Boston area.

With AT&T and Verizon, you pay full price for the Tab, then buy a no-contract data plan, at prices that can range from $20 to $80 a month, depending on how much downloading you do. Sprint and T-Mobile follow the tradition of cellphone pricing; you pay $400 for the Tab, but commit yourself to a two-year service contract at prices ranging from $25 to $60 a month.

The Tab is a 3G device, and incompatible with newer data services from Sprint and T-Mobile, which can be three or four times faster than 3G. Luckily, the Tab is also compatible with Wi-Fi wireless networking. It’s far faster than 3G, and just the thing for going online at home.

Whatever data plan you choose, forget about using the Tab to make phone calls. Don’t blame Samsung; the version sold in European markets does work as a phone. US carriers insisted that this function be left out.

But there are other smart features on board.

The cameras that Apple left off the iPad are here — two of them, front and back. Unlike the iPad, the Tab can handle videos created in the popular Flash format, giving you better access to thousands of media-rich websites.

You get to use Swype, the remarkable Android software that lets you type by dragging a finger across the keyboard to form words. Google searches are voice-enabled, just like on Android cellphones. And the Tab delivers Google’s GPS navigation software, free of charge.

The Tab’s hardware seems solid enough. It’s got a snappy 1 gigahertz processor, and while its video screen doesn’t measure up to Apple standards, it’s reasonably bright and sharp. Battery life is quite good. I downloaded two episodes of “Law & Order LA’’ and ran them for about seven hours before the power gave out.

Still, the Tab needs better apps. I tested two Tabs, one from T-Mobile and the other from Sprint. Both featured Qik, a program that’s supposed to enable videoconferencing, like the FaceTime feature of Apple’s iPhone. Calls frequently fell through, and video quality was dreadful. Other apps that are familiar from the iPad don’t seem quite as good on the Tab. The Wall Street Journal’s online edition, for example, just isn’t as appealing on a 7-inch screen.

The Tab’s smaller size is supposedly a key selling point, but not for me. It’s still too big to hold comfortably in one hand, and it barely fits into a suit jacket’s pocket. I found it nearly as hard to handle as an iPad.

I much prefer another Android mini-tablet, the Streak from Dell Inc. At 5 inches, it’s far more portable than either the Tab or the iPad, but large enough for typical tablet tasks like e-book reading. The Streak, sold through AT&T, is also a full-fledged cellphone. And with a two-year contract, it’s just $300. After all, if you want a cut-rate iPad, pick one that’s really cut-rate.

It’s not necessary to give up on the Tab; it will get cheaper and the apps will come. Price it right, throw in a phone, make it compatible with 4G wireless, and Samsung will have a serious iPad rival. That’s a lot better than having the next Zune.

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