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Samsung tablet is the best one whose name doesn’t start with ‘i’

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 18, 2011

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Just when I was starting to get bored with tablet computers, Apple Inc. found a way to make them exciting again - by trying to have one of them outlawed.

At Apple’s behest, a court in Germany issued an injunction barring Samsung Corp. from selling its latest Galaxy Tab device in that country. The message was clear: Apple doesn’t like the new Galaxy Tab 10.1. Not one little bit. I had to try one, just to find out why.

Sure enough, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the best tablet whose name doesn’t begin with the letter “i.’’

This larger, thinner version of the seven-inch tablet Samsung rushed to market last year is superior to the original in every way. Indeed, if it had come quicker to the market, Samsung might now be neck and neck with Apple in tablet sales.

The first really good Android tablet, the Xoom from Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., looks and feels like a cinderblock next to the Galaxy Tab. Indeed, the Samsung tablet is slimmer and lighter than the newest iPad, with a textured plastic back that seems to welcome your fingers.

Amazon.com sells the entry-level, Wi-Fi-only Galaxy Tab for $499.99, the same as you’d pay for a similar iPad 2. But I wanted to play with the cooler version of the Samsung tablet, sold only through Verizon Wireless. Priced at $529.99 with 16 gigabytes of storage for files and apps, or $629.99 with 32 gigabytes, it offers Verizon’s excellent 4G LTE service. This cellular data service provides download speeds that rival a good home broadband connection.

When Motorola Mobility released the Xoom earlier this year, it promised a summer upgrade to 4G LTE. That’s now been pushed back to September, making the Galaxy Tab the obvious choice for mobile data addicts.

With 4G on board, the Galaxy Tab liberates you from the limited range of Wi-Fi hot spots. I could watch high-resolution YouTube videos anywhere in town, free of pixellation and stuttering.

On the downside, Verizon 4G is rather costly - between $30 and $80 a month. The $30 plan delivers two gigabytes of data downloads. When you’re running at 4G speed, you can burn through that much in just a few days.

With its dual-core processor and a gigabyte of memory for running software, the Galaxy Tab does everything fast. Apps leap open, and Web pages display with minimal delay.

As with the iPad 2, you get front- and rear-facing cameras. Unlike on the iPad 2, they’re decent cameras, with 3 megapixel resolution in back and 2 megapixels up front. The resulting snapshots aren’t exactly world-class, but they’re far better than the murky images I’ve gotten from the iPad 2.

When it comes to ease of use, the Galaxy Tab is still a work in progress. I like Honeycomb, the version of Android designed especially for tablets. Its on-screen controls for basic tablet functions are more accessible than the iPad’s. Still, its cluttered look begs for a makeover. Samsung’s working on one of its own, a custom user interface called Touchwiz. I was eager to try it. But although the company released Touchwiz earlier this month, Samsung soon withdrew the software from circulation, after multiple reports that it caused severe malfunctions.

The Touchwiz fiasco illustrates Apple’s biggest advantage in the tablet wars. Because its hardware and software are made by the same company, the iPad delivers a consistent look and feel, and reliable performance.

With Android devices, you’re never sure what you’ll get, even on a device as generally excellent as the Galaxy Tab. Throw in Apple’s vast library of apps tailor-made for tablets, and the cases, keyboards, and other accessories designed for the iPad, and it’s hard to think of a reason to buy something else.

Hard, but not impossible.

A report this week from ABI Research Inc. found that Android tablets have already picked up 20 percent of the market. The iPad is still far ahead, but it’s slipping at a time when most of its competitors are slower, fatter, and uglier.

Now comes the Galaxy Tab 10.1 - light and sleek, smart, and destined to get smarter. It’s good news for consumers; not so much for Apple.

Still, I wish they’d respond by hiring more engineers, and fewer lawyers.

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