Every time there’s some new hot, heavily hyped gadget from Apple, it takes only a few months for the copycats to crop up. IPod? Zune! IPhone? Android!
The iPad? Well, it came out in March, and the iPad alternatives are just landing in stores now.
Many of them run Google’s Android phone operating system. That’s a shrewd move. Android is mature, polished and free (to the pad makers), and it comes with an existing library of 100,000 apps. Furthermore, any gadget fan who’s used an Android phone will feel instantly at home on the tablet.
In other words, if you make an Android tablet, you can hit the ground running.
The most hotly awaited Android tablet is the Samsung Galaxy Tab, a sleek, sturdy slab, 7.5 by 4.7 by 0.5 inches. The glass front is a 7-inch multitouch screen; the back is off-white plastic.
Samsung sweated the details on this thing. The screen is gorgeous. The touch response is immediate and reliable. The whole thing is superfast and a pleasure to use.
When asked about the onslaught of Android tablets last month, Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, scoffed at their size (most are 7 inches diagonal instead of 10 inches, like the iPad). “This size is useless unless you include sandpaper so users can sand their fingers down to a quarter of their size,” he said.
Well, sure, if you’re used to a laptop or an iPad, seven inches isn’t much. You won’t see as much of the map, the e-book or the Web page without scrolling.
But the Galaxy doesn’t feel like a cramped iPad. It feels like an extra-spacious Android phone. And the payoff is huge. The Galaxy is much lighter than the iPad (13 ounces vs. 1.5 pounds), which makes a huge difference when you have to hold it to watch a movie on the plane. And it’s so small you can carry it in a blazer pocket.
You can even slip it into a jeans pocket, although you might walk around looking as if you have a pulled muscle or something. The Galaxy is almost exactly the size of the latest Amazon Kindle — and it makes a great e-book reader, thanks to the Kindle or the Barnes & Noble apps that let you read those companies’ e-books.
The feature list on this thing is eye-popping. This, of course, is the classic Apple-versus-Google “proprietary versus open” argument. Apple controls the hardware, the software and the app store, so everything is consistent, high quality and clean (meaning, among other things, no pornography apps). Google doesn’t monitor what goes into its app store, so the Android ecosystem is unlimited, chaotic and more confusing.
In any case, the Galaxy offers all of Android’s traditional high points, including many features you can’t get on the iPad. For example, you can customize its nine home screens by placing icons or mini info windows anywhere you like (they don’t have to sit in an organized grid). You can dictate text instead of typing it, or search Google or Google Maps by voice. (On the Galaxy, you can also type using Swype, which I reviewed in July.) You can use Android’s excellent turn-by-turn navigation app — it’s like a car GPS unit with an Imax screen.
There are front- and rear-facing cameras, too — take that, iPad! — with a flash, video, exposure controls and special effects. It’s a little weird to hold up this enormous slate in front of you when you want to take a picture. But it’s also awesome; when have you ever used a camera with a 7-inch screen? You’re practically seeing the enlargement as you frame the shot. It’s a digital photo frame that takes pictures. (The Galaxy stores 16 gigabytes, but also has an SD memory card slot for expansion.)
The Web browser offers the usual two-fingered spread-and-pinch techniques for zooming in and out. Because the Galaxy runs Android 2.2, it can also play Flash videos online (touché, iPad!). Or at least it’s supposed to. After some delay, I got Flash movie trailers and CNet videos to play, but at ESPN.com, the Play Video button just stared at me sullenly. (My Samsung rep says they play fine for him.)
E-mail works well on the 7-inch screen. As usual with Android, though, you process your Gmail in one app, and all other kinds of mail accounts in a separate one. It doesn’t make sense on an Android phone, and it doesn’t make sense here.
As smooth and slick and convenient as the Galaxy is, though, it’s not without its frustrations. When you visit sites like nytimes.com, CNBC.com and Amazon.com, the Galaxy’s browser shows the stripped-down, mobile versions of those sites. According to Samsung, there’s no way to turn that feature off and no way to visit the full-size sites. You can delete the little “m.” in the Web address until you’re blue in the browser, but the Galaxy always puts it right back.
It’s a little odd that you can’t recharge the Galaxy from your laptop’s U.S.B. port. It must be plugged into a power socket.
Another problem: most of the 100,000 apps on the Android store are designed for a phone-size screen, not a tablet. The Galaxy either blows them up, at the expense of clarity, or lets them float in the center of the larger screen with a Texas-size black border.
This problem, of course, was familiar to early iPad adopters: iPhone apps ran on the iPad, but couldn’t exploit the larger screen. But Apple encouraged programmers to come up with iPad-specific versions, and released a software-writing kit to help them along. Google hasn’t done that yet, so it may be awhile before 7-inch Android apps become the norm.
The biggest drawback of the Galaxy, though, may be its price: $600. You could buy two netbooks for that money, or four Kindles —or one 16-gigabyte iPad, with its much larger screen, aluminum body and much better battery life. (The iPad gets 10 hours on a charge; the Galaxy, about 6 hours.)
You can get the Galaxy for $400 if you’re willing to sign a two-year contract for cellular service. All four major American cellphone carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint — will offer it. The Galaxy gets online in Wi-Fi hot spots. But if you want to go online using the cellular airwaves, you’ll pay $20 to $50 a month, depending on the carrier and how much data you expect to use. (Good luck figuring that out. Quick: how many megabytes do you need for 10 Flickr pages?)
You can’t make regular phone calls on this thing. But you can send and receive unlimited text and picture messages (to cellphones) and conduct flaky video calls using an app called Qik. (You can’t make Skype calls, though. Samsung says it’s working on a fix.)
T-Mobile, by the way, wishes to point out the superiority of its deal. If you pay full price ($600), for example, you can sign up for cell service on an à la carte basis — $10 a week or $30 a month, for example — without a two-year ball and chain. And T-Mobile doesn’t charge extra to use the Galaxy as a Wi-Fi hot spot for your other gear, either — a neat, if battery-guzzling trick that would cost you $30 a month extra from, for example, Sprint.
So yes, the dawn of the would-be iPad is upon us. But the Android tablet concept represents more than just a lame effort to grab a slice of tablet hype. As with Android phones, it represents an alternative that’s different enough to justify its existence. You’re buying into a different approach to size, built-in goodies like cameras and GPS, and the more freewheeling Android app store.
With the Samsung Galaxy Tab, you’re also buying delicious speed and highly refined hardware. It’s just a shame that you’re buying all that for $600.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.