It’s hard to write properly about an OS you don’t have around to play with yourself. I’ve had Android devices in the past, played with them in stores, watched videos, and read news – but nothing is quite like having one in your lap to call your own. That’s why I finally decided to get me a Honeycomb tablet a few weeks ago, and the choice fell on the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. It’s a 7-inch device so it’s smaller than my iPad, which I wanted in order to not have two “identical” devices. It has a 1.2Ghz dual core Exynos CPU which is quite a bit faster than the Tegra 2 chipset that some of the older (3-6 months old………) Honeycomb tablets have, and it’s well equipped overall.
It finally arrived to day after I thought the postal people had eaten it, and I’ve had a few hours to play around with it. I was mostly right about its limitations and advantages, but it surprised me in a good way for some features and disappointed me horribly for others. Read on for some very early impressions.
The setup process was very simple and very straight forward. Connect to WiFi, log in to Google, done. The Gmail app was already set up, the calendar widget populated, and Market had my account ready to download apps. The included Samsung apps, on the other hand, had not been configured by this setup. Not that I wanted them to, I consider double of everything from video players to email apps a waste and would classify it as bloatware. That brings me straight into one of my biggest issues with the Tab 7.0 Plus; it’s set up by Samsung to be a Samsung device, with Samsung’s TouchWiz and Samsung’s own/partner’s apps installed. And they won’t go away. It’s true; there’s no uninstall button for things like Adobe Flash, Samsung’s own apps, AccuWeather etc. You can uninstall updates, but that’s it. I sometimes say that Android is a joke to me because of the lack of apps. I never thought it would be more locked down than iOS as well. Yes, iOS has non-removable apps as well, but they’re official – not third party crap (read: they’re first party crap instead, in most cases).
Before you Android users jump on me here, I know that you can root the device, install custom ROMs like CyanogenMod, and basically go wild. I might do that at one point, after the full review of this device. The reason is simple; no one ever bothers looking at features of a jailbroken iOS device when complaining about the limitations of the iPad and iOS. Rooting is just as “intrusive” – or rather just as simple a procedure as jailbreaking, and so I won’t consider what you can “hack” this thing to do for the official review of it. The way that people pick it up at the store is with bloatware all over the place, and that’s not a positive thing.
To mix in some positive aspects of the device and Honeycomb, I can mention video as one of many. The iPad 2 can barely play 720p h264 .mkv video using third party apps, and by barely I mean not really. There’s no hardware acceleration, and it’s about a generation away from being able to wing it using the CPU. The 7.0 Plus on the other hand has no problems playing back those files, and even if the screen is smaller than the video resolution, it looks beautiful on 7 inches of 1024 x 600. It found the files by itself without having to point it to a folder, and the same goes for the Gallery app and the Music app. I’m not a fan of a visible file structure on mobile devices and while Android has it, I’m glad it has alternatives as well.
Back to some criticism, Market bugs me a bit. First off, being landscape only is just stupid. When I hold my device in portrait mode it’s because I want to use it in portrait mode. If the OS can do it, the app store should too. I was also right in my assumption that Market wouldn’t last me long. It took about an hour before I had SlideME installed in order to get an app I wanted that Google threw out “because”. SlideME was kind enough to give me an eWallet to add funds to via PayPal, which is a perfect solution that saves me from giving my card details to every site out there. Meanwhile, in Google Market, I was purchasing Power Amp after having added my new card to Google Checkout (haven’t used that in ages). Google Checkout didn’t quite understand that the reason for me adding a new card was that the other one wasn’t in use anymore, though, and didn’t bother to ask which one was the default one. So when it tried to charge the old card the payment was declined and Google sent me an email about it. It told me to go to my account settings, which is apparently only accessible with the web browser, not Market itself. It told me to retry my card or add a new one, without actually giving me a button to press to “try again”. I deleted the old card and set the new one as default (it was the only one left, anyways) but still nothing. I tried to download the app again, but it simple didn’t download without any further comments on the matter. I tried to buy a $1 game to see if that would give it a kick start, but while that transaction went fine, it still didn’t prompt Google to retry the old one. Not until I added the new card all over again did it trigger the retry and work. Haven’t worked that hard to get someone to take my money in years.
Back on positives, Honeycomb is a whole other beast with a 1.2Ghz Exynos CPU. That lagg I’ve seen in videos is very rare even with a live wallpaper, though the auto rotation could be quicker. I also like the quick access to settings that the taskbar has, and a screenshot button that I think Samsung added themselves. I also played round a bit with the camera and it seems much more competent than that of the iPad 2, though it isn’t a Transformer Prime. Having a ton of settings for the camera is also a nice upgrade from iOS, even though there are third party apps to do it there too. Having a built in navigation app is also a big plus, although you can get that on iOS for $1 (though I think Google Navigation is quite a bit better). The Gmail app is ok, and so is the calendar.
App selection in general isn’t the best though. I’ve only looked around for some apps so far, but my suspicions that Android truly is years behind iOS turned out to be justified. I can forgive it for not having the exact same apps as iOS, like Reeder and Scanner Pro which are my favorite RSS reader and scanner app respectively. There are similar apps out there, I just have to sit down and try them. What I can’t forgive though is apps that don’t exist at all. I’m talking about note taking apps with powerful document annotation features, of course, as that’s the kind of app that makes the iPad all worth it as an educational tool for me. Heck, my lecturer was doing a lecture today with her iPad running Goodnotes connected to the projector via a VGA/D-SUB adapter (btw, that’s the kind of situation that makes me prefer multiple adapters on tablets over a single built-in micro-HDMI connector). I searched the Market for anything that would do the job, and came up with nothing. Well, not nothing; a few apps do have document annotation features, even handwriting, but they seem to believe that signing PDF files is the only use for such features and haven’t bothered to make much of it. While there are dozens of apps competing on the iPad with features such as freehand web clip import, voice recording, embedded web browser windows, all kinds of document support, various export options, magnified mode etc, the few Android apps that did pop up were more along the lines of “you can draw an arrow, rectangle, circle or freehand”. Naturally it all depends on what you want to use the tablet for, but I wouldn’t exactly tell a school to purchase 500 Android tablets for their teachers and students.
As for heavily advertised Android features like widgets, I’m not a fan, but that’s a personal preference. Apps open and close so fast on the iPad that popping open a weather app seems easier to me than use up a part of the screen to always display it. They do look nice though, and the customization they provide makes the tablet more personal. Customization is also a noticeable thing for other, minor features like the key lock, where you can choose to use a pin code, swipe a pattern etc. Swiping a pattern always seemed like such a infinitely more natural way of unlocking a touch screen device than tapping a pin code which is the only option on iOS, and I can’t help bit smile every time I do it now. Speaking of swiping, Swype is installed by default and one of several options in the input menu. I’ve always wanted a chance to really test it out, but while it might be a matter of getting used to it, the number of errors it came up with even with predictive text disabled was horrible. The first time I typed in nothingbuttablets using Swype, it suggest hyperinflation. That was the last anyone ever saw of predictive text on my Android tablet (but I’ve disabled it on the iPad too).
Overall, my first hours with Honeycomb have been filled with both positive and negative surprises, and a fair share of “knew that already”. Some of the differences to iOS are just that – differences, they’re not good or bad. Better video format support is definitely better, and even if you prefer things like a pin code over a swiping gesture, I doubt anyone would mind the choice on stuff like that. Being unable to uninstall bloatware, having Market go bat-shit crazy over an outdated bank card, and outright lacking the same app selection as iOS are however issues that I think can rightfully be called issues, not differences. I’m looking forward to playing with it some more and will of course provide a full review when I feel I have a grasp of everything.