Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus review

Last year, the Galaxy Tab from Samsung was pretty much the only tablet out there aside from the iPad. That all changed in 2011, and the original Galaxy Tab has slowly disappeared as Samsung has focused more on the ~10-inch range of tablets with its 10.1 and 8.9 tablets. Android was at fault for that, as the early versions of Android 3.X Honeycomb simply weren’t designed to run on smaller devices. That all changed with Android 3.2, and the 7-inch segment was once again within Samsung’s reach. It didn’t take it long to get an upgraded version of the original Galaxy Tab to market, and it fittingly named it the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus to honor the original. Not only does it have upgraded hardware from the original, it also boasts some nice upgrades from the 10.1 and 8.9. Read on for the full review.

Hardware

Design

It took a while for 10-inch tablets to reach the sweet spot in size and weight, somewhere around 9 mm thick and 600 grams heavy (oh I’m sorry, Apple/Samsung/every manufacturer ever, was that supposed to be “9 mm thin and 600 grams light”?). The same thing has been true for the 7-inch segment, with devices like the HTC Flyer and Acer A100 being both thick and heavy compared to what Samsung has been able to do with the 7.0 Plus. At 9.9 mm thick and345 grams heavy, it’s just shy of being exactly half of everything that a 10-inch tablet is. That also goes for the surface area, which at 193.7 x 122.4 mm is fairly close to half that of the Galaxy Tab 10.1’s 256.7 x 175.3 mm.

I’ve already posted some thoughts on the usefulness of this form factor, and the 7.0 Plus is really at the top of its class when it comes to making everything as compact as possible. Just to put things in perspective with more recent hardware, the Kindle Fire is 190 x 120 x 11.4 mm and weighs 413 grams while the Nook Tablet is 206 x 127 x 12 mm and weighs in at 400 grams. Even though the 7.0 Plus is both lighter, thinner, and has beefier hardware, it matches the others for battery life – but more on that later. The bottom line as far as physical footprint goes is that Samsung really has a compact device here.

The design of the 7.0 Plus is fairly straightforward. You have rounded off corners, rounded off edges, and a rounded off back. There are no sharp edges anywhere, and that makes the device very comfortable to hold. The 1024 x 600 pixel capacitive multitouch screen is protected with glass while the edges and back are made of very high quality plastic with a brushed metal finish. I actually prefer the plastic backing on the 7.0 Plus to the aluminum backing of my iPad 2, as the former is softer to hold, gives a better grip, and doesn’t give me frostbite from touching it.

Being a Honeycomb device, the 7.0 Plus has no physical buttons on the front, just a volume rocker and sleep/wake button on the right side. The sleep/wake button is a tad annoying; having it on the right side and so close to the volume rocker means it’s easy to accidentally press it both when you’re going for the volume rocker and when you’re holding the device in one hand. It’s also very soft to press, and that adds to the accidental screen locks that are inevitable with this device. It should have been placed on top and been much harder to press down.

The right side (or top if you’re in landscape mode) also has the IR emitter that the 7.0 Plus has built in, which I’ll get back to later. The left side has the microSD slot, the top has the microphone and 3.5mm audio port, and the bottom has the stereo speakers, an additional microphone, and proprietary dock connector that is the same as on Samsung’s other Galaxy Tabs. This port is used both for charging, connecting to a PC, and connecting accessories.  There’s also an additional speaker on the front, placed where you’d put it on a phone. This speaker registers to the OS just like it would on a phone, and in apps like Skype you can switch between it and the main speakers and hold the device to your ear like a phone, utilizing that bottom microphone. Combined with the proximity sensor on the front that cuts off the screen and touch input when you hold it close to your ear, the 7.0 Plus has all it needs to work as a big phone, for the simple reason that it can be a big phone, given that you have a 3G version that has it enabled. The WiFi versions, and the 3G versions I’ve seen in our parts of the world, don”t have it enabled however.

The 7.0 Plus charges using a USB cable and the standard 5V of USB, but like most tablets it requires more than the 500mA output of most USB ports in order to charge at full speed. The AC adapter that comes with it is rated at 10W, which with 5V is 2A or 2000mA, 4 times that of normal USB. This difference between voltage and amperage confuses people, but basically you will never fry anything that charges via USB by plugging it into something else with USB, as the worst thing that will happen is that it charges slowly or not at all.

That being said, Samsung did decide to be a real bitch with the charger. Many companies turn the standardized USB connection into a proprietary solution by making the device look for, for example, a 1k resistor on the data pins of the USB connector before it starts charging. Apple does this, and apparently Samsung does it too. The result is that while both the iPad 2 and 7.0 Plus charge using 10W, 5V/2A AC adapters with a USB connector interface, they both refuse to charge from the other one’s charger for no reason other than that Samsung and Apple has added a completely unnecessary “brand check” to them. While not many people have multiple tablets like me and won’t care that I have to carry around a charger more than should be necessary, this also affects the 7.0 Plus’ ability to use generic USB chargers and external battery packs. Unlike with Apple products, you aren’t likely to find Samsung-compatible chargers and battery packs in every store on Earth, so Samsung has shot itself in the foot with this one.

Under the hood

Then you have the tablet’s “sensors.” I already mentioned the proximity sensor on the front that switches off the screen when holding it like a phone. I’m pretty sure this is separate from the main light sensor that adjusts the brightness of the screen and such, as there are three small sensors visible beside the speaker on the front: camera, light sensor, and presumably the proximity sensor. Internally you have the gyroscope and accelerometer  that senses rotation and movement, and there’s even a setting in the menus that allows you to do such things as moving icons between home screens and zooming pictures by using motion controls. I turned those off though, as I found them a bit silly and unnecessary. Samsung also put a GPS in the thing, which is nice to see on a WiFi-only tablet. Lastly, you have the cameras. The front has a 2 megapixel camera for video chat, while the back has a 3.2 megapixel autofocus camera and a LED light.

As for the things that makes the cogwheels turn, the 7.0 Plus actually doesn’t run on a Tegra 2. It runs on Samsung’s own Exynos chip, which pushes the two ARM Cortex A9 cores up to 1.2GHz instead of 1GHz, which is normal on SoCs (System on a Chip) like the Tegra 2. The GPU is the Mali-400, which is also quite a bit faster than much of the competition, but more on that in a bit. There’s 1GB of RAM, 16 or 32GB of internal storage, and a microSDHC slot for expanding that storage. 802.11 a/b/g/n dual band WiFi and Bluetooth 3.0 are also in there.

Samsung also gave the 7.0 Plus tactile feedback with a tiny motor that vibrates like on a cell phone.  The model I have is the P6210, US WiFi-only model, so keep that in mind as there are models with cellular hardware available.

In other words, there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to the hardware. The 7-incher market is pretty popular these days, especially in the US where the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire have just been released at a much lower price point than most other tablets. If you’re wondering why the $400 Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus is that much more expensive than these cheap tablets, then I think I just gave you about 20 reasons above. You can transplant a fair share of software from one tablet to another, but you’re pretty much stuck with the hardware, so keep that in mind before you jump on the cheaper options.

Screen

The 7.0 Plus has a 7-inch 1024 x 600 screen, which means that both the physical size and resolution is lower than most Honeycomb tablets. While the resolution is lower, the pixel density is actually higher; 170 PPI on the 7.0 Plus vs 150 PPI on 10.1-inch/1280 x 800 devices and 132 PPI on the iPad. In other words, the screen is very sharp and nice to look at.

The display is a PLS display, which is another word for “good viewing angles.” Aside from some contrast issues when viewed from the right at a sharp angle in landscape mode, the display doesn’t disappoint in terms of viewing angles. Colors are nice, and even 1/3 brightness has been enough for me indoors. You’ll still face issues outdoors though, as this doesn’t have the near-flashlight backlighting option of the upcoming Transformer Prime.

The display is beautiful for everyday tasks and fits the device quite well. The upcoming Galaxy Tab 7.7 will have a 1280 x 800 AMOLED display that many would much rather have, though some complain of over-saturation with AMOLED. I wouldn’t have minded 1280 x 800 in this device, of course, but it wouldn’t have made much practical difference as physical screen real estate is where the 7.0 Plus fails in some regards. That is especially the case for reading documents and magazines, as the screen size combined with the screen ratio makes reading anything that’s designed to be printed on paper somewhat awkward. The physical screen size also means a 6 x 5 icon desktop, which is also lower than larger tablets. If anything though, I would have preferred a 1024 x 768 7-inch tablet instead of just an upgrade to 1280 x 800 with the existing screen ratio, but that’s not how Android rolls.

Performance

Interface and apps

Honeycomb tablets have been haunted by performance issues throughout the year as the Tegra 2 chips that make smartphones fast as heck are somewhat less impressive when tasked with powering tablets. Clock speed is often what’s highlighted in specs, but that doesn’t really tell the full story. While the CPU in the 7.0 Plus runs at a 20% higher clock speed, the real boost comes from the GPU. For most tasks, it’s a lot faster than what we’ve seen on tablets thus far. It also only has to power a 1024 x 600 screen, whereas the slower hardware of larger tablets needs to deal with 1280 x 800.

This is noticeable in menus and things like that. The interface is for the most part buttery smooth, though there are times where it starts to hiccup. This is normally due to too many background tasks or simply apps that are poorly coded. As long as the hardware is allowed to concentrate on a few things, the interface experience is very nice. The auto rotate is a bit sluggish though, but I’m starting to think that’s just Android as even the Tegra 3-powered Transformer Prime shows the same thing in videos I’ve seen of it. I’m starting to think that no hardware upgrade can ever make Android compete with an OS that’s custom built for the hardware (iOS).

Moving to app performance, you’ll mostly need beefy hardware for more advanced 3D games like ShadowGun. It handles those types of games just fine, so right now there really isn’t any software on the market that will kill the 7.0 Plus. Similarly, 1GB of RAM means that multitasking isn’t an issue, but that’s no invitation to try to run as much as possible in the background. I always kill tasks I don’t need simply because I don’t need them – no point in testing my luck with the RAM.

Video

If the 7.0 Plus has a limitation for what sort of video formats, bitrates, and resolutions it can handle, then I haven’t found it. After I threw a 1080p h.264 .mkv file at it and it acted as if it was playing back a 320×240 video file, complete with no buffering, instant resume when skipping ahead, and so on, I gave up trying to make it fail. A nice combination of software, hardware, and magic dust makes this a very capable video player.

Of course you won’t have any use for 1080p on the device itself unless you connect to a bigger screen with HDMI (which is an optional accessory), but 720p files have a place on it to fill up those 1024 x 600 pixels (even if you still don’t “use all the pixels”). As you can imagine, HD video looks very good on the screen. I remember back in the old days when portable DVD players were the latest and greatest. Huge devices with giant batteries barely provided enough battery power to watch a movie on those 7-inch 480 x 272 screens. Now, less than a decade later, our 7-inch devices let us watch 8 hours of Blu-Ray rips on devices with more than 4 times the resolution and a fraction of the weight.

Sensor suite

The 7.0 Plus WiFi-only model also has GPS, which means that it has to find the position without using cell towers to triangulate the initial area to look for satellites in (which is what the Assisted/A-part of A-GPS stands for). Still, the GPS is very quick to get a lock and seems very accurate. Since this is an Android device, you already have navigation software built in courtesy of Google, as well as third-party options. Having GPS in the 7.0 Plus makes a world of sense because it’s small enough to be used as a window-mounted GPS, which you can’t really say about 10-inch tablets. Samsung isn’t blind to this, and it’s no surprise that one of very few official accessories is a car kit for mounting and charging the 7.0 Plus in a GPS navigation role. Offline maps is key here if you have the WiFi-only model.

The rest of the sensors perform as expected, more or less. I still don’t see much point in zooming pictures with motion control, but I’m sure some people will find a use for that feature, so it’s better to have it than not. The one gripe I have though is the automatic backlight, which always seems to make the screen too dark. I’ve always had my iPad set on automatic and had it function perfectly, but apparently Samsung doesn’t share my and Apple’s idea of appropriate backlighting. I’ve seen others complain about this online as well, so I’m not alone.

Camera

The camera on the 7.0 Plus is…okay. 3.2 megapixels isn’t a lot, but doesn’t really say anything about image quality. The image quality is rather fitting to the resolution though, as it isn’t exactly the best – nor the worst. It’s about as average as they get, with detail and noise levels that are acceptable but not exactly suited for printing. It’s the kind of camera you use to show someone something, not document the family vacation.

The 720p video mode is very much the same way, and neither mode will replace standalone cameras. That being said, the still camera provides good enough photos for scanning documents with software such as Cam Scanner. The LED light (I refuse to call it a flash) helps with that as well. The irony here is that the screen size and ratio isn’t as well suited to read those documents as larger tablets.

The camera quality is a bit of a letdown. While waving 10-inch tablets around to take photos is both awkward and looks stupid, the 7-inch form factor is much closer to an actual camera. I could very well picture myself using the 7.0 Plus to take some quick shots if the camera had been up to the task. I don’t think a better camera would have added too much to the overall cost, and the 7.0 Plus is already a premium device compared to other 7-inch devices, so having a better camera to show for itself would have been nice.

Below is a test video and photos from the camera. Be aware that the photos are unedited and not resized, so they might take a while to load on a slow connection.

    

Battery

The magic number on the 7.0 Plus is 8 hours. That number will vary greatly depending on what you do, screen brightness, wireless use, and so on, but it’s basically the normal scenario if you sit down and do something like watch a video continuously. Galaxy Tabs of multiple models have been plagued with something called sleep of death, where the tablet won’t wake from sleep and needs to boot up again. This is commonly believed to be an issue with the WiFi not going to sleep properly, so it can be a good idea to set that to turn off completely when the screen is off. That means it won’t be able to grab emails and such while it’s sleeping, but it will help the sleep of death issue and also the battery life in general.

8 hours isn’t bad for a tablet that’s half the size of 10-inch tablets, and a lot better than some 7-inchers out there. It’s about the same as the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, but keep in mind that the 7.0 Plus is lighter, thinner, and has more going on under the hood – which makes the battery life quite impressive.

Software

Samsungdroid 3.2

The 7.0 Plus runs a customized version of Android 3.2. Samsung has given the OS its own touch in the form of TouchWiz and various tweaks and settings, so the experience isn’t identical with other Android devices. It seems like every company has its own UI to put on top these days. Both the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet run very heavily customized UIs, and other companies like Asus and Acer have various tweaks on a smaller scale.

It became quite clear in my Android vs iOS comparison that Samsung has tweaked both visible and less visible parts of the OS on the 7.0 Plus. For instance, it doesn’t trigger the app scaling option on phone optimized apps in the same places as on larger Galaxy Tabs, probably because the size (being closer to a phone) makes Samsung think that fewer phone apps have issue on the 7.0 Plus. I also found USB gamepad drivers missing, something that other manufacturers have implemented as they should. Even things like how the device connects to a computer is different from other Android devices, so there are all these minor changes here and there that makes it impossible for me to separate Samsung’s tweaks from stock Android. Perhaps the most annoying thing Samsung did was to create Kies, a PC program that is needed to update the 7.0 Plus; over-the-air updates simply don’t work.

Such tweaks are very common and part of the experience you get with an Android device that runs the stock firmware. You can of course root and change that, but for this review I’m basing it all on what Samsung wants me to see.

Bloatware

Samsung looooves bloatware. The 7.0 Plus ships with a whole range of apps, some of which are made by Samsung, many of which aren’t. The worst thing is that they can’t be uninstalled, so you’re stuck with them unless you root the device. I really have no need for three video player apps, but when Samsung adds another one to the stock Android app and I then download the one I like the best, that’s the result when it won’t let me uninstall the two I didn’t choose. Weather widgets, RSS readers, music players, etc. – the 7.0 Plus is full of them. You might like some, you might not – point is, you should be allowed to choose without rooting. At the very least you can just ignore them, which is good.

SmartRemote

One of the included apps that I don’t consider bloatware is SmartRemote. As I mentioned earlier the 7.0 Plus has an IR transmitter built in, allowing it to work as a universal remote. SmartRemote is the software that controls this feature. It lets you add devices and then control them using the 7.0 Plus, and that’s quite a neat feature. I don’t have anything that works with an IR remote so I have just barely tested it on my neighbor’s TV, but it worked fine there. I don’t know if there will be third-party apps that can use this in the future, but that would be nice. Having an app that can use it out of the box is pretty crucial, and SmartRemote is that app.

Google Apps

Unlike some tablets that are either too cheap or too customized, the 7.0 Plus comes with the full suite of Google apps, from Gmail and Reader to Navigation. Samsung has stuffed the poor thing full of its own apps to do a lot of the same things, like its own email app or the third-party Pulse RSS reader, but at the very least they didn’t remove what was already there.

Market and app stores

Google apps also means the 7.0 Plus has Android Market, which is also not to be taken for granted these days. You can also sideload apps via .apk files, which means you can install third-party app stores. Samsung has an app called Samsung Apps that shows off some apps that it feels are good for your new tablet, though this only opens Market and doesn’t contain its own store.

High-performance Kindle Fire?

A few weeks ago I posted about how someone was running Kindle Fire apps on a first-generation Galaxy Tab. While I haven’t tried the apps on my 7.0 Plus, the same “trick” should work just fine there – and of course you already have the Kindle app. As I said earlier, you can often transplant software from one device to another, but not hardware, so if you want the Kindle Fire experience but in a more powerful package, the 7.0 Plus might be for you.

App capability

Being a 7-inch device, the 7.0 Plus fits some apps better than others compared to 10-inch tablets. Ebook reading is brilliant on it because of the excellent size; there’s a reason why Amazon and Barnes & Noble chose the 7-inch segment for their tablet ereaders. Magazine apps and things that are formatted for paper doesn’t suit it as well, as mentioned earlier. Games and such work without a hitch, be it simple things like Angry Birds or more advanced games like ShadowGun.

The 7.0 Plus is in a situation where it can use both tablet optimized apps and phone optimized apps without either looking out of place. This gives you a fair share of freedom and makes you less dependent on tablet optimized apps. That being said, it sometimes shines through that you’re on a smaller device. Web browsing for instance is horrible with the built-in browser as the toolbars take up so much of the horizontal space in landscape mode that there isn’t much left for the actual web page. Third-party apps help this, though.

The weakest app performance you’ll see on the 7.0 Plus is likely with anything that involves drawing or handwriting, simply because you have a much smaller screen to work on. The HTC Flyer has a digitizer pen to help this, and while I wouldn’t really want that in the 7.0 Plus due to size and cost, that’s basically the only way you’ll be able to work that way with a 7-inch device. Capacitive styli work, of course, but aside from scribbling post-it notes with Samsung’s Pen memo app you’re unlikely to work that way very much.

Multimedia

Since the 7.0 Plus runs Android and has hardware capable of basically anything you can throw at it, it makes for a nice multimedia device. Most streaming services and such have Android apps, and naturally these will work with this device. Music, photos, video, and games are all more than welcome on this device, and the size makes it a more portable solution than bigger tablets. Samsung also includes a few apps to that end, such as Media Hub, which allows you to buy video content, and AllShare, which is a DLNA streamer. You can get these features from third-party apps too, and some fall in my bloatware category, but it’s nice that Samsung is trying to provide a content ecosystem for its devices.

The stereo speakers also hint to this device’s multimedia capabilities. They’re not overly loud, but provide decent sound for what they do. They’re not really stereo though, since they’re both placed on the bottom, which becomes the right side in landscape mode. You would have had to have one on the top and one on the bottom for them to actually provide anything close to stereo.

As for headphones, Samsung ships the 7.0 Plus with some IEMs (in-ear monitors, which are earphones that go deeper in the ear) that also have a remote on the cable. The sound quality is truly awful though, so don’t expect to be using these. However, I have a tutorial for how to transplant the cable from such headphones onto better headphones on my personal site – the tutorial was originally made for Apple headphones, but the procedure is basically the same.

Accessories

Aside from the headphones, cable, and AC adapter that come with the device, Samsung has a few official accessories for the 7.0 Plus, and I’m hoping that some third-party cases and such will eventually pop up. There’s the USB kit that I reviewed, a multimedia dock, keyboard dock, case, HDMI adapter, and vehicle mount. Naturally you also have generic accessories such as all those remote control toys that connect to the audio port of Android devices, Bluetooth accessories, etc. It’s worth mentioning that the 7.0 Plus supposedly has aptX support, which is an audio codec used in Bluetooth audio streaming that is vastly superior to what most devices can do in the Bluetooth audio department. This means that aptX-compatible Bluetooth headphones might be a nice investment for 7.0 Plus users.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus has a lot going for it. The size and weight is truly excellent and as far as I know unmatched in the 7-inch segment right now, and having a tablet that you can hold in one hand is a very useful thing. The hardware is really impressive, packing both a CPU and GPU that is significantly better than the Tegra 2 generation of tablets, even if it’s not a Tegra 3. Things like GPS and an IR transmitter are just icing on the cake, and the only thing that is really missing is a better camera. The fact that the 3G version has the capability to be a full phone (if enabled by the  carrier) further adds to the usefulness of it as a ultraportable tablet.

Software-wise, the 7.0 Plus should satisfy both people who like to root and switch ROMs and people who like to keep the stock firmware. I’ve only really gone into the stock experience in this review, simply because that’s what Samsung is selling – I wouldn’t cover features only available with jailbreaking in an iPad review either. Samsung’s bloatware and lockdown of parts of the device means that other avenues might have to be explored at some point, though.

All in all I really like the 7.0 Plus. I feel that the size justifies its existence in a time where anything that otherwise doesn’t pack a Tegra 3 has no business being released. The 7.7 will be out soon, and while these two might not cross paths in all countries, they’re similar enough that a choice might have to be made between them.

As far as the cheaper 7-inch tablets go, well, the 7.0 Plus is a $400 tablet, and the difference in price is for a reason. If you want performance and enough hardware to last you for a while, then I wouldn’t really recommend trying to save money by hacking away at those cheaper tablets. Samsung has done a great job with the 7.0 Plus, and it deserves to be seen as something other than a more expensive Kindle Fire.

Lastly, there’s the question of this compared to a 10-inch tablet. 7-inch tablets are at the low end of the size scale for tablets, meaning that they gain some functionality and lose some. It comes down to what you want to use the tablet for, and I think Samsung’s inclusion of phone features pretty much states outright that portability is key here. If you want a tablet that is Pocketable, this is a great choice. More so than most 7-inchers out there.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.