The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 runs Android 3.1 Honeycomb, the latest edition of Google’s OS for tablets. Like the smartphone edition of the system you may already be familiar with, it’s split into two main areas – home screens and the apps menu.
Each of the home screens is a playpen, waiting to be customised with widgets and shortcuts as you see fit. Android Honeycomb is compatible with most smartphone widgets, but they tend not to display perfectly because of the 1280×800-pixel screen of the Samsung Tab. Many older widgets may only have factored-in 854×480-pixel screens and below, so end up looking a bit skewed.
What makes Android Honeycomb’s home screens so brilliantly effective in use though is the notifications system. There’s a bar at the bottom that displays any notifications from running apps, including emails, social networking updates and so on. These make the home screens useful as hubs for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, arguably more so that the ability to drop clocks, Twitter boxes and links to your favourite apps onto them.
The other half of the notifications bar – it’s pretty long as it runs across the whole bottom of the tab – is home to software navigation buttons. These take you back a step, jump straight to the home screen, access recent apps and grab a shot of what’s currently on-screen. This nav bar sticks around at all times. It’ll hide its attention-grabbing icons when the media player’s running full-screen, but the bar is still there running under the surface. Just a tap away.
The main apps menu is the simpler catalogue of all of your apps, and is accessed using a link at the top right of these home screens. Unless you’re happy to litter your home screens with shortcuts, this is where you’ll launch most of your apps and games from. That said, one custom element of the Tab’s interface is a pull-up row of app shortcuts at the bottom of the home screen. This is the stand-out feature of Samsung’s Touchwiz UI tweaks. It lets you launch mini-apps like the calculator and world clock on top of other apps.
Delving into third-party software potential, we stumble upon what is perhaps the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1’s biggest problem – there are so few apps and games that make use of its hardware. With a dual-core Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM, it has plenty of power to go around, yet it rarely implemented by developers – as yet. And although the Android Market is now populated by more than 250,000 apps, very few have been optimised for tablet screens. Thousands and thousands of smartphone Android apps will function on the tablet, but when it’s often patently clear than they weren’t remotely designed for the device you’re using the result is disheartening.
When you spend up to £500 on a tablet, you expect a top-end experience. The app experience here is decidedly middling. The Android Market does you no favours here either, making it tricky to find tablet-oriented apps. Some developers tag them with an “HD” title, but this is also used to denote games for high-end smartphones. Compared to the clarity of the iOS app space, where apps are clearly iPhone(/iPod Touch) apps, iPad apps or Universal apps, finding goodies worth gorging on in the Android Market can be a nightmare.
This situation is improving though. We should consider that the iPad series launched in April 2010, where the first Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom, launched in late February 2011. A year’s a long time in this biz. Those without patience would be better served by an iPad 2.
Jet Car Stunts, one of the better-looking tablet-compatible Android games
The youth of Android Honeycomb – along with its open approach – also ensures that it’s not bug-free. We saw a crash screen within the first few minutes of using the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and scrolling within the browser can be bafflingly slow on occasion. Android Honeycomb 3.1 is polished and a joy to use in most respects, but it is temperamental. Just like the apps situation, some patience may be required.
We should stress – these are predominantly problems on Google’s end, not Samsung’s. Hardware-wise, this is a stonkingly good tablet…