updated 06:00 pm EDT, Sun October 30, 2011
We check the Galaxy Tab 10.1 software update
We've had the opportunity to test the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in its 3G version just ahead of its release on T-Mobile. While it's superficially the same, we'll check both 3G performance and how well Samsung's TouchWiz interface layer works in practice. Read below for what's different and whether our view has changed relative to the iPad since the 'pure' Tab 10.1 first showed.
The 3G version of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 supports 21Mbps HSPA+ for getting online. In practice, there's a sharp difference between that and the 4G LTE Galaxy Tab on Verizon, but not by as much as the theoretical peaks of either would suggest. We found ourselves getting between 5.5Mbps to 6.5Mbps downstream and between 1.2Mbps and 1.3Mbps upstream on Bell's network; T-Mobile's speeds should be similar in areas where network capacity is large enough.
In practice, it's even closer to the 4G version, if just because most situations are more dependent on low lag, not raw bandwidth. At an average 80ms, the latency is less than half of a usual 3G connection, and it's close enough to Wi-Fi that download speeds only matter for large files. Streaming 720p video works without a hitch.
TouchWiz on the slate is a relatively subtle affair compared to the conspicuously Apple-like Galaxy S II. Much as with what we saw in March when TouchWiz first appeared, the emphasis is more on large widgets and quick shortcuts than any kind of simplification. Some of the widgets are very useful: we like having the full weather forecast or our Google Calendar on the home screen, for example. Others, like a photo frame widget and contact shortcuts, appear more to be for the sake of filling up space, although we can imagine some wanting photos of children or a link to a person they e-mail every day.
The quick apps, available in the bottom taskbar, adopt the same general philosophy. Having a quick note-taking app is handy; Samsung is also partly admitting an Android flaw in including a memory manager that lets you close apps that Android 3 doesn't. Still, some of these appear to be more for Samsung to put its own stamp on the OS; Android 3 already has a music control in the status area, and the clock and calendar pop-ups don't do what widgets already would. We do like the ability to take a screenshot from any area: it's something that's coming to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but it's nice to have early and an area where Android really needed to catch up relative to the iPad.
We liked Samsung's expansion of the quick settings area to include shortcuts to common features like Wi-Fi and brightness, although here Samsung is being relatively conservative and, between its widget and the taskbar, includes its third clock. The keyboard isn't a breakthrough, either. There's also the question of Samsung's policy towards TouchWiz itself: if you want any updates beyond Android 3.1, you're forced to use its custom skin. It's true that an iPad owner has to go whatever direction Apple takes, too, but it's a bit of a slap to take a clean install and make owners get a customized layer whether they want it or not.
In its final form, TouchWiz doesn't affect performance as much as we saw when it was first made public. Samsung is still fairly good about tuning the performance, and while Android's characteristic lag is still there and bothersome, it's kept to a minimum. Even so, we did notice some difference when jumping between home screens full of widgets (Samsung's default layout) and those relatively lean, so we'd cut back to the ones you really value first.
Do 3G and TouchWiz significantly affect our review? On a broader level, no; what you get from TouchWiz is a mixture of some benefits and a few drawbacks. The value of 3G will depend on how it's priced. At Bell, it's $650 without a contract for a 16GB version and includes prepaid data plans that start at $15 (for a too-small 250MB) and get closer to the sweet spot at $35 for 5GB. The device price is more expensive than for an equivalent iPad 2, but it may be worthwhile if you prefer Android or the faster 3G speeds until the iPad 3 possibly gets a faster cellular link. T-Mobile hadn't given prices as of this writing, but it will need to get to at least that target, if not better, to compete.
We saw how HTC and Motorola effectively killed their chances against the iPad by pricing artificially higher than Apple and not offering a Wi-Fi version at first. As even Samsung has been burned by this in the past, we hope T-Mobile is at least in line with Bell. The 3G Galaxy Tab 10.1 won't rock the Apple boat -- it doesn't change issues with performance, but it's a good communicator and arguably the pick of the initial crop of Android 3 tablets.