At first glance it seems that Samsung’s product development strategy is simply “offer all the sizes.” Their product line is slowly expanding to have tablets and phones that exist in every inch range between 3 and 11 as shown by their Galaxy Tab 10.1, 7.0, and now the 8.9. Oh yeah, the Galaxy Tab 7.7 is also on the way. However, there’s something about the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 that stands out from the two screen size extremes in the marketplace today, so Samsung sent us a review unit to see if we could find it. Screen size alone can’t make a tablet special, so lets see if Samsung nailed it or failed it with the Galaxy Tab 8.9.
A quick rundown of the specs shows that it is almost identical to its bigger brother, the 16GB Galaxy Tab 10.1 in terms of hardware and software. Both are powered by a 1Ghz dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor and both are 8.6mm thin and sport a 1280×800 screen resolution. The 1.2 inch difference in diagonal screen size between the Tab 10.1 and the Tab 8.9 doesn’t drastically reduce the difference in dimensions but it does trim the weight of Galaxy Tab 8.9 down to 15.77 ounces (447 grams), making it much more comfortable to hold for long periods than the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Bluetooth 3.0 and a/b/g/n WiFi give you fast connectivity with the internet and with other devices but the lack of a microSD slot means that you have to rely on either wirelessly transferring your content or using Samsung’s proprietary USB connector.
The build material of the device paled compared to alternative like the iPad. It felt quite plasticky and cheap, worrying us that a single drop would severely damage the casing. The lack of high quality material is not new for Samsung devices but the asking price for the Galaxy Tab 8.9 (which we will talk about later) is not justified in terms of the material quality. Despite the cheap and fragile feel of the device, it is quite attractive with its sleek black bezel and its two-toned gray bezel and rear. It isn’t too much of a finger print magnet and although you will get plenty of smudges from regular use, those fingerprints do not prominently distract from the experience and a quick wipe brings the device back to its pristine condition.
Regardless of the plasticky material, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 was quite sturdy and it didn’t bend or flex under pressure. The only other qualm we had was with the headphone jack. The centric jack position made it way too easy for headphone cords to fall right on front of the screen whenever we were making a video call or using the screen to watch a movie. Perhaps this is a bit nitpicky, but we find it extremely taboo to have any screen obstruction present when viewing a display. The cord from the headphones was a consistent annoyance when video calling as the jack lies almost on top of the front facing camera. Too often would the cord creep into the camera’s field of view. We were able to compensate by flipping the device upside down but that put the camera even lower, forcing us to hold the Tab uncomfortably higher to compensate. We strongly suggest that Samsung move the headphone jack to the side of the device, that way the headphone cord could fall along the bezel instead of on the screen and in front of the camera.
Speaking of the headphones, the earbuds provided by Samsung were great! The tablet’s built-in speakers are adequate and loud, however since they are tablet speakers their sound quality is a bit hollow. The earbuds greatly compensate for that. They are extremely comfortable and feel almost weightless in your ear and Samsung provides different earpiece sizes that you can swap for whichever is most comfortable for you. They offer good crisp audio and a fine thump for bass lines. If you’re traveling with this tablet and want to listen to music or watch a film, the earbuds will not disappoint. For video calls there is a microphone and button built-in to the cord so you don’t have to worry about the built-in microphone or having to deal with the touchscreen. We do wish that the cord also had a clip so that the microphone wouldn’t flutter around as we moved or walked.
Comfort is the key when it comes to the decision to use an 8.9 diagonal screen size. Compared to larger 10.1 inch tablets like the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the iPad, or the HP TouchPad, holding and using the 8.9 was much more natural and comfortable. It holds nicely in your hand and the distribution of weight in its widescreen form factor allows you to hold it with one hand for an extended period without feeling the harsh pull of gravity on the other end. The position of your hand and your fingers as you grip the Galaxy Tab 8.9 from any angle positions the device’s center of gravity closer to your hand so you are fighting much less to hold it up. Its slim design and petite weight definitely help offset the pull of gravity.
The Galaxy Tab 8.9 is definitely a delight to use and handle for extended periods of time, making us believe that 8.9 inches is definitely the sweet spot when it comes to tablets. Smaller 7 inch tablets are too small and feel like oversized smartphones. Larger 10.1 inch tablets grace you with large screen real estate but detract from the portability and comfort of use that a tablet should offer. That 1.2 inch difference that the Galaxy Tab 8.9 has is a killer feature. No really, that small difference in size is a huge difference in comfort without sacrificing the generously large screen that tablets should have.
A minor inconvenience with the screen size and resolution was when you flip the tablet over to portrait mode. Although the screen would rotate quite fluidly, you were left with almost an inch of dead space on the top and on the bottom of the tablet. This is due to the resizing of the resolution, however this area stuck out as a sore thumb, giving us the feel that there was plenty of screen real estate that went to waste.
Overall the screen was clear and the resolution was crisp. We didn’t suffer from eye fatigue regardless of the lighting condition and the Auto-Brightness feature was very responsive and never over or under compensated for the light conditions. The screen brightness was always “just right” and no resolution quality was lost when the brightness was adjusted.
Android purists will detest Samsung’s TouchWIZ UI that accompanies Android 3.1 Honeycomb, claiming that any proprietary change to vanilla Android is a sin, but in this case we will have to politely disagree. Samsung’s TouchWIZ UI is the least offensive UI overlay we have seen on an Android device. In fact, it does compliment Honeycomb in a positive way, giving it some nice touches without killing the Honeycomb experience. Samsung doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel with the UI and it doesn’t try to force unnecessary “improvements” in your face that end up breaking the software. Simple additions like the mini apps tray allow you to access some useful features with a touch of a button, such as a task killer or a notepad. The tray rests a layer above the Android UI, so you can launch and access those tray apps on top of any Android app you are currently running. Unfortunately the apps available in the mini app tray are locked and you cannot replace them with some apps that might server a more useful purpose. The Pen Memo, however, was excellent for making quick typed or handwritten notes on the fly.
Samsung also has included its Media Hub and Music Hub which allow you to buy music, as well as over 4,000 TV shows and movies. The Music Hub has over 12 million DRM-free songs available for purchase and we liked its convenience and quick response times. It also offers playlists and music recommendations for you based on your purchases and if you own another Samsung device, like a smartphone, your Samsung account allows you to access your purchases on those other devices as well. For those coming from an iOS device, the Music Hub will serve as a worthy replacement to the iTunes Store. The Media Hub allows you to rent movies as well for $3.99 but ownership costs vary depending on the studio’s pricing decisions. TV shows can be rented at $1.99 an episode but unfortunately that is a flat rate regardless how old a show or a season is. Although the downloads and the previews happen quite quickly, we are not convinced that this will serve as a competitive alternative to Netflix. The Samsung Apps store is there but it was ignored for the most part. The apps it has available are also available on the Android Market and we saw no incentive or reason to consider using the Samsung Apps store instead.
Samsung also includes some re-sizable Live Panels such as an AccuWeather widget, an Associated Press widget, a social hub where you can view your popular social network feeds, and a Gallery widget. The Readers Hub by Samsung claims to offer millions of books and thousands of magazines and newspapers, but it actually is just a portal to PressDisplay, Zinio, and Kobo. Although your reading material is centralized with the Hub, you still have to subscribe or make your purchases via three separate services, which ends up not being a centralized solution at all.
A 3 megapixel rear camera with an LED flash allows you to take pictures with your tablet if you choose to do so and a 2 megapixel front facing camera allows you to video chat if you have an internet connection present. The bottom line on both cameras is that they get the job done, nothing less, nothing more. The picture quality for both cameras is mediocre and nothing to hold a high standard to. The rear camera is able to shoot video at 720p but the video quality is grainy and lackluster. The front-facing camera performed quite well for video calls. Our only concern with the front facing camera was actually the position of the headphone jack.
Aside from some flash over-exposure in almost every shot that it was used in, the cameras do function adequately and if you ever need to snap a quick photo of something without worrying too much about quality and clarity, or if you need to have a quick video call, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 is quite comfortable to hold and to use. The position of the camera shutter button was large enough and in perfect place for our thumb to tap without having to extend our grip. The slim size of the tablet combined with the ability to firmly grip it with both hands also helped a lot in taking stable panorama shots with less jittery movements than a smartphone.
A lithium-polymer 6100mAh battery powers the Galaxy Tab 8.9 and it definitely does not disappoint. We were very impressed with the battery life of the device and you are guaranteed to get at least two to three days of regular use out of it on a single charge. For us, regular use meant that WiFi was always on and connected, we were tweeting, Facebooking, typing articles, web browsing, reading e-books, listening to music, wasting our pathetic lives away on Reddit, and watching cat videos on YouTube. Speaking of cat videos, we decided that there was only one way to really test the Galaxy Tab 8.9 battery life: 24 hour Nyan Cat.
With WiFi on and connected and the screen brightness set to auto in a well-lit room, we loaded up 24 hour Nyan Cat on YouTube, put it in full screen, and began to time how long into the 24 hour Nyan-fest the Tab could get through. The results of the test were quite impressive. The Galaxy Tab 8.9 churned out 11 hours 34 minutes and 10 seconds of Nyan Cat at full blast before giving up. That’s more Nyan Cat than most people can handle (we started twitching at one hour and forty-three minutes) so rest assured that the Galaxy Tab can easily give you enough video entertainment to last through a long international flight.
The only downside to the battery is that it takes a long time to charge. We were able to gain around 25% to 30% of battery life for every hour it was plugged in so you will need to leave this tablet plugged in overnight to get a full charge. Considering that the battery should last around a full day, we don’t see overnight charging to be that big of an inconvenience.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 reminds us of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: a 10.1 inch tablet is too big, a 7.0 inch tablet is too small, but an 8.9 inch tablet is just right. This tablet was built with your comfort in mind, allowing you to use it for extended periods of time with minimal wrist and arm fatigue and minimal eye strain. The large battery that is somehow squeezed into the super-slip chassis will last days on a single charge for most users and the NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor doesn’t drain that battery too quickly despite its agile response time and lightning fast speeds. We think that Samsung has nailed down what a manufacturer UI should be like with this version of TouchWIZ. It isn’t too flashy or in your face, it doesn’t interfere with the functions of the tablet, it doesn’t act as a resource hog, and it doesn’t break any Android apps that you will use. It is minimal and lies in the background while providing some nice cosmetic and function perks like a screenshot button or the mini apps tray.
When this tablet first hit the market it was priced at $469 which was only $30 less than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It now has been dropped to $449, which is more reasonable, but we still feel that it is about $50 too expensive. With Amazon ushering in an era of low-cost tablets and the HP TouchPad debacle proving that consumers will flock to a competitively priced tablet, Samsung should have given consumers more incentive to grab the Galaxy Tab 8.9 instead of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 instead of an initial $30 (and current $50) price difference. We love this device but the price is making us second guess whether or not we will run out and buy it. Furthermore, the lack of a microSD card adds to inconvenience as we found ourselves wanting to throw some songs or photos onto our smartphone when on the go, but weren’t able to without a desktop or laptop handy. The price also doesn’t justify the cheap materials used to build the device and with the exception of the Pen Memo and the Music Hub, none of the Samsung apps, Live Panels, or Hubs add value to the tablet.
Hopefully in the future versions of this device Samsung will move the headphone jack over to one of the corners so the headphone cord doesn’t get in the way of video calls or movies. However, if you’ve got $450 laying around and want to give someone (or yourself) a tablet they will fall in love with, then head over to Best Buy and pick one up. Price aside, if we were given the choice between the Galaxy Tab 8.9 and the Galaxy Tab 10.1, we would pick the 8.9 without giving the 10.1 a second thought. Despite its few flaws we are convinced that this is the best Honeycomb tablet on the market right now.
[toggle_box title=”Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 Specs”]Carrier: Wi-Fi- Only
Form Factor: Touchscreen Tablet
Color: Metallic Gray
Operating System: Android 3.1, Honeycomb
Camera (Front): 2.0 Megapixel
Camera (Rear): 3.0 Megapixel Auto Focus with Flash
Dimensions (W x H x D): 230.9 x 157.8 x 8.6mm
Battery: Li-polymer, 6100mAh
Memory: 16GB Internal Memory
WiFi: 802.11 a/b/g/n
USB: USB 2.0 H/S
Bluetooth: Bluetooth 3.0
Display: 8.9” WXGA (1280×800) TFT (PLS)
User Interface: Widgets, Smart Unlock, Accelerometer, Bilingual: Spanish/English
Audio: MP3, M4A, MP4, 3GP, 3GA, WMA, OGG, ACC, FLAC
Video: 1080p playback, 3GP, MP4, AVI, WMV, FLV, MKV (Codec: MPEG4, H.263, Sorenson H.263, H.264, VC-1, XviD)
Fun and Entertainment: Full HTML Web Browser, Books, Browser, Email, Gallery, Gmail™, Google Maps™, Android Market, Google Search™, Google Talk™, Voice Search, Latitude, Music Hub, Navigation, Places, Pulse, Polaris Office, Samsung Apps, YouTube, Music Player, Media Hub, Social Hub
Business and Office: Word File: doc, docx, xml, txt, rtf, dot, dotx Excel File: xls, xlsx, csv, xlt, xltx PowerPoint: ppt, pptx, pot, potx, pps, ppsx PDF: pdf[/toggle_box]