Android tablet offerings are becoming more compelling by the month. From the "pure" Android experience of Motorola's Xoom to Asus' versatile and inspiringly inexpensive Transformer, fans of Google's operating system for slates now have several compelling hardware options, and the selection is only growing.
I recently spent time with the latest pair of Android 3.1 tablets to come from major manufacturers: the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Toshiba's Tablet. (That's its official name Canada. In the U.S. it's called the Thrive. That won't be confusing at all.) While these two tablets may sport the same operating system, they're veritable hardware contradictions. One is slim, sleek and in almost every way the aesthetic and ergonomic equal of the industry leading iPad 2, while the other is plump, heavy and a burden to hold aloft for any significant length of time.
The trim one is, of course, the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which will be available in a few storage capacity flavours when WiFi and 4G editions are released in Canada later this summer (pricing yet to be announced). Samsung has the advantage of being on its second generation tablet, having already delivered the most popular Android slate to date in the original Galaxy Tab. Its experience shows. The new model matches the iPad 2's minimal girth of 8.8 millimetres and, starting at just 565 grams, is noticeably lighter than even Apple's most feathery offering. Its plastic-y rear panel keeps it from feeling as luxurious as an aluminum-backed iPad 2, but its 16:9 aspect ratio and narrow bezel make it a great fit for watching widescreen movies.
By comparison, Toshiba's inexpensive - the 8-gigabyte version starts at just $429 - WiFi-only Tablet seems like a throwback. It's nearly three times as thick as the Tab 10.1, has a wide bezel that significantly increases the device's overall surface area, and is nearly 200 grams heavier. Put another way, you could almost fit three Tab 10.1 slates inside a Toshiba Tablet. Suffice to say it won't be the first choice for people looking to use their slates as one-handed e-readers.
But the Tablet's chubbiness isn't without purpose. In fact, it facilitates some fairly noteworthy advantages in the form of several handy full-sized ports not found on most tablets, including USB, HDMI, and a memory card slot. Plus, you can pry off the rear panel - albeit with some difficulty - to access and swap out the battery, and even exchange the panel itself for one of another colour. These are major pluses that, for certain users, could very well offset the device's detrimental bulk.
That said, I can't help but wonder whether Toshiba understands the tablet market. Current trends suggest that the thinner and more lightweight the slate, the more popular it becomes. Perhaps the Japanese company is strategically targeting an underserved niche that places a premium on functionality over form.
The screens on both tablets are the same size (10.1-inches) and resolution (1280-by-800), but the Tab 10.1's display proved superior when viewing identical images side by side with brightness maxed. I could clearly detect vertical rows of pixels in the Tablet's picture, and the image faded noticeably when the screen was tilted away. The Tab 10.1, on the other hand, delivered a smooth picture unfettered by any discernible dots and retained both its brightness and clarity even at extreme angles. Regardless of what you think of its products as a whole, there's no denying that Samsung makes some amazing screens.
Samsung's slate also has the edge in image capturing and recording. The Tablet's 5-megapixel rear-facing shooter has a couple of megapixels on Samsung's 3-megapixel camera, which makes for slightly more resolved images, but we found pictures taken with the Tab 10.1 had a warmer, more natural appearance. And while both devices' video capabilities max out at 720p, the Tab 10.1 offers plenty of extra settings and effects that allow users more freedom to tinker with their recordings.
As already mentioned, both devices run Honeycomb, and Honeycomb has remained fairly predictable across its host hardware. However, Toshiba and Samsung have added a few of their own tweaks.
The Tab 10.1's desktop is a little brighter and splashier and employs some custom, boldly coloured icons for apps and settings icons. A virtual keyboard of Samsung's own design supports the company's popular SWYPE typing interface, which eschews taps for more ergonomic finger slides, and has dedicated CAPS LOCK, .com, and smiley-face keys.
Turning to the taskbar, users will find a screenshot button on the left side (useful for quickly capturing images of websites and apps), and an arrow button that offers the ability to swipe up to reveal launch icons for frequently used apps, including a task manager, calendar, calculator, and music player.
Proprietary apps that come pre-loaded include Samsung's Social Hub (meh) and an excellent news aggregator dubbed Pulse that draws content from a wide range of sites.
In keeping with its serious looking hardware, Toshiba's implementation of Honeycomb is more understated, marked by a dark blue desktop, subdued icons for apps and settings, and little in the way of any serious surprises or pizzazz.
However, the Tablet has a key advantage in the form of a terrific file management system that provides intuitive, PC-like access to folders residing on the device as well as connected USB drives and memory cards. Anyone who's ever been frustrated by the often unintuitive steps required to transfer files to and from tablets will take to this feature like a long beached fish re-submerged in familiar water.
Pre-installed apps on the Tablet include a suite of decent productivity tools licensed from ThinkFree, including Write, Calc, and Show - again, in line with the device's recurring motif of useful, practical functionality.
Both tablets sport 1-gigahertz Nvidia Tegra 2 processors and feel equally speedy. System boot times were comparable at around 20-25 seconds, graphics intensives web pages - such as those on globeandmail.com - loaded in about three seconds on both, and I noticed little in the way of any sort of lag or jitter when opening and running apps. Both make Google's OS feel light and nimble.
Toshiba seems to be approaching the tablet market from the perspective of a veteran PC manufacturer by placing importance on basic PC functionality that has, by and large, been absent in this strange new category. For proof of this thinking you need look no further than the Tablet's bezel lights indicating power, battery, and Wi-Fi connectivity - a feature common on laptops but highly unusual for a tablet.
Samsung, on the other hand, is clearly following Apple's lead. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 demonstrates the company's belief that thin, light, and sleek bodies should be defining characteristics of the category.
There's room for both philosophies in the still burgeoning world of consumer tablets, but you'd be a fool to bet against Samsung's approach ringing up more sales at the register.