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Review: First look at the new Samsung Galaxy Tab

As I carried around and used a pre-production model of Samsung's Galaxy Tab in Toronto during a regrettably brief two-day evaluation, I learned an interesting thing: It's been half a year since the iPad launched, but people are still extremely curious about tablets.

Commuters stole long glances on the subway, diners asked questions in a restaurant, and parents all but interrogated me while I sat on a bench at my daughter's playground. A school teacher, a businesswoman, a stay-at-home dad, an elevator maintenance worker, and even an awkward elementary school student expressed interest in it.

I fielded several questions from people asking if it was Research in Motion's recently announced , and still more from people wondering whether it was some sort of tablet/phone hybrid. However, the most popular query I encountered was this: "Is it better than an iPad?"

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As one of the first and most ballyhooed challengers to Apple's tablet supremacy - Rogers and Bell will begin offering it in mid-November but have yet to reveal prices or data plans (you'll also be able to buy it without a contract for between $650 and $700, according to Samsung - about the same as an iPad) - it's fair to wonder how the two stack up. Thing is, they feel surprisingly different from one another.

For starters, the Tab is only about half the size and, at 380 grams, a little more than half the weight of an iPad. Its bright, seven-inch TFT LCD has a resolution of 1024-by-600, which is lower than an iPad but, given its smaller size, higher in pixel density, meaning you're less likely to make out individual dots of light when viewing it closely.

Unlike the iPad, I find I can hold it in one hand for long durations with ease. Surprisingly, I found it fit easily into the pockets of my loose khakis when I was going for a walk, though, admittedly, it created a rather large bulge. Still, I appreciated this unexpected semi-pocketableness when I wanted to hold a drink in one hand and my daughter's paw in the other.

With a 1GHz processor and 512MB of memory, it's just as nimble as an iPad. There's virtually no wait between tapping an app tile and its launch. The user interface feels much the same as that of the phones that share its operating system - specifically Samsung's handsets. The Korean company's TouchWiz 3.0 UI overlay - found in sister devices like the - is all but identical.

The virtual keyboard is also similar to previous offerings from Samsung, and the screen is narrow enough that smart phone-style thumb-typing feels fairly natural. Haptic feedback - brief vibrations that come with each tap of the screen (which I find make for a more confident and comfortable touch-typing experience) - is switched on by default.

A benefit of the Tab's smaller size is that it may be more appealing than an iPad for people who plan to use it as an eReader. Samsung's Reader HUB app uses Kobo for novels, a clean and simple reading program that I've used on other devices and enjoy. And the Tab's screen is a perfect size for a standard page of paperback text.

Reader HUB also features PressDisplay, which provides access to some 1,600 newspapers, and Zinio as a portal to more than 2,000 magazines, though these services weren't up and running for my evaluation. I wonder, though, how a magazine page will look on such a small screen. I suspect the iPad's much larger display - which I currently use to read visually rich publications like Wired - is better suited for this style of reading.

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On the subject of apps, selection will likely play a key role for those choosing between an iPad and a Tab. Apple's slate now has more than 25,000 platform-specific apps while the Tab has almost none, save those that Samsung has developed itself and placed on this device, such as an email app with a pleasantly clean interface and dual panes when viewed in landscape mode, and Samsung's Social Hub, which combines feeds from various social networks (though it wasn't installed on my pre-production unit). More of these device-specific apps created by Samsung and its partners will be rolled out through the Samsung Apps portal.

However, just as the iPad is capable of running iPhone apps, so too can the Tab run apps originally intended for an Android phone. But there's an important difference: Whereas iPhone apps appear blurry when enlarged for the iPad's bigger screen, Android apps scale more cleanly to the Tab display - assuming they've been designed according to Google's recommended development standards.

A Samsung engineer told me that about 90 per cent of Android's most common apps run well on the Tab. I tried a handful of free ones - Twitter, Angry Birds, Bloomberg, and ESPN ScoreCenter, to name a few - and they all looked nice and performed well. The only sign that they were intended for a smaller screen is that their text and buttons felt a bit large. This sort of problem doesn't exist for iPhone apps that have been redesigned to create a user experience better suited to the iPad's larger screen.

One hopes that third-party apps designed explicitly for Android tablets will come in time as more tablet-sized hardware finds its way to market, though with Google's whispered plans to create a discrete operating system for tablets this may not happen.

Another important comparison point for Apple and Samsung's slates is web browsing. My family uses our iPad daily to surf the Net on the couch, at the kitchen table, and in bed. The Tab performs well in this capacity, too, but with a caveat. Since Android is technically a mobile operating system, websites will think you're using a mobile phone. That means some pages will automatically display in mobile format (including the ). You'll need to manually change each of these sites to display in full HTML, which is a bit of a drag.

However, the Tab's Android browser has one major advantage over iPad's Safari: It supports Flash Player 10.1. Apple has taken heat for not supporting Adobe's multimedia platform, which is used widely across the Web. As someone who has been using an iPad for half a year, it was refreshing to be able to surf on a tablet without worrying which videos and multimedia applications will work.

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On the subject of video, the Tab not only does a fine job of playing back 1080p format video (though in downscaled 1024-by-600), it can broadcast full HD to DLNA-supporting televisions and PCs. I wasn't able to try this feature, but its appeal is clear for those who intend to use the Tab to download and watch movies and television shows.

The Tab also has some hardware perks that may turn a few iPad users green with envy. Like a microSD card slot to let users supplement its 16 or 32 gigabytes of built-in flash storage. This makes it much easier to, say, begin viewing video or pictures captured on your camera.

Of course, you may not need to import pictures or video since, unlike the iPad, the Tab has a camera built in. Two, actually. The one on the back is capable of decent 3 megapixel stills and SD video, while the screen-side 1.3 megapixel camera handles video calls. As an aside, I found framing a subject on a seven-inch screen to be an unexpectedly engaging experience; it almost feels like you're watching a video rather than actively shooting one.

Meanwhile, fans of mobile web browsing will appreciate that you can tether the Tab to any Android 2.2 device. That means if you buy a one without a data plan you can still access the web on the go via your existing phone and its data package. This ought to make the Tab quite appealing to those who already have a handset like the Galaxy S.

One last thing worth mentioning: Europeans will be able to use the Tab as a phone, but not us. I was told voice calling was removed from the North American version of the Tab because U.S. carriers weren't anxious to offer this functionality. Canadian carriers, on the other hand, have apparently expressed some interest, so there's a chance voice could be introduced here via a software update in the new year. Video calling is available through third party apps like Skype.

Now to get back to the question so many people have asked me: Is the Tab better than the iPad? The answer isn't as cut and dried as you might like. As with so many gadgets, it comes down to intended use.

Want something small that you can throw in your bag or purse that will let you read books on the subway with one hand while hanging onto a pole with the other? The Tab might be your best bet. Need something with a bigger screen slightly better suited for reading magazines? Think iPad. Want a device that lets you tether it to your phone so you can have richer web browsing and e-mailing experiences on the go without paying for another data plan? Go with the Tab. Is it important to you to have access to a wealth of excellent games and apps designed specifically for your platform? Then choose the iPad.

Ignore the hype and select the one that's right for you - assuming that one of them is right for you. Remember that tablets are still in their infancy; they have a lot of growing to do. Plus, more slates with unique forms and features - such as Dell's Streak and BlackBerry's PlayBook - are on the way. It might make sense to simply bide your time for now. Just because tablets have done such a remarkable job of capturing our collective curiosity doesn't mean it's yet time for everyone to buy one.

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