If you’ve been left dazed, confused and a sputtering mess by Samsung’s Android device strategy to date, you’re not alone. Nearly a dozen devices over the last two years have been released, not including regional, carrier or 3G variants, ranging from a diminutive 2.8″ display (Galaxy Pocket), to the tremendously popular Galaxy S series, to the upstart mega-phablet 5.3″ Galaxy Note, all the way up to, wait for it, FOUR variants of the 10.1″ tablet. What gives? This Samsung designer knows, and it essentially boils down to a combination of a ‘keep trying till it sticks‘ approach, backed up by Samsung actually having the manufacturing capabilities to churn out these variants with little ill effect.
Deciphering this hodge podge isn’t an easy task, but let’s try anyway. Having previously owned an 10.1″ Asus Transformer (read my review here) and a variety of 6″-8″ devices including the 7″ B&N Nook Color (my review here) and a 6″ Sony PRS-T1 E-Ink E-Reader (my review here), as well as a generic noname 8″ Android device which was as atrocious as it sounds – it didn’t deserve a review, so I’ve been jumping between a few tablet devices. On one hand, I’m fond of the dimensions of my 4″ Galaxy S. I can easily reach the opposite corner with my thumb one-handed, but it’s a relatively small size by today’s standards – more often than not I found a lack of screen real estate for larger webpages or long articles to be limiting. Read on to hear about my personal experience with the Tab 7.7.
And so, I set out to discover what the best option for a general purpose tablet for my needs was. This, of course, involves spreadsheets.
The design of the Galaxy Tab 7.7 is patently gorgeous. The display is crowned by a front-facing 2MP camera, light and proximity sensors.
Enter the competitors. I’ve included the E-ink reader (for e-book reading purposes), the alternative 7″ Tab Plus as well as the current best-of-breed 10″ tablets on the market. The key point is this – If you’re purchasing a tablet, the MOST important thing to figure out is the physical dimensions and screen size you’re after. In other words, what use case scenarios would you foresee where one form or another would be unsuitable? This can make or break your enjoyment with the device.
By their very nature, tablets are about a compromise – they are intended to be portable, or else we would all be using 3KG laptops. Size it down to a 13″ Ultrabook and it’s more likely to be carried on the road, but still a rarity. Down another size to 10″ and it serves couch duty and the more occasional on-road use. Since you won’t be splashing down $400+ for a 7″ backlit drink coaster, chances are may even make it a staple of your daily workflow. Simply put, how long and often are you willing to carry your device for, for the purposes you need? Let’s take a look at the numbers to catch a glimpse of just how much variety there is.
If you want the absolute lightest and most compact device possible, it’s the PRS-T1, a Kindle or alternatively, stick with your smartphone and stop reading here. They have an immense number of limitations however, just try looking something up on Wikipedia in the midst of a book or article. The general trend nowadays is having less devices which do more, not more than do less. If you’re into uncompromising media consumption then one of 10″ devices will be suitable, not to mention your 50″ LCD TV, though I know which one I’d rather watch senseless explosions on.
The 7″ space is unique because it combines the computing potential of a full-blown tablet, with the portability of a smaller device. You can do everything you can do on other tablets, but is it enough to stand on it’s own? Let’s take a quick tour of the Tab 7.7.
That’s not a vignette, it’s my shoddy table lighting. The packaging includes the usual paraphernalia, including a multi-purpose USB cable, earphones and changeable earphone tips. The included charger is rated at 2A, allowing the Tab 7.7 to charge from nil to 100% in approximately 5 hours. If charging from a PC’s USB port, it takes just over 3 times as long. I was going to include a close-up of the charger, but it’s a dust magnet and kind of disgusting up close.
The included earphones are surprisingly good for an OEM set: very comfortable, decent sound quality, a good seal and with integrated media controls – similar to the Galaxy headphones. Long gone are the saucepan style headphones which caused ear canal injuries.
Unfortunately, Samsung has opted for their proprietary tablet connector (which is interchangeable with their other tablets). This means you’ll need to carry around the proprietary cable, even though the device charges over a computer’s USB port. The good news is that if you have any Tab accessories (like keyboard docks) they will also work. A microphone and a pair of speakers adorn the bottom – stereo, unless you’re the 99% that watch your shows in landscape mode.
Power and volume buttons are located on the right side in portrait (top in landscape). Note that Samsung’s official case opens in a left-to-right fashion (opposite to a traditional book). As such, the power button can be difficult to access. A Micro-SD slot adorns the opposite corner.
A standard headphone jack at the top, along with the 3.15MP shooter and an LED flash. The device is astoundingly thin, a trend Samsung has continued since the original Galaxy.
As a whole, the form factor of the device works amazingly well. It’s rounded edges fit the hand nicely, the device is delightfully thin and light at a mere 7.9mm, and the brushed aluminium backing exudes a quality that Samsung’s earlier tablets lacked. It’s arguably one of, if not the most, aesthetically pleasing devices on the market, one that I suspect will take some time to age. The size of the device is a tactful compromise – less than half the weight of an iPad but with only 20% decrease in viewable screen area. I found the 349g weight easy enough to hold in one hand (or if you’re game, a pair of chopsticks) for an extended time in either orientation, though some type of case is recommended: the very smooth backing and Gorilla Glass front can sometimes be slippery. You should have no issues holding this device as you would a notepad or paperback while transiting and not look obnoxious.
A brushed aluminium backing is a departure from the traditional plastic finishes of late, and adds something substantial to the feel of the device.
I will admit, I’ve been somewhat jaded by the slew of sub-average displays over the years, including previous tablet offerings. There have been some pretty bad ones, like the A500 or the original Tab 7.0, which had atrocious contrast and colour loss at angles. I’ve also been somewhat spoiled by the rich and deep blacks and colours of the AMOLED displays. Samsung has cut no corners this time around with the 7.7, it boasts a 1280 x 800 Super AMOLED+ panel, something that Samsung has reserved for it’s high-end devices like the SGS2 – even the Galaxy Nexus still uses a Pentile display. It’s arguable whether a very high DPI screen requires a non-pentile display – I certainly can’t tell the different – but hey, why not.
The strength of the AMOLED displays is the contrast and the colours. On scenes with black tones, they are often indiscernible from the frame of the device, leading to engrossing and eye-popping images and videos. I found it a joy to watch TV shows and movies on the screen.
The SAMOLED+ display is no slouch, producing fantastic pictures and video in a variety of situations.
As for screen clarity, with it’s 1280 x 800, 196ppi display, it is bested by both the Galaxy Note and new iPad, but I was very hard pressed to pick out individual pixels at anything apart from a point blank distance. The average person will find it nearly impossible to do, especially compared to pixel sparse devices like the Prime. Reading text from webpages, UI elements and books was pleasant throughout. Brightness in direct sunlight is mediocre though usable, something that both the Prime’s SuperIPS display and e-Ink displays have it soundly beaten in.
My attempt at a text display comparison, it’s far harder than it looks. On the left, a Galaxy S, with it’s old-fashioned SAMOLED pentile display at 233 ppi. On the right, a Galaxy Tab 7.7, with it’s SAMOLED+ display at 196ppi.
Instead of re-inventing the wheel, Samsung have opted for the tried and true formula – their inhouse Exynos 4210 dual-core Cortex-A9 based CPU, responsible for the legendary smoothness of the Galaxy S2, the single most popular Android device to date. It’s fast, it’s frugal and it works. Here, it’s clocked higher at 1.4 ghz, presumably to cope with running the higher resolution screen, and it’s paired with the robust Mali-400MP GPU and 1GB of dual-channel DDR2. Until the Exynos within the S3 makes it’s debut, this is the quickest to date. It’s doubtful whether a replacement 7″ device will boast the new processor for quite a while yet.
In general usage, I found nothing lacking with the performance of the device. Web pages load quickly, game performance was adequate (about on par with the SGS2) and navigating between apps is done without much fuss. There is headroom for the CPU to clock even higher to 1.8ghz, as some guinea pigs have discovered. If you’ve used a Galaxy S2 then just imagine that but on a bigger screen and marginally quicker. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover the Tab 7.7 supports dual-band wifi. In areas where many wireless devices share the same AP, like my house, this can be a boon – I found the range and performance to be stellar. They didn’t need to implement dual-band, but kudos to them for throwing the kitchen sink in. Subjective performance aside, let’s take a look at the benchmarks:
Across the board, the Tab 7.7 holds it’s own – it solidly outperforms the 1.2ghz TI OMAP 4460 powered Galaxy Nexus, and even bests an overclocked Tegra-2 powered Transformer in most tests. No slouch then, less so once ICS optimisations arrive.
In real-world usage, I found the battery to last somewhere between 8-10 hours of video playback with background e-mail syncing over wifi. It also plays back 1080p MKV’s seamlessly, something the Tegra 2 struggled with, and provides around 12-14 hours of web browsing or 15-25 hours of book reading – thanks in most part to it’s chunky 5100 mAh battery, more than 3x the capacity of an average smartphone. I suspect this figure will improve with the 4.0 ICS upgrade and future optimisations, as occurred with the Galaxy S. During sleep, power consumption was practically non-existent (on a full charge, Battery Monitor Widget indicated 53 days of standby time), though if you have a 3G equipped unit with background syncing, your mileage will vary.
Software / Modding
The Tab 7.7 runs on Android 3.2, with Samsung’s tablet-oriented Touchwiz implementation on top. This includes a variety of Samsung widgets (weather, stocks and news), a Samsung custom keyboard, modified browser (which infuriatingly lacks a zoom sizing pre-set), calendar app / widget, contacts, media/music players and DLNA software. Also included are Kobo book reader, Press Reader, Samsung’s Game and Music Hubs, Samsung’s App store, Kies sync software (which also allows wifi sync), Social Network services (which supports integration with Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn), Zinio and Swype. None of these would be what you would consider absolutely vital, nor irreplaceable (there are a ton of alternative launchers, keyboards and widgets available for free on the Play Store), but there they are.
Where things get more interesting are features which are more deeply rooted in the system. Support for flip-fonts, to allow for seamless system-wide font switching, colour mode toggles and an inbuilt power-saving mode, which toggles brightness, timeouts and radios based on battery level. There is also a motion-tilt function, as seen on the SGS2, which allows toggling zoom levels based on the tilt of the screen combined with screen presses, though I have never seen anybody use this function more than once. A ‘quick launch’ button is also added next to the standard Honeycomb system buttons on the left, which can be customised to be screenshot / app drawer / search or camera.
A small up arrow button located mid-screen brings up a customisable panel of ‘mini’ apps. These include commonly used tools such as the calculator, calendar, music player, alarm and task manager. Once launched, these applications float above the current application you are in, can be moved around and then closed when required. It’s so far the most practical implementation of multi-tasking I have seen on a device, because one does not need to leave the current app at all for quick tasks. Unfortunately, only Samsung’s mini-apps are supported in this quick-access drawer, which is visible on all screens.
Three colour modes can be chosen in Settings. The first is ‘Dynamic’ (top), with exaggerated saturation to the point of causing random eye bleeds. ‘Standard’ (middle) is far more usable on a daily basis, though if it’s night time or you’re reading alot of text, the ‘Movie’ (bottom) mode offers far more natural and warm colours.
So overall a solid software implementation then, but there are downsides. The included homescreen launcher on the device can be somewhat lethargic at times, for reasons unknown, resulting in marginal delays switching between homescreens. Blame it on the lack of or optimisation within Honeycomb (an ICS update has been confirmed and is incoming in Q2), or Samsung’s custom launcher. Running ADW Launcher EX or GoLauncher HD alleviated this problem, whilst preserving the quick access buttons at the bottom of the screen. As with other 3.X and 4.X devices, multi-tasking is handled by a dedicated ‘apps’ button which allows switching between active applications on a vertically scrolling bar.
In addition, the standard system DPI setting of 160 (a variable that the OS uses to size elements / text and inform the market and applications of the display density – not to be confused with the physical DPI/PPI of the screen itself) means that at times, text such as on icon labels, can be quite small. Setting this to 176 alleviates the problem by upsizing everything and results in a comfortable viewing balance, though root access is required to do so. Alternatively, use BigFont.
As expected, the notifications area contains the usual assortment of toggles.
Speaking of root access, the Tab 7.7 has been on the market for only a few months, so the third-party development community is still in it’s infancy. The current state of affairs is that root access is available (via an easily flashable update.zip) and there are a number of third party ROM’s available. However, they are still based on Samsung’s official code release (Android 3.2), albeit with Samsung’s glut of software as a much-needed optional add-on. Overclocking thus far is limited to 3G models. Having said that, this really only matters for the tweakers – the out of box experience is far from dissapointing and one that the majority of users will have no issue with.
Flip fonts allow for seamless switching of the main system font when you get tired of the Samsung font, no root required. Yes, Comic Sans works.
Usage / Conclusion
In choosing a tablet, I pondered at length on the usage scenarios of such a device, or if it was really necessary or not. I especially enjoyed the portability of the PRS-T1 and Nook Colour, but also the power and flexibility of the 10″ tablets. The facts are that no tablet will completely replace the pure unadulterated grunt of a desktop or laptop for high-end tasks, nor the simplicity and portability of a phone. So where does the 7.7 fit in? It provides all the best elements of the above, in a lithe and attractive package, enough to slip into a jacket pocket (or a handbag) without having to think twice about taking it on the road. The higher than average pixel density allows for large web pages to be displayed with ease, large articles and books to be read comfortably for extended lengths of time without a tired arm – with none of the frustrations of an e-ink device. Likewise, the rich and deep colours make consuming media enjoyable.
Overall then, a thumbs up from me, the Tab 7.7 is hands down the best mid-size tablet device on the market, and arguably one of the best tablets manufactured to date, bar none. Samsung has gone to great lengths to create a device which rises above the throng – I found myself bringing it with me often, suited to use in a large variety of situations. one that I would happily carry around with me on the road or use on the couch. Is the smaller screen size a detriment? Not as much as the compact size is a boon. The Galaxy Tab 7.7 can be found for $445 AUD from Officeworks(with price matching -5%) – approx. $458 USD.
A mention must be made to some accessories from eBay. The one on the left (purchase) allows for reading of a variety of memory cards on the device, and allowing for a full-size USB port. Keyboards/mice/controllers and portable media such as HDDs/USB sticks can be mounted on the Tab if required, useful if browsing through photo collections . On the right, a Micro-USB adapter (purchase), which means you can then share the same charger as your phone. For a good case, I’d recommend this one, also supports desk-standing.
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