Shortly after the Google I/O 2011 Conference, I published a¬ review of the Galaxy Tab 10.1. There were some bugs and only a handful of apps, but I truly felt the Android Honeycomb platform had potential and expected Samsung to push for the tablet’s success. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Very wrong. After two device replacements due to hardware defects and having to deal with a horrendous implementation of the TouchWiz interface since the latest update, I’ve given up.
The First Unit
I picked up my first Galaxy Tab 10.1 at the Google I/O 2011 Conference. For those wondering, journalists were lucky enough to get one of these along with a Samsung Chromebook and a Samsung 4G Mobile Hotspot. As I noted in the¬ original review, the first device came with a lot of backlight bleeding. It was not entirely unusable, but the screen was rather ugly-looking. Definitely not a great start considering the display is probably the most important aspect to a tablet.
There was severe black light bleeding from the edges of the screen making it look as though white jolts of light were breaking out from several sides ‚ÄĒ the bottom right corner being the worst. I asked around to find that a few others also had the same issue. Even¬ developer forums¬†have members complaining about this problem and we can only hope the defects are not widespread to retail models. — Skatter Tech, Galaxy Tab 10.1 (Review)
I gave Samsung a call hoping for some insight. The first customer service representative handed my call over to Level Three support when I mentioned I had a Google I/O Special Edition model — the Galaxy Tab 10.1 was not on the market yet. After answering a few questions, the representative decided to email me a return label for a replacement. About two weeks after dropping it off at a local shipping center, a brand new unit was waiting at my front door.
The Second Unit
I was glad to find the replacement was not a refurbished unit. It came packed in the original¬†Google I/O branded box with all the original accessories. I booted it up and checked for display defects. There was still some backlight bleed, but it was not nearly as much of a problem this time around.
At this point, nearly a week went by before I had a chance to use the tablet since I was busy with work. I hit the power button and to my surprise, it didn’t turn on. After unplugging and plugging it back in, I noticed the screen was actually already turned on. It was just entirely black with nothing happening. I held down the power button for 10 seconds or so hoping to see it reboot. Unfortunately, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 entered an infinite reboot loop.
The tablet would play the standard Samsung boot animation, freeze for a few seconds, turn off, and start all over again. Since I could not turn it off either, I had no choice but to give Samsung another dreadful call. Another surprisingly helpful representative from the Level Three support team took over my case. He quickly concluded that I had a bricked tablet. Since there was apparently nothing I could do over the phone, he sent me yet another return label.
Although the representative mentioned they would simply “re-flash” the device and ship it back over, I found a brand new Galaxy Tab 10.1 at my front door again about three weeks later. I still do not understand how a tablet can possibly fail so easily especially when no one is using it.
The Third Unit
The latest replacement is by far the best. No backlight bleed and it actually works. I took it along with me on a trip overseas and it was a great travel companion.¬†The still-in-beta Google Music service worked wonderfully with offline caching. I copied over several high-definition podcasts which looked gorgeous on the large display. The battery life was definitely impressive lasting about 10 hours with mixed usage consisting of typing notes, listening to music, watching movies, and playing games.
The Galaxy Tab 10.1 connected to courtesy WiFi networks at airports and hotels without any issues either. Sending emails, using the calendar, or even voice/video chatting Google Talk was a wonderful experience. The offline Maps feature was perfect while traveling through a third world country without any mobile broadband. Even¬†QuickOffice¬†made it easy to edit documents and sync with Dropbox when a network became available. The web browser was quite useful too, but it did crash from time to time due to bugs. Despite that one quirk, the overall experience is something every buyer should expect.
Unfortunately, I had my hopes too high. A notification for a new software update appeared about a week ago. It was an upgrade to the long-awaited TouchWiz additions. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 humorously failed to update after many repeated attempts. The error notice suggested¬†either visiting an authorized Samsung Center or use Samsung¬†Kies¬†on a computer to upgrade manually. I eventually installed the 85 MB program on my Windows 7 computer and proceeded with the update.
A little over 20 minutes later, the tablet was finally ready. I unlocked the home screen and was a bit shocked to see the new redesign. Samsung TouchWiz¬†introduced a new¬†modified interface which looks part childish and part ugly. The original Tron-like dark theme with highlighter blue outlines was out of the picture. User interface consistency was definitely overlooked as well. Fonts are overly large. Icons, text, and other elements are poorly positioned or misaligned.
Anyways, my rant begins here. The tablet is now an utter mess. These are some issues:
Samsung, why did you need to create new icons? These are too bright and ugly. The original ones were clean, futuristic, and subtle. The new ones look like a¬†MS Paint creation. Rather than the original low-profile black bar which fades away when playing videos, the custom grey one is distracting and random remnants — including a white line — do not vanish entirely.
Screen Shot Icon
Developers, geeks, and reviewers will likely appreciate this feature. Unfortunately, it makes no sense to include a screen shoot trigger on the menu bar right besides the three most important navigational buttons. I am quite confident that less than a few percent of users will ever need this feature. In fact, the icon looks like a camera shutter button too. I handed the tablet to my friends who actually ended up taking photos using the screen shot tool in confusion.
I appreciate the kind gesture since Android does not offer this feature out of the box, but why not make it a hidden option? For instance, holding down the power button and a volume key could work. I keep accidentally triggering the screen shot tool since it is right next to the app switcher icon as well.
Since Android Honeycomb leaves empty space in center of the Menu Bar, Samsung decided it was a perfect opportunity to fill it up with some junk. Clicking on the bonus arrow button brings up six mini app shortcuts — none of which are interchangeable.¬†The items include a task manager and five mini apps:¬† a calendar, world clock, pen memo, calculator, and music player. Just about each of these are harmful since they deviate from the normal Android workflow and waste memory too.
Why did you tweak this? The original quick settings interface is easy to use and works perfectly fine. The new layout takes up nearly twice as much room and offers almost nothing more. It is even hard to figure out how the new interface works since some elements now slide horizontally while others scroll vertically. Taking twice as long to appear after a click does not help either.
Custom Alarm Clock
Although the original alarm clock was great for use as a night stand and was actually rather easy to use, Samsung decided to introduce its own creation anyways. The interface now looks drastically different, but I do not actually see any useful improvements. Samsung should have added features such as a stop watch and a countdown timer for starters. At the very least, including a world clock within this app instead of creating an entirely separate app for it would have been a wise choice.
eBook Reader + Kindle
I love Amazon Kindle and I have the app on just about every device I own, but why is it pre-installed? The app is just bloatware for those who do not want it or use another service. And before I forget, why is there another generic eBook app as well? In addition, why does the Samsung-built eBook app look like a blatant ripoff of the old-fashion bookshelf design of Apple’s iBook app? (No wonder there are so many lawsuits.) The app does not even tie into any major digital bookstore either.
I am glad to run into fewer crashes and see better stability, but there is another concern. Samsung re-skinned the original interface. Rather than a dark theme, it now has a bright white design. Since most web pages have a white background, it is often hard to distinguish the menu bar from the web page due to a barely visible divider.
Developers also added a new RSS icon to the address bar, which is a mistake since most modern browsers are doing away with these. While the original bookmarks interface was perfectly fine, Samsung tries to add more features with a custom implementation. Unfortunately, the new file browser styled interface looks messy and overwhelming.
I was a huge fan of the native Android Honeycomb calendar interface. It was by far the best tablet calendar out there. Yes, it is definitely better than the one on the Apple iPad too. Unfortunately, Samsung decided to make their own half-baked version just for kicks. Not surprisingly, it is a disaster. Doing pretty much anything requires more clicks. The app entirely lacks a traditional block-layout week view, which is something I use all the time. Six days worth of events boxed in bullet point lists is quite painful to visualize. I would love to meet the person who approved this.
Samsung decided to re-skin the Contacts app as well. The interface now uses ridiculously large fonts. The only major improvement is the ability to sync contacts from Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I am just wondering why they could not add this to the original interface.
Movies and TV Shows
Another unfortunate disaster in this department. Samsung bundles their own Media Hub app for purchases of Movies and TV Shows. Oddly, this blatantly overlaps with the Google Videos app which is finally pre-loaded on the tablet after the update. It doesn’t end there. There is now another app similarly named Video. It lets users browse and play locally stored content. This app adds little value since it essentially duplicates part the existing Gallery app’s functionality. To further add to the confusion, the Google Videos app also has a tab at the top to let users browse and play locally stored content to complement purchased items.
Three Music Apps?
This isn’t good. Samsung offers a Music Hub app for purchasing new content from¬ 7digital. Then there is a Samsung Music Player app for listening to locally stored content. These overlap with the gorgeous native¬ Google Music¬†cloud-powered app. To top that off, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 now also ships with the Amazon MP3 app which entirely lacks a tablet-optimized interface.
Memo and Pen Memo?
Since Android Honeycomb does not ship with a simple app for taking notes, Samsung kindly added one for us. The Memo app lets users type and save text-based notes. But wait, what is this? There is a Pen Memo app too. This app is nearly identical to the last one which offers the ability to type text-based notes, but it also offers drawing/writing with the tip of your finger. Neat, but why on earth are there two apps? Sadly, Samsung does not let users remove one or both. At this point, I will probably end up using Evernote, SpringPad, or Catch instead anyways.
Making things confusing clearly seems like fun. The Samsung Apps store takes up another icon and offers its own selection of apps. After a quick browse through the top section, I did not see a single app which was not already available in the official Android Market. Even the Amazon App Store would have been a better choice, not that I recommend pre-installing that either. Having two app stores out of the box just creates confusion for the average user.
This app is a universal inbox for syndicating activity streams from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Considering that each of these three services still do not offer an app optimized for Android tablets, Social Hub is a welcome addition. With that being said, I will probably have no use for this as official apps eventually become available. An option to uninstall would be neat.
Pulse news reader, the Worlds with Friends game by Zynga, a My Files browser, and a basic Photo Editor come pre-installed.¬†Unfortunately, none of these are removable. These are yet again nothing more than a waste of space for those who do not need it.
The Ideal Solution
After painfully having to deal with this device for a few days, I can’t help but say don’t fix it if it’s not broken. It does not help that Samsung clearly just shot itself in the foot especially when having to deal with¬†patent lawsuits from Apple which are preventing Galaxy Tab 10.1 sales in Europe and Australia.¬†The company clearly has some tough times ahead when it comes to tablets. While I do not have much to say about the legal concerns, I do have a solution for the user experience problems.
Samsung needs to start with this: a clean slate of Android Honeycomb. I don’t want to see any custom interface overlays/skins, any bonus widgets, any pre-installed bloatware apps, or any other modifications¬†out of the box for that matter. Starting with the native Android operating system, Samsung should include just one thing to distinguish themselves competitors: an app named Samsung Extras. Any customization options, fancy live wallpapers, a selection of quality widgets, featured apps from partners, and any other junk should go in there. Ideally, this app should let the user add these features to the native Android experience and remove them easily.
Although it will probably never happen, I definitely hope Samsung takes at least some of this advice into consideration. Until then, I will unfortunately have to tell prospective tablet buyers to avoid the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Google still has a long way to go with Android Honeycomb, but it is definitely not as bad as TouchWiz makes it.
Link: Galaxy Tab 10.1 Review