Tablet deathmatch: Galaxy Tab 10.1 vs. iPad 2

Samsung's Android 3.1-based tablet is the first to give Apple's iPad a real run for its money -- most of the time

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Deathmatch: User interface
It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, though it's not always true, as evidenced by the soon-to-disappear MobileMe service. But the iPad 2's iOS 4 is in fact a better-designed UI in many respects, allowing easier and faster access to the device's capabilities and information. Where the Galaxy Tab 10.1's Android 3.1 OS outshines the iPad 2 in terms of UI is through its widgets and notification capabilities, as previously mentioned.

Android smartphone users will find the Android 3 UI in the Galaxy Tab 10.1 both familiar and strange. Gone are two standard buttons at the bottom of all Android smartphones: Search and Menu. They now appear at the discretion of each application in the upper right of the screen. The standard Home and Back buttons remain at the bottom of the Galaxy Tab screen, though they use entirely different -- and ugly -- icons. These two on-screen buttons and the notification widget take up the entire bottom of the screen, shrinking the available viewing area. (On Android smartphones, these buttons are in the device rather than on-screen, and the notification widgets appear only on the home screens.) This loss of screen real estate especially matters on the Galaxy Tab in landscape orientation, where the widescreen layout already shortens its display area uncomfortably compared to the iPad 2.

In the Galaxy Tab 10.1, Samsung complements Android 3's already nice ability to see thumbnails of active applications with a custom UI element called live panels, which are widgets you can place on a home screen that show the current status of, say, your email inbox or the weather. One aspect of the Android user interface I admire is the at-a-glance indicators showing what is going on in the tablet (system info, battery life, and so on) or in the outside world (such as news and weather); the iPad 2 is more single-minded in that you have to switch to whatever app or website you want to see with that -- and only that -- information.

Operational UI. The Galaxy Tab 10.1's Android 3 tablet OS doesn't suffer the excessive reliance on the Menu button as Android smartphones do. The Galaxy Tab instead uses its larger display area to make relevant controls easily accessible on-screen, as the iPad and iPhone always have.

The Android OS's Settings app can be disorienting, and the white-on-black text is nearly impossible to view in bright daylight. For example, there are two Wi-Fi options: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Settings. Tapping Wi-Fi turns off Wi-Fi -- not what I expected. To find a Wi-Fi network, you tap Wi-Fi Settings. After a while I learned the difference, but it was an unnecessary exercise. (Bluetooth is handled in the same awkward manner.) The iPad 2's iOS doesn't let you confuse turning Wi-Fi on or off with selecting a network, thanks to a single location with clearly designated controls.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on the Galaxy Tab 10.1's Android OS and iPad 2's iOS. For text entry, I find the iPad 2's on-screen keyboard to be slightly easier to work with than the Galaxy Tab's, with clearer keys and better contextual use of extra keys, such as in the Mail application. Although I appreciate the intent behind the Galaxy Tab's use of Tab and other keys not found on the iPad 2, the result is that the keyboard is not quite full size in landscape orientation (the iPad 2's is) and, thus, a tad difficult for touch-typing. I'm sure I'll eventually get used to it, but it remains an annoying UI decision.

Text selection and copying. The Galaxy Tab 10.1's Android OS improves text selection versus that in the Motorola Mobility Xoom's original Android 3.0 and the various smartphone versions of Android. When you tap on text, a slider now appears so that you can reposition the text cursor easily. It's thus easier to work with text than before. (As before, a long-tap selects all the text and provides the selection tabs.) This text-selection method isn't universal, though it needs to be. The demo version of Quickoffice that's included, for example, doesn't support it.

On the iPad 2, text selection also works via handles, which appear more quickly than they do on the Galaxy Tab 10.1. To insert the pointer in a precise location, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse), and a magnifier appears to help you move exactly to where you want to go. This is still easier than Android 3.1's welcome new insertion slider, and it works in every app, unlike the new Android slider. You then add and delete text at that location. Plus, the controls for text selection appear, so you can use those and not worry about a screen-filling menu getting in the way.

The winner: We have another tie here, although iPad fans may find the Android OS too loosey-goosey and its ever-present alerts annoying. That said, Android fans may find the iPad too rigid and disconnected from what's going on. To each his own; both work.

Deathmatch: Security and management
A long-standing strike against the Android OS is its poor security. The standard smartphone Android OS doesn't support on-device encryption, and it supports only the most basic of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies. By contrast, with the enhancements made in iOS 4, the iPad has become one of the most securable mobile devices available, second only to the RIM BlackBerry.

On the iPad, encryption is enables, straight out of the box, and it can't be turned off. Google, having recognized Android's security deficiency, has added on-device encryption to Android 3 OS for tablets, but you have to enable it manually. Not only does encrypting the tablet take an hour, but the battery has to be fully charged before you can begin, even if you are plugged into a wall socket. (The rationale is that the battery needs to be fully charged in case the power goes out or the power cord is disconnected.) It can take several hours before your Galaxy Tab is finally encrypted and ready for use. Fortunately, it's a one-time activity.

Also thanks to the changes in Android 3, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 comes close to matching iOS 4's support of EAS policies (unlike Android smartphones), allowing for for complex passwords, password expiration, and password history restrictions. iOS 4 has more security capabilities overall, but Android tablets are much more securable than Android smartphones.

Both the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the iPad 2 offer remote wipe, SSL message encryption, and timeout locks. If your Galaxy Tab is lost or stolen, you can lock or wipe it via your Google account or via Exchange. Apple supports remote lock and wipe both through Exchange and via the free Find My iPad service that tracks your iPad 2's location from a Web browser, iPhone, iPod Touch, or other iPad.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1's Android OS can back up contact, calendar, and email data wirelessly to Gmail, as well as system settings and application data to Google's servers. Syncing the iPad 2 to your computer's iTunes backs up -- and encrypts, if you desire -- the data on it. iTunes backs up everything: your media, your apps, their settings, their data, and most of your preferences. (iTunes can be configured for use in the enterprise, though most companies don't know that.)

The winner: The iPad 2 ekes out a slight victory here. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 has brought in a key business security capability (encryption) but isn't quite as far along in EAS support as the iPad.

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