Is there an iPad killer out there? It's a question that has fueled endless debate among gadget nerds, all of which has been a tad premature: in the six months since Apple started shipping its tablet, no other major manufacturer released anything even vaguely similar, let alone superior.
Starting this month, the iPad has company. The chances of Samsung's new Galaxy Tab spelling doom for Steve Jobs' brainchild are zero, in part because the experience it delivers is nowhere near as polished and complete. Still, this gizmo, powered by Google's Android operating system, offers tablet shoppers a genuine choice, not an echo. In multiple major areas where Apple zigged, Samsung has chosen to zag, rendering the Tab less of an iPad wannabe than an anti-iPad.
Those differences begin with the all-star lineup of U.S. wireless partners that the company has put together. While Apple's 3G iPad uses service from AT&T (the one that Verizon began marketing last month is actually a wi-fi model bundled with a MiFi mobile router), 3G-ready Tabs will be offered by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and regional carrier US Cellular, all with their own data plans. I tried the Sprint variant, which goes on sale on Nov. 14: it's $399.99 if you sign up for two years of wireless service at $29.99 or more per month. (The cheapest iPad is the $499 wi-fi-only model, no contract involved.)
The single most strikingly un-iPaddish thing about the Galaxy Tab is its 7-in. touchscreen. That may not sound drastically smaller than the iPad's 9.7-in. display, but the specs can be misleading unless you've compared the two machines in person. The Tab is far tinier and cuter, more like a digital paperback than the magazine-size iPad. At slightly over 13 oz., it also weighs just over half as much. Both tablets are of the same genus computing device that won't fit into a shirt pocket but the petite Samsung has more of a go-anywhere personality. Its display is impressive, too, with a higher dots-per-inch count than the iPad has, even though the resolution is lower. At the default brightness setting, however, it's on the dim side, presumably to help eke out a battery life in the vicinity of Samsung's eight-hour claim. (I haven't had my hands on the tablet long enough to form my own opinion about its battery's endurance.)
Unlike the notoriously camera-free iPad, the Tab sports cameras fore and aft, including a 1.3-megapixel model on the front for video chats and a ho-hum three-megapixel one with flash on the back. I don't consider them huge points in its favor: you'll get funny looks if you brandish the tablet like a point-and-shoot camera to snap a photo or capture video, and the iPhone 4's FaceTime video-calling software is sorely missed.
Softwarewise, the Tab behaves like an oversize Android phone that lets you do just about anything except make phone calls. Its Web browser stacks up well against the iPad's, and can play the Adobe Flash videos that remain banned from Apple devices. Gallery, the photo viewer, lets you show off albums whether they reside on the tablet or on Google's Picasa Web Albums service. The Sprint Tab I used also came preloaded with Amazon's Kindle e-reader software, turning it into a serviceable e-reader. As I tapped my way around and bopped between programs, the 1-GHz processor and 512 MB of RAM gave almost everything a zippy, responsive feel, although scrolling was sometimes choppier than it is on the iPad.
Of course, the iPad is about more than zippy responsiveness and fluid scrolling it benefits enormously from the bundled Apple software and thousands of third-party applications that were written just for it. Samsung has tweaked a few of the Tab's apps to take advantage of the 7-in. display: the calendar, for example, has a nifty month-at-a-glance view that wouldn't fit on a puny phone screen. But most of the preinstalled programs and all the 100,000-plus available on the Android Market haven't been reimagined for tablet use. They're just smart-phone apps on a larger canvas. And a few I tried, including USA Today, appeared in a window surrounded by a fat black border.
The Tab I used also suffered from too obvious seams between elements provided by Samsung, Google and Sprint. When I bought an app, I had to turn over my credit-card information to Google, which manages the Android Market. Renting a movie required entering the same information all over again in Samsung's Media Hub application. The duplicated effort left me pining for iTunes. (So did Media Hub's selection of films and TV shows it's sparse and scattershot, like the dregs at a Blockbuster going-out-of-business sale.)
Among the few icons that sit directly on the Tab's desktop is a tempting Free Games! one planted there by Sprint. I tapped it and downloaded a golf demo. When I tried to install the app, I got warnings about the security risks posed by programs procured anywhere but at Google's Android Market. How a nongeek is supposed to react to such passive-aggressive behavior, I'm not sure.
Some of the Tab's rough edges stem from the fact that it uses Android 2.2, a version that wasn't designed with iPad-style devices in mind. Rumor has it that an upcoming version of the operating system, code-named Honeycomb, will be the first truly tablet-friendly edition; when it's ready, expect a profusion of new Android tablets and more software that takes full advantage of them.
In other words, even if the Galaxy Tab doesn't give Apple's tablet so much as a flesh wound, you can bet that the hunt for an iPad killer will go on.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Tuesday.