The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is one of the best tablets yet released.
Taking a lesson from the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and adding a few features beyond what the Apple iPad 2 offers, this thin, light and longer-lasting tablet is the best option around if you're more interested in portability than in playing games and watching movies on a 10-inch screen.
The slightly smaller size is also a better fit for reading books, browsing the web and checking email.
Some might wonder why this model even exists. After all, there's a slew of 7-inch tablets available, including the Acer Iconia Tab A100, the BlackBerry PlayBook and even the Cisco Cius, which is coming to the UK.
At its 8.9-inch size, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 fits somewhere between those 'too small for movies' 7-inch tabs and the larger 'too big for everyday mobility' 10-inch models. That makes the 8.9-inch size about right.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is remarkably similar to Samsung's 10.1 version. Both run Android 3.2 Honeycomb - a modern operating system designed specifically for tablets. A few 7-inch tablets use Android 2, which is designed for smartphones. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 also uses the same Nvidia Tegra 2 processor at 1GHz as the 10.1 model, has 1GB of RAM and has 16GB of internal memory.
There's a 2MP front camera for low-res video chats and a 3MP rear camera for taking photos. There are Bluetooth, HSPA internet and Wi-Fi connections on board.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9, at 447g, weighs over 100 grams less than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. You can feel the difference in weight right away. Measuring 230.9 x 157.8 x 8.6mm, there's an extra degree of portability, but you do sacrifice some screen size for movies and games.
Samsung uses a 6100mAh battery, which it claims lasts for about 10 hours. In our tests, the battery lasted about eight hours. The battery is a hair smaller and not as long lasting as the bigger 7000mAh battery found in the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
Samsung was wise to keep most of the features from the 10.1 model intact. There are widgets that add to the value of the tablet and provide easier access to social networking feeds. Using a unique pop-up application bar, you can also run mini apps such as a calculator and clock that hover above the main screen. You can move these around the screen but you can't resize them.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 uses the same design aesthetic as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. There are only three hardware buttons - one for power and the two volume control buttons. That's a stark departure from other Android tablets that provide several more buttons, USB ports, SD card slots and HDMI ports.
You lose the USB port for adding files using a flash drive or connecting a keyboard, but gain extra portability because the device is so thin and light compared to more computer-like tablets such as the Toshiba AT100.
Samsung did outfit the Galaxy Tab 8.9 with a few interesting tweaks beyond the original 10.1 tab. There's now a screensaver app you can use for playing animations when the tablet sits idle.
In the box, Samsung includes a charger and USB cable and earbuds, but no case or stand.
In the US, the 8.9 costs $30 less than the 10.1 version so we can expect the UK model to cost somewhere in the region of £400.
Samsung absolutely nailed the design of the Galaxy Tab 10.1, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is slightly smaller but just as easy to use, highly portable and runs fast. The 100g you lose in weight - or 118g, to be exact - from the 10.1 means more grab-and-go tablet use.
There's a sense that you can quickly pick up the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 to check a website with little effort. Strangely, the lightweight design also means the tablet's a great ebook reader as well.
There are very few ports. On the bottom, there's one proprietary connector you use with the included cable and charger, or for connecting to your Mac or PC. This is the same port you use with the Samsung dock, available separately, which is mostly used for propping up the device and charging it. Samsung also makes an adapter you can plug into this port for connecting to an HD TV, and one for USB.
The speakers are located on the bottom, and the sound quality is just average. There wasn't much bass for movie playback, and audio files sounded washed out. There are no ports or buttons on the left or right.
On the top, there's a power button and volume up and down buttons. The power button is easy to find even in a dark room - you just follow the upper left-hand edge to the first button. However, sometimes it's hard to know if you've pressed down enough, because the button is so flush with the top edge.
The 1280 x 800 display is a wonder to behold. We've been saying for a while now that Samsung display tech is reminiscent of its bigscreen HD TVs - bright, colourful and clear. The 8.9-inch size just makes the screen even clearer, because the screen is smaller and packs in more pixels. Side viewing is excellent compared to even the iPad 2 and the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet, which both use IPS tech.
Samsung has chosen to focus on the consumer market and, as such, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 lacks some of the business features of the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet - namely the apps for encrypting data, pushing apps to the device using an IT admin tool for the desktop and a way to track devices.
In our tests, battery life wasn't quite as high as expected - about eight hours under normal usage. We should mention here that, during our test, we left a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 running a movie for several hours to test battery life. When we tried to resume the device and then tried recharging, the tablet didn't take a charge. We had to ask for a replacement tab, and Samsung is still looking into the problem.
The only other hardware-related feature worth mentioning is the AllShare app. When we connected the tablet to a router on the same network as a PC, and loaded the AllShare app on the PC, we were able to access all of the media on the device over Wi-Fi.
That's handy because it means you can swap files easily between your Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and computer without having to physically connect them, with the wireless connection depending only on the range of your router.
Samsung makes much of its Touch Wiz interface, which provides a few interesting enhancements beyond the basic Android 3.2 operating system. The user interface isn't so useful that it makes the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 notably better than the competition. Samsung and the other tablet manufacturers will have some serious competition when the new Amazon Kindle and Kindle Fire start shipping.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 helps you find media, but it's cobbled together from apps and services that Samsung doesn't own. There's a Media Hub app from Samsung that does make it easy to rent and buy TV shows and movies, but when you want to buy an ebook, download a magazine or newspaper, or even purchase a song, you'll have to rely on third-party services such as Zinio and Kobo.
That's an interface problem, because it means putting in more work to obtain this media - you have to register for each separate account. Still, Samsung does offer a Reader Hub app that at least guides you to each service. As for the mini apps, they add some small value to the device, but nothing overly unique.
There's a pen memo app for jotting handwritten notes, a calculator, clock, calendar and task manager.
Samsung provides several unique widgets, including one that shows the feed from Twitter and Facebook in one handy box. On the main screen, you'll find widgets for a photo, the time, weather forecast and current news. There's also a calendar reminder, a finance widget and small icons for favourite contacts.
Once again, the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet provides a few extra user interface components that beat the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9, including an app wheel for storing favourite apps and one that shows open apps. However, the mini apps and widgets included with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 are better than what you'll find on tablets such as the Toshiba AT100 and Acer Iconia A500, in that they're for more than just storing app icons.
It's worth noting that the clear screen and accurate touchscreen on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 make the interface pop on the screen - it's easy to control this tablet and the bright screen makes the UI more engaging.
Market and apps
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 ships with a few choice third-party apps already installed and there are two app stores - the Android Market and the Samsung Apps store - to play with. The Samsung app store is superfluous since there are no remarkable sales on apps or any apps listed that aren't already available from the Android Market.
That said, it does provide another way to browse popular apps. The store doesn't have the social networking feature of the Lenovo app store, which includes suggestions from other users - who you can follow.
The included apps are impressive enough. There's the AllShare app for sharing media wirelessly with a desktop computer or smartphone. Samsung also includes the Polaris Office document suite for viewing and editing Word, Excel and PowerPoint files on the tablet. One important note here: the Polaris app is designed for the Microsoft Office 2007 suite, not the 2010 version. The suite includes a PDF viewer, too.
There's the useful Media Hub app for buying and renting videos, a Reader Hub for magazines, books and newspapers (where each point to a different provider such as Zinio), and a Social Hub app that aggregates your social networking feeds into one screen.
The Social Hub app isn't nearly as powerful as HootSuite or Sprout Social, in that there are no tools for increasing follower counts or seeing reports on who is clicking links you post, but you can read Twitter direct messages and Facebook messages.
Samsung includes a Photo editor app for painting on the photos you load or snap with the Galaxy Tab 8.9. There's also the usual assortment of email, calendar, music player and mapping apps included with Android 3.1. Samsung includes the Zynga Words multiplayer scrabble-clone app, as well.
None of these apps match the business-friendly tools included with the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet, and both Acer and Toshiba provide just as many third-party tools, including Documents-to-Go instead of Polaris Office.
The colourful, bright and clear screen is one of the main reasons why the Samsung Galaxy Tab line has attracted a loyal following. One look and you'll realise the screen is noticeably superior to other tablets - even the Apple iPad 2. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 has a rich and bright quality that makes games, browsing and any app more enjoyable to use - like upgrading from a standard LCD to a modern HD TV that uses LED technology.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 becomes a device you want to use because you know it'll be easy on the eyes. By comparison, the Lenovo ThinkPad, Acer Iconia A500, Asus Eee Pad Transformer and Toshiba AT100 all use screens that aren't nearly as bright or clear. The closest competitors, in fact, are Samsung smartphones such as the Galaxy S2, which uses an AMOLED screen that's just as bright.
We tested a handful of movies and TV shows on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 - several episodes of Fringe, the latest season opener for The Walking Dead and the movie Captain America. Fringe in particular looked bright and clear during most scenes, and the rich blacks didn't have a washed-out look like they do on many tablets.
The only time we noticed some fuzziness to the screen was during the opening segment of Captain America, which is dark and foggy. On the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9, the scene looked too muddy.
The brilliant screen comes at a price, though. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 costs twice as much as some competing tabs, such as the recently released cheap 7-inch ViewSonic ViewPad 7e.
At full brightness, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 also sucks up battery juice quickly. Fortunately, Samsung includes a power-saving tech that dims the screen and adjusts brightness automatically and works even harder to save battery at a 50% charge.
Usability and media
Clearly, Samsung has kept true to the Galaxy Tab 10.1 design ethic and hasn't changed much with the 8.9-inch version. If you have ever used the 10.1, then you already know how easy the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is to use. There are few buttons, and you control just about everything from the screen.
To access the mini apps, you press a small, discreet arrow that points up, although some users might not notice the icon. The Back, Home and App pop-up buttons are all situated on the lower left-hand side like they are with every other Android 3.1 tab, but Samsung did add a screenshot button in this row of icons. This works well for capturing images on the screen - they're saved to a separate folder in the Picture Gallery app.
To add widgets, you hold down on the screen until the widget menu appears. Then, you drag and drop widgets onto one of five home screens. You can also change the desktop wallpaper. Samsung includes a few common apps under this screen, including Contacts, Maps, the music player and so on. Most users will probably not bother looking here for apps, since you can just store favourites on the home screens.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is exceptional as an ebook reader. We were impressed by how the clear, white page matched the size of a physical hardcover book, and you can hold the device with one hand in portrait orientation.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 beats every other tablet except the Apple iPad 2 in terms of buying and renting movies and TV shows. The Media Hub app worked well for renting several movies, and you can expect them to play smoothly since they're designed to work with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The app offers most major releases at reasonable prices.
The ecosystem works well because, once you create a Media Hub account, the app stores your credit card details for you and makes the checkout process faster and easier. That means faster access to entertainment on the tablet.
For music, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 supports all the expected formats, including MP3, M4A, OGG, ACC and FLAC. For video, you can play a wide selection of 1080p files including 3GP, MP4, AVI, WMV, FLV and MKV. We loaded several episodes of Fringe in XVID and they played smoothly. Home movies recorded in WMV also played fine, although when we copied them over, Windows 7 converted the files.
Online video streaming was also predictably smooth. We tested several YouTube HD movies, including gameplay films for upcoming Xbox 360 games, and they all played without a hitch. Loading movies was also easy - we used a USB adapter and a flash drive to load several Hollywood films. And you can even use the Samsung Kies app on your computer to send files over a Wi-Fi network directly to the tab.
The 16GB of internal storage is room enough for a few movies, plenty of TV shows and other content. There's no way to expand the storage on the tablet itself, although with the USB adapter you can use a flash drive to store extra media files. The AllShare app helps you to maintain your storage by offloading movies and music files you don't need any more to a network drive or PC.
No tablets work as well as even an entry-level digital camera for snapping photos or taking videos, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 doesn't break this mould. If anything, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is just slightly better at taking photos and shooting video than the Galaxy Tab 10.1, only because it's a bit smaller, so you can get a tighter grip on the device, move it around easier and press a button to take photos.
Like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, the bright screen works against you for capturing photos – there's too much screen glare outside to see the subject of a photo and frame the shot.
Worse yet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 actually only offers a stripped down assortment of effects (including a negative tone or sepia) without nearly as many options as the Apple iPad 2 has for photography apps such as Instagram.
The camera is a weak point for both the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and 10.1, and for many Android tablets. There just isn't a compelling reason to use the tablet for taking photos or videos unless you have no other options.
As with taking still photos, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is weak at shooting video.
An HD video we shot looked clear enough, but there's a slight frame rate problem that makes HD videos look less than smooth, especially when you play them back on an HD TV.
We did use the photo and video editing apps on the device, and they provide basic features for painting effects onto photos and trimming a movie. However, these apps aren't nearly as useful as those available for the iPad.
At the end of our testing period, we realised that the extra inch and a bit is worth the additional cash over the 10.1.
That's really the basic summary - the 8.9 and 10.1-inch models from Samsung are so similar in features and in price that it comes down to a decision about whether you want a bigger screen or less weight.
There's something to be said for the smaller size when it comes to reading ebooks. We read a good portion of the new book on Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and noted that it affords just a bit more mobility and just the right screen size for books. In fact, most physical book pages are about the same size as the 8.9-inch screen version.
But the movie Captain America proved to be a stumbling point for the 8.9-inch tab. The intro segment was washed out and gray, while the slightly bigger size of the iPad 2 made the movie more watchable. It's splitting hairs, though - neither tab compares to watching the Blu-ray version on an HD TV.
With the various adapters, you can achieve the same results as an tablet that comes with an HDMI port and a USB port. In fact, it might be a better strategy - using those adapters when you need them - but they are also extremely easy to lose and add to the overall price.
But if you want the best, with the smaller screen, and prefer Android, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is a great buy.
The bright screen is the main selling point on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 - photos and movies pop off the screen, photos look rich and colourful and games look well-detailed and bright. Most movies and TV shows played smoothly and with rich colour.
As an ebook reader, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is superior to the Galaxy Tab 10.1. The tablet is easy to grasp for long browsing sessions, checking email and flipping through photos, too.
Samsung includes several good apps that might not make the tablet an impulse buy, but do add some value. There's an app that aggregates your social networking feeds, another that points you to the Zinio magazine service, Kobo ebook store and a newspaper portal.
The 1GHz processor was up to the task for several games, including a word puzzle game by Zynga, a pinball game that played smoothly and of course several sessions of Angry Birds HD.
Samsung offers several choice accessories for the Galaxy Tab 8.9, including a USB adapter and an HDMI adapter for connecting the device to your HD TV. There's also a dock and leather case.
Most movies played bright and clear, with good contrast and deep, rich tones.
Audio playback was predictably bland for music and movies - the speakers are too small and situated below the screen where music fills an empty void instead of emanating toward you.
Some might like that there's no USB or HDMI port. You can use those connections by adding adapters, but the adapters are easy to lose.
Overall, the price is quite a bit higher than on other Android models. You pay a premium for the exceptional screen, thin design and lightweight form factor compared to thicker, heavier models.
We scored the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 in keeping with our overall impression - that this is one of the top tablets available today.
For some users, it will be the very top end if you tend to read ebooks constantly and don't watch as many TV shows or movies. Another prime user for this tablet is someone who just doesn't want the extra 100g of heft for a 10-inch tablet such as the iPad 2.