With the proliferation of Android tablets on the market in the past year with specs ranging from cheap to spectacular, the decision to buy a tablet is becoming almost automatic. Now choosing which one is the right fit for you is much more complex. While most companies started with making a direct competitor to the iPad, Samsung was the first to focus on a different strategy, bringing their Galaxy Tab line to different sizes targeting very different user profiles.
But which one is right for you? I’m among those who found Samsung’s first foray into e-Reader 7″ territory with the original Galaxy Tab and its excellent successor the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus (expertly reviewed here at Androinica) too small for my overall usage, but I know there’s lots of people, my wife included, who think that around 10″ is too big outside of the house and sometimes inside as well.
If thinking in between, you’re about to have another option with the CES announced Galaxy Tab 7.7 4G LTE, but after a couple of weeks of considerable use to get a good feel for it, I’m going to make the case for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 being a great all-purpose size that could be just right.
The slick and classy look and finish are consistent with the other recent releases in the Tab lineup, other than the bottom speaker placement, on both sides of the Samsung connector. It looks great and has a nice feel to it, and while the display isn’t quite as spectacular as the Super AMOLED Plus, the TFT does look great for all the videos, text and games that will find their way onto your device.
I’m not going to focus on the specs in this review, because they are very similar to the other form factors except for the size. You won’t be sacrificing anything in power and it stacks up very well with its big brother. There is a hardware volume rocker, 3.5mm headset jack, power button, microphone, 2-megapixel front-facing camera, and a 3.2-megapixel rear auto-focus camera with a single LED flash. Available in 16GB or 32GB, white or grey, WiFi only or 4G LTE, you have a few customization options before you even pick one up.
Dimensions (W x H x D)
9.1 x 6.2 x .34 inches
230.9 x 157.8 x 8.6 mm
As thin as the other 2011 Tabs or the iPad2, and around 3/4 of the weight, you feel a difference immediately when you pick it up.
So where does this form factor really shine?
The Bed Test
Above all else this one beats the 10.1″ tablets hands down as something to hold while you’re reclining or lying down. If you like to watch a movie, read a book or play a game in bed before unplugging for the night, I heartily recommend this size rather than something bigger. While I tend to let my larger tablet rest on my body when using it in bed – which I’m sure my chiropractor would say is a surefire pain in the neck – this one can be comfortably held two handed above you for as long as you want at that point in the night.
Even more important for many people and their reading styles is that it is still small and light enough to read one-handed for stretches, especially if you like to read lying on your side. While you feel this the most in bed, its still significant on the couch or in transit holding the larger tablets can be tiring or at least awkward.
10.1″ tablets are fun with kids (with a little help vs ads from Famigo), as long as parents are holding them. The 8.9″ is just small enough that even really little kids like my almost 3 year old son can hold and use them comfortably. So if you have men, women and children all using the same tablet like in my house, this is a significant consideration.
The amount of typing you plan to do on the tablet and how you like to do it should be a major consideration. Yes, there are a variety of keyboards available to make creative use of the real estate on a tablet, but I found the defaults work quite well here. For larger tablets I find myself either laying them flat or relying on bluetooth keyboard or docking station like the Asus Transformer or Prime. If you prefer to lay the tablet down and type two-handed for longer messages, the keyboard is just big enough to make this work. On a 7″ or 7.7″ anyone with even average sized hands would likely find that awkward or even unusable. On the other hand, if you prefer to type with two thumbs, in portrait mode this works quite well, and if you have larger hands it can work decently well in landscape. For a short message, holding in one hand while typing one-handed with the other worked well too. For a soft keyboard, this might be the best size so far, giving you a wide range of typing activities that you could manage on this tablet.
That inch or so in each direction makes a big difference in how this feels when you’re taking it with you. While its not going to fit in any kind of jacket pocket like a 7″ may, it would fit very well in just about any woman’s purse, messenger bags, folios, briefcases or even a small backpack. Its also light enough that you could be carrying it by itself from meeting to meeting.
That also makes the rear camera for photos and video a little more manageable than on a larger tablet, though you’re still far more likely to get use out of the front-facing camera for video calls and conferencing.
Games look as great on this as they will on a larger tablet. For games that need a bigger screen to control your actions on the screen, this is plenty big enough.
You’ll also do well for games that are more optimized for phones and seem a little too stretched out on a larger tablet will give you sore wrists and fingers, but this size makes them a lot more comfortable, but without feeling cramped. That’s especially true for those that use the accelerometer a lot, then you may have found yourself with tired arms all too often on a larger tablet.
I would far rather read on it for long periods of time than a 10.1″ tablet. Its still big enough that magazines can look good, and you don’t feel constrained. Web browsing, e-mail and social networks all look great and give you ample room for finer tapping. If reading is your main activity, especially on the go, then the 7″ or new 7.7″ might be a better fit, but again this one does well.
Online video, movies, photos and other kinds of content look fantastic on this tablet, and I found the sound and speaker placement worked well. The viewing experience is significantly better than you’ll find on smaller tablets, and while you’ll always appreciate a bigger screen for movies, you won’t be unhappy if movies are one of your many uses for this tablet.
My first impression was that this is a beautifully light and thin device with a great screen, feels great in your hands, and could be held for a long time and used effectively in many different different ways. After two weeks of regular use, that first impression rings true, and I think Samsung might have a really good idea here.
While I’ve read some reviews that believe that this size has too narrow of a potential user base, I would beg to differ. The Tab 8.9 plays out very well as a jack-of-all-trades general purpose tablet, and there isn’t a single type of usage where it isn’t at least adequate to very good. It might even be the best of all when it comes to being able to use the soft keyboard effectively in a variety of ways. Yes, if your focus is on using it as an e-Reader then you might tend toward the 7″, and the larger tablets give you a bigger movie experience and with a hardware keyboard are better if you do a lot of writing. But as a versatile and very mobile device, I think it has the potential to emerge as a real winner for a lot of people.
With this versatility married to full full Android Honeycomb (and later ICS) functionality and the Flash capability and access to the full Market that comes with that, you may find yourself using this particular size of Tab for more than you ever expected. I expect your whole family will enjoy every minute of it, which might be a downside in some families, because you may find that your tablet belongs to everyone else.
One word of advice: get out there and feel these different sized tablets in your hands before you buy. This is becoming a very personal decision, and bigger certainly is not better for everyone. Decide what matters most to you, and make sure the size works well for all of those activities.
What is your favorite form factor of tablet, and why? Have you given 8.9″ a try?