05
Nov
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Samsung was kind enough to send a Galaxy Tab 8.9 our way for review last week ("surprise!"), and I have to say: this thing is thin, light, sexy... and Samsung's custom user interface (UI), TouchWiz, is not fit for tablets.

At A Glance

Let's take a quick look at the specs:

  • Android 3.1 (Honeycomb)
  • 8.9" WXGA display (1280x800)
  • 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 CPU
  • 16/32GB storage
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 2.0MP front-facing camera, 3.0MP camera around back
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Samsung's TouchWiz UI

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The specs may be fairly standard by now, but they still power Android every bit as well as they have in the past. What makes the Tab special, then? Two things, really: sex and size. See, the 8.9's big brother - the 10.1 - was released to much fanfare about it's supermodel-esque dimensions, and the 8.9 follows suit; it's fairly light (15.8oz, or roughly a pound) and impressively thin (8.6mm, or about 0.3"). But perhaps more importantly, it distinguishes itself by being the only contender in the 9" tablet arena. In fact, other than being 1.2" smaller and slightly lighter than the Tab 10.1, the 8.9 is nearly identical.

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Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Tab 10.1 was virtually universally praised as being an excellent device, with reviews at launch lauding it for being fast and responsive despite its substantially more svelte proportions than its only other competition at the time, the Motorola XOOM. As the 8.9 is (again) basically a slightly smaller 10.1, you can and should expect the same experience.

The Good

  • Extremely attractive package, both in terms of appearance (color, design, etc.) and proportions.
  • Light weight means it's comfortable to hold in your hands for extended periods of time.
  • 9" form factor may be preferable to some people, especially given that you still get the same number of pixels.
  • Non-system performance is good (apps and games run well, browser is smooth).
  • TouchWiz adds some minor functionality, as do Samsung's proprietary services.
  • Excellent battery life.

The Bad

  • TouchWiz slows general system performance down, resulting in minor delays, stutters, and lag (more below).
  • It costs money to look good: $450 for the 16GB model, and $550 for 32GB.

Performance

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You would think having the same experience would be a good thing, and to an extent, it is. Apps open with gusto and run well. Running high-end graphically intensive games is a sight to behold, with the Tegra 2 packing some serious punch in the graphics department.

What's not a good thing is TouchWiz. And that's the crux of the Samsung Tabs: they should be every bit as snappy as the reviews (most of which came before the TouchWiz update) portray them. But they're not. Samsung essentially eschews performance in favor of fashion by slapping their custom overlay on top of the already-beautiful Honeycomb UI. (In fact, I find stock Honeycomb to be more attractive than TW, though TW does add some useful widgets and features.)

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TouchWiz is such a burden that when doing any basic tasks, the 8.9 stutters and lags. Swiping between home screens - even if there are no TW widgets on the original or destination screens - stutters nearly every single time. Rotating the screen? Be prepared to wait a second for it to reorient. Backing out of an app to go back to the home screen? Expect a minor delay and a bumpy ride. To be fair, it's never particularly atrocious, but it's always noticeable, and compare it side-by-side to any of its competitors and you will be disappointed. It's also worth nothing that an update to Android 3.2, if it comes, would likely improve things, though probably not solve them completely.

Build Quality

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Historically, Samsung's high-end offerings are well built, and the 8.9 is certainly no exception. Despite the slim profile and relatively light weight, it feels extremely solid and sturdy, with no give. The lack of a "unibody" design doesn't hurt things, as the pieces are fit together so snugly that it virtually is unibody.

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When held horizontally, the power button, volume rocker, headphone port, and mic hole are on the top, and there's a front-facing camera along the top of the front face. The speakers and MHL port are on the bottom, and the rear camera and flash are along the top of the back. There's a major emphasis on pure sex here, and physically speaking, it pays off without any consequences.

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As mentioned above, the Tab is impressively thin and light, attributes that are especially noticeable when compared directly to other tablets. In practice, though, these attributes don't make the world of difference you'd expect. About the only time I would expect it to make a difference is when you're going to be holding it up for extended periods with no way of propping or supporting it, or in the hands of a young child. Despite the limited functionality of the slimness and lower weight, it does put the Tab ahead in sheer aesthetics, something many people (myself included) value quite highly.

Battery Life

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As with the Epic 4G Touch, battery life is very impressive. Whether the 8.9 is idling or being used heavily, you can expect the battery to last quite a while. As all quality Android tablets at this point use virtually identical chipsets, I'm not sure what type of tomfoolery Samsung is using here to make the battery life so great (likely better sync/update management), but it really is noticeably better than the competition. Unscientifically, I'd estimate that the 8.9 gets about 20% better battery life than the Transformer when in use, and about 50% better while it's idle. With brightness cranked to about double the "automatic" setting, you can expect the Tab to outlast your reading/browsing - I experienced about a 10-12% drop for every hour I spent browsing feeds, the web, and using Google+/Facebook/Twitter. Gaming is obviously more demanding, but nothing to worry about, especially if you're playing a less resource-intensive game.

Screen

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Samsung is known for bright, crisp screens, and the 8.9 doesn't fail to deliver in that respect, either. As it maintains the same pixel count (1280x800) as its larger brethren (and competition) in a smaller package, it packs a higher pixel density. (Whether the additional density is necessary is arguable, as 10" tablets with the same resolution still seem plenty crisp.) Consequently, the display is about as sharp as you can find on a tablet at the moment. Coupled with Samsung's highly saturated image processing and a bumped up brightness setting, the screen is impressive, though not enough so to stand substantially above the competition.

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Camera

At just 3.0MP, you're probably expecting me to tell you the camera is crap... and if so, you're right: it is. Performance is especially poor in medium- and high-light situations, never lighting the picture properly and taking quite a while to "focus" and snap the picture. "Focus" is in quotes there because I use the term loosely - it doesn't really; that is to say, the subject of the shot generally remains blurry, whether it's in motion or not. Seriously - I just took of my desktop speaker, and although it was in the focus box, the (currently off) speaker looks like it's mid-earthquake. All that said, it's a camera on a tablet. It might work in a pinch, but if you have your tablet with you, chances are you have your phone handy, and/or a real camera.

Conclusion

The Tab 8.9 is a slim, sexy tablet with a lot of potential, but it's held back by a slow (albeit occasionally functional) custom UI. So, why would anyone buy the Tab 8.9? Casual consumers may not be particularly miffed by the comparatively slower performance, or might feel a 9" device is more comfortable. Others may be willing to accept it in exchange for the sheer sex appeal, or because they plan to root and remove the UI (or overclock).

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Whatever the case, it's likely that those who purchase the Tab won't find the experience unenjoyable. On the contrary, they'll likely be happy with their purchase, and for good reason. Those in the market but not overly concerned with sex appeal and size, though, may want to look elsewhere - 10" tablets can be had for cheaper and often without a UI that bogs things down.

Aaron Gingrich
Aaron is a geek who has always had a passion for technology. When not working or writing, he can be found spending time with his family, playing a game, or watching a movie.

  • AppleFUD

    I thought this would be the one to get, other than the Transformer. Very light, about the right size--not too small not too big.

    Then I used it for a couple minutes. WOW! The screen changes just stutter.

    No thank. . .

  • fabio

    TouchWiz UX is awesome!
    Btw, can i ask you what rom do you use for Transformer?

    • Aaron Gingrich

      Don't use a custom ROM for it (yet) - sometime next week I'm going to be comparing the Transformer to another hotly-anticipated tablet and needed to keep things on a level playing field. Once that comparison is over, though... well, I'll really get to cranking things up!

  • lukeap69

    I have both 10.1 & 8.9 tabs and I must say for long usage, 8.9 wins hands down. It's weight and size are very good compromise and should I choose one over the other, it would be the 8.9.

  • Franz

    So we got a 10.1, 8.9, 7.7 and 5.3. We desperately miss a 6.5" option! Get on it Samsung!

    • Conchchowder

      You forgot the original 7"

  • GraveUypo

    i think i'd get a 8.9 over a 10.1. tablets, just as phones, have a sweet spot in size, and that is probably around 9".

    being smaller also makes it better to carry around (which is great because tablets are perfect devices to store portifolios and related shit). if i need a bigger screen i'd just slap it to a tv.

  • KamikaZee

    The negative vibe concerning Touchwiz in this review confuses me, since the Touchwiz update review: http://www.androidpolice.com/2011/08/06/review-touchwiz-ux-on-samsung-galaxy-tab-10-1-wi-fi-is-it-better-than-stock-honeycomb/ mentioned that the 10.1 tab actually became less stuttery after the update!

    "Performance
    One of the biggest speculations about this update is that it would slow the tablet down, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Out of all the changes that I expected to get from this update, the performance boost was a nice surprise. Don't get me wrong - the Tab was pretty fast and fluid before, but there was a certain amount of stutter when swiping between homescreens or the pages of the app drawer, but those are now things of the past. This is by far the smoothest experience I've had on any Honeycomb tablet, with absolutely no lag at all. Every aspect of the tablet is affected by this; everything from transition animations to web browsing and gaming."

    So this might come down to personal preference, but it confuses me that one writer thinks touchwiz slows down the tab while another one thinks it improved performance.

    • Well, Aaron Gingrich's unit was already updated with TWUX, while Cameron Summerson has had the chance to taste plain vanilla HC3.1 before Sammy roll out the TWUX for Tab10.1.

      So I guess Cameron Summerson's comment is more credible here? Anyway, when compared to the Transformer, Tab still way behind in term of smoothness of the UI.

  • David McKeen

    What kind of custom ROM's are people using on this? This review doesn't give me much confidence about TouchWiz. Was definitely going to root it, trying to figure out if there really is anything work keeping or go to something else.

  • Nick

    I think this would be one of the top tablets once developers make more fluid ROMS to get rid of the stutter. I have a tab 10.1 at the moment and I notice lag when transitioning between homescreens 90% of the time on that.

    • Disable that Live Wallpaper of yours and life would be much better there.

      Though I hope they would make the keyboard lag-less like one on iPad.

  • http://www.thepixelpuse.com aj

    Totally gonna get it, root it and flash stock honeycomb. No skin off my teeth.

  • http://droidguru.wordpress.com Droid Guru

    Even i have seen in many reviews that the Touch Wiz UX UI actually makes the tablet more snappier...!!

  • crazifyngers

    You mention the lag and stuttered between screens. The tab 10.1 suffers the same problem when in portrait mode. According to xda the lag on the 8.9 is because the default view of the LCD is portrait and the build.prop rotaits it 90 degrees ( http://bit.ly/tpaI7f). If you use the 8.9 in portrait mode the stuttering is gone. Because I root the Tom from the thread post I supplied resolves the issue but I don't think you should have to root to fix issues.

  • L boogie

    Isn't the LG slate also 8.9"as well? Apart from that, pretty solid review about the tab and this is from someone who's currently enjoying the 10.1 sibling until the 3d version with the super display (and hopefully add SD ports) comes through.

  • http://www.vebsite.cz mino

    I have this great tablet. Display, size, weight, design, built quality, battery and other things are great.
    Yes in launcher are lags, but TouchWiz give better funcionality(better toggles in notification area - in stock honeycomb is horizontal - stupid, mini tray apps, video codecs, swype, better battery mangment etc)

  • Frank

    Hmmm strange.. I always wondered what kind of quality processes ssjch hhge firms like Samsung have to miss such obvious shutterlag issues which any semi casual user will be able to notice.. I am sure they notice it bit probably think it is okay Nd customers won't mind. Just pisses me off at such casual attitudes towards overall quality... Aand I have seen this with both Samsung and HTC...

  • The voice of reason

    Idk about u but im not planning on having sex with my tablet? O.o

    • lavdzoj

      Seriously, why does a tablet review contain 6 references to sex? And how do the other keywords like 9 inches, flat and thin add to that? To each their own I guess.

  • Sorin

    I'm more looking for a 12" screen tablet. The 10" one is a bit too small for the day-to-day business. Since the Galaxy Tab 10.1 actually has a total diagonal of 12.4", I'd rather have Samsung release another tablet of the same physical size but with a 12" display.

  • http://droidsamurai.blogspot.com PixelSlave

    Frankly, I've decided not to bother with Android tablet any more, because of the manufacturer customization. Instead, I am going to wait for the native x86 build that's coming next year. When it comes, there should be a flood of Win8 x86 tablets available. Since a x86 Win8 tablet is not likely to be locked down, installing a x86 build of Android on it should be relatively easy, and I will never have to wait for manufacturer update and be bother with custom skin anymore.

    I know some people would think that it only benefits Microsoft since they will be getting paid by the Win8 license. But if that's the way to get a Android tablet that's custom skin-free and update-proof, so be it. Ideally, such devices that I want should be provided by the manufacturers, but none of them seem to be interested in producing a tablet that uses the stock Android and is updated easily.

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