Samsung's latest Android tablet attempts to shake things up by offering an unconventional 8.9-inch screen along with the company's unique TouchWiz UX interface. The $469 Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is ultra-thin and compact, but it faces stiff competition from the premium iPad 2 on one end and Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire on the other--not to mention its own Galaxy Tab 10.1. Read on to find out if this tweener has what it takes to win you over.
Tablets don't get much thinner or more compact than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9. Cut from the same cloth as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, this device is just as trim as its bigger-screened sibling (0.34 inches thick) and Apple's iPad 2 (0.34 inches). Samsung managed to shave the Tab 8.9's weight to just under a pound (0.98 pounds, to be exact). This may not sound like much compared to the Tab 10.1 (1.24 pounds) or the iPad 2 (1.35 pounds), but it makes a huge difference in everyday use, such as when reading for extended periods or playing games.
The Galaxy Tab 8.9 is noticeably thinner than the Acer Iconia Tab A100 (7.6 x 4.5 x 0.5 inches, 0.92 pounds) but a hair heavier. Of course, the A100 has a smaller 7-inch screen. However, we found the A100 easier to hold with one hand in portrait mode.
The Tab 8.9's design is a very close match to the 10-inch Tab, featuring the same elegant glossy front panel edged in aluminum and rounded curves. The back is also crafted from gray plastic made to look like brushed metal, which isn't as classy as the iPad 2's all-aluminum backing.
With the Tab in landscape mode, a 2-megapixel camera sits above the screen while a slim power button, volume rocker, and headphone jack occupy the top edge. Running along the bottom lip are two tiny stereo speakers and a proprietary Samsung port. The backside sports the tablet's 3-megapixel camera and LED flash. Unfortunately, there's no SD card slot to increase the 16GB of onboard storage.
Display and Audio
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9's screen may seem quite small when compared to the 10-inch devices sweeping through the market, but it's by no means less compelling. As you'd expect from a company that also manufactures LCD panels and sells high-end HDTVs, the tablet's 8.9-inch (1280 x 800) LCD is gorgeous. It's sharp for its size and pumps out bright images in vivid color. Viewing angles are pleasingly wide, too.
Watching the HD YouTube trailer for Drive on the Galaxy Tab 8.9 was breathtaking, with deep shades of black, sparkling city lights, and the cool glow of car dashboards at night stunningly rendered. Christina Hendrick's red hair and Ryan Gosling's muscular Mustang also had the same impact as if we were watching it on a larger screen.
Like the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 has a pair of tiny speakers, but here they are on the tablet's bottom edge instead of either side as with the Tab 10.1. Surprisingly, audio output was slightly louder on the smaller Galaxy Tab 8.9 than on the Galaxy tab 10.1 when we played music on each tablet side by side. Though the sound was a tad more tinny than through the Tab 10.1's speakers, we could clearly hear bass guitar strums, high notes, and rich vocals in Neal Young's classic "Old Man." The J-Pop stylings of Utada Hikaru's "Keep Trying" also had us swaying to its catchy beats.
Software and Interface
Out of the box, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 runs the Android Honeycomb 3.1 OS plus Samsung's TouchWiz UX custom interface. Similar to Samsung Android smartphones such as the Galaxy S II, unlocking the device is done by pulling a virtual ring from the center of the screen outward in any direction. Users are then greeted by five home screens, which can be populated with multiple widgets and application shortcuts. TouchWiz UX also allows users to drag widgets, called Live Panels, to fit available space on the screen. Making a Live Panel larger in many cases adds extra functionality. For example, expanding the AccuWeather widget opens to a five-day forecast.
The bottom of the screen also holds the new Mini Apps tray. Hitting an arrow in the center of the system bar displays icons for six of Samsung's proprietary applications (Calculator, Calendar, Music Player, Pen Memo, Task Manager, and World Clock), which can be opened on top of other running apps.
In keeping with other Honeycomb tablets, the bottom of the screen displays a persistent system bar with software keys for Back, Home, and Recent Applications--all of which look like futuristic line drawings. Like the Tab 10.1--and unlike many other tablets--Samsung also includes a handy screen capture button here.
Sitting in the lower right corner is a notification area where you'll find system-wide alerts, such as emails, downloads, time, plus network, and battery status. Tapping the area launches a larger view, and it lets you quickly toggle commonly tweaked tablet functions and access the full settings menu.
Samsung offers five different keyboard layouts on the Tab 8.9, including Swype, Samsung's solution, and the default Android Honeycomb arrangement. The Samsung keyboard is functional but lacks a split-key layout, which would make typing in landscape mode much easier.
Equipped with a powerful 1-GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 handled itself well on our benchmarks. The svelte tablet notched an impressive 3,112 on the Benchmark CPU test, more than 523 points higher than the current Android tablet average. This was in the same ballpark as the Wi-Fi-only model of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (3,158), the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet (3,089), and the Acer Iconia Tab A100 (3,018).
Graphics performance was also speedy, with the Tab 8.9 turning in a high An3DBench score of 7,643, 953 points higher than the typical Android tablet. Even so, the Acer Iconia Tab A100 (8,081) managed to beat the Tab 8.9 on this test.
During everyday use, the Tab 8.9 was nimble, flipping between menus and launching apps with authority. Video playback was also smooth, as was running multiple apps at once. We rarely experienced lag. The tablet was quick loading websites over Wi-Fi as well, firing up full versions on The New York Times and our Laptopmag.com homepages in 10.6 seconds and 7.8 seconds, respectively.
Apps and Media
Samsung offers a good selection of software applications to use on the Galaxy Tab 8.9. Besides the typical Android Honeycomb staples such as Gmail, Latitude, and Movie Studio, some useful third-party apps include the Amazon Kindle app, Polaris Office for editing office documents, and the Pulse news reader.
Samsung loads the device with its own software, including the Media Hub and Music Hub stores. A Social Hub app aggregates social media feeds from Twitter and Facebook into one convenient location.
Google's Market app also offers books and apps for sale and as an Nvidia Tegra 2-powered tablet, the Tab 8.9 can run specially optimized games available for download via the Nvidia TegraZone application.
Camera and Camcorder
Diehard shutterbugs won't be overly impressed with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9's rear-facing 3-MP camera because it lacks the high resolution and extra features of many modern superphones. Still, it does snap pictures quickly (one second between shots). Samsung also throws in some scene modes, such as Landscape, Night, and Sports. Images we took outside were reasonably clear and colors were well saturated. Thanks to the LED flash, indoor shots were well exposed even in low-light conditions.
The Galaxy Tab 8.9 can also capture video at 1280 x 720-pixel resolution. Footage of New York City street scenes was smooth if not very detailed.
More important is the Tab 8.9's front-facing 2-MP camera, which performed well during video chats. While gabbing with a friend over Google Talk, we were impressed with the image quality, and audio was in sync.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9's 6100 mAh Lithium polymer battery lasted a full 8 hours doing web surfing over Wi-Fi and light document viewing. The device should easily make it through a day's use without needing to charge.
Pricing and Value
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 costs $469 for the 16GB model and $569 for the 32GB version. By comparison, the iPad 2 costs $499 for 16GB and $599 for 32GB, and offers access to a much greater app library, expansive ecosystem of accessories, and a larger display. The Wi-Fi-only version of the larger-screened Galaxy Tab 10.1 costs about $30 more; $499 for the 16GB model and $599 for a 32GB unit.
It's pretty remarkable that Samsung was able to squeeze the same parts from its 10-inch tablet into the Galaxy Tab 8.9. It performs just as well, and the screen and audio are both impressive. However, at $469, you'll need to spend almost as much to get your hands on this smaller slate than you would to buy the Tab 10.1. Consumers looking for a tablet they can hold in one hand would do better with the cheaper $329 Acer Iconia A100--or waiting for the upcoming Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. But if you want the higher-resolution screen of the Tab 10.1 in a more portable package, the Tab 8.9 is worth a look.