Samsung sells a lot of different tablets, and the number's growing rapidly. Typically the differences between models are slight — a slightly larger or smaller screen, a new processor, or a thinner chassis — but Samsung took some bigger steps with the new Galaxy Tab 7.7: it’s the first Galaxy Tab to have a Super AMOLED Plus display, the same screen so many people love in Samsung’s Galaxy S II phones. It also has a 1.4GHz dual-core Exynos processor, 16GB of internal storage, and connectivity with Verizon’s LTE network.
There’s lots to love about the spec sheet, save for one thing: it’s running Android 3.2, plus Samsung’s TouchWiz skin. Can this $499.99 tablet (on contract, or $699.99 without) overcome its aging operating system and let its specs shine through? Read on for the full review.
Hardware / design
Thin, light, and well-made
The build quality of Samsung's phones and tablets is generally pretty high, and that trait certainly extends to the Galaxy Tab 7.7. The brushed-metal back panel feels sturdy and high-quality; my only wish is that it covered the whole back, instead of sharing space with plastic panels that ring the sides of the Tab 7.7 and stretch across the top and bottom. It's a little more slippery than the grippy panel on the back of the recent Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, but it certainly feels more high-end than the plastic backs Samsung's typically known for.
At 7.87mm thick, the Tab 7.7 is barely a tenth of a millimeter thicker than the Toshiba Excite 10 LE, the thinnest tablet we’ve seen yet, and Toshiba would do well to take a page from Samsung's book with regards to build quality — Toshiba trades quality for thinness in ways Samsung obviously doesn’t have to. The Tab 7.7 is much thinner than the 7.0 Plus, and at 12 ounces it’s almost exactly the same weight despite being physically much larger. It's really comfortable to hold, even in one hand, and the way the sides taper slightly toward the back feels just right.
If you’re holding the tablet vertically, the power button and volume controls are on the right side of the tablet, next to the IR blaster (more on that below). As is all too often the case, the buttons are located really close together, so I often turned the device off when I meant to just turn up the volume, and vice versa. The microSD and SIM card slots sit on the left side, covered by port flaps. (I hate port flaps.) There's a headphone jack on top, and two speakers on the bottom, flanking the proprietary dock connector that is used for charging and syncing the Tab 7.7 and most other Samsung tablets. The front and back house a total of five big logos and two camera lenses, which interrupt an otherwise sleek, cohesive device.
Display and speakers
Super AMOLED Plus is awesome, but it's no Retina display
Next to the new iPad's stunning 2048 x 1536 Retina display, every other device is currently competing for a distant second place in the category. That said, the Galaxy Tab 7.7's 1280 x 800 Super AMOLED Plus display makes a really good case for that number two slot. It's gorgeous, with incredibly deep blacks and vibrant colors. It does tend to give everything a slightly warm tint, so things look a little too orange and red, but it's not a terrible effect and it certainly makes colors pop. Viewing angles are excellent, with almost no discoloration even far off-axis, and it’s bright enough to be somewhat readable even in sunlight, though like most AMOLED panels it’s still not great.
Super AMOLED Plus displays can be found in some of Samsung’s best phones, like the Galaxy S II, and when we've reviewed those phones we’ve normally only disliked them for being low-resolution (typically 800 x 480.) 1280 x 800 is on the other hand a totally acceptable resolution for a 7.7-inch display — if not exactly standard-setting anymore — and though it's still possible to make out individual pixels or see some jaggies on small text, reading or watching videos is much more pleasant on the Galaxy Tab 7.7 than almost any other Android tablet. At 196.03ppi, its pixel density is a bit lower than some 7-inch tablets because it’s just a slightly larger display, but I’ll take a Super AMOLED stripe over a higher-density LCD any day — to a point, anyway — and the lack of a PenTile matrix on Super AMOLED Plus is an advantage as well.
There are two speakers on the Tab 7.7, but they only sound like one — you won’t get much in the way of stereo audio. They sit at the bottom of the device as you hold it vertically, and they’re relatively loud and clear, but they get really muffled if you put the tablet down on a table or hold it on your lap. Their location also means that if you hold the Tab 7.7 sideways — say, to watch a video — all the sound comes out of one side anyway, which kind of kills the point of having two speakers at all.
I'm going to say something I never thought I'd say, ever. Ready? Thank goodness for TouchWiz.
Samsung's skin has its share of quirks and problems, but layered over top of Honeycomb on the Tab 7.7 it actually improves the experience quite a bit. I could live without the added widgets, weird browser gestures, and redesigned icons, but there's some genuinely useful new functionality added here. The quick-access settings menu has been redesigned, so you can quickly toggle various power and connectivity settings. There's a dedicated button for taking a screenshot, finally. But my favorite addition is the small arrow in the omnipresent bottom bar, which you press to pop up small widgets that run over top of an app. There are a few quick things you can do — take a quick note, or change the song that's playing — and then with one tap you close the widget and go right back to whatever you were doing, without needing to constantly switch back and forth. It's the closest thing to true multi-window multitasking I've ever seen on Android, and it's excellent.
Unfortunately, TouchWiz can't fix the general sluggishness and lag we always see on any device running Honeycomb. Apps and web pages stutter as you scroll, the screen always rotates two or three seconds after you flip the tablet, and opening or closing an app takes anywhere from one to eight seconds. Things don't seem to be any slower thanks to Samsung's meddling, but they're certainly not any faster, and that's still a huge problem.
TouchWiz can't fix Honeycomb's problems
The clues that you're not using a stock Google device go far beyond TouchWiz. Swype is installed as the default keyboard, and Samsung has its own keyboard as well. There's also a load of bloatware, both from Samsung and Verizon. Fortunately, other than some Verizon-branded apps, two backup apps with identical icons, and two separate note-taking apps, it's mostly harmless third-party stuff like Netflix, Quickoffice, AllShare, and The Daily. You can manually organize your app drawer and push all the crapware to the end, which I appreciate, but most of the junk can't be removed completely.
The best of the preinstalled third-party apps is Peel, which works with the tablet's IR blaster to turn the tablet into a universal remote. Peel's a great TV Guide-like app that helps you find stuff to watch; it uses a setup wizard to connect to your whole home theater setup, and then wirelessly controls all of it. The 7.0 Plus has a similar integration, and it's a cool added feature for the 7.7 as well.
Unfortunately, apps like Peel are few and far between on Android; the biggest drawback for Android tablets continues to be the general lack of third-party apps optimized for the larger screen. It’s incredibly hard to recommend the Galaxy Tab 7.7 (or any other Android tablet) over an iPad at the moment, simply because there are so many more good apps available on Apple’s tablet — and there’s no sign that the balance will shift anytime soon.
Samsung has promised an upgrade to Android 4.0, but the company's given us few reasons to trust its ability or willingness to deliver timely updates. If and when the Tab 7.7 does get an Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade, it should solve a lot of the OS-level issues, and make using the 7.7 a much more pleasant experience. I'm just not holding my breath waiting for it.
You'll look a lot less ridiculous taking pictures with the Tab 7.7 than with a 10-inch tablet, so it's nice that its cameras aren't terrible, even if they're not much to write home about either. The 3.2-megapixel camera on the back isn't particularly high-res, but does all right, and the 2-megapixel front-facing shooter is actually better than its equivalent on most tablets. The back camera can shoot 720p video, which looks okay in good lighting, but it lacks any kind of image stabilization, and holding a 7.7-inch device still enough to not get any blur is near impossible.
Making matters worse, the lenses themselves are really oddly placed. The front-facing camera is slightly off-center above the display, so you have to hold the tablet off to your left to frame yourself properly. The rear camera is even worse, nestled into the top right corner as you hold the tablet vertically — it's really awkward to frame a shot, especially of something relatively close in front of you.
The real banner feature here, almost the saving grace, is the camera app. Loads of settings are placed along the left side of the screen, so changing white balance or resolution is only a tap or two away. You can tap-to-focus, which I can’t do without, and I love how easy it is to tweak timers and settings, or just flip from shooting stills to recording video.
A great app for a mediocre camera
Performance, data, and battery life
Powerful hardware is held back by underperforming software
The dual-core 1.4GHz Exynos processor inside the Galaxy Tab 7.7 generally does its job pretty well. Whether I was browsing the web or playing a game, things work as smoothly and seamlessly as can be expected on Honeycomb, and even having a number of apps open at once didn't seem to overload it. I had a couple of jumpy, frame-skipping moments while playing Grand Theft Auto III on the device, and even the most powerful chip can't overcome Honeycomb's inherent slowness, but generally speaking the device plowed along well. Our Quadrant benchmark scores backed that up, too, with the 7.7 averaging an excellent 3,300 — though that’s not surprising, since virtually every Exynos-powered device we’ve tested has gotten fantastic scores. Once it's upgraded to Android 4.0, there should be virtually nothing slowing this device down.
Browser performance is similarly solid, partly because Samsung finally had the good sense to have the tablet default to loading full websites instead of mobile versions. It renders typography and image-heavy sites really well, and pinching and zooming are more responsive than I'm used to on an Android tablet. I suspect Samsung's cheating on that last point, though: the browser often blanks out the rest of the page except for what you're zooming in and out on, and then renders it again when you stop, so you get a second or two of blank space all over the page after you zoom back out.
The 7.7 does have a tendency to get warm while you're using it, especially when you're playing an intensive game. The back heats up, yes, but so does the screen, to the point where it feels odd to touch the display since it feels like it's been baking. It's not nearly enough to be worrisome, but it's an odd thing the first few times it happens.
The Galaxy Tab 7.7 connects to Verizon's LTE network, which is terrific news — Verizon has both the largest and most mature LTE network of any US carrier. I almost never turned Wi-Fi on during my time with the Galaxy Tab, because LTE is actually faster than my home Wi-Fi most of the time. At the Verge office in midtown Manhattan, I consistently saw speeds between 8Mbps and 10Mbps down, and 5Mbps to 7Mbps up. It's not as fast as the iPad, but still quite good (and still better than my home Wi-Fi at points). Connectivity was solid and consistent — if you’re buying a carrier-connected device, Verizon's probably the safest bet right now. Of course, it's important to note that data plans are still pretty expensive, and pretty stupid.
Samsung evidently copied Apple's strategy of adding as much battery as physically possible into its tablets, cramming a big 5100mAh battery into the Galaxy Tab 7.7. It worked, too: even connected to LTE, pushing email and Twitter, browsing playing games and watching a movie on Netflix, I still got a full day and change of battery life — with more normal use this is a tablet you'll only need to charge every three days or so.
Using the Galaxy Tab 7.7 perfectly crystallizes how bad Honeycomb really is. Samsung built a solid, high-end tablet with great internals and a great display, but equipped it with an operating system that's just not up to the task. If and when it's upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich this will easily be one of the two or three most compelling Android tablets, because Samsung did virtually everything else right. Right now, though, it’s being held back considerably.
Of course, the lack of good tablet apps for Android is still a huge problem, and so is the price: $499.99 plus a two-year contract is likely to be more expensive in the long run than a $629, contract-free Verizon iPad, and $699.99 without a contract is even harder to swallow for a device with only 16GB of internal storage. If you really want an Android tablet, you'll love the Galaxy Tab 7.7 (especially when it gets Android 4.0), but without a more stable OS it’s not the best tablet out there in any conversation — ICS-equipped devices like the Transformer Prime are a smarter buy, and none of them compare to the iPad.