New Samsung Android Tabs - iPad killers?

March 22, 2011 at 07:46 PM | categories: Tablet | View Comments |

Samsung Android Honeycomb Tablets: iPad Killers?

Today Samsung announced a redesigned Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 8.9. After the iPad2 announcement earlier this month pretty much killed the first round of over-priced, under-achieving Android tablets (here's looking at you, $800 Xoom) it is great to see Samsung coming out with a much more competitive offering.

Competitive Tablet Pricing

One of the most disappointing things about the Motorola Xoom was simply the rather insane $800 price tag. The Xoom is a nice piece of hardware don't get me wrong, but there is no way to justify the 60% higher price over the entry-level 16G iPad2. While they're releasing a $599 32G WiFi-only version in the next couple of weeks - which is somewhat competitive with the $599 32G iPad 2 - it feels like too little too late.

Furthermore, the honest truth is that Honeycomb isn't yet ready for primetime - with a shortage of apps and a beta-quality OS that often experiences crashes. Of course, Google are going to fix those bugs over the coming months and slick, native Honeycomb apps are under frantic development at this very moment. Still though, that doesn't change the situation today: Tablets are all about the apps, and it is hard to ignore the 1 year head-start of the Apple iPad tablet app ecosystem.

For this reason, it is fantastic to see Samsung understand that they simply cannot charge more than Apple and are releasing models at $499 and $469 for 16G WiFi-Only 10.1" and 8.9" tabs respectively.

Form Factor

I find it refreshing to see Samsung releasing an 8.9" tab in addition to the more iPad-like 10.1" offering. I've found the 7" Nook Color to be a real joy to hold with one hand unlike iPad and Xoom which are just a bit too big for that. Am hopeful that the 8.9" model is just about right for one-handed use also.

Display Technology

Samsung are well-known for their screen technology and their latest development is Super PLS or Plane-to-Line-Switching for LCD displays. Compared to current In-Plane-Switching (IPS) panels, as found in the Motorola DROID or the iPad 2, Super PLS displays offer about a 100% improvement in viewing angles and a 15% improvement in brightness. Furthermore, they are available in 1280x800 resolution as opposed to the iPad 2's lower 1024x768.

It will be interesting to see if the screen alone could make the Samsung devices quite a bit more compelling. Apple has already been receiving criticism for giving the iPad 2 the same display as their first-gen iPad instead of offering Retina Display which they feature in their iPhone 4.

Video playback: Tegra 2 or Exynos?

As I wrote in my previous article, 3 Surprising Things About Video On Android Tablets, video is an obvious killer app for tablets but the Tegra 2 chip used in many of the Honeycomb devices has some severe limitations in video playback.

I speculated in that post that Samsung's then-rumoured 8.9" device might use their own Exynos CPU in place of Tegra 2 and it appears that may now indeed be the case. Samsung have so far been vague about the specifics of what chip they are putting into the device saying only that it has a dual-core processor. Analysts suspect this is due to shortages in their own CPU which may be made up on a per-region basis by some models having Tegra 2.

If the 8.9" Galaxy Tab does ship with Exynos as opposed to Tegra 2 and carries DivX certification, that could make it a far superior device for video playback. It would beat both the current crop of Honeycomb tablets in addition to the Apple iPad2 as much more efficient video streams would be supported. Beyond higher quality streaming, it would also largely eliminate the need for time consuming and tedious re-encoding of video files prior to playback on the device.

Conclusion

To wrap up, the Samsung announcement today is certainly exciting. The Samsung devices look like they are shaping up to be competitive with Apple's iPad2 in industrial engineering, features and price.

However, with a June 8th US release date for the 10.1" model and a still-vague date for the more interesting 8.9" tab we are still left with quite a wait for a truly compelling and competitive Honeycomb offering.

Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at FrozenRidge.co.

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Video: An Obvious Killer App for Tablets


After a decade or so of various failed or underwhelming attempts, it is now blatantly obvious that Apple kicked off the consumer tablet revolution with their launch of iPad in 2010. By getting the hardware, pricing, UI and application ecosystem right, they have managed to sell 15 million units in 2010 alone (April - December), bringing in $9.5 billion.

An obvious killer app for this kind of device is video. At the distance you hold a tablet it has the same apparent size as a massive TV screen. The easy-to-hold and carry form factor, the long battery life, the high quality screen and speakers - and apps like Hulu Plus, Netflix, ABC and CBS pretty much have the TV and movie situation covered, with more services and apps coming all the time, to both iOS and Android devices.

In the not-too-distant future, practically everyone will have a tablet, and everyone will want to watch video on them. Awesome!

1) NVIDIA Tegra2 Chip Performance Surprises: Not What They Claim To Be


You've probably noticed the recent explosion in Android handsets and tablets powered by the NVIDIA Tegra 2 chip. It offers extremely impressive performance with a dual core ARM Cortex-A90 clocked at 1Ghz, and powers the latest devices including the Motorola Xoom, Atrix, Bionic and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 along with a host of others just-released or near-release.

Tegra 2's Dirty Little Secret
What you may not be aware of amidst all the marketing is how poorly these Tegra 2 chips decode video. Tegra 2 is not capable of playing just any old video format. While technically it supports H.264 at 720p and 1080p, it specifically only supports the "Baseline" profile which means two reference frames and no B frames.

This means you must take your existing HD video files and re-encode them into a special format using a program like handbrake. According to Anandtech, that puts a 2 hour movie at around 8 GB - too big to fit as a single file on a typical microSD card formatted with FAT32.

Additionally, with those kinds of space requirements, streaming 1080p HD video for viewing on your device quickly becomes extremely bandwidth intensive (~10mbps). Almost certainly too high for most consumer Internet connections - according to DSL reports average Internet connection speed in USA is 4.7Mbps.

In other words, your brand spanking new, top-of-the-line 2011 dual core 1Ghz tablet cannot simply play any 720p/1080p HD video file you throw at it. Unlike a cheap PC or media center, in order to watch video on your shiny new Tegra 2-based tablet you:

  • Almost certainly will have to re-encode your video specially for the device.
  • Need a ton of storage space, approx. 8G per movie, possibly having the video split across multiple files.
  • If streaming true HD video in 1080p baseline profile, need a very fast (~10mbps) Internet connection. (FWIW BBC iPlayer HD streams are 720p @ 3.2 MBPS. These HD streams are not available on iPad since that only supports baseline too!)

Ouch! Rumour suggests this is one of the reasons why HTPC (Home Theater PC) manufacturer Boxee ditched the Tegra 2 platform for the Intel Atom.

2) Samsung's Hummingbird CPU: DivX Certification

An interesting tidbit about Samsung's Android devices: Many of them - including 7" Galaxy Tab and the Galaxy S phone - are DivX certified! What does this mean? It means they can play pretty much any old HD video file (at least 720p high profile) you throw at them without the friction of painful, space-wasting conversion processes!

What about the soon-to-be-released Galaxy Tab 10.1? We don't know exactly, however all information so far suggests it will be powered by the same NVIDIA Tegra 2 chip. Unless Samsung does something custom, this device will have the same video limitations as the Motorola Xoom.

However, there is speculation that the other tablets Samsung is planning - in particular an 8.9" device - may use the next generation Samsung CPU named Exynos. This dual-core CPU could well have the same DivX certification as the Hummingbird devices, offering these devices superior video playback capabilities compared to Tegra 2.

This may mean that consumers interested in good video playback support should hold off on the otherwise very promising Galaxy Tab 10.1 and wait for an Exynos-powered device instead.

3) Tegra 2 Honeycomb Exclusivity: But Won't Last Long

Android 3.0 AKA Honeycomb is the first tablet-optimized version of the OS. If you want to be able to truly take advantage of the extra screen real estate afforded by the tablet form-factor, you will want a device with Honeycomb.

The first round of Android 3.0 tablets are all powered by Tegra 2. According to the SVP of Cellular Products at Qualcomm the reason for this is that Google partnered with Motorola on the initial launch devices. For whatever reason, Motorola chose Tegra. However, Honeycomb will soon be ported to and running on processors from other vendors.

As soon as Google open-sources Honeycomb, we should see a flood of Android 3.0 tablets from vendors like Acer, Asus, HTC, Samsung and others with much better video playback support - which means much better value for consumers!

Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at FrozenRidge.co.

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