|Software is a major consideration for users contemplating a tablet purchase. Many early tablets didn't measure up from a hardware perspective; there always seemed to be notable compromises made in order to keep costs down, or just a general lack of effort in the build quality department. But the Tab 10.1 definitely passes muster from a design standpoint, so from here, it's on to software.
As we mentioned before, the Tab 10.1 is interesting in that it's one of the first (if not the first) Honeycomb tablet to ship with Android 3.1 from the factory. Most Honeycomb tablets today shipped with Android 3.0, and only a handful have been deemed worthy to receive the Android 3.1 update (the Motorola Xoom and Asus Transformer come to mind). Google used their annual developer event last month to speak about the major new features coming to 3.1, and it's safe to say that those are here on the Tab 10.1.
If you aren't familiar with Honeycomb, you should first have a look at some of our earlier Android slate reviews which feature the v3.0 build of the OS. Basically, this is Google's tablet OS -- it's designed to work better on larger panels, whereas Gingerbread (v2.3) and Froyo (v2.2) are tailored for cellphones. In practice, Android 3.1 is a very solid OS. We never ran into many issues with v3.0, but v3.1 does indeed include a good bit of polish.
The Gmail app is still best-in-class, and Google Music Beta is a great way to access your music files from the cloud. Granted, it looks a bit skimpy compared to Apple's new iTunes in the Cloud, but we have a feeling that Google is looking to improve that service as soon as humanly possible if they plan to match up. Android 3.1's largest problem is the same as Android 3.0's largest problem: developer support. There simply aren't nearly as many Honeycomb-centric apps in the Android Market as there are iPad apps in the App Store. Apple now has 95,000 iPad-centric apps, and while Google hasn't released any figures for Honeycomb apps, it's safe to say that they aren't anywhere close just yet.
But what Android 3.1 does, it does very well. If you're a heavy Gmail user, you won't be able to top the e-mail interface on any other tablet, regardless of OS. It loads fast, transitions are snappy, and it offers all of the major Gmail functions (Starring, Archives, etc.) As a media consumption device, it's also on its game. Video playback (even 720p and 1080p content that was loaded) was beautiful, and we saw no noticeable lag when loading up content nor when it was playing back.
Android's Music app is fairly simple, particularly compared to the iPad app within iOS, but it gets the job done, and Music Beta integration is succinct and quite useful assuming you've got the bandwidth to upload all of your tracks on your home PC. Maps, as always, is impressive; Google's mapping services have already ranked highly, and they're as snappy as ever on v3.1. Honeycomb-centric apps like TweetDeck look gorgeous on the display, and there's enough horsepower beneath the lid to keep things humming along nicely.
As for Android 3.1's improvements? Well, scaling our widgets worked as advertised. We were able to scale a Gmail widget as well as a Gcal widget to take up a rather insane amount of our screen, but at least that's an option now. Users can now also import photos into Android directly from a digital camera (thanks to a simplistic new host mode), and there's even USB support for controllers and the like. Unfortunately, there aren't really any "wild" Honeycomb apps out there just yet to truly showcase that functionality, but as we said with the original iPad, the apps will come now that the groundwork has been laid.
From a pure software standpoint, it's impossible to miss the addition of "Movies." That's an app that is new exclusively to Android 3.1, and it's an obvious rival to the Movies section of the iTunes Store. Google has landed rental deals with major studios, and it shows in this app. It's clean, streamlined, and easy to operate. We experienced no troubles renting a new film and streaming it over Wi-Fi; we wouldn't recommend trying this over 3G, of course. Along these same lines, Android 3.1 adds a video editing program called Movie Studio, a slightly redesigned Books application and a Web browser that Google claims is even faster than the one in Honeycomb.
We never really took issue with browser speed within Android 3.0, but the performance actually does feel somewhat faster. It's clearly not an eye-popping difference, but when it comes to browsing on a mobile product, we're willing to take any performance gains we can get our hands on.
The Tab 10.1 holds two cameras: there's a 2MP one on the front, cut out for nothing more than casual video chatting, and a 3MP one on the rear that's capable of 720p video as well as still shooting. As with most other tablets that we've tested, neither camera is particularly noteworthy. We've been trained to not expect too many amazing things from a camera embedded within a slate, and thus, we aren't too let down here. The reality is that not too many people will be taking pictures with a tablet, at least not ones where you care about the quality, so this shouldn't be too much of a deal-breaker for most. However, those hoping for spectacular optics here will probably be disappointed, but we have to ask: why would you expect decent optics in a tablet? A few (unaltered) sample shots are below.