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When we review a second-generation product there are certain things we tend to take for granted: this new thing, whatever it is, will be thinner, faster, longer-lasting, maybe even with more bells and whistles in tow. With Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1, though, it's a little less obvious why its sequel is here. It offers near-identical specs, including a 10-inch, 1280 x 800 PLS display, dual-core 1GHz TI chip, 1GB of RAM and a minimum of 16GB of internal storage. What's more, this generation is slightly thicker and heavier, and sheds the LED flash that used to sit on the back side. But there's one detail we haven't mentioned yet: in addition to softening the specs, Samsung dropped the price by about hundred bucks, so that it now starts at $400.

Clearly, then, the 10.1 has evolved into a mid-range tablet, whereas it used to be the best Samsung had to offer. That's good news for penny-pinching shoppers, but Samsung has a bit of a problem on its hands: it's jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, dodging direct competition with the new iPad, only to find itself competing with a raft of affordable tablets made by Acer, ASUS and even Apple. So how does Samsung's warmed-over 10.1 compare? Can it be a winner in the mid-tier category, at least? Let's see.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 review

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Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1

Pros

  • Thin and light design
  • Healthy battery life
  • IR blaster and universal remote app

Cons

  • Terrible camera, even for a tablet
  • Display is sometimes unresponsive
  • Performance trails similarly priced tablets
Summary

The second-gen 10.1 is a good enough Android 4.0 tablet with a pleasing, lightweight design and decent battery life. Still, its performance and feature set trail tablets that cost the same or even less.

Hardware

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It's clear Samsung wasn't prepared to stray far from its tried-and-true aesthetic.

On paper, when reduced to a list of specs, the two 10.1 tablets are difficult to tell apart, what with their dual-core processors, 1GB of RAM and 1280x 800 IPS-like displays. Hold them both in front of you and the difference is obvious, though it's clear Samsung wasn't prepared to stray far from its tried-and-true aesthetic. Like the original, this guy has a plastic back that seems immune to both fingerprints and scratches (we should know: yours truly accidentally sent it flying off an airplane tray table). This time, though, Samsung opted for a matte silver finish, as opposed to the white, finely patterned back it used on the first-gen model. Timeless and understated. Also, very similar to this, this and this.

But although the build quality hasn't changed, Samsung made the Galaxy Tab 10.1 slightly heavier and thicker this go-round (1.29 pounds / .41 inches thick vs. 1.25 pounds / .33 inches). That wouldn't necessarily be a problem -- after all, chunkier tablets sometimes bring longer battery life -- but in this particular case, it's a shame that the second generation is plumper than the OG model, but doesn't last as long on a charge (more on that later). All told, there's nothing wrong with the way the new 10.1 looks or feels; we just would've hoped that a second generation of products would usher in progress, not a series of steps backwards.

Before we point out the remaining differences (and there are a couple), let's linger on the display, another piece of the design that remains unchanged. Once again, Samsung went with a 1280 x 800 PLS panel -- the same one it used on the last gen 10.1. True, it's not a Retina display, or even the 1920 x 1200 screen you can look forward to on the Infinity Pad 700 or (supposedly) the Acer Iconia Tab A700. For what it's worth, though, the viewing angles are wide enough that you should have no problem following along with a movie while the tablet's resting face-up on a table in front of you.

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One thing Samsung did tweak this time around was the speaker placement: here, you'll find them on the front side, flanking the display. Now that they're not tucked on the underside, you won't have to suffer through muffled noise when you lay the tablet flat, or set it down in bed next to you. Indeed, the volume gets respectably loud, though we wouldn't recommend cranking it all the way up: the sound quality is constrained at best, and gets increasingly distorted as you raise the decibels. At some point during testing, this reviewer went on an early '90s REM kick, and though Michael Stipe's voice sounds soothing enough, his voice and certain lower-pitched instruments like the piano get lost amid the shrill violins. To unlock poor, lovelorn Michael and his trapped vocals, you'll probably want to plug in headphones.

Last thing we want to point out on the front face: a 2-megapixel camera, identical to the one planted on the OG 10.1. Flip the tablet over and you'll see the same 3-megapixel shooter, except this time it's been robbed of its LED flash. Finishing our tour around the device, there's the same ol' proprietary charging connector on the bottom landscape edge, while the two portrait sides are both devoid of ports and buttons. Up top is where you'll find the power / lock button, volume rocker, microSD slot, 3.5mm headphone jack and an IR blaster, which was missing from the first-gen 10.1.

Performance

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 ($400)

ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 ($379)

Acer Iconia Tab A510 ($450) Acer Iconia Tab A200 ($350) Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (running Android 3.2)
Quadrant (v2) 2,602 3,695 3,754 2,053 2,502
Linpack single-thread (MFLOPS) 35.6 41.7 47.8 37.2 30.2
Linpack multi-thread (MFLOPS) 57.1 89.8 120.5 60.4 56.0
NenaMark 1 (fps) 29.5 60.3 62.8 45.6 43.4
NenaMark 2 (fps) 19.0 46.9 55.8 20.4 20.8
Vellamo Would not run 1,320 1,500 1,290 955
SunSpider 9.1 (ms, lower numbers are better) 2,222 2,120 1,850 2,251 2,177

Normally, we don't put too much stock in benchmarks, but in this case, the raw scores are telling. The second-gen 10.1 trails its Tegra 3-packing competition by a wide margin. Worse, those quad-core tablets can be had for the same price or less. The 10.1 does manage to best some other dual-core tablets, such as the $350 Acer Iconia Tab A200, but it's tough to get excited about a gadget that can only win when pitted against products with similarly stale specs. The same is true when positioning it against its nigh-identically specced ancestor, the first Galaxy Tab 10.1. Stacked side-by-side with that aging Honeycomb slab, Sammy's second-coming slate notched a few marginal victories -- namely in Quadrant and Linpack (single and multi) results -- but ultimately couldn't outpace its elder in graphics performance.

Numbers aside, the 10.1 also stumbles in real-world use -- and in a way we think even less tech-savvy users might notice. Blessedly, we didn't suffer any app crashes during our testing period, but too many of the things we did felt laborious. The display wasn't always responsive to our taps and swipes, and you might have to teach your finger to apply more pressure than its used to. The tablet stops to think when you launch apps, and certain animations appear sluggish (imagine application shortcuts taking their sweet time to fly off the screen when you press the home button to exit the app menu.)

With gaming, too, we got off to a promising start in Temple Run. Unfortunately, our goodwill vanished when we tried to swipe the screen to jump over a tree stump (and away from the persuing monkeys), but were met with an unresponsive display. Even when the screen was cooperative, we still noticed some stuttering and motion blur as we made hair-pin turns around the course and slid under obstacles.

Battery life

Tablet Battery Life
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (10.1) 8:56
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 12:01
Apple iPad 2 10:26
Acer Iconia Tab A510 10:23
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17 / 16:34 (keyboard dock)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Apple iPad 9:33
Motorola Xoom 2 8:57
HP TouchPad 8:33
ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 8:29 / 12:04 (keyboard dock)
Acer Iconia Tab A200 8:16
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 8:09
Amazon Kindle Fire 7:42
Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 7:38
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
Toshiba Thrive 6:25

Though the 10.1 is relatively slim compared to its competition, that thinness thankfully doesn't translate to skimpy runtime: it lasted roughly nine hours in our battery rundown, which consists of looping a movie with WiFi on and the screen brightness fixed at 50 percent. That's a respectable showing, especially when you consider the ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 crapped out half an hour earlier, despite having a slightly bulkier build. Still, one has to wonder why the original 10.1 managed to last an hour longer in the same test, despite having a skinnier design. While we're on our "if it ain't broke don't cripple it rant," the $400 iPad 2 lasts ten and a half hours, while the current-gen iPad lasts nearly ten under optimal circumstances. Prefer to stick with Android, thank you very much? The new Iconia Tab A510 holds out for about ten and a half hours as well, though it comes at the price of a heavier design and a loftier price ($450, versus $400 for the 10.1).

Software

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As you'd expect, the unit we tested ran Ice Cream Sandwich (version 4.0.3, to be exact) with Samsung's TouchWiz layered on top. If you've ever owned a Samsung device or even played with one at a local store, you know what you're getting: for better and worse, this is the same skin we've seen on oodles of other Samsung products, including the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 we tested last month. That means certain apps (calendar, for example) have been replaced by Samsung-designed equivalents (S Planner, in this case). Samsung's also taken liberties with certain basic aspects of the UI, such as the way the clock in the lower-right hand corner looks. Additionally, the app menu is peppered with various "Hubs," including ones for gaming, media, music and e-books. Make of these what you will: it's absolutely possible to enjoy the tablet without ever launching these, making them as unobtrusive as bloatware, but potentially more useful.

Amid all those hubs, it can be easy to ignore the sprinkling of third-party applications. Nonetheless, they're there, and the selection is fairly standard. On tap, we've got Amazon's Kindle app, Netflix, the Pulse news reader and Polaris Office, which you'll also find on the keyboard-dock-compatible Transformer Pad TF300. There's also Dropbox, which comes with 50GB of complimentary storage, good for one year. (This came in especially handy when we tried to get files onto a test MacBook Pro, since the tablet didn't show up in Finder when we plugged it in over USB.)

Even more than Dropbox, though, the most memorable, unusual bit of software is Peel's universal remote app, and even that's unsurprising, given that all of Samsung's other tablets with IR emitters come pre-loaded with the same app. Since this isn't all that new, we'll spare you an encore performance of previous reviews, but suffice it to say the last time we gave it a whirl, we were generally pleased with its easy setup, which doesn't require you to remember the model numbers of all the pieces in your home theater rig -- just the brands.

Camera

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The 10.1's still photos are dismal, even by tablet standards, but the lack of a flash seems to be the least of its problems.

As tablet makers take steps to cut the price of their wares, camera quality invariably ends up being one of the first things to land on the chopping block. Which makes sense to us: even at their best, slates have never been known for their stellar images, and we imagine this feature is underused anyway -- given how impossible it is to frame shots on a 10-inch screen without attracting stares. Interestingly, though, while lots of tablet players have decided to compromise on image quality, each company seems to have taken a different approach: ASUS, for example, widened the aperture slightly but removed the flash, while Acer simply chose not to endow the A200 with a rear shooter at all. In the case of the second-gen 10.1, Samsung kept the pair of three- and two-megapixel cameras, but removed the LED flash on the back, almost as if they thought we wouldn't notice.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 sample shots

Truth be told, the 10.1's still photos are dismal, even by tablet standards, but the lack of a flash seems to be the least of its problems. Even with ample light, the rear camera is clueless about what part of the image it should be focusing on. Try to snap a photo of an orange butterfly, and the sharpest thing in the picture will be the green foliage in the background. Try taking a close-up shot and the best you can hope for is that the foreground will be in focus; hoping for even a slightly blurred background is an exercise in denial. Compounding matters, the camera app lacks tap-to-focus -- a table-stakes feature in smartphone / tablet cameras, if you ask us -- but to be honest, a camera worth its salt will focus on the obvious thing even without you prompting it to. As for the absent flash, even photos taken in modestly dim rooms showed large patches of noise, but then again, we haven't any tablet camera we'd trust by candlelight.

It's more of the same with 720p video recording. The hyperopic focus isn't so obvious with wide shots (say, traffic hurtling by), but it absolutely hamstrings more tightly framed shots. Returning to that butterfly, for instance, we didn't have any more success locking in focus here than we did with still photos; the sharpest part of our clips are blades of grass in the background.

The competition

One senses that Samsung cut the 10.1's price by $100 to avoid direct competition with the iPad. Too bad other tablet makers had the same idea.

One senses that Samsung cut the 10.1's price by $100 to avoid direct competition with the iPad. Too bad other tablet makers had the same idea. Now in its second generation, the 10.1 finds itself against other mid-range 10-inch Android tablets, including the ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 ($380 and up) and the Acer Iconia Tab A510 ($450). And if Samsung really was trying to escape the iPad, well, it didn't work: the iPad 2 now costs $399, and though its display isn't the stunner you'll find on the new iPad, its long battery life, slim design and exhaustive app catalog still make it a good buy.

Leaving the iPad out of this for a second (not everyone prefers Apple's ecosystem, after all), the new 10.1 will probably still struggle to stand out. For $20 less, the TF300 offers comparable battery life, a bright IPS display, a superior camera and unskinned Android, if you're into that sort of thing. And though the Transformer's signature keyboard dock ratchets the cost up by $150, the fact that it's even possible to use the TF300 this way makes it a more compelling option. Meanwhile, the Acer Iconia Tab A510 whips the 10.1's butt in performance and longevity, and it, too, has a pleasing design. That's not to say we'd heartily recommend spending $450 on the A510 when you could pay fifty dollars more and get a Transformer Prime or new iPad, but our point still stands: if an affordable 10-inch tablet is what you're after, you've got lots of choices.

Wrap-up

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Although the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 is the clear successor to the original, it's hardly an upgrade. It's not materially better than the OG version -- in fact, it's worse in almost every way -- and now Samsung finds itself in a market where it can't compete as effectively as it used to. Sammy's corporate heart was in the right place when it cut the price by $100, but it's almost as if the outfit forgot other companies are doing the same thing -- and stepping up their games in the process.

When ASUS, for instance, set out to create a cheaper alternative to the Transformer Prime, it compromised slightly on battery life and settled for a thicker, heavier design, but the Transformer Pad TF300 is nonetheless similar where it counts: like its big brother, it has an IPS display, quad-core Tegra 3 chip and an excellent camera. The 10-inch Galaxy Tab 2 actually costs more than the TF300, even though it packs last year's specs and a hopelessly crippled shooter. If you have $400 to spend, you could buy an iPad 2 or the new Transformer and enjoy comparable (if not longer) battery life, along with smoother graphics and an improved imaging experience. Assuming you were going to ignore that camera anyway, you can't exactly go wrong with the 10.1, but you could also do a lot better.