Two gadgets that began shipping last week represent assaults from Google on the dominant model of computing, in which we use a cursor and a keyboard to manipulate boxes and windows on a virtual desktop. Samsung makes the hardware for both: the Series 5 Chromebook notebook, the first computer with the browser-only ChromeOS, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet, whose operating system is the latest version of Honeycomb, the tablet edition of Google’s Android mobile operating system.
These products have arrived at a pivotal moment for computing. Steve Jobs popularized the phrase “post-PC era” to describe what’s supposed to come next, with the iPad displacing the window-driven, desktop-focused experience that the word “computer” conjures up. Now Google too is offering alternatives to that experience, taking on traditional computing with a pincer movement of tablets and Chromebooks. That the two are advancing together may be either an accident or a deliberate attempt to establish distinct post-PC categories—all we know for sure that Google likes to experiment publicly.
The Galaxy Tab
The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a close match for—some might say it mimics—that proven PC-skewering weapon the iPad 2. The tablet that I reviewed is a special edition, with Android logos on the back, that was handed out to developers and lent to journalists at the Google I/O conference last month. You can buy it without the decoration for $500 with 16 gigabytes of storage or $600 with 32 GB. It’s WiFi-only for now, but a version with a cellular data plan is due out soon.
The Galaxy Tab’s similarity to the iPad 2 highlights the fact that in the tablet world, hardware is scarcely relevant. A responsive, glossy, color-rich touch screen, eight-hour-plus battery life, and front and rear cameras are all table stakes by now. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is actually slightly slimmer than the iPad 2 (by 0.2 millimeters) and lighter (by 35 grams), thanks to the plastic back it has, instead of an aluminum one. It’s also more widescreen, with a 16:10 aspect ratio.
Google’s post-PC vision—like Apple’s—is all in the software, but this is where the similarity ends. Jobs’s claims about the first iPad’s “magic” were dismissed by those who saw the device as nothing more than a “giant iPhone,” and the iPad 2 can still be accurately described that way. When you turn it on, you are greeted with a grid of every app you ever installed. Customization doesn’t go beyond the ability to group the icons into folders and move six to privileged spots on a dock at the base of the screen.
The Galaxy Tab’s Honeycomb 3.1, however, seems to be gunning to replace the desktop experience with something that looks to be suspiciously like another one, albeit without a mouse. You can clutter your five desktops with app shortcuts to your heart’s content. You can add “widgets” (cut-down, interactive versions of regular apps) to that clutter to do things like provide a permanent view of your e-mail inbox or music player. This latest release of Honeycomb allows you to resize your widgets, an option that makes it possible to create a desktop-PC feel by putting, for example, a calendar and an e-mail inbox side by side.
Honeycomb even comes with a very Windows-like system tray—a place where running apps can be seen and notifications pop up—in the bottom right corner. But it all adds up to a less slick experience than an iPad—there’s much more to tinker with, and you invariably leave things untidy. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 requires a steeper learning curve than the iPad 2.