For the many companies designing tablets based on Google’s Android operating system to compete with Apple’s dominant iPad, there are twin challenges. The obvious one is to convince consumers to buy something other than the iPad 2. The less obvious one is to differentiate their products from all the other slates based on Android.
Last week, a new Android contender arrived in the U.S. market that aims to be different in three major ways. It’s the G-Slate, built by Korean electronics giant LG and sold by T-Mobile.
The G-Slate uses Google’s standard Honeycomb software—the version of Android especially created for tablets—and is the first Honeycomb tablet in the U.S. to offer 4G cellular data speeds and 3-D video creation and viewing. It sports a screen size—8.9 inches—that falls between the 10-inch dimension of the iPad and the Motorola Xoom, and the 7-inch dimension used by the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Research in Motion PlayBook.
I’ve been testing the G-Slate, and in my view, it performs pretty well overall—about as well as the first Honeycomb tablet, the Xoom. But it isn’t nearly as good a choice as the iPad 2.
Of its three big differentiators, the only clear winner is the 4G cellular capability, which is much speedier than cellular data on the iPad, or on any other Honeycomb tablet I know of. The 3-D feature, which requires the use of 1950s-style colored glasses, seems like a parlor trick to me. And the in-between size, while potentially attractive for one-handed use, is undercut by the fact that, somehow, despite being smaller, the G-Slate is actually a bit heavier than the iPad 2, and a third thicker.
Then there is the price. One reason for the iPad juggernaut is that the base, Wi-Fi-only, 16-gigabyte model costs just $499.
If you buy the G-Slate without a phone contract, it costs $750. The comparable iPad 2, with the same 32 gigabytes of memory offered by the G-Slate, both Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, plus its bigger screen, is $729.
The least you can pay for the G-Slate is $530. But that price requires a two-year cellular data contract at a minimum of $30 a month, which boosts the total cost to $1,250. And that’s after a $100 mail-in rebate. The iPad 2 isn’t sold with a contract and doesn’t require a mail-in rebate.
Another drawback to the G-Slate, and to all other Honeycomb tablets so far, is a paucity of tablet-optimized third-party apps. There are so few that a Google spokeswoman declined to even quote me a figure. Apple claims 65,000 tablet apps.
This isn’t to say the G-Slate has no pluses. I continue to believe that Honeycomb removes many of the rough edges and extra steps that characterize the phone versions of Android. The Honeycomb browser, unlike the iPad’s, has tabs, like a PC browser.
Also, unlike the iPad, the G-Slate can handle Flash video, though not in every case I tried. It comes with a free hot-spot feature, which allows it to create a Wi-Fi signal that can power other devices, like laptops.
Its front and rear cameras are much better for still photos than the iPad’s. It has stereo speakers, which the iPad 2 lacks, and another feature missing on Apple’s tablet—a built-in port, called HDMI, for connection to high-definition TVs.
And then there is that 4G speed. In my tests, with Wi-Fi turned off, the G-Slate averaged 5.79 megabits per second for downloads and 1.28 mbps for uploads. By comparison, an iPad 2 with Verizon 3G built in managed only about a fourth, or less, of those speeds over its cellular network.
The G-Slate generally performed smoothly and speedily in my tests, and handled well every app I tested. Video was smooth and vivid, though audio seemed a bit tinny and soft, despite the stereo speakers.
However, this tablet did crash on me once in five days, requiring me to use the hidden reset button. Another time, the audio control got stuck at 7% while playing a video and no sound was audible.
I like the idea of the 8.9-inch screen, which made one-handed operation easier than on a 10-inch tablet. But the G-Slate was clumsy to use in portrait mode because it is long and skinny. It’s about 20% narrower than the iPad 2, but is actually a tiny bit longer, making for an odd shape.
The G-Slate, which uses the Honeycomb version of Google’s Android operating system, generally performed smoothly and speedily.
T-Mobile and LG listed different, and inaccurate, weight specifications for the device on their websites and press materials. But when I pointed this out, T-Mobile responded with what it said was the accurate weight: 1.37 pounds. The heaviest iPad 2 is 1.35 pounds.
In my tablet battery test, where I play videos continuously with the wireless features turned on and the screen brightness at about 75%, the G-Slate lasted 7 hours and 39 minutes. That’s much less than the 10 hours and 9 minutes the iPad 2 delivered in the same test. T-Mobile claims 9 hours of continuous “mixed use” of various functions. I couldn’t replicate this vague type of test, but found that in light, intermittent, mixed use, the G-Slate lasted a couple of days between charges, though its screen was off much of that time.
And what about the 3-D feature, which is enabled by twin cameras on the back?
Well, it worked for me. But I had to use an included pair of glasses with one red and one blue lens to see these videos, and they made me a bit queasy.
Emailing the videos to a standard computer didn’t preserve the 3-D effect, even with the glasses on. T-Mobile says a 3-D TV can display the 3-D videos, but I wasn’t able to test this. Because of the glasses and the sharing limitations, I feel that this 3-D feature is mostly a marketing tool.
Bottom line: The G-Slate isn’t as good a tablet as the iPad 2. I’d only recommend it for people who want the higher cellular speeds, or who prefer Android.