I recently reviewed the Peel control system, which allows you to use your iPhone as a universal remote. It's a two-piece system, requiring the free Peel app and the $99 Peel Fruit--a standalone WiFi-to-IR converter box that enables communication between the iPhone and your A/V gear. Well, Peel has now teamed up with Samsung to provide an integrated solution for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus tablet. Because the Samsung tablet has built-in IR capabilities, there's no need for the add-on converter box. Peel sent me a sample of the WiFi-only Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus ($399.99) to try out the Smart Remote system, and I took the opportunity to explore the tablet, as well.
Peel Smart Remote
Before you dig into this review, I recommend you check out the original Peel review to get a complete description of the Peel app, the control system, and what I liked/disliked about the iPhone implementation. In a nutshell, the Peel app's primary focus is to help you find TV content; it's designed to improve your TV channel-surfing experience by providing a more intuitive, icon-driven TV guide that learns your likes/dislikes and sorts content into various genres (Top Picks, TV Shows, Movies, Sports, and Search, with lots of sub-categories). You can use the free app on its own as a helpful standalone TV guide, but the addition of the control element allows you to then tune to the show you want to watch, control volume on your A/V receiver or TV, etc. The Peel Smart Remote also supports the addition of a DVD/Blu-ray player and streaming media player.
The Smart Remote app is preloaded on the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, and it appears as an icon on the tablet's main Home Page. Once you launch the app, the setup process is identical to that of the iPhone version, in regards to adding components, testing codes, customizing your channel lineup, and navigating the interface. The Galaxy's 7-inch screen provides more real estate for the colorful Peel icons; since the IR transmitter is located on the Galaxy's right side panel, you have to use the tablet in the landscape orientation to aim the IR port toward your gear. The remote-control interface is actually hidden off the right side of the screen; pressing a small button brings the control screen into frame and shrinks the TV guide. The control screen is roughly the same size as what you get on the iPhone, with the same button layout.
In my original review, I praised the Peel app as a great TV-guide replacement, but I was less than thrilled with the control element. For one thing, the Peel control interface lacked some crucial buttons for TV navigation, like Guide, Info, Channel Up/Down, and a number pad to manually tune to a channel. The company recently released a software update in which it added some but not all of these buttons. The interface now includes a Guide button to bring up your provider's channel guide, as well as a number pad to tune directly to a channel (Channel-Up/-Down buttons are still absent)--these additions improve the entire navigation process, making it less important to keep your set-top box remote nearby. The system still lacks the ability to customize the layout or change the functionality of buttons, as you can do with many dedicated universal remotes.
I also had issue with the iPhone control system's reliability, due to the add-on converter box. The Galaxy's integrated IR capability allows for faster and more reliable control. The tablet sends commands more quickly, which makes it easier to use the slider-control functions that handle volume and fast-forward/reverse. I still had issues with the macro-like "Watch Television" and "Watch Blu-ray Player" options that are supposed to power all of your devices on or off and switch inputs as needed. The system left my DirecTV DVR in an "always on" state, which isn't necessary; I could not find a way to change this in the setup menu (strangely, it did not do this on the iPhone version). The Peel system did not reliably power my Panasonic TV and Pioneer A/V receiver on and off as it was supposed to. Just as I said in my original review, the more reliable method of powering devices is still to press the Power icon, which brings up a list of all your devices and allows you to turn each one on or off as needed. Overall, though, the Samsung/Peel combo was definitely an improvement over the iPhone version in button layout, speed, and reliability.
The Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus
The Peel Smart Remote is just one small piece of a larger whole in this Samsung tablet. I haven't had a chance to try out any other tablets, so I can't compare to this model to products like the iPad or Kindle--although my experience as an iPhone user can help me draw some comparisons between the Galaxy and iPad.
Here's a quick specs rundown: The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus (aka GT-P6210) is a WiFi-only tablet (802.11b/g/n) with a 7-inch TFT LCD touchscreen that has a 1024 x 600 resolution; it uses the Android 3.2 (Honeycomb) operating system with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of storage (a 32GB version is also available). The tablet has two built-in cameras (a 2-megapixel one on front, a 3-megapixel one on back with auto focus and a flash), and a microSD card slot is located on the left side panel. The device measures 7.6 x 4.8 x 0.39 inches and weighs 12.1 ounces. I liked the form factor: It's thin, light, and comfortable to carry. The 7-inch screen size strikes a nice balance, providing a greater sense of space and easier navigation than you'll get from a smartphone without being cumbersome and unwieldy. I'm a big fan of the option to include tactile and auditory feedback when pressing virtual buttons, which Samsung offers here. The Screen setup menu includes the ability to choose between Dynamic, Standard, and Movie picture modes, and I found the tablet to offer good detail, color, and viewing angles. Its brightness could be better.
In terms of services and features, the Galaxy is loaded. The Home Page includes six icons: Peel Smart Remote, Browser, Market, Samsung App, Social Hub, and Media Hub. Through the Android Market and Samsung Apps platforms, you can choose from a wide variety of free and fee-based services. In the home entertainment space, Netflix's subscription-based VOD platform is offered through Samsung Apps, but you (currently) won't find Amazon, Hulu Plus, Vudu, CinemaNow, or Blockbuster. Samsung would like you to use its new Media Hub platform to buy and/or rent movies and TV shows; right now, the title selection isn't nearly as robust as you'll get from iTunes or Amazon, but it can serve as a worthy complement to Netflix for watching the big-ticket new releases that Netflix lacks. The Android Market also offers movie titles for rent or purchase, as well as music and books (a Kindle app was preinstalled on my sample). And, of course, a Web browser is available to watch online video content from various sites. On the music side, apps for Pandora, Spotify, last.fm, and other popular services were there for the download. The Social Hub provides an integrated feed for social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, and the front-facing camera makes for easy video-conferencing using an app like Skype.
Click on over to page 2 for the High Points, Low Points, Cmpetition and Comparison and the Conclusion . . .
Let me state for the record that I'm an Apple enthusiast, to say the least. My home is filled with iPhones, MacBooks, Apple TVs, Airport Expresses, and Time Capsules. My entertainment ecosystem is perfectly set up for an iPad, and I wondered early on if a non-Apple tablet had anything to offer me. What I quickly came to realize
is that, while my physical ecosystem is very Apple-centric, my cloud belongs to Google--thanks to services like Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Picasa, and Google Music. I had previously configured Google Music to store my entire iTunes catalog, so it was immediately at my disposal on this tablet (without having to pay a fee for cloud-based storage). With the Android-based Galaxy Plus, I was able to sync up with all my Google-related services fairly easily. So, as long as I was network-connected, I had access to my music, photos, documents, calendar, etc. I also had fun exploring the Android Market to find new apps--especially new learning games for my toddler, who enjoyed the larger screen compared to what she gets on my iPhone (plus, I enjoy no risk of making errant phone calls when she starts randomly pressing buttons). Of course, during times when there's no WiFi connection to be had, you can add content directly to tablet via the microSD slot or by syncing the tablet with your computer. I experimented with Samsung's Kies software--an iTunes-like media manager for designating the personal content you wish to sync with the tablet. It got the job done, but it was very slow on my MacBook Pro, it froze several times, and the process of moving files from iTunes was clunky. Also, when I rented a movie title via the Android Market, I had the option of either streaming it or downloading it to the tablet in order to watch it later without a network connection.
How about the user experience on the Samsung tablet? Perhaps because I'm so engrained in the Apple way of doing things, there was a bit of a learning curve with the Samsung tablet. Things didn't always work the way I thought they should; however, the more I explored and experimented, the more I got a feel for the Android way of doing things. (I still think Apple is the king when it comes to ease of use.) I was pleased with the Galaxy Tab's speed--in navigating pages, launching apps, and opening Web pages. Stability was another story. I got numerous error messages that forced me to quit out of apps and restart them. I was never able to rent a title from Media Hub (I got a processor error every time), and at one point the tablet simply would not turn on. I had to go the forums to find a reboot solution, which did fix the problem. (Admittedly, I don't know what my review sample has been through.)
• The Peel Smart Remote app provides an excellent way to browse TV content. The interface is clean, colorful, and intuitive. Plus, you can teach it your likes and dislikes to further tailor the recommendations to your tastes.
• The app allows you to browse TV content without pulling up an onscreen guide that interferes with what's currently playing, and you can use the Galaxy Tab to control your A/V gear. Recent software updates have added some valuable buttons to the Peel control interface.
• The Samsung Tablet's integrated IR means you don't need to mate the Peel app with an external converter box, as you do with the iPhone. The remote-control system is easy to set up and program.
• The Galaxy Tab's 7-inch screen strikes a nice balance between size and convenience, and the tablet is thin and light.
• Access to the Android Market and Samsung Apps provides a high degree of customization and a decent number of entertainment options.
• Google's numerous (and free) cloud-based services make it easy to access your music, photos, documents, and more anywhere there's a network connection.
• The Samsung tablet is fast and offers good picture quality.
• The Peel control system isn't as reliable or customizable as a standalone universal remote.
• When browsing content that's scheduled for a later time, the Peel app lacks a "record this showing" option.
• The Samsung tablet lacked stability, causing a lot of apps to crash.
• The tablet could use a bit more brightness.
• I didn't find the Samsung/Android user experience to be as intuitive as that of my iPhone.
Competition and Comparison
Other app-based universal controllers include the Griffin Beacon ($69.99), the Logitech Harmony Link ($99.99), and the ThinkFlood RedEye ($199). Competing tablets include the iPad, Amazon Kindle Fire and Vizio Tablet
Peel's iPhone-based remote control required the $99 converter box, which I felt was too expensive for a product that had such limited customization and control options. That same price would get you a much more robust universal remote. This Samsung/Peel combination is another thing entirely. I doubt anyone is going to spend $400 on the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus just to use it as a remote control. Because the Peel app is more a perk than a primary function of the tablet, I'm more forgiving of the Peel's limitations in the control department. It's not designed to take the place of a good universal remote, but it's a cool feature that provides a quick, easy way to browse TV content, change channels, and control your sound system directly from your tablet, with minimal setup effort. As for the tablet itself, the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus is a worthy contender. It's loaded with features, offers a lot of customization options, and has a very attractive, convenient form factor. In terms of stability and user-friendliness, I'm not sure it passes the "I'd buy it for my mom" test, but I'd certainly consider it for the gadget enthusiast, especially someone who uses a lot of Google-based services and wants an easy way to integrate them in a portable device.