Cheap tablet review: LG G Pad 7.0 vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 7.0

10731452_1543776805853355_340310923_n
The LG G Pad 7.0 (Photo: Matthew Keys / The Desk)

The holiday season is approaching, and with it comes a great deal of new tech gadgets vying for the wallets of consumers everywhere. Along with cell phones and flat-screen TVs, tablet computers are earning a top spot on most people’s lists this shopping season.

Five years ago, tablets were absurdly expensive thanks in large part to the iPad. Over the years, many budget-friendly Android tablets have popped up in an attempt to rival more-premium offerings from Apple (and, in the process, forcing Apple to release several pseudo-budget friendly tablets itself).

For much of the past decade, I’ve taken some small pride in running an all-Apple platform at home. I’ve owned several incarnations of the Macbook and iPhone lines, as well as the first- and second-generation Apple TV and an iPad 2. But as Android gained more prominence (and, arguably, got better), the Google-backed open source operating system became harder and harder to ignore.

Two years ago, I plunked down around $200 for the original Google Nexus 7 tablet. It was good, but not great. It ran a version of Google’s operating system known as “stock Android,” or “pure Android” — in other words, the way Google intended the operating system to look. I’d later find out that many companies that use Google’s Android operating system in their products heavily modify it to suit their own needs, or to provide users a better experience.

This is true for at least two devices I’ve recently owned: The LG G Pad 7.0 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 7.0. Both were intended as replacements for my Google Nexus 7, which developed a small hairline crack on the screen (which, due to its age, wound up being more expensive to repair than replace — the Nexus has since found a home with a close friend).

Both the LG G Pad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 are great Android devices — and both are worthy of replacing the first-generation Nexus 7 tablet. Both tablets belong to the budget line of computers for each company respectively, and both bring strengths and weaknesses — some are a matter of user preference, others are rooted in performance.

I should stop here and explain why two tablet computers wound up replacing one: I initially bought the LG G Pad 7.0 to replace the Google Nexus 7 after seeing a deal on the tablets at Best Buy. Marked for clearance, the tablet was going for around $139 — a steal given its list of hardware features. But after two months with the tablet, it developed a quirk where it wouldn’t connect to my laptop — kind of a big deal given my line of work and play. After returning it to Best Buy, I paid a little extra for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 7.0 — and I’m still trying to decide whether or not the extra money bought overall improvement (but at least it connects to my computer).

I can easily see both tablets being considered by holiday shoppers this season as gifts for a friend or loved one (or, given the deals, even as a self-purchase). After noticing a lack of reviews for each tablet online, I decided to compare the two based on my own experience and offer my perspective here to help people decide which tablet is best for their money.

The Specs

Both tablets offer similar hardware features with very few differences — but the differences are noticeable. Both the LG G Pad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 come with 8 GB of on-board storage with a microSD card for expandable storage up to 64 GB (some even report success with up to 128 GB cards).

Both the G Pad and the Galaxy Tab 4 have the usual standard hardware: You’ve got your micro USB port for charging and file transfers, rear- and front-facing cameras, a microphone, a power button, a volume rocker and an infrared transmitter port for using the tablet as a remote control (and probably other functions, though this seems to be the one both tablets tout).

[Winner: Draw]

Display

Spec-wise, both tablets line up evenly when it comes to display resolution. The 7-inch displays are capable of rendering a high-definition image at a 800×1280 resolution (or equivalent to a 720p high-definition television set) with a pixel density of 216 ppi (in other words — really sharp). On paper, the graphics seem similar — but in practice, the LG comes out on top, though not for a reason you might expect.

The Samsung tablet tries to over-compensate on images and videos when it’s often not necessary: Sometimes, colors are too bold and and images pixelated because the tablet is trying to hard to render the best possible image, making every pixel apparent and even creating blemishes that aren’t noticeable on other devices. A photo rendered on my Samsung tablet looked very different — worse, even — than it did on my Mac, iPhone or previous LG tablet, thanks in part to Samsung’s emphasis on strong color and more-vivid detail. The attempt is honorable, but ultimately falls flat.

The LG tablet, on the other hand, renders dull images — initially, you might be taken aback that they don’t render as well as on a laptop or an iPhone. But this is quickly overlooked — you wind up feeling like the LG tablet is trying to display the image closer to the truer form of the photograph, rather than trying to make the photo better the way the Samsung does. It makes for a more-pleasant viewing experience, even if the colors aren’t as bold and the detail not as fine as the Samsung tablet.

Both tablets offer the ubiquitous multi-touch display (even if, for legal reasons, they can’t outright call it that). But here, the LG tablet comes out on top: I found it easier to point-click on buttons, menu options and text fields on the LG tablet than I did on the Samsung. Maybe my pointing is off, but the LG tablet seemed to know what I wanted to click on more often than the Samsung did, which often selected an option below or above where I intended to point. This seems like an odd weakness for Samsung, a company whose “TouchWiz” software is a feature that the company often plays up. It’s a minor quirk, and could be fixed by recalibrating the screen (which, admittedly, I haven’t done). Typing on both devices is a pleasure, provided you forego both tablets’ default keyboard for Google Keyboard instead.

The Samsung tablet also attracts an unsightly amount of fingerprint marks. The LG tablet picks up its fair share of fingerprints too, but they are nowhere near as obvious as on the Samsung.

[Winner: LG G Pad]

Sound

Demerit for the G Pad: When you take it out of the box, you might be excited to find two speaker ports on the back of the tablet. But the dirty little secret is: Only one of those ports actually has a speaker. Flip open the manual and you’ll find this was no accident — LG intentionally built two speaker ports even though the tablet has only one speaker. It’s a design feature, LG asserts, but it winds up disappointing and comes off really deceptive.

Samsung, on the other hand, doesn’t attempt to hide its one-speaker feature. Like the LG G Pad, the Galaxy Tab 4 has a single mono speaker on the rear of the tablet.

Both speakers perform well for a budget tablet: If you’re sitting at your desk writing, they perform well enough to listen to light music or a podcast. This is true of most small-form tablet computers: The speakers are good enough for a one-person audience.

In both cases, you’re going to get better quality sound when you pair it with a good set of headphones, earbuds, a Bluetooth speaker or a stereo system. That’s true of most tablets, though — even Apple’s legacy iPads.

But Samsung pulls ahead in the audience-for-one test: Its speaker handles bass and treble well, and offers better clarity and tone compared to the LG’s speaker, which can come off tinny and timid.

[Winner: Samsung Galaxy Tab 4]

Performance

The Samsung beats out the LG tablet on performance specs and use: The LG G Pad hosts a duo-core Qualcomm processor and 1 GB of RAM compared to Samsung’s quad-core Qualcomm processor and 1.5 GB of RAM. The better specs of the Samsung tablet means it can handle certain powerhouse tasks better than the LG tablet.

That said, the LG tablet was good for most basic things: Apps load up quickly, web surfing was a breeze and music streams nicely. The Samsung handles all these nicely as well. Neither really blow the other one away in this regard.

Video, on the other hand, is a different story: Though the LG provides better image rendering, the Samsung handled high-definition video better. Simply put: The LG will not play high-definition video from Netflix smoothly; the Samsung, on the other hand, doesn’t have a problem. I only noticed this quirk on Netflix though; the LG handled high-definition video from Hulu Plus, Crackle and YouTube quite nicely. But after having the tablet for two months, and not being able to play Netflix videos without a constant stutter, it became clear to me that a fix was nowhere on the horizon — and that the LG’s low RAM and weaker processor was likely to blame.

The low specs do give LG a boost in at least one area: Battery life. The LG provides excellent battery life — with average use, the battery can last around 10 hours a day, and probably longer. The Samsung, on the other hand, seems to start draining the second it’s unplugged — it seems the Samsung’s ability to do more means it absolutely will do more, and the tradeoff is a shorter battery life. That said, the Samsung’s battery life is okay — you can probably get around 5 hours of consistent use out of it on a single charge — but it’s disappointing considering its higher price point compared to the LG tablet.

There was also a weird quirk that, ultimately, made me return the LG tablet to the store: After two months of use, it refused to connect to the file transfer software LG PC Suite, and it would never connect to Google’s own Android File Transfer (even though LG says it’s compatible). When it did connect to LG PC Suite, it would take absurdly long to transfer movies and music — sometimes as long as 15 minutes for just one video. The Samsung, on the other hand, has no problems connecting to Android File Transfer and easily moves files back and forth between the tablet and the Mac. So, point Samsung.

[Winner: Samsung Galaxy Tab 4]

Design

The design of the Samsung tablet is awful.

For one, there’s an obnoxious chrome trim that encompasses the entire front-facing portion of the tablet. Samsung intends this to lend the tablet an aura of luxury — but it makes reading on the tablet awfully distracting, as your eyes focus off words and onto the trim every time light touches it. Bottom line, the design makes it hard to get lost in the content — a huge drawback for any computer.

Samsung also insists on making the tablet’s front buttons a separate feature. For years, Samsung has put a dedicated raised “home” button on its phones and tablets, along with touch-sensitive back and menu buttons, just below the screen. There’s no reason for this: Android is perfectly capable of rendering all three buttons (and then some) on the screen without taking too much away from the display’s real estate. Worse, because Samsung chooses to place the Android function buttons off-display, you can’t customize them: For example, you can’t move the “back” button to the left of the tablet, or get rid of it altogether.

Last, Samsung’s cases leave a lot to be desired. The $50 cases come in either black or white, and for that money, you get a piece of flimsy faux-leather emblazoned with the Samsung logo (as if you needed a reminder what tablet you’re using). The stand is a joke: A magnet in the back that is supposed to prop the tablet open, but winds up failing under the weight of the computer. Speaking of magnets, it lacks one of the basic features of most tablet cases — it won’t turn your tablet on when you open it, and it doesn’t turn your tablet off when you close it. The cases are crap, and if you spend $50 on one, you’re an idiot.

The LG tablet’s design is arguably the best I’ve ever encountered on a tablet computer — even better than the iPad. The unibody black finish is appealing to the eye, and the lack of flashy trims and dedicated buttons makes it easy to focus on whatever you’re reading or viewing. Everything just blends together — nothing stands out. And that’s the way it should be.

Even better, the Android function buttons are on-screen, where they should be. Want to move the back button to the right, or the home button to the left? Go for it. Don’t want the dual-window button? Make it disappear. Want black shapes on a white background, or white shapes on a black background, or no background at all? You got it buddy.

LG cases are somewhat hard to come by: LG doesn’t a case for this tablet on its website, and the AT&T store (which sells a LTE version of the same tablet) is often out of stock. That said, many third party companies offer decent cases: The one I purchased cost $8 on Amazon (around $12 if you factor in shipping) and it outperformed Samsung’s $50 case in every way: It’s rugged, it covers the case entirely, it can withstand the weight of the tablet when using it as a stand and — best of all — it turns the device on and off when you open and close it.

[Winner: LG G Pad]

Overall winner: LG G Pad, but…

Both tablets are great choices. But each tackles what an Android tablet should look like from different directions.

For years, Samsung has been at war with Apple in the smartphone and, now, tablet space. Samsung doesn’t just want to build a product similar to the iPhone and iPad — it wants to incorporate the best Apple features as well as functions it thinks users want that Apple doesn’t offer. Here, Samsung wants to build a tablet that is like the iPad in almost every way, and yet better at the same time.

And it shows: Samsung’s home button? Just like the iPad. The headphone port? Same corner as the iPad. The charging port? Similar placement and look compared to an iPad (even if it’s a different kind of port). Its $50 case? On par cost- and feature-wise with an iPad (even though the Samsung cases are crap — again, don’t buy one). So if you’re moving from an iPad to a tablet, and you want a somewhat-seamless and familiar user experience backed by the power of the Android operating system, then Samsung might be for you.

Where Samsung tries to be a better iPad, the LG tablet focuses squarely on being a great Android tablet. And, problematic file transfer and Netflix performance aside, it delivers a cleaner, better experience than the Samsung tablet. Where Samsung makes it very apparent you’re using a Samsung product, LG’s mission is pushing content to your eyes, then standing aside so you can get lost in whatever book or movie you’re watching.

That said, if you prefer performance over design, the Samsung excels over the LG in everything but the battery life. But if you want a truly exceptional Android experience, the LG tablet is the way to go.

[Update: Since this post was originally published, I’ve since returned the Samsung tablet and purchased the same model of LG G Pad described here. The new LG tablet has none of the performance issues of the first one I owned — the battery life is still excellent and Netflix will play high-definition videos smoothly. Also, I was able to determine that the issue with Android File Transfer is one with my computer, not with the tablet — the computer requires a reboot when the tablet is connected in order for files to be transferred. A weird quirk, but one worth living with. All in all, the LG G Pad is an excellent tablet and one worth buying.]

Thanks for reading and supporting The Desk. If you have a question, comment or news tip, send a message by email or text, or connect on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Also, check out our new membership service The Desk: Pro Access for exclusive reporting, news scoops and in-depth analysis.