Galaxy Tab Flash: an Embarrassment of Riches

With the first stages of the US launch this past week, and European model reviews in the weeks before, the Samsung Galaxy Tab's Flash performance has been well raked over. Flash support has taken center stage as one of the key differentiators between Apple's iPad and Android-based tablets, with Steve Jobs making no disguise of his dislike of the technology and several reviewers flagging up its spotty performance in their coverage of the new Samsung slate. It's enough for Silicon Alley Insider (without actually having used the Galaxy Tab) to describe Flash as "an embarrassing disaster" for Google slates. Problem is, it's a naive stance when an integral part of the Android proposition is flexibility.

Does Flash Player 10.1 slow down the Android browser? Yes, certainly, though in our experience only while the page is initially loading; once everything is rendered it's generally pretty slick. Thing is, you don't actually need to let Flash run every time. The plug-ins option in the browser settings can be set to "On demand", giving you the choice to run Flash when you want it, and to bypass it when you don't.

Therein lies the rub: the Galaxy Tab – and Android tablets (or phones) based on Froyo or future versions of the OS – gives you the choice, whereas Apple doesn't. I've got the Tab and an iPad on my table, and it's the Samsung I reach for more often. No, maybe I won't need Flash on every browsing session, but the flexibility to support it is part of my preference. I'll suffer a little slow-down – and, in my experience over the past few weeks of using the Tab daily, it hasn't been the show-stopping, unresponsive travesty you might infer from some reviews – if I can get to the information or entertainment I want. The iPad alternative is not getting it at all, or hoping the developer has had the foresight to code up an HTML5 workaround.

Is Flash sluggishness exclusive to the Galaxy Tab (or indeed mobile devices)? Not at all; Flash regularly crashes on my MacBook Pro (as, indeed, does Safari 5 on its own, and various other browsers I've tried). Flash itself can be buggy and unstable, and it's a systems-demanding plug-in that comes with its own share of compromises and benefits. Yes, it would be nice to expect it to integrate seamlessly on the Tab, but it'd be nice if Adobe could get it to do that on the desktop first.

We need to stop treating Flash as an all-or-nothing and instead look at it as added functionality – something to be rolled out as necessary. I don't leave 3G hotspot sharing turned on all the time, because it drains the battery and I only need it occasionally. We're used to compromises on mobile devices – email access, but not the same scope as in Outlook or Mail; video editing, but not the full iMovie experience; gaming, but not something that will replace your Xbox 360 – and yet we have expectations of the browser that exceed what a desktop browser can deliver.

Apple's strategy is to omit Flash and preserve stability above all else; that's fine, it's part of the value proposition when you buy into the iPad. Android gives you the choice – and it is a choice, you can turn it off, or on, or choose as-and-when you come across Flash content you want to access; that's part of what makes Android appealing to many people, myself included. Would I prefer it if either Flash became utterly stable or the web switched wholesale to a "better" alternative? Of course, but that's only because in the end I want the best mobile experience. Flash on the Galaxy Tab isn't perfect but it's more than I get on the iPad, and I'd rather have choice when I browse.