There’s a reason why Apple uses 30 pin dock connectors and a ton of adapters instead of integrating ports right into the devices. Even if you ignore the fact that VGA/D-SUB, component, and composite cable connectors are actually thicker than these devices themselves, an iPad would look mighty peculiar once you put four different video outputs, a USB port, SD slot, charging port, line-out, line-in, mic-in, power-out, data-in etc ports on it.That’s why it’s not surprising that other tablet manufacturers are doing the same thing and creating their own 30 pin systems. Asus does it, and Samsung does it. I bought that USB Connection Kit to use with my new Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, so read on for a review.
There’s a lot of misconceptions when it comes to USB on mobile devices. There are people in the world who expect to be able to connect absolutely everything with a USB plug to anything that has a USB port and have it work, even if that logic includes connecting a keyboard to the USB memory slot of a car stereo and expecting to control the car with the arrow keys. I’ve previously mentioned a bunch of people I have little respect for who blabbered on about the iPad’s uses in education at a conference while listing “lack of USB port” as a negative without saying exactly what it is they want to do. Those are the kinds of people with keyboards connected to their car stereos. The iPad has USB capabilities, though through an adapter. By capabilities I mean to transfer photos and videos off storage, connecting keyboards, connection USB audio devices, and connecting USB MIDI devices. Universal Mass Storage drivers, or “flashdrive mode” if you want, is not a requirement in order to call it a USB port. A USB charger still has a USB port even if it’s only for power, and iOS doesn’t support UMS by default.
Android however, does. That’s because the open file/folder based file system it uses internally is a lot more compatible with UMS than what iOS uses (not that Apple couldn’t get around it if it wanted to). However the “too many ports” problem still exists with Android, which is why many manufacturers also only do USB via adapters. On my 7-inch device that makes even more sense than it does on 10.1-inch tablets. The USB Connection Kit is Samsung’s external solution, and much like Apple’s kit it has a 30 pin to USB adapter and a 30 pin to SD adapter. Both come in the same box, and both are compatible with the Honeycomb-generation Galaxy Tabs (and presumable future tablets). No first generation Tabs, unfortunately.
To start off with what it does do, it does allow you to connect various storage devices to the Tabs. Unless you have a powered external hard drive or use a powered USB hub in between though, you will be limited to low power storage devices like flashdrives and memory cards. What you can connect depends on how much power that specific device draws, and while keyboard, mice and flashdrives/cards clock in somewhere around 50mA, external USB powered harddrives require 5-700mA. While Samsung didn’t bother to mention it on the specifications page for this kit, I’m guessing it’s around 50-90mA (I’ll justify that later). So forget about “maybe mine will work” when it comes to external hard drives that don’t have AC power.
Once connected, you can access your files from a file manager. My 7.0 Plus came with one installed, and it was perfectly capable of accessing the drives I connected (as it should). While that’s great for connecting drives with e.g. documents or video files on them, you can forget about having any sort of equivalent of the iPad’s photo import feature. When you plug in a drive or card on the iPad, it will launch the Photos app and give you a quick overview over all the photos and videos on the device, and quick and easy tools to import them. I use that feature a lot, and I can’t imagine how much extra time it would take me to fool around with a file/folder based file manager just to import photos. That’s what I have to do on a PC, and trust me, it is by no means faster in any way. Samsung needs a similar system, but obviously make it prompt you whether you want to open that feature or not so it doesn’t override the file manager functionality or open apps when you don’t want to.
Speaking of incompatibility though, the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus was unable to read video files from my Canon HS300 digital camera, of which the memory card I put in had plenty. With multiple video players installed thanks to Samsung’s “install ALL the bloatware” that’s a bit ridiculous, especially when the iPad – which is infamous for supporting few video formats natively – can not only import and play the files but edit them with iMovie. I’m all for having full UMS support, but being better than the competition is a bit more effective if you add features instead of replacing features. The bottom line here is that if you’re looking for a tablet as a photography accessory on a consumer level, a Galaxy Tab with this thing is a pretty useless in comparison. Then again, you can access flashdrives and memory cards without somewhat convoluted methods like the AirStash. As with so many things in life – and consumer electronics in particular – there’s no universally best solution, it all depends on usage.
Moving on to secondary features, that’s another area where this kit falls a bit short. Like on the iPad you can connect USB keyboards, and since Android also has mouse support those work too. Both my mouse and keyboard for my computer are wireless with those tiny adapters that you plug in, and those both worked perfectly. They worked instantly, too, unlike Windows’ “new hardware detected, please wait while I looked online for how to read this as a keyboard”. With audio devices, however, this kit failed quite miserably. The first one I plugged in caused the tab to complain that a “high powered USB device” had been inserted. This is how I know that the adapters can’t draw as much as 100mA, as that’s what the iPad Camera Connection Kit does, and it can use the exact same device just fine. It was more willing to power the second USB audio device I plugged in though, with LEDs lighting up as they should and the giant volume knob on the USB audio card controlling the volume on the Tab just fine. Then I plugged in my headphones and started playing some music however, and discovered that it might seem like it works, but the audio still comes out the tablet speakers. No clue how you fix that, if you even can. Works fine on the iPad, so another strike against the Samsung kit on this one.
As for MIDI support, I didn’t even bother trying that one. No Garage Band and no Music Studio means no use for it, really. Well, there are of course other music apps, but I couldn’t find anyone that mentioned USB MIDI support.
Naturally I also had to try the gamepad support built into Android 3.1 and above. There are videos of people doing that with the XOOM on YouTube, and the EEE Pad Transformer has even been seen advertising itself by showing off that feature. Long story short, nope. Doesn’t work. Why? I have no clue. I tried my PS3 controller and it wouldn’t work at all. I even tried an app that promises to improve support for it, but even though it could see the controller, it didn’t work. Might be something Samsung did – or didn’t do – but the result is the same. If you want to go less official ways to get it working, you need to root your device, and that shouldn’t be necessary on an official accessory. Bad Samsung.
When you sum all that up, you’re basically left with a USB Universal Mass Storage adapter. It has no easy to use photo importer and can’t read files from the same cameras as the iPad anyways, so it’s not exactly winning any prizes in that regard. USB audio devices don’t work properly, USB gamepads don’t work properly, and the power output is too low to use many devices that despite what Samsung says are low power. Consider me underwhelmed. UMS in itself isn’t bad though, and at least it will let me escape MTP mode that the Tab likes connecting to my PC with. Add a high speed USB drive to the mix and file transfer – especially for things like HD video – really benefits from this accessory. I still wish they had bothered doing more with it, though. The kit is $30 in the US, and from what I’ve seen, that roughly translates to “whatever the iPad kit costs” in other countries.