Building a tablet in today’s climate is hard. You’ll either be called out for being a copycat by consumers or officially called out by Apple — the leading tablet maker — for blatantly ripping off its vague design patents.

Since Apple set the precedent for what a modern tablet (not one of those bulky tablet PCs that Bill Gates dreamed up a decade ago), there’s an expectation that a finger-friendly touchscreen tablet should be thin, light and start at $500 (or less if you’re not an iPad).

And even though Samsung is still knee-deep in some lawsuits that span courtrooms around the globe with its larger Galaxy Tab 10.1, it still fired up the factories to pump out the smaller Galaxy Tab 8.9 to sell in the U.S.

To rival the iPad 2 is a tough task. Motorola’s Xoom tried. RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook tried. a sea of cheap Android tablets tried. the only one who seems prepared to bring the entire ecosystem of content and hardware is Amazon and its Kindle Fire next month.

Is the Galaxy 8.9 the tablet that finally gives the iPad 2 a run for its money? Maybe, maybe not.

Imitation, Flattery?

To the unsavvy buyer, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 looks virtually identical to the iPad 2 and can easily be mistaken for one. Heck, even Samsung’s lawyers were unable to tell the difference between a Galaxy Tab 10.1 and an iPad in court from a 10-foot distance.

Step a little closer and similarities fade, ever so slightly. the Galaxy Tab 8.9 is really just a smaller version of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 with some slightly downgraded specs. the tablet has a 16:9 aspect ratio screen with a 1280×800 resolution. it weighs 0.99-pounds and is slim at 0.33-inches. Compared to the iPad 2’s 1.33-pound weight and 0.34-inch thickness and it’s obvious which tablet is going to feel more comfortable in one hand.

Skinning Android 3.0 Honeycomb with TouchWiz UX

Anybody who’s spent even the littlest time with a Honeycomb tablet like the Xoom will know it’s very limited. as in, there aren’t many tablet-optimized apps limited. the UI is a mixed bag limited. Software buttons instead of physical ones limited. You get the picture. despite that, Samsung continues to make great strides in masking Android’s inconsistencies/fragmentation with its TouchWiz UX skin, similar to how HTC did the same with its Sense UI.

For all the vertical-integration between software and hardware that Apple champions with its hardware — be it Mac, iPhone or iPad — Samsung’s TouchWiz UX has tried to emulate the same feel on Android. if you own or use any Samsung Galaxy device or almost any recent touchscreen-based gadget by the Korean giant, you’ll feel right at home with the Galaxy Tab 8.9.

Being an Android-powered tablet, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 is highly customizable. there are tons of widgets to poke around with and Samsung’s “Media” and “Social” hubs — your categorized portals to your content — are pretty neat. the Media hub gives you instant access to rented and downloaded TV episodes, movies, music and e-books — all conveniently accessible. Meanwhile, the Social hub is like a master aggregator — it sucks up all your emails, instant messages (from Facebook, AIM, Yahoo!, Google), Tweets, comments, etc. and displays it all in one place.

Going back to the iPad’s one app management for all my emails, IMs and Tweets really stinks after getting spoiled by a centralized hub.

Responsive Enough For Most People

When Hewlett-Packard gave up on its TouchPad and famously dropped it down to $99 in a fire-sale, everybody rushed its corpse like brain-hungry zombies, even knowing that it would get very little or no love via future software updates. the TouchPad wasn’t terrible by any means — it was, let’s say, “just good enough.” just good enough for tweeting on commercial breaks. Good enough for browsing everybody’s favorite tech blog DVICE (wink wink). Good enough for watching Mad Men while on the toilet. it was good enough, especially at $99, it was a steal. Its niggles and wiggles in performance were forgivable.

The same applies for the Galaxy Tab 8.9. Its software and hardware are polished enough that most users won’t even notice or gripe about it. I can go on and on about the little glitches that I noticed while browsing my thousands of RSS feeds or while loading media-heavy pages such as CultureJapan, but every single time, I simply let my annoyances slide.

Why? because there is no perfect tablet. the same applies to Apple’s iPad 2. the iPad 2 might be the tablet everybody wants — that not everybody can afford — but it has its own faults (limited RAM, a crappy VGA front cam and back camera, lack of quick setting toggles, etc.).

We can dig up all the specs we want, whether it’s the Galaxy Tab 8.9’s dual-core 1GHz processor, Tegra 2 GPU or 1GB RAM, but none of that stuff will make or break this tablet. what matters is does the Galaxy Tab 8.9 get the job done for Web browsing, playing movies, music, flinging Angry Birds and running Flash without making you want to hurl it against the wall.

Really Crappy Cameras

As DVICE’s resident camera nut, I love cameras. Big ones, small ones, untraditional ones — I love them all. I’m not new to using tablets to take pictures or record HD video. My reasoning is this: if you’re going to include a pair of cameras on the front and back of a tablet, at least make them good enough, otherwise, just don’t include them at all, as it is with the Kindle Fire. by good enough, I mean ones that don’t produce pictures and videos that are grainy and gross to look at.

The Galaxy Tab 8.9 has a 2-megapixel front and 3.2-megapixel rear camera with LED flash. the latter is capable of 720p HD video recording. Bluntly put: both are terrible. We tried taking photos indoors, outdoors, low light, lots of light, and made a few international Skype calls, but we were never impressed. Easily, an iPhone 4 and even an older iPhone 3GS can outshoot the Galaxy Tab 8.9.

Don’t even bother with the cams here, unless you want your photos to look like they were taken with crappy cellphone cameras, because that’s what you’ll get.

Winner or Loser?

From a usability standpoint, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 is the smoothest and tightest Android tablet we’ve ever tested. there are plenty of negatives here: it isn’t made from any “premium” materials like aluminum (it’s back is plastic, made to look like brushed metal), and it could have used a mini HDMI port (not everybody has a connected TV that supports wireless DLNA streaming), and its cameras could be less dog doo, but the Galaxy Tab 8.9 is a winner. there are also some high points: the speakers are loud enough for close-range blasting, the sharp screen is great for watching movies and looking at photos and browsing the Web works without many hiccups (gasp — even Adobe Flash!). Battery is also solid: we easily got over four days of extensive use out of it before needing a charge.

It definitely feels like the perfect size and weight for using it in one hand — even more so than the smaller PlayBook. with a screen of 8.9-inches, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 is larger than the 7-inch PlayBook, but smaller than the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen. It’s a middleman device that is discrete in public, which is great, because I’m not looking to stop every 10 minutes while using it in a park, on the subway or bus, just to be asked, what the device is.

If only it wasn’t so damn expensive for a smaller-screen tablet. the Galaxy Tab 8.9 comes in Wi-Fi-only models at $470 for 16GB and $570 for 32GB models. No expandable memory card slots, either. if the Galaxy Tab 8.9 was $350-400, it wouldn’t be at Kindle Fire impulse buy levels, but it’d feel like less of a hard option against the iPad. if you can spare the cash, it’s still an excellent tablet, though — probably the best alternative to the iPad 2.

Oh, and one more thing. the Galaxy Tab 8.9 uses its own proprietary 30-pin wannabe charging and syncing cable à la Apple (though not compatible with Apple products), so if you like keeping your cables in check with only a micro or mini USB, you’re SOL.

All photos for DVICE by Raymond Wong