Until Amazon's Kindle Fire hit the market late last year, no Android-powered tablet had made even the smallest of impacts on the marketplace. With its $199.99 price tag and customized user interface, the Kindle Fire was a real success.

Samsung is now aiming to grab a significant piece of that success by building its own low-cost Android tablet. The catch is that Samsung's new entry, the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, looks anything but low-cost. In fact, it features a much better spec sheet than the Kindle Fire, and uses the same streamlined body design as its more expensive brethren.

With a price of $249.99 for the Wi-Fi-only model, the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 is an instant best buy. And when you consider that it is one of the few devices on the market to offer Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich as its operating system, it's even more of a steal.

Hardware

From a hardware perspective, the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 looks much like any other recent Samsung tablet. This particular model features a black front with a titanium silver rear cover, and it feels very nice in your hands. There's a lot to be said for the 7-inch tablet form factor.

The 7-inch TFT display on the Tab 2 7.0 offers users 1024 x 600 pixels of resolution. The colors it generates are very bright, and the display's viewing angle is surprisingly good for such an inexpensive device.

Dual speakers flank the 30-pin Samsung connector that is found on the bottom of the tablet (when held in portrait mode). The volume and power keys are on the upper right edge of the tablet, and a 3.5mm headphone jack can be found up top. The 3.5mm jack also supports a line-in function.

The Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 measures up at 193mm x 122mm x 10.4mm (7.6in x 4.8in x .41in), which makes it a bit thinner than Amazon's Kindle Fire, though its tapered design makes it feel even thinner than it really is. It weighs a perfectly fine 345g (12.2oz), making it a device that you can hold for hours on end without fatigue.

Usability

While Android isn't as user-friendly as, say, webOS or iOS, Samsung has at least added a few things that make the system more usable than stock Android. Users will enjoy, for example, the mini-apps that can be overlayed on the screen at any time. Mini-apps like the calculator and music player are invaluable. Samsung's updated main menu is also a big bonus, since users can re-arrange apps into any order they like.

While Android 4 shares much with the 3.2 Honeycomb OS that we saw on the first round of Android tablets, there's a bit more polish to how things work, and the result is a better overall experience. As long as you're using the included apps, that is. Apart from those, there are few third party apps currently available that are actually designed with tablet form factors in mind.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

But still, Samsung's built-in apps, like the email client and the screen capture feature, feel just fine and make the most of the tablet's form factor. Contacts can be pulled in from either Gmail or Facebook, but there's no real social network support on the device otherwise. You'll have to load your own apps for that. The keyboard offered on the 7.0 is also pretty basic, and you won't find high-end input systems like Swype pre-loaded.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

But at least the dual-core 1GHz processor seems to have more than enough power to provide a smooth experience when using the tablet, and that's worth a lot. Especially at its bargain price.

Calling / Data

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 offers no built-in wireless network support apart from Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n for connecting to a home or public Wi-Fi access point. The 7.0 does feature a microphone and speaker, as well as a forward-facing camera, which make it ideal for use with VoIP applications like Skype.

The Tab 2 7.0 also features USB connectivity through its proprietary 30-pin Samsung connector, and there's always Bluetooth 3.0 for using the Tab with devices like wireless stereo headphones and speakers. An infrared port allows the Tab to work as a TV/home entertainment remote control, too.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

Users looking for HDMI output will need to use an adapter or a docking station (not included), but the tablet does support DLNA through Samsung's AllShare application.

Messaging

One thing that the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 does real well is messaging. Even though its 7-inch screen offers relatively low resolution, it is still more than adequate for a nice split-screen email messaging experience. There is an included dedicated Gmail client for Gmail users, but the Samsung email app can be used for accessing most any type of email account - including corporate Exchange servers.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

Samsung's ChatOn messaging system is also available, and users of Google Talk instant messaging will also find their app in place. Social network users can download free Twitter, Facebook, and other apps from the Google Play Store if the included Google+ client doesn't cover things.