Samsung has an inexhaustible mobile portfolio. This year, seven months in, we’ve already seen the company’s tablet releases hit double digits—truthfully, it’s hard to keep track. Some companies haven’t managed to put out one.
From a consumer standpoint, that sort of selection is great because it offers options for every type of person, whether you want a device to simply consume media, or something to get actual work done. But at what point does it become too much? Does the wide scope of Samsung’s lineup lead to lack of focus on its most important products? There’s no doubt the company can make improvements—that’s apparent in devices like the Note Pro. But so can every other company.
However, with the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 and 8.4, it appears Samsung is more focused than ever.
Samsung has always been vocal about challenging Apple’s iPad throne—if you can even call it that anymore; the Cupertino company’s famous slate is no longer the reigning champ, and that’s backed by loads of data. At the very least, the iPad is no longer the automatic choice like it once was. We’ve seen tablets from Samsung go up against the iPad before, but by and large they’ve fallen short.
The Tab S is different. Not only does it possess a great design and cool features, but it also comes equipped with one hell of a screen—among the best, if not the best, we’ve ever laid eyes on. Where was this device last year, or the year before?
This is the tablet Samsung fans have been waiting for, and oh my is it fun to use. In fact, both versions are excellent; it’s just a matter of preference. For the purpose of this review, I’ll focus my attention on the larger version and chime in with thoughts on the 8.4 Tab S when appropriate.
Samsung designs have never been completely horrible. But, for the amount of tablets the company does put out, you’d be hard pressed to identify one from the next, that’s how uniform they are. And that’s ok. The Tab S is notable, however, because it’s actually, well, surprisingly pleasant. We wouldn’t go as far as to say it’ll win any big end-of-year design awards, but the Tab S is genuinely impressive, sticking closely to the design introduced with the Galaxy S5. That means the same plastic dimpled back, fingerprint home button, and a couple of hardware buttons along the side (more on those later).
From a design perspective, I’d actually more closely compare Samsung’s larger Tab S to Sony’s most recent Z2 Tablet, which was among the nicest we’ve ever seen. Both are incredibly thin, giving the illusion that you’re almost holding nothing at all, let alone an advanced portable computer. And through some smart engineering, Samsung was able to make the Tab S devices very light, too. The 10.4 Tab S is lighter than anything in the same range, while the 8.4-inch model can easily be held with one hand without immediately feeling like you’re getting a workout.
You still get the feeling that these devices are just sooooo darn plastic. But that’s Samsung’s modus operandi, love it or hate it, and it’s really not the end of the world here. They feel much better than some Samsung devices from the past, so there’s something to be said about that. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re so thin, or so light, or that there’s barely any bezel. These devices look premium, though, and that’s not something we often say when it comes to Samsung design.
Aside from how it looks, most of the stuff here is what you’d expect: 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 3GB of RAM, 8-megapixel camera, 16/32GB of internal storage (microSD expandable) 7900mAh battery (4900mAh battery in the 8.4-inch model), and a 2560×1600 screen that’s to die for. Typical Samsung fair; there’s also an IR blaster, a finger-print scanning home button (same as we saw on the Galaxy S5), and stereo speakers on each side of the device, which sound pretty decent but are pretty unremarkable.
We did find a few quirks with the design, however. For one, the volume rocker struck us as odd. It’s easy enough to press, and it doesn’t look unusual. But when held in portrait, pressing down actually makes the volume go up, and visa versa. It’s like reverse scrolling, but for your volume, and it’s a rather strange thing to get used to. I actually prefer reverse scrolling, which is the funny part, and it’s not like I find myself adjusting the volume all that much anyway; it’s definitely worth pointing out, however, just so you’re not surprised when you purchase a Tab S of your own.
Second: Samsung’s protective covers. There are two types right now: one that’s thinner and lighter, and basically protects the Tab S’s screen, and another that’s almost like a case, protecting both the front and back. Both of them are relatively functional, and fit just fine. But it’s how they attach to the Tab S that’s a little weird.
Samsung has always come up with strange alternatives to Apple’s magnetic solution; on the Tab S, there are two little buttons on the back that the covers snap into. Putting them on is easy enough; you’ll hear an audible snap to indicate they’re in. But when you want to take the cover off? You have to pretty much forcibly yank the cover off; it takes enough force to where you think you’re breaking the device. It’s not the most elegant solution, but at least you know the covers will stay on. I suppose that the kind of price you pay for ensuring your device is protected.
Otherwise, I have to commend Samsung for a job well done. The Tab S design isn’t really all that far off from what we’ve seen before. But the non-existent bezels, thin frame and light weight all add up to create a design the company can be proud of. You can argue it’s more of the same, but for my money it appears more refined than Samsung’s previous efforts; you appreciate the engineering work that’s gone into it, and overall it has everything you could ask for in a tablet.
The Tab S design is complemented perfectly with absolutely stunning display technology. Here Samsung uses Super AMOLED, promising darker blacks and a more vibrant spectrum of colors. Better yet, because it doesn’t require a separate backlight, it uses less power overall, though it’s still plenty good out in bright daylight. Samsung absolutely delivers; your eyes will delight at the screen perfection, whether you’re browsing the Web, looking at photos, or watching video. Everything looks so, so beautiful.
Each of the two tablets sport 2560 x 1600 resolution screens that look phenomenally sharp, and content just pops. Some people might complain that the colors a bit too vibrant—almost cartoony. But I think Samsung has definitely got it right; blacks are deep, whites are bright, and every color in between is saturated just right. Samsung says traditional LCD tablets produce about 70-percent color reproduction rate, while Super AMOLED is upwards of 90-percent of “nature’s true palette.” Also compared to LCD, the display used in the Tab S is capable of churning out 100,000: 1 contrast ratio. We’re not going to argue with Samsung’s claims here one bit.
In addition to simply looking nice, Samsung has also included a neat feature called Adaptive Display that’s capable of automatically adjusting things like color gamut, sharpness and contrast according to your specific usage. It’s a nice touch, and ensures you’re getting the most out of your content. But the feature is relatively limited; Adaptive Display only works with seven stock apps. There’s also a 3 Screen Modes, which let’s you choose between AMOLED Photo, AMOLED Cinema and Basic Mode depending on your usage.
Backed by the great design and incredible screen, both Tab S devices are a joy to use. The market has tended toward smaller tablets as of late, and the 8.4-inch model is definitely the pick of the litter. But the 10.5-inch iteration is also a pleasure. From a comfort standpoint, you really can’t get much better; the 8.4 doesn’t feel like it’s even there in your hand, while the 10.5 is probably only bested by the Z2 Tablet in terms of lightness and thinness. When you’re in the middle of a Friday Night Lights marathon, you’ll begin to appreciate just how light and thin the devices are.
As always, Samsung’s vision of TouchWiz is hit and miss. Compared to what we’ve seen in the past, TouchWiz actually isn’t that big of an eyesore—that’s a miracle in and of itself. We’ve seen the company tone it down quite a bit over the past few months (maybe because of Google pressure), which is in stark contrast from just a year ago. This is Samsung’s best skin by a long shot, and pretty much looks and acts like it’s Android, and not some grotesque Samsung experiment.
That said, there are still some performance hiccups, which, let’s be honest, is not unusual for a Samsung device. Even working with the most optimized version of Android, Samsung has somehow managed to inflict the Tab S with some stutter and lag, though it certainly isn’t a deal breaker—most people won’t even really notice, to be honest. The stutters mostly happen when jumping through Samsung’s own apps, too, or rapidly flipping through home screen. How often are you going to be using stock Samsung apps anyway?
Also worth mentioning: on the 8.4-inch model, we noticed that Chrome was agonizingly slow. Like, snail’s pace slow. It wasn’t quite as pronounced on the 10.5-inch version, but there’s something going on there where the software doesn’t want to work as you’d expect. It’s a shame, too, because Chrome is usually terrific on mobile. It might be isolated, and it might be fixed with a future update. We’ll update if we notice anything different in the future.
The Tab S also sports the usual software additions as well. One of them, Adaptive Display (mentioned above), is mostly good and you do notice a minor difference in certain situations. This is smart and adds value to the experience. There are also a slew of “Galaxy Gifts.” You get one free year of GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi, and you also get some cool subscriptions to paid sites like Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, among others. All that stuff is good, and will definitely help incentivize buyers when they’re making a decision. In all, there are 30 different gifts, ranging from news, books & magazines, entertainment and productivity.
Also present is Samsung’s Multi Window feature, which let’s you use multiple apps at once on the same screen. Things like browsing the Web and watching a video, or editing a document with Wikipedia open. There’s also SideSync, which lets you connect your phone and tablet for voice calls and to transfer data. This is a pretty great feature, though it’s a shame it’s only available for Samsung smartphones (S5, 4 and Note 3). Lastly, Samsung has included the same fingerprint scanner, which is still more of a nuisance than anything else. Other features include Cisco WebEx, Kids Mode, Remote PC and Download Booster for LTE iterations.
Lastly, we found the audio quality that’s pumped out of both Tab S devices to be so-so. Not horrible, and certainly good enough to watch a few videos without much issue. But the speakers can be blocked easily, so you’ll find yourself constantly adjusting your grip. Luckily the device is super thin and light, as I’ve already mentioned, so it’s really not all that uncomfortable to hold. But in the instance where you do adjust your grip to account for fatigue, it’s slightly annoying when your grip blocks the speakers. That audio performance is a bummer considering how excellent the screen is.
There are other additions I didn’t find very useful, like Samsung’s Flipboard-style information screen. Here, you can get an overview of your day, see email and get a quick look at your office documents. I’d prefer to just hop into Google Now to get information; the addition is thoughtful, but mostly just bloat. Some people might find it incredibly useful, while others will probably just ignore it completely. I ignored it. That’s probably the best way to describe Samsung software as a whole: you either love it or simply put up with it.
At least on the Tab S it isn’t quite so overbearing.
You won’t find a better display in the tablet market, and that includes the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina. It’s great that Samsung is offering two different sizes, too, giving consumers the freedom to choose. If you simply lounge around the house and watch video/browse the Web, maybe the bigger Tab S is the one to get. Or perhaps you’re constantly on-the-go, but still need a companion device for your smartphone/laptop combo, in which case the 8.4 Tab S might be the better choice.
Despite there still being lingering issues regarding lag, Samsung’s design, screen and even software all add up to create a wonderful tablet experience, one that is the new benchmark in the Android market. However, you can still pickup something like the Nexus 7 for $229, or even Apple’s iPad for the same price as Samsung’s Tab S.
Samsung has never really excelled in the tablet market, but the company has finally hit a sweet spot with the Tab S; I’m genuinely impressed, and can’t wait to see what other improvements we see from the Korean company down the road.
Disclaimer: Mark used the Tab S 10.5 for five days before beginning his review, while Brandon used the same Tab S for four days. Meanwhile, Jon used the 8.4-inch Tab S over a nine day period, and shared his input with the overall review.