Samsung is the reigning king when it comes to smartphone market share, but that success never translated to tablets. With the smartphone market slowing, Samsung made a decision to go “all in” on tablets for 2014. It all started in January with the Galaxy Tab Pro series and the Galaxy Note Pro. Then they followed up with the Galaxy Tab 4 series a few months later. That seemed like enough, but Samsung wasn’t done. They decided to come out with something extraordinary. The Tab S promises to sport the most amazing display on a tablet ever, not to mention it’s pretty thin. There is no shortage of tablets available today. From budget to high-end, you won’t have trouble finding something. This begs the question…..Do consumers really care about the high-end when it comes to tablets? The Tab S isn’t crazy expensive, but you will find plenty of cheaper offerings. Should the Tab S be your next tablet?
Note: The Galaxy Tab S comes in two sizes, 8.4-inches and 10.5-inches. This review will concentrate on the 8.4-inch model although both tablets are very similar, other than the size.
Samsung has brought the same dimpled back that is found on the Galaxy S 5 to the Tab S. Some refer to it as the band-aid look, and it’s not something that reviewers have embraced, including myself. With that said, I thought when it transferred to a bigger device, it would be even uglier, but it wasn’t the case for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I like the dimpled look now, it just doesn’t bother me as much anymore. Maybe it’s because I have become de-sensitized to it since it’s been several months since the Galaxy S 5 was introduced. To be truthful, the dimples aren’t all that noticeable unless the light hits them a certain way. To be even more truthful…who cares? It’s the back of the damn tablet and you should be looking at the screen anyway.
My biggest complaint with the Tab S is the continued button layout that Samsung insists on using, as in the hard home button and capacitive back and recents buttons. This is something that has been on all their phones, but when it came to tablets, they only started implementing it last year. Samsung likes consistency so that is likely why they did it, and I guess that’s a good thing for consumers.
Now one of the highlights of the Tab S, other than the display, has to be its size. Both models come in at 6.6 mm thick, which is 0.9mm thinner than the iPad Air and the iPad Mini. In the case of the Tab S 8.4, it’s much lighter than the smaller (7.9-inches) iPad Mini (294 grams vs 331 grams), but the difference isn’t as noticeable with the 10.5. It comes in at 465 grams, while the iPad Air comes in at 469 grams. Considering the display is 0.8-inches bigger on the Tab S, that’s pretty darn good.
As far as buttons and ports go, it’s your typical Samsung tablet other than two little circles that depress at the back of the device. These are called “Simple Clickers” and they attach to either the “Simple Cover” or the “Book Cover” accessories. Since we are talking about the back, you will also find the 8 MP camera lens with LED flash. While holding the tab in portrait mode, the front of the device has the front-facing 2 MP shooter at the top towards the middle and the physical home button and capacitive back and recents buttons are at the bottom. The top has one of the two stereo speakers at the left, while the bottom houses the other stereo speaker to the left, and the microphone jack and microUSB port to the right. The right side includes the power button towards the top, followed by the volume rocker, IR Blaster, and microSD slot. The left side is empty.
While the 8.4 is setup to be in portrait mode most of the time, the 10.5 is setup to be in landscape mode so there are some differences. If you hold it in landscape more, the top has the power button to the left followed by the volume rocker and IR blaster. The left side houses one stereo speaker towards the top with the microphone jack below it. The right side also gets a stereo speaker towards the top with the microUSB port and microSD slot below it. The physical home button and capacitive buttons are are at the bottom of the front when holding it in landscape mode.
Ever since I reviewed the Tab Pro 8.4, I have been digging the 8.4-inch size. To me it’s the new sweet spot for tablets. 7-inches isn’t bad, but it’s a little small. 10+ inches also isn’t bad, but it’s a little too big. To me, 8.4-inches is just right.
The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 features an 8.4-inch Super AMOLED QHD (2560 x 1600) display at 359 ppi, an Exynos 5 Octa 5420 (1.9 GHz quad-core Cortex-A15 and 1.3 GHz quad-core Cortex-A7), Mali-T628 MP6 GPU, 3 GB of RAM, 16 or 32 GB of internal storage, microSD slot for up to an additional 128 GB of extra storage, 8 MP rear camera with LED flash, 2.1 MP front-facing camera, stereo speakers, IR blaster, Bluetooth v4.0, A2DP, LE, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, and Wi-Fi hotspot. Samsung is also offering LTE-capable models. My unit is a WiFi-only model.
Samsung didn’t pull any punches in terms of power here. You are getting an octa-core Exynos 5 along with 3 GB of RAM. I guess it can’t be called the most powerful tablet in the world (that might go to the new NVIDIA Shield tablet), but I can’t imagine anyone yearning for more. As far as speed goes, you won’t find anything faster, although I did notice that at times it would freeze for about 10 seconds on the main screen giving me no chance to navigate or start an app. I suspect this is more software related rather than hardware, but I need to tell you about it.
Now it’s time to talk about the nuts and bolts of the Tab S and that is the display. How do I put into words, “simply stunning?” Well I guess I just said it. There are no fancy shmancy words to use here. It’s just simply stunning and the best display ever on a tablet. What makes it so stunning is that it not only sports a resolution of 2560 x 1600, but it’s Super AMOLED. Samsung hasn’t offered a tablet with a Super AMOLED display since the Galaxy Tab 7.7 from 2012. It just so happens that I also referred to that display as stunning, and its resolution was only 1280 x 800 (great at that time). You won’t find deeper blacks or whiter whites on any other tablet, and it performs spectacularly in sunlight. But there is even more behind the scenes that you wouldn’t know. For example, the included RGB sensor adjusts the color balance depending on your surroundings. So if you’re wondering why it looks so good “all the time,” that’s the reason. I know it’s the focal point for the Tab S, but there really isn’t much more to say about the display. It’s the best tablet display period, end of story.
It’s always nice to see stereo speakers on a tablet, and Samsung has been one of the leaders in this department. However, their original implementation was to place them at the front of the device, but they have moved them to the sides. I suspect it’s to reduce the bezel size, so I won’t complain. Stereo speakers offer a much more pleasurable listening experience when it comes to movies and music. The Tab S might not offer BoomSound, but it will get by.
Samsung says that you will get 12 hours of battery life when running video and they were right on. I did my usual test in which I run continuous video while connected to WiFi and Bluetooth turned on, but not connected. I also left the display at 2/3 brightness. I was able to get 12 hours and 10 minutes. This puts the Tab S as one of the best tablets in terms of battery life. Interestingly enough, the Galaxy Tab 7.7, which I mentioned was the only other Samsung tablet with a Super AMOLED display (from 2012) also tested tremendously well in the same battery test.
If you know anything about Samsung, you know that when it comes to software on their smartphones and tablets, there is a lot of proprietary software along with their own user interface called TouchWiz. The proprietary software can seem cool, but is usually not that useful and just gets in the way most of the time. Take for example, the Magazine UX that has become standard now. I’m not going to say it’s useless because I think a lot of people will like it, but there is no choice to remove it. In past renditions, Magazine UX was powered by Flipboard, but that doesn’t appear to be the case now. They have actually simplified it a little by locking what each box will represent. The top is the “Briefing” section which shows you your events, stock prices and most visited websites. The remaining four boxes consist of Papergarden, Here & Now, Videos, and WatchON. Past renditions allowed you to set up a different box for each news category you wanted. Now you will get all your news in the Here & Now section. Just like on the Galaxy Tab Pro series, you get a second page showing you more of your calendar, most recent Hancom Office 2014 files, and your email. I can complain till I am blue in the face that neither of these pages are removable, but the bottom line is that most people really don’t worry about configuring their home screens, and Samsung knows it. They want users to get used to their way of things and to lock them into buying more Samsung products in the future. I can’t blame them for that.
Papergarden is new for the Tab S and is Samsung’s own proprietary service for reading magazines. Unfortunately the choice of magazines is quite limited, but the ones that are available look great because they were formatted specifically for Papergarden. They include built-in videos and the visuals look stunning on this tablet.
Samsung also included the same fingerprint scanner found on the Galaxy S 5. It works exactly the same way and is not as gimmicky as one might expect. It’s just a matter of getting used to swiping the right way, and you will get a high success rate. To get a better idea on how it works, see our Galaxy S 5 fingerprint scanner guide.
Kids Mode was introduced on the Galaxy S 5 and it makes its way to this device. Kids are more likely to grab your tablet before your phone so it’s actually more important here. Kids Mode is basically a secondary launcher that locks the little ones into a safe environment. You can control what apps they can use and even set time limits. You can see our Kids Mode guide for the Galaxy S 5 for a better idea on how it works.
On top of Kids Mode, Samsung also introduced a new Multi User Mode. You can create up to 7 profiles that include different passwords or fingerprints. This is perfect for the entire family, meaning you don’t have to buy a separate tablet for everyone in the house. Unfortunately, only one person can use the tablet at a time. I can’t help you with that.
SideSync is another feature Samsung is pushing that is cool, but probably not all that useful. Right now it only works with the Galaxy S 5. SideSync 3.0 allows your Tab S to connect to your Galaxy S 5 to transfer files back and forth. You can even take phone calls on your tablet via WiFi or LTE (if equipped). Not only that, you can control your phone like a remote desktop. SideSync also works on Windows computers as well. If all of this sounds cool, it is, but I doubt you will ever use it much. In fact you might not be able to use it all that much even if you wanted to. I had a lot of trouble connecting both devices as it timed out the majority of the time.
If controlling your desktop or laptop is your sort of thing, you will be happy to know that Samsung included Remote PC for just that. A nice app, but there are plenty of others that do the same thing. Chrome Remote Desktop is just as good if not better.
On top of all of these things, you still get all the other add ons that were included on all past Samsung smartphones and tablets. This includes S Voice, Multi Window (for running two apps at the same time), Smart stay, Smart Rotation, Smart Pause, WatchON and more. Samsung’s newer Milk Music service is also included, which is the first time for a tablet.
Underneath all of this is Android 4.4.2, which is mostly up to date. We assume the Tab S will be among the first Samsung tablets to get Android L when it’s officially launched.
Cameras on tablet don’t excite me too much, but I know some of you insist on using them. The 8.4 model seems a little more suited for it just because of its size, but it’s still too big. The interface is identical to what you get on the Galaxy S 5, which means you have all the features you could want in a camera. Plus it has LED flash. It takes decent shots, but I wouldn’t be buying this tablet for its camera. Here are a few example photos.
The Galaxy Tab S is the best Android tablet available today. With it’s stunning display, fantastic battery life, and thin body, nothing comes close. With that said, I have to wonder if it’s an overkill. The Tab S 8.4 starts at $399 (16 GB / WiFi-only) and the Tab S 10.5 starts at $499 (16 GB / WiFi-only), so neither one is ridiculously expensive. However, you can save yourself $100 to $200 and get a tablet with a pretty darn good display. It just might not be stunning.
So if you’re someone who wants the best, the Tab S is for you. If you’re a casual tablet user and a Samsung fan, I would opt for the Tab 4 series instead.