Keeping Samsung’s line of tablets straight is not an easy job. There are the Note and Note Pro lines, the Tab Pro, Tab 3, the lower-end Tab 3 Lite, and the Galaxy Tab 4, most of which are available in multiple screen sizes. We do this for a living, and writing that last sentence felt like it took half-a-day’s worth of brain power.
One thing we can say with certainty, though, is that the new Galaxy Tab S (available in 8.4 and 10.5 inch varieties) is Samsung’s current consumer flagship tablet—at least it was as of late June, 2014 when we wrote this.
The Tab S is packed with features, like a fingerprint scanner, powerful internals (including 3GB of RAM), and a design aesthetic that borrows heavily from the company’s current smartphone champion, the Galaxy S5.
You’ll be hard-pressed to spot a pixel without breaking out a jeweler’s loupe.
The main selling point of these tablets are their screens. Both sizes sport the same 2,560 x 1,600 resolution, so you’ll be hard-pressed to spot a pixel without breaking out a jeweler’s loupe.
And for the first time since 2012’s Galaxy Tab 7.7, Samsung has busted out its Super AMOLED tech, previously relegated to their smaller-screened phones, for its big-screen tablets. The result is a tablet with a truly stunning 10.5-inch display, with very deep blacks and excellent contrast. But the colors are so vivid and oversaturated, the screen can be almost shocking to look at upon first glance.
And as good as the screen of the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 looks, when we placed it next to the Samsung Tab Pro 12.2, we didn’t notice a major difference. So we wouldn’t consider the tablet’s display a major selling point unless you’re a real screen snob.
A supersized Galaxy S5
With its dimpled plastic backside, metal edges, and familiar oval Home button (which also doubles as a fingerprint reader), the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 looks like a sized-up version of the Galaxy S5. It feels more solid and substantial than the S5, but its plastic back still doesn’t feel as premium or rugged as Apple’s aluminum-backed iPads.
Port and button layout is what you’d expect, with the narrow power and volume buttons on the top left (in portrait orientation) next to the Infrared emitter, which lets you use the tablet as a large universal remote. The headphone jack sits in the upper left corner, while the MicroSD expansion slot and the Micro USB charging port live on the right side (or on the bottom in portrait orientation).
Bottom line: If you’ve used a Galaxy phone or tablet in the last few years, you’ll feel right at home.
The pair of speakers housed on either edge, near the top corners, produce clear sound, but don’t get very loud, as they fire out to the sides, rather than up toward your ears.
Samsung’s tablet is lighter and thinner than the iPad Air.
All three are impressively svelte, but in this 10-inch tablet space where your wrist can get tired during long stints reading on a commute or in bed, we’d give the edge to the Sony tablet.
Fingerprint readers work better on phones
The fingerprint scanner, which also doubles as the tablet’s home button, technically works well. After registering our thumb and setting the lock screen, the scanner correctly recognized our thumb swipe 19 out of 20 times. The problem is, for the reader to work you need to swipe straight down. That means you’ll need to swipe carefully, and if you’re holding the tablet in portrait orientation, you’ll have to hold your hand sideways and swipe to the right, which feels awkward.
The best use of the tablet’s fingerprint reader is how it works with multiple accounts on the tablet. Once users have logged in with their accounts and registered their fingerprints, a quick swipe of the reader switches between users with intuitive ease. This is a handy feature for homes with a single tablet, whether you have multiple kids, or just a spouse or partner.
You can also use the fingerprint reader to authorize PayPal payments, which is convenient. And Samsung offers a software developer kit for the fingerprint scanner, so it’s likely we’ll see other apps supporting it in the future.
Still, the whole fingerprint-scanning process just feels better suited to smartphones. Thanks to their smaller size, your finger or thumb is always close to the sensor, and phones are used more often in portrait mode, at least until you unlock them and launch a game or a video, which makes for easier swiping.
TouchWiz, plus a few extras
Samsung’s TouchWiz skin sits atop the latest Android 4.4 (KitKat). As ever, TouchWiz is bright, a little cartoony, and feels more cluttered than stock Android. But the larger screen gives Samsung’s feature-laden software more room to breathe, making it feel (too us, at least), more enjoyable to use than on a smartphone. If you don’t like TouchWiz, you can always hide it by installing a different launcher.
Samsung is also pushing its own “Paper Garden” magazine app on the Tab S, which showcases high-resolution content. But with established magazine stores like Amazon’s Kindle, Zinio, and Barnes & Noble, Paper Garden doesn’t seem likely to gain much traction—at least in the US.
The SideSync 3.0 app also lets you pair the table with your smartphone and use the tablet to send text messages and take and make calls. But as is often the case with Samsung’s snazzier features, this only works with Samsung’s latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S5—for now.
As with previous tablets, the specs of the Tab S vary slightly between regions, and whether or not you opt for a Wi-Fi-only model or one with a cellular radio. All models will ship with an ample 3GB of RAM, which is probably overkill for most users, but could come in handy if you run multiple apps on the screen at once (a feature Samsung has offered on many of its smartphones and tablets for more than a year now).
For storage, the Tab S has a MicroSD card slot, and ships with 16 or 32GB of internal storage, with the more spacious model costing $50 more. We’d like to see 32GB come standard at this price, but at least the SD card slot lets you load up lots of files without much added expense (32GB cards can be found for about $15).
If you want the best Android slate, the Tab S should be at the top of your list.
We don’t put a lot of stock in tablet benchmarks, but to give you some sense of comparison, the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 scored 19,900 in Quadrant, which puts it ahead of the Sony Xperia Z2’s score of 18,100, but behind the Galaxy S5 smartphone’s showing of 23,000 on the same test.
When it comes to graphics performance, the Tab S scored 13,350 in the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test, which puts it significantly behind the Xperia Z2 (18,900) and the Galaxy S5 (18,500). The Tab S’s 2560 x 1600 pixel screen resolution likely contributes to its lower score here (the other two devices have 1080p screens). But again, the Tab S had no troubles playing graphics-intensive games like Anomaly 2 and Archangel.
Super AMOLED is beautiful, but unnecessary
As we noted earlier, the Tab S’s 2560 x 1600 pixel Super AMOLED display looks really nice. Colors are very bright, blacks are inky, and the screen gets quite bright. But putting the Tab S side-by-side-by-side with the Tab Pro 12.2 (which sports the same resolution, but isn’t AMOLED), and last year’s Nexus 7 tablet (with its 1080p IPS display), we didn’t see major differences—at least looking straight on.
We loaded up the same colorful image (a photo of fruit taken from the Tab S itself), and looked at all three screens next to each other. The lower-end Nexus 7’s screen doesn’t get as bright, and the colors of the Tab S “pop” more than on the other two tablets, but the Tab Pro 12.2 runs a close second, again if you’re looking straight from the front.
But when viewing from an angle, even one that’s not extreme, the vivid colors on the larger Tab Pro 12.2 fall off and become pale. Not so with the Tab S. Even when looking at the newer tablet from across the room while it sits flat on a desk, the colors look every bit as vibrant as they do when you’re holding it a foot from your eyes.
Note, though, that the brightness of the Tab S’s screen can be turned down extremely low, which can cause problems. We dropped it to the minimum brightness when reading in bed in the dark, then picked it up the next morning when running out to grab some breakfast. Switching the screen on while sitting next to a window, we thought at first the battery was dead. In reality, the screen was so dim that we couldn’t see it at all, so couldn’t find the setting to crank the brightness back up. It wasn’t until we got back home, away from any windows, before we were able to turn up the brightness and use the tablet again.
A sufficient camera, but nothing special
At 8 megapixels, the camera in the Galaxy Tab S doesn’t capture as much detail as, say, the 16-megapixel sensor in the Galaxy S5 smartphone, or the 20-megapixel shooter in Sony’s Xperia Z1S. But for taking the occasional photo when you don’t have your smartphone or digital camera handy, it works well enough. A 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera is also there for video chats and selfies.
Shots taken outdoors with the rear camera during the day look crisp and clear (provided you don’t zoom in to look at detail), and indoor shots look okay, so long as there’s a decent amount of light. Pictures in low light get grainy, and take longer than we’d like to capture, but there is an LED flash, which Sony’s Xperia Z2 and Apple’s iPads lack.
Samsung claims up to 12 hours of video playback or 9 hours of Internet browsing on the Tab S 10.5. And the tablet’s 7,900mAh battery is larger than the 6,000mAh battery in Sony’s Xperia Z2. But the Z2 has fewer pixels to push.
In our testing, the Tab S did reasonably well, holding up over three days of intermittent use, downloading and installing apps, running benchmarks, checking email and Facebook, taking photos, and playing a few games. It should easily get you through a day of heavy use, or a few days if you only use it for a few hours a day.
Note, though, that if you use the screen in bright sunlight, which you can do with the brightness cranked all the way up, battery life will be much shorter—closer to 5 hours than 10.
From a hardware standpoint, the Galaxy Tab S is the best tablet Samsung has ever made. It combines the best elements of its recent smartphones, like the fingerprint reader from the Galaxy S5 and the vivid Super AMOLED screen.
And while it’s mostly plastic build doesn’t feel as premium as the aluminum-clad iPads, the Tab S feels solid. And both the 10.5 and 8.4-inch models are thinner and lighter than Apple’s iPad Air and iPad Mini, respectively, which is impressive.
But as nice as the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 is, the fingerprint scanner is more cumbersome and limited than Apple’s Touch ID sensor, at least for now. And impressive as the Super AMOLED screen is, it’s bright, oversaturated colors can actually be a little jarring, at least until you get used to them. And set side-by-side with other high-end tablet screens, the Tab S’s display honestly doesn’t stand out that much.
Still, Samsung deserves praise (as does Sony for their Xperia Z2) for producing a very good Android tablet that looks and feels on par with Apple’s iPads. If you want the best Android slate, the Tab S should be at the top of your list.
But if you’re debating between Android and iPad and you care about having the best apps, and specifically the best apps first, iOS still wins on that front. More apps make the trip from iOS to Android these days, but most high-profile and high-quality apps (particularly games) hit Apple devices first. And it can be months or sometimes years before they find their way to Android—if they ever do at all.
That’s not Samsung’s fault, or even Google’s, really (although Android does make it easier to pirate apps). IOS has just historically been a more lucrative platform to develop for. Hopefully the new wave of attractive tablet hardware, like the Tab S, will attract more customers, who in turn will buy more Android apps, and that will start to change.
- Stunning Super AMOLED screen
- Fingerprint scanner
- Thinner and lighter than the iPad Air
- MicoSD expansion slot
- 3GB of RAM
- Screen feels almost too bright and vivid
- No black model available
- Isn’t dust/water-resistant like GS5
- Fingerprint Scanner isn’t ideal for tablet use
- Sony’s Xperia Z2 tablet is a little thinner and lighter