Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 hands-on review

Samsung's Galaxy Tab S6 blends the line between Android tablet and laptop

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 hands-on

“Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 delivers worthwhile updates over its predecessor without a price hike.”
  • Excellent 10.5-inch screen
  • Superior performance
  • Built-in trackpad in the keyboard
  • Nice design and build quality
  • Improved S Pen functionality
  • Storing S Pen requires close attention
  • No headphone jack
  • The keyboard isn’t included and is expensive
MSRP $649.00

Samsung is one of the few manufacturers still making Android tablets, let alone ones that focus on productivity, and I’m glad for it. Android has a lot of potential. If Google’s not going to push the needle, a hardware expert like Samsung is the next best thing. Its latest is the Galaxy Tab S6, a follow-up to last year’s Tab S4, and it shows Samsung is listening.

Features we whined were missing, like a trackpad or a flagship processor, are all here, leaving us with few complaints about the new slate. It’s portable, it looks good, it has adequate power and battery life, and maintains desktop capabilities to ensure you can finish your work whether you’re in the back of a car or in a coffee shop.

Slim bezels, a magnetic S Pen

The Galaxy Tab S6 has slim, uniform bezels all around the 10.5-inch screen, and it doesn’t look too different from the 11-inch iPad Pro. The smaller bezels mean a more compact device, while still maintaining a large screen size. However, there’s still enough room to hold the tablet. The 10.5-inch screen sounds large, but it’s manageable with one hand. It helps that it’s even thinner at 5.71mm, a sizable change from the 7.1mm Tab S4.

It’s the back of the Tab S6 that’s more interesting. The glass back from the Tab S4 has been replaced with aluminum. That means less worry about scratches, fingerprints, or cracks in the event of an accidental drop. There are Mountain Gray, Cloud Blue, or Rose Blush color options for visual flair, though I wish Samsung made a more concerted effort to mask the ugly antenna lines at the top and bottom (yes, there’s an LTE variant coming later).

Is that an S Pen hanging off the back? Yep. There’s an oblong indent on the back where the S Pen rests, held on by magnets, and it’s able to recharge wirelessly. You need to line up the S Pen carefully when placing it on the back of the Tab S6, so you may find yourself fiddling around with it longer than necessary.

It’s clear the implementation is meant to mimic what Apple did with the Pencil on the iPad Pro

The magnets are strong enough to make sure the S Pen stays on the tablet, but it can move slightly and stop charging. It’s clear the implementation is meant to mimic what Apple did with the Pencil on the iPad Pro, but Samsung’s approach is not as effective. I’ll need to use it for longer to see how it holds up in the course of a whole day.

Like last year’s model, there’s a quad-speaker setup around the tablet, and it also supports Dolby Atmos and Sound by AKG for superior sound quality. Sadly, there’s no headphone jack, so you’ll need to use Bluetooth earbuds or a USB-C to headphone jack adapter.

An excellent keyboard

I’ve been asking companies like Samsung and Apple to add a trackpad to their tablet keyboards forever, and Samsung has finally listened. The keyboard for the Tab S6 – which isn’t included by default, unlike the S Pen — has been improved with a trackpad and function keys.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Typing feels great. The keyboard is clicky and responsive, and there’s enough room so it doesn’t feel too cramped. It’s much better than the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard, which to me doesn’t offer enough tactile sensation. The function keys add more versatility, but it’s really the trackpad that changes the game. While reviewing the Tab S4 last year, I frequently used it with a Bluetooth mouse, but now I won’t need to carry one thanks to the trackpad. It’s well-placed, though I do wish the left and right buttons were a bit more responsive.

I did notice a bug. I couldn’t highlight text with the trackpad. Samsung said I was using a pre-production model, and that this will be fixed with the final version.

The Book Cover Keyboard is a two-piece keyboard, meaning the keyboard can be separated from the back cover, which doubles as the kickstand. The kickstand can easily be adjusted to a variety of angles, and the top part of the cover also keeps the S Pen secure. It folds out at the top for easy S Pen access.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I’m quite satisfied with the improvements to the keyboard, but I’m not so happy about its $179 price tag. While it certainly is better than the Tab S4’s keyboard, it’s far too expensive. I would have liked to see it come included with the Tab S6, rather than be a separate addition.

10.5-inch screen, superior performance

The Galaxy Tab S6 has a 10.5-inch Super AMOLED screen with 2,560 x 1, 600 resolution. Using it near a window at noon, where there was a lot of glare, I could see the screen clearly. I’ll need to spend more time with it in a variety of conditions but expect to have no problems. Samsung also said it’s the first tablet to receive an HDR10+ certification, so expect an excellent viewing experience when watching HDR content in supported apps like Netflix.

The slimmed-down bezels mean content feels more immersive. Whether it’s Gmail, Google Maps, or Twitter, just about any app you’ll open looks fantastic. It’s on par with my experience using Apple’s redesigned iPad Pro models.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It might not be obvious, but there is a fingerprint sensor. It’s under the display, but it’s not using the same ultrasonic technology as the in-display fingerprint sensor on the Galaxy S10. It’s optical, so it’s not as secure, and likely not as responsive, but I haven’t had a chance to try it. I wish Samsung added a sensor to the keyboard or at least improved its face unlock tech to make it more secure and robust as Apple’s Face ID.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 processor keeps it all powered. Yep, you heard that right. Finally, we’re getting a superior chipset inside Samsung’s flagship tablet. In last year’s Tab S4, Samsung used the Snapdragon 835, which was already a year old. The Snapdragon 855, however, is in almost every 2019 flagship Android smartphone. You shouldn’t not any performance dips on the Tab S6, even in the most demanding games. This is a workhorse of a tablet, and it should be able to rival Apple’s latest iPad Pro on some fronts.

Samsung has a new feature called Game Booster when running games, and it makes sure there isn’t a rogue app taking up processing power or battery life, to help improve your gaming experience. There’s a special Discord partnership that makes the communications app easier to directly access from the Game Booster overlay, so you don’t need to exit the game to talk to your friends.

It’s available with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage, or 8GB RAM and 256GB of storage, and there is a MicroSD card slot in case you want to add more.

Software, S Pen, and DeX mode

The Tab S6 runs Samsung’s One UI interface layered over Android 9 Pie. As a tablet, you may find the software isn’t as intuitive as iPadOS. But its secret trick is the built-in desktop mode.

DeX mode is a desktop version of Android that Samsung created and introduced a few years ago. It began as an interface you can activate when connecting one of its smartphones to a computer through a DeX Station or DeX Pad, but has since been integrated directly into Samsung’s tablets. The keyboard now has a dedicated button that lets you quickly switch to DeX mode — no need for swiping — and the interface is more laptop-friendly. You can even connect the Tab S6 to an external monitor and use it as a second screen.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The built-in trackpad is the huge boon, as it improves the experience of navigating DeX mode. There’s not much terribly new with DeX itself outside of some optimization and broader support for third-party apps, but I liked what I saw in the little time I used it. It turns the Tab S6 into a more productive tool, perhaps more so than the iPad Pro, which does not have a trackpad. iPadOS also has only rudimentary mouse support.

The S Pen has also gained a few features, specifically Bluetooth connectivity (just like the Galaxy Note 9). It can now be used as a remote, so you can use the button to transition through presentations without touching the tablet.

Air Actions is a new addition that enables app control using gestures with the S Pen. For example, you can configure the S Pen’s button to open the camera app, then press the button and hover your hand left or right to switch camera modes, or up and down to switch to the selfie camera. You can customize these gestures for first-party, and some third-party, apps. Air Actions could prove useful if it’s widely supported. That, however, is unlikely.

Dual cameras

It’s not a good idea to use your tablet to take photographs. Your smartphone’s camera is usually better and less cumbersome. Still, it turns out people are doing it anyway. Samsung said 86 percent of Galaxy Tab S4 owners used the camera daily, and 55 percent do so weekly. Color me surprised.

To add more versatility for you tablet photographers, Samsung has added a second 5-megapixel camera to pair with the main 13-megapixel one. It’s a 123-degree wide-angle lens, allowing you to capture exactly what the eye can see. The selfie camera has 8 megapixels.

I didn’t get a chance to use either camera in my brief hands-on time with the Tab S6, but I’m not expecting to be blown away by image quality. The iPad Pro’s camera will likely take better photos.

I wish manufacturers put more emphasis on the selfie camera, as I often use it more for video conferencing.

15 hours of battery life

Samsung said the Tab S6 should last 15 hours with its 7,040mAh battery capacity, which is a little less than the 16 hours originally claimed for the Galaxy Tab S4 and its 7,300mAh capacity.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I had no problem getting the Tab S4 to last me a full day of use, and I expect the Tab S6 to be comparable. Apple only claims 10 hours on the iPad Pro (for both the 11- and 12.9-inch models). You can expect Samsung’s slate to last a bit longer during active use. However, the iPad has superior battery conservation in standby mode.

Price and availability

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 is $649 for the 6GB and 128GB storage model. If you opt for 8GB RAM and 256GB of storage, it will cost you $729. The S Pen is included, but the keyboard is a separate accessory and will set you back $179. Pre-orders start August 23.

It will officially be available from Samsung and other retailers starting September 6, and the LTE model will be sold through carriers later. If you buy it between August 23 and September 22, you can get a 50% discount on the Book Cover Keyboard.

Wrap up

The Galaxy Tab S6 delivers worthwhile improvements over last year’s Tab S4 without a price bump. I can see myself using it as a laptop replacement thanks to DeX mode, but only if my work is relegated to writing and editing or other non-intensive tasks. It’s better than using a Chromebook for Android apps, as apps on Chrome OS often have problems. The Tab S6 can also be detached from the keyboard to make it portable, something Chromebooks don’t offer.

If you’re a creative professional who needs access to desktop-grade tools like Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, and other apps — while still keeping the price low — an affordable Windows 2-in-1 could make more sense. Still, the Galaxy Tab S6 is more competitive with Windows 2-in-1s than any past Android tablet.