Review by Sunetra Chakravati,7/14/2014 12:29:55 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Good looking | Fast and powerful | Great battery life | Superb display
Feels cheap | Bronze not for everyone | Android apps lack behind iOS
Since its launch in late 2012, the iPad mini has enjoyed the premium small tablet market to itself. Some have challenged the larger iPad Air and many have attacked the small and budget end of the market, but where the screens are small and the prices high, the iPad mini has been left in a league of one.
Now, Samsung hopes to end Apple’s dominance with the 8.4-inch version of the new Galaxy Tab S, a high-end Android tablet with a slim design, a screen to rival Apple’s Retina display, and a price tag identical to the iPad mini.
Has Samsung overcome its cheap-feeling designs of the past? Is Google Play finally a match to the iOS App Store? Let’s find out.
The Tab S is a seriously good-looking piece of kit. Right out of the box my review sample looked the business and, despite the bronze highlighting around the edge and Home button not being to everyone’s taste, this is a tablet as striking as it is slim.
At 6.6mm the Samsung is noticeably thinner than the 7.5mm iPad mini with Retina Display (in other words, the second and most recent iPad mini). The Tab S also undercuts the Apple on the weighing scales, tipping them at 298g compared to 331g.
Being 125.6mm wide, the Samsung is roughly a centimeter narrower than the iPad mini, meaning it’s more comfortable to grasp in one hand and prod with the other. I own an iPad mini and have always found it difficult to use like this, and what’s more, the Tab S’s screen is half an inch larger than the iPad’s.
For a gallery of high-resolution images of the Galaxy Tab S 8.4, visit our Fickr page here (opens in new window).
The ergonomics are great, but where Samsung still falls behind its American rival is with the way the Tab S feels. The rear has the same dimpled finish as the Galaxy S5 phone, but is harder to the touch. It feels glossy, almost slimy, to touch and that bronze band around the edge is plastic - in fact metal doesn’t feature in any of the Tab S’s design. When Samsung charges the same as Apple for its tablets, it needs to understand why people pay a premium for the iPad and why the Galaxy product family simply isn’t in the same league.
Although good design and comfortable ergonomics are important. a tablet lives or dies on the quality of its screen. The Tab S’s 8.4-inch panel uses Super AMOLED technology which means there is no backlight, reducing weight and bulk. The screen can be turned up to retina-burningly bright, or right down to be comfortable even when reading in a dark room.
Being AMOLED, the colours can appear a little artificial at times - a trait shared by most Samsung Galaxies. Colours are richer and more saturated than you expect them to be, but if it’s big and bold you want - and when buying a glossy white tablet with a bronze trim, you probably do - the Tab S delivers.
A resolution of 1600 x 2560 puts it way ahead of most of the competition (and means slightly more pixels than the 1536 x 2048 iPad mini). In reality this means individual pixels are impossible to spot, making icons sharp and crisp, while text is beautifully rounded and smooth. Although gorgeous most of the time, the high resolution occasionally makes text and icons slightly too small to read comfortably and tap accurately.
This small annoyance aside, the Tab S’s screen is excellent. Just the right size for a small tablet, beautifully sharp, bright when it needs to be, and widescreen, so the dreaded black bars found on the iPad’s squarer screen are kept to a minimum when watching video.
Traditionally where Samsung stands out for the crowd (for good or for bad), the TouchWiz user interface draped over Android 4.4 KitKat has certainly got better with age. It still looks childlike in places (and those blooping and bleeping sound effects don’t help matters - you’ll want to turn them off immediately). But that aside, this is probably the best version of TouchWiz I’ve ever seen.
A Flipboard-powered magazine app sits to the left of the Home screen, and to the left of that is space for your email inbox, calendar and upcoming events - all useful stuff to have on your tablet and just a swipe away, however they cannot be removed.
Swiping in from the right edge opens a list of apps which can be opened alongside each other. Facebook, Google Maps, Chrome, Gmail, YouTube and more are featured, ready to be opened and displayed on screen two-at-a-time, side-by-side. It’s true multitasking and it works really well - you can update Facebook while watching a YouTube video with ease. A slider lets you quickly change how much of the screen each app takes up, and a press of the Home button closes both.
Intensive apps like Real Racing 3 boot up quickly and run smoothly, but simple tasks like flicking between home screens and unlocking the Tab S caused moments of hesitation. This is completely unacceptable from a high-end tablet, made even worse when you find this 4G model is powered by a powerful quad-core processor with a massive 3GB of RAM. Samsung’s clearly having some efficiency issues with TouchWiz, as performance when running apps is top notch - I hope a software update can fix this.
A party trick shared with the Galaxy S5 is the Tab S’s fingerprint scanner, embedded into the Home button. Set-up takes just a few seconds, after which the tablet can be unlocked with a swipe of your finger or thumb; your prints can also be used to download items from Samsung’s own app store and make payments through the PayPal app. The system works well and acts as a good replacement to entering a PIN or password, which on a tablet is highly visible to anyone looking over your shoulder on a busy train.
The Galaxy Tab S has a pair of cameras, measuring 8-megapixels, with a flash, at the back, and 2.1 at the front. Both are ok for Snapchat, but there isn’t much more to say than that - in almost all eventualities the phone in your pocket will perform better.
Samsung offers the Galaxy Tab S with either 16 or 32GB of storage (plus a microSD card slot for up to 128GB more), and as either a Wi-Fi-only model, or with Wi-Fi and 4G - the latter was kindly lended to Mobile Choice by Three for this review. Being the 4G model, it has a microSIM card slot and apps to handle calls and text messages.
It’s a phone, Jim, but not as we know it
That’s right - with a microphone and earpiece the Galaxy Tab S can be used to make phone calls, although holding it to your face in public is probably best avoided. That being said, if you hook it up to some earphones or a Bluetooth headset, this could feasibly replace both your smartphone and tablet. But even if calling with a tablet isn’t your thing, a 4G connection for Twitter and iPlayer on the move is very welcome. Samsung charges £329 for the 16GB Wi-Fi, which is bumped up to £399 for adding 4G - exactly the same as the iPad mini.
Previously Android’s Achilles heel, the Play store’s selection of apps optimised for the larger screens of tablets has played second fiddle to Apple’s App Store and its iPad-friendly offerings. Although the situation is always improving, the raw figures still show Google lacks behind - and even apps that have been redesigned for larger screens don’t look quite as polished as those from Apple.
Facebook and Twitter, for example, look and feel good, but don’t make as good a use of the extra screen space than they do on the iPad. Many apps feel stretched to simply fill the extra space instead of making better use of it, and the Tab S’s huge resolution causes some issues with the size of some text and icons, which are often very small.
I reckon that once these higher resolutions become commonplace, developers will readdress their apps and update user interfaces to make better use of the extra pixels - and make everything a bit bigger and easier to read/tap.
The app selection for Android tablets simply isn’t as compelling as it is for the iPad, and that’s a real shame because it’s out of Samsung’s hands. The company has produced an excellent tablet, but one which is held back by Google and its developers.
That said, there’s still plenty in the Play store to get excited about and you’ll find the most popular apps and games on iOS are also available for Android, albeit with a little less polish.
The Tab S is the best tablet Samsung has ever made. It’s attractive - even though that bronze trim won’t be for everyone - beautifully thin, light and perfect for Netflix marathons. It still lacks the premium aluminium look and feel of the iPad, but you quickly get over the weird texture of the dimpled plastic back and learn to love it.
A tablet’s most important feature is its screen, and this is where the Samsung truly excels. It’s every bit as good as the iPad mini with Retina Display - and for those wanting widescreen over the Apple tabs, the Galaxy S is the best on sale today.
Bad bits? Well, the fingerprint scanner, though mostly great, can be temperamental at times; TouchWiz’s habit of lagging when flicking through home screens needs urgent attention via a software update, and through no fault of its own Samsung can’t offer an app catalogue with the quantity and quality of Apple’s.
But these serve as minor distractions from what is otherwise a brilliant tablet - sleek, attractive and powerful, with an excellent display, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is the Android tablet we’ve all been waiting for.