Galaxy Tab S review: a skinny tablet with a great screen

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Samsung already sells 14 different tablets in the United States, and now it’s introducing two more: On Friday the company released the Galaxy Tab S, which, like the company’s Samsung Galaxy S smartphone, is aimed at users who want a high-end device for Android.

The Galaxy Tab S is $400 for the model with the 8.4-inch screen or $500 for the 10-inch screen (otherwise the devices are identical, and I tested the 8.4-inch screen model). Those prices are very close to Apple’s iPad Air and iPad Mini with Retina Display, and that’s the point: these are flagship devices. Sure, you can pick up a perfectly decent 7-inch Android tablet for $200 — I like the Nexus 7 — but these aren’t supposed to be decent. They’re supposed to be great. Does Samsung achieve that?

It is one of the thinnest and lightest devices on the market

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The Samsung Galaxy Tab S is a very skinny, attractive device. The smaller model is light, weighing just under 300 grams, and at 8.38 x 4.94 x 0.26 inches, it is very close to the perfect size for regular tablet use, in my opinion. The larger model is bigger, of course, but retains the skinny profile and is still only 465 grams, which is four grams less than the iPad Air. This is one of the thinnest, and lightest for its weight devices on the market today. Here’s a size comparison of the Galaxy Tab S with an iPad Mini:

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The Galaxy Tab S features some of the most impressive design that Samsung has put out in the past few years. The device is nearly all screen. The bezel on both the black and white versions is colored like brass. Some might complain that gold-painted plastic is cheap, but let’s be honest: these devices are meant to last years, not decades, and the overall feel is of quality, something I wouldn’t have said about Galaxy phones a few years ago.

Here’s something that might be a surprise to Samsung fans: the Galaxy Tab S doesn’t have a removable battery. That’s generally okay, considering tablets aren’t like phones, and it’s less likely that a hardcore user would need to swap out batteries in the middle of the day. The non-removable battery also allowed Samsung to keep this tablet thin

Button layout is standard for Samsung: power on the right-hand side and the now-trademark chunky hardware home battery underneath the screen. There’s an IR blaster and microSD card slot on the right-hand side. One interesting thing to note: the 10.5-inch version’s default orientation is in landscape mode, whereas the the 8.4-inch model is portrait.

Performance: Let’s benchmark that Exynos 5 Octa octo-core chip

In the United States, the Galaxy Tab S comes with Samsung’s 1.9GHz octa-core Exynos processor paired with 3GB of RAM. It’s fast.  The result is an decent tablet with performance comparable to the fastest phones in the world. Is the Exynos processor past prime time? There are certainly devices on the market that are beating it.

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Running the AnTuTu benchmark yielded a score of 33022, which is comparable to the Galaxy Note 3 1 running a 2.3 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 running the same chip. In terms of Android device performance, it only trails the flagship phones — the HTC One M8, the Galaxy S5 and Note 3 — and the Xiaomi MI3, which is the first tablet to use Tegra’s K1 chip.

The battery life is a mixed bag — when watching movies it performed impressively, but it drained quickly while surfing the web or in standby. Samsung brags that it manages 11 hours of streaming 1080p video, which would beat competitors like the iPad Air, and I don’t doubt that. But for day-to-day use, the Tab S suffers.

The overall performance is good but not best-in-class.

Wow, that display is impressive

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The display is the main selling point the Galaxy Tab S. After all, what is a tablet besides a big ‘ol screen to poke at? The Tab S features a 1600 x 2560 Super AMOLED display. AMOLED is not a Samsung-specific technology, but they do make more of them than anybody else.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it makes a huge difference. True, the Galaxy Tab S has an impressive panel. The colors are bright and accurate, with huge viewing angles. The display is bright and the blacks are very black. Respected display tester Displaymate calls it “best performing tablet display that we have ever tested,” and after spending a week with it, I can’t disagree. I just don’t think it matters that much.

After all, the Tab S is not the first Android tablet with a 1600 x 2560 screen — the Samsung-made Nexus 10 has had one since late 2012. While the AMOLED display on the Tab S is superior to the Nexus 10, it’s the kind of subtle difference that requires a trained eye, or both devices side-by-side, to notice. While watching Gravity and switching between my 4th-generation iPad (without an OLED screen) and the Galaxy Tab S, I noted and appreciated the lack of letter-boxing on the 16×10 Tab S screen. But I did n0t really consider the deeper blacks or the more accurate colors. Both displays were “luscious” and more than acceptable.

If you’re the kind of person who can really appreciate a high-fidelity LCD panel, then the Galaxy Tab S is your device. But for the vast majority of consumers will make their decision based on issues like battery life and software selection, and not how excellent the screen is.

Samsung’s new case system

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A flagship tablet requires flagship accessories, so Samsung’s paired the Galaxy Tab S family with a good deal of various covers. They’re nice, but most interesting are Samsung’s new accessory divots.

Samsung has come under fire in the past for making accessories that appear to be ripoffs of Apple’s iPad Smart Cover. Enter Samsung’s accessory divots. They don’t have any magnets at all, but at least Samsung’s not covering the entire back of the device, as previous Galaxy cases used to do. Covers plug in with a satisfying click, but taking a cover off requires a ripping motion that honestly makes me uncomfortable with my new $400 device. When pushing the inner circle on the divots on the device, there’s a lot of give, which reminds me of a key on a chiclet keyboard. There’s no way to transfer data, so if a keyboard were to connect through these divots, it would also need to connect through Bluetooth.

While the Galaxy Tab S is both skinny and features these divots, I suspect at some point these kind of divots would become the limiting factor to making tablets or phones even skinnier. After all, there’s no Moore’s Law for hardware connectors. I would be surprised if Samsung doubled down on this connector for its third-party accessory ecosystem.

As for the covers themselves, they’re perfectly nice. I used the red-colored “book cover” — which costs $70 — and found it perfectly acceptable. However, sticking a big cover across the front and the back makes the tablet both heavier and fatter, which nullifies a lot of the reasons to pick this tablet in the first place.

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Does SideSync offer a reason to have both a Galaxy phone and tablet?

If you’ve ever used Android, you’ll be right at home on the Galaxy Tab. But Samsung has added a few of its own bits as well which could offer value to users with other Samsung devices.

One of the most interesting features included on the Tab S is called “SideSync,” which is supposed to connect a phone to another Samsung device you own. Samsung’s been working on this for a year, but it used to be restricted to the desktop. If it worked as expected, you could pair your phone with your tablet through Wi-Fi and receive calls and texts on the tablet. The problem turns out that the software is terrible and useless, at least in its current form. I tried it out with a Galaxy S5 Active and the 8.4-inch Tab S.

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To connect the two devices through SideSync, you have to open the app on both devices. Not only is that annoying — and kills the use case for when you left your phone at your office but you’re at a meeting in the same building — but it also takes a while: The connection took about 10 seconds on average when I tested it.

When it works, the program somewhat lamely displays your phone’s screen on the tablet screen, like an emulator. If you turn on your phone after the program has started, the tablet phone emulator stops running, and won’t start again unless you sync again. The on-screen phone is laggy, and notifications aren’t merged, so if you get a text, the alert will be pushed through the phone simulator’s notifications, not the tablet’s. I have a hard time coming up with a reason why a user would prefer the emulated phone on the tablet screen to the bright, beautiful actual screen in his or her pocket.

Sure, SideSync could ultimately get better and I don’t doubt that it will: Apple is releasing a similar feature, Continuity, this fall in iOS 8 and I don’t put it past Samsung to “borrow” the best parts of Apple’s design for its own halo features. But at the moment, the synergy between the Galaxy line of phones and tablets is negligible.

Also disappointing: there’s no S-Pen support included in the Galaxy Tab S. Remember when I told you about those 12 Samsung tablets for sale? Two of them are in the Galaxy Note line, which are in fact more expensive than the supposed flagship “Tab S” line, because of its S Pen capability. It’s not as simple as side-loading Samsung’s software, because the S-Pen requires a hardware digitizer, and the Tab S line doesn’t have it. It’s a bummer.

To buy or not to buy?

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There are going to be a lot of Samsung Galaxy S phone users who simply want a “Samsung iPad.” To them, I’d recommend the Galaxy Tab S because it’s thin, light and fast, with a great screen. If you’re not price-sensitive, this is probably an easy decision: it’s an Android tablet with cutting-edge internal hardware and a few nice perks, like the IR blaster and the microSD card slot.

The Galaxy Tab S arguably fills a niche in Samsung’s crowded tablet lineup. There’s the basic Galaxy Tabs, which have disappointing 1280 x 800 displays and have never been truly loved. There’s also the Galaxy Note, which is even more expensive than the Tab S line but has the S-Pen. You could opt for the two different sizes of Galaxy Note Pro, which are very similar tablets with the same processor and same resolution display, although they’re not AMOLED. That’s not to be confused with the Galaxy Tab Pro, which lacks a digitizer. But there isn’t a high-end device clearly marketed directly to consumers to compete with the iPad.

For more value-conscious shoppers, however, I wouldn’t recommend the Galaxy Tab S. For them, I’d suggest the Nexus 7, which can do everything the Tab S can and costs almost $200 less. The 2013 Nexus 7 has a slightly lower-resolution display, lacks the AMOLED screen, and is missing specific Samsung features, but it costs $230 at retail or as little as $150 during certain sales.

However, there aren’t many high-end Android tablets currently available in the 10-inch and up range. Sony offers one — the Experia Z2 — but besides that, your main option is the rapidly aging Nexus 10, which came out in 2012. If you’re looking for a high-quality, large-sized Android tablet, the 10.5-inch Galaxy Tab S wins, almost by default.

Keep in mind that Samsung has released its devices towards the end of Apple’s tablet upgrade cycle. Before 2014 is over, Apple will have new iPad hardware, so while the Tab S currently matches Apple’s devices for lightness at the moment, there will be a new challenger very soon. Just something to keep in mind — it’s not necessarily a reason not to buy the Tab S today, but it is something to consider if the Tab S’s skinny design was what attracted you in the first place.

Besides, if the Galaxy Tab S doesn’t float your boat, well, you’ve got 13 other Samsung tablets to choose from.

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