Apple’s iPad Air may well be one of the best tablets around, but competitors are really starting to catch up. We saw Sony do some damage with it’s excellent Xperia Z2, and now it’s Samsung’s time to shine with the Galaxy Tab S.
More than just another tablet in its long running Galaxy Tab range, the Tab S is a reinvention with a screen that will make your eyes go wow.
The first of a new line of Tabs and not just another entry in the Galaxy Tab range — we’d be up to “5” if that were the case — the Galaxy Tab S brings with it a dose of high-end innards and marries it to a similarly high-end screen, all in the effort to produce a tablet you’d be proud to take with you.
Inside the Tab S in Australia, you’ll find one of Samsung’s combo processors, an eight-core chip made from two processors working together: a quad-core 1.3GHz and a quad-core 1.9GHz. This combination works in tandem with 3GB RAM and 16GB storage, the latter of which is upgradeable by way of a microSD slot on the side, capable of taking as much as 128GB of storage.
Google’s Android 4.4 “KitKat” is included here, too, with Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay installed.
Connection options in this tablet include 802.11a/b/g/n and 802.11ac, with Bluetooth 4.0 also here as well as GPS and infrared, though there is no Near-Field Communication (NFC) nor is there 4G LTE. Samsung does make a version with support for 4G, but that’s not in our review model.
Cameras are also included, with an 8 megapixel shooter with a flash on the back, and a 2 megapixel camera up front. Stills are of course an option, but video is here too, with Full HD’s 1920×1080 possible to capture on this tablet.
This technology sits under a screen measuring 10.5 inches diagonally, and running the higher than Full HD resolution of 2560×1600, technically sitting at around Quad HD and delivering a pixel count of 287 pixels per inch, higher than the Retina-grade display of the iPad Air, which sits at 264 pixels per inch.
While most Android devices are moving away from having buttons and letting Android’s touchscreen do all the heavy lifting, ion line with other Samsung devices, you’ll still see some, with the front panel showing soft buttons for multi-tasking and back flanking the home button in the middle, which also acts as a fingerprint reader.
The other physical buttons are on the top edge, with power and volume sitting next to each other.
Ports are few on this machine, with a 3.5mm jack on the top left edge, while the right edge has the microSD slot and the microUSB port.
Speakers are located on each side of the tablet as well.
The battery is rated for 7900mAh.
Ready for a new tablet? We bet you are, and if you’re in the mood for something to go with that Galaxy S5, you’re in luck, because Samsung has been focusing its design efforts with a similar model, ideal for people with both.
As far as aesthetics go, this is a different look for Samsung, which has been pushing away from the regular black or white looks in recent years. While the regular Galaxy Tab models have those basic shades, the most recent Galaxy Note was black with silver edges, opting for a more premium look, complete with a textured plastic back.
For the Galaxy Tab S, Samsung has taken a similar approach, looking at metal and thinking that yeah, that could work here, and providing the look of high quality materials, though without the follow-through.
As such, the Tab S is a plastic tablet with a textured back, dimpled like the Galaxy S5 and feeling soft in the hands. Our Tab S was bronze — sorry, “Titanium Bronze,” as Samsung calls it — but there is also a white model out there too (no special name there), but both of these have gold edges, or rather gold painted edges. It’s still plastic, don’t kid yourself, and it can even get scratched quite easily, but we’ll get to that later.
Despite the emphasis on plastic, something Samsung seems to like, the tablet is comfortable to hold, thanks to that material choice, and paired with the 465 gram weight, is also reasonably light, as well. That’s four grams lighter than the iPad Air, a feat which is impressive, though not as impressive as Sony’s Xperia Z2 Tablet, which itself boasts a weight of 426 grams and bests both iPad and Galaxy Tab.
But that’s a different review, and here, the Tab S is balanced quite well in the hands, though we’d suggest two hands for carrying it, since it’s not a one-handed device being 10.5 inches in size.
Part of the reason it’s so big, though, is that 10.5 inch display, a slightly unorthodox size for a tablet, and that’s thanks to Samsung’s special display, which is a little larger than the 10.1 screens we’re used to seeing, and runs a high resolution of 2560×1600 on a Super AMOLED display.
Just like the AMOLED screen in the Galaxy S5, this is a lovely screen, offering lots of pixels, lots of brightness, plenty of viewing angle, and in this tablet, the ability to adapt to various lighting conditions to change the colour profile accordingly, always offering a better picture depending on. where you are.
At home, the colour looked lovely and crisp, with solid black and detail because of our shaded environment, but out in the field at a soccer game and post-processing images on the fly from a wireless camera, the screen detected that it was bright outside and jacked the brightness all the way up to work with it, changing the colour profile to let us see what we were doing.
For that last scenario, it’s not the brightest screen we’ve ever seen, but it’s not far off, and outside of a few icons, we could see most of what we were doing on an overly bright, shiny, and sunny day.
Most people won’t have a problem, though, and if you’re looking for a lovely tablet display, you’d be hard pressed to go past the awesome screen in the Galaxy Tab S. It’s just so beautiful.
Get to using the tablet, and the impressive experience continues with good specs to let you run most apps you’ll want to throw at it. Unlike other tablets, this isn’t just a Samsung phone inside of a tablet, because in Australia, the Galaxy S5 is Snapdragon-based.
That’s different from the Tab S, which relies on two quad-core processors running together, making it an octa-core (eight-core) system and accompanied by 3GB RAM, past the 2GB sweet spot that Android tends to prefer.
Even though we’re not huge fans of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface, it’s a relatively usable affair here, with the exception of Samsung’s Magazine UX, which you’ll hear about shortly.
TouchWiz feels relatively stable now that we’re a few generations in, and while the colours of the menu don’t feel as bright or flat to work with, the multiple homescreen approach is easy to get your head around, the lack of a dock is easy to adjust to if you don’t use many homescreens, and there’s always a shortcut to all of your apps or your files depending on which corner you press.
In general, apps are relatively snappy to load, and even playing some of the heavier games — such as Telltale’s “The Walking Dead: Season 2” — the system showed very few signs of struggling.
Jumping between apps exhibited some lag, that said, appearing as we launched some apps, or even scrolled through some web pages, and while this was out of character with the high-end hardware on-board, it doesn’t last long. As such, this could be a firmware glitch, and patched up later on.
The battery life also isn’t bad, either. It will depend on your use, of course, but we found around a day of solid use was possible from the battery, as we watched the odd video, surfed the web, read and wrote emails, and did some social networking, but it is possible to get around two days if you use the Galaxy Tab S less.
There are other features worth noting, such as the fingerprint scanner taken from the Galaxy S5, which still doesn’t do much outside of unlocking your device, your Samsung account, or your PayPal account. Similar to the issues we’ve seen on other fingerprint-enabled smartphones, swiping the sensor two out of three times didn’t work for us, which stops us from wanting to use the feature.
Not helping this is the lack of Near-Field Communication, meaning it can’t be used to pay for things at cafes, which we admit isn’t as convenient as a phone, but could still be nice to have around.
Also included are a pair of decent speakers sitting on the side which are bright and loud, and while it would have been better to see them up front, they’re much better than the standard speakers we see on the backs of tablets.
The camera on the Tab S isn’t bad either, and while we hesitate to use any tablet in public as a camera, if you have to, the 8 megapixel shooter isn’t bad here, providing relatively snappy auto-focus and reasonably detailed images. We wouldn’t switch it out for a better phone camera, but it will provide better images than you might expect.
Overall, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S is a solid competitor for Apple’s own, and really, that’s the big boy Samsung has to take on, even if there are other just as impressive tablets out there, including Sony’s own excellent Xperia Z2 Tablet.
But while the hardware is top notch, it’s the software we take aim: even though Samsung’s Android overlay “TouchWiz” has improved on previous versions, it’s the whole unique additional interface that is one giant let down because, well, it’s just incomplete.
We are in fact talking about Samsung’s Magazine UX, a homescreen that in TouchWiz is always there no matter what you do, sitting at the ready on the left-most screen, and ready to show you a combination of news feeds from Flipboard, calendar information, and emails, all sitting in various quadrants that can be flipped around and changed when you need it, with more Magazine UX screens added if you can’t fit everything in on the one or prefer a large display of information.
No matter how many times we tried to get into Samsung’s multi-window take on how operating a tablet should be, we would in the end feel shortchanged, and that’s because the system isn’t complete, and barely offers an experience beyond the limited functionality Samsung has provided.
For instance, if you want to check your email, but you only have a Google Mail (GMail) account, such as the one your Google account provides, you can’t access the mail from the mail screen in the Magazine UX. That feature is only available through the mail app, so unless you have a Microsoft Exchange account of access to a POP3 email account, you’re out of luck in Magazine UX.
The same goes with the calendar, and if you use your Google Calendar religiously for storing your appointments and dates, Samsung’s Magazine UX won’t touch it. Sorry, but it will be ignored.
Even the widgets which should be connected to Google require separate logins: YouTube and Google Plus ask you to login, which is mad when they’re already connected to your tablet by way of your account.
And what if you want to use Twitter from the UX screen? Well, you can certainly read it, provided Flipboard can check your information, but posting, well, that’s a no.
This type of fenced-off implementation of an interface is what stops Samsung’s Magazine UX from being anything more than a half-finished gimmick, because while you can do things with it, the total value of what you can do isn’t much, and pretty much extends to reading the news categories Samsung and Flipboard suggest, flipping through the social networks you use (but only reading them, no posting), and letting you see the small amount of apps the Magazine UX works with, which at the moment includes a photo gallery, Samsung’s own music player (does anyone use this?), the videos on your device, Samsung’s WatchOn TV app, and an office program you probably aren’t using, Hancom Office.
But if you want to do anything else, Magazine UX is a waste of time, and one that is a huge shame since it’s a good idea.
It’s such a good idea that we’ve seen another similar tablet interface try it, with the Chameleon launcher now mostly discontinued, even though it promised to do much the same: divide the tablet up into quadrants to let you do more on the one screen than just see your shortcuts and tiny supply of widgets, a move which essentially makes a tablet more than just a content consumption device, giving it a real sense of productivity.
And that’s the idea Samsung is trying to pull off with Magazine UX, and one that it fails to get across since it’s unfinished and kind of pointless.
It would be great if you could remove it, but unfortunately, that isn’t to be, and the only way you can disguise it is by installing another launcher and changing the look of the tablet altogether.
But that’s something we also wish we could do physically, because while some might like the gold rim, it just wasn’t our cup of tea, with a brown-ish bronze back. We’re told this is the dark option, and there’s even a white version with that gold trim, too.
While colours aren’t ever a huge part of the technology, they’re still a part of the look, and if you don’t like gold edges, or bronze or shiny white, steer clear, because these are your only choices.
On the Apple iPads, you’ll find black or white on the front, with silver on the back. On the Sony tablets, it’s black or white all the way, with the same treatment applied to LG’s tablets as well as a red option for the latter. And over to Microsoft’s more computer-like tablets, you’re talking a slate grey or a deep charcoal look.
But on the Galaxy Tab S, the gold trim doesn’t do much for us, and makes the tablet look cheap, making us want to throw a case over it as quickly as possible to disguise the look.
The other problem with this gold and bronze aesthetic is that it’s only an aesthetic, with the bronze and gold merely paint over plastic. There’s no metal here, with Samsung continuing with its textured plastic program that it started on the Galaxy Note 3 and continued on the Galaxy S5 mobile handset.
In fact, the dimpled and dotted back texture from the S5 is used on the Tab S, and while it feels soft in the hands and helps to make the tablet easy to hold, it’s still just plastic, and scratches just as easily.
One other software issue really holds us back, and that’s the issue of SideSync.
This isn’t necessarily a problem of the Galaxy Tab S, mind you, but we’ve included it here all the same since SideSync is one of the main features of the Tab S.
For the uninitiated, SideSync is Samsung’s great idea of letting you control your phone using your tablet. More specifically, it lets you access and control the a Samsung phone using a Samsung tablet, with the screen appearing on the tablet in a small window and letting you access it when the phone isn’t being used by you. The moment you pick up the phone, the tablet loses access, but when you put it down again, access returns, letting you truly connect phone and tablet.
But there’s a catch: it has to be a Samsung phone. Furthermore, a Galaxy S5 or a Galaxy Note 3.
“Of course it does,” you say, thus completing the circle of product ownership that companies naturally think people do, like the iPad owner which automatically must own an iPhone, and the Surface owner which automatically owns a Windows Phone. Because you’ll always buy the same brand regardless.
The catch of needing a Samsung phone to use with a Samsung tablet is a bit of a jarring one, especially when the hardware in flagship phones has been more or less identical this year, with the changes being the exterior designs, extra features, and the changes to software. Maybe we’re not as understanding of programming requirements, but we’re not sure there’s a good reason for SideSync not to support devices that aren’t made by Samsung.
If you’re itching to get a tablet and you’re after top notch hardware in a sleek package, look no further than Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S, because it certainly has the guts to match.
While the colours aren’t our cup of tea (despite looking like some cups of tea), the marriage of high-end tech with a beautiful screen really works, producing a tablet that can tussle with the big boys.