Samsung Galaxy Tab S Review

85/100

WhistleOut
07 November 2014

Pros:

  • Great performance
  • Comfortable to hold for long sessions
  • Awesome Wi-Fi
  • At least as good as an iPad

Cons:

  • Stuffy TouchWiz software impacts battery and performance
  • No NFC
  • Comparably expensive
  • Packed with gimmicks and bloatware

We suffered a computer disaster in my house recently: a cracked, irreparable screen after a fall on the tiles in front of the toilet (sorry honey, but I’m telling the world). Being the sort of people for whom not having a computer is not an option, I’ve been flicking through the pages of electronics catalogues over the past few weeks trying to make my mind up about which new model to get next.

The trouble is, a quarrelsome thought keeps resurfacing every time I browse the machines and try and imagine how I’d use it. I picture myself in front of the TV in the evening and I’ll think, “yeah but the Samsung Galaxy Tab S can do that”.

For the first time since and after testing dozens of tablets since the original Apple iPad, I think I’m content to let a tablet take the place of laptop in my living room, and there are a number of good reasons why my tablet of choice is the Galaxy Tab S.

On the outside

Despite it’s success with smartphones, it’s is difficult to argue that Samsung has made very good tablets before now. This not from a lack of trying, after all the Tab S is preceded by well over a dozen different Samsung tablets released in the past 4 years.

The Galaxy Tab S, either the 8.4- or 10.5-inch variant, is easily the best tablet Samsung has managed to date, and most of this comes down to its physical design. Like its competition in the iPad Air and Sony Xperia Z2, the Tab S is surprisingly slim and lightweight, making it comfortable to lug about in a bag, or for long sessions in the hand.

It has a minimum of knobs and slots around its svelte edges, with only power and volume buttons across the top, USB and microSD slots on the right side, and a headphone jack on the left. There is a tiny hole for the microphone on the bottom and stereo speaker grilles on either side.

The back of the Tab S is covered in a dimpled, soft-touch plastic which is lovely to hang on to and offers a small amount of grip. Samsung also puts an 8-megapixel camera and flash on the underside for those guys who don’t mind being “those guys” snapping photos with a tablet at the university graduation.

D'at screen

In its unending quest for ever bigger numbers, Samsung has decided that its flagship tablet for 2014 should have a WQHD resolution screen, 2560 x 1600 pixels, which is a couple of million more pixels than the 50-inch TV in your living room has in its display.

This proves to be both a blessing and curse for the user. On the one hand, you have a screen capable of being impressive even after the 30th time you switch the tablet on. Everything looks so sharp and clear across Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface, and the colours you see are incredible.

But to have a universal experience of ‘Wow’ across all uses of this tablet you need all apps to support the high number of pixels, and this just isn’t the case.

One app that stands out is Google Newsstand, my go-to app for reading digital magazines. While the overall experience doesn’t suffer too much, there is no advantage to have the extra pixels. Text becomes blurry as you zoom in, in a way that might not happen on other devices with lower, more compatible pixel density.

Plenty of other apps you’ll download will likewise have graphic elements which look blurry or grainy as the images are blown up to fit the screen resolution.

The other big downside is in battery life. In my experience a WiFi-only tablet will last days between charges, but a screen this size, packed with pixels, needs to be charged every other day, depending on use. The screen is not the only culprit here, there is a bunch of bloatware deserving of blame too, but the display is a major contributor.

On the inside

Price-wise, you’ll pay a premium for the Galaxy Tab S. Not more than you’ll pay for an iPad Air, but more than the cost of the vast majority of Android tablets in market.

For your money you get the superb high-resolution screen, as well as best in breed internal components. The tablet’s octa-core processor (yes, 8 cores) power this beast with a little help from a massive 3GB RAM.

Our review unit is the Wi-Fi only version, but there is an option to buy a 4G LTE model in some markets. All models come with Bluetooth 4.0, awesome dual-band WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac and GPS for location based services. There’s no NFC, but there is Wi-Fi Direct for communicating with other devices.

As I mentioned a little earlier, battery life hasn’t been stellar, despite this tablet having an enormous 7900mAh battery. For comparison, this is nearly 150% larger than the battery in a Galaxy S5, and yet battery life is about the same, or worse.

We could just blame the screen for chewing through the battery, and indeed it does often account for 40% or more of the tablet’s power consumption, but we did notice something else far more annoying. After using the Tab S for a few days, roughly 10% of the battery life was being used by a pre-installed New York Times app with push notifications for the latest news headlines. Being pre-installed, you can’t uninstall this app altogether, but you can disable it in the ‘Applications’ setting menu and regain a lot of lost power.

There is a lot of other power-hungry apps pre-installed to consider too, including Samsung’s Smart Stay eye watching software, it’s constantly updating Magazine app (accessible by swiping to the left of the default home-screen), and several others.

How I saved battery and learned to love the Galaxy Tab S

Samsung will hate me for saying this, but the way to tablet peace and contentedness is to ditch TouchWiz and install a more power-friendly Home Screen. My launcher of choice is the Google Now Launcher, and after installing it battery life has increased to about 5-days of low use — less when I’m catching up on YouTube videos, obviously.

Google Now Launcher is about as bare bones as it gets, and is what you find on Google’s Nexus devices these days. Even with Google Now searching around me for places to eat and drink coffee, it is still far preferable to Samsung’s current software offering.

I also find the tablet is much faster with TouchWiz relegated to benchwarmer status. The UI seems smoother and more responsive; more enjoyable to use.

Why this and not an iPad?

With matching prices, uses and similar design, the question we imagine you’ll ask before handing over any money is, why would I buy this tablet instead of an iPad?

Flexibility is the key for me, and it is getting harder to argue that the iPad offers something you can’t find in the range of Android-powered tablets. With the Tab S, you have freedom in the way you access your files and move them on and off the internal storage. And, unlike the iPad, if the pre-installed software isn’t up to scratch for you, you can change it with other options available on the Play Store.

Streaming content is another consideration in my house, and the Tab S paired with a Google Chromecast is the cheaper, easier way of getting what you see on the tablet to a big screen.

In defence of the iPad, there are still many more apps available which have been especially designed for the bigger screen, but only take this into consideration if you plan on actually buying these apps. 9 times out of 10, there is the same app on Android or a comparable alternative.

If you own a Samsung Galaxy S5, there is the added benefit of being able to the screen from your S5 to the Tab S. You can scroll through your phone’s screen and even make phone calls, so long as both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network. I haven’t found this a feature I use often, but it is pretty nifty all the same.

Overall

Samsung finals bangs one out of the park in terms of tablet design, and though its software still needs work, the Tab S stands out as one of the more comfortable and powerful tablets to use.

Out of the box, battery life seems to be a major problem, but don’t give up on it too soon. There are work arounds for this. Hopefully, next year we won’t have to find solutions for Samsung’s battery sucking software.


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