Samsung Galaxy Tab S review: slim design, long battery life, stunning screen

It'd be silly of me to talk about tablets in the past tense -- we still write stories about them daily and clearly, we review them, too. But of the ones we've seen lately, most have been low-end; mid-range at best. The market for high-end slates, once crowded with companies big and small, now looks more like a fraternity. At this point, the only players left are mostly big names like Apple, Microsoft, Sony. And, of course, Samsung. The outfit just announced the Galaxy Tab S, its flagship tablet for 2014. Available in 8.4- and 10.5-inch sizes, it comes armed with the best possible specs, including a stunning 2,560 x 1,600 Super AMOLED screen, 12-hour battery life and a slim build that measures just 6.6mm thick. In addition, Samsung added a fingerprint reader (still a rarity on tablets) and free goodies like popular magazines, Dropbox storage and a six-month Wall Street Journal subscription. The tablet's up for pre-order now, starting at $400 for the 8-inch model and $500 for the 10-incher. So, you can't test-drive it yet, but, as it happens, I've been playing with it for almost a week. Suffice to say, I've enjoyed myself. Mostly.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab S review

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Samsung

Galaxy Tab S

Pros

  • Stunning screen
  • Long battery life
  • Thin and light 
  • Some useful software additions, like free magazines

Cons

  • Some minor performance hiccups (on the WiFi-only models, anyway)
  • Samsung's "Magazine UX" interface still feels overbearing
  • Finicky fingerprint scanner
  • "Simple Clickers" make it cumbersome to use Samsung's optional cases
Summary

With a gorgeous screen, super-thin design and long battery life, the Galaxy Tab S earns its place as one of our favorite tablets. 

Hardware

Let's call a spade a spade: The Galaxy Tab S is basically a blown-up version of the Galaxy S5. Available in "Dazzling White" and "Titanium Bronze" (brown, really), the Tab S has a plastic rear lid with a grid of dots on the back that look like dimples. Yep, just like the GS5. And the similarities don't end there. Both devices mix rounded corners with blunt-cut sides that make it easy to hold. Even the home button is the same: an oval-shaped key with a fingerprint reader built in (more on that later).

It so happens I find the design pleasant. Elegant, even. My colleague Brad Molen, who reviewed the GS5, was less impressed, calling the look "inoffensive" (ouch, Brad). But none of that matters, really; it's irrelevant if either of us likes the design. What I can say -- and what I think you'll find more helpful -- is that regardless of whether you dig the aesthetic, this is most certainly a well-made piece of hardware. Part of it's the build quality: Though the plastic might not be as premium-feeling as metal, it's basically immune to both scratches and fingerprints, meaning it continues to look pristine much longer than you'd otherwise expect it to. Then there's ergonomics: The blunt edges, pancake-flat back and soft-touch finish on the rear make it comfortable to hold.

There's also the size to consider. At 6.6mm thick, the two Galaxy Tab S tablets are skinnier than both the iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina display. (Sony's Xperia Z2 Tablet beats them all, at 6.35mm thick.) The Galaxy Tab S is lighter than Apple's tablets, too: The 10-inch version weighs a pound (the same as the 9.7-inch iPad), while the 8-inch model comes in at 0.63 pound (10 ounces), beating out the Retina display iPad mini. I say all that to illustrate how dang thin this guy is. It's one thing to parrot Samsung's marketing material and say it's as thick as five credit cards. It's another to tell you that it's even thinner than two popular tablets that are already known for being skinny.

Ready for a tour? Both the 8- and 10-inch models have the same camera setup: a 2-megapixel webcam up front, and an 8-megapixel shooter with LED flash around back. For navigation, you've got back and multitasking keys, both built into the lower bezel next to the home button. The selection of ports is the same too, though the layout is going to be different, considering the 10-inch tablet was designed for landscape use, and the 8-inch model was primarily meant to be used in portrait. Starting with the 10-incher, you've got the power/lock button up top, along with a volume rocker and an IR blaster, allowing you to use the device as a remote. Stereo speakers line both the left and right sides, with a headphone jack on the left, and a microSD reader on the right capable of supporting 128GB cards. The right edge is also home to a standard micro-USB port for charging. On the smaller model, meanwhile, the power/lock button, volume rocker, microSD slot and IR emitter are all on the right, with the speakers spread across the top and bottom. The headphone jack and micro-USB socket are also on the bottom, exactly where you'd expect to find them.

That's about it for the hardware tour. Well, except for one thing. Peek around the back and you'll see two circles, which depress, like trapdoors. These are called "Simple Clickers" and are there to attach Samsung's optional cases. These include the Simple Cover ($40), which only covers the screen, as well as the Book Cover ($60-plus), which wraps around the whole device and can also stay propped up at one of several screen angles. Both cases are well-made, with holes for the camera and they come in an assortment of cheerful color options. Most importantly, of course, both have little nubs that stick out, allowing you to press the case into the back of the tablet.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab S review (accessories)

It's a nice idea in theory: Once those suckers are in, you can hold the tablet by the case if you want to. That thing is staying put. The problem is, it's a huge pain to use. First, you have to carefully line up the two nubs against their respective holes, and then you need to push them in one by one. Even now, after I've had time to practice, I usually don't get it right on my first try. And in order to be successful, I typically have to use two hands to press the tablet and case into each other. Ripping the case off requires a bit of force -- and makes an unpleasant noise, to boot. Thankfully, at least, Samsung says there will be third-party cases as well. Hopefully some of those will be the kind you can just slip on and off.

Display

You'll notice I gave the display its very own section, even though it is technically "hardware." That's partly because I had a lot to say, and partly because the screen is clearly, indisputably the star of the show. What can I say? Samsung killed it. The screen here is a spec lover's dream, with 2,560 x 1,600 resolution on both the 10-and 8-inch models. On the 10-incher, that resolution translates to a pixel density of 287 ppi; the 8-incher is noticeably crisper, at 360 ppi. Either way, that's even sharper than both of the current-gen iPads, whose screens come to 264 ppi for the iPad Air and 326 ppi for the Retina display mini.

Alright, now that we've got that out of our system, let's pull up our pants and put the measuring tape away. Even setting aside the raw specs, this is a stunning display. In particular, it's a Super AMOLED panel, and while that won't sound revolutionary to anyone who's used one of Samsung's recent phones, it's fairly uncommon for a tablet. In fact, the last time Sammy tried a Super AMOLED panel on one of its slates was with the Galaxy Tab 7.7, which was prohibitively expensive -- precisely because of the impressive screen technology. Since then, the price seems to have come down, which means the benefits of Super AMOLED are much easier to sell. In particular, the blacks here are black; the whites are white; and the colors are vibrant, if a little oversaturated. If you've handled a phone like the GS5, you know what I'm talking about.

What's more, there's an RGB sensor inside that adjusts the color balance depending on your surroundings. So, if you find yourself in a swank lounge with purple mood lighting (in which case you should really get off your tablet and socialize), the display will adjust itself accordingly. I should add, too, that the screen is super bright -- bright enough that I could use it in direct sunlight and frame shots like the one below. I'll talk more about the camera in a bit, but suffice to say, having a tablet this thin, with this bright a screen, makes photography more enjoyable than it would be otherwise.

Software

The Galaxy Tab S arrives on the heels of the Galaxy S5, which ushered in some big changes to Samsung's TouchWiz skin -- namely a flatter, more modern UI. Indeed, Sammy's new tablet has a similar look and feel throughout. Underneath it all, the Galaxy Tab S is running Android 4.4 KitKat on top of Samsung's My Magazine -- the same paneled, Windows 8-like layout that had Google a bit upset after Samsung's last round of tablets were revealed. The companies have since agreed to work together on future products, to bring Samsung's user experience more in line with stock Android. Well, this definitely doesn't look like stock Android, and it's frustrating that you can't remove Magazine UX from the homescreen. If it's any consolation, Magazine UX now lives on the left-most screen, where it's more out of the way. Still, I wish I had the option of removing it altogether.

Given that this is a Samsung product, running Samsung's software, you'll of course get various other features you wouldn't find on a stock Android device. These include the usuals, like S Voice; Multi Window Mode, for viewing two apps side by side; and Samsung's Milk Music service, which until recently has been available for phones only. As on the GS5, you'll find older Samsung features like Smart stay, Smart rotation and Smart pause, but they're now tucked out of sight. Don't worry, though: A new search bar in the settings menu means those features are still easy to find.

There are other similarities to the GS5. Chief among them: that fingerprint reader I mentioned earlier. As on the Galaxy S5, the fingerprint sensor here is built into the home button, and can be used to log into the device, make transactions using your Samsung account and buy stuff on eBay. You'll find the fingerprint option in the settings menu, at which point you'll have to go through a setup process that involves swiping your finger across the home button eight times. In all, you can register up to three fingers per user. Mastering the perfect swipe -- not too fast, centered on the home button, finger covering the whole button -- is difficult. In fact, even now that I've been playing with the device for nearly a week, it still routinely takes me two if not three tries to get it right. There have also been multiple occasions when I've failed five times in a row, and had to wait 30 seconds to try again. (Note: Samsung will also have you set up an alphanumeric password, which you can enter anytime you get fed up with the fingerprint scanner.)

Also like the GS5, the Galaxy Tab S comes with 50GB of Dropbox storage, free for two years. In fact, it comes with an entire suite of free stuff, a package known as "Galaxy Gifts." This, too, first debuted on the GS5, and includes things like six free months of Wall Street Journal access and a yearlong subscription to Bloomberg Businessweek. There are other items, including a bunch of magazine "samplers," but these just include a handful of stories, not the whole issue. That said, if you were curious about, say, that Monica Lewinsky essay in Vanity Fair, but didn't want to buy the whole issue (ahem), this might nonetheless be your lucky day. And hey, if all this strikes you as fancy bloatware, you can simply choose not to download it.

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Samsung Galaxy S Tab screenshots

Speaking of magazines, the Galaxy Tab S also ushers in an app called Papergarden, which offers full-issue magazines you'd otherwise have to pay for. In the US, these titles include biggies like Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue, GQ, Rolling Stone and US Weekly. Users in other countries get to enjoy Papergarden too, though the selection will vary. To be clear, this isn't like Next Issue when it comes to selection: Not all popular titles are there, and you don't have access to back issues. You also have to submit a credit card just to download a full issue for free. Still, it's a nice perk for people who enjoy magazines, but don't like them enough to buy them, much less subscribe for a whole year.

I'm not done yet. For those of you with families, the Galaxy Tab S has a new Kids Mode that lets you create separate user accounts for the little ones, with restricted access if there are apps you don't want them messing with. (Note: Kids Mode doesn't come pre-installed, though there's a shortcut for downloading it.) Additionally, a new Multi User Mode lets you add up to seven user accounts, complete with separate passwords and different sets of fingerprints. Finally, there's version 3.0 of SideSync, Samsung's app for transferring files between your tablet and your phone or PC. New in this version: the ability to forward calls from your handset to your slate, using either WiFi or LTE. The bad news: For now, at least, it only works with the GS5. So, uh, we hope you have a Galaxy S5 handy.

Camera

Both Galaxy Tab S's have an 8-megapixel rear camera and LED flash, along with a lower-res, 2.1-megapixel shooter around front -- more or less the same setup used in the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4, and the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. Basically, then, you should expect identical imaging performance between the two Galaxy Tab S models, and also across Sammy's recent tablet lineup. As we've found in the past, color reproduction is good, and the camera is quick to focus as you line up your shot (if for some reason it doesn't lock on where you want it to, there's always tap-to-focus). Low-light shots are grainy, but then, what did you expect from a tablet camera, anyway?

As it happens, I took all my sample shots in auto mode, because that's how I believe most consumers will use the device, but you can also choose from one of several specialty modes, including "Beauty face," panorama, HDR and dual camera. Additionally, you can adjust the ISO, metering modes, flash and face detection from the settings menu.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab S sample shots

It's a similar story with 1080p video recording. Like other Engadget reviewers who've tested recent Samsung tablets, I found my sample footage to be pretty smooth, though the occasional gust of wind put a damper on the audio quality. Even then, the tablet picked up on a wide range of noises -- sirens, traffic, people talking nearby -- without any of those elements sounding distorted.

Performance and battery life

Samsung Galaxy Tab S ** Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 iPad Air ***
Quadrant 2.0 18,597 18,877 19,530 N/A
Vellamo 2.0 1,672 1,622 2,735 N/A
SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms) 1,109 N/A 1,069 393
3DMark IS Unlimited 12,431 N/A N/A 15,328
GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 5.5 N/A N/A 12.7
CF-Bench 31,695 37,902 31,567 N/A

*SunSpider: Lower scores are better.

**Average scores for the 8.4- and 10.5-inch models.

***Not all of our Android benchmarks are cross-compatible with iOS.

Whichever screen size you get, the Galaxy Tab S has the same specs: three gigs of RAM, and an eight-core Exynos 5 Octa chip, the same one found inside certain versions of the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 and Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. In case you haven't been keeping up with our Samsung tablet reviews, here's what you need to know: The Exynos 5 actually includes two quad-core processors, only one of which is active at a given time. These include a 1.9GHz chip for heavier-duty tasks, and a lower-powered 1.3GHz one for the more menial stuff. The idea is to extend battery life by using the more powerful cores only when necessary (but to still have them ready to go when you need the extra horsepower).

To scan the benchmark table above, you'd assume the Galaxy Tab S performs roughly in line with other top-of-the-line tablets, including the Sony Xperia Z2 and, of course, the 2014 Note 10.1, which uses the same chipset. What the numbers don't capture, though, is how uneven the performance can be. What's most frustrating is that while the tablets excel at the hard stuff, like rendering graphically detailed games, they stumble over the little things. Though neither of my two test units ever crashed or froze on me, I routinely observed a slight delay when launching apps or tapping a text field and waiting for the onscreen keyboard to come up. Meanwhile, though, Need for Speed: Most Wanted ran smoothly -- and looked fantastic on that 2,560 x 1,600 Super AMOLED screen, to boot. I also had no problems with Multi Window Mode; I was able to quickly set up two side-by-side windows, as well as swap in new apps when necessary.

All told, the performance here isn't bad by any means; it's just not as brisk as I expected it to be, given the way the chip was designed. I'm inclined to say that Samsung can address some of this low-level sluggishness with a firmware update. That said, Brad described similar performance hiccups when he reviewed the 2014 Note 10.1 last fall, which means Samsung has already had plenty of time to work out some of the kinks with its Exynos 5 chip. I still believe Sammy could improve the performance via a software update. It just doesn't bode well that the chip's performance hasn't changed in the months since it debuted: Has Samsung been listening to us?

If it's any consolation, the as-yet-unreleased LTE models are supposed to use a Snapdragon 800 chip instead of the Exynos 5, so maybe performance will be snappier there.

Tablet Battery Life
Samsung Galaxy Tab S (10-inch) 12:30
Samsung Galaxy Tab S (8-inch) 12:22
Microsoft Surface 2 14:22
iPad Air 13:45 (LTE)
Apple iPad mini 12:43 (WiFi)
Apple iPad mini with Retina display 11:55 (LTE)
Apple iPad (late 2012) 11:08 (WiFi)
Apple iPad 2 10:26
Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 10:04
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Acer Iconia W4 9:50
Nexus 7 (2012) 9:49
Microsoft Surface RT 9:36
Toshiba Encore 8:45
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 8:40
Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet 7:57
Nexus 10 7:26
Dell Venue 8 Pro 7:19
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 7:18
Nexus 7 (2013) 7:15
Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 7:13
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 6:55

According to the product pages on Samsung's website, the 10-inch model's 7,900mAh battery can last through up to 12 hours of video playback. Ditto for the 8-incher: It, too, is rated for 12 hours, despite having a smaller, 4,900mAh cell. As it turns out, the Galaxy Tab S performs even better than advertised. The 8-inch tablet managed a solid 12 hours and 22 minutes of video playback, while the 10-incher made it to exactly 12.5 hours. Mind you, that was with the screen brightness fixed at 50 percent and WiFi on, but not connected; surely, if we allowed the brightness to dip even lower, we could have squeezed out more runtime. Should you need more juice, by the way, you can enable "Ultra power-saving mode," which turns the screen to black-and-white and only enables certain key apps. Basically: For emergency use only.

Configuration options and the competition

The Galaxy Tab S is up for pre-order now, starting at $400 for the 8-inch version and $500 for the 10-incher. Both start with 16GB of built-in storage, though Samsung will also be selling 32GB models in select countries. Meanwhile, that LTE model I mentioned is coming later this year, and is expected to sell on all the major US carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. No word on how long you'll have to wait for that, though.

All told, as you can see, it's a solid choice, with hardly any flaws to speak of. That said, we can think of a few other tablets you should be considering. If you're dead-set on something running Android, the Sony Xperia Z2 ($500-plus) is even thinner and lighter than the Galaxy Tab S, not to mention waterproof. Then again, it suffers from relatively short battery life and a super-glossy, lower-res screen (not that 1,920 x 1,200 resolution is "low," per se). Meanwhile, you might also consider Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 ($750 for 32GB) and the Note 10.1 2014 Edition ($550-plus). Neither is as thin or light as the Galaxy Tab S, but they have 2,560 x 1,600 screens and support pressure-sensitive pen input -- the one thing the GTab S doesn't offer.

It's also worth noting that Google's 2-year-old Nexus 10 is still around for a reasonable $399. Having been out for two years, it's overdue for a refresh, and a replacement could be coming soon, though its 2,560 x 1,600 screen makes it relevant even today. Across the aisle, there's Microsoft's Surface 2, starting at $449. It's a handsome device, and the built-in kickstand is a convenient feature you won't find on any of these other tablets. That said, if I had to choose, I'd still pick the Galaxy Tab S, as it's thinner, lighter and cheaper, with a better screen and a bigger app selection.

Finally, the elephant in the room: the iPad. If you prefer Android, you may as well skip this section -- we think you'll be very happy with the Galaxy Tab S. If you're OS-agnostic, though, the Galaxy Tab S takes on the iPad Air and Retina display iPad mini nearly spec for spec, with the GTab winning out in thinness, lightness and screen resolution. The prices are basically the same too, with the 8-incher starting at $399 and the bigger model going for $499. The one thing you might want to consider is that tablet-app selection is still better on iOS. That said, both are excellent products; start by picking the OS you like best and go from there.

Wrap-up

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S is good. Really good. With long battery life, a stunning screen and an especially thin and light design, it earns its place as our new favorite Android tablet. My main hang-up is that the performance doesn't always feel as brisk as it should (the forthcoming LTE edition uses a different chip, and has the potential to be faster, but it's unreasonable to ask someone to pay extra for the kind of performance they should have gotten on the WiFi-only models). In addition, the fingerprint scanner, though nice to have, can be temperamental -- so much so that I've more than once locked myself out of my own tablet. Finally, Samsung's Magazine UX feels a bit overbearing, mostly because you don't get the option of uninstalling it.

It doesn't look like that UI is going anywhere, but I do believe Samsung can address those minor performance issues via a software update. And even if it doesn't, this is still an excellent piece of kit. If I may, I'd offer the same advice I would to prospective iPad buyers: Unless you want the extra screen real estate for watching movies, just buy the 8-inch version. It's cheaper, with a crisper screen, identical camera and just as much horsepower as the bigger model. Either way, you can't go wrong.