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    Galaxy Tab S6 review: Good notepad, bad notebook

    The S Pen shines, but the tablet’s keyboard cover and desktop software still need work.
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    While the rest of the industry may have given up on making premium Android tablets, Samsung isn't quitting just yet. It still believes Google's software has the potential to power superthin and light 2-in-1s, and so it recently unveiled a new version of its hybrid tablet. The Galaxy Tab S6 is a 10.5-inch device that's designed for people who need to get work done on the go. It comes with an upgraded S Pen that features so-called Air Gestures for remote control of your apps; enhanced handwriting recognition to sort out your notes; and a redesigned keyboard cover (sold separately). As with previous Samsung tablets, you can expect a beautiful display, long battery life and capable performance. What really stands out about the Tab S6, though, is the S Pen, which is included in the $649 price. The stylus makes the device a really good digital notepad, but the Tab S6 still isn't quite the "laptop with the mobility of a tablet" that Samsung claims it is.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Long-lasting battery
    • S Pen and Samsung Notes are useful
    • Crisp and colorful display
    • Keyboard cover has trackpad
    Cons
    • Keyboard buttons still a little small
    • DeX mode still feels unfinished

    Summary

    The Galaxy Tab S6 is a powerful, long-lasting Android tablet that is excellent until you try to use it as a laptop replacement. Its Samsung-made keyboard cover and DeX desktop software need a lot of work before you can truly multitask heavily on the system. But if all you need is to edit some documents and spreadsheets and reply to emails and chats on the go, the Tab S6 is more than capable. Plus, the S Pen is a truly helpful tool for those who like jotting down their random thoughts and having a device that automatically organizes them.

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    The S Pen shines

    I love the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 10, so it doesn't surprise me that I also dig the Tab S6's stylus. The tablet version is larger and feels more like a real pen, which makes sketching for long periods of time more comfortable. As with the Note 10, Samsung added an accelerometer and gyroscope to the Tab S6's S Pen, along with a Bluetooth radio to enable remote control with Air Gestures. So when you're using the camera, for example, you can remove the S Pen, hold down its button and swipe from side-to-side to switch modes. Flick up and down to change cameras, and make an "N" shape to zoom in on a scene.

    As with the Note 10, I mostly found these gestures useful only in the camera app and in very specific instances, like trying to capture myself nailing yoga poses. For the most part, though, I enjoyed the S Pen more as a stylus than as a remote control.

    Gallery: Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 review | 11 Photos

    Writing with the S Pen feels as smooth and natural as before -- there's just enough resistance from the screen to make it feel like I'm writing on paper. But Samsung has improved its handwriting-recognition software to the point where it's not just more accurate at identifying what you've written -- it also automatically converts your scribbles in the background. This way, you don't even have to manually hit convert on each note to be able to search for specific words you've jotted down.

    I found the Tab S6 just as effective at recognizing my awful handwriting as the Note 10, though when I truly let go and wrote in lazy, extreme cursive, the system couldn't decipher my words. I get it -- most human beings probably couldn't make sense of my chicken scratch, either. But the Tab S6 understood most other things I wrote; I didn't have to try too hard to write legibly for it to correctly interpret my jottings.

    All told, this is a truly useful feature that gives me more reason to rely on the S Pen and the Tab S6 as a sort of digital notebook. You can also easily convert your notes to Word documents or PDFs, then send them to your friends for thoughts. As an aspiring author, I found it particularly handy to jot down my musings when inspiration hit me, then convert them later before adding them to a running Google Doc.

    Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 review

    Because of its new Bluetooth features, the S Pen requires charging, and you can do so by docking the pen on the back of the tablet, where there's a groove carved out for it. The pen stays in place magnetically, with a charging indicator appearing on the tablet itself. This seems like a flimsy method to keep the S Pen; I felt like it could fall off at any time -- though, to be fair, it didn't. But if you get one of Samsung's first-party cases for the Tab S6, they'll hold the pen in place more firmly.

    Kickstand and display

    You can get Samsung's new two-piece keyboard cover too for an extra $180. The top half includes a kickstand that sticks magnetically to the back of the Tab S6 and has a little bump that houses the S Pen. The other half of the cover is a detachable keyboard, which connects to the tablet via pogo pins. You can tear away this bottom half when you don't need to type documents and just use the kickstand part to prop up the device for playing games or, like I did on a recent flight, watching videos on a tiny airplane tray.

    I enjoyed my episodes of The Good Place on the plane, by the way, thanks to the Tab S6's sumptuous 10.5-inch Super AMOLED screen. It's as bright and colorful as on previous models, but this one comes with HDR10+ certification, offering dynamic range that makes even the darkest scenes in the final season of Game of Thrones easier to see.

    Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 review

    Another note about the display: Samsung integrated a fingerprint scanner under the Tab S6's screen, which I appreciated. Whether I was using the device as a tablet or a laptop, it was convenient to lay my thumb on the screen to sign in. I prefer this to having to reach for the back of the device or mess around with face recognition.

    Keyboard and trackpad

    One of my biggest complaints about the Galaxy Tab S4 was its shoddy keyboard accessory. Not only was it cramped and somewhat flimsy, but there were a bunch of redundant keys. Worst of all, it didn't have a trackpad, so you had to reach across the keyboard to touch the screen if you wanted to, say, select a cell on a spreadsheet or hit a "Yes" button.

    With the Tab S6, it seems like Samsung heard about half of what I said. There's now a trackpad! It makes for a much more intuitive environment for working in desktop mode, even if it's a little smaller than I'd like. The touchpad was responsive, and two-finger gestures for scrolling and zooming worked well. I couldn't use the three-finger swipe to switch between open apps, nor could I use this cursor to drag and select text, though.

    Samsung also made the buttons a little deeper than before and added a function key so you can use it to trigger shortcuts that have been added to the top row. On the old keyboard, this row simply had numbers and symbols that you could trigger by pressing downshift. Now, you can also get Escape, Dex and Delete if you hold down Fn and press the `, \ and backspace buttons, respectively. As for the rest of the keys in that row, using Fn with them will give you F1 to F12 for things like opening a new tab or refreshing a webpage. I'd prefer if Samsung put controls for display brightness and volume here, but I suppose I have to be thankful for the little improvements here.

    I have some lingering complaints. The buttons are still a little too small, especially the backspace key. I end up having to reach a lot farther than I'm used to and end up hitting \ instead. When I'm holding down the Shift key in an animated bout of all-caps typing, the space bar doesn't work. I'll end up with a stream of words tied to each other so it looks even more incoherent when I'm digitally screaming at the world. Also, the horizontal-arrow keys don't always work -- they're useless in a URL bar, for example.

    These may have more to do with the Tab S6's software than the keyboard itself, which brings me to another one of my biggest annoyances with Samsung's tablets: Dex.

    Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 review

    Dex mode still needs work

    Oh, Dex. Where do I begin? On the Tab S6, Dex is a software interface that mimics a full desktop experience, allowing you to pull up all your apps in windows. You can resize these panels and overlay them on each other. It all sounds like a great idea, except my early experiences with Dex really burned me. There was a lot of inconsistency around whether the browser app was pulling a desktop version of a site and which apps had been optimized for the desktop environment.

    Samsung has since refined the software, and it's a very subtle improvement. Apps behave more like I expect them to on a desktop, although you'll have to make a lot of tweaks for them to truly run like they should. For example, you'll need to enable the "Force apps to resize" setting in Dex Labs before you can maximize every window you open. Some apps will also have to relaunch when you switch between Android and Dex modes, which takes a few seconds.

    Also, Chrome still doesn't automatically load the desktop version of websites, and for some reason, there are two screenshot shortcuts on the taskbar. Two! One is the native Android screenshot button, and the other is a special Samsung one. Even if one is much better than the other -- like maybe it pastes rainbow unicorns all over your screenshots or something -- why include both? Why not just have the better one in there?

    I would also like to see some interface changes. When I use the Alt-Tab shortcut to switch between apps, for example, the highlight over the selected app is really faint, and I can't really tell which app I've toggled to. A bolder color scheme would make this much easier to see at a glance. I'd also like the name of the app on each window's title bar so I don't have to guess. Also, sometimes clicking on a browser tab closes it, even when I tapped nowhere near the X button!

    It's all these little annoyances that make Dex still feel unreliable. Even though it's more stable -- in that it crashes less than before -- I still want it to be better.

    Performance and battery life

    Aside from failing to provide a reliable desktop multitasking interface, though, the Tab S6 is a sturdy performer. Its Snapdragon 855 processor capably handled my workflow, which typically consists of Slack, Gmail, Chrome, Calendar, Docs, Twitter and a few other apps. It also held up when I pushed it further by sneaking in a session of Cooking Dash, which typically lags a bit on my Pixel 3.

    Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 15:08
    Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 11:50
    Microsoft Surface Pro 6 15:34
    iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2018) 11:30
    iPad Air (2019) 11:00

    I was also pleasantly surprised by the Tab S6's battery life -- it made it through a recent two-day journey from Germany to New York, including an eight-hour flight, with plenty of juice to spare. On our battery test, it lasted 15 hours and eight minutes, beating its predecessor by three hours. That's also better than the iPad Air and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, though just shy of the Surface Pro 6's 15-1/2-hour result.

    Wrap-up

    With its kickstand, keyboard and wannabe desktop interface, the Tab S6 is Samsung's latest attempt at mimicking Microsoft's Surface tablets. Sure, Samsung could have just done that by making another Windows hybrid, but it feels like the company knew Android would be a better match for the S Pen's newfound capabilities. And, once again, it is the comfortable, smooth stylus that sets the Tab series apart. Those who like taking notes by hand and want an attractive, lightweight, powerful device that lasts ages will appreciate the Tab S6. Android (not to mention Dex) may feel limited for anyone looking to get real work done, but if you don't need to do much more than edit a few documents or slideshows on the go while staying in touch with your colleagues, the Tab S6 will do just fine.

    All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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