Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra hands-on: Samsung put Android on a big screen

The company debuted a new model, while adding software improvements and camera upgrades.

A new Note wasn’t the only thing missing from Samsung’s lineup last year. The company also didn’t release an update to its Galaxy Tab S series, which is a shame because it’s arguably the best premium Android tablet line around. (Or rather, the only one left standing.) The Tab S7 was launched in 2020, and it featured impressive hardware that was held back by limited software. With Android 12L on the horizon promising to improve the tablet experience, though, it seems Samsung is ready to deliver a capable 2-in-1 again: Today the company unveiled the Galaxy Tab S8 series today, which includes the Tab S8, S8+ and the Tab S8 Ultra.

This is the first time Samsung is making a tablet with the “Ultra” name; that branding is normally reserved for its S-series phones and accordingly, the S8 Ultra has some high-end specs to match. According to Samsung, it features the “world’s only 14.6-inch Super AMOLED display on an Android 2-in-1” as well as “our smoothest writing experience yet,” courtesy of an upgraded S Pen. At a recent demo session in New York (held in accordance with COVID 19 protocols), I was able to briefly check out the three tablets.

The S8 and S8+ are very similar to their predecessors, with smooth metal bodies, slim bezels and attractive matte finishes. They’re thin, light and well-built, and at first glance reminded me of the iPad Pro. Both models come in about the same sizes as the S7 series, with the S8 sporting an 11-inch LCD and the larger model using a 12.4-inch AMOLED panel.

A side view of the rose-pink Galaxy Tab S8, showing the USB-C port and speaker grilles on its right edge.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I was particularly impressed that the Ultra model was as sleek as it is despite having such a big screen. As is usually the case with Samsung devices, the displays are bright and colorful. All three Tab S8s also have panels that refresh at 120Hz, and come with improved selfie cameras. The S8 and S8+ now feature 12-megapixel sensors up front, while the Ultra model gets an additional wide-angle camera.

With that setup, the Ultra also offers some new camera features that Samsung debuted on the S22 phones today. There’s what Samsung calls “intelligent framing,” which is basically like Apple’s Center Stage. When enabled, the Tab S8 Ultra can detect people in the scene and adjust framing or the level of zoom to keep them in the shot. It automatically accommodates more people when it recognizes more faces, or tries to keep the subject you select in the middle. During my hands-on session, the S8 Ultra was as adept as the S22 Ultra at keeping my coworker Sam in the shot as he moved around the space.

The Ultra also has an “enhanced mic mode” that lets you choose between three types of noise cancellation, thanks to its three-way microphone. Samsung also said it added AI that will distinguish between human voices and background sounds to help with minimizing distracting noise in your calls. None of the demo tablets were set up for calls, so I didn’t get to test either of these features during our hands-on. I’d rather check out these (and the camera updates) in the real world for a better idea of their performance, anyway.

The backs of the Galaxy Tab S8 and S8+, with S Pens magnetically attached next to the devices' rear cameras.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

The S8+ and S8 Ultra also come with upgraded S Pens that Samsung says “uses a prediction algorithm for ultra-low latency.” During my brief time with the S Pen on an S8 Ultra, I found the writing experience smooth and responsive. But without a side-by-side comparison with an older model, I can’t say for sure if there’s a significant improvement. I did notice that the palm rejection seems much better, at least in Samsung’s Notes app. I deliberately left my palm on the screen while writing, and that no longer left little marks all over the page like it would on previous Galaxy tablets.

Thanks to its larger size, the S8 Ultra’s companion keyboard case (which costs extra) has more room for a nicely spaced layout. I quickly typed a few short messages and URLs, and had no issue with oddly sized or ill-placed keys. I did struggle to keep the Ultra propped up on my lap with the case’s built-in kickstand, though, but at least it was sturdy enough to offer various viewing angles on a desk.

When a product is as mature as the Tab S series, it’s hard to imagine what else Samsung could bring to the table. There are the typical incremental updates, like a new 4nm processor here for all three Tab S8s (the same as the one in the S22 phones). But the best hardware and specs in the world would mean nothing if the Tab S8s continued to be held back by Android’s flaws. The good news is, not only is Google working on improving the tablet experience with 12L, but Samsung is also making its own tweaks.

The Galaxy Tab S8, S8+ and S8 Ultra on a table. The S8 and S8+ are propped up on stands, while the Ultra sits behind them with a keyboard case attached.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

The Tab S8s feature “an improved multi-window mode,” offering new layout options for up to three windows at once. The company also worked with Microsoft to simplify the process of setting the Tab S8s up as a second screen for your PC, so you can case your laptop’s content over, which can be handy if you want to use a pen to quickly sign PDFs, for example. The new tablets will also support live sharing in Google’s Duo video chat app, making it easier to collaborate with your teammates. And because these are Samsung devices, sharing things like photos and files from your Galaxy smartphone to the Tab S8s is simple as well.

With my limited hands-on time , I wasn’t able to check out all these features (things like Duo and the second-screen for Windows weren’t available, either). So we’ll need to get these devices in our hands for more in-depth testing to know if a Samsung-meets-Google version of Android on a 14.6-inch tablet will make a good laptop substitute.

If you’re already sure you want a Tab S8, you can pre-order them today. The S8 starts at $700, the S8+ at $900 and the Ultra at $1,100, and those who pre-order will get free keyboard cases thrown in. But as always, I’d suggest waiting until we can do a full review before spending hundreds of dollars on an Android tablet.

Catch up on all of the news from Samsung’s February Unpacked event right here!

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