For Samsung, bigger is often better. The company led the way in popularizing the gigantic smartphones most of us now use, so it’s no surprise that it’s also made some shockingly large tablets recently. In this year's Galaxy Tab S9 series, there are 11- and 12.4-inch models that line up well with Apple's two iPad Pros. And then there's the $1,200 Galaxy Tab S9 Ultra, a 14.6-inch behemoth that's nonetheless thin and light for its size.
Android tablets have long been a tough sell, thanks to the fact that relatively few developers bother to optimize their apps for larger screens. And tablets this big are not exactly easy to hold, either. Those facts have been top of mind as I tried to figure out who, if anyone, should buy the S9 Ultra. Despite my skepticism, Samsung's mammoth of a tablet did manage to surprise me with its utility in a few specific cases.
When I pulled the S9 Ultra out of its box, I was immediately struck by its svelte footprint – it’s only 0.21 inches thick and weighs 1.6 pounds. In usual Samsung fashion, the tablet feels impeccably solid and well-made. Sure, it's just a big slab of glass and metal, but what can Samsung reasonably be expected to do to innovate here? The tablet form factor is pretty settled at this point. What's most important is that Samsung made the device so thin without it feeling fragile.
That's backed up by the S9 Ultra's IP68 water- and dust-resistance certification; Samsung says this is its first Galaxy S tablet with that rating. It was a pretty big deal when companies started making water-resistant phones, but it feels a lot less necessary here. That said, if you want to watch movies in your bathtub, you can feel secure that you won't immediately destroy your tablet if it takes a dip in the water with you.
The S9 Ultra is dominated by its huge 14.6-inch AMOLED touchscreen. With a 2,960 x 1,848 resolution and a 16:10 aspect ratio, it’s great for watching movies but far too tall to comfortably use in portrait mode. That quibble aside, it looks outstanding, with extremely bright, vibrant colors and a refresh rate of up to 120Hz. It also supports HDR10+, which can make watching movies even more stunning. Samsung is well known for its mobile displays, and the one on the S9 Ultra is another exceptional offering.
Samsung managed to fit excellent speakers into the S9 Ultra as well, making it a great overall option for watching movies and shows while you're, for example, sitting in isolation with Covid. I don’t know how companies are able to make such solid speakers in super-thin devices, but I’m glad it’s becoming commonplace on higher-end tablets like this and the iPad Pro.
There are a few other minor things to note about the S9 Ultra. You’ll find a pair of front-facing cameras on the long edge of the display: one standard and one ultrawide, both with 12-megapixel sensors. There’s a tiny notch in the screen to make room for them – it’s small, and I mostly forgot about it, but it’s there. On the back are a 13-megapixel standard camera and an 8-megapixel ultrawide option. The front cameras worked well for a handful of Google Meet calls I took on the device, and the back ones are serviceable as well. But tablet photography is ridiculous, even more so with a device this large. As I always say, just use the phone in your pocket.
Also on the back is a magnetic strip that holds and charges the included S Pen stylus. It’s not the most intuitive place to store the S Pen, and it’s not the easiest target to find when you’re retrieving the pen or putting it back. But I got used to it pretty quickly and the stylus reliably stayed attached to the back of the S9 Ultra.
Since the S9 Ultra doesn’t come with a keyboard case, I first set out to use the massive device as a pure tablet. This… was not my favorite experience. But first, some positives: the S9 Ultra’s screen is outstanding, as are the speakers, which made a great portable movie theater. And the S9 Ultra’s aspect ratio meant most content I watched filled almost the entire display.
The S9 Ultra is well-equipped for more intense tasks than watching movies. its Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor (paired with 12GB of RAM on the model I tested) is powerful enough for basically everything I tried. Running Adobe Lightroom was a pretty great experience, as there’s plenty of room for the various tools on one side and a huge, detailed preview of everything you’re doing on the other. Samsung doesn’t offer any battery life estimates, but I got well over 11 hours of use in tablet mode, and the device lasted days on standby. Unless you’re using it for hours every single day, you won’t have to charge it too often.
Another use case for the S9 Ultra is as an artist's canvas. The S Pen is an excellent stylus, and Samsung has years of experience tuning its performance. The S Pen is incredibly responsive – the company says latency has been reduced to 2.8 milliseconds, and I certainly felt no lag while testing it. I’m no visual artist, so I haven’t been able to really push the limits of what the S Pen and various Android software can do, but the combo of a low-lag pen and the S9 Ultra’s massive screen make it a powerful tool for visual artists, provided you can find the right software.
Unfortunately, the sheer size and width of the S9 Ultra means it wasn’t the best for other content consumption. First off, the tablet clearly wasn’t designed to be used in portrait mode – it’s just too tall. This is a problem I’ve found with other Android tablets that use similar aspect ratios, but most of those had smaller screens that are a little more manageable. That’s not the case here, and it just feels downright odd to use – elements at the top are too far away to comfortably interact with.
Things are marginally better in landscape mode, but the main issue with the S9 Ultra is the fact that there still aren’t a lot of Android apps suited to such large screens. Some apps (like Instagram) would only open in portrait orientation, while others like Slack simply have too much wasted white space. Google has done a great job of making its own apps look pretty great on tablets, and a handful of other key apps I use like Spotify and Todoist are also well adapted. But the S9 Ultra just isn’t designed for things most people use tablets for like browsing, messaging, sending emails, playing games and so forth. If that’s what you’re interested in, the 11-inch Galaxy Tab S9 will be a more comfortable device to use that also costs less. The S9 Ultra is proudly a niche device and you’ll want to know exactly how to use it before buying one.
My experience with the S9 Ultra changed once I paired it with Samsung’s $200 “Book Cover Keyboard Slim” and a Bluetooth mouse and started running the tablet in Dex mode. This completely changes the interface from the touch-focused Android UI to something more like Windows or Chrome OS.
Dex mode reminded me a lot of using a Chromebook. There’s a navigation bar at the bottom that shows any open app, and you can pin things there to get back to them quickly. As this is an Android tablet, all the apps you have access to here come from the Google Play Store or Samsung’s own app store. Historically, the main issue with Android tablets is how few Android apps are built to take advantage of bigger screens, and that’s still the case now.
But, since Dex lets you resize any app, you can make things fit properly in windows without wasting space. For example, the Slack app still doesn’t have a left-hand sidebar on Android, unlike on desktop or iPadOS. That’s annoying, but at least I can make Slack narrower, like a phone-sized app that doesn’t have a ton of wasted white space. And apps that do have multi-column interfaces, like basically all of Google’s first-party software, are downright pleasant to use.
My main complaint with the S9 Ultra in Dex mode is the fact that Chrome for Android isn't quite as capable as the desktop version. That lets you use extensions, has more features and more reliably renders sites the way you’d expect. Most things render well, but you may also end up getting tossed into a version of the site designed for mobile phones, not huge tablets. But one unexpected bright spot was discovering that I could run the full web version of Slack in Chrome, an experience that's a lot better than using the Android app.
Battery life is a bit worse in Dex mode, which wasn’t a huge surprise given how many apps I was quickly jumping between. The tablet lasted for around six hours when I was using it as my full-time work device – not terrible, but worse than a lot of similarly-priced laptops.
Despite the number of intriguing use cases I found for the S9 Ultra, it’s a niche device that won’t make sense for most people, largely because of the price. That’s not a bad thing; niche devices exist for a reason, and some people will be well-served by this massive tablet. But $1,200 for the S9 Ultra (plus $200 for the keyboard case, or $350 if you want an integrated trackpad) is a ton of money to spend unless you have very specific ideas on how you’ll use this tablet. It doesn’t make sense for me, as I prefer a smaller tablet that I can easily use handheld and then drop into a keyboard case for getting work done. Still, for some, the combo of Dex mode, a keyboard and the S9 Ultra’s big, beautiful screen might make sense.
Most people would be better off spending their money on a different device, though. As impressed as I am with Dex, you can easily get a laptop that can run far more software for less money. And while I think the iPad is a better choice for most people looking for a tablet, those who prefer Android should consider Samsung’s own 11- and 12.4-inch Galaxy Tab S9 and S9+, as they offer basically the same specs, high-quality design and excellent screens for less cash. But if you’re interested in having a massive tablet with a great stylus and solid productivity chops, the S9 Ultra might be worth opening your wallet for.