Samsung is back, and it's come to the yard with a stick big enough to whack the iPad for six. Will Apple's tablet fall at the Galaxy's challenge? We've been locked in the labs to find out.
What Is It?
The Tab S is meant to be the best-looking, highest-spec and most fully-featured tablet in Samsung's diverse tablet line-up. It takes its design cues from the Galaxy S5, packs hardware that puts some laptops to shame, and has enough added extras to keep even the toughest customer happy.
The Galaxy Tab S comes in two sizes: a 10.5-inch and 8.4-inch model, and both run Android 4.4. We reviewed the 10.5-inch LTE model with 16GB of on-board storage.
The real stand-out feature of the Galaxy Tab S is the screen. It’s a 2560×1600 SuperAMOLED panel, with brightness so high that it might just blind you if viewed in a dark enough room.
Under the hood, the Galaxy Tab S is well-stocked. You've got Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa processor, which packs in two processors: a quad-core 1.9GHz processor, as well as a 1.3GHz quad-core processor. That's backed up with 3GB of RAM for speed. Speaking of speed, you also get Wi-Fi 802.11ac support, and Samsung's fast MiMo (Multiple In, Multiple Out) antenna for faster download and upload speeds.
It also comes in 16GB and 32GB storage variants, with expandable storage via a MicroSD card. The rear-facing camera comes in at 8-megapixels, while the front-facing camera is 2.1 megapixels.
Samsung really wants to make Galaxy Tab S look like a house you'd see on Grand Designs. Rather than just paint it black, Samsung's Galaxy Tab S combines a black metallic spray with a rose gold accent to create what it calls Titanium Bronze. The white colour is also a mix between the silver and rose gold metallic accents to create an iridescent effect that shimmers in the light, hence it's called Dazzling White.
With every new tablet comes a new range of accessories, and the Tab S is no exception. There's a Book Cover which has three ergonomic modes: viewing mode, touch mode and typing mode. Each has a different lean angle.
Australia will get both the 16GB and the 32GB models, set for release from 7 July at the Samsung Experience Stores in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the Samsung eStore.
Here are the prices for the Tab S range:
• Samsung Galaxy Tab S (8.4-inch Wi-Fi 16GB) – $479.00 RRP • Samsung Galaxy Tab S (8.4-inch Wi-Fi + 4G 16GB) – $629.00 RRP • Samsung Galaxy Tab S (8.4-inch Wi-Fi 32GB) – $579.00 RRP • Samsung Galaxy Tab S (10.5-inch Wi-Fi 16GB) – $599.00 RRP • Samsung Galaxy Tab S (10.5-inch Wi-Fi 32GB) – $699.00 RRP • Samsung Galaxy Tab S (10.5-inch Wi-Fi + 4G 16GB) – $749.00 RRP
First of all, Samsung really isn't kidding around with its screens anymore. The 2560×1600 SuperAMOLED is so bright and colour-saturated that I'm happy to call it the best screen I've yet seen on a tablet. It's gorgeous, bright and so crisp to look at, and I'm not the only one who loves it.
The screen also has some Samsung smarts behind it which allows the device to adapt to the light conditions you're using it in. It's called Adaptive Display, and it automatically optimises the colour range and saturation of the screen. That's smart, but it only works on certain apps. The Camera, Gallery, Video, and Internet apps, as well as Google Play Books all benefit from Adaptive Display. It's handy to have, but wouldn't it be nice if it were all over the device? Perhaps it will be someday.
You won't notice any problems using it day to day, though. Setting the screen mode to AMOLED cinema bumps up the colours, brightness and saturation of the sAMOLED screen, making it look fantastic on just about any app you can think of for your tablet.
Speaking of apps, Samsung has once again wandered into the Android design studio and pulled out its fancy new Magazine UX for the Tab S.
Magazine UX was originally introduced on the TabPRO and NotePRO tablets, and is now slowly being filtered down the range.
Don't be fooled: it's still TouchWiz (which is hateful) but it's the most usable Android skin Samsung has ever produced. The easiest way to describe it is a cross between news app, Flipboard, and Windows 8’s Metro Start Menu interface built for Android. Transitions are fast and fluid while still being showy enough to wow you as you navigate around the tablet. It's built on Android 4.4, so you've got the latest software, and gives you clean, functional access to things you actually care about.
Best of all, there's no app dock for Samsung to lock down like it has done so often on Galaxy models of yesteryear. Magazine UX fakes a dock by throwing a full row of apps at the bottom of the screen by default, when in truth, you can keep the whole screen blank if you want.
Magazine UX also brings with it a new era of free stuff for users. Galaxy TabPRO and Galaxy NotePRO customers got free stuff, and now Tab S users will too. Thankfully, the Tab S freebies are less business-centric, so you'll actually use them on this excellent consumption tablet.
The best ones we found for Australia included a three-month free subscription to Marvel Unlimited for all the comics your eyes can handle, three months of free Pocket Premium, three months of free Evernote Premium, 50GB of Box and Dropbox cloud storage for 12 months, and free monthly books from Amazon Kindle. Plus, you get a few of the freebies that business users on the TabPRO and the NotePRO receive, including the Hancom Office suite, Bloomberg Businessweek+ and access to The Economist to name a few.
The Tab S also comes with a SIM card slot for your micro-SIM card. Samsung has brought the download boosting tech from the Galaxy S5 which fuses together speeds from your 4G network and your Wi-Fi connection to make nabbing files faster. The only problem, like on the S5, is that when it’s turned on, you can only pull fast data through when the download is over 30MB, and it’s within a Samsung-approved app like the Internet browser or the Google Play/Samsung Apps store. Sorry, torrenters.
What's Not So Good?
Samsung had some swings and misses when it comes to tablets in the past. The Note 10.1 comes to mind in particular. One thing the Note really had going for it as a tablet, however, was the front-facing speakers. It was before HTC had the idea to put its speakers facing forward (which eventually became BoomSound on the HTC One), and it sounded great. Sadly, Samsung has opted to put the speakers on the side of the Tab S, meaning that you're mostly just projecting sound out to the people sitting next to the tablet rather than those sitting in front of it. It makes hearing quiet dialogue in movies tough when you're watching on your tablet.
There are loads of great freebies on the Tab S, as we've mentioned. The only downside about this stuff is that it comes in the form of a Samsung App rather than an app downloaded from Google Play. That means you get the freebies, but only if you stay on your Samsung tablet.
It's also worth noting while we're talking about content that Samsung's Paper Garden magazine reading app isn't on the version of the software we were shipped to review, leaving us to believe that it's either not coming to Australia, or that it isn't ready yet. We'll update you if we hear differently. Considering Samsung's excitement at bringing big magazine publishers on-stage at the launch of the Tab S, it's probably just stuck in development.
Underneath that brilliant AMOLED panel is an tablet powerhouse. You've got 3GB of RAM and an insane octa-core processor for the first time in Australia. All that grunt is great to have when it comes to running apps and games, but it's found wanting when triggering transitions on the Samsung Magazine UX skin. Animations stutter horribly, apps crash more than they should and when you're doing background processing, the tablet's fancy home screen grinds to a screeching halt, leaving you to wait until it's finished.
The worst thing about the Tab S isn't the software, or the apps, or the stuttering. It's the battery. It depletes itself faster than anything we've ever seen, to the point that you'd be lucky to get a day of use from it.
Just as an experiment, I sat the device next to me between 7am and 11am today with the screen on and the Wi-Fi active. Shouldn't be too taxing, but the Tab S managed to chew through 40 per cent of its power doing absolutely nothing.
Another example: I took the Tab S out on Sunday to read over my coffee. Between the time I ordered my skim latté and the time it arrived, the Tab S had gone from 21 per cent battery down to four per cent with Wi-Fi off and the screen at half-brightness. It's a power-hungry monster, and that's disappointing.
Note: The Tab S model we're reviewing is running close to final software, meaning it's not the software that will ship to users out of the box. We tested what we were given and found these issues, but it's worth just taking a look at the final version in stores before you buy to see if they've been fixed.
This Is Weird
Tablets designed for reading and consumption are designed to be held in either portrait or landscape aspect ratios. It's one of the great things about the iPad: no matter which way you hold it, it looks right thanks to minimal branding and a discreet single home button.
Take a look at the front panel of the Galaxy Tab S, however, and you realise how it's configured primarily to horizontal use, despite the fact that people reading books, magazines and websites will traditionally stick to a portrait aspect. It just feels weird to use on the Tab S.
Should You Buy It?
Ultimately, Samsung wants the Tab S to compete with both the iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina Display, but it's going after the wrong target.
If you'll forgive the expression, the iPad versus Tab S comparison feels a little like comparing apples to oranges. The two are in a similar marketplace but have such different operating systems, use cases and app markets that a direct comparison of which one you should buy becomes difficult. The iPad is getting apps, games and experiences that Android just isn't, and vice versa: the Magazine UX is unlike anything you'll find running natively on an iOS tablet or phone. Plus, it's unlikely that someone looking to get themselves a tablet hasn't already declared an allegiance to one ecosystem or the other.
When compared against the rest of the Android market, however, it's clear to see how good the Tab S will be. There's nothing like it. It's amazing. Compared to other large Android tablets on the market right now, the Tab S dominates. The screen, specs and design are unmatched, and at quite a decent price too.
If you're in the market for an Android tablet, you can't pass up the Tab S: it's a no-brainer.