Samsung's tablet approach the last few years has been to toss every conceivable size into the stores to see if anything takes. They tended to all look they same, perform the same (not great), and vary by just an inch or two here and there. The Galaxy Tab S is different though. It grabs you by the eyeballs and won't let go.
What Is It?
Samsung's latest, and first genuinely pleasant, flagship tablet. It runs Android with Samsung's TouchWiz on top, and it comes in 8.4-inch and 10.5-inch sizes.
Why Does It Matter?
Samsung hasn't made an Android tablet that really stands out in... well, arguably ever. The Galaxy Note 10.1 had its fans, but it was a small niche hit at best. It also matters because holy crap look at those screens!
Samsung's not going to be winning any design innovation awards for this tablet. That doesn't mean it's bad; it just looks very much like other Samsung tablets that have proceeded it, which themselves have been uniformly bland. It still has the hardware home button and a couple of capacitive buttons (though menu has been replaced by multitask). It still has the plastic back (now dimpled like the Galaxy S5), and basically, it still looks very much like a Samsung tablet. Well, the 8.4 actually looks a lot like an iPad Mini, but y'know, whatever.
Nexus 7 2013 edition on the left, Galaxy Tab S 8.4 on the right
That's not to say there haven't been improvements. For starters, the bezel is very, very thin. This enabled Samsung to put bigger displays on these tablets while keeping them relatively hand-friendly. The tablets themselves are also just 0.26 inches (6.6mm) thick, which is very thin indeed. That's ever so slightly thicker than the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, but a good deal thinner than the iPad Air. The two Samsungs are light, too, with the 8.4-inch coming in at just 10.5 ounces and the 10.5-inch at 16.25.
All of this, of course, is just undercard. The main event are the displays, which are Super AMOLED displays at a WQXGA resolution, aka 2560 x 1600 pixels. For those of you playing the home game, that's 359 pixels per inch for the 8.4 and 288 PPI for the 10.5. That is some solid pixel density for a screen this size. By comparison the iPad Mini has 324 PPI and the iPad Air has 264.
Most of the other design stuff is as you'd expect. There's an 8MP rear camera and a 2.1MP front-facer. There's a micro SD card slot, a micro USB port, an IR blaster (for using it as a remote for your TV and such). It also now has the same finger-print scanning home button as the Galaxy S5. There are stereo speakers on the sides of the device. When you hold it in landscape mode the speakers are both up toward the top, which helps to keep your hands from blocking them.
There are two types of covers currently available. A thinner, lighter one that basically just protects the screen, and a larger one that covers both sides. (There will also be a Bluetooth keyboard at some point in the near future.) Previously, you installed a case on Samsung's tablets by snapping off the back plate and attaching a new one with a cover built in. Now the back plate has two little buttons which the covers snap into. You will be tempted to push those buttons a lot, and you will be sad that that they don't do anything.
Nexus 7 2013 top; Galaxy Tab S 8.4 bottom
Let's get back to that screen. It's simply the best-looking display I've ever seen on a tablet, bar none, the end, period. It's just stunning. It's plenty bright enough for outdoor use and yet the blacks are just so deep and inky. Colours pop like crazy, and the resolution is fantastic. The screen is absolutely stunning. Samsung is hyping the hell out of, and it's still not over-hyped. It's actually that good.
Both tablets are comfortable enough to hold, with my strong preference being for the 8.4-inch. If you're coming from the Nexus 7 (2013 edition), the 8.4 feels lighter, even though it's actually a quarter-ounce heavier. It's because the 8.4, is bigger so the weight is more spread out. It's very nicely balanced, too. The 10.5 is nice to hold, too, though not as impressive as the feather-weight Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, which is 15.5 ounces and feels so light you can't believe it's real.
Audio performance is a bit of a drag. The twin speakers don't get blocked as easily as they did on older versions, but the audio quality leaves a lot to be desired. It doesn't pump out that much volume (I could barely hear the dialogue in Gravity despite being in a very quiet room), and the sound it produces is thin and tinny. It definitely doesn't live up to the promise of the screen, which is too bad. Put some headphones on, though, and you're fine.
The software is a mixed bag. This is by far Samsung's best version of an Android skin yet, which is to say that TouchWiz now looks and acts much more like stock Android. That said, Samsung's developers still haven't been able to smooth things out on the performance side. Flipping around the home screens and app drawer you're still liable to see little bits of stutter and lag. The processor under the hood is plenty beefy (the stutter doesn't really happen when you're in third-party apps), and it's a shame this is still an issue. That said, it's more minor than it's ever been, and it probably won't bother most people.
Samsung, being Samsung, has thrown a mixed bag of extra software in here as well. On the good side, there's Adaptive Display, which basically can tell what you're looking at and will adjust the screen appropriately. For example, if you're reading something on an all-white page, it will adjust the white balance to help ease eye-strain, but then it will blast you with vivid colours when you watch a video. There's also Galaxy Gifts and Galaxy Essentials, which will provide you with one free year of GoGo in-flight internet and trial subscriptions to the NY Times, Bloomberg, and others. Oh, and for some reason the fingerprint scanner seems to work much better here than it did on the S5 (possibly because you aren't tempted to do it one-handed).
The newly launched Milk Music comes pre-installed, and it's pretty great. It's super intuitive to use, thoughtfully designed, and most importantly, it plays you some excellent music, thanks to being powered by Slacker Radio. It's also free (and ad-free) for owners of Galaxy devices.
Other software efforts are less successful. Samsung still insists on filling the device with redundant and inferior apps. For example, nobody in the world wants to use Samsung's "Browser" when you can use the way more feature-rich Chrome, which also comes pre-installed. There are a couple of panels you can get to from the home screen that give you some information about your upcoming appointments and other info you might care about, but it's just a lesser Google Now (also pre-installed). It's kind of maddening.
There's also stuff like Side Sync, which lets you pair your tablet with your Samsung phone, and lets you make/receive calls and texts on your tablet. Kinda neat, but we wish this functionality would be extended to any Android phone instead of locking you into a Galaxy. Battery life seemed very solid, but we haven't had enough time to give it a full evaluation. We'll update if we find anything to the contrary.
The screen the screen the screen the screen. Seriously, it's just beautiful. We like the thinness of the device, too. Apps open quickly and run smoothly. The software is more intuitive than it's ever been on a Samsung tablet. Milk Music is beautifully designed and plays things you'll like and is free.
The audio quality coming out of the speakers is a definite disappointment, especially on the 10.5, which feels like it should have immersive sound to match the incredible screen. Samsung's TouchWiz still causes some stutter. There are a lot of redundant apps. The design isn't very inventive. These tablets are not cheap.
Should You Buy It?
The Galaxy Tab S (in both sizes) has the best display of any tablet to date, by a healthy margin. If you watch a ton of video, edit photos, and/or play a lot of HD games on your tablet, then it's worth considering for the screen alone, and the tablet it's attached to is pretty good, too. That said, the 8.4 is $US400 and the 10.5 is $US500, which is pretty pricey!
Yeah, sure, you'd pay the same for Apple's flagship big and small tablets. But Google's Nexus 7 (2013) is $US230. And it's great. The screen isn't as good, or as big, but otherwise, it's very evenly matched with the 8.4 and it's half the price and it fits in your pocket better. It's hard to recommend this tablet over one that's so cheap and so good.
As for the 10.5, it's the best full-sized Android tablet we've used to date. Five hundred bucks ain't cheap, but since there isn't yet a Nexus answer to it (at least not until this week's Google I/O conference), it's easier to recommend for those looking for a full-sized tab.
Both tablets will be available at select retailers starting June 27. LTE versions will be coming later this year. [Samsung]
Samsung Galaxy Tab S Specs
• Network: Wi-Fi (LTE version coming soon) • OS: Android 4.4.2 with Samsung's TouchWiz UI • CPU: TBD quad-core Processor (likely Qualcomm Snapdragon 800) • Screen: 8.4-inch or 10.5 inch 2560x1600 Super AMOLED Display (359 PPI and 288 PPI, respectively) • RAM: 3GB • Storage: 16GB or 32GB + microSD up to 128GB • Camera: 8MP rear / 2MP front • Battery: 4900mAh (8.4) / 7900mAh (10.5) • Dimensions: 8.4-inch: 213mm x 125mm x 6.6mm / 10.5-inch: 247mm x 177mm x 6.6mm) • Weight: 8.4-inch: 298g / 10.5-inch: 461g • Price: 8.4-inch starts at $US400 / 10.5-inch starts at $US500.