Samsung tablets. There are an awful lot of them. Even if you just consider the ones announced this year it is confusing. You have Pros and Notes and Tabs and now we have the Tab S range consisting of the 8.4" screened model I have here and a 10.5" version with basically the same specs. Is the Tab S meant to be above the Pro, below the Pro, where the Note is but just without the pen? I genuinely have no idea and so the only option I have is to view each tablet on its merit and try and work out what its purpose is.
And that brings me to the heart of the matter straight away. The Tab S's purpose seems to be to bring the Super AMOLED display back to tablets. Samsung got there a few years ago with the critically acclaimed Galaxy Tab 7.7, but now the OLED display is back in a tablet. Samsung also seem to be flexing their engineering muscles a little more than usual as the Tab S is super thin and super light. So we have a tablet with a Super AMOLED display that is super thin and super light. So at this point you must be asking.... is this a super tablet?
There is a short answer to this question. Maybe. Wow, this review just got as confused as Samsung's tablet line-up, but fear not for I shall now explain myself.
The Tab S has quite simply the best screen I have ever seen on a tablet. It is incredibly bright, has superb contrast - it is an OLED screen after all - and pin sharp. On my 8.4" screened model, the 2560x1600 pixel display means a density of 359 PPI. This handily beats out the iPad Mini with Retina display, although it is hard, verging on impossible to discern pixels on either. The Tab S has a much brighter screen though with all the attributes of Super AMOLED. Blacks are super inky dark of course and the contrast ratio is through the sky. Colours pop magnificently and when using primarily black backgrounds, the display is genuinely power efficient.
There are three different modes for the screen, basic, cinema and photo. The tablet will even automatically switch between these modes, but I tended to use it in basic all the time which is rather pleasant and appears to have decent colour accuracy.
Finally, someone has been brave enough to make sure that the information density of an Android device is reasonably good. In fact on the Tab S it is excellent. Normally on a large screened Android phone, there is far less shown on the screen than on my supposedly small iPhone. With the Tab S, Samsung have done the right thing and actually made everything a bit smaller so you can fit plenty on the display at once.
Nothing is too small, but seeing the Tab S for the first time might surprise you. I ended up bumping the font size one notch higher just to be a bit more comfortable and even then, in the GMail app, I can see nearly 15 email threads at once when the tablet is held in a landscape orientation. Fantastic.
Consuming any sort of media on the Tab S is pure delight. Films are reproduced superbly and that screen is outstanding. There are a pair of speakers oriented to sit at the top of the tablet when it is used in portrait mode. The sound they produce is good. They are loud and not as tinny as you expect. OK, they are not amazing, but watching a film is fine. Listening to podcasts using the Tab S is also excellent as a result of those speakers.
It is very hard to overstate just how thin the Tab S truly is. At 6.6mm it is not the thinnest tablet I have used, the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet takes that accolade, but it is still quite an achievement. The back is formed of quite grippy but hard plastic that is reminiscent of the design of the Galaxy S5, but it is not the same soft touch type plastics. I prefer the Galaxy S5 materials, but at least the Tab S is easy to hold.
Along with a super thin waistline the Tab S carries no excess weight. At just 294g, it is nearly the same weight - 4g heavier - than the much smaller screened 2013 Nexus 7. The Tab S is easily the nicest and easiest tablet to hold for extended periods. Compared to an iPad Mini, it is in a different league. Much much easier to use for long periods.
Part of the magic in the size of the Tab S has been achieved by its slim bezels. All four bezels are smaller than those on an iPad Mini and are smaller than on some phones. This all combines to make the Tab S an outstanding e-reader.
You would imagine the battery life would suffer given the slender body, but no, it seems fine. Watching films and using the tablet with any sort of dark backgrounds hardly seems to affect the battery level. Browsing the web does have somewhat more of an impact, but I have yet to see less than 6 hours screen on time for a full charge and have seen over 10 hours on more than one occasion.
It may only come with 16Gb of internal storage, but as usual, Samsung provide microSD card expansion. There is even an IR blaster on the right side of the tablet. Yes, Samsung have given the Tab S every feature you could ask for.
We need to get this out of the way immediately. The performance of the Tab S is not quite right. In simple terms, the SoC cannot handle the screen resolution.
Samsung put an Exynos 5 Octa 5420 into the Tab S WiFi model that I have. A more recognisable Snapdragon 800 is in the LTE model. The Exynos chip is arranged as an ARM big.LITTLE system. What this means is that we are looking at two types of ARM cores here. The first is the very power efficient but relatively performance constrained Cortex A7 core. The 5420 has 4 of these running at up to 1.3Ghz. Secondly there are the Cotex A15 cores as used in other SoC's like the Tegra 4. A15 cores are very powerful but very power hungry. The Exynos 5420 has 4 of these cores as well, running at up to 1.8Ghz.
In an ideal world, the chip would be able to have all eight cores active at once but the Exynos 5420 does not support this mode.
So what Samsung have done is created an SoC where the CPU can active the most appropriate type of cores for the task in hand. Theoretically this maximises performance while keeping battery drain in check. To some extent this works on the Tab S where the majority of light loads including watching videos is apparently handled by the four A7 cores, hence good battery life. Web browsing and opening heavy apps tends to perform well suggesting the four A15 cores are being activated properly.
Having already said there is an issue with performance. Is the problem that Samsung haven't got good enough A15 cores to power the Tab S? I believe not. The problem seems to come on the GPU side. We have seen this issue with the LG G3 and its QHD screen. The phone is fast in use until a GPU bound task - some animations for instance - come into play. On the Tab S, the GPU is less powerful, being an ARM Mali-T628 MP6 and it drops frames in all animations and feels choppy a lot of the time.
Some of these issues can be mitigated in software and there has already been one software update that has improved the situation. I do not believe the Tab S will ever be capable of 60fps animations or totally smooth operation due to the sheer number of pixels having to be pushed around by hardware that cannot cope with it.
Overall the performance is acceptable, but lag and choppiness in the interface is evident and can be very jarring especially on such a high end tablet. One issue the Tab S doesn't have is a RAM shortage. I never once noticed any undue swapping of apps out of RAM. It is an SoC bound performance problem only.
The software on the Tab S is Samsung's usual TouchWiz offering. Yes, it has been pared down from previous generations, but I still find it a mess and a performance hog. I also find it amazing that TouchWiz is slightly different on every Samsung device. I am not sure if TouchWiz is really the cause of any performance issues, but I would prefer not to have it.
The Tab S does have a slightly worrying tendency to get warm during extended use, even just browsing the web. It is very noticeable but doesn't get warm enough to stop you using the device in any way.
Just as with the Galaxy S5, the Tab S comes with a fingerprint sensor inside the home button. And just as with the Galaxy S5, it is fairly useless. Registering a fingerprint is easy and works really well, building up hope. Then you try to unlock the device using your finger and the frustration begins. I had a less than 50% success rate and swiping your finger over the home button on a tablet is just as awkward as using the Galaxy S5. Quite frankly, Samsung would have built a better tablet if they left this feature off.
OK OK, it would be unfair to call the Tab S ugly. It is hardly a thing of beauty though and to my eyes the design aesthetic here is very unsuccessful.
I have the Titanium Bronze model here. Yes, that is what Samsung calls it. The back of the Tab S and the bezels are a similar shade of, well, shiny brown! Yes, it looks brown to me, but it has a sort of shiny finish. Of course, the back is plastic whereas the bezels are behind glass, but the colour is used in both places.
Whilst I don't really object to that colour on the back, I am less than pleased with its use on the front where is clashes with the blackness of the screen when it is not in use and looks weird when the screen is on.
The least tasteful part of the design, and this goes for all Samsung designs in my view, is the metallic band that goes around the edges of the device. On the Tab S, this piece of shiny plastic is a sort of bronze colour. I do not like it. This accent is repeated around the home button and the camera and flash on the back.
Two circular cutouts are present on the back which are used for securing the various cases that Samsung offer. These do not bother me much, but the design would be better without them.
Overall, the Tab S design manages to look quite garish and yet boring, unrefined and a bit cheap all in one go.
And the rest
On a phone, I am generally quite unimpressed by TouchWiz, especially on the Galaxy S5 where I find it quite unpleasant in places. With the Tab S, Samsung have pared things back a little bit and actually made some nice features that somehow work better on a tablet than a phone for me.
Things like Smart Stay which keeps the screen on when you are looking at it and Multi Window for running multiple apps side by side just seem to make more sense on a tablet. The changes to the notification drawer also seem relatively successful on this tablet, especially when you consider how much more screen space is available. There is room for all the extra bits and I quite like it.
Instead of the horrendous settings menu on the Galaxy S5 where you cannot find anything in a massive scrolling list of fairly un-intuitive icons many of which are duplicates, the Tab S uses a simple tab view (is that a coincidence?). It is much simpler to use.
The TouchWiz home screen might be a bit laggy, but does work reasonably well on a device this size. You can have one of Samsung's oversized widgets and still put eighteen app icons around it. The screen does a great job of showing off some of the more brightly coloured if less than useful widgets as well. It is not as good as stock Android, but it is not as bad as many other Samsung devices.
Thankfully, there is no Simple Mode on the Tab S. I never understood the need for this and I am pleased to see it along with many other software changes gone. There is still plenty of bloat but it feels less intrusive.
I will always prefer stock Android to the software on the Tab S. It is lighter and simpler and looks better, but this is not Samsung's worst effort.
The Tab S has two cameras, an 8mp unit on the back and a 2.1mp on the front for your selfies. Both are surprisingly good, for a tablet. Suffice to say, they are usable, but any decent smartphone camera will comfortably beat the rear camera on the Tab S.
So is it Super?
Put simply, no, it is not quite super but it is excellent. The iPad Mini remains a better all round tablet in many ways with its far better looks, build quality and an almost equally brilliant screen. iOS remains a better choice for a tablet given its wide range of well optimised apps and incredibly fluid operation. The iPad also has far more predictable battery life though it wont last as long as the Tab S when watching films.
Where the Tab S is simply the best is in its form factor. That super light and slim body is a joy to hold and if all I wanted was a tablet for reading books, the Tab S is easily the one to have, but then I would probably by a Kindle Paperwhite which is even better for reading.
In the Android space, the only tablet that I think comes close is the Nexus 7. It has a smaller and less bright screen, but its performance blows the Tab S away. The Nexus cannot match the Tab S for battery life though I reckon it's an acceptable compromise given its super smooth stock Android software build.
Which tablet you should buy comes down to your personal preferences. If you like iOS and iPads, there is no reason to buy the Tab S. If you are looking for an Android tablet, I would suggest getting a Nexus 7 unless you feel you must have the slightly larger and better screen on the Tab S, though it costs significantly more. If you definitely want a Samsung tablet, what is wrong with the Tab Pro 8.4 which has the same resolution screen, similar software and performance but in a slightly thicker body that costs around £80 less.
And so we come to the crux of the problem for the Tab S 8.4. Yes, it is the best Samsung tablet so far and yes it is a match for the Nexus 7 and the iPad Mini. However, it does not justify its price premium over Samsung's Tab Pro 8.4 unless you have to have its thinness and light weight.
The Android tablet world is maturing fast but just as with Android phones, the gap between the mid range and the premium end of the markets in terms of overall experience is shrinking even faster. The Tab S is an excellent tablet that I really enjoyed using but ultimately it struggles to find a place for itself in the market.