Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 and Galaxy Tab S 8.4 Hands-on Preview

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Samsung’s found success carpetbombing the market with a variety of tablets over the past few years, but the Korean firm’s newest slate, the Galaxy Tab S, looks to be a catch-all for the mainstream.

It’s no accident that the new series, which will launch in the U.S. next month, takes its name from Samsung’s uber-popular Galaxy S line of smartphones — much like those hero devices, the Galaxy Tab S features high-end specs, a truckload of software tricks, and a strong desire to take down its competitors from Apple.

Build & Design

The Galaxy Tab S consists of two separate slates, one an 8.4-inch model and the other a 10.5-inch model. They’ll retail at $400 and $500, respectively, putting them directly in line with Apple’s iPad mini Retina and iPad Air. Aside from some variation in button placement — the power button and volume rocker are on the top of the 10 incher, and on the right of the 8 incher — the two tabs are virtually identical in form and function.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5

Design wise, this is mostly a good thing. Both tablets look little more than blown up Galaxy S5s, but that’s not so bad given their tidy dimensions and weight. Indeed, the Galaxy Tab S’s slimness is its most immediately noticeable feature, as both version measure just 6.6mm thick. That’s not quite in Xperia Z2 Tablet territory, but it’s close, and it’s especially impressive on the larger 10.5-inch model. That big model weighs in a relatively light 465 g, by the way, while its little sibling comes in at 294 g. Neither of the pair felt anywhere close to a burden in hand, and I could picture both of them staying comfortable for extended periods of time.

At this point it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the casings for both Galaxy Tab S models are entirely plastic. As long as the sun rises in the east, this is what Samsung will do. More specifically, the backs of both devices are composed of the Galaxy S5′s dimpled, faux leather material, which is going to irk some and please others. I’m not a fan, but it feels a bit toned down on the Tab S compared to the company’s flagship phone. Things felt smooth and cool to the touch, and the dimples didn’t seem as pronounced.

This coziness was helped by the front bezels, which are just thin enough to emphasize the display while still leaving enough thumb room. The rest of the tablets’ faces are typically minimalist, only borrowing the physical home key and capacitive menu/back keys from the Galaxy S5. Nothing confusing about it.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 -- Side ViewAnd as with the phone, that home key is fitted with a built-in fingerprint scanner. I wasn’t able to set it up during my brief testing period, but if the S5′s reader is any indication, it should work well, but not prove incredibly useful. My big complaint with the old scanner was that it mandated two hands to work, but that’s less of a problem with a tablet than it is with a smartphone.

Finally, around the sides of the Galaxy Tab S is a gold-tinted trim, something Samsung claims to give the device a sumptuous, upscale feel, but in reality is just a gold-tinted trim.

Display

The Galaxy Tab S’s biggest selling point, though, is the display within those bezels and trim. Again, it takes its cues from the Galaxy S5 — it’s AMOLED, it’s very high-res, and it’s altogether gorgeous.

Samsung hasn’t been as gung ho about OLED displays on tablets as it has on phones, but it’s pushing them hard here, as both big screens sport a hearty resolution of 2560 x 1600. Not surprisingly, this kept both screens exceptionally sharp. The 8.4-incher’s 360 ppi is actually more pixel dense than the 10.5-inch model’s 287 ppi, but you’d have a hard time discerning pixels on either device regardless.

Sharpness does not a great display make, of course, so it’s good that all the usual benefits of good OLED screens seem to apply here as well. Contrast ratios were excellent, with blacks are dark as midnight. Colors were vibrant and full of life in both still photos and YouTube videos. The whole thing could get sufficiently bright at its highest settings too. This is all stuff Samsung has done well on its phones for a good while now, but seeing it all reproduced on a bigger screen is impressive, and it should make the Tab S a luxurious option for binge watching Netflix every now and again.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 --Side ViewThe only downside here is also typical of OLED tech — the screen can get too blue at certain angles, and that makes its viewing angles somewhat subpar next to your everyday LCD panel. Still, hold this thing the way it’s meant to be held and you’ll be more than satisfied.

One more note: Samsung also promises that the Galaxy Tab S will ace the outdoor visibility portion of the exam, but New York was devoid of sunlight at 9pm, so verification there will have to wait.

Performance

Underneath that sexy display are some welcome specs. The two slates run on Samsung’s own Exynos 5 Octa chipset, which utilizes two separate quad-core processors, one clocked at 1.9 GHz and the other at 1.3 GHz. Both tablets feature 3 GB of RAM and 16 GB of internal storage, although, crucially, the devices also house microSD card slots that support up to 128 GB of additional space. That’ll give the Galaxy Tab S at least one genuine advantage of the iPad.

Both run Android 4.4 KitKat underneath Samsung’s usual TouchWiz skin. They don’t force the Windows 8-like Magazine UX as hard the Samsung Galaxy TabPro line does, instead pushing a couple of widget-filled pages off to the left of three phone-like homescreens. That makes things a bit disjointed, but it also allows either style to be ignored as needed.

As anticipated, the handful of tasks I performed on the slates all ran well enough. I wouldn’t call it a blazer at first blush, but scrolling through menus was quick, videos played back without much pause, and a few pre-loaded games chugged along without heating up the device or slowing things down to a noticeable degree. There was some jittering in Chrome and some slowness when I tried to multitask with Samsung’s “Multi-Window” feature (which only supports up to 2 tasks at a time on the Galaxy Tab S, by the way, not up to 4 like on other Galaxy tabs), however. That’s something to keep an eye on, but it’s still early, and more extensive testing will be needed before coming to any definitive conclusions here.

TouchWiz has long been the Galaxy line’s biggest bugbear, but for better or worse, it’s returning just about completely intact here. It’s still perfectly serviceable for those who know what they’re doing, but everyone should prepare to see plenty of pre-loaded software upon booting the Galaxy Tab S up, even though much of that software performs the same functions as Google’s already-mandated services. It’ll likely be worse if you buy through a carrier.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 -- Rear ViewThankfully (in a sense, at least), Samsung hasn’t added many more features to the new flagship, instead opting to update and promote a handful of its genuinely useful programs. If you own a Galaxy S5, for instance, you can use the updated SideSync app to mirror it on the Tab S’s display and remotely manage its files and such. Other nifty tricks like Download Booster, which mixes LTE and WiFi to hasten downloads, and WatchON, which turns the tablet into a makeshift TV remote, are still here too.

The one thing that’s definitely new is Papergarden, a first-party digital magazine app. It’s not doing anything incredibly different, but Samsung’s lined up partnerships with publishers like Marvel and Conde Nast anyway, and it says that the app’s mags will be optimized for the Tab S’s panel. That’s at least refreshing to hear, but it ties into the Tab S’s biggest software concern, which is one Samsung can’t really control: Android still lags behind iOS when it comes to optimizing apps for tablet displays.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Samsung is pushing a handful of accessories for its new slates, including a keyboard cover, a basic cover, and a “Book Cover” that folds into three separate positions for propping up the tablet as a stand. Samsung hasn’t divulged any pricing or availability details for these just yet.

Camera

An 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2.1-megapixel front-facing cam are built into each device as well, and in my brief testing those shooters were solid if unspectacular.

Battery Life

One area of divergence here is battery size — the 10.5-incher’s 7,900 mAh pack understandably trumps the 8.4-incher’s 4,900 mAh battery, but Samsung says both models will get around 11 hours of 1080p video viewing time. That’s another claim we’ll verify in our full review.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S isn’t going to start any revolutions, but it appears to excel at the fundamentals. It’s got a top-of-the-line display; it should run well; and while it’s never going to feel premium or sturdy as long as its throwing out material that’s best described as “pretend leather,” it’s comfortable in the hand, and it’s designed intelligently.

The one area of concern, per usual, is TouchWiz, but this is a slate that should largely prove reliable, powerful, and pleasurable to use. It’s tough to ask a tablet to be much more than that.

We’ll find out if those first impressions hold up when the Galaxy Tab S arrives in white and black options next month.

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