Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 review

Compact tablets are all the rage in 2013. Far from being "dead on arrival" as the late Apple boss Steve Jobs once declared, the 7-inch tablet market is thriving. And while that's the size-space that Samsung has typically occupied with its earlier Tab devices, perhaps Jobs had a point: the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 comes equipped with an 8-inch screen that's comparable to Apple's iPad mini.

But it's not just the ongoing Apple vs Samsung debate bubbling away in the background: with the likes of the second-generation Nexus 7 now upon us the choice in the compact tablet world is wider and better than ever before.

As much as we've loved previous Galaxy Tab devices for their balance of size and power - ideal to cater for app-based gaming, movie-watching, reading, browsing and all those tablety tasks - is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 able to keep up with the pace in this now bustling market space?

Three, eight, Note, what?

With choice comes all manner of numbers and names. That's usually healthy, but the Galaxy series is so vast that it's a full-on numbers game. The Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 has adorned itself with two numbers, the first to designate that it's a third-generation device, the second to make clear the 8-inch screen size. In simple terms it's an 8-inch tablet, but the name makes that sound a bit confusing. There are also 7-inch and 10.1-inch versions available. Still with us? Good.

There's also an inevitable comparison between the Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 and Galaxy Note 8: the latter - daresay "phablet" - is different by virtue of its 3G SIM-based connectivity, telephony capabilities, inclusion of S-Pen stylus and, crucially, more processing and RAM power. The Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 doesn't match up to that - it's a tablet through and through. It seems like the natural desirable tablet size to us too, particularly given how big many smartphones are getting.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review

But here comes yet more numbers: and it's all about the price. The Tab 3 8.0 lands around £60-80 less than the Note 8 at the more affordable £269-approx price-point. Sounds fair, but while it's cheaper than the Note, it's well above the second-generation Nexus 7's £200 asking price, which - and considering it dons a better resolution screen in a 7-inch form factor - doesn't place the Samsung in such a hot position. Throw the Apple iPad mini in the mix - priced at around £255 at the time of writing - and Samsung really isn't winning from a price perspective.

Call the plastic police

What of build quality then - surely that extra lick of cash will command top-spec loveliness? Well, no, not really. Samsung isn't shy of its plastic - just look to the top-spec Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone - which appears aplenty in the Tab 3 8.0's design.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S4 review

A smooth plastic rear, plastic front with mottled specs doesn't exactly add up to luxury. Compared to the Apple iPad mini - in aesthetic terms, at least - it's the American fruit-based company that wins out in appearance terms.

READ: Apple iPad mini review

But that's not to say the Tab 3 8.0 looks bad by any means. Despite the plastic other Galaxy devices have still wowed us. For starters the Tab has a super-slim design - measuring in at just over 7mm - with rounded edges, and it all sits comfortably in the hand. After a while you'll be used to it and will have all but forgotten its plasticky. Except, that is, for when it's warm and those sticky fingers will slip against the device's back.

The rear panel doesn't come off, either, so it's a single built-in battery unit - no swapping it out or replacing it. How many tablets have ever offered such functionality though? - we don't see it as a problem given that the battery lasted out for beyond the eight hour mark when watching videos while on various short-haul flights. An hour per inch: how's that for a ratio, eh?

Where we think Samsung has really delivered the goods is with some of the simpler aspects. Say hello to a microSD slot, for example, which will leave iPad mini owners shedding a tear at their locked-down storage capacity. We added a budget 32GB card into our loan unit, thus tripling the 16GB built-in storage. Ideal for adding in bundles of high-quality extra movies and additional content.

Resolution rant

Where something like the Nexus 7 really stands above the Tab 3 8.0 is in the screen department. Samsung offers up 1280 x 800 pixels, which is like a taller 720p display. The Nexus 7 may be smaller, but it's more resolute to the tune of 1920 x 1200 pixels - which is greater than 1080p, so more populated than your HD telly then (unless you're one of the lucky few upscaling to a 4K device).

READ: Nexus 7 (2013) review

Numbers are one thing, but it's all about how a screen looks and functions in the real world that's important. And we don't have much a bad word to say about the Tab 3 8.0: we've used it on trains, planes, outside, on the sofa at home, and all those usual tablety places. The viewing angle is good, brightness is fair - not perfect for outside, but that's typical of any such device in sunlight, and Galaxy devices do deliver a slightly cool colour cast - and we've found movie-watching and internet browsing to be a decent experience.

It's not best in class, and the resolution should be more, but it's not so massive that it crushes this device's chance of success.

Note: It's not the Note

Using the Tab 3 is all smooth sailing from what we've experienced too. With the recent Android 4.2.2 operating system installed and Samsung's typical Galaxy TouchWiz user interface - it's customisable with widget and app placement - we've been sliding from emails to YouTube videos and into gaming experiences. But unlike the Note 8's power, the Tab 3's dual core 1.5Ghz processor and 1.5GB of RAM isn't quite as fleshed-out. Even if, technically, that means it's now as capable we still found it to be decent - we've managed to run the likes of Real Racing 3 and titles of a similar ilk.

One cool feature that tests the Tab 3's power is the multi-window mode. Here it's possible to load up, say, a YouTube video alongside a your emails at the same time. It ran smoothly in our testing and juggling between windows is activated with a simple touch; it's even possible to press and drag to resize individual windows.

There are other on-board apps such as S-Voice control - yup, you can literally talk to your tablet - that are fun, but as per their Galaxy smartphone implementations aren't of critical use. We didn't use it much, if at all beyond the realms of needing to for this review. Much the same can be said about IR blaster's ability to control your TV set.

Camera-wise there are two on board: a 5-megapixel one on the rear and a 1.3-megapixel one on the front. Taking photos with tablets is one of those things we find most irksome, and here the results are none too fine either. Strictly for video chat only in our view.

However you'll need to be paired up to a Wi-Fi connection to get the most out of the tablet - essential for things like Skype video chat - when it comes to those connected tasks. If that's no good for you then you ought to be looking at the Note 8 where mobile data can be purchased under contract for on-the-go connectivity. It's not so much a criticism as a fact: two devices for two different things.

Verdict

There's plenty of good to be had from the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0. But less so at this price point. It's pricier than the higher-resolution Nexus 7, and its plasticky construction just isn't as well made as the Apple iPad mini. And for once the Apple device is the more affordable of the two.

Even if the screen's not class-leading in resolution terms, we've found it more than usable in a variety of conditions. The inclusion of a microSD card slot is a big bonus too, but as there's no 3G connectivity the Tab 3 feels limited compared to something like the Galaxy Note 8.

Plastic and not quite fantastic: The Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 will do pretty much everything that you want and battery life is decent enough, but it's the competition which weakens this release and, in light of that, it's hard to see the Samsung as the most viable purchase option.