Samsung Galaxy TabPro 8.4 review
When it comes to tablet strategy Samsung has saturated the market with devices of all sorts of sizes, with varying specs and running on different platforms. There's plenty of scope for confusion, as well as plenty of choice.
Launched for 2014 is a new Pro family of devices, consisting of the Note Pro and the TabPro. The Samsung Galaxy TabPro comes in three sizes, 8.4, 10.1 and 12.2-inches, with the largest size sitting alongside the new stylus-included Note Pro 12.2.
The aim of the "pro" moniker muscling in on the name is to reflect that these tablets are the best. They're the top of the pile, distinct from cheaper Galaxy Tabs of the past and presumably the future too.
But does the Samsung Galaxy TabPro have what it takes to stand out in a market that's getting increasingly crowded?
Slim is in, with the TabPro only 7.2mm thick for the 8.4-inch version we have in for review. The full measurements are 128.5 x 219 x 7.2mm, close in dimensions to LG's excellent G Pad 8.3, and around the same weight at 331g, which coincidentally, is the same as the iPad mini with Retina display.
READ: LG G Pad 8.3 review
The design of the TabPro very much follows the Samsung norm: it looks like a giant Galaxy Note 3 smartphone, with the home button at the bottom if you hold it in portrait, flanked in this case by the recent apps and back buttons.
Flip the TabPro over and you'll find the plastic back has the leather grain effect and stitching, following a design trend that's spreading across Samsung devices. It makes the TabPro look a little more like a notebook at first glance, especially if you're carrying it to your next meeting.
There's no escaping from the expanse of plastic, which doesn't feel as premium as the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, for example, and we'd be concerned that the white would get grubby over time. Mercifully, however, the texture means it stays free from smeary fingerprints, but it lacks the sort of tactile grip that other tablets offer, so it doesn't feel quite as secure in the hand.
There's plenty of bezel around the display too, with sections top and bottom to give you something to grip onto when you flip the tablet into landscape orientation for watching movies.
There's a silver coloured trim running around edges, framing the display and fusing front and back together. It's here you'll find the power button, volume controls, microSD card slot, Micro-USB, 3.5mm headphone jack and the speakers.
We're not totally sold on having a physical home button when much of Android is moving towards on-screen controls, but it does mean you get the full screen experience in all apps, where some devices - the Nexus 10 for example - will give you a black bar when the app isn't fully optimised, and Samsung adds some clever functions to these buttons that on-screen controls wouldn't allow.
Tablets are very much about the display and the TabPro's 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution display doesn't disappoint. That's a 368ppi density at this particular scale. It's enough to swipe the regular 1920 x 1080 pixel LG G Pad aside, as well as giving the 2048 x 1536 pixel iPad mini with Retina display a poke in the eye too.
The TabPro's resolution makes everything look crisp and sharp. The fonts are incredibly smooth and everything around the user interface is wonderfully rendered. One of the side effects is that while it can display fine detail accurately, at times you might feel there's a little too much on the display.
For example, open up S Planner (Samsung's calendar app) and you have the full month view, with appointments, as well as your agenda. The density of information is very high on this screen. But you can switch to different calendar views if you prefer. While everything is still legible because of the high resolution, if your vision isn't what it used to be, you might be reaching for your glasses.
There's plenty of punch to colours and the display offers enough brightness to be visible in bright conditions. That said, the auto-brightness seemed a little miserly with its nits, as well as changing a little too frequently sometimes when viewing in lower light conditions. You can bump the auto-brightness up or down a little, but we didn't find that made enough of a difference.
That resulted in us setting the brightness manually on most occasions when settling down to play a game or watch a movie, but that's no hardship with a shortcut in the notifications bar meaning this control is always to hand.
Samsung has included a few of apparently smart features for the display: the trinity of smart stay, smart rotation and smart pause, as we've seen previously from Samsung. We're not wholly convinced by these though as, frankly, they didn't seem to work.
Overall, the TabPro 8.4 has a cracking display. It's the sharpest around at this size and offers great viewing angles, making it one of the big highlights of the Galaxy TabPro.
Under the skin there's hardware that gives you plenty of power. There's a 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset, with 2GB of RAM. That's the same sort of loadout you'd expect to find in a high-end smartphone and the result is that things are slick and fast. Google Chrome is fast for browsing various web pages, games start promptly and there's no sign of lag that can be present on lesser hardware.
That power supports some of the useful software additions Samsung has added, with quick access to apps in pop-up windows. No longer do you have to stop watching that movie to check something online, you can simply do that in a pop-up window, which makes great use of space, as well as making that high pixel density really work for you.
There's 16GB of internal storage, 4GB of which you lose to the system software. There's a microSD card slot, however, supporting cards up to 64GB, which is ideal for storing music, movies and files you want with you.
On this Wi-Fi only model you have the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4, as well as MHL, meaning you can easily connect your TabPro to another display via cable, as well as various integrated wireless sharing options.
There's a large 4800mAh battery, which Samsung says is good for 12 hours of video playback. As with many tablets, the TabPro will happily get through a couple of days of light usage, but we've found those long evening sessions watching House of Cards on Netflix make that 12 hour figure accurate. The battery isn't huge compared to some rival tablets - a sacrifice for lighter weight and slim design no doubt - so you might find yourself wanting to charge this Tab more often than rivals.
The external speakers are both on the bottom of the TabPro and it's easy to block one of them with your palm when holding the tablet in landscape orientation. The result is the sound quality for media is rather average and not something to get excited about. Through headphones it's much better, along with an option to tune the output to get the sound levels to suit your ears.
Magazine UX vs normal home pages
The TabPro has everything you could want from a high-end tablet from a hardware perspective and many will be pleased to hear that it launches on Android 4.4 KitKat. That means it's as up-to-date as the Nexus 7 or Nexus 10 at launch.
However, Samsung has made plenty of its own additions, giving the TabPro a thorough reworking over the top of the Android operating system. The biggest change is around the home pages with the introduction of what some are calling the "Magazine UX" and Samsung is calling "a new Content Home". It's an evolution of my Magazine, which was available on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, for example, but now with a more prominent position.
The idea is to give you content pages that you can customise with various news feeds - sourced from Flipboard and linked directly to that app - as well as widgets such as email, calendar, YouTube and more. These then fall into the Magazine UX layout with up to six sections on a page ready to feed you information. Tapping on something interesting will open it up in the linked app, or you can flick up or down to browse through news stories, for example.
Essentially, this new Magazine UX is a rethinking of widgets, although these aren't the widgets you're used to from regular Android home pages - more on that in a second.
Magazine UX sits in parallel with regular customisable Android home pages (with a slight Samsung tweaking). Both systems work in tandem and you can elect to have either as your default home page. If you think the Magazine UX is unnecessary, you can remove all the content, except for the last widget, which prevents the last page from being deleted. In that sense, Magazine UX cannot be deactivated or removed, it will always be there, like it or not.
Although we like the appearance, we're not sold on the implementation. It can display some useful elements for instant access, but with a tablet this fast and powerful, opening the real app and getting access to everything is just as easy. Whether you want that news information will really depend on whether you like to browse aggregated content or not.
Alongside Magazine UX you still have those regular home pages. Yes, you can create new pages and add shortcuts, widgets and folders as you can on any other Android device. In that sense, Samsung is adding without taking away, as you can do everything you could before, with Magazine UX added should you wish to indulge.
Aside from that skew on the home pages, the TabPro's user interface is very much the evolution of TouchWiz you'd expect. Things are flattened, like the Samsung Galaxy S5, with plenty of useful (and some useless) features added.
There's a play to business, with some apps like e-Meeting, Remote PC, WebEx and Samsung Knox all in place, as well as the 50GB Dropbox deal on signing in. But there's less overall "bloatware" than previous Samsung devices. Instead many of Samsung's apps are offered for download only if you want them.
There's also a wider play to entertainment, with an incorporated IR blaster feeling a little unloved until you install Samsung's WatchOn app, which will use it to change TV channels.
Continuing with the theme of media, the gallery, music and video apps make it easy to view content on the device, and also offer access to network devices. There's built-in DLNA sharing as there has been for many years on Samsung devices, so you can easily send content from your device to another. In our case that was getting the Xbox One to play on the TV.
This works well in most cases, like with photos and music, although we found it struggled to identify video content on our media server. We tried the useful Skifta app instead and found that worked without a hitch, meaning we could use the TabPro to send content from our server to the TV via Xbox One, even if Samsung's native app didn't want to work.
But that's not all that Samsung has done. There's a complete reworking of the settings, including a number of Samsung smart features. We've mentioned the display elements (which don't work for us) and these are joined by motion and gesture controls that we've found we've never really used.
Setting those aside, it's the more comprehensive access to hardware controls in the notifications bar that have a day-to-day benefit, along with the pop-up multi-window option and the quick access sidebar.
This customisable sidebar, accessed through a either a swipe from the side or a long press of the back button, is a really useful addition. It is accessible from within any app, meaning you can be watching a movie and open up a browser, or open Hangouts over the top of what you're doing, without having to return to the home page or open the apps tray.
This really helps you take advantage of the TabPro's screen size. This isn't just a big Android device, it's a better multi-tasker than rivals without Samsung's added functions.
The other thing we like is that the TabPro happily works in either landscape or portrait orientations. Some apps aren't optimised for landscape use, but the home pages are, as are the apps tray and so on - so if you want to use it in landscape there's nothing stopping you.
We don't think that cameras have the importance on tablets that they do on smartphones, although walk past any tourist attraction and you'll see a tablet aloft capturing holiday snaps. Whatever your point of view, in the TabPro 8.4 there's an 8-megapixel camera on the rear and a 2-megapixel camera on the front.
Both of these cameras perform well enough, with enough colour and detail from the rear camera to give you shots worth sharing, while the front-facing camera is great for selfies - but watch out for the beatification mode which digitally smears you into apparent perfection.
It also offers 1080p video capture, but there's no sign of the 4K capture that the Note 3 or SGS5 offers. There are a range of clever camera functions on offer, should you choose to start snapping, but we wouldn't anticipate that to be this tablet's primary use.
There's a lot of great features on the Samsung Galaxy TabPro 8.4. It is well built, slim and light, offering all-day battery life, great internal hardware and some useful software tweaks.
Although Samsung has set up the new Magazine UX system to parallel the usual Android one, we didn't find it too intrusive. The same can be said for the various business applications on board: these weren't intrusive, which is good news as we primarily used the tablet for entertainment purposes.
Ignoring the software and the clear star of the show is the TabPro's high-resolution display. Aside from its tendency to under-represent itself with brightness levels lower than we'd like, it's packed full of pixels, with lots of colour and detail, making it one of the best tablet displays around.
The £349 asking price might be something of a barrier, however, and we'd expect to be holding something that felt a little more premium for that price. The smaller Nexus 7 offers a great tablet experience for £199, the LG G Pad is £199 too, and then the iPad mini with Retina display is £319. The TabPro doesn't feel quite as premium as the Apple device when it comes to build, even if it betters it in many other areas.
Overall the Samsung Galaxy TabPro 8.4 is a great Android tablet, fusing power and performance in a package that's impressive, if not quite as premium a build as we'd like.