Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 review

Samsung has not been shy of launching new tablets in recent years, with different lines, sizes and specs meaning there's a Tab for just about anyone, no matter what your predilection.

The Galaxy Tab S joins the line-up in a slightly confusing position because it adds a touch of premium to the consumer arm of the Tab line, but simultaneously puts the TabPro family into the shade in many regards. That means a solid specification, so if you're looking for a hot Android tablet then the Tab S is more than worthy of your shortlist.

In many ways the Tab S the tablet Samsung has always wanted to make, it's just taken a while to get here, with those numerous Tab lines of old helping to carve the perfect device. But how does it stand-up in this now crowded market - and is it among the best Android tablets out there?

Skinny design

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S comes in either 8.4- or 10.5-inch sizes, the larger of the two reviewed here. It broadly aligns itself to take on those two popular tablet segments, with the 10.5 fitting itself into a body  more compact than some smaller models, such as the Google Nexus 10.

It measures 247 x 177 x 6.6mm, which really makes it stand out, because that's slim by any measure in the tablet world. Bear in mind that the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet is 6.4mm, the Nexus 10 is a now hefty 8.9mm and the iPad Air is 7.5mm and the appeal is obvious.

That slimness feels great when you pick the Tab S up and it helps trim the weight too: it's just 465g. This is a device that's easy to hold, but there's one factor that needs considering: it's designed to be used in landscape orientation because of the physical home button control placement.

Thing is, there isn't much bezel around the edges to hold it. At the sides the bezel is rather slim, so if you spend your time lying in bed clutching it, watching Netflix, there's less to hang on to than with some other devices. That's a double-edged sword, because the counter argument is that you're not wasting space on lots of bezel, a criticism that's been aimed at the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet rival. 

READ: Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet review

That said, there's a little more space top and bottom, so if you flip this tablet into portrait orientationn there's enough space to accommodate your digits. But the physical home button will then be rotated by 90-degrees as it's not a soft-key like found on many competitor models.

Build quality is good, and while the Tab S might not have the aluminium body of the iPad, it's still solid in the hands. The back is plastic, though, and carries the dimpled effect found on the Galaxy S5 smartphone. Some like it, some hate it, but we're happy with it in this format. We especially like the white and gold colour scheme - the slightly pearlescent finish makes the Galaxy Tab S distinct.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Overall, as far as tablets go, there's a lot to like about the Tab S. It's slim and light and you get plenty of screen for the size of the body, even if movie watchers might find the lack of thumb space on the bezel a little irksome. 

AMOLED goes large

Samsung loves its AMOLED displays - as featured on its flagship Galaxy S smartphones - and here in its 10.5-inch display offers a sharp 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution.

That gives it a pixel density of 288ppi which is comparatively high for a tablet: the iPad Air is 264ppi, while the Xperia Z2 Tablet is 224ppi. However, this ultra-high resolution is nothing new - the Nexus 10, launched in 2012, has the same resolution, as do Samsung's existing TabPro devices.

So the big difference is in the panel type. AMOLED is designed to give the display more pop, that additional wow factor where other LCD panels might look a little flat. There's a play to increasing the contrast, offering deeper blacks and a wider colour gamut.

In the process, it also carries the hallmark of AMOLED displays, and that's warmth: there's lots of punch to reds, but whites get dragged towards the yellow as a result. At times the colour saturation might look a little extreme, but there are different display modes (as well as an adaptive mode) to help you find a happy medium.

At times, though, this AMOLED display doesn't quite match its billing. We fired up perennial game favourite Real Racing 3 and found that side-by-side with the Nexus 10, the Tab S didn't look as good. Things are softer overall, and much more so than the minor 12ppi difference would dictate. This is probably an app problem, rather than a display problem.

That wasn't the case with games like Vector and Kiwanuka. The big difference you see with the latter game is those punchy colours and deep blacks, which is exactly what this type of display is going to be good for. The same is true when firing up magazine content: browsing the GQ app (one of the Galaxy Gifts) sees everything look sensational.

Sometimes - and just like the X-Reality boosting of the Xperia Z2 Tablet - things look too saturated. Movies don't look quite as natural as you might like, with those flicks already shot to look saturated - see anything from Michael Bay - pushed too far by the Tab S. That's our experience of AMOLED displays on smartphones too. But if you're a fan of the visuals on your SGS5, then we dare say you'll love what the Tab S has to offer.

Aside from those colour and rendering points, the Tab S has excellent viewing angles and there's plenty of brightness too. That means it copes better in bright conditions, like when outside, although there's still some problem with reflection off the display: it won't make your Kindle Paperwhite redundant just yet.

Hardcore performance

One area where Samsung isn't messing around is in the hardware department. Packed into the heart of the Tab S is a Samsung Exynos octa-core processor, comprised of four 1.9GHz cores and four 1.3GHz cores - the idea is to give you more options for balancing power requirements - paired with 3GB of RAM.

The result is that the Samsung Galaxy Tab S is slick and fast. Basic navigation is very smooth, although we suspect much of that comes down to software optimisation and there's plenty on the software front that Samsung has down to make use of the screen space on offer.

But when it comes to loading and playing games, the Tab S is snappy. Real Racing 3 - rendering issues aside - loads much faster on the Tab S than it does on devices with lesser hardware, a trait that continues with most apps.

Having a physical home button also takes the vagary out of full screen apps. There's no swiping down to access the on-screen buttons like you have on many other tablets. Flanked by recent apps and back buttons, this is an easy and quick tablet to use. 

There's also a fingerprint scanner built into the home button of the Tab S. This works in the same way as that on the Galaxy S5, offering security with a swipe. Due to the way you hold a tablet it doesn't suffer quite the same usability problems as the SGS5, which is great.

Internally there's 16GB of storage, of which about 4.5GB is used by the system software. There's a microSD card slot, however, so additional expansion up to 128GB is no problem for not too much additional cash.

There are twin speakers mounted on the sides of the tablet that fire sideways. They offer average sound but there is at least some separation between the two, even if they lack the impressive performance of something like the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX.

READ: Amazon Kindle Fire HDX review

Sweet software

When we reviewed the Samsung Galaxy TabPro we were generally impressed with the software. Samsung has layered its TouchWiz interface over Android 4.4 KitKat, with access to the Magazine UX (a Flipboard-based news and current events homepage), just a single side swipe away.

READ: Samsung Galaxy TabPro 10.1 review

This Magazine UX software is customisable, with plenty of options to integrate content and change how the sections presented. As the name suggests, you can have Magazine UX be your first port of call, with calendar, stock results and browser shortcuts sitting alongside the latest news stories tailored to your liking.

Google Now - very much a focal point of Android - gets farmed off into a shortcut on the home button. This is just one of the many changes to the home environment made by Samsung, including the addition of the recent apps button which gives Samsung a chance to showcase something it has generally avoided before. It's a rather smart solution, the pop-up apps timeline adding a rather more elegant visual than stock Android offers.

The homepage then finds itself with a My Files shortcut in the bottom left corner, taking you through to your files and folders, with timeline access making it easy to get back to files you might have been accessing.

Making use of the display size is an important factor for a tablet and it's here that Samsung uses its experience well: the ability to run two apps side-by-side is a real benefit for multi-taskers. It's not a brand new feature by any means, but a success.

Samsung has also enhanced the notifications area. Again this isn't unique to the Tab S, as it's common to other Samsung Galaxy devices, but the ability to change the brightness, quickly customise the hardware toggles and so forth is really handy.

There's a minor bugbear - one that carries over from the SGS5 - which is that the animation when opening folders makes it slower than it needs to be.

Like the SGS5, there are a wide range of content offers and bonuses to tempt you in. Not only do you get the useful 50GB of Dropbox cloud storage, but there's free magazine issues, limited access to Deezer web-based music, bonus packs for games and more. To find these extras you'll need to head into the newly-designed Galaxy Apps, where there's a Galaxy Gifts section waiting to deliver.

Cameras and photos

Elsewhere there's an 8-megapixel camera on the back and a 2.1-megapixel camera on the front. We don't use tablet cameras nearly as much as we do smartphone cameras, but we've found both the Tab S cameras to be good: you'll get a reasonable quality selfie from it, and the rear shots are pretty good too.

Supporting the rear camera is a flash, something of a rarity on tablets, so if taking tablet photos is your thing (it really shouldn't be though), then you'll find the Tab S pretty well specified. It suffers as similar cameras do, with mushy low-light shots, but given that you'll probably use a smartphone instead, we don't give too much sway to camera performance.

Despite having the specification, the Tab S doesn't support 4K video capture, but photos and video do look lovely on that AMOLED display. As with most Samsung Galaxy devices, you'll get DLNA sharing options built in, as well as integrated albums from sources like Dropbox.

Battery

Powering it all is a 7900mAh battery, which will give you about 10 hours of use. It's typical for a tablet of this size, although in normal use that will equate to a couple of day's endurance.

There is both the power saving mode and the ultra power saving mode to help longevity. The latter takes an extreme approach, stripping the functionality and the colour away, leaving you with basic functions. It's designed to make the Tab S last. That makes more sense on a smartphone than it does on a tablet, but if your tablet is your only calendar, for example, then it might be handy.

Verdict

We already really like what Samsung has done with the Galaxy TabPro, and the Tab S takes steps things up a notch in many areas. It's slimmer, brings that AMOLED display and a small increase in display size with the 10.5-inch model.

The Tab S also brings with it more consumer appeal than the TabPro. It's slimmer and we prefer the texture of the back, as it helps reduce that budget plastic feel. There's also a lot of clever software enhancement, which really adds benefit and lifts the Tab S beyond just a stock Android tablet - it's more closely aligned with what you would get from something like the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, minus the giant bezel. Although there's perhaps too little bezel in this Samsung instance, which isn't something we thought we'd be saying.

Overall that makes the Samsung Galaxy Tab S among the hottest Android tablets around. The real challenge will probably be choosing between the 10.5 or 8.4-inch versions, because with closely aligned specs and £70 difference in price, the smaller version might just steal your affections. But if not then there's rarely a bad thing to say about the 10.5-inch model.



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