(Pocket-lint) - Samsung, perhaps more that any other company in the Android space, has been experimenting with the ultimate tablet recipe for a number of years. We've seen all sizes and various power setups in the company's line-up.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 follows up on the forebear Galaxy Tab S tablets of 2014, defaulting to a popular mix of 4:3 display - as seen previously on the Nexus 9, and something that the Apple iPad has been known for since its inception - to make for a familiar-sized product.
There are perhaps fewer rivals now in the tablets market, as the pace of launches slow in the face of increasing smartphone sizes. The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 comes in two sizes: 8-inches and 9.7-inches, the latter on review here.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 review: Design
Samsung's design language is instantly recognisable in the face of the Tab S2, with that distinctive physical button at the bottom of the display and Samsung lettering across the top.
That very much says this is a device that's been designed to be used in portrait orientation, which isn't always the case with tablets. It's slim and lightweight, weighing only 389g, which is something of an achievement. It's lighter than the 437g of the iPad Air 2, but is the exact same weight as the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 measures 169 x 237.3 x 5.6mm, making it the thinnest among its rivals. Samsung has retained just about enough bezel around the display to give you somewhere to grip without putting your fingers all over the display, which is always useful.
The metal frame of the edges meets a plastic back, which is much smoother than some of the previous faux leather texture finishes that Samsung has used. There is enough grip for your fingers to feel secure and overall the S2 result is a tablet that's light enough to carry with you everywhere, and light enough to hold for long periods.
We'd say the build and construction of this Samsung isn't as premium as that of the iPad Air 2 or the Xperia Z4 Tablet, but we still marvel at the size and weight of this thing.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 review: Display
A tablet is all about the display and we've seen some unusual flip-flopping in resolutions over the past few years. With the 2012 Nexus 10 (which is made by Samsung) plopping out a 2560 x 1600 pixel display and the original Samsung Galaxy Tab S following suit, the Tab S2 now steps down to 2048 x 1536 pixels (264ppi density).
That's the same resolution as we saw on the 2014 Nexus 9 tablet and it's the same as the iPad Air 2, which is the exact same size at 9.7-inches too. The shift from higher resolutions might be partly due to the shift in aspect ratio from 16:9 (or 16:10) to 4:3, or it could simply be that the returns for that resolution weren't hugely apparent.
However, the Tab S2 is equipped with an AMOLED display whereas most competitors offer LCD. Samsung is known for AMOLED and has enjoyed great results on its Galaxy smartphones and Note tablets with this technology. On the Tab S2, you're again rewarded with great contrast, lots of punch in visuals, and deep, rich colours that are typical of such a panel.
You might notice that the richness makes some content look a little dark so you have to bump up the brightness to get best out of movies and videos. We found the colours a little overwrought in the opening scenes when watching Mockingjay, for example, but the deep blacks and brilliant blues set up Gravity nicely. On the flipside, some games are incredibly rich, making us wish we could dial it down a little for a more natural view.
AMOLED can also struggle to produce clean and bright whites as a result, something that Samsung has worked hard to improve on recent devices - but there's a hint of cool blue white here.
The thing you will notice, however, is that on this size of display some of Android's apps don't scale as well as they should. You'll find softness becomes apparent in some games, for example, or some of the graphic elements in apps don't look as sharp as they do on your smartphone, phablet or smaller tablet. Take Real Racing 3 as an example: it looks blocky, so visually it's not as pleasant as on smaller or even 16:9 tablets with less display height. If that's a factor for you, the smaller 8-inch Tab S2 model might be the better choice.
The display aspect also means the Tab S2 works a little better in portrait orientation than 16:9 devices, making for a better reading experience, whether that's on the included Flipboard-based Briefing newsreader, or when using something like the Kindle app. On the flip side, you'll have a lot of empty space top and bottom when watching movies in landscape - especially if they are shot in the cinematic 21:9 aspect ratio.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 review: Hardware
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 has a 64-bit octo-core chipset with 3GB of RAM under the hood. This is joined by the choice of 32 or 64GB of storage, giving plenty of space for apps and content. There's also microSD expansion, supporting cards up to 128GB.
The S2 tablet isn't as powerful as the leading smartphones, but we found it slick and fast in operation. Throwing daily tasks at it, we had no problems, with barely a pause as it skips between tasks. It's not the most powerful graphically and although most of the time that isn't a problem, we did find the occasional judder.
We had the Wi-Fi version on review, but there is also an LTE version for those who want to stay connected on the move.
There's a 5,870mAh battery tucked into that slender body - and we've found this typically offers life to get you through a day of use, although it drains a little faster than most other rivals. The standby time has been impressive, meaning we've been able to reach for the S2 a week later and found there's still life in it.
There are a pair of speakers on the base of the Tab S2, although in landscape orientation we often end up muffling one of them with a hand, leaving things sounding a little hollow. These speakers aren't as adept as the front-facing speakers on the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet, so the experience is definitely better with headphones.
There's a fingerprint scanner embedded in the home button making for easy security on the Tab S2, with a long press taking you through to Google Now. It doesn't offer the quick launch option for the camera that you get on other Samsung devices and there's also no NFC in this model, although we can't see that many will worry too much about that in a tablet format.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 review: TouchWiz software
We've been impressed with Samsung's software tweaks on recent devices. The Samsung Galaxy S6 leads this charge to a more cohesive Samsung software approach and that continues with the Tab S2, which launches on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop (with no word on when a Marshmallow 6.0 update might appear).
Samsung gives the Android operating system a complete workover, adding a number of fun options, but still offering that full Google Android experience. You'll get duplication in a number of areas, though, with Samsung providing its own browser, music player, video app and gallery.
But we like Samsung's approach to split screen, something the company has been doing for a while. A long press on the recent apps button will reduce the open app to half the display, presenting a range of apps to open in the other half. Want cross-reference something in Google Maps with an email? That's no problem. Want to look a Chrome while browsing Twitter? You can do so.
Then there is the option to pop-out apps to view in a window, meaning you can reduce one and view another at the same time. Even with a 9.7-inch display, however, we struggle to find this a useful option - it quickly becomes a fiddly experience, because you don't have quite the control that you might on a fully featured desktop OS.
Among the pre-installed apps is Microsoft's Office Suite. We've been really impressed with how Microsoft has super-charged mobility in Office. Sign into your Office 365 account and you'll be synced and working across Office on your phone, tablet and PC, regardless of whether those are Windows, Apple or Android devices. Of course, the apps are free to download from Google Play, but having them pre-loaded is a nod to how Samsung thinks you'll be using the S2 Tab.
Sadly Office apps don't support Samsung's pop-up view or split screen, unlike the iPad, but there's a sense that aside from multimedia, Samsung wants you to use the Tab S2 for productivity. That was also the play with the Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet, which comes with a keyboard dock - something you won't find in the box from Samsung. There's certainly the real-estate for writing and crunching through emails using the Samsung, however.
There's no S-Voice on the Tab S2, but with Google voice just a tap away, you can fire questions at the tablet easily enough.
Overall we're happy with the software on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2. As we've found with other Samsung devices this year, the slightly lighter approach means that things are easy to find and do, but there are still enough additions to feel like you're getting a little more than stock Android and still getting a richer Samsung experience.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 review: Cameras
There's a pair of cameras front and back on the Tab S2, with 8-megapixels on the rear and 2.1-megapixels to the front. We don't put much stock in tablet photography, but we've all seen the number of people who wave an iPad around in public places.
First up, there's no flash on the Tab S2 rear camera, a common omission when it comes to tablets. However, you'll still find a fully featured camera experience with plenty on offer from within the app, including a range of shooting modes and effects.
The results are reasonable and in bright conditions you'll get some good photos from the rear camera, with fast autofocus and the option to tap-to-focus too. The low-light performance isn't so good, with quality dropping as image noise is processed away, leaving things looking a little painterly.
The front camera is capable enough in good conditions, with the "beauty" option available in the app to smooth out those selfies. If you want to look natural, however, you might want to turn it off.
In terms of video the Galaxy Tab S2 offers the option for Quad HD capture at 2560 x 1440 pixels, something of an odd resolution. It's common to mobile device displays, like Samsung's Galaxy S6, but otherwise isn't used in television or elsewhere. We suspect most will stick to the Full HD (1920 x 1080) offering.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2's strongest aspect is its size and the weight, giving you plenty of display, while remaining light and slimline. There's lot to like about this tablet.
There's a great deal of vibrancy to the display and while that looks good in many apps, it can be a little over-bearing depending on the content you're viewing. It adds pop to website images, but isn't as natural when it comes to watching your favourite movies. We like the 4:3 aspect though, as it's convenient when reading and browsing.
There's enough power in the Tab S2 for most tasks, but it’s a device that neither excels at more complex graphics, nor gives you outstanding battery life as a reward for taking lower-power hardware.
At £399, it's pretty expensive too, considering that you can get a 16GB iPad Air 2 for the same price. We'd be tempted towards the 8-inch model for the £319 price point, and the sharper display, with many of the advantages of the larger model.