It's 2017, the year in which tablets stand atop a precipice: poised in a position of greatness, offering enough power to be considered as potential laptop-replacements; yet dangerously close to falling off the edge for the simple fact that, well, people aren't buying into tablets like they used to.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 makes no bones about wanting to be the king of the hill. It's an iPad Pro-comparable Android tablet with oodles of power on board and a 9.7-inch high-resolution HDR (high dynamic range) screen that's got the potential to be brilliant (but without any mobile HDR content available yet it's beyond the curve at launch).
Which makes the Tab S3 sound like the ideal entertainment powerhouse and/or work slate. Problem is, at £600 with an S Pen stylus included (but no keyboard), it's an undeniably expensive luxury that, while it can certainly stand proud for its positives as a tablet, sits in that awkward position of being squeezed by laptops for day-to-day work on the one side and failing to offer much greater functionality than an Android smartphone on the other.
Is the Galaxy Tab S3 strong enough a device to see a resurgence in tablet interest? Not quite, but as Android tablets go you won't find better... if you're willing to open your wallet wide.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: Design
- Metal core with glass back
- 237.3 x 169 x 6mm, 429g
- Wi-Fi and 4G models available
- 32GB storage + microSD expansion
The Tab S3 has an immediately recognisable design, size and shape. With a 4:3 aspect ratio across that 9.7-inch diagonal screen, this isn't an ultra-long 2:1 ratio device like so many flagship phones. In that sense, then, we can see it as a potentially great complementary device.
As an Android device the layout feels much like a giant Samsung phone: there's a centred bottom fingerprint scanner which doubles as a depressible home button, surrounded by light-up back and recent apps buttons, all of which sit off the display for a neat view of content. It'll be familiar if you're an Android phone user, but that fingerprint scanner is a little more awkward given the sheer girth of a device such as this (and we didn't find it worked each and every time).
Flip the tablet over and you'll see a glass-coated rear, reflecting the finish of the front. That's a push in the design stakes, as Tab devices of old opted for more textured or smooth plastics. Visually, then, the S3 looks far superior - but it's also a lot slippier in a warm hand and marks up with fingerprints in little time. The glass sandwich design is reflective of its high price and looks quality when it's clean, but isn't as practical as it could be - so you'll probably want a case.
Critically the Tab S3 is just 6mm thin, which is important to distinguish it from competitor laptops. If you do want to use this tablet as a replacement for one then a keyboard attachment can be bought separately to make for an ultra-portable and ultra-light work machine (and an ultra-expensive one, too, in tablet terms).
A card tray is hidden across one edge, below the power and volume buttons, featuring a microSD card slot to expand on the 32GB internal storage in a cost-effective manner, while a nano SIM slot is available for the 4G (cellular) device only.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: Display
- 9.7-inch AMOLED screen
- 2048 x 1536 resolution (4:3 ratio)
- HDR (high dynamic range) capable
What really stands out in the Tab S3 is its screen. It might not be 4K, but it's still awesome to look at, mirroring the 9.7-inch iPad Pro's 2048 x 1536 pixel resolution. That means you could even edit 1080p video at pixel-to-pixel scale with surrounding tools.
One of the more headline-grabbing features is the appearance of HDR, or high dynamic range, which not only means peak brightness is high to present video with higher peaks and blacker blacks all in one, but also that wider colour ranges can be displayed. Which is great, but no mobile content exists at present - we're waiting on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix to serve their updated apps to get the most out of these mobile platforms (the TV-based apps are different, however, as support is already offered).
There's another point to be made too: the Samsung's peak brightness really isn't any higher than the iPad Pro. Both are around 500-nits, which is fine for top quality on an AMOLED panel, but makes the point that HDR on mobile is more about sumptuous colour than eye-blinding brightness.
Either way, the point to take away from the S3's screen is that it's as good as any competitor. It's resolute, plenty bright and images really seem to pop from its surface. It's a little reflective, though, but not terribly. What will make this tablet better is the incoming HDR content - that's when it'll really shine, but to date we've only seen stock demo HDR footage to get a teaser taste.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: Hardware & battery
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, 4GB RAM
- 6000mAh battery, USB-C fast charge
- AKG quad stereo speakers
Powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset, the Tab S3 isn't a watered down tablet by any means. It's on par with most of 2016's flagship smartphones, and backed up by 4GB RAM.
We've been using VLC Player to watch stacks of content which has barely got this tablet warmed up. If you're more into gaming then that's of no problem either. It's an entertainment powerhouse.
Longevity is no issue, with the moderately capacious battery at the tablet's heart motoring through about 10-hours of casual work and video use within a day when commuting. Crank up the screen brightness into the “orange zone” at the end of the brightness slider and lifetime will dip - but the tablet even warns you that.
When it's time to plug back in, the USB-C charging port to the base means fast charging for quick top-ups. In that regard the Tab S3 is like a phone - it can acquire 20 per cent charge in around 30 minutes in the lower echelons of the battery, or a dead-to-full recharge will take around three hours.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: Software, stylus and keyboard
- S Pen stylus included, keyboard not included
- Android Nougat with Samsung TouchWiz software
The Tab S3 has the potential to be a versatile tablet, depending on what you want from it. We've received the standard boxed model, which includes the S Pen stylus, but there's no keyboard - so we've not been able to treat it as a direct laptop replacement. If that's your goal then the TabPro S might be more up your street as it comes with a keyboard included.
With such versatility, there are some front-and-centre apps found within the TouchWiz software (which is Samsung's subtle reskin over Android 7.0). Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, for example, are found on the second page along with other Microsoft apps to push the device's workhorse stance. You'll need the keyboard for them, really, otherwise it's just like using an upscaled phone without an easy-to-use software keyboard.
What is very capable is the S Pen stylus, which comes in the box. You can write over screen grabs and pages using it - or using your fingertips if you would prefer - or select, copy and paste content, making it a practical tool. Designers, artists and such will be pleased with the S Pen's 4,096 levels of pressure, which puts it right up there as among the most responsive, while apps like "Pen.Up" offer an outlet for content. Plus the S Pen is included, not an extra £99 like the Apple Pen for the iPad Pro.
Now, while all the software we've been using runs really well - as does the overall operating system's responsiveness - it's the baked-in "Androidness" that makes this tablet experience feel a little sloppy when it comes to multi-tasking. We're used to multiple apps in phones, but on a screen this large and with a split-screen option that's limited to certain apps and just slow and clunky to use, it again sees the Tab S3 slip behind laptop-grade proficiency. Some kind of optional quick-access smart bar for a core OS experience shift would be handy.
Perhaps this is why people aren't that bothered about tablets of late: the line between phones and laptops is blurred to the point of little additional benefit, bar the S Pen input. Yet, as a purely entertainment device - and we've been using this tablet on a long-haul flight to watch shows - we can see huge appeal in the Tab S3.
As Android tablets go, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 can't be bettered. It certainly gives the iPad Pro a run for its money.
But money is the critical point: at £600, the Tab S3 is a pricey slate that doesn't really achieve laptop-replacement levels on account of its software experience and lack of a keyboard. Sure, Android feels familiar as a mobile operating system - and the S Pen stylus inclusion and integration is good - but multi-tasking isn't as fluid as it could be and this makes the Tab S3 feel like a luxury, less a work product like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, nor a more affordable through-and-through tablet like the new iPad.
Of all the reasons to buy the Tab S3 it's the 9.7-inch AMOLED screen's great quality and brightness that comes out on top. Its ability to display HDR (high dynamic range) content gives it future-proofing to assure its place as the entertainment tablet king. It's just a shame there's no mobile HDR content available at present, which if you're buying this tablet as exactly that - a tablet - might negate your primary reason for opening your wallet quite so wide right now.
The alternatives to consider...
Samsung Galaxy TabPro S
The 2016 tablet-laptop-hybrid might make more sense if you're keen to get a keyboard in the box for a fair price.
Read the full article: Samsung TabPro S review
iPad Pro 9.7
Ok, so it's an iOS competitor rather than Android, but there's a more complete feel about the software in tablet form right now, which gives the Apple product the edge. It's still mighty expensive though.
Read the full article: Apple iPad Pro review
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
If a laptop-replacement with stylus input are top of your list then Microsoft is champ in that regard. The Surface isn't cheap, but it's likely to be more what you're looking for.
Read the full article: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review
The king of the tablets - without any extras - is the iPad. Apple has seen the drop-off in sales, so has simplified its range to target straight-up tablet users here, leaving the Pro range to appeal to a difference audience. And given the price difference, if it's a through-and-through tablet that you want then the 2017 iPad can't really be bettered.
Read the full article: New Apple iPad review