(Pocket-lint) - There was a time when tablets were ten a penny. Pretty much every manufacturer offered a range of tablets looking to entertain you with a bigger screen than that phone in your pocket.
But that position has shrivelled as phone screen sizes have grown. Plus there are super-affordable tablets like the Amazon Fire mopping up the entertainment end of the market, while more premium tablets like the iPad Pro are posing an increasingly strong position to replace your laptop.
Looking to be as much a business tool as a play thing, the Galaxy Tab S4 is the latest Samsung tablet with serious aims, offering as much for entertainment as it does for hard graft. But it's a tablet that also comes with a very useful software twist...
Skinny design, satisfyingly light
- 16:10 aspect ratio with narrow bezels
- 249 x 1643 x 7.1mm; 482g
- Glass design
At only 7.1mm, you can't call the Tab S4 fat. It's plenty skinny and feels surprisingly light in the hand. With a 16:10 aspect ratio design, this tablet avoids the 4:3 trend of some other recent devices, reminding us of those glory days of the Sony Xperia Tablet Z.
The Tab S4's glass back is super glossy (well, we believe it's glass, if it's plastic then it looks and feels like glass), while the colour-matching edges are perforated with the buttons, four speakers, pogo pins and ports. It's a glossy overall finish, so if you're not using a cover, you're going to need to polish it to keep it looking its best. It does look good though, so it's worth the effort.
Gone from the face is the old Samsung button (as you'd find on the Tab S3), so there's no fingerprint scanner, with conventional power and volume buttons located on the edge instead. Iris scanning is the only biometric login option. We're not huge fans of iris scanning and it can be a little hit-and-miss on the Tab S4, so we went with a regular passcode instead, which is plenty reliable and more secure, if not as futuristic.
The bezels are narrowed a little thanks to this no-fingerprint-scanner design, but there's still a reasonable border around the Tab S4's display on all sides. These borders act as somewhere to grip the tablet, but in the age of bezel-busting Infinity Displays (or various other marketing speak), we're surprised that Samsung hasn't increased the size of display on offer. That position very much depends on whether you're holding this tablet or using it with the keyboard case (which will cost you £119 by the way). With the latter it feels like the bezels are a bit big, but without you'll have your fingers in those areas – so it's less noticeable.
Hardware and performance
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, 4GB RAM
- 64GB storage + microSD card slot
- 7300mAh battery capacity
- Wi-Fi and LTE versions
The hardware story for the new Galaxy Tab starts with Qualcomm Snapdragon 835. This might be 2017's hardware, but there's still plenty of power in it, offering performance close to the newer Snapdragon 845 that's in so many leading smartphones for 2018.
Typically speaking, tablets aren't stuffed with hardware that's as powerful as flagship smartphones and you might think that's an odd situation given that the Tab S4 is promising to give you an unparalleled multi-tasking experience. Well, it does that, and the Snapdragon 835 is plenty powerful enough for the sorts of tasks that you might be asking it to do.
Running multiple apps with frequent switching doesn't pose a problem for the Tab S4, so if you need a Google Doc open alongside a Word Doc, plenty of browser tabs, all while updating social media in the background, the Galaxy Tab S4 takes it all in its stride.
There's a huge battery too, which offers fast charging. Samsung says this is good for 16 hours of video playback, so that will get you from the London to Los Angeles fully entertained (well, assuming you're flying). Whether you'll watch video constantly like that is a different matter, but back on the productivity front, we used the Tab S4 across several days without charging worries.
The Tab S4 is a highly mobile productivity device and taking advantage of the 4G SIM card slot gives you independence from your phone. If you're serious about mobile working, then having two different networks makes a lot of sense. Of course, the 4G version adds another £50 to the asking price.
Display and audio
- 10.5-inch, 2560 x 1600 pixel (288ppi) AMOLED display
- Four speakers with Dolby Atmos surround
The 16:10 aspect ratio of the display means this tablet feels just right when it's in landscape orientation, ensuring you can watch movies without huge black bars top and bottom. It lends the Tab S4 a laptop-like feel when docked on the keyboard – and that's clearly how Samsung thinks you're going to be using this device.
The resolution is a little higher than that of the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but it's the same sort of ballpark. It is a Samsung AMOLED display, supporting HDR (High Dynamic Range). It's here that you really see the quality boost over cheaper tablets – like the Amazon Fire tablets – rivalling the visuals of the Apple iPad.
So this is a tablet that has the detail you need to work and the punch that you need for premium entertainment. Fire up Netflix and those HDR movies look amazing, which is where you get something in return for investing in a slightly more expensive tablet. Take this into gaming and we found that the increased size and detail took PUBG Mobile into a new dimension.
When it comes to entertainment, the visuals are boosted with a great audio offering. There are four speakers on the Galaxy Tab S4 and like the company's latest phones, there's Dolby Atmos added into the mix. On daily audio tasks this makes little real difference, but fire up a movie and the wider soundstage is really impressive. If you're in a hotel room with an evening to kill, it's a great experience.
DeX is a game changer
- Desktop mode
- Samsung Flow
So the Tab S4 ticks all the entertainment boxes, but the real challenge is providing a working environment that suits those who want to be a little more productive. Samsung's big play here is the introduction of DeX – which morphs the Android operating system into a more windows-led experience in landscape orientation – taking this from being just another Android tablet into a device that's a lot more practical for working on the move.
While Android apps offer lots of great options – Gmail in landscape is easy to use, Google Docs and its syncing is really useful – a lot of the Android operating system doesn't work well in landscape and the tablet experience hasn't matured like it has for Apple's iPad. But DeX forces Android's hand when you're working in landscape, opening apps in windows so the overall orientation doesn't need to change. Citymapper, for example, opens in a window in portrait, rather than hijacking everything and spinning the visuals sideways.
DeX also means you can drag and drop, resize and move things around on the display, just like a desktop. Although Samsung has offered split-screen for many years, it's just not as easy to use as freeform windows. You can drop app shortcuts onto your DeX wallpaper, you get convenient system icons a little like Windows, but you're still given the advantage of lightweight mobile apps and battery longevity.
You're not only well served by Google's apps (Docs, Sheets, etc), but with Microsoft having done a sterling job of enabling mobile versions of its Office apps, you're in a great place. That's true of any other Android tablet, or even the Apple iPad, but these don't have DeX to make the difference.
There are some apps that don't work so well with DeX. Netflix is about the only one that matters, as this opens in a window, but can't then be made full screen unless you revert back into tablet mode.
Sure, some things in DeX might befuddle you. Those small icons across the bottom of the display aren't as accessible as Android's swipe down quick settings and we suspect that's because DeX was designed for a plug in monitor and mouse arrangement. The same applies to the icons to minimise or maximise (or even close) windows – they're too small for a finger, so could easily be revised for a better experience.
Overall, however, it's DeX that makes the Tab S4 a better Android tablet than its rivals. It's not because the tablet has more power or a better display, but because it actually delivers on making working on Android in landscape a comfortable reality. Especially if you've added the accessory keyboard.
Keyboard, S Pen and dock
- S Pen stylus is included in the box
- Keyboard is a £119 accessory
- S Pen storage on keyboard
We've mentioned the keyboard a couple of times. It's a £119 accessory that really does turn the Tab S4 into something you could reasonably use instead of a laptop, once you get used to the smaller format.
It's a chiclet keyboard and we found it comfortable enough to work on throughout the day. We'd not choose to write extensively on it because of the size, but that's probably something specific to reviewers writing long form; for emails, meeting notes and short text, it's fast and comfortable enough.
Navigation really relies on touch and type, though. You can have a Bluetooth mouse and that would enhance the experience, but equally you can tap or use the included S Pen to navigate. We did find that sometimes we'd tap the display with a wayward finger when typing and that can de-select your text entry app – but again, it takes a few days of use to get used to it all.
The S Pen unlocks a lot of interaction. Not only can it be used for navigation, hover to select, and offer 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity if you fancy yourself as a digital artist, but you can also use it for writing notes – which is really convenient on a tablet. We suspect that it is most likely to be used in this way and you also get the Galaxy Note's Screen Off Memo function.
Because the S Pen isn't housed in the tablet, however, it doesn't have the same natural launch that the Galaxy Note offers, so it takes a little more prompting to get S Pen apps to open. It's a passive system, the pen taking power from the display, hence contact is needed for things to get going. The design is great, it feels like a quality, pen to hold and use.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is an excellent entertainment tablet. If offers power, a great display, good sound quality and access to plenty of entertainment services through Android. The long battery life and 3.5mm headphone socket make for a great travel companion, with everything in a well designed and good-looking package.
But it's a rather expensive option: the Amazon Fire HD 10 is a mere £150 and is the Samsung tablet four times better? It's a hard sell. Sure, the S Pen stylus is part of the bundle and that at least positions the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 as cheaper than the Apple iPad Pro.
Samsung's wider ambitions position the Galaxy Tab S4 as a tablet for work when combined with the accessory keyboard dock. Where Samsung has done more work than any other Android manufacturer is with DeX, which turns Android into a workable solution with multiple windows, drag-and-drop, and more. Sure, it could be an even better experience and the keyboard could be better refined, but we feel that the keyboard is integral to this experience. With that in mind, the new Surface Go is impossible to ignore, if browsing and Office functions are all you need.
Ultimately, Android is less well served than Apple iOS for tablets, but in the Samsung Tab S4 DeX can do things that the iPad can't. And that will make this tablet a genuine laptop replacement for some.
Apple iPad Pro 10.5
The defacto choice for tablets is the iPad. The app ecosystem is better tailored than Android, with a feeling that someone has actually thought about how apps look on a tablet screen. The Pro supports the Apple Pencil (£89) and the smart keyboard (£159), so it's more expensive overall. The entertainment space is very much the same if you're just watching movies, but Samsung's DeX gives you a workspace that the iPad cannot match.
Microsoft Surface Go
A new entry in this space is the cheaper MS Surface. It's a different proposition, because it runs Windows 10 and offers full desktop apps, so is a more versatile working machine and very much a PC in tablet form. That means that while you get a great work machine, it's not going to offer you the latest mobile games and the app space is very different from Apple or Android mobile devices. Still, if work is why you want it, it's hard to ignore.