Hands-on with Samsung's first flagship tablet, the Galaxy Tab S
June 12, 2014
It seems like just a few months ago that Samsung was unveiling its first high-end tablets (and, come to think of it, it was only five short months ago). But at an event this evening at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Samsung pulled back the curtain on what it's describing as its first flagship tablet, the Galaxy Tab S. Gizmag was there for some quality hands-on time.
At first glance, the Galaxy Tab S doesn't look like a huge upgrade over the Galaxy Tab Pro series. It's going to ship in two similar sizes (8.4-in and 10.5-in), with the same 2,560 x 1,600 resolution and a similar aesthetic. The Tab S' big selling feature, though, is that it's the first tablet with a high-resolution Super AMOLED display. That means richer colors, deeper contrast and a wider overall color range.
Despite all of Samsung's hoopla over the Galaxy Tab S' screen quality, though, I wasn't immediately floored by its display. Did the screen look great? You bet. Would I take it over the Galaxy Tab Pro's LCD – despite the two tablets having identical resolutions? Probably.
But I also wouldn't describe it as a dramatic upgrade. This isn't the kind of experience you might have had on first seeing Apple's first "Retina Displays," in the iPhone 4, iPad 3 and Retina MacBook Pro – where it felt like a veil had been lifted from all the pixelated screens that came before them. To me, the Tab S' AMOLED display was more along the lines of "okay, yeah, I guess that does look a little better."
There was, however, one big exception. When I played a high-resolution video on the Galaxy Tab S, I started to see what all the fuss was about. The video looked stunning, with crisper detail, blacker blacks and more eye-popping colors than I've seen on any other video screen (apart from, perhaps, a 4K TV). If you watch lots of HD video on your tablet, then – holy cow – this slate is going to be a treat for you.
Despite the Galaxy Tab S' mesmerizing video quality, I think its killer feature just might be its incredibly light and thin build. The Galaxy Tab Pro series (remember, those are the ones that launched earlier this year) was already quite feathery, but the Tab S is charting new waters.
On paper, the 10.5-in Tab S is only 4 g (0.14 oz) lighter than the iPad Air. That might not sound like much, but when you consider that Samsung's tablet has a 10 percent bigger screen than the iPad Air, it's easier to appreciate the difference. And the 8.4-inch Tab S, which is 11 percent lighter than the Retina iPad mini, feels ridiculously airy. It's the most toy-like tablet I've used – meaning it feels like there couldn't possibly be high-end computer equipment inside of this feathery slab of plastic and glass.
Samsung's favorite dimpled pleather construction – yep, the Band-Aid look – is back for the ride. In pictures, the Tab S' finish is going to look almost exactly like the Galaxy S5's. In person, though, I think it feels quite different. The GS5 has a slightly soft-touch feel, but the Tab S feels more solid. It's this strange combination of razor-thin, feathery light and a solid plastic that's so firm it almost feels metallic. Picking it up is quite the unique experience.
The Tab S has another big thing in common with the GS5: it has a fingerprint scanner in its home button. As far as I could tell from the hands-on, it's identical to the one you'd find in the GS5. That should also mean that the same sensor-friendly third-party apps (like PayPal and LastPass) will also play nicely with this one.
As is usually the case with Samsung releases, the company is overwhelming us with a long list of "amazing" and "groundbreaking" software features (most of which are typically anything but). This time around, Samsung threw in some content partnerships with Marvel and Conde Nast magazine content (Samsung calls its AMOLED-optimized magazine app "Papergarden"). Samsung Gifts, the company's slew of bonus content offers, is back for this ride as well. Samsung also threw in some remote desktop functionality: a nice perk, but Android already gives you plenty of quality options for remotely accessing a PC.
One new software feature, though, stood out to me as truly fresh. SideSync 3.0 lets you pair a Galaxy S5 with the Galaxy Tab S over Wi-Fi, and view the phone's entire contents on your tablet. After activating SideSync, your GS5's screen pops up inside a virtual GS5 on the Tab S' home screen. As far as I can tell, you can do anything with this virtual GS5 that you could with the real one – including rapping out text messages, making and taking calls, and even transferring files with a simple drag-and-drop.
Why bother controlling your phone on your tablet's screen when you could just pick up the damn phone? Well, in this multi-device world we live in, SideSync can give you one less thing to carry around the house. With this feature, I could see myself leaving my phone upstairs on its charger the entire time I'm at home. Why bother lugging around another device when you can conduct all of your phone's business on your Galaxy Tab S?
Having spent part of this NYC evening with the Tab S, I came away with a mixed bag of impressions. Its screen looks great, the tablet is insanely light and thin, and SideSync can be a huge bonus for GS5 owners (not to mention a handy way for Samsung to sell more of both devices). But does it all add up to something that's better than the tablets that are already out there? Is this really a big deal? Possibly, but most of it also feels pretty incremental to me. It's getting harder for mobile device companies to truly innovative, but their presentations are just as full of bloated superlatives as ever. At what point does it just become a bunch of hot air? And you also can't ignore Android's (still) weaker tablet app selection, compared to the iPad's.
If the Tab S' combination of rich screen, airy build and terrific phone/tablet integration does tickle your fancy, then you shouldn't have long to wait. Samsung's new tablets launch this July, starting at US$400 for the smaller 8.4-in version and $500 for the 10.5-incher (it's likely no coincidence that those are the same starting prices as the Retina iPad mini and iPad Air, respectively). You can stay tuned for more from Gizmag on the two new tablets.