Samsung doesn’t have the best reputation with tablets. In fact, Android as a whole doesn’t have the best reputation with tablets. It seemed at first that Samsung’s tablet strategy was to produce truckloads of dirt cheap tablets that tried to grab people who were just getting their first experience with tablets.
Not to be confused with the cheaper Galaxy Tab 4 10.1, the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, however, is Samsung’s first real attempt at taking on the iPad Air 2. It’s been out on the market since mid-2014, but considering that people don’t buy a new tablet every year, the question of how the Tab S 10.5 holds up is still worth asking.
So how does it stand up to the competition? Let’s find out.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Galaxy Tab S is how light and thin it is. Despite how large the display is on the 10.1 version, the feel of this device really is impressive. In fact, the Galaxy Tab S is only bested by the iPad Air 2, which is just barely lighter and thinner. The difference is hardly noticeable though side-by-side though. Considering how big of a deal Apple made about the size of its new tablet that came out well after the Tab S, that’s pretty impressive.
The Galaxy Tab S has a plastic back, but it might be one of the better ones you’ve felt. Rather than being slimy and fingerprint-prone like the older, cheaper Galaxy Tab devices, the Tab S has the same faux-leather back that was featured on the most recent Galaxy S5 smartphone. It’s no replacement for the aluminum found on the iPad Air 2, but it gets the job done.
Unfortunately, “getting the job” is just not what you want when you are dropping $499 on a tablet. Even at $100 cheaper than the Air 2, it just doesn’t achieve that same premium feel that Apple’s tablets have. This is a common theme with the Tab S, which attempts to shoot for the “like an iPad, but $100 cheaper” market.
The good news is that the display on the Tab S doesn’t feel at all like a compromise. With a gorgeous 2560×1600-pixel Super AMOLED display, the pixel density is even higher than on the iPad Air 2. The high contrast of AMOLED makes the deep blacks and bright colors of the display perfect for watching videos and movies—and because the screen is so big at 10.5-inches, you won’t have to hold it up at your face when binge-watching Netflix in bed.
One major gripe I have with Tab S (and all other Samsung devices that use this design), are the touch-activated soft buttons. Unlike the soft buttons in stock Android which move shift with the screen when it flips from landscape to portrait, the soft buttons on the Tab S stay where they are, making portrait mode a huge pain. Even after weeks of using the Tab S, I found myself accidentally tapping the Back or App Switcher buttons with my thumb just when trying to find a place to hold the device. Samsung seriously needs to either get rid of these buttons forever and switch to on-screen soft buttons or just make these actual hard buttons. It just makes the device feel outdated next to other Android or Apple tablets.
Overall, the Galaxy Tab S is a nice jump forward for Samsung’s hardware and design. It matches what it’s done with its smartphones and impressively translates that into an incredibly thin and light tablet design. The compromises it makes in materials and design is unfortunate, but expected at the lower price point.
The software on the Tab S is where things go a bit awry. The Tab S runs Android 4.4 KitKat with Samsung’s own skin running on top of it—and you can feel it. Not only is the skin uglier and more clunky than stock Android, it also just feels a bit slow.
The Tab S features Samsung’s “Magazine UX” design, which can be found just left of the main homescreen. Essentially, these are full page widgets which include things like calenders, inboxes, to-do lists, and news. Unfortunately, none of is very useful and just swiping between the different pages can cause stuttering and choppiness. These can be turned off if you dig through the settings, but the software here just doesn’t feel nearly as refined as on what you’ll get on a Nexus 9 or iPad Air 2.
The one saving grace of the Tab S’ software is the multitasking. Being able to pull up two windows next to each other is a great benefit on a tablet this size and something people have been wanting from Apple and Android for quite some time now. It can only run apps that Samsung has designated, but even still, it’s a nice feature that I actually found myself using from time to time. Very few of the other features that Samsung likes to stuff its products with were of much use—the worse being the fingerprint scanner, which often required many attempts to retrieve any data.
Even so, if you take a couple of hours to replace all of Samsung’s default apps, turn off the Magazine UX, and even replace the homescreen with the Google Now launcher, you’ll end up with some decent feeling software, despite that performance just isn’t always great. It even had trouble loading different screens in Hearthstone occasionally, which isn’t exactly the most graphically-heavy game in the Google Play Store.
There is a lot to like about the Galaxy Tab S. It’s attractive, well-built, thin, and has a gorgeous display. However, when you are laying down a large wad of cash, you don’t want to have to have to compromise on something like performance or software. At this point the device isn’t brand new—and I get that. Samsung may even be announcing its follow up to the Galaxy Tab S this summer.
However, on a purely practical level, spending $100 more on an iPad Air 2 is the recommended move here. If you are more comfortable in the Android universe or just want to save some money, the high performance and updated software of the Nexus 9 should be the first alternative you look at. The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 might not be the iPad-killer Samsung wanted it to be, but it just might be a great first step in making one for the company.