updated 02:18 am EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 delivers the best tablet display yet
As with its smartphones, Samsung has thrown everything it can at the wall when it comes to tablets to see what eventually sticks. However, even though Samsung holds the title as the largest single Android tablet maker, it hasn't made the same sort of inroads against Apple in the tablet space as it has with its Galaxy smartphones. It has launched tablets in all shapes and sizes, with multiple models and sizes targeting the low-end, middle and high-end segments making it a challenge for consumers to navigate. Its latest high-end model, the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, however, looks as though the company may finally have its formula right in its never-ending battle with Apple.
The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 is the latest refinement of Samsung's familiar tablet formula. As with previous iterations, it is predominantly a plastic design, aluminum left to help reinforce the internals of the chassis, rather than featuring in any way externally. Even the metallic trim surrounding the frame of the device is actually plastic treated to look like metal. The rear of the Galaxy Tab S is made from a very nice to touch, if questionable dimpled appearance, keeping with the design language of the Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone. It is perhaps Samsung's most premium looking tablet to date, but trying to make plastic products look premium can end up looking slightly tacky and somewhat gaudy first hand (even if they look very nice in product marketing photos).
The Galaxy Tab S comes in a range of both Wi-Fi-only and 4G LTE models. It is worth noting that the Wi-Fi-only models ship with Samsung's homegrown Exynos 5 Octa-core chip clocked at 1.9GHz, while the 4G LTE models ship with Qualcomm's quad-core Snapdragon 800 clocked at 2.3GHz. Given the laggy nature of Samsung's TouchWiz skinned version of Android (more on this later), it could be worth opting for the higher-clocked Snapdragon model if you have the option. The model we have for testing is the Wi-Fi-only Exynos 5 Octa-core powered design, but we suspect that its Qualcomm-enhanced 'Krait' architecture will be the slightly better performer.
The 32-bit Exynos 5 Octa 5420 is fabricated by Samsung using ARM's bigLITTLE architecture. This mates a four high performance ARM Cortex-A15 cores clocked at 1.9GHz, with four power saving ARM Cortex-A7 cores all on one die; the chip intelligently toggles between the cores depending on usage. The GPU is an ARM Mali-T628 six-core MP6 design. This combination gives the device performance comparable to the 2.2GHz quad-core Tegra K1 chip in the Nvidia Shield with multi-core scores of 2827 for the Tab S and 2540 for the Shield. However, the Exynos' Mali GPU gets smoked by the next-gen Kepler-based Tegra K1 GPU in the 3D Mark benchmark - the Tab S scores 13602, which is no competition for the Tegra K1 that scores more than double at 31171.
While there could be a question mark over the performance of the Galaxy Tab S, the undoubted highlight of the device is its 2560x1600 pixel 10.5-inch Super AMOLED display. Although it is not the first time Samsung has brought a tablet to market, it is the first time that we have seen one come in at this size and this quality in a high volume device. The 10.5-inch size at a ratio of 16:9 is ideal for viewing movies in particular, but is also well suited to reading and viewing magazines. The dimensions also make it better than the more typical 10.1-inch 16:9 seen in larger Android tablets for viewing web pages. It also hits 288ppi, which helps to ensure that text is razor sharp.
You have to give credit to Samsung for the way that it has developed AMOLED technology for the consumer mobile market; even if its early displays, while always very colorful, weren't particularly color accurate. Whites also tended to look blueish, even if a high-quality IPS LCD panel couldn't beat an AMOLED display for its blacks and contrast. However, Samsung has nailed it with the display on the Galaxy Tab S - it is nothing short of outstanding. Independent assessment by DisplayMate reveals that the Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy Tab S setting new standards for color accuracy, infinite contrast ratio, lowest screen reflectance the lowest recorded brightness variation with viewing angle. If you haven't been keen on AMOLED displays to date, the Galaxy Tab S could help change your mind.
Shame then, that similar praise cannot be heaped on Samsung's TouchWiz Android OS variant. Even with an octa-core processor, the TouchWiz UI on our unit displays the kind of lag that we haven't seen on any other device running Android 4.4 'KitKat.' Even Google's Chrome browser, which runs seamlessly on other Android devices doesn't scroll with complete fluency, often stuttering particularly as the inertial scrolling starts to slow. Similarly, returning to the home screen can sometimes result in a slight pause before the widgets reload. All this serves to dampen the user experience, as Android is a much better operating system than how it seems to run on the Galaxy Tab S.
Although Samsung is the most popular Android vendor, doing more to further the Android cause than any other company, it has always felt uncomfortable about being at the mercy of Google. TouchWiz is a perfect illustration of this discomfort highlighted most by the sheer number of Samsung-made applications that are direct duplicates for Google's own products and services. These include the browser, music player, video player, Milk music service, Samsung Galaxy Apps store, and the many variations of 'S' something, including S-Voice and the S Planner. Worse, these duplicate apps and services cannot be removed, impacting on the available storage space.
News just in that Samsung has partnered with Nokia to include its Nokia Here maps alongside Google Maps on its Galaxy smartphones, is further proof that the South Korean tech titan is trying very hard have a duplicate on hand for each key Google app and service on its devices if decides to bet the house in making a jump to Tizen. While Nokia Here maps boast the advantage of being able to operate offline, it will mean a further reduction in available storage space for Samsung users while it continues to adopt this parallel universe approach on each device it ships with Google's Android.
Unlike Apple, which controls all aspects of its hardware and software and the total user experience, Samsung's current reliance on Google to supply its device operating systems is interfering with the quality of its products; but only because Samsung is not completely comfortable with offering a Google-centric software experience. Even though it is currently experimenting with several smartwatches that run its Intel co-developed Tizen operating system, it has repeatedly delayed the launch of any smartphones running Tizen. It's hard to say if the Galaxy Tab S would be any better if it ran Tizen, but it would certainly be a much better device if it ran a much less heavily skinned version of Android. The only real advantage that TouchWiz offers over stock Android is the ability to show two apps on the display running side-by-side simultaneously with drag and drop multitasking functionality.
The only other gripes that we have with the Galaxy Tab S lie in its ergonomics. Unlike most tablet makers that are shaving the edge off the long sides of their tablets, Samsung is has created very narrow bezels on the short sides of the Tab S. Given that the Tab S also features a slightly larger display, this makes it somewhat uncomfortable to hold one-handed. Mitigating this by holding the Tab S in two hands (in landscape view) also highlights another oddity with the design. As the tablet is quite thin at just 0.26 inches thick (6.6mm), Samsung has created an unusual raised flange to accommodate the micro-USB charging port. It feels odd as the left hand side feels of the device feels comfortable and rounded in the hand, but the right hand side is slightly squared off.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S is the company's best tablet to date. However, it is still some way from perfect. Even putting aside the 'love it or hate it' TouchWiz UI and other issues aside, like all Android tablets, it continues to face the issue of a shortage of high-quality apps designed to take full advantage of the larger display real estate. If it offered a more advanced chipset with a 64-bit architecture, it would be even more enticing; we'd even settle for a Snapdragon 801, but a Snapdragon 805 would be preferable. While an octa-core chip sounds powerful, it is no better than competing quad-core 32-bit chipsets from other vendors released over the past 12 months. Yet it is now one year since Apple launched the 64-bit iPad Air, and it is about to launch an even more powerful sequel in the next month or two. In its favor, the Galaxy Tab S boasts the best tablet display on the market, and that in itself gives it considerable appeal.
By Sanjiv Sathiah