The iPad Air is still sitting pretty at the top of Stuff's Top 10 Tablet list. And Samsung doesn't like that one bit.
While we've lost track of how many tablets the South Korean tech giant has released over the past year, the Tab S impressed us at its New York launch, where we had a brief look at it under the showroom lights.
Now, after spending a few weeks living with it, we’re ready to deliver our definitive judgement on Samsung’s flagship tablet. And the good news is that it might well be the best Android slate we've ever seen.
READ MORE: Apple iPad Air review
SUPER-SLIM AND PREMIUM(ISH)
The Galaxy Tab S echoes the Galaxy S5's design, with a perforated plastic back which is available in Titanium Bronze or Dazzling White.
While the S5 has been criticised for its less-than-premium build, the Tab S is something of a different beast. You'll still get a few creaks and a bit of flex if you twist it hard enough but resist the urge to do that and it’s every bit as sturdy as it needs to be.
It’s also incredibly comfortable to hold in the hands, thanks to its 6.6mm thin body and featherlight weight, while the back offers reassuring grip without feeling rubbery. Even the faux brushed-metal banding which surrounds the body does a decent job of fooling both fingers and eyes.
No, it doesn't match the build quality of the iPad Air or Xperia Tablet Z2, but it's a solid step forward nonetheless.
Otherwise, there’s not a lot to write home about. The sides of the Tab S are home to the microSD and SIM slots, although the latter is only present in the 4G LTE versions, and Samsung has unsurprisingly stuck to its usual capacitive buttons for ‘recent apps’ and ‘back’.
These flank the physical home button, which also gives the Galaxy Tab S fingerprint-scanning powers; a first for a Samsung Tablet. Up to three fingers per user are supported, and multiple users can log on with a quick swipe of a finger, as well as paying for items online with PayPal.
There are two circular rear click locks, called 'Simple Clickers' on the rear, and they're Samsung's answer to magnetic covers. While snapping on covers is a little fiddly, it does offer a stronger connection than a magnet alone.
A JAW-DROPPING SCREEN
Put simply, the Galaxy Tab S' 10.5in screen is absolutely stunning. So stunning in fact, that it was passed around the Stuff office, ogled by eyeballs and met with genuine oohs and ahhs.
The Tab S has the world's first 2560 x 1600 Super AMOLED tablet display, and it's almost sharp enough to slice lemons.
The S uses an Adaptive Display mode which automatically adjusts to your surroundings. Purists will find the default colours over-saturated, but change the display settings to Basic and they become far more realistic while still remaining eye-wateringly punchy.
It can also automatically adjust to environmental lighting conditions, tweaking its white balance as necessary for the ambient light. So, if you're in a coffee shop with warm yellow light for example, the Tab S will compensate by applying a cooler, bluer white tone. The demo above shows the difference between the white levels under warm and cool lighting conditions.
The Tab S' AMOLED display also offers another advantage over LCD counterparts: better readability in sunlight. This is truly a tablet that you can use on the beach.
In a direct comparison with the Retina Display of the iPad Air, it’s mighty close. The Tab S’ true blacks serve up greater contrast and therefore more detail when it comes to still images. The iPad Air’s whites however, are purer, and it shows up a smidgen more detail in videos, if you look closely enough.
The Tab S wins on size however, and its aspect ratio is better suited than its Apple rival’s for movies, with black bars becoming less of a problem.
Overall, Samsung has provided the Tab S with one of the best tablet screens we've ever laid eyes on, and for that, it should be applauded.
A POWERFUL ENGINE, WITH A FEW STUTTERS
On paper the Galaxy Tab S has plenty of power. Its Exynos 5 Octa-core processor and 3GB of RAM should handle 3D games with ease. And they do. Despite having to push all those extra pixels, 3D games such as Asphalt 8 pose no problem for the Tab S' silicon.
It's disappointing then, to see the occasional stutter and lag when it comes to UI transitions and opening apps. In particular, we noticed consistent delays in scrolling through magazines in Samsung's new PaperGarden app.
Given that gaming poses no problems, this could be down to software-optimisation issues – but it's disappointing nonetheless. Hopefully a software update will get things running as smoothly as they should, as it's never serious enough to prove a major problem.
A decent camera, if you insist on using it
The only justifiable excuse for using your tablet as camera is if your smartphone's lost/dead/stolen and there's no camera within a three-mile radius. In the unlikely event that you find yourself in such a predicament, the Tab S will do a good job.
It has an 8MP sensor and takes really rather impressive shots, with sharp details and accurate colours - in well-lit conditions, that is. Low-light shots are unsurprisingly grainy, but flicking on the flash still manages to pick up detail on close subjects.
Even the macro shots are impressive: the Tab S can focus at ludicrously close range while retaining detail. Impressive stuff for a tablet, then, but just to make it clear - we’re not endorsing your use of it as a camera. It’s not right.
PACKED WITH SAMSUNG EXTRAS
As you might expect, the Tab S is heavily skinned with Samsung's TouchWiz interface and packed with software extras.
Thankfully, Samsung's blessed its latest slate with the same updated TouchWiz skin as that on the Galaxy S5, which means less bright, cartoony, garish colours, and prettier, flatter icons. It's a definite step in the right direction, though HTC's Sense 6.0 and Sony's minimalist Xperia skin still remain supreme.
Samsung's Magazine UX also returns, and although you might be frustrated to hear that you can't switch it off, we rather like it. It’s really useful, serving up news in clipboard-powered panels that will be instantly familiar to fans of the Flipboard app.
Magazine also represents a speedy way to jump into Samsung's new Papergarden app. This hosts high-quality magazines (Stuff is naturally among them), specifically formatted for the Tab S' screen.
Anyone buying the tablet gets free access to scores of new issues for a limited time, and the content really does look fantastic on such a spectacular screen; we compared identical pages from the iPad issue of Stuff, and the colours and crispness of the Tab S' display blew us away.
In terms of software tweaks, the much-loved Multi Window feature makes a triumphant return, letting you run two apps side-by-side for some genuinely useful multi-tasking. It’s really handy for tasks such as copying addresses directly from Chrome and looking them up in Maps, and you'll find plenty of uses for it once you remember it's an option.
You can now also drag content directly from one window to another, saving the hassle of copying and pasting content manually, which is another bonus.
Another (potentially) useful feature is SideSync 3.0, which is an app that mirrors your Galaxy smartphone in a virtual on-screen counterpart on the Tab S.
You can use it to transfer files between your phone and tablet, but we think the ability to make and receive calls directly from the connected Tab S is the big win here, especially if your phone is charging in another room while you're playing around on the tablet itself.
Screen: 10.5in 2560 x 1600 Super AMOLED
Processor: Exynos 5 Octa-core (1.9GHz, 1.3GHz)
Battery: 7,900 mAh
Camera: 8MP rear (1080p video), 2.1MP front
Dimensions: 177.3 x 247.3 x 6.6mm
Memory: 16GB (expandable with up to 128GB microSD)
FINGER LICKIN’ GOOD
Like the Galaxy S5, the Tab S' home button doubles as a fingerprint scanner. The scanner on the Tab S is easier to use, because we're already holding it in two hands, so there's no danger of it crash landing - a problem we faced with the S5.
We're happy to report that our fingerprints were accurately recognised nine times out of ten, although we'd still prefer a simple press of the button, iPhone 5s-style, as opposed to having to swipe across it.
The Tab S also supports multiple profiles, with each user having their own media and apps fenced off from other profiles. Each profile can be accessed with a secure fingerprint swipe - but rather annoyingly, you have to manually select your profile from the lock screen before swiping.
We expected the Tab S to automatically unlock into whichever profile is associated with the fingerprint used, and while choosing the correct profile before swiping only takes a few seconds, it would be nice if it was a more seamless experience.
Stamina in spades
The Galaxy Tab S' 7900mAh battery is very impressive indeed. It conked out after a marathon 12 hours and 18 minutes in our video rundown test, which involves looping a video with Wi-Fi on and all email accounts set to sync.
With regular use it'll last you two days easily, and it's nice knowing that you don't have to fret about sorting out emergency charges while you're out and about.
Samsung has blessed the Galaxy Tab with one of the best tablet screens we've ever laid eyes on. It's stunning. Razor-sharp, vibrant, with pure blacks, it's a work of art that's a pleasure to behold.
While its plastic design is still easily bested by the aluminium iPad, its thin, lightweight body and grippy, dimpled rear are pleasant to hold, and it's still a handsome slice of tech.
Even its camera (which resides near the bottom of the tablet priority list) is impressive, taking detailed snaps with accurate colours.
Throw in its incredible stamina, and you could arguably call it the perfect tablet. Well almost.
The tablet app selection on Apple’s App store is still far superior to the offerings on the Play Store.
Performance niggles also spoil things a bit, although thankfully gaming isn't affected. If Samsung irons those out in future iterations, continues to trim down its UI, and throws everything into a metal body, then it could very well have an iPad Air-killer on its hands.
If you're looking for a large Android tablet right now, though, then there's no better option. Nicely done, Samsung. Nicely done.