It's taken Samsung a while, but there have been signs of late that it's finally cracked this whole tablet thing.
Just last week we proclaimed the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 to be the best full-sized Android tablet on the planet. And now here comes the similarly specced 8.4in model out to repeat the trick.
On the surface it’s almost identical to its predecessor, the Galaxy TabPro 8.4 (stick with us), but it does have a new AMOLED screen, a slimmer, lighter build and a few software tweaks.
All of which adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. In fact, it’s the first small Galaxy tablet that we’ve truly loved living with.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 review
Slim and solid
Sure, we like how the Tab S 8.4 is even skinnier than the TabPro at a ludicrous 6.6mm thick. We also like how seriously light in the hand the 294g tab is - without feeling cheap or toy-like. And how it’s still easier to hold one-handed than an iPad Mini thanks to the screen ratio.
But what’s really won us over is how sturdy the Tab S feels compared to the last few batches of Samsung tablets - and smartphones - we’ve tested. OK, it’ll flex very slightly if you really go at it but the plastic build is nice and solid. It doesn’t get close to the smooth, stable aluminium form of an iPad Mini but it’s enough to really make a difference. Especially when you’re paying £320.
In terms of looks, we’re talking textbook Galaxy. Home button below the screen in portrait, in-between two brightly lit capacitive buttons. Fairly slim bezels. MicroSD card slot on the side. Samsung is still playing around with textures and trimmings, though - on our Dazzling White model there’s a slightly slippy back panel and a faux-metal, rose gold band around the edge. It also comes in Titanium Bronze.
The good news is that the fake stitching and faux leather have been banished to tablet design hell but, to be honest, Samsung needs to keep trying. It’ll get there. For now, the Tab S is a skinny and sturdy slate that won’t look cheap and nasty next to an iPad Mini.
Simple Clickers, silly.
Now if you’re not planning to attach any covers to your Tab S, you can ignore them. If you’re interested in protecting your Samsung, however, these will keep it in place more securely than a magnetic cover. They only work with Tab S covers; any Bluetooth keyboards instead have slots to rest the slate in and don’t make use of the circular click locks.
This screen's a stunner
What. A. Screen.
If you thought the Tab S 10.5’s display was tasty, get ready for a mesmerising staring session with the Tab S 8.4.
With a 2560x1600 resolution and at this size, it’s sharper than the bigger Samsung tablet - a whopping 360ppi - and it’s also a bright, punchy Super AMOLED panel.
It’s the brightest small tablet we’ve ever used, in fact, so a bit of sunlight won’t stop you catching up on emails. And by sharp we meant insanely sharp, like the TabPro before it, with extra detail on hi-res images and in full HD videos to make your jaw drop. The fact that it's a Super AMOLED panel also means that deep blacks are seriously impressive. And if you like your colours vibrant, you won't be disappointed.
All that and it’s both taller and wider than the iPad Mini with Retina display’s 7.9in screen in a very similar sized body. So is it better?
After a lot of testing and squabbling, the iPad Mini just edges ahead. Why? The Tab S 8.4 might display beautifully inky blacks but whites in apps, movies or webpage backgrounds have a bit of a blue tinge to them and don’t look as pure and crisp as on the iPad. We got the best out of it when we manually chose a Super AMOLED setting to get eye-popping homescreens and Papergarden magazines then switched to Basic for movies. The iPad looks gorgeous with no alien colours or skintones no matter what you throw at it. If you plan to use it mainly for movies or gaming rather than browsing the web, though, you can’t get better than the Tab S 8.4.
Us? We use the internet too much.
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Magazine UI is now a killer feature
Three things raise Samsung’s new UI, based on KitKat 4.4.2, above regular Android tablets: Magazine UI, Samsung freebies and Multi Window.
The first means that two homescreens are given over to tiled widgets showing calendar info, Hancom Office docs, email, news streams from Flipboard and WatchON TV info. It’s gorgeous, it’s lively and, though Magazine UI isn’t new - we've seen it on a few other Samsung tabs - it’s improving all the time, with a new briefing panel for calendar, bookmarks and alarms. You can’t turn it off but it’s easy to ignore.
The Tab S series takes the concept of freebies to dizzy heights with Galaxy Gifts. 50GB of Dropbox for two years, free books via the Kindle app, a three-month Marvel Unlimited sub and plenty more. Non-essential Samsung apps are also (ironically) relegated to a Galaxy Essentials app too, so it’s up to you what you download.
Multi Window, which lets you view two apps splitscreen, is also present and correct, together with new tricks such as being able to swap the apps round and dragging and dropping text from one window to the other. This is a bit hit and miss but definitely a step in the right direction.
Lastly, Papergarden is a nice treat too. It’s an interactive magazine store populated by titles which have designed special Tab S editions to take advantage of the resolution and ratio, Stuff included.
Screen: 8.4in 2560x1600 (360ppi) Super AMOLED
Processor: Exynos 5 Octa (1.9GHz quad-core, 1.3GHz quad-core)
OS: Android 4.4.2 (KitKat)
Camera: 8MP rear with LED, 2.1MP front, 1080p video @30fps
Storage: 16GB (+ microSD up to 128GB)
Connectivity: WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, USB 2.0, 3G/4G
Dimensions: 125.6 x 212.8 x 6.6mm
Weight: 294g, 298g (LTE)
Performance just short of perfect
As much as we like the feature-packed, grown-up looking version of Touchwiz, sadly it must be responsible for the occasional lag we experienced when using the Tab S 8.4. Because it can’t be that beastly Exynos 5 Octa processor and 3GB of RAM.
It’s minor but up against flawless performance from the iPad Mini, it shows. Open and close Chrome or the Gallery a couple of times or swipe between Magazine screens and homescreens and you’ll see stutters.
When taxed with Asphalt 8 or less intensive games such as Blek though, the Tab S 8.4 is dreamy. Downloads are fast and 1080p video playback is smooth. With an AnTuTu score of 34,411 and that silicon, they should be too. It’s not an Android niggle, it’s a Samsung one.
Still, storage is a bright spot. £320 for a 16GB machine doesn’t sound so bad when you can drop another £80 on a 128GB microSD card if you really want locally stored media. A 128GB iPad Mini with Retina display costs £560. Do the maths.
READ MORE: The £260 LG G Pad 8.3 review
It might only have a slightly larger battery than that in the TabPro 8.4 - now 4900mAh as opposed to 4800mAh - but Samsung’s doing something right because the Tab S’s battery life is superb.
In our week with the device, we tended to go a day and a half between charges and in our HD video rundown (half brightness, Wi-Fi and sync on) it managed just over 10 hours. Yet another reason the Tab S is so much nicer to live with than the TabPro - less charging.
It charges quickly too and now as well as a regular power-saver mode, there’s also Samsung’s Ultra Power Saving mode. This kills most apps apart from calls, messages and emails and switches the screen to black and white. Less of a lifesaver than on the S5 but still nice when you hit 7%.
Yes and no. Function-wise it’s impressive, with multiple users able to assign digits to unlock their account (after selecting their name on the lockscreen), three fingers per user can be stored and payment for Samsung apps and PayPal is already integrated.
We might be nitpicking but it’s just not very elegant to use. You have to swipe a finger over the Tab S’ home button which is tricky to get right unless it’s flat on the desk and doesn’t work everytime. Using your thumb as you hold the tablet in two hands helps, but overall we still prefer Apple’s press-to-scan style of fingerprint recognition. For now, we’ll use Samsung’s for payments only - it’s slightly more hassle than the security is worth for unlocking.
Capable Cameras - If You Need Them
It goes without saying that Samsung has stuck a pair of decent cameras on the Tab S 8.4. Well, we wish it went without saying so we didn’t have to look like a berk testing the rear 8MP camera, but hey, some people use tablet cameras.
It fares better in daylight - at times getting close to matching smartphone cameras with rich colours and good exposure. Things get fuzzy at night, but essentially the rear snapper can step in when your smartphone’s sleeping. There’s an LED flash on the back too and the 2.1MP front camera handles Skype calls nicely.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 Verdict
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is an incredible tablet with almost no flaws. Superb screen, unique features, a battery that doesn’t need charging every night… really, there's very little that's missing here.
So does it beat the iPad Mini with Retina display? Well, it’s lighter, easier to hold one-handed, has a bigger screen, offers more storage for less money and comes with tons of freebies.
But for us the iPad Mini stays on top by a whisker for its unrivalled tablet design, absolutely flawless performance and wider selection of optimised tablet apps. Sure, the Tab S 8.4 is smaller than most Android tablets and both the Magazine UI and Papergarden help but the App Store is where you’ll find the best apps for (slightly) bigger screens.
Against other Android tabs, though, it's a winner. OK, so if a cheap price is your main requirement then the Nexus 7 and LG G Pad 8.3 have you covered. But if what you're really after is the very best Android tab on the planet, well then that’s now made by Samsung. In both sizes.
READ MORE: These are the Top Ten tablets on the planet
All of the above represents how we felt about the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 when we first reviewed it back in August 2014, but Apple's now shifted the whole small tablet arena by dropping the price of the iPad Mini 2 to just £240. We still like Samsung's tab a great deal but there's no denying that it now looks mighty pricey by comparison and we've had to drop it from 5 stars to 4 stars as a result.
If you're still set on a small Android tablet the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 could well be the one for you, but do make sure you also check out the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact.