For many shoppers, today's 7-inch tablets don't seem much more useful than their smartphones. But if a slate with a 10-inch screen feels too bulky for you to hold through an entire movie or mobile gaming session, an 8.4-inch tablet like Samsung's Galaxy Tab S 8.4 could be just the right fit. Made for mobile entertainment, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 features a razor sharp Super AMOLED display in a light and stylish chassis. A speedy Octacore processor, an immersive Kids Mode and the ability to remotely control your phone add to the list of compelling features. But do you get enough benefit from its display to justify the premium price?
Samsung takes a lot of criticism for its use of plastic materials in tablets and phones, but our bronze Galaxy Tab S 8.4 looked every bit like a high-end product. Even though it is not made of metal, the bronze colored sides and dimpled bronze back offer a compelling look that's consistent with Samsung's Galaxy S5 phone but even more compelling. A dark gray bezel with capacitive navigation buttons for app switching and back, along with a physical home button, complete the snazzy aesthetic.
At 8.37 x 4.94 x .26 inches and 10.37 ounces, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is noticeably thinner and lighter than the iPad Mini with Retina Display (7.9 x 5.3 x .29 inches, 11.7 ounces) and the LG G Pad 8.3 (8.5 x 5.0 x 0.33 inches, 11.9 ounces). Despite its slim size, Samsung found room for a infrared port that lets you use the device as a remote and a microSD card slot that lets you expand the 16GB of internal memory by up to an additional 64GB.
Considering that 64GB cards cost just $34 online, Samsung's tablet provides a lot more storage for a lot less money than the iPad mini, which has no reader but costs $499 for a 32GB version and $599 for a 64GB capacity. Interestingly, Samsung uses a microUSB 2.0 port on the Galaxy Tab S 8.4, rather than the microUSB 3 port it put on its most recent phones.
The Galaxy Tab S 8.4's 8.4-inch, 2560 x 1600 display is the real star of its show. With an eye-popping pixel density of 359 PPI (pixels per inch), the Tab S 8.4 is the sharpest tablet on the market as of this writing, besting the 326-pixel iPad Mini with Retina display. Some newer phones such as the LG G3 offer the same resolution as the Tab S on smaller screens, but this is the new cham among slates.
The Galaxy Tab S 8.4's sharp display is a blessing when using most apps, but exposes flaws in some others. When browsing through home listings in the Trulia real estate app in landscape orientation, the tablet displayed content in three different different panes: one with a list of local homes, another with an area map and a third with a blow up of the currently-selected house.
High-end games, such as "Creative Mobile Drag Racing" and ODD Games "Monster Truck Destruction" looked sharp, colorful and detailed. However, Mater Memory Mission (a childrens' memory game) and Pinball Pro appeared slightly pixilated because they were not designed to scale up to higher resolutions. Facebook looked particularly bad on the slate's screen with lots of wasted space and a news feed that looked stretched in landscape mode.
Samsung's Adapt Display technology, which adjusts color display based on the content, and its ambient light sensor combined to provide bright, colorful images even in direct sunlight. On our light meter, which measures display brightness in lux, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 scored 505, well above the 348 tablet category average, iPad Mini with Retina (390 lux), Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (465 lux) and the LG G Pad 8.3 (273 lux).
When we took the device out on our roof in noon sunlight on a cloudless day, it was easy to see all the icons and controls on the screen, something that's impossible on many other mobile devices.
The screen displayed a strong 160.5 percent of the sRGB color gamut, about double the category average of 84.8 percent and the LG G Pad 8.3's 79 percent. When we watched a movie trailer for "The Guardians of the Galaxy," the green in Gamora's skin or the yellow in Star-Lord's space suit were particularly rich and alive. We found the colors similarly vibrant when playing kids' games like "Lightning McQueen Builder."
While not perfect, the screen returned a solid Delta E color accuracy rating of 4.9, a bit better than the 5.4 category average (0 is perfect accuracy). When we placed the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 next to an iPad Air and played a trailer for "X-Men: Days of Future Past," images like the red in a character's lips or the yellow in his t-shirt were deeper on the Tab. However, with a Delta e rating of just 1.4, the Air's duller palette is closer to real life.
Music playback was a bit tinny from the Tab S 8.4, both when we played the guitar and drum-heavy "How You Like Me Now" and the bass-centric "Forget Me Nots." However, we could hear a separation of sound, as some instruments appeared to be coming out of the left side and others from the right.
At 78 decibels on our sound meter, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is loud enough to fill a small space, but a bit below the 79 dB category average and the LG G Pad 8.3's mark of 80 dB. Located on the top and bottom of the device, the speakers don't get muffled by putting the tablet down on a table, holding it in portrait mode or holding it in landscape mode, as long as you hold the top corners.
User Interface and OS
Like other Samsung devices, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 features the company's TouchWiz interface on top of Android 4.4.2 KitKat. In addition to slightly different looking icons and menus, Samsung's interface offers a number of improvements over stock Android, including the ability to split the screen between two different windows and a very detailed quick settings menu that lets you adjust the screen brightness and a number of other key options from the notification drawer. TouchWiz also makes it easy to hide or uninstall apps, directly from the app drawer; threre's no need to go deep into the settings menu.
We particularly like Samsung's virtual keyboard, which continues to be the best available on any platform. The large keys have plenty of spacing, which makes it easy to avoid hitting adjacent letters, and a dedicated number row. The keyboard also provides helpful next-word prediction that can learn your writing patterns from your Facebook, Gmail and Twitter and accounts.
Like Samsung's flagship phone, the Tab S 8.4 has a fingerprint reader built into its home button. After enrolling our index finger by using a panel in settings, we were able to quickly swipe past the lock screen in just one attempt. However, on some occasions our first swipe didn't take.
The Tab S 8.4 has four home screens for your shortcuts and widgets. The center screen comes default with a few popular shortcuts and a time / weather widget. The screen immediately to the left provides Samsung's "Quick Briefing" grid which shows tiles for important things like content from its My Magazine news feed, videos on your device, stock quotes and alarms you've set. The screen to the far left shows your calendar, recently edited documents and emails in another useful grid. If you don't like either grid page, you can long press and drag the tiles to the trash.
The Tab S' 8-MP camera offered mixed results in our tests. Outdoor shots of a New York City skyline were crisp and colorful and a shot of a bas relief sculpture was particularly detailed. However, images of a red tree taken with bright light behind made it look like the subject was immersed in a whitewashed haze. When we shot a 1080p video of cars rolling down the street, video was smooth and images were sharp.
The front-facing 2.1-MP camera took sharp, colorful images of our face in direct sunlight. Indoor shots of a toddler's face were a little darker, but just as detailed and free from noise.
Like other Samsung phones and tablets, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 has a slew of camera modes. Shot & More enables you to remove unwanted photo bombers, and "Drama Shots" make it look the subject is moving through the picture. You can also download additional modes, such Sports shot and Sound & shot (still image with sound in background). However, some modes such as Animated Photo mode, which lets you make funny animated GIFs, are available on Samsung's phones but not the Galaxy Tab S 8.4.
With its 1.9-GHz Samsung Exynos 5 Octa processor, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 provided mostly smooth performance, whether we were navigating around the desktop, transcoding a video or playing high-end racing games. Because of all the animations in the TouchWiz UI,there was a slight lag when changing apps. However, users can speed things up by disabling the S Voice shortcut and eliminating the transitions.
On Geekbench 3, a synthetic benchmark that measuriPad Mini with Retina Displayab S 8.4 scored a strong 2,768, higher than the tablet category average of 2,141, the A7-powered iPad Mini with Retina Display (2,519) and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600-powered LG G Pad 8.3 (1,717)..
It took the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 4 minutes and 48 seconds to transcode an HD video to 480p using the Vidtrim app. That's more than twice as fast as 11:58 category average and comfortably ahead of the G Pad 8.3's 8:02 time. However, the Snapdragon 800-powered Kindle Fire HDX completed the same test 29 seconds faster (4:19).
The Tab S 8.4 took a reasonable 16 seconds to launch the demanding game N.O.V.A. 3, which is 1.6 seconds faster than the category average and just a second behind the LG G Pad 8.3 (15 seconds). However, the iPad mini with Retina Display loaded it in 5 seconds, perhaps due to its different operating system.
When we played high-speed 3D games such as Monster Truck Destruction, the 3D graphics were detailed and motion completely smooth. On 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, a synthetic benchmark which measures graphics prowess, the Tab S 8.4 scored a strong 13,518, which is far better than the 9,695 category average, the LG G Pad 8.3's 7,785 score, and the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9's mark of 12,786. The iPad mini with Retina Display scored a slightly-higher 14,128.
Samsung preloads a number of useful apps with just a little bit of third-party bloatware. Samsung's WatchOn app lets you use the infrared port as a remote control. S Voice is Samsung's voice assistant that lets you control the phone and dictate messages; however, we prefer Google's own voice assistant.
In addition to S Voice, Samsung throws in a number of apps that directly compete with Google's own apps, including a web browser that competes with Chrome, alternate music and video players and a Samsung app store that takes on Google Play. With the exception of the media players, we prefer Google's traditional apps to their Samsung counterparts.
The Remote PC app lets you take confrol over a Windows PC. After installing client software on our laptop, we found it easy to take control from the tablet. The connection was fairly responsive, perhaps because both devices were on the same network.
Hancom Office lets you view and, after installing an update, edit Office documents. Paper Magazine is a third-party digital magazine store. WebEx Meetings is a front end for Cisco's video conferencing service. Bloomberg Businessweek is a digital news app that comes with a one year subscription; the same offer applies to all Samsung device owners who download the app on their own from Google Play.
Samsung SideSync allows you to control a Samsung phone from the tablet using Wi-Fi Direct. When we paired with our Galaxy Note 3, a mirror of the phone's display appeared in a floating window that stayed on top of the rest of the objects on our screen. We were able to remotely control the phone from the tablet completely and drag photos from the gallery app to the tablet and watch as the image files copied to the Tab S's local storage. We were also able to drag photos to the phone. SideSync also allows you to send and receive calls on the tablet, using the phone. However, overall, using SideSync was a lot slower than just reaching for the phone.
If you want to hand your tablet to a young child, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 has you covered with a very rich, immersive and secure Kids Mode app. Unlike some parental controls, which simply limit which apps a child can use, Samsung's Kids Mode provides a separate environment, complete with child-friendly home screens and built-in apps.
Kids Mode lets you designate specific videos, songs and photos that will be visible in its gallery, music and movie players. There is also an option to limit how much time your child can use the device. Kids cannot outsmart the mode by rebooting the device. When we restarted from within Kid Mode, the system booted right back into it, after making us go through the lock screen.
Unfortunately, there's no kid-friendly web browser. Considering that the environment is best suited for young children, most parents will probably omit the browser altogether and stick with apps. The control panel even has a store filled with recommended apps for children.
The camera app replaces Samsung's complex myriad of imaging modes with fun effects options. You can place funny cartoon icons on top of your face, such as sunglasses or crossed eyes. There's also a drawing app and a simple sound recorder.
Samsung has placed two holes on the back of the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 to attach accessories such as covers. The company sells a $39 Simple Cover, which covers the front of the tablet and only part of the back, and a $59 Book Cover, which folds over origami-style to prop your tablet up on a table.
We tested the Book Cover in Electric Blue and really appreciated its sharp looks and textured surface. We also like the cover's ability to wake the device when folded back or put it to sleep when closed. However, attaching the cover required required too much force for our liking, and folding the backside in order to prop up the tablet requires a learning curve.
The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 lasted a modest 7 hours and 56 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness. That time is slightly below the category average of 8:09 and hours behind the iPad mini with Retina Display's time of 11:06 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9's endurance of 13:42. The LG G Pad 8.3 lasted ony 7:06.
Editor's Note: At some point during our first run of the test, the network experienced an Internet outage, though the device stayed connected to the router for the entire time. We'll run the test again and update, though the impact on the result should be minimal.
In our experience, the Tab S 8.4 took an eternity to charge. When we plugged the device in with over 40 percent charge, it approximately 4 more hours to reach 100 percent.
The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 provides a truly high-end experience with the sharpest, most colorful screen on any slate today. However, with so many Android apps not optimized for high-resolution displays, you often won't see the benefit like you would on the iPad mini with Retina Display, which has a huge library of optimized apps. However, if you can afford its $399 price tag, the Tab S 8.4 combines useful innovations and accessories with a viewing experience that's second to none.