Thanks in part to Samsung's own success with big-screen phones, tablets have begun to lose their luster. The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 literally brings it back with a display so vibrant and colorful that it promises to make the iPad look dull. Available for $499, the Tab S is also thinner than the iPad Air and lets you control your Galaxy Phone from its eye-popping canvas. The Tab S borrows some features from the Galaxy S5, too, including its fingerprint scanner. Although its performance and app selection could both be stronger, overall the Tab S is an excellent Android tablet.
Befitting its Galaxy S branding, the Tab S 10.5 is designed to look like an enlarged Galaxy S5. You'll find a similar dotted pattern on the soft-touch back of the device, as well as the familiar home button up front flanked by the Recent Apps and Back buttons. We tested the Dazzling White version of the tablet, which sports an elegant gold border; the device is available in a more business-like Titanium Bronze. Despite the lack of metal, the Tab S feels solid given its sheer portability.
One of the benefits of opting for a Super AMOLED screen over a traditional LCD is that it doesn't require a backlight. As a result, the Tab S 10.5 is even thinner than the iPad Air. Samsung's slate measures just 0.26 inches thin, compared with 0.29 inches for Apple's. The 10.5-inch Tab S weighs 1.02 pounds to the iPad Air's 1.03 pounds. On the other hand, Sony's water-resistant Xperia Z2 is thinner (0.25 inches) and lighter (15.49 ounces) still, though it has a slightly smaller 10-inch screen.
We found the Tab S very comfortable to hold for long stretches, such as when reading a magazine. However, in portrait mode, the home button is to the left of the screen, which felt awkward.
The Tab S 10.5 houses its microSD Card slot (supporting up to 128GB cards) and microUSB port on the right side along with one of two speakers. The other speaker is on the left along with the headphone jack. An IR blaster sits on the top edge of the tablet for controlling your TV via the included WatchOn app.
One look at the Tab S' Super AMOLED Display was enough for two family members to say they wanted this tablet. And it's easy to see why.
A pre-loaded "Wonders of Nature" clip on this 2560 x 1600-pixel panel looked absolutely breathtaking, delivering rich and detailed vistas with bold (if oversaturated) color. A canyon fly-over looked particularly captivating, with the orange and browns in the rock contrasting beautifully against the nearly neon blue horizon.
To compare the Tab S 10.5 to the iPad Air's 2048 x 1536-pixel display, we first loaded the "X-Men: Days of Future Past" trailer. In one outdoors scene, we could make out more veins and wrinkles on Wolverine's face on the Galaxy Tab S. However, we lost some detail in darker areas of the frame that the iPad Air rendered more accurately, such as his beard and feathered hair. In another scene, the grass looked much greener on the Samsung's panel. Overall, the Tab S' colors are more saturated but also more attractive.
Next, we fired up "The Lego Movie." As the protagonist speeds away on a motorcycle with flames shooting out the back, the colors looked bolder and brighter on the Galaxy Tab S. We also noticed that the picture remained truer from wide viewing angles. The iPad Air's image suffered from minor wash-out.
In our lab tests, the Tab S 10.5 delivered mostly good results. The tablet notched 502 using our light meter, versus 411 for the iPad Air. The average is about 350 lux.
Samsung's slate outshone its competitors in the amount of colors it could show. The Tab S is capable of displaying 154 percent of the sRGB color gamut, compared with the iPad Air's 99 percent and the Sony Xperia Z2's 124.7 percent.
However, the Tab S delivered poorer color accuracy than its closest competitors, notching a Delta E rating of 3.4 (0 is best). The iPad Air scored 1.4 and the Sony Z2 registered 2.6.
The Galaxy Tab S 10.5's dual speaker pumps out fairly impressive sound given the tablet's slim profile. The slate registered 79 dB on the Laptop Mag Audio Test, which measures the volume of a tone played from 13 inches away.
Calvin Harris' "Summer" filled our office with loud audio, and the sound didn't distort at max volume. Similarly, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" trailer had plenty of ominous low-end thump.
Running Samsung's TouchWiz software on top of Android 4.4 KitKat, the Galaxy Tab S's interface looks and feels more dynamic than the iPad's but also more disjointed.
We like that the lock screen shows you birthday reminders, upcoming appointments and latest emails. The main home screen and app screens look fairly standard for Samsung devices, but swiping to the right reveals a more modern-looking, panel-based interface that reminds us of Flipboard.
The first of these screens shows a Quick Briefing widget (Web bookmarks, events, stocks, etc.), a shortcut to Paper Garden (a magazine reader and store) and widgets for Here & Now (local news, sports and offers) and WatchOn (TV remote). Swiping again to the left shows your calendar and inbox, as well as Hancom Office recent documents. You can create additional pages or move widgets from one page to another.
One of the best improvements to the Galaxy Tab S's interface compared to the Galaxy S5 is the addition of an S Finder button to the quick settings menu. This tool makes it easy to find apps or files on the device, and can also be used to search the web. You'll also find a Quick Connect button for sending files to other nearby devices.
We continue to appreciate Multi Window, which lets you run two apps on the screen at the same time. Just swipe from the right side of the screen, drag the app you want to run off the toolbar, then repeat.
Overall, TouchWiz on the Tab S feels more powerful and versatile than iOS, but we wish it had a more unified look and feel.
Your tablet is never going to replace your smartphone, but we give Samsung credit for finding ways for making them work better together. Using the SideSync 3.0 app, previously available only on Windows PCs, you can mirror whatever is on your Galaxy phone on the Tab S 10.5's larger display. By default, you'll see a little mockup of the phone itself and what's on the screen, but you can blow up the view to nearly full screen.
There are a couple of neat uses for this technology. First, you can make and receive calls from the tablet even if your phone is in the next room. This way you can keep your phone charging if you like and use the Tab S' built-in speaker and microphone. During a couple of test calls the other caller came through clearly on our end, but he said he could hear a bit of an echo.
Second, you can drag and drop files from your phone to the slate. We tested this by pressing and holding an image thumbnail in the Galaxy S5's Gallery app in its SideSync window, then dragging it over to the Tab S' desktop. At that point, the tablet asked where we wanted to place the file, presenting the folder menu.
The SideSync app let us play "Minion Rush" from the phone on the tablet--sort of. Our swipes registered (with a tiny delay), but the tilt controls didn't translate.
Overall, SideSync is a clever feature, but we'd like to see what value Samsung adds over time versus what you can accomplish via the cloud. We also wish the SideSync app didn't need to be open on the phone for the tablet to connect to the handset.
The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 borrows one of the Galaxy S5's most talked-about features in its fingerprint scanner. Like the smartphone, the reader is integrated into the home button, and you need to swipe downward on it to unlock your device or make purchases via PayPal. Because the home button is wider on this tablet then on the S5, we encountered fewer false negative errors when signing in, but it was still less consistent than Apple's Touch ID sensor on the iPhone 5s.
The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 comes ready to battle all tablet comers with an octa-core Exynos processor. All this horsepower, plus 3GB of RAM, added up to swift performance in various benchmarks, though lag crept in at times during everyday use.
For example, until we turned off the S Voice shortcut for the home button, the Tab S was sluggish exiting apps to the home screen. Even after we did that the Samsung was a half step behind the iPad Air. The Air was also quicker to change screen orientations in the browser.
On the plus side, Samsung's tablet took just 4 minutes and 17 seconds to transcode a 203MB 1080p video to 480p. That blows away the Xperia Z2's 5:49 (2.3-GHz Snapdragon 801, 3GB RAM) and is on a par with the Note Pro 12.2's time of 4:12 (octa-core Exynos with 3G of RAM).
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On Geekbench 3, which measures multicore performance, the Tab S 10.5's score of 2,776 outclassed the iPad Air (2,694), the Note Pro 12.2 (2,595) and Xperia Z2 (2,685).
The Tab S didn't fare as well in the graphics department, hitting just 13,481 on 3D Mark Ice Storm Unlimited. The iPad Air scored 14,850 on the same test, while the Xperia Z2 was an even higher 18,935. The Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 turned in a similarly low 13,732.
The 8-MP camera on the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 delivered mixed results. With light behind us outdoors, this tablet snapped a colorful and sharp shot of petunias. However, with bright light in front of us, an image of a tree took on an annoying haze.
Turning on HDR mode didn't help matters in these instances, but we did see an improvement shooting on the street in New York City.
With the exception of Real-Time HDR and Selective Focus, the Tab S includes a similar settings and mode menus to the Galaxy S5. You'll find five shooting modes in addition to Auto, including Beauty Face, Shot & More and Dual Camera. You can download more modes from Samsung.
A 1080p video shot on Fifth Avenue in New York delivered plenty of detail, allowing us to easily read the lettering on a passing van. The clip stayed steady as we panned around, but we did notice some wind noise creeping in.
The Tab S' 2-MP front camera fared well indoors, as a selfie we took was just slightly grainy. Our checkered shirt looked fairly accurate in terms of color. The Beauty Face mode kicks in by default, which smoothes wrinkles but looks almost too perfect.
Apps and Content
One of the biggest knocks against Android tablets continues to be a dearth of tablet-optimized apps versus the iPad, so Samsung bundles the Tab S 10.5 with as many gap-filling options as possible. Third-party apps include Flipboard, Evernote, Hancom Office Viewer, Netflix, NYTimes.
We like that Hancom Office syncs with Dropbox, so you can easily sync your work with the cloud. You can also edit Office documents after performing an upgrade.
Samsung's own apps include Remote PC, which lets you remotely control your Windows PC. Milk Music is another standout, which lets you browse music using a retro-chic dial.
Some third-party apps are painful reminders that developers just don't give Android the tablet love it deserves. In Facebook, for example, the main News Feed view looks like a stretched-out phone app with tiny text, while the iPad version shows your online friends to the right and bigger text for each of the entries.
Spotify is another example where Android falls short. On the iPad, you'll see the left navigation bar as you browse music, but on the Tab S you need to hit the menu button first to see available options. It's an attractive app, but it's not tailored for the tablet experience.
Other bundled experiences are designed for tablets. Paper Garden lets you browse magazines from such major brands as GQ, Vogue and Vanity Fair. There will be 23 titles at launch, with more to follow. The Google Play Store does list a modest amount of tablet apps in its Tablet 101 and Tablet Spotlight sections. Highlights include Expedia, Trulia, Mint, Pinterest and Pulse.
Thanks to the Kids Mode feature on the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, parents will feel comfortable passing this tablet off to their children. The family-friendly environment presents a cartoonlike interface that makes it easy for junior to play with apps you approve. Samsung bundles apps to get kids started, including a camera app with its own fun effects (think hearts for eyes, mustaches, etc.). There's also a dedicated Kids Store for downloading more apps, such as Creative Corner for coloring.
Kids Mode goes even further, letting mom and dad set playtime limits in the Parental Control section. Here you can also add media that's safe for your kids to see. We just wish Samsung also linked to kid-friendly video content.
Packing a 7,900 mAH battery, Samsung claims that the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 can last up to 9 hours on a charge. On the Laptop Mag battery test, which consists of continuous Web surfing on 150 nits of brightness, the tablet lasted 8 hours and 57 minutes. That's well above the 8:09 tablet category average but behind the iPad Air and Xperia Z2 (both 9:30).
While we appreciate Samsung attempting to better round out its ecosystem with custom-fit accessories, the execution could have been better. Available in multiple colors, the $39 Simple Cover (which doesn't cover the entire back of the tablet) and $69 Book Cover (which does) both attach to the rear of the slate via two small indentations.
There's a handy guiding line for guiding the tablet onto the covers, but snapping everything together takes more force than we'd like. Removing the covers also takes a fair amount of effort. And it's loud. Folding the covers into the three different available heights proved a challenge, too; we had to ask a co-worker who likes origami to help--not a good sign.
Samsung will also make its own Bluetooth keyboard available, which we were unable to test for this review. The accessory covers the Tab S like a clamshell, making it feel like a small laptop.
Whether you like to watch a lot of video on your tablet or you enjoy looking through everyone's Facebook photos, the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 gives you a pretty awesome canvas in a very slim and light design. The Super AMOLED screen boasts richer colors, a higher resolution and better viewing angles than the iPad Air. Not everyone will love the oversaturated hues, but there's no denying that this is a gorgeous panel.
The Tab S also stands out because of its innovative SideSync software (handy for taking calls on your tablet), handy Kids Mode feature and strong battery life. We're definitely not fans of the awkward cases, and the camera washes out some images. More important, Samsung (and every Android slate maker) still trails Apple when it comes to tablet apps.
Among Samsung tablets, the Galaxy Note 10.1 (about $459) is a better productivity companion because of its included S Pen, though you'll sacrifice screen quality. But if you're looking for an iPad alternative that's focused more on content consumption, the Tab S 10.5 is a top choice.