To inject new life into tablets, Samsung has borrowed liberally from its smartphones to create the Galaxy Tab S3. By bringing over some of the best things about Samsung's flagship phones -- such as a premium glass-and-metal design, a versatile S Pen stylus and a slick Android 7.0 experience -- Samsung is betting that the Tab S3 can deliver a Galaxy-class device for use around the home or even in the office. Samsung has also added a couple of multimedia perks, including support for high dynamic range (HDR) content and quad AKG speakers. But with mediocre battery life and a camera that doesn't live up to the S7's, the $600 Galaxy Tab S3 is easy to like but hard to justify buying.
Design: Premium pedigree
By revamping its flagship tablet with a new glass-and-metal design, Samsung has sent a clear message that the Tab S3 shares more than just a passing connection with its more mobile siblings.
Like the Galaxy S7, the Tab S3 (available in black or silver) has sleek glass panels on the front and back, a strip of brushed aluminum running around the outside, and a home button with a built-in fingerprint reader that's flanked on both sides by touch controls for Back and Recent Apps.
On the tablet's bottom, there's a handy USB Type-C port with support for quick charging, along with a handy headphone jack for all of your audio needs.
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The Tab S3 distinguishes itself from being just big smartphone with a new quad-speaker setup, thanks in part to AKG, and a subtle strip of Pogo pins on the left side that are used to connect the Tab S3's optional folding keyboard (more on both of those later).
Measuring 9.37 x 6.65 x 0.23 inches and weighing 0.94 pounds, the Tab S3 is essentially the same size and heft as Apple's 9.7-inch iPad Pro (9.4 x 6.6 x 0.24 inches and 0.98 pounds).
Display: A real treat for the eyes
With a high-res 2048 x 1536 QXGA resolution and a vibrant Super AMOLED panel with support for HDR content, the Tab S3's screen is downright mesmerizing.
Its pure blacks are perfect for watching space movies such as Life, though with the screen's 4:3 aspect ratio, you will run into some pretty heavy letterboxing on the top and bottom.
But the Tab S3 gains an edge with its HDR support, which can completely change how you see color and lighting in movies. Watching an HDR video for the first time can feel the same as moving from standard definition to full HD. Just one problem: HDR content isn't widely available yet, though there are a few select titles -- such as Bosch and Man in the High Castle, both on Amazon Prime Video -- that do work on the Tab S3. In those shows, the Tab S3's HDR screen reveals many more details in very dark or light scenes while also adding a new richness to colors.
Putting out a peak brightness of 441 nits, the Tab S3 is one of the brightest tablets we've ever tested, even outshining the 9.7-inch iPad Pro (432 nits). However, the Tab S3 fell short of the Google Pixel C, which put out a superbright mark of 509 nits.
Where the Tab S3 really shines is with its color range. It covered an expansive 188 percent of the sRGB spectrum; in comparison, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro registered just 122 percent.
Finally, with a Delta-E rating of 3.44, the Tab S3's color accuracy was good, but not great. The screens on both the Pixel C and the iPad Pro were much more precise, with ratings of 1 and 1.9, respectively. (Numbers closer to 0 are better.)
Audio: A new era of sound from Samsung
Samsung looks to be entering into a new era of audio excellence. The Tab S3's quad-speaker setup by AKG features omnidirectional tuning that adjusts the audio so that it will sound good in both portrait and landscape orientation.
When I put it up against the iPad Pro (which also has a dynamic four-speaker arrangement) while listening to Chic's "I'll Be There," the differences we're quite apparent. While the iPad Pro definitely wins on volume, the vocals and guitars from the Tab S3 were much crisper, and and sounded richer, in the highs and mids, especially up against the iPad's overly airy audio.
Performance: Quick, but still can't touch Apple
Featuring a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of onboard storage and microSD card expansion up to 256GB, the Galaxy Tab S3's specs are almost identical to those of Samsung's current flagship phone, the Galaxy S7. As a result, performance always felt snappy, whether I was watching a high-res movie, playing a game or flipping between apps.
However, for a premium product that can also be used as a backup productivity device, the Tab S3's 32GB of onboard storage feels a bit stingy. We would have preferred 64GB to start.
Unfortunately, even though the Tab S3's performance is quite good, when you put it up against the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, it's clear that Apple's tablet still holds a considerable advantage. On Geekbench 4, which measures overall system performance, the iPad Pro scored 4,802, versus the Tab S3's mark of 3,765. The aging Pixel C was even farther behind, at 2,717.
It was a similar story for graphics performance, where the 9.7-inch iPad Pro outperformed the Tab S3 on 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited Graphics test, scoring 32,494 versus 20,891 for Samsung's device. Still, the tablet average is still significantly lower, at 17,453.
S Pen and Optional Keyboard: S Pen is sweet, keyboard not so much
When you want the Tab S3 to be more than just a content-consumption device, you can pull out the included S Pen and transform the tablet into a top-notch sketching tablet. The Tab S3's pen features 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity, delivering the kind of precision that artists will appreciate.
As with the stylus integration on other Samsung devices, you get a whole range of Air Commands that let you create notes, write memos on the screen, create shortcuts to your favorite apps or even make your very own GIFs. Too bad there's nowhere to dock the pen when it's not in use.
If you want to go even further, you can pony up for the Tab S3's $130 optional folding keyboard, which features a built-in kickstand and a handy Pogo pin connector. That means you don't need to wait for a Bluetooth keyboard to slowly connect every time you want to type. Nor will you have to worry about one more thing to charge, since the keyboard draws the juice it needs from the tablet.
As far as the typing experience goes, the keys have a pretty standard 65-gram actuation weight and a somewhat shallow, though pleasantly clicky, 1.1 millimeters of travel. Because of the 9.7-inch Tab S3's dimensions, though, the keys on the top and bottom rows are half the size as the letter keys, which are already pretty small. That makes touch typing at speed pretty difficult without a lot of adjustment time.
Also, the keyboard's single-position kickstand and lack of a hinged connector make the tablet quite finicky to use when you don't have it set on either a desk or a table. Additionally, its keys aren't backlit, and while the "squircle"-shaped keys do a good job of imitating the Tab S3's home-screen icons, they aren't actually any better for typing than good ol' square keys.
Camera: Good, but not quite Galaxy-class
If you're the kind of person who takes a lot of photos with a tablet, you should probably re-evaluate your priorities (especially if you're the person two rows ahead of me at concerts who spends the whole show blocking my vision with a 9-inch device). However, considering the Galaxy S7's shooter is the best smartphone camera on the market right now, you might think Samsung's efforts to bring the best part of its flagship phones to the Tab S3 would translate to the tablet's camera. Sadly, that isn't the case, because after I compared a number of shots taken by the S3 and a Galaxy S7 Edge side by side, I found that the Tab S3's 13-megapixel rear camera wasn't on the same level as its smartphone counterpart.
The most apparent difference is the Tab S3's more limited dynamic range.
In a shot of a nearby bonsai tree, the Tab S3's rear cam underexposed the dirt and caused the colors on the leaves and colorful plastic soldiers to look significantly more muted than in the S7 Edge's image.
Even in almost optimal conditions, the same thing happened again when I snapped a pic of some cookies. The S7's pic featured noticeably richer colors and better dynamic range. Plus, the Tab S3's shot showed that the camera had a hard time focusing, as much of the photo looked soft and blurry.
The results are much closer than photos from the 9.7-inch iPad Pro's 12-MP rear cam, but I'd have to give the iPad a slight edge because its pics have a sharper focus and more saturated colors, even if the iPad's photo is a little dark.
In front, the Tab S3's 5-MP cam snaps pics pretty similar to those from the S7's same-res shooter.
Software and OS
The Tab S3 comes with Android 7.0 that has been customized with Samsung's skin and UI treatment, so you get a relatively clean home screen with squircle-shaped icons. However, Samsung does not offer a theme app as it does for its phones, so if you want to customize the device's layout, you'll have to resort to third-party apps such as Nova Launcher.
Preinstalled software includes Microsoft's Office suite for Android, a few apps for use with the the S Pen, and some items borrowed from Samsung's flagship phones, like Secure Folder. You can use that app to store sensitive information with its own password or fingerprint-locked partition.
The Tab S3 also comes with Samsung's Flow app, which can be used to pair the Tab S3 to an Android phone, so you can see texts and notifications right on the tablet. Flow can also be used to automatically set up a mobile hotspot using the data connection from your phone, giving you internet access even when you're away from Wi-Fi.
Battery Life: Just OK
With a time of 8 hours and 45 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi), the Tab S3's battery life is pretty mediocre. Our tablet category average is about 30 minutes longer, at 9:18, while the Tab S3's closest competitor, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, was considerably better, with a time of 10:53.
Because the S3's keyboard draws power from the tablet, keeping the two connected can have an impact on the S3's longevity. When we ran our standard battery test with the keyboard attached, we found that the Tab S3's battery lasted about an hour less, on average, with a time of 7:38.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 has a lot of stand-out features, including its superb AMOLED screen with support for HDR content, precise handwriting and drawing capabilities via the included S Pen, and gorgeous glass-and-metal design. But I'm not so sure the Tab S3 -- or any other tablet -- is worth $600. That's a ton of money to spend on a device you use to stream Netflix and sketch notes.
Yes, you could shell out another $130 for the Tab S3's fidgety folding keyboard, but now you're looking at a total price of $730, which gets dangerously close to the price of Microsoft's Surface Pro 4. If I had to choose between the Tab S3 or the Surface Pro 4 (which has a much faster CPU and quadruple the storage) as a real productivity device, I'd pick the Surface Pro 4 every time.
It's not like the Tab S3 has been perfectly executed, either. Its battery life is just OK, and its camera is a far cry from those on Samsung's flagship phones. The Galaxy Tab S3 is a true luxury device. It's something that almost everyone would love to have sitting pretty in their living room or kitchen, but even with all of its strong points, it's hard to justify a price tag that high.
Photo credit: Jeremy Lips/Laptopmag