Samsung is the biggest Android OEM on the planet by a wide margin. The South Korean company even manages to outsell Apple in the smartphone market on occasion, and it has all of us to thank for it. It has also traditionally made some of the best Android-based tablets you can buy. The first Nexus 7 from Asus last year showed us what a small, inexpensive tablet could be, and Samsung released a few competent alternatives to compete with it.

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In 2013, Samsung is very much positioning itself as the alternative to Apple as it bundles Android in more new features and custom apps. It is increasingly going its own way, breaking away from the Android pack. The Galaxy Tab 3 is still an Android tablet, but is it a good Android tablet?

Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 Specs

  • Processor: Samsung Exynos 4412, dual-core 1.5GHz
  • RAM: 1.5GB
  • Storage: 16GB with microSD card slot
  • Display: 8-inch 1280x800 LCD
  • Dimensions: 209mm x 123mm x 7.4mm
  • Weight: 314g
  • Battery: 4450mAh
  • Connectivity: WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, 2.4 and 5GHz
  • Software: Android 4.2.2 with Samsung customizations

The Good

  • Slim form factor
  • Lightweight
  • Sturdy build
  • Multi-window mode is very cool on an 8-inch device
  • Screen has good viewing angles
  • Solid battery life

The Bad

  • Screen is only 1280x800
  • Software seems sluggish in places
  • Physical buttons make the tablet harder to hold and are less convenient
  • Slippery, cheap-feeling plastic shell
  • Typically bad tablet cameras
  • Overpriced
  • The new Nexus 7 exists now

Physical Design

Look at the Galaxy Tab 3, then look away. Are you sure that wasn’t just a Galaxy S4 being held right up next to your face? It's hard to know for sure, because the Gtab 3 is a dead ringer for a bigger GS4. The shape is almost exactly the same, the screen ratio is the same, and it even has that faux-metal band around the edge. Oh, and there are physical buttons... on a tablet.

The device is built from the same slippery plastic Samsung has been using on devices since time immemorial. It allows for the Gtab 3 to be light – only 314g. That compares favorably to most smaller 7-inch slates. It’s also very thin at 7.4mm, which is even slimmer than the new Nexus 7.

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The entire back is make out of smooth plastic, so you can really tell when oils from your hands start to build up. I find myself wiping off the front and the back of the tablet to make it a little less unpleasant to hold.

If you're playing a game that heats up the device, then you have slippery oils warmed by the internals and it's just kind of gross. Having soft touch material, or even a little texture makes this effect much less troublesome on devices. The slipperiness feels extra noticeable because the back of the Gtab 3 is just a huge, smooth uninterrupted surface.

So I'm not crazy about how the device feels, but it does seem solid. Despite being made out of plastic, there is no creaking or give, and the seams are tight. Samsung knows how to assemble a tablet, I just wish they'd use nicer materials.

Like most Android tablets these days, there is a power button near the top on the right side with the volume rocker right below it. These are made from the same plastic-doing-a-metal-impersonation as the band around the middle of the device. The buttons are clicky and responsive, though.

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On the bottom edge are the stereo speakers and a microUSB port. Circle around to the left side and you find the microSD card slot. A lot of Android devices are abandoning the SD card, but Samsung still has your back. The door covering the slot seems a bit flimsy, so be careful there. On the top all we have is a headphone jack.

Something I quite like about the overall design is that it's balanced well. The Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 is just the right width to hold in one hand and it doesn't feel like it's going to topple out. However, holding it with two hands is actually a bit awkward due to the very slim bezels and button layout.

Those Buttons

If you've got average size hands, it's possible to wrap your fingers around the edges of the Gtab 3 8.0, and that’s fine for short stretches. The slim bezels that make that possible also make the device more difficult to hold comfortably by one side. If you try to grasp the tablet by the side bezel, there just isn’t a lot to grab on to. Your thumb will touch the screen often, which will get annoying.

So hold it by the bottom bezel? Oh, don't I wish. Samsung has chosen to use the phone-style buttons from the GS4 on all of its tablets. So beneath the screen there is a home, menu, and back button. Menu and Back are capacitive, very sensitive, and right where I would like to rest my thumb while holding the tablet.

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Even after using the Gtab 3 for a week I’m still triggering menu and back without meaning to. These areas are just a comfortable place to grab a tablet, especially when the side bezels are too narrow.

The capacitive buttons are actually so sensitive that I’ve occasionally triggered them simply by resting the end of device on my stomach or lap. It makes me feel like I have to hold the Gtab 3 at arm's legth to avoid triggering these buttons. You kind of want to be able to snuggle up with a tablet You know... get comfortable. Not with the Gtab 3. That's not how it rolls.

The use of phone buttons in general seems like an odd choice. It requires too much reaching and is less consistent in use. It's not the end of the world – you can adjust, but it’s a step in the wrong direction.

Screen

A year ago – or even a few months ago – the 1280x800 LCD display on the Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 would have seemed totally reasonable. Now it’s a soft spot. It’s a good quality panel, for what it is. The brightness and colors are nice, and the viewing angles are excellent. It’s just that resolution.

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1280x800 is not terrible – let's not forget how amazing that was a few years ago. However, this screen fails to match up with the competition. I don’t know if a small tablet needs to pack a 1920x1200 panel like the new Nexus 7, but somewhere north of 1280x800 would be nice for a premium small tablet. And make no mistake, Samsung is pricing this device like a premium tablet.

Cameras

I'll be brief here because you can probably guess what the cameras are like on this tablet – yes, mediocre. The rear camera is 5MP, and the front is 1.2MP. The front-facing sensor is fine for a quick video chat, but produces predictably grainy still images. For some reason, the default setting on this device is 3.2MP for the rear camera.

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The rear sensor is maybe okay in a pinch, but there’s a lot of noise and fuzziness around the edges in images. The colors also look very washed out, even in bright natural light.

The camera app does include the new "Sound and Shot" and "Beauty Face" modes. Other than that it’s the standard Samsung camera app with a few things missing. There are no HDR shots for example, and Dual Shot front and rear video mode is not present.

Software Features

The Gtab 3 8.0 comes with Android 4.2.2, but it’s under a few layers of Samsung's Nature UX-TouchWiz-mish-mash. There are some good things, and some bad things going on here, but don' expect all the crazy features from the Galaxy S4 – the Gtab 3 lacks the IR sensor that many of the phone’s new tricks rely on.

You can swipe around, change the number and order of home screens, and do all the other things Samsung devices have been doing for the last few versions. No real complaints here, other than the aesthetics of some of Samsung’s icons.

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The app drawer defaults to a custom view, which makes it impossible to find anything. I don't know why OEMs do this, but it's easy to switch to alphabetical.

The notification shade takes up the entire screen when pulled down, like a phone and not a tablet. It’s kind of strange-looking and just re-enforces the "giant phone" vibe. The Quick Settings panel seems a bit redundant on Samsung's devices because there is already the toggle bar in the regular notification shade. Although, it doesn't really get in the way, and you can move buttons around in the settings.

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Samsung has built some of its Smart-branded features into this device, but the only one I've been able to get working reliably is Smart Stay, which keeps the screen on while you're looking at it. And that's only useful in reasonably good light. Smart Rotation is supposed to keep the screen orientation locked with the angle of your head. So you can supposedly lay down on your side, and the screen won’t flip to landscape. This works about half the time – just enough to be annoying to deal with.

One place the Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 has a chance to regain some ground is with multi-window mode. You can activate this by long-pressing the back button. The sidebar lists compatible apps, which is sadly not all of them. Then just drag one app to the top and one to the bottom, and you can interact with both.

The times multi-window works, I love it. Managing my email while browsing Reddit destroys my productivity, but it's just plain neat. If there was wider support for this feature, it would be an amazing selling point. Why Samsung hasn’t worked tirelessly to get Netflix to support multi-window I’ll never know.

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S Voice is accessed with a double tap of the home button, but it's still junk compared to Google Now voice search. To make matters worse, it causes lag when pressing the home button because the device is waiting to see if you press home again to call up S Voice. It makes the tablet feel less responsive. S Voice can be turned off, but it’s time for Samsung to throw in the towel on that front.

Performance And Battery Life

The Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 runs an Exynos 4212 dual-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz. It also has 1.5GB of RAM, which is odd. I see no reason this device shouldn't be smooth enough, but in practice there are a lot of little hitches that make me want to put the tablet down and pick up a faster one.

I can't even track down the cause of some of this behavior. The home screen swiping is smooth, except when it’s not. The app drawer is lag free, except for those times it lags like no one's business. It's a bit like the occasional slowdown issues the Galaxy S4 had at launch, but more pronounced.

Screen rotation has been sluggish for a long time on Android, but newer devices are much more responsive. The Gtab 3, on the other hand, still takes a few beats before it responds. Again, it just feels like last year's product. If you're into the whole benchmark thing, the Gtab 3 scores a little over 10,000 in AnTuTu. Other new devices can double that score.

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The responsiveness is far from the worst I've seen, but again, this is a $300 tablet. It's priced such that I expect better performance out of it. A software update could potentially shore up the sluggishness, but there’s no way to know if this device will be high on Samsung’s list when the time comes to build updates.

Shortly after getting the review unit, I encountered an issue that bears inclusion here. While using the tablet, it shut itself off and refused to boot back up. Without doing anything the least bit hackery to it, the device was in a boot loop. After several more reboots, I was able to get the Galaxy Tab 3 into recovery and do a factory reset, which fixed the problem.

I'm by no means saying this will be a common occurrence with the Gtab 3, but I've never had a new Android device fail in such a random way. It has been fine since then, so perhaps it was an isolated incident.

The battery life for this tablet was a pleasant surprise. Samsung packed a 4450mAh battery into the slim frame of the Galaxy Tab 3, and it makes pretty good use of it. I had no problem getting 2 days of moderate to heavy use out of it without needing to recharge. This is with nothing disabled and screen brightness set to auto.

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You should be able to get about 6 hours of screen-on time with the Galaxy Tab 3 8.0, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Conclusion

So what is this new Galaxy Tab all about? It seems somewhat divorced from the rest of the Android ecosystem. Frankly, it almost doesn't make sense to have this device reviewed on an Android blog. Samsung isn’t competing with other Android tablets. Samsung – and many consumers – see its products as an alternative to Apple.

If you compare the Galaxy Tab 8.0 to the iPad Mini with no preference for operating system, Samsung has a good shot. It's a little cheaper, and the specs are slightly improved. The new Nexus 7 is faster, has better software, a better form factor, and it’s cheaper still, but Samsung doesn’t care about that. Samsung is the anti-Apple now.

It’s a state of mind I don't see as an overt directive within the company (anymore), but I’d be surprised if those south Korean engineers aren’t thinking about Apple's products when they design the next Samsung tablet. That’s not a bad thing on the face of it – trying to beat Apple is a noble goal. However, you risk missing the things that makes Android great – the quick iteration of hardware, competitive pricing, and so on.

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I feel like the Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 is a product that doesn't know its audience. Sure, some people will compare it to the iPad Mini and make the decision that Samsung is the way to go. Although a great many Android fans, who paved the way for Samsung to become the largest smartphone maker in the world, will look at the Galaxy Tab 3 and simply shake their heads.

I'm sure this device will sell, because most average folks don’t dig deeply into the products they buy. Samsung has the name, and that moves units.

The hard truth of it is this: there is no reason I can think of to buy a Galaxy Tab 3 after the new Nexus 7 has hit retail. Google’s flagship device is better in every aspect, with the possible exception of battery life (and that's a close call), and it's cheaper.

The Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 is not a bad product, but it's got some foibles. When the asking price is $300, it's just not good enough. Don't pay more for an inferior product. It's as simple as that.