It has now been more than six years since the first "real" Android tablets were let loose upon the world. Those Honeycomb slates are now a distant memory, but have tablets really changed that much? App support is still lacking, pricing is high compared to laptops, and distinctive features are few and far between. Despite some compelling devices over the years, sales of Android tablets (and tablets in general) are down. This is the backdrop for Samsung's release of the Galaxy Tab S3, the latest in the OEM's premium tablet lineup.
With a price tag of $599, the Samsung Tab S3 is priced to compete with the iPad Pro. Buyers of this device will enjoy features like an updated S Pen, a new high-resolution AMOLED display, and a keyboard cover (not included). The Tab S3 is a good Android tablet—possibly the best one right now. However, it's a very tough sell at this price.
|Display||9.7-inch 1536 x 2048 AMOLED with S Pen support|
|Measurements||237.3 x 169 x 6 mm, 429g|
|Design||Solid build quality and slim frame.|
|Performance||The Tab S3 is more responsive than past Samsung devices. Fingerprint sensor is better, too.|
|S Pen||The larger design is much more comfortable, and the finer tip improves accuracy.|
|Multitasking||The combination of split-screen and pop-up view works surprisingly well.|
|Display||The 9.7-inch AMOLED display is beautiful and has support for HDR video.|
|Cost||$600 for a tablet and another $130 for a keyboard dock is insane.|
|The keyboard dock||And about that dock, the keys feel nice, but it's too cramped for any real use.|
|Glass||The back collects fingerprints and could break if dropped.|
|S Pen again||It doesn't dock inside the tablet|
|Battery||It's just okay. Some issues with idle drain.|
The Galaxy Tab S3 is a total embodiment of Samsung's new design aesthetic. Unlike past tablets, this one isn't plastic. Imagine a blown-up Galaxy Note7 (no, not that kind of blown-up!) and you've got the Tab S3. The back is a single sheet of hardened glass, the frame is carefully machined aluminum, and the bezels are just right. It's also almost impossibly thin at a mere 6mm (see below). It does feel rather dense with a mass of 429g. By comparison, the Tab S2 was only 389g. It's a solid piece of technology.
The back is a barren expanse of glass, broken up only by the fingerprints you're sure to leave and the camera module. The camera at the top is 13MP and has an LED flash. I'm not going to devote a full section to the cameras on this device because it's a tablet. Tablets don't usually have good cameras, and this is no exception. The rear camera is passable, but that's it. On the front is the 9.7-inch display (more on that later), a 5MP camera suitable for video chats, and the navigation buttons.
The arrangement of nav buttons will be familiar to anyone who has used a Samsung device in the last few years. There's a physical home button with fingerprint sensor, a capacitive overview button on the left, and a capacitive back button on the right. Those are backward from the standard Android arrangement, which I still find supremely annoying about Samsung devices. At least the GS8 will fix that. The home button is almost flush with the surface like the Note7. The home button is no larger than it is on Samsung's phones, but the fingerprint reader's accuracy and speed seems to have improved. It's noticeably better than it was on the Galaxy Note7 or Galaxy S7. It's still not as fast as the OnePlus 3 or Huawei Mate 9, though. One cool thing here; you don't have to press the home button to make it recognize your print. You can just place your finger on it, and the tablet will wake up and unlock.
On the right edge of the tablet are the volume toggle and power button. They have good tactile feedback, but seem ever so slightly loose. You also get the microSD card slot here (and SIM on the LTE model). On the opposite edge are the pogo pins for the keyboard dock. On the bottom are the headphone jack and USB Type-C port. The top and the bottom both have two speaker grilles; these are actually speakers, unlike so many phones with their deceptive microphone housings that look like speakers. They're not front-facing, but they pump out a lot of sound and don't get distorted at high volume. The bass isn't great, but they're very impressive speakers for a tablet.
Display and S Pen
As with all Samsung's S-series tablets, this one comes with a Super AMOLED display. The cheaper tablets ship with LCDs instead. All the things we've said about Samsung's AMOLEDs in the past hold here. The colors are vibrant, but a little blown-out with the default calibration. However, the settings let you turn on a basic mode that's extremely accurate, if that's what you're into. Being an AMOLED, the Tab S3 has perfect black levels and very good high/low brightness levels. The viewing angles are splendid as well.
The panel is 4:3 ratio, so it's somewhat square-ish like the iPad. It has the same resolution too—1536 x 2048. That works out to about 264 pixel per inch. That's a lot lower than the Pixel C, which is 308 PPI. You can see a little difference in clarity if you really get up close, but I think the resolution of the Tab S3 is more than acceptable. It's supposed to support HDR content, but there's almost none of that right now.
There's a new S Pen this time, and it's bigger—way bigger. The S Pen is now the size of a regular pen rather than a slim stylus. The main drawback being that you need to haul it around because it doesn't dock inside the tablet. It seems like Samsung it trying to compete more directly with the Apple Pencil, which is sold separately for $100. Samsung includes the S Pen with the Tab S3, and it doesn't need to be charged like the Apple Pencil. It's basically a larger version of the inductive S Pen we had before. Although, the tip has been narrowed to 0.7mm for higher precision.
I do like the new S Pen overall. It's much more comfortable, and Samsung's software palm rejection is a bit more reliable. Some of the stylus-oriented features Samsung debuted with the Note7 are here as well. You can click the side button on the pen while the tablet screen is off to instantly scribble a note. There's also the screen capture tool with GIF support. You can also hover over content like you can with a mouse. For instance, hovering over images on Amazon pulls up the magnifier feature. The lack of a slot for the S Pen is annoying, though. This seems like something that could easily be lost. Well, unless you get one of Samsung's handy (expensive) cases for the Tab S3. They have a slot for the S Pen.
Samsung has two versions of the official cover available. The folio case will run you $60, and it's just a cover for the tablet with a kickstand. The keyboard case is $130, and it (of course) adds a keyboard. I have the keyboard case to test with the review unit, so let's go over this.
Unlike the Pixel's keyboard dock, Samsung's case does not rely upon Bluetooth, and there's no internal battery. It connects to the pogo pins on the side of the tablet. The case itself holds the tablet in with magnets. There's also a small loop on the side for storing the S Pen. The tablet wakes up and recognizes the keyboard immediately when connected, and disconnecting it puts the tablet back to sleep. That's great if you're planning to close the case, but annoying if you're just detaching the keyboard in order to remove the tablet from the case.
The keyboard case is reasonably stable in dock mode, but it's not rigid like a laptop hinge. Tapping or using the S Pen on the display while docked will cause the tablet to wobble. You have to do that occasionally because there are no navigation buttons on the keyboard. It would have been nice to see home at least. That physical home button on the tablet is annoying to reach out and push all the time.
The keyboard uses chiclet keys in a compressed layout. They've got more travel and tactile feel than I'd expect from a slim keyboard like this. It's certainly better than the Pixel C's keyboard. That said, I still don't think Android is particularly suited to physical keyboards. The cramped size and lack of a trackpad will make this an accessory that's best used for short periods of time. For $130, I doubt Samsung's going to sell very many of these.
Performance and battery
The Tab S3 runs a Snapdragon 820, which means it's capable of crunching many bits. I'm sure you've seen benchmarks for this chip before, but here are a few just for fun.
What truly matters is how a device behaves while you're using it. Samsung's recent round of devices have been, well, I wouldn't say slow. They have not been exceptionally fast, though. Samsung seemed to be conservatively tuning them to improve battery life. The Galaxy Tab S3 isn't as fast as I'd like, but it definitely has more pep than the Galaxy S7. I suppose Samsung cranked the chip a little more when it had more battery capacity to work with.
The Galaxy Tab S3 rarely stutters and apps open quickly. It doesn't have the immediacy of devices like the Pixel. It's more than good enough, though. I don't find myself waiting on the tablet to do things. The only place I can reliably find lag is in some of Samsung's home screen widgets and in the (terrible) Briefing screen.
The improved performance comes at a cost, though. The Galaxy Tab S3's battery life is just okay. Based on my testing, it'll last through two days of pretty heavy use. I'm getting around 7 hours of screen time over the course of two days, which is not bad. It'll run for nine or ten hours if you use it non-stop until it dies.
One issue I'm noticing is unusual battery drain. In general, the Tab S3 is losing too much juice when it's sitting idle, probably because of some software foible or another. Weirdly, this doesn't happen all the time. Some days it remains asleep like a champ. It just seems to be waking up too often when the problem does present itself. Hopefully this is something Samsung can address in an update. The battery life as it currently stands is not bad, but a little disappointing.
The Tab S3 ships with Android 7.0 Nougat. Sure, 7.1 would be better, but Nougat is still Nougat. That means it includes split-screen apps, improved notifications, custom quick settings, and so on. This is still Samsung's TouchWiz build of Android. That means there are some apps and features you likely won't want to use. But hey, TouchWiz isn't a deal breaker these days.
Let's start with Samsung's weakest point—the home screen. I used to feel like Samsung's home screen was very competitive with other OEMs. I don't know when that changed, but it did. It does a few things that annoy me, like blow up the icons to a ridiculous size (they look blurry because of it) and default the app drawer to a "custom" layout. It also has very obvious scaling bugs in landscape mode when moving icons around. Even when you tweak it to be more acceptable, the TouchWiz launcher doesn't feel very fast. Some of the widgets in particular are jerky. The Briefing panel is still terrible, but you can still disable it.
The S Pen's software enhancements are very similar to what we saw recently on the Note7. The screen capture tool is available in the Air Command menu and lets you capture GIFs in just a few taps. I don't know how often I'll use this, but it's done very well. The note-taking features are solid as well. Samsung's own note app has handwriting recognition and you can start a new note when the device is off by clicking the side button of the stylus.
There are some Samsung apps you might want to get rid of, but the bloat isn't too bad without a carrier also pushing junk on you. It didn't take me too long to get up and running. The revamped settings interface was a little off-putting at first, but it's actually quite nice. The tablet UI has a handy split-screen layout like stock Android used to have.
I'm rather fond of how multitasking works on this device. Not only do we have the better universal split-screen app mode from Nougat, but Samsung has kept the pop-up view. That means you can shrink apps down into floating windows, which might actually be useful on a 9.7-inch screen. The combination of the two features make it feasible to get some work done on the Tab S3. Not a lot of work, but some.
One place I think Samsung dropped the ball is with how the software interacts with the keyboard—or rather, how it doesn't. You plug it in, the tablet wakes up. Disconnect it, the tablet goes to sleep. That's about all it does. When it's in use, it works like any other keyboard you'd pair with an Android device. It feels very awkward to constantly be reaching up to the screen because keys don't do what you expect. For example, search brings up screen search (Now on Tap), which no one uses. I expected it to, you know, search.
I can (and will in just a moment) wax philosophical about Android on tablets at length. Before that, all you really need to know is that this is a $600 tablet. If you aren't interested in spending $600 on a tablet, you should not buy this. I suspect that will be most of you.
The Tab S3 has a fabulous screen with lovely colors, support for HDR video, and quad speakers. This could shape up to be a fantastic media consumption device. It's also got the cool (more comfortable) S Pen that makes it good for taking notes. Performance has also improved over other recent Samsung devices. The fingerprint sensor is faster, too.
The battery life has been inconsistent for me. It's still usable for more than a day, but Samsung needs to take a look at the idle battery drain. The keyboard dock is also ludicrously expensive, and it's not even big enough to be used comfortably for long stretches. Although, the cover accessories are the only way to carry the S Pen around with the tablet easily. It's too big to dock inside now.
Ignoring the price, the Tab S3 is a very good Android tablet. But what does that mean? Unfortunately, Android on tablets is still lacking. There are some apps that work great on tablets, but they are in the extreme minority. Features like split-screen and floating apps help the Tab S3 cope better than most, but we are still left with a dearth of truly tablet-optimized apps. For $600 you could get a windows notebook—a good one. If you add on $130 for the keyboard dock, it's kind of crazy you aren't just buying a laptop. You'd end up with a vastly more useful device. The only reason to get the Tab S3 is that you very much want a high-end Android tablet, and to hell with the cost.