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Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 UK Review: Aiming at the iPad Pro Market

Written by  Aug 31, 2018
Looking for a tablet that can convert into a laptop for working on the go? The iPad Pro and Microsoft’s various Surface devices have shown how the idea can work, but Android users have been left out in the cold.
In the past year we’ve barely seen anything new on the tablet front, convertible or otherwise.
 

Enter Samsung, with a plan to revive Android’s professional aspirations. Its new Galaxy Tab S4 promises a luxury, big-screen Android experience, with additional productivity credentials that just might make it your perfect mobile companion. Let’s see.

The Galaxy Tab S4 is clearly intended as an answer to the 10.5in Apple iPad Pro. It even adopts the same distinctive screen size, although it’s a slightly taller, thinner shape.
 

What’s more, the Galaxy Tab S4 has some advantages over the iPad Pro. The package includes a bundled stylus, and the tablet is Samsung’s first to feature DeX mode – a desktop-style interface that’s designed to work with a keyboard and mouse, and can even be displayed on an external monitor.

If you’re already invested in Android, therefore, the Galaxy Tab S4 is a tempting proposition. You get the flexibility of an iPad Pro or Surface Go, while keeping your familiar apps and easy synchronisation with your phone.


Finally, don’t forget the Microsoft Surface family. The range stretches from the £379 Surface Go up to the £1,149 Surface Book 2 with its detachable keyboard, so there’s bound to be something that suits your needs. The catch is that these devices all run Windows 10, which is great for “proper” computing, but means you’re left with a much more limited range of touch-friendly apps when you switch to tablet mode.

Design and display

The Galaxy Tab S4 looks and feels expensive. It’s covered in glass on both the front and back, and when you pick it up there’s a certain heft to it; it’s not unwieldy, but at 482g it feels like a serious bit of kit. That impression is confirmed by the choice of just two colour schemes, named simply “black” and “grey” – no frivolous adjectives here.

So far the design is quite similar to the old Galaxy Tab S3, but there’s one quite visible difference. The bezels at the top and bottom have been shrunk down (resulting in the ditching of the Samsung logo and the home button), so they’re now exactly as narrow as those at the sides, creating something closer to an edge-to-edge feel.

The gives the Galaxy Tab S4 a slightly smaller footprint than the iPad Pro (measuring 164 x 249mm, versus 174 x 251mm), although in honesty the size difference is too small to register in everyday use. At any rate, it’s offset by the Tab S4’s extra 1mm of thickness. You don’t consciously notice it, but the S4 doesn’t quite have that sense of supreme slimness that the iPad Pro achieves.

I also have to note that, while the Tab S4 looks stunning when you first take it out of the box, the glass on the front and back doesn’t seem to be oleophobic at all. In use it quickly gets covered in fingerprints and smudges, which cheapen the impression and leave the whole thing looking a bit grubby.

Oh well: you can’t see them when the screen is on, and as usual with Samsung the display is one of the Galaxy Tab S4’s best features. The Super AMOLED panel delivers gloriously rich, bold colours, even at extreme viewing angles, and supports HDR colour in apps like Netflix and YouTube. It’s superbly sharp too, with a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600, equivalent to a pixel density of 287ppi (just beating the iPad Pro’s 264ppi).

Even with all these strengths, it’s not quite a best-in-class display. It lacks the 120Hz refresh rate of the iPad Pro, and while you can manually adjust the colour balance, there’s nothing to match Apple’s True Tone technology. Dial up the brightness to maximum and it’s not quite as searing as the iPad Pro, although it’s still bright enough to use happily in all but the most glaring sunlight.

The S4’s audio hardware deserves a mention too. Around the edges you’ll find four AKG-branded speakers and, while they’re far from hi-fi, they’re more than loud enough for you to enjoy a movie in a hotel room, without a hint of distortion even at maximum volume. The only catch is that there’s also not a hint of bass, which rather sucks the weight out of music, and means you’re not exactly going to get the best of the S4’s Dolby Atmos support either. Still, you can always use headphones, or external speakers: the Galaxy Tab S4 features both Bluetooth 5 and a 3.5mm audio jack socket.


Camera and Bixby Vision

While only a monster would regularly use a 10.5in tablet for photography, the Tab S4 is equipped with a pretty respectable 13-megapixel camera at the rear. Thanks to a 1/3in sensor and an f/1.9 aperture, it captures clean, detailed shots, and good-looking 4K video at 30fps.

There’s a decent selection of shooting modes too, including panorama mode, a variable-frame-rate “Hyperlapse” mode, and a Pro mode that lets you tweak the exposure compensation, white balance and ISO. Pleasingly, whichever you choose there’s absolutely zero shutter lag – unless you engage the little LED flash, which takes a moment to half-illuminate the scene and lock in the focus before firing for real.

The rear camera also works with Samsung’s Bixby Vision app – a feature obviously inspired by Google Lens, which aims to recognise places, things, text and (believe it or not) foods. Text recognition works rather well, and you can translate your captured phrases to or from a long list of languages – although you have to tap to contact the translation server, rather than getting instant feedback as you do with the Google Translate app.


Object recognition, alas, isn’t so hot. I found that Bixby got it wrong almost 100% of the time, misidentifying an envelope as a bed, a tomato as an orange, a Nokia smartphone as a book and a Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 as a leather wallet. Still, even if the app doesn’t know what your subject is, it can search for similar-looking images, which could be useful.

The front camera meanwhile has an 8-megapixel resolution, with a quarter-inch sensor and a maximum video resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, which should be more than enough for selfies and video chats. It’s also used for Samsung’s biometric-recognition feature, which automatically unlocks your tablet when it recognises either your face or the irises of your eyes. This worked fine for me – which is just as well, as the removal of the physical home button means the fingerprint reader has gone too.

The S Pen stylus

As I’ve mentioned, the Tab S4 comes with an S Pen stylus in the box. Not all S Pens are alike, though, and this is a much larger model than you’ll get with one of Samsung’s Galaxy Note smartphones. It’s 138mm long, with a 9mm barrel, and weighs a nicely balanced 9g. In use, it feels like you’re holding an actual ballpoint pen, rather than some spindly approximation thereof.

The writing action is excellent too. The glass is thin enough that it feels like you’re scribbling directly onto the virtual canvas, and the S Pen’s rubber tip drags along with just the right amount of resistance – there’s none of that unnatural slipperiness that you too often get with cheap styluses. Pressure and tilt sensitivity work very well too, allowing the 0.7mm tip to emulate everything from a fineliner to a marker pen. With just a little practice you can quickly master variable-width strokes and start knocking up expressive sketches and beautifully handwritten notes.


How useful these capabilities are to you is an open question. Samsung provides apps for taking notes, annotating images and so forth, and the S Pen works with various third-party tools including Microsoft OneNote and AutoDesk Sketchbook – but I’m dubious of how many tablet users will really make regular use of these. Still, it’s a nice bonus, and you’re not limited to stylus-specific apps: you can use the S Pen in place of a fat finger anywhere in Android, and click the side button to bring up a customisable menu of app shortcuts.

I’ve only two real grumbles. First, the S Pen is made from cheap-feeling glossy plastic, which feels jarringly incongruous as a companion to a glass-encased tablet. Second, Samsung hasn’t provided any convenient place to keep the pen when it’s not in use. I’d have loved to see a handy slot in the casing, as with Samsung’s Galaxy Note phones, or perhaps a magnetic clip à la Microsoft. But nope – you have to carry it around separately, or invest in a separate case (Samsung’s own ones start at a stiff £59). It’s an unnecessary inconvenience which will surely only discourage people from bothering with the stylus.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 10.5 Inch Tablet - (Ebony Black) (Samsung Exynos, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB eMMC, Android 8.1)
£594.12 at Amazon (Check current price)

DeX and the Keyboard Cover

In many ways, the Galaxy Tab S4 delivers exactly what we’d expect from a high-end Android tablet. What makes it unique is DeX mode. Originally introduced on the Galaxy S8 smartphone, DeX turns Android into a much more laptop-like experience, with a windowed interface and support for a keyboard and mouse. On Samsung phones, DeX requires a special dock, but the Tab S4 can be switched into DeX mode without the need for any extra hardware.

I have to say, I like the idea. Android 7 (“Nougat”) introduced a split-screen multitasking mode, but I’ve never found it particularly intuitive or pleasant to work with. DeX is much more sophisticated, with windows that can be freely shunted around and resized, and a familiar taskbar along the bottom. In fact, it feels a lot like Chrome OS; the Chrome browser even has handy tabs along the top.

While switching into DeX in this way is a neat trick, it feels a bit cramped in use, as you have to tap out text on a floating virtual keyboard, and use a finger or the S Pen in place of a mouse. One solution is to connect an external monitor to the USB Type-C socket; you can then use the whole tablet surface as a virtual keyboard and touchpad, or connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse for the most desktop-like experience possible.

 

Alternatively, you can invest in Samsung’s custom-made Keyboard Cover – a £119 plastic case with a built-in keyboard, which snaps onto the Galaxy Tab S4 and props it up from behind. If you’ve ever seen Apple’s Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro, you’ll know exactly what it looks like, and it’s obviously designed to help you make the most of DeX on the go.

As we noted in our first-look review, the keyboard is a pretty decent bit of kit. The keys have a good, positive action, and despite the compact format, the spacing doesn’t feel too tight. Pleasingly, like the Book Cover, the case also includes a holder for the S Pen.

What I’m not so keen on is the fact that the Keyboard Cover doesn’t have a built-in trackpad, as found on Microsoft’s Type Cover accessories for its Surface devices. To be fair, the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard doesn’t have one either, but DeX – unlike iOS – has clearly been designed as a primarily mouse-driven environment, and jabbing at an upright screen with a finger or stylus isn’t quite the same.

 

I’m also slightly turned off by the presence of a few unnecessary keys. To the right of the space bar, there’s a button for calling up language settings – as if this is something people need to access on a regular basis. Even more bafflingly, on the left of the physical keyboard there’s a button that calls up the onscreen keyboard. I guess this could be useful if you frequently want to insert GIFs and emoji via the virtual keyboard, but if that’s the intention it feels like a misreading of the target audience.


Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 10.5 Inch Tablet - (Ebony Black) (Samsung Exynos, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB eMMC, Android 8.1)
£594.12 at Amazon (Check current price)

Performance and battery life

The Galaxy Tab S4 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, with four cores running at 2.35GHz and another four running at 1.9GHz. That’s the same CPU as found in the Galaxy S8 smartphone, and the Google Pixel 2, and Android feels every bit as slick here as it does on those devices.

On that point, if you’re wondering, the Tab S4 runs Android 8.1 Oreo with various Samsung-specific tweaks to the homescreen, app drawer, icons and so on. These are mostly cosmetic and don’t make much difference to the overall experience, but Samsung’s insistence on futzing with Android does mean that it will probably be many months before the Tab S4 gets Android 9 Pie. Still, that update doesn’t add anything particularly urgent or important for tablet users.

 

It’s also worth noting that, while we certainly wouldn’t call any of the aforementioned phones underpowered, they’re all from 2017. Compared to the cream of this year’s handsets, such as Samsung’s own Galaxy S9, the Galaxy Tab S4 is a bit behind the pace – and, as the Geekbench CPU test exposes, it’s a long way behind the iPad Pro:

Multi-core Single-core
Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 6303 1886
Apple iPad Pro 10.5in 9380 3930
Samsung Galaxy S9 8804 3659

Predictably, it’s a similar story with the Galaxy Tab S4’s gaming performance. The GFXBench Manhattan test again confirms that the older CPU can’t keep up with Apple’s own-brand chips, nor the latest Snapdragon processors:

Onscreen Offscreen
Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 35fps 54fps
Apple iPad Pro 10.5in 58fps 105fps
Samsung Galaxy S9 45fps 77fps

This isn’t a disaster: there’s enough power here for all your Office-type tasks, and for all but the most demanding games. But if you want to take full advantage of DeX, by hooking up a large monitor and opening lots of Android apps and Chrome tabs at once, you’re likely to get bogged down pretty quickly. It doesn’t help either that the Galaxy Tab S4 has only 4GB of RAM – less than many modern smartphones. In short, the Tab S4 will comfortably romp through regular tablet duties, but it lacks the muscle to fully deliver on the multitasking promise of the DeX environment.

 

Still, there’s good news on the battery front. The Galaxy Tab S4 comes with a 7,300mAh battery, which is a big step up from the 6,000mAh of the S3. Samsung claims that it will deliver 16 hours of full-screen video playback, and in our own tests – with the brightness set to a comfortable level for indoor viewing – it comfortably exceeded that promise, giving us 17hrs 10mins of non-stop entertainment before conking out. Although the iPad Pro has an even bigger battery (rated at 8,134mAh), Apple’s tablet managed only 12hrs 59mins with the screen set to a standard brightness of 170cd/m2.


Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 10.5 Inch Tablet - (Ebony Black) (Samsung Exynos, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB eMMC, Android 8.1)
£594.12 at Amazon (Check current price)

Verdict

The Galaxy Tab S4 is an ambitious device, and it’s exciting to try out a tablet that seeks to push the boundaries of what Android can do. It feels like a long time since we’ve seen that.

And there are several things about this tablet I like very much. The screen is great, the S Pen works brilliantly, the battery life is exceptional, and overall it feels like a proper premium piece of hardware.

When we turn to the new features that define the Tab S4, it’s harder to be enthusiastic. DeX presents an inspiring vision, but the overall package lacks the slickness, the coherence and the sheer horsepower of the iPad Pro.

To be sure, Samsung deserves credit for not merely mimicking Apple, but attempting to carve out a distinctive future for Android as a productivity platform. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t come off. For every plus point there’s a but – and that’s hard to accept from a tablet that sets its sights so high.

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