Samsung Galaxy Tab S Tablet Is Overdressed, but Alluring

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2014-07-18
Samsung Galaxy Tab S tablet

Samsung Galaxy Tab S Tablet Is Overdressed, but Alluring

Tablets, like smartphones, seem to be near the end of their innovation cycle. They're thin, they're light, their displays have more pixels than the eye can appreciate. What more can be done?

Samsung continues to answer this question by differentiating—on size, on price, on materials, on features—if even only subtly.

With the Galaxy Tab S, a flagship tablet introduced June 12, Samsung pushed tablet design in all the expected ways.

The Tab S features a Super AMOLED display, instead of a liquid crystal display (LCD), and the result is 30 percent more pixels than "the competition" (read: the Apple iPad). Images are crisp. Colors are rich and saturated. It's beautiful.

The Tab S is also the thinnest tablet on the market. It's thinner than not only the Apple iPad Air but the Apple iPhone 5S as well. It's so thin, Samsung had to add a little lip to accommodate the microUSB slot and the headphone jack —the thickest components on a tablet, it turns out. (The Tab S comes in 8.4- and 10.5-inch versions; both are 6mm thin.)

Samsung also changed up the materials and colors slightly from past models. The material on the Tab S' back nods at the dimpled backside of the Galaxy 5S smartphone but doesn't have the padded quality. It's some kind of molded plastic that people will have their own ideas about. I think it looks nice enough—better than the GS5—though I find the gold trim a bit tacky (silver would have been a cleaner look) and I'm disappointed in the holes intended for use with the magnetic cover, which a person may or may not buy. A cover should accommodate a device, not the other way around.

Samsung also gave the Tab S a number of security features, including a fingerprint scanner that's somewhat like Apple's Touch ID. While it didn't respond perfectly every time, it recognized my finger on the first swipe the majority, or at least half, of the time, unlike Touch ID, which pretends it has never seen my index finger, no matter how many times I register it. (I've had better luck with my thumb.)

The Samsung team, having checked all the key boxes—thin, light (just over half a pound), beautiful display, enterprise-class security—surely stopped and wondered, What else could we give it? How else can we differentiate our tablet from the iPad? The answer they clearly came to was: software.

At the Tab S launch event at New York City's Madison Square Garden (MSG), the majority of the presentation focused on software features and content partnerships.

To compete with Apple and its recently purchased Beats, Samsung introduced Milk Music (why that name, a product that's here today and spoiled and gone tomorrow, I can't imagine). It's based around a dial, set against a large, beautiful image of the song's album cover, and makes it easy to explore genres or set up stations based on favorite or newly discovered songs. In each genre, you can only forward six songs in an hour, and though Samsung says there are no ads, there are no ads in the way that public radio doesn't have ads. There are interruptions. The app is nicely done, but an inexpensive premium version with unlimited skipping would be welcome.   

Samsung also introduced an application called Paper Garden, where magazines live and can be purchased (there are lots of free offers). Thanks to a new partnership with Conde Nast, there are also free "samplers"—not just free stories or magazine-style page layouts to flip through, but gorgeously rendered versions of the stories, optimized for the Tab S. (For some reason, the samplers don't live in the Paper Garden.)

In the samplers (though not in the magazines), one swipes horizontally to access new stories and vertically to move through a story; screen-length sections of text give way to screen-size photos. In the July GQ sampler, for example, such attention to photography makes perfectly clear (that is, in 2,560-by-1,600 resolution) every baby-oiled inch of cover girl Emily Ratajkowski. Find me the person who doesn't think this is even better than a magazine.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S Tablet Is Overdressed, but Alluring

The Tab S' display was also used to good effect while I watched Gravity—a free movie offered by Samsung. Introducing the Tab S to eWEEK hours before the MSG presentation, Samsung's staff repeated that the AMOLED display makes shades of black and white richer and more distinct—which is apparently as ideal in instances like a health care professional showing a patient an ultrasound photo as it is watching a movie set in space.

In addition, the Tab S includes the offer of a free book, from a handful of choices; an all-access 90-day trial of Google Play Music; free magazines; and a free six-month subscription to the Wall Street Journal, among other offers. At the MSG event, Samsung and Marvel also promised Tab S users exclusive content from the film Avengers: Age of Ultron. (I never saw this; if it's available, it was lost in the crush of apps Samsung was telling me I should download and enjoy.)

It's almost like Samsung is worried that users have no actual need for a tablet and has done its best to offer reasons to pick up the device.

One could argue that the Tab S succeeds in moving the tablet conversation from hardware to software. But in true Samsung fashion, there really is too much of it. A user is constantly being asked questions. Do I want to open an article in Chrome or the Browser? Do I want to open a photo in Photos or Gallery? Do I want to see the referenced tweet I just clicked on in Twitter, Chrome or Browser?

You tell me, Samsung—which is better? Quicker? More appropriate to what the tablet knows I'm doing at the moment?

Why am I even being offered free Google Play Music, when there is Milk Music, as well as a third Music app that, like Milk, has a music-note icon. The questions seem to have to do more with Samsung and its advertising or royalty agreements than with offering the user the best possible experience.

The Tab S in Summary

While the Tab S offers basically too much stuff, a good amount of it is nice. I like free movies.

Plus, once you get past all the extra stuff—the redundant apps, the extra home screens, the trial offers—the Tab S is a great tablet, for the simple reasons that it's thin and light and the 8.4-inch version is easy to hold in one hand at length.

Although, one gripe on that last front is that the bezel is so small—the display so optimized—that it's difficult not to touch the display and inadvertently pause a video. Adults I handed the Tab S to found this to be true, and so did my 3-year-old, with her tiny fingers; she finally just laid it down on the bed and, laying on her belly, peered into it.

A thin and light tablet with great security and a peerless display apparently isn't enough to make consumers refresh their devices as often as Samsung would like, or to outsell Apple, and so Samsung has offered even more than that. Some people may find it a little messy—a little harried—but great. But many more are likely to think it's just right.


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