Samsung Galaxy Tab S Tablet Is Overdressed, but Alluring

REVIEW: Samsung's flagship Galaxy Tab S is stuffed with software and maybe tacky to some. But it gets right all the things that matter most.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S tablet

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.