Two years after its last major refresh, Samsung is back with the Galaxy Tab S3. A lot has changed in tablet land in the past two years. Sales have slowed considerably, as consumers have stubbornly opted not to upgrade. Manufacturers, meanwhile, are cannibalizing sales from all sides, through larger phones and convertibles like the Galaxy Book, which was launched right alongside the new slate back at Mobile World Congress a few weeks ago.
Samsung’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do when it comes to reigniting consumer excitement around the space. It certainly didn’t do itself any favors by using the product’s launch event to announce the event for the Galaxy S8, further contributing to the notion that the device is something of a placeholder for the company. Nor will the premium $599 price point do much to win over consumers.
But Samsung has gone a ways toward justifying the price here, packing the slate full of all sorts of features, including an HDR screen, quad-speakers and an S-Pen that ships in the box. But is it all enough to help the company stem its slowing tide of tablet sales?
Tablet classification has gotten progressively trickier over the past few years. When it’s breaking down shipment numbers, analyst group IDC breaks the category into two distinct groups — the slates and the detachables. The new Tab S3 actually slots into the second category, as the company launched it alongside a keyboard case.
That means it sits in a category alongside Galaxy Tab S Pro and the Galaxy Book, filling up the more premium category attempting to bridge the gap between premium tablets and laptop. It’s all a little bit blurry, but it speaks to Samsung’s desire to make all-purpose devices without fear of stepping on its own toes.
For the sake of the company’s branding, however, the Tab S3 should be regarded as a standard multi-media consumer tablet — albeit one that you can write on and type with, if you need to fire off a quick email in-between Netflix episodes. If you’re looking to replace your laptop, on the other hand, keep moving right along. Perhaps the Samsung Galaxy Book, the new Samsung Chromebook or the Samsung Notebook 9 are more you speed.
The Tab S3 is aimed squarely at those looking for an iPad alternative, and who don’t mind paying a bit of a premium to get it.
The S3 borrows some design cues from its predecessor, but upgrades things a bit with a glass back along the lines of what you’ll find on the company’s handsets. In fact, much of the design language calls to mind the most recent generation of Galaxy phones, including the rounded metal band around the edge and the oval fingerprint-reading home button on the bottom. It’s a far cry from the company’s formerly plasticky designs and one that’s certainly in line with the device’s premium price tag.
It’s a solid and slim device that feels nice in the hands. It’s actually a touch thicker than the S2, likely owing, at least in part, to a bigger 6,000mAh battery that promises up to 12 hours of life by Samsung’s count, and was certainly able to get me through a day’s use, no problem.
Samsung’s done away with the two different size configurations this time out, which removes a little of the signal to noise from past versions, instead simply sticking with the 9.7-inch model — the better to compare itself to Apple with. It’s really the ideal size for a device like this. Anything larger would sacrifice portability and anything smaller (like the 8-inch version of the S2) is creeping into that fuzzy phablet territory.
Like the new iPad, Samsung’s sticking with its predecessor’s resolution. Here that means 2,048 x 1,536 — but where the Apple just promised a brighter display, Samsung’s joining the growing chorus of companies pushing HDR video. It’s become a bit of a display buzzword, like 4K before it, but it makes a difference.
You’ll certainly notice the difference in a side by side comparison, with HDR displaying a wider and more vivid range of colors. Of course, like 4K before it, the technology is currently hampered by content availability. Though, given the potential two-year refresh cycle, it certainly makes sense from the standpoint of future-proofing the device.
All said, the biggest upgrade here from a media standpoint is the four-speaker system. Many companies have largely ignored audio, instead focusing on the resolution arms race. It’s a pretty massive oversight when building a device intended for movie watching. Here the company has positioned a speaker grille on all four corners.
This has the effect of spreading out the sound and works well with stereo. The speakers are positioned in such a way that I often found my hands covering up one or two when holding it, but that’s the beauty of having four speakers — you can’t cover them all at the same time.
The sound is solid and well-balanced, so far as tablets go. It still doesn’t compare to a decent Bluetooth speaker. If you’re planning on really listening to music or watching a full movie, I’d recommend relying on an external sound system.
If I’m being totally honest, the keyboard case is what got me the most excited when trying out the Tab S3 back at Mobile World Congress. It’s got its drawbacks. It’s cramped and there’s no trackpack, so you need to move your finger up to the display to navigate. Also, sadly, it’s not included in the tablet’s $599 starting price.
That said, it has to be one of the best consumer tablet keyboards I’ve used on a non-Surface-style device. It’s really responsive and natural to type on. You’re not going to want to use the S3 for serious productivity, given the limitations of Android, but the magnetic case/stand is really great for firing off a couple of emails or jotting down notes.
The S-Pen, on the other hand, is included in the price. Oddly, there’s no docking slot on the tablet itself for the stylus, so you’ll have to find something to clip it to so you know where it is at all times. I found that I was able to clip it onto the side of the keyboard case with a little maneuvering. It’s not a deal breaker by any stretch, but it does seem like a strange oversight for a company that’s been pushing the technology since the launch of the original Note.
The company has refined the S-Pen quite a bit over the years, and the suite of productivity apps has been ported over from the handset, making it pretty diverse. The technology isn’t quite as advanced as the version the company offers on the Windows-based Galaxy Book, nor is it any sort of Wacom competitor, but it does the trick for jotting down notes and casual drawing.
About that upgrade cycle
There’s no doubt Samsung’s built a premium device. The S3’s got a nice build, some solid multimedia features and zippy internals. But Samsung, like the rest of the tablet-building industry, have a refresh problem. Consumers just aren’t trading out their devices like the industry had hoped. There are some nice additions here over the S2, but unless your device is really on its last legs, it’s probably not worth putting that slate out to pasture.
The $599 price point already sounded like a tough sell — and that’s certainly come into even sharper focus as Apple has seemingly set an industry bellwether on high-end tablets by dropping the price on the new iPad. Don’t be too surprised to see Samsung follow suit in the near future — and maybe even toss in the keyboard for good measure.
It’s worth waiting it out a little bit if you can. But if the price tag doesn’t give you pause, the Tab S3 is certainly one of the most speced-out premium Android tablets around.