So close, and yet: so far

If you cheated and looked to the score, you might get the impression that I hate this tablet. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: I love that Samsung is still taking risks, but a big part of doing that means some failures. By this I mean the hardware is far behind where it should be—most of the components were outdated at the beginning of the year, and they don't even stand a chance against the newest wave of tablets. The philosophy seems to be: Boost use time by using less power-hungry components, but it leaves some users stuck with a frustratingly incapable machine.

The 8-inch screen size is _great_ for anyone who likes the idea of a small tablet, but can't deal with the tininess a 7-inch screen.

I'll start in on the praise: The 8-inch screen size is great for anyone who likes the idea of a small tablet, but can't deal with the tininess a 7-inch screen. I think we'll see this size more and more, as it's no longer unique to the iPad mini. Unfortunately—like the iPad mini—this screen is not all that impressive (even if it's the bright spot of this device).

From a feature standpoint, the Galaxy Tab 3 has all the things that made the Galaxy Tab 2 a good buy—an IR blaster to control your home theater, bluetooth, 802.11n wireless antenna—if you have a Happylife Home setup, this tablet would fit right in. Samsung also bundled the small slate with content partnerships that do give you a bit of a taste what you can do with a tablet, but aren't as intrusive as bloatware on PCs. If you want to remove the extra software, it's not much of a hassle.

I'd say that this tablet works best either as an eBook reader, or for playing back videos stored on its hard drive. The processor leaves a lot to be desired, so many of the things that gamers want out of a slate are going to be frustrating—but that's probably okay if you're not trying to render a complex 3D world all the time. It'll be just fine for use on the train, bus, or a plane, as it's not only very thin, but can fit into most bags and carrying cases.

Like the last kid picked in gym class, a ringer this is not

Here is where my praise and excuses for the tablet run out. I really want to like it, but the outdated hardware is a bit much to bear. While it'll work fine enough for many things, it's not something that is going to survive the long haul. What happens when a new app or feature comes out that requires a beefier processor to handle information? You'll be left in the dust shortly if you hitch your wagon to this tablet, and the worst part is: There are already better tablets for less money.

First things first, the processor is somehow worse than even 2011's Tegra 3—meaning it's among the bottom of the barrel even by last year's standards. To make matters worse, the 1GB of RAM also hinders this tablet—Samsung has done virtually nothing to improve it over the last iteration of Galaxy Tab. When there's an ARMs race (excuse the pun) for tablets that can handle all the programs a laptop could, the fact that this tablet can't keep up means it's headed quickly to the ash heap of history.

If the screen size, IR blaster, and content partnerships aren't that important to you, there's really no reason to buy this tablet. It was released at a time when it was at best out of date, and at worst a ripoff. There's only so much that a software update can fix, but bad hardware isn't one of them. Let's examine how it stacks up against the current market leader, shall we?

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As you can see, despite the Tab 3's "good enough" mentality, users wanting to grab a tablet that can keep up with the pace of progress for longer shouldn't think twice if it comes to a decision between the Nexus 7 and the Tab 3. The Nexus will be competitive into next year, the Tab 3 won't.

Great for light media consumption, bad for power users

Keeping the load relatively light on the tablet, I noticed no major hiccups or problems. The screen size really is a treat, but I can't help but notice just how often my freakishly huge hands trip the capacitive buttons on the side of the bezel while watching movies. Though a case with a stand might help you avoid this, it's a dumb design oversight that's bound to drive travelers up a wall when trying to catch up on their shows during a commute.

It almost feels as if the cheap plastic exterior has somehow permeated all function of the tablet, replacing what should be much more usable with a sort of Fisher Price™ "My First Tablet."

Getting used to semi-physical controls takes a while, but anyone making the switch from a more "stock" Android device is going to hate it—the universal controls are not only different, but no longer a persistent presence on the screen. Instead of having a back, home, and recent apps icon, you have a menu button, home button, and back button. It's not a huge inconvenience, but it does change the operation for the better for certain users in my experience.

Samsung's TouchWiz interface is familiar, but frustratingly inconsistent—Why on earth do you need to swipe twice for the notification bar in some situations but once for others? Maybe using almost every tablet on the market has spoiled me for "forked" operating systems, but I (and many others) loathe decisions of function being made for me by someone who doesn't even know what I'd do with a tablet. It also doesn't help that the design aesthetic is locked in a pseudo-iOS5 world: It almost feels as if the cheap plastic exterior has somehow permeated all function of the slate, replacing what should be much more usable with a sort of Fisher Price™ "My First Tablet."

For basic functions like reading eBooks, watching videos, and playing simple games, the tablet does fine enough with each task—Great, even. Really, this will work in a pinch, and my abrasive impressions of the unit shouldn't be taken to mean that it's terrible—it's just not enough to keep up in the long run, is all. The battery life is pretty good due to the reduced power requirements, so avid readers and newshounds should be satisfied with the Galaxy Tab 3's performance. The screen may not be the best around, but its color performance is head-and-shoulders above most Android tablets (even though it falls short of the Nexus 7).

Gamers should pass on this one

Spending $300 on a gadget that will work fine for a while, but miss out on future features requiring more resources to run seems like a poor investment to me. But who knows? Android tablets are wildly varied and diverse for a reason: People like different things out of their devices. What we have here is a device that's built around content partnerships that are meant to introduce you to the world of paying for streaming media.

To its credit, the 8-inch screen size is a very good idea. Samsung may not have loaded the tablet up with impressive specs, but it does mostly what's asked of it in the eyes of a casual user. The performance of the screen is notably good for a tablet, though it has low pixel density for this day and age. If you're only going to watch movies, or do some light browsing or reading, this will be an acceptable option, but not the greatest.

It's not a bad tablet—it's just not that good. At the moment it's a fair option, but that will only be true for a span of two or so months. It's especially tough to justify buying when you consider that there's better out there for cheaper right now, and that if you're willing to wait even just a little bit, you'll be able to grab something that will stay current longer before you have to buy another slate.

Guts: Do you have it?

The answer is no. By many respects this is a decent tablet, but by the numbers it falls short of the mark in everything but screen performance. While that's probably the most important thing for most devices, it's tough to explain away the lack of other hardware performance points when there isn't much of a benefit to having underpowered hardware.

Great performance, not-so-great resolution

By far and away, the most impressive part of this table is its screen: Not only is it fairly decent when it comes to color performance, but it also has good contrast, as well as a screen that isn't as reflective as a mirror. To wit, the screen only reflects 5.7% of all light shone on it. Because of this, it'll do fairly well outside, but it still isn't ideal for bright sunlight.

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Using a TFT display with a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels, the 8" screen has a pixel density of 188 pixels per inch (PPI). Though adequate, nitpicky people will absolutely key in on the fact that this is a low resolution for a tablet to have nowadays, and be a poor choice to watch anything with a resolution of 720p and up.

However, that's really the only "dark spot" in the screen performance here. The screen has a mediocre black level of 0.48cd/m2 , but a peak brightness of 421.77cd/m2 gives the screen a contrast ratio of 879:1, which is above-average for a tablet.

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Color performance is actually quite good on the Galaxy Tab 3—there are three different color modes to suit your liking, but we suggest using the "Movie" mode in the settings. This mode has the best color performance of the bunch—though each gamut is not that different in terms of range, the white balance is most accurate in "Movie" mode.

Samsung, your tablet: Woof.

On paper, the Galaxy Tab 3 seems to do okay as far as hardware is concerned. That 1.5GB of DDR3 RAM should be able to handle a heavy load even if the processor behind the scenes is a 1.5GHz dual-core. However, in practice that isn't the case.

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Its score on our benchmark tests was absolutely appalling. If the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone from two Decembers ago is nipping at its heels, there's a problem. When Tegra 3 chipset tablets are routinely punking a brand new one, there's an enormous problem. While this performance is good enough for media consumption, it's terrible for games and resource-intensive functions. Even last year's iteration of the Nexus 7 is better in this department—if you want a tablet that can keep up with the latest apps and features, this is not it.

Solid contender

So, initially I thought to myself: "Oh, Samsung is using less-powerful components to boost battery life—that's an interesting strategy." That may have been the intent, but it's not the result. Clocking in at 6 hours and 47 minutes playing back a campy tale of Santa Claus' abduction by martians, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 is not all that amazing in terms of battery life at full brightness and on airplane mode.

Not the best, but certainly not bad at all: You could do a lot worse.

Reading eBooks seems to be easier for it to handle, however, as the 8-inch slate was able to thumb through War and Peace for a hair under 8 hours—7 hours, 52 minutes, to be exact. This is perfect for an intracontinental flight, but travelers with a longer sojourn ahead of them may want to pick up a supplementary power source.

All said and done, this is a perfectly respectable battery life when you consider that the screen does actually get quite bright (and the fact that you're not likely to ever need it at maximum), so your mileage may vary in your day-to-day use. Not the best, but certainly not bad at all: You could do a lot worse.

Meet the tester

Chris Thomas

Chris Thomas

Staff Writer, Imaging

@cthomas8888

A seasoned writer and professional photographer, Chris reviews cameras, headphones, smartphones, laptops, and lenses. Educated in Political Science and Linguistics, Chris can often be found building a robot army, snowboarding, or getting ink.

See all of Chris Thomas's reviews

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