Marking rise of OLED tablets, Samsung debuts a fine featherweight
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By the numbers this is an impressive tablet, but it's imperfect. That's okay—no tablet is. However, there are a couple performance hiccups that merit discussion.
When it comes to tablets, Samsung's standing position has long been "let's just try everything." With tablets of every size, shape, and color, it's hard to think of something Samsung hasn't done yet. One surprising omission is actually a tablet with an OLED screen—at least it was until the new Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4-inch (MSRP $399.99).
Though its specs are largely iterative over those of the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro, an OLED screen takes what already was good and makes it great. Better battery life, better color reproduction, and a slimmer package await users coming from other tablets. This tablet isn't without its faults, but it's a very cool addition to a crowded tablet market—and a great sign of things to come.
Perhaps more than any other kind of device, the most important part of any tablet is the screen. It's the primary reason to pick one up and it's also something that drives any tablet's design at almost every level. Here we've got am 8.4-inch 2560x1600 AMOLED screen. Because this screen generates its own light (rather than relying on a backlight), Samsung is able to trim off quite a bit of weight in their new line of tablets.
Though tablets with LCDs in them have been getting thinner (think iPad Air), the AMOLED screen in the Tab S shrinks the profile to a gaunt 0.26 inches. That's thinner than most smartphones, No. 2 pencils, or even a half-full folder. Because there's no backlight, the bulk of the Tab S's weight also comes from its battery—though even then it only weighs in at 10.4 ounces. If you carry a messenger bag around with you, the Tab S won't make its presence known.
Despite hitting it out of the park last year with its faux-leather backing, Samsung made the right choice and updated their casing for the new S-series tablets. Clad in a metal chassis with the oft-maligned "Band-aid" backing from the Samsung Galaxy S5, the Tab S seems every bit as easy to grip as a tablet should be. The backing may seem gauche, but it's effective, though it sadly doesn't share the Galaxy S5's waterproofing.
That's really okay, and unless you often take your tablet to the tub it's nothing to complain about. Its 8.37 x 4.94-inch profile means it can go just about everywhere else—bags, large pockets, hands of varying sizes. Those dimensions also mean the tablet uses a 16:10 aspect ratio, which is best suited for video content and comic book pages. Many people like the ~8-inch form factor because it's a noticeable step up from phones and small tablets, but still easy to manipulate all the controls.
In addition to the screen and backing, Samsung continued its trend of cramming as many possible items into every spare millimeter of real estate possible. In addition to the ever-present IR blaster, Bluetooth 4, and GPS, the Tab S also introduces a fingerprint scanner, in-chassis case locks, a forward-facing camera and... you get the idea. Samsung threw in everything but the kitchen sink, so you can take comfort in the fact that if there's a feature you're lusting after, it's probably already there.
The final word on the screen is that it's amazing. However, OLED displays have a long way to go before they reach their performance peak, and that's very obvious with issues like green cast and gamma problems.
However, the news isn't all bad. For starters, the PenTile AMOLED screen with 2560x1600 pixels is quite good. Despite the RGBG diamond layout reducing res by up to 50% in single primary colors, the pixel density is so high that each dot is still under 1 arcminute on your retinas—provided the screen is at least 15 inches from your pupil. So that takes care of all the issues introduced by PenTile displays.
But this is an AMOLED display, so there's more to talk about here. Because the contrast ratio is theoretically infinite, we cap the black levels at the human-perceptible limit to get the math right. Boasting a peak brightness of 355.67cd/m2 and a contrast ratio of 118557:1, by the numbers this is an insanely good performance. However, gamma is a huge sore spot.
Normally, screens will shoot for a gamma slope of 2.1-2.2, but the Samsung Galaxy Tab S has a slope of 2.44. While that doesn't sound like a huge issue, you'll notice some really wonky greyscale issues in the lower half of luminance values. Like I mentioned in the main page of the review, even the best OLED screens have this problem, so it's just something you'll have to deal with for the time being. OLEDs have a long way to go to mature, so cheer up, yeah?
Color performance is exemplary—and there are many modes to choose from. Though the "Basic" mode is the most accurate to the Rec. 709 standard, the default settings and variations thereof are all somewhere closer to the UHD Rec. 2020 standard, with different degrees of saturation. My advice is to play around with it to see what you like best, because the newer standards are somewhat a more wild-west type deal, and we can't score it quite yet until the dust settles.
Circling back to the PenTile display again, I need to point out that it's a match made in heaven for AMOLED. Because there's no backlight to constantly drain power, turning black pixels off saves a bunch of juice, and it shows in our tests.
Video playback is crazy-good, with 12 hours, 4 minutes of on-screen time. It's easy to attribute that one to the pixels turning off in dark scenes. So it stands to reason that your mileage will vary based on the video files you watch.
Because reading eBooks will also mean lots of white space on your screen, we were only able to squeeze 5 hours, 58 minutes in continuous read time with the screen at normal black/white orientation. However, here too the screen is important. You will almost definitely get more time out of your device if you invert the colors in your reader app—typically the "night reading" mode—leaving most of the screen off instead of on.
Time to talk turkey: AMOLED displays are still a bit green—and not exactly in the good way. With new implementations of technology, it's not all that surprising when we run into a rough edge here and there, and the Tab S has its share. On the whole, though, OLED is the future of screen technology, and its benefits far outweigh its drawbacks.
First off, the screen has an unbelievably high contrast ratio. Because pixels turn off when displaying black, the only light that comes off the screen is what's reflected off of it. While that's great, it's also made fine-tuning the transition from black to white a challenge for most. Even the best OLED screens are famous for this issue, but it's a bit overblown for all but the most obsessive cinephile. Additionally, there's the strange problem where if you look at the tablet from an off angle, there's a strange color cast on the screen. But how often are you going to to that, honestly?
On the whole, color reproduction is as accurate or oversaturated as you want—from Rec. 709 to the newer UHD standard of Rec. 2020. If you're picky (read: nerdy) then the "Basic" color mode in the Tab S' settings is technically the most accurate. You may find yourself keeping the Tab S' fancy Adaptive Display mode on, given just how vivid everything looks with it enabled.
Speaking of screen issues, it's time to talk PenTile pixels. Though we've slammed their implementation on LCDs in the past, they're actually a good choice for AMOLED screens. PenTile pixel layouts use fewer sub-pixels to produce the same kind of image. Combined with OLED's ability to turn individual pixels on and off as needed this can yield a great picture while keeping a large chunk of the screen's pixels off, saving on battery. And with the Tab S's super-high pixel count means resolution loss is imperceptible. This is the first screen that truly delivers on the promise of PenTile.
Due to this, the Tab S obliterated other tablets in our video battery test. By posting a hair over 12 continuous hours, this slate is one of the best when it comes to long-term movie watching. However, the OLED battery bump only works when there's area of the screen to turn off. When displaying a mostly-white image like the pages of an eBook, battery is guzzled at an alarming rate—our unit only lasted 5 hours, 58 minutes. Comparatively speaking, that's still good—but we were hoping for better. In simple terms, the Tab S has great battery life for certain movies, but if you're reading on a long flight we recommend changing to a "night mode" where you've got white text on a black background.
Physically, nothing is wrong with the Tab S in daily use—it's light, it's snappy, and it's got a super pixel-dense screen that is an absolute joy to use. But the software is still not quite where it should be.
If there's one thing I've come to expect from Samsung tablets, it's immediately getting a face full of TouchWiz—Samsung's skinned version of Android—when powering on a Galaxy Tab. There's nothing particularly wrong with TouchWiz, and we actually do like some of Samsung's additions, but it's totally overdone. Samsung has reskinned and recoded almost every basic function of Android, often for worse. The result is a slower, choppier experience that often adds a few seconds of delay anytime you're opening certain apps. It's not a dealbreaker, but with Google's snazzy new Android 5.0 (Lollipop) rolling out this fall, the Tab S and TouchWiz will feel dated and slow before too long.
This is compounded by the fact that as soon as you power the Tab S on you're greeted with a host of apps and services that you never downloaded and likely don't need or want. Though Samsung has gone out of its way to package its third-party partnerships in a beautiful Magazine UI layout, it's annoying to have your brand-new tablet immediately begin pushing you into using this or that proprietary service.
It's bad enough that there are a bunch of apps that duplicate the Google suite without all the benefits, but it's worse that many of these can't be uninstalled to free up space on your drive. Hancom office is very useful, and Netflix was getting installed anyway—but by and large many of these apps are taking up space that you'd use for things you actually want on your tablet. It's just an extra bit of micromanaging that simply shouldn't be necessary on a brand-new device.
In spite of all that, the hardware is top-notch once you've figured your way around the tablet and put your own setup on there. The battery is fantastic, the screen is beautiful, and the Exynos 5 Octa 1.9Ghz Quadcore/1.3Ghz Quadcore backed up by 3GB of RAM makes for a capable machine. However, be sure to stay out of direct sunlight because the Tab S's high reflectivity (9.8%) and low peak brightness means the image will be tough to see if there's too much light on the screen.
Though the Tab S didn't come through our labs entirely unscathed, it's still one heck of a tablet. It's not perfect, but it's a slate that paves the way for better things down the line. Truth be told, most issues we found with the Galaxy Tab S are easily overcome, and it's got the one key feature everybody needs: battery life.
Considering how much you get for the slate, it's not surprising that its pricetag is similarly big. It's clearly aimed at competing with the iPad Air, and there are certainly some reasons to opt for the Samsung here. The screen is the star of the show, with a technology that is vivid, sharp, and actually helps battery life. There simply aren't many tablets you can take on a cross-Atlantic flight and not worry about whether there's power at your seat.
We'd really like to see the cruft and other crapware cleaned off the drives of future tablets by Samsung, but it appears like this isn't going away anytime soon. It probably won't bother most people, but if you're looking to get every last bit of the storage you're paying for, you're looking in the wrong place. If you're looking to avoid this problem, chances are you're buying an Apple iPad mini with Retina Display, or Google Nexus 7.
All said, this is a wonderful piece of hardware that will make all but the nitpicky happy. Sure, it won't replace your laptop if you're a content creator, but a tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S is a great sidekick to have on long flights—especially when the battery is so good. It's a wonderful first OLED effort from Samsung, and leaves us excited to see what it can do next time around.