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Featured Review: Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0

October 9, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

It’s no secret that Samsung pumps out devices like nobody’s business, but there’s a lesson that’s been learned from the South Korean tech giant about releasing too many at once: it dilutes the brand and confuses customers.  That’s part of the reason that they’ve significantly decreased their device output and why we haven’t seen a premium tablet from Samsung since last June when the original Galaxy Tab S launched.  This year they’re refreshing their Tab S lineup with the Tab S2, and while we’ve got the 8-inch version in house to review today the 9.7-inch version will be identical outside of the size.  Is this premium tablet lineup still worth the money or has that shipped sailed like the Netbook?

Specs

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Both the Tab S2 8.0 and Tab S2 9.7 feature the exact same specs, outside of the screen size of course.  Here we’re looking at an 8-inch 1536 x 2048 pixel Super AMOLED display with 320 pixels per inch density, whereas the Tab S2 9.7 has a 264 pixel per inch density due to having the same resolution and a larger screen. Underneath the screen sits a Samsung Exynos 5433 processor running a Cortex A57 quad-core at 1.9GHz and a Cortex A53 quad-core at 1.3GHz.  The GPU is a Mali-T760MP6 running at 700MHz and there’s 3GB of LPDDR3 RAM here as well.  Internal storage includes either 32GB or 64GB configurations and there’s a microSD card slot inside of the SIM card tray for expandable storage.  The Tab S2 8.0 has a 4,000mAh battery while the Tab S2 9.7 has a 5,870mAh battery.

Both have an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera and support up to 802.11ac WiFi connections.  The Tab S2 8.0 sits at 198.6mm high, 134.8mm wide and an unbelievably paper thin 5.6mm.  Those looking for a light tablet will be pleasantly surprised to find this weighs only 265g, just a bit heavier than the average smartphone.  Last but not least the tablet shipped with Android 5.0.2 Lollipop but ours had the Android 5.1.1 update waiting for it as soon as it was powered on for the first time.

In the Box

Inside of the box you’ll of course find the tablet itself, some manuals to help first-time users get more acquainted with the device, as well as the chargers needed to keep those batteries going.  Outside of that there’s nothing else here physically but Samsung includes a lot of promotions and exclusive content with your purchase, so there’s plenty there to get excited about.

Display

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There aren’t many people who would disagree with the notion that Samsung makes the best displays in the world, and that reality comes full force here with the Tab S2 8.0.  Featuring a crisp 8-inch 1536 x 2048 Super AMOLED display, this is among the finest displays you’ll find on any tablet.  It’s big, bright vibrant and beautiful.  The colors practically punch you in the face with their saturation, but it’s not so over-saturated that the colors become unrealistic, just hyper-realistic.  The black levels are perfect since this is an AMOLED display and each individual pixel can be shut off when needed to represent true black.  Contrast levels are a little high though, and I found that the black levels in some videos got a tad crushed, an adjustment that can probably be made easily enough in a software update if Samsung wants to.

Brightness was absolutely absurd though, and at full brightness this thing feels like it could almost replace the LED flash found on some phones.  It’s super easy to see in the sun but still gets dim enough to keep your eyes from burning out in a dark room.  The digitizer is as good as you would expect on any Samsung device and registered touch, no matter how fast, in an accurate and timely manner.  No weird multi-touch problems or ghost touch issues here, just clean, accurate input.  Samsung’s components are top-notch without a doubt and it looks and feels that way from the moment you first turn the screen on.

Hardware and Build

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Samsung has moved to a more premium build this time around, which should be no surprise to anyone who’s used any high-end Samsung phone this year.  The edges are metal and feature a more sharp construction like the Galaxy Note 4 rather than the smooth contours of the Note 5 and S6 family.  The back is in fact a plastic although it feels more solid thanks to the incredibly thin 5.6mm frame.  In fact it feels so solid I wasn’t sure if it was actually plastic or not during the unboxing, a testament to Samsung’s engineering for sure.  Both volume rocker and power button are located on the right side of the device, something that’s a little uncharacteristic of Samsung devices as a whole, but is actually a great design since you’ve likely to have the tablet on its side often.  This keeps the volume rocker, or any other button for that matter, from being unnecessarily pressed since none are located on the left side.  You’ll also find the SIM/microSD card slot on the right side below the power button, which can be ejected with the tool included in the box.

On the bottom you’ll find stereo speakers with a microUSB port and 3.5mm headset jack located between the two.  Moving towards the front you’ll find the familiar Samsung oblong home button with capacitive back and overview keys on either side of it.  The home button houses a fingerprint scanner, thankfully the touch kind found in the 2015 Samsung devices rather than the swipe kind found in 2014 ones.  Bezels on either side of the screen are small but still leave enough room to hold the tablet without becoming awkward.  The flat sides of the tablet make it easy to hold the device while watching videos or playing games, but the feeling of sharp edges could become irritating after a while of holding it.

Performance and Memory

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Utilizing last the same Exynos 5433 processor found in the Galaxy Note 4, the Tab S2 is a snappy device that’s able to handle just about anything you throw at it.  While it doesn’t have the horsepower of the Note 5 or S6 family it’s still no slouch and won’t prove to be a performance hindrance, unlike the Exynos 5420 found in last year’s Tab S.  As a result I found that the tablet took everything I threw at it and then some.  There was none of the old Samsung hitching and lagging that I grew so familiar with over the years, rather the smooth and fast nature that was found on the latest Lollipop-based TouchWiz skin that launched with the Galaxy S6 a few months ago.  Even things that normally take a few seconds to load because of typical network connection issues seemed to load faster.  The powerful 802.11ac WiFi support here really pays off and makes media consumption lightning fast.  Gaming is incredible too thanks to the powerful GPU in here that supports the latest OpenGL ES 3.1 standards for optimized performance and amazing visuals.

Multi-tasking was as good as it gets too.  Thanks to the dedicated overview button Samsung now places to the left of the home button instead of the antiquated menu button that used to be there, multi-tasking is a single button press away at any point in time.  Add this to the famous Samsung multi-window mode and 3GB of RAM and you’ve got a real winner on your hands here.  Apps never reloaded when switching between them no matter how many I opened at once.  Multi-window allows you to not just split the screen into two but also to float windows on top of each other like you might on a PC.  Anyone familiar with the feature will be happy here as Samsung continues to improve and perfect it with each software release too, and there’s a number of apps that are supported even if everything isn’t.

Benchmarks

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Much like the every day performance of the tablet the benchmark performance is pretty astounding.  It doesn’t push any boundaries for 2015 devices by any means but it’s not necessarily intending to, especially since this is last year’s Note 4 SoC, but it performs extremely well.  The memory tests in particular were downright incredible, and this is easily among the fastest internal storage of any device on the market, especially the write speeds which were over an unbelievable 1GB/s.  That sort of speed translates into apps loading, updating and installing without hitching or jittering, and provides an experience that can truly feel perfect.

Battery Life

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A 4,000mAh battery isn’t anything out of the ordinary for a tablet, and for better or worse the battery life is pretty average too.  That means during my testing I got between 6 and 8 hours of screen on time with the Tab S2, a number that means you’re going to get quite a few movies and plenty of gaming in before you need to recharge this tablet.  On average half of this time was spent playing games while the other half was spent watching videos, browsing the web and chatting.  Battery life tests come to the same conclusion, and that means that you’re probably going to need to charge this daily if you’re planning on using it heavily during travel or for business.  There’s no quick charging or wireless charging either, which makes having to charge this fairly large battery a little daunting since it takes around 3 hours or so to fully charge.

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Even if this battery life isn’t enough for you there’s a battery saver mode that limits the CPU speed, framerate of the UI (to cut down on needed CPU cycles), background data of some apps and more.  On top of that the ultra power saving mode goes to the extreme to keep your battery going for a long, long time by changing the screen to black and white as well as limiting the usable apps to ones that participate in ultra low battery usage.  Put all this together and you’re likely going to be impressed by what Samsung has done here, and in the end it gives a truly fantastic user experience.

Software

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Over the years Samsung’s TouchWiz software has made a name for itself, one that started off positive and slowly trended toward negative as time went by.  This year Samsung changed a lot about its UI, from the color scheme to the back-end coding, just about everything has been redone to create a better user experience.  Personally I owned Samsung devices from the Galaxy S days until the Galaxy Note 3 and swore I wouldn’t own another one until things got better.  Thankfully I think we’re at that point now where Samsung has shown they can listen to users, changing everything from swapping the menu button out for an overview button to completely redesigning UI elements to help users find information better.  If you’ve used a 2015 Samsung flagship device like the Note 5 or the Galaxy S6 family you know what I’m talking about here, and it an experience that I can happily say is almost completely positive.

The most unchanged thing about Samsung’s UI is likely the notification shade which still holds that bright Samsung turquoise blue and questionable quick toggles.  While Samsung was the pioneer of quick toggles so many years ago, many including Google have redesigned them to work significantly better.  Unfortunately for the worst Samsung, like LG, doesn’t seem fit to want to change from the antiquated and difficult to use sliding row of buttons along the top of the notification shade.  As a result it takes longer to find what you need and in the end gives you less information about things like WiFi and Bluetooth that are handy.  In stock Android Lollipop for instance the WiFi and Bluetooth buttons have a drop-down menu that allows you to both see what you’re currently connected to as well as quickly select from other networks and devices to connect to without having to navigate away from the currently open app.  This still doesn’t exist on Samsung’s TouchWiz skin and really needs to change next time around.

On a positive note the visual language used in every Samsung app is fantastic, pushing bright colors, easy to identify UI elements and excellent navigation between settings and options.  Samsung has overhauled their apps to fit with Google’s Material Design guidelines and they all seem to make sense now.  UI elements are no longer hidden in menus upon menus and frequently used tasks and tools are often found in a floating button on the bottom right or a clearly marked bar at the top of the screen.  My biggest gripe here is that Samsung still doesn’t seem to believe in swiping between tabs, and while they’ve taken unnecessary tabs out of apps there are still some present, and while it seems a bit lazy it’s quite annoying to have to bring your finger up to the tab just to switch between rather than swiping as you would in most Android apps.

Features and Security

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Security is an ever-increasing concern as our digital lives become more and more convoluted.  The main purpose of including a fingerprint scanner on these sorts of devices is to continually add more protection from the outside world onto our devices.  Samsung has certainly done this by providing a fingerprint scanner that works quickly and accurately, in addition to allowing users to automatically fill in sensitive personal information into web forms and pay on Samsung services via the fingerprint scanner as well.  While there’s no NFC here and therefore no Samsung Pay or Android Pay with fingerprint support, it would be awkward as all getup to use a tablet for that purpose anyway, so it’s not really missed.

Smart Manager is an app suite that’s designed to give you some additional information about device-specific information like battery level, storage and RAM.  In addition to this a security section helps users easily enable Samsung Knox and the separate work and personal accounts (BYOD if you will).  Here you can control automatic closing for apps, easily see how much battery life you’ve got left in all three battery modes, and even reclaim that missing storage on your tablet.

Tablet friendly features like a built-in reading mode which turns the base white color of the screen to a more natural paper-like yellow really helps ease the eyes into using a backlit screen instead of a piece of paper.  It’s pretty astounding how this seemingly minor change helps things, but it shows how much thought has gone into making this one mean little media consumption device.  Other tablet-friendly features like Samsung’s multi-window are super easy to use.  Multi-window for instance places a little icon on each app in the Overview screen for simple one-step multi-window support, a massive step in the right direction that’s been in practice for about a year now since the Note 4.  Multi-window enables users to split the screen into two and run two apps at once.  In addition to that apps can be floating on top of others and minimized to floating icons on the screen, increasing a user’s productivity by quite a bit.  Not all apps are supported by default but there’s a good number of useful ones that are, and even then users who are comfortable with modifying the system can get more functionality out of this.

Included Apps

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Samsung loves to include apps with its devices, and part of this is giving users an easy and tangible way to feel like they’re getting more value with a Samsung device.  A long time ago Samsung used to pre-install all of these apps and features, a practice that became frowned upon once users realized most of the space on their new device was taken up with apps and services they may not want or use.  Samsung makes it easy to see what’s included with the device and how to get it without taking up this storage now, as these aren’t pre-installed any longer.  Microsoft’s Office suite, for example, is right on the front page and is included with the tablet, however it’s an additional download of around 100mb for each Office app.  These apps are the full versions though and look absolutely beautiful on the tablet’s screen, fit perfectly and operate even better.

What’s more is that the inclusion of Office is part of Samsung’s partnership with Microsoft, and one that’s keeping the tablet version of Office off the Play Store for now and on the Galaxy Apps store.  In addition to Office you’ll find OneNote, OneDrive and Skype here as well, nods to Microsoft’s services that are easy to find and prominently placed next to Google’s own.  Microsoft has put a lot of effort into Android development over the past couple of months and it’s really showing, so who better to partner with than the biggest Android OEM, right?  Samsung also runs promotions with free apps on its Galaxy Apps store, and while it’s not nearly as big as the Play Store it’s difficult to turn down free apps when they’re worthwhile.

Sound

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Being a device that’s primarily concerned with media consumption it makes sense to focus on sound quality and volume.  The stereo speakers on the bottom of the Tab S2 are excellent and produce some incredibly loud, full and rich sound.  Bass is palpable especially when holding the back of the device rather than just the sides, and the clarity and volume of the speakers is nothing short of phenomenal.  The biggest problem with them is where they are located: being at the bottom means they’re always in an awkward spot, either sitting in your palms when being held in portrait mode or only on one side of the device when held horizontally.  Front-facing speakers would have been best and have begun to be included on more and more devices out there in the wild, but I really didn’t find myself complaining when watching movies on the device since they’ve got such great quality in the first place.

Sound output via Bluetooth or the 3.5mm headset jack on the bottom was excellent, and the placement of the 3.5mm headset jack next to the microUSB port means you can charge the tablet while listening to music at the same time.  Samsung has included some cool modes like virtual surround sound as well as a mode that emulates the soft sound going through an analog amp.  There’s also an advanced equalizer that has a basic and advanced mode depending on what you’re looking to adjust.  Overall this works quite well and does a perfect job of helping to fine-tune sound while still keeping quality and volume where they should be.  It’s not the absolute best audio I’ve ever heard from a device but it’s well above average and provides good range, albeit being a bit bass heavy, so if that’s your flavor of music you’re likely to be extremely happy with Samsung’s audio tuning.

Camera

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Cameras on tablets have not really been a thing most people concentrate on.  Sure it’s nice to have a good camera on any device you’ve got with you, but the bulk and general awkward size of tablets makes taking pictures uncomfortable and generally not great.  There’s nothing here really different in that experience, but the camera on the Galaxy Tab S2 is actually quite good, especially for a tablet.  The camera interface is familiar in general and doesn’t go any lengths to be revolutionary, just useful and easy.  Samsung’s interface works well and features a number of different modes that’ll get you through plenty of different situations.  The shutter speed of the pictures is nearly instant, and even HDR mode is nearly instantaneous.  There are nearly a dozen modes included with the camera but additional ones can be downloaded via the Galaxy Apps store.

Picture quality is nothing short of phenomenal, and easily rivals that of most great phones on the market.  Utilizing only an 8-megapixel sensor the photos from the Tab S2 really just look phenomenal and show plenty of detail and good balance in every aspect of the photo.  Gone are the days of Samsung cameras forcing the denoise filters too much, keeping the shutter too slow and all of the other problems Samsung seemed to not be able to fix for years.  Now even a tablet can take great photos, and in general this really impressed me given the device type.  Low light performance was particularly impressive, as this is an area that nearly every Samsung phone struggled with significantly before 2015, and now even the tablets are showing significant improvements.  Even with my toddler son running around in the house I was able to snap still shots without blur, something most devices simply can’t claim.

Video was equally as impressive, with up to Quad-HD (2K) support at 30FPS for crisp and clear videos.  Those looking to keep image stabilization on for less bumpy or jittery videos will be restricted to 1080p, but the videos still look crisp and clean. Dynamic range was a little worse than with the camera and since there’s no video HDR mode you may end up choosing between a very light and very dark subject depending on what you’re filming. Check out the camera samples including pictures and a video showcasing some dynamic lighting conditions at the Flickr album below.

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Conclusion

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Samsung has made one heck of a tablet here, with a great ultra thin metal build that’s light and comfortable to hold.  While it’s only utilizing last year’s flagship processor it’s still no slouch in the performance department and took everything I gave it without problems.  The new fingerprint scanner performs as quickly and accurately as you would hope, and all the extra optional software pack-ins and promotions with Microsoft’s apps give some serious added value to being a functional, productive tablet.  The display is nothing short of stunning and could even be considered mind-blowing, with a bright, clean, clear and vibrant color palette as well as true blacks thanks to Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology.  Sound output is great and although the Tab S2 doesn’t feature front-facing speakers I never found myself complaining about the audio quality or volume.

Even the camera is phenomenal here, a portion of the tablet experience that’s often completely overlooked since it’s so awkward taking pictures and video with a device of this size.  The biggest problem here is going to be battery for those going on long trips or needing more than a full day’s battery charge.  The thinness of the tablet just doesn’t allow for a larger battery and that’s really an unfortunate thing, but in reality I couldn’t kill it in a full day no matter what I did.  If you’re looking to pick one up for yourself it comes in multiple colors and of course, the larger size if you need more screen real estate.  Check out Amazon for the 8-inch tablet starting at $400 for the 32GB, and of course, the 9.7-inch model is $100 more.