Samsung Galaxy Tab S3

Whatever you think about iOS and Android phones, Apple’s tablets have always been streets ahead. Samsung wants to change that. Its Galaxy Tab S3 is anything but just-another-Android-tablet.

There’s nothing second-rate about this baby.

Samsung first showed the Galaxy Tab S3 in February. It went on sale in New Zealand last month. I’ve had my hands on a review model for the past two or three weeks. It is the only serious direct competitor to the iPad I’ve seen.

When the Galaxy Tab S3 first arrived, Apple was still selling last year’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. That model was the tablet gold standard. Samsung’s tablet compares well with the 2016 iPad Pro.

Matches the 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro

Feature-for-feature the Galaxy Tab S3 matches Apple’s hardware. With tablets the whole is greater than the sum of parts. Samsung’s glorious hardware is let down by the software, but when it comes to the stuff you can drop on your toes, the Galaxy Tab S3 was in reach of its rival.

Soon after I started this review, Apple released the next generation iPad Pro. The hardware has leapt ahead of Samsung. Apple also announced an iOS upgrade which, when it arrives, promises to widen the gap between the two.

Software is most important difference between the two tablets. Samsung’s tablet uses Google’s Android 7.0. It’s a smooth, slicker version of the operating system that works well on phones. It’s not so good on a tablet.

If you prefer Android or if use Android every day on your phone you might like the sound of Android 7.0 on a tablet. It could be fine, but Android doesn’t scale to fit larger screens as well as iOS.

Good apps missing in action

There is a bigger problem with Android. It lacks first-rate tablet apps. Many of the tablet apps you’ll find in the Google Play store are identical to their phone versions. Load them on to the Galaxy Tab S3 and their phone layouts expand to fill the larger display.

This can look horrible. At times you get huge, chunky text or pixellated images. But that’s not the worst part of this. Android app user interfaces often don’t scale well. They can be hard to use.

It’s as if Android app developers deliberately don’t cater for tablet customers. They rarely make use of any extra features a tablet might have.

Many apps don’t even make a decent transition from portrait to landscape screens. Although this can be poor in the operating system as well.

As a user you get the uncomfortable feeling you’re neglected, even unwelcome.

Good for consuming content

Because of this software neglect, Android tablets end up used as video players or browsers. You might also get to work with email and messaging. They are good at all these tasks, but don’t do much more.

And that restrains the potential of an Android tablet. The hardware might be good enough to replace a laptop for many people, but the software need to make this work in practice is not up to scratch.

Yet the iPad isn’t restricted this way. Many iOS apps are either rewritten or designed from the outset to scale. There is just an occasional hint of a problem running some obscure apps on the large 12.7-inch iPad.

In practice this means you can use an iPad to do a lot more. It works as a plausible laptop replacement. I’ve taken my iPad Pro instead of my MacBook Air on a number of recent trips and expect to do so in future.

A business-class Android tablet

In hardware terms Samsung has upped the ante for Android tablets. That’s not hard, many are lacklustre. Even so, the Galaxy Tab S3 is the best Android tablet I’ve ever seen.

It’s the first Android tablet that could be a productive business tool given better software support. And it’s the first worthy of consideration alongside the iPad or Surface Pro.

While it is cheaper than a Microsoft Surface Pro, it is still expensive at NZ$1100. That buys a model with 32GB storage and Wi-Fi. It includes a stylus. The sim-card version costs $100 more.

This compares with NZ$1100 for this year’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro with 64GB of storage. Apple charges an extra $160 for its Pencil. Even though you get the Samsung stylus for no extra charge, Apple has the edge on price.

It’s impossible to write about the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 without referring to last year’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The two have so much in common. They have a similar look and the same high quality finish.

The two have else much in common. Both are slim and light. You’d be hard pressed to say which is smaller, thinner or lighter. In practice it doesn’t matter, both are near perfect in those departments.

Vibrant screen

Both have great 9.7-inch screens showing 2048 by 1536 pixels. Samsung’s Amoled screen shows more vibrant colour and better blacks than the iPad. The 120Hz refresh rate on the 2017 iPad Pro means you get smoother moving images. There are fingerprint scanners on both tablets. Both have magnetic connectors down the side to take detachable keyboards.

Samsung didn’t supply a keyboard with the review model, so I can’t comment on how well it works. I can tell you the Galaxy Tab S3 works fine with my array of Bluetooth keyboards.

Apple and Samsung use different tablet processors. The Samsung feels a little slower than the 2016 iPad Pro. But the lag is so slight you’d be hard-pressed to notice much difference. In practice both tablets are fast, I’ve never experienced any slowness.

As mentioned, Samsung’s tablet does a fine job as a media and internet consumption device. What about productivity? In practice it works fine with productivity apps like Microsoft Word and Excel. These come installed as standard on the Tab S3, a nice touch Samsung. Of course, the tablet works well with cloud-based apps like Xero or Google Docs.

Hook it up to a keyboard and you can word process or number crunch to your heart’s delight. My only gripe is that text is often smaller and harder to read on the Samsung tablet than on the Apple when using default settings.

Galaxy Tab S3 verdict

The price isn’t right. You could spend the same $1100 and get the more up-to-date, better equipped 2017 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Prices for Windows 10 2-in-1 computers start at the same price as the $1200 cellular ready S3. Surface Pro prices start at about $1300, a little than the cost of a Galaxy Tab S3. All these devices will do more.

Even so, if you can’t buy Apple or have some objection to Apple, the Tab S3 is a fine alternative to the iPad Pro. It is the first great tablet that didn’t come from Apple or Microsoft.

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