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Samsung Galaxy Tab S3Whatever 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.

You can slide a wafer-thin device between Apple and Microsoft’s New Zealand slate market share.

IDC New Zealand reports Apple shipped less than 1000 more detachable or slate devices than Microsoft in 2016.

The total market for the year was 80,000 units. Apple had a 32 percent market share, which is around 25,600 units. Microsoft was at 31 percent, a shade under 25,000 units.

Detachable is a curious market to measure. IDC defines it:

“A slate tablet is a portable, battery-powered computing device with a screen size 7-inches to 16-inches.

In addition to the attributes of a slate tablet, a detachable tablet is designed to function as a stand-alone slate tablet as well as a clamshell device through the addition of a detachable keyboard designed specifically for the device.”

IDC New Zealand mobile device market analyst Chayse Gorton says this includes Apple’s 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad Pros. Yet both sell without detachable keyboards and not every buyer uses them with one1.

The category includes Microsoft Surface Pro, Surface Book, HP Envy and others.

Slate-tablet distinction blurry

It is distinct from traditional laptops. The distinction between slates and tablets like non-Pro iPads is blurry.

Either way, Apple topped the market in 2016. Microsoft is second. It had been number one for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015. Microsoft’s shipments climbed three percent from 2015 to 2016.

It was a bonza year for detachable sales. Shipments2 increased from 55,000 in 2015 to 80,000 — a year-on-year increase of 45 percent.

The runners-up are, in order: HP on nine percent; Samsung on seven percent and Acer also with seven percent. Other brands were less than 15 percent.

Microsoft competition

Gorton says Microsoft faces competition from a range of models running Windows. Its share of the Windows detachable market fell from 58 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2016.

“Competing windows detachables often have similar specifications to Microsoft detachables, but are frequently sold at a lower price. Given New Zealand is a price conscious nation, a lower price, even by small a margin can be enough to entice a consumer to purchase from a competing vendor”, he says.

Gorton says Microsoft sharpened its premium market position introducing high-end models and halting low-end models. It introduced the Surface Book early in the year and dropped the Surface 3 from its line-up.

IDC expects detachable shipments to grow between 25 and 30 percent in 2017. From the market will start to flatten off.


  1. You could argue the iPad Pro and Windows devices are not direct head-to-head rivals. It’s possible there are buyers who would weigh up an iPad Pro against these Windows devices. Yet for the most part the two groups inhabit parallel universes. ↩︎
  2. Shipments is a normal term for this kind of survey. Most of the time it means how many devices vendors sent from warehouses to retailers. It gets tricky with detachables because Apple and Microsoft sell direct. ↩︎

Dell Inspiron 13 5000

Dell sent a sample computer with a non-working trackpad. This meant we couldn’t do a full review. Here’s what we learned about the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 before Dell took it back for repair.

At a glance

For: Laptop, can work as a tablet. Keyboard.
Against: Heavy for a tablet. Some missing drivers. Touchpad on review model didn’t work.
Maybe: Performance. Display.
Verdict: Versatile, affordable compromise between tablet and laptop.
Price: From NZ$1200

Dell describes the Inspiron 13 5000 as a 2-in–1. That means it is a convertible touch-screen laptop with a dual hinge that lets you flip the screen over so it becomes like a tablet. The emphasis in that last sentence is on the word like.

In practice it is too heavy to use as a tablet except for short bursts. Buy an Inspiron 13 5000 if you want a touch-screen laptop that can do occasional tablet duty.

An old format

Inspiron’s 2-in–1 flip position echoes the first so-called Tablet PCs Microsoft introduced in the early 2000s.

Most users ignored them at the time. Today’s 2-in–1 models are better in every respect, but still imperfect. There’s a reason the early models never took off.

The best thing about modern 2-in–1s is they cost about 30 percent less than devices with similar specifications and detachable keyboards. Prices are not that different from standard laptops.

So you can save about NZ$300 if you’re prepared to put up with the shortcomings.

Because you can’t remove the Inspiron keyboard, you’re stuck with all the weight and bulk of a laptop when using it as a tablet.

Heavy tablet

The Inspiron 13 5000 is 20 mm deep and weighs 1.7 kg. That makes it heavy and thick even by laptop standards, let alone tablets.

In comparison the HP Elitebook Folio G1 is a shade under 1 kg. Apple’s MacBook Air weighs 1.35 kg. Keep in mind those computers cost twice as much.

The Inspiron is more than twice as thick as most tablets and three times as thick as an iPad Air.

Used as a handheld tablet it gets uncomfortable fast.

Unwieldy tablet

You need to be strong to hold it in one hand. The weight and the thickness combine to make the device unwieldy. Even if you had the strength to carry it in your hand, there’s too much heft to balance it.

It is more comfortable when you use it as a tablet on your lap. But still, it doesn’t compare with lighter, thinner alternatives.

Yet the Inspiron 13 5000 works fine as a tablet when resting on a flat surface. And the dual hinge arrangement means you can twist it to other useful positions. In a tent-like shape you can use it for desktop presentations.

Built to a price

If you’re in the market for a Inspiron 13 5000, it will be because you’re on a budget.

Dell gives you a lot of computer for the money. Inspiron 13 5000 models start at NZ$1200 for a computer with an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of memory and a hard drive.

At the top of the range is a NZ$2000 model with an Core i7 processor, 8 GB memory and 256 GB of solid state drive. The review machine has an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB memory and a 256 GB solid state drive. It sells at $1700.

Inspiron is Dell’s consumer laptop brand. There are three levels. Low-end models are no frills laptops. Computer makers hate the word cheap but it’s appropriate. High-end Inspirons have top specifications and a metal finish.

Mid-range consumer laptop

The Inspiron 13 5000 sits between the two extremes. For the most part, the finish is matt grey plastic. It’s not ugly, but nor is it a work of art. Get rid of the sticker on the palm rest and it might look OK.

The plastic case is tough. In practice it can take a battering. There are screws underneath so you can upgrade components yourself if necessary.

Ports are going out of fashion with some laptop makers. Dell isn’t going there. The Inspiron 13 5000 has two USB 3.0 ports on the left along with a power inlet and a HDMI port. There’s a USB 2.0 on the right along with a SD card reader.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000 in use

The 13.3-inch touch screen is responsive and accurate enough. It has a 1920 x 1080 pixel display and a high gloss finish. Resign yourself to smudges. The blacks are solid and images are sharp. Text is easy to read.

Movies look fine, but the sound gets tinny if you crank up the volume. The speakers are under the case and don’t distort until you push them. There’s a good chance you will push them because they are not loud.

Dell’s chiclet style keyboard is OK. Not brilliant, not bad. It isn’t backlit. You’ll find better laptop keyboards, but maybe not at this price. It’s fine for everyday typists and touch typists.

Touch and go

As mentioned at the top of the page, the touchpad on the review machine didn’t work. This maybe be a driver problem or it could be a hardware fault. The system didn’t detect a touchpad.

It’s hard to know if we just had a bad machine or if there’s a wider problem. We heard of other Dell users experiencing trackpad problems, but that’s not a scientific sample.

When you fold the screen back, the device switches from laptop mode to tablet mode and the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard appears. During the reverse process, the physical keyboard snaps back into action.

Otherwise the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 performance was solid. The Intel Core i5 Running at 2.8 GHz and 8 GB memory are plenty for most applications. Everyday office apps run fine. There’s enough power for the 1920 by 1080 display, but you might hit the machines limits driving higher resolution graphics, especially if you are a gamer.

Push the computer hard and a fan starts with air passing though vents in the case. This is normal for laptops, but seems strange when the device is in tablet mode. It’s not a loud fan noise, but tablets are usually silent.

Dell says the battery is good for up to nine hours. Battery claims are often ambitious, this one is more than most. In practice the computer lasted less than seven hours on a single charge.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000 verdict

Putting the non-working trackpad to one side, the Inspiron 13 5000 is a good value laptop for someone on a budget. We recommend it for high school or university students.

You get a lot of computer for your money, performance is good and the 2-in–1 versatility can be handy at times. Just remind yourself it’s not a lightweight as a detachable.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000

Apple knocked the laptop business sideways when the first iPad appeared in 2010.

It is a stripped-down computer with a touch-screen, sound and wireless connections. But there is no keyboard. It does many, but not all, the things laptops do.

The iPad is easy to use and portable. You can use one to browse the internet, write mail, watch movies and make video calls to friends. It shines when consuming media. Thousands of third-party apps extend its scope.

iPad as a computer

For many people, the iPad is all the computer they need.

But not everyone. Some need more computer. There are those who want a keyboard and those who prefer to use a conventional PC operating system.

Some iPad owners add third-party Bluetooth keyboards to use their tablets more like laptops.

About four years ago the first devices to bridge the gap between tablets and laptops appeared. Intel and Microsoft came up with computers that had elements of both.

Enter the Surface

Microsoft pitched it first Surface as a direct competitor to the iPad. It used a reduced version of Windows 8. Surface had built-in Microsoft Office. A kick-stand held the screen in a laptop-like position.

There was also a, in theory optional, keyboard that doubles as a screen protector. Almost everyone who bought a Surface also paid for the keyboard.

While the Surface looks like a tablet and has tablet-like features, it also looks like a laptop. Most people who own Surfaces use them like laptops as well as tablets.

Microsoft created a new device format distinct from the laptop and the tablet: the hybrid PC.

Moving from a clamshell Windows laptop to a Surface is less of a wrench than moving to an iPad.

All computer

Hybrids evolved since the first Surface. Today’s Surface Pro 4 is a direct descendant. There’s nothing you can do on a Windows laptop that you can’t do on a Surface Pro 4.

The Surface was Microsoft’s first own-brand PC. Other computer makers have since developed their own hybrid models.

There are two distinct types of hybrid. Detatchables are tablets with a keyboard case like the Surface or a docking keyboard.

When you connect the keyboard, you have something close to a laptop. You can remove the keyboard and use the computer as a tablet.

Convertable hybrids

Convertables stay attached to their keyboards. In most designs a hinge lets you fold the keyboard out of the way under the touch-screen. It then acts like a tablet. You can usually fold the hinge to other positions, such as propped up on a table for a presentation.

There’s much to like about hybrids. They could be the way of the future. Yet despite growing sales numbers, customers remain unconvinced. Today hybrids of all types only account for between 10 to 15 percent of laptop sales.

Three reasons stand out for their relative lack of success to date.

Conservative PC owners

First, PC owners are conservative. Perhaps not in a bad way. People invested a lot of time and mental energy mastering keyboards, trackpads and mice. They know their way around a conventional PC or laptop and know how to get the productivity they want from it.

Touch screens have not captured thier imaginations in the way Microsoft anticipated. The botched Windows 8 introduction made that clear. Little has changed since.

Second, the hybrid features and touch screen add to the cost of a computer. You might pay 20 to 25 percent more for a hybrid which, otherwise, has the same specification as a laptop. Many people don’t see any value in that extra price.

Satisfied elsewhere

Another reason is that a hybrid’s tablet functionality is often satisfied by another device. A laptop owner may already have an iPad or another brand of non-Windows tablet. There’s a better chance they’ll have a mobile phone with tablet-like qualities.

Computer buyers may yet move to hybrids if hardware companies can convinced them there’s extra value to justify the cost.

Help for this has come from an unexpected direction. Apple’s positioning and marketing of its two iPad Pro models goes a long way to making the case for hybrid PCs. iPad Pros are still more tablet than PC. But they also have a lot in common with the best detatchable Windows hybrids.

Keyboard shortcomings

Hybrids are often better than you might expect. Yet even the best still have signification shortcomings.

Few detachable hybrids have great keyboards.

Typing ranges for just-about-ok to horrible. This doesn’t matter to all users. But for those who write a lot of words, a good keyboard means greater productivity.

Most detachable hybrid keyboards flex. Making a keyboard that doesn’t flex often means making it heavier. That is bad news for portability.

Clunky convertibles

Convertable hybrids tend to be more solid. That makes for a lousy tablet experience. You always carry a hefty keyboard along with the touch-screen tablet part of the device.

Most convertibles are too thick and heavy for comfortable one-handed use. This undermines the tablet functionality you paid extra for.

All the electronics and battery in a detachable hybrid need to be in the screen part of the device so it works as a tablet. This means it is top heavy when used as a laptop with the keyboard. For this reason most can’t work as laptops in the strict sense of sitting the computer on your lap.

Big bets

Intel and Microsoft bet the Windows 8 move to touch screens in 2012 would trigger a wave of upgrades. Not only did that not happen, it was the start of a long-term slide in PC sales that continues.

Now the pair hope a move to hybrids will pay off with a renewed buying cycle. To do this they must not only convince customers of the value of paying extra for greater versatility. They must also show that buying a new device will make their work easier or their lives more fun.

This is something Apple excels at. Cynics talk of Apple’s fairy dust or a reality-distortion effect. The truth is Apple knows how to articulate technology’s less tangible benefits. Now Apple is selling something that is almost a hybrid, some of the magic may rub off on the Windows hybrids.

PC salesPersonal computer sales peaked in 2011. In that year businesses and consumers bought around 360 million personal computers. IDC puts the number at 352 million. Gartner says it was 365 million. Consumer PC sales were about half the total.

It has been downhill ever since.

At some point PC sales will stabilise. We’re not there yet.

For a while analysts following computer markets struggled to explain what happened. At first they blamed the economy. That was nonsense.

Compared to the economic shock of the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, the events of 2011 and 2012 were benign. PC sales grew through the GFC.

Blame Windows 8

Some blamed Microsoft’s Windows 8. Earlier releases of new Windows versions boosted PC sales. Computer makers timed new models to coincide with the launch.

Not only did Windows 8 failed to deliver an uptick, it was the start of the slide.

Microsoft can shoulder some responsibility. Windows 8 was awful in many respects. Microsoft stumbled. The apologetic Windows 8.1 only emphasised the scale of Microsoft’s mistake.

Windows 9

It speaks volumes that Microsoft skipped Windows 9. Windows 10 is better. It got Microsoft and Windows back on track. But the underlying problem is not fixed. There was no PC sales boost along with the new operating system, no return to industry growth.

There was no compelling reason to move from Windows 7 to the confusing new Windows 8 operating system.

Betting the farm on an early, rapid and total market switch to expensive touch screen PCs proved as dumb in hindsight as it looked at the time.

Tablets

Windows 8 was Microsoft’s first response to tablets like the iPad. At the time tablets were selling fast and that hurt PC sales.

Microsoft’s second response was the Surface. It’s a better, more measured comeback.

Since Windows 8 launched tablet sales have also fallen. That is another story, but it’s not unrelated. Tablets exposed the PC to realities that were hidden or, at least, hard to see.

Incentives

The problem with tablets is users have fewer reasons to upgrade them. The first wave of iPads still do what they could do six years ago when first introduced. They may be wearing out now and need replacing.

Sure new iPads are better. They are lighter, have better screens, better sound, faster processors. They do more and are nicer to use.

On the whole, when it comes to the things that matter newer models don’t do much more than the first wave of tables. Not enough more to make upgrading essential.

Great hardware

It turns out you can say the same about PCs. The 2016 crop of PC hardware is great. Today’s computers are a huge improvement on, say, 2010 models in almost every department.

Modern laptops are lighter, easier to carry, their batteries last longer. Their screens are more pleasing to look at.

Yet they don’t do anything to make everyday users more productive than their earlier counterparts.

Action elsewhere

That’s because for the best part of a decade now, all the technology action that matters takes place elsewhere. The important new apps are online, most productivity gains are in the cloud. Remote data centers do the heavy lifting.

PCs and tablets are little more than portals into that world. Xero’s small business accounting software is as efficient on a clunky old PC as on a spanking new one. You can use a tablet. Or, for that matter a phone. It’s still efficient.

Citius, altius, fortius

The days of faster, higher, stronger are over.

You still need physical devices to be productive or entertained, but, up to a point, any old device will do.

Or, to put it another way, you won’t get a productivity boost from spending on a new computer or tablet.

Nice to have

What you money will buy is a better experience. Newer devices are nicer to use, they are more comfortable, more pleasing on the eye. That’s not always a spending priority. It comes higher up the hierarchy of needs.

Congratulations if that’s where you are, most computer buyers are not. They are more focused on satisfying basic needs.

Buying software and online services is a better investment than a hardware upgrade.

Where next for consumer PC sales?

PC sales are never going to rebound. It’s easy to talk of a post-PC era, but it’s more than that. Tablet sales won’t rebound either and phone sales have flattened.

The western world is past the saturation point for digital devices. The developing world is not far behind. There are still deprived pockets, but few untapped markets.

This doesn’t mean the end of the line. Sales will stabilise at a point where they meet the replacement demand.

From here on in personal hardware sales are all about replacing retired, worn out or broken devices. The job now is to make better replacements. That means building better cloud portals and better experiences.