With tablet sales plateauing and lots of decent low-cost options to choose from, premium tablets have become tough sells. Increasingly, we’ve seen tablets billed as creative tools, combined with styluses and keyboards to become good sketchpads in addition to being solid home entertainment devices. Some even go as far as to call themselves PC replacements — what Apple very much wants you to think the iPad Pro is.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 was made with all those things in mind, plus the legacy of the Galaxy Note 7. No, we don’t mean that in a bad way — the Note 7 had some intriguing new S Pen features, and they’ve all found their way into the Galaxy Tab S3, along with a bigger S Pen suited for tablets. The S Pen turns out to be one of the greatest advantages that the Galaxy Tab S3 has over competing tablets, but it’s ultimately held back by the Android operating system, which still isn’t ready to power something that can really replace a PC. But, if you go in expecting a nice sketchpad with a capable stylus and some great entertainment features, you won’t be disappointed.
Samsung has used a glass back instead of plastic on the Galaxy Tab S3, giving the tablet a more premium feel. I’m not sure that matters as much as it does with smartphones, which are much more visible in everyday life, but it’s something. More importantly, the tablet is very thin and light for its size — it’s very comfortable to hold for more than an hour while reading or watching a movie or TV show. One disappointment is that it lacks its own kickstand. The tablet relies on the keyboard cover, which can only stand the tablet up at one angle.
Otherwise, it looks the same as previous efforts. The bezels around the 9.7″ display are still a bit large, but that’s OK for a tablet, which requires a more hands-on grip that requires larger bezels. The edges are where it becomes clear that this tablet will never quite be a PC replacement — no ports aside from USB Type-C (for charging) and headphone. There’s also a microSD card slot on the side that takes up to 256 GB cards, but no there’s no SIM slot — an LTE model is planned, but hasn’t been released yet. The other side has magnetic connectors for use with the keyboard cover, which we’ll get to later.
The Galaxy Tab S3 is an Android 7.0 tablet powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset, 4 GB of RAM, 32 GB of storage, and a 6,000 mAh battery. On the back, there’s a 13 MP autofocus camera with an f/1.9 lens and LED flash. The 5 MP front camera is capable of 1080p video, making it a solid webcam, although it’ll still suffer from contrast issues if you’re near a brightly lit window. The 820 is what we saw powering last year’s premium smartphones, and it’s well suited for the task of powering a tablet — it also doesn’t suffer from the overheating problems that the 810 was known for.
Generally speaking, the 820 is powerful enough. Tabbed browsing can cause noticeable slowdown, which tends to be true for most tablets anyway. The tablet also takes a bit of time to render streaming HD video (like from Netflix), but it only takes a few seconds to get things looking right, and once they do, there are no hitches during playback.
That brings us the strength of this tablet — entertainment. In the Android world, we’ve come to expect the best displays out of Samsung, and the Tab S3 doesn’t disappoint. The 2048 x 1536 (4:3 aspect ratio) Super AMOLED display is wonderful, and the 820 has the power needed to make even fast-moving scenes look smooth.
Samsung has taken another step forward by making the Tab S3 HDR10 ready — HDR10 is a new standard for high contrast that creates deeper blacks and more vibrant scenes. Well, that’s how HDR10 works in theory, anyway. In reality, there’s little HDR content available right now. In one way, that’s OK — tablets don’t get replaced as often as smartphones, so it does make sense to think about the future when buying a tablet. On the other hand, Dolby Vision is the superior HDR standard, and it might be worth it to wait another year or two to see if Dolby Vision comes to future tablets (and by that time, there will be more HDR content of all stripes, anyway).
Good video isn’t much without good audio, and the Tab S3 delivers both. The tablet has four speakers from AKG. There are two on each side (when in landscape orientation), and they do work as stereo speakers. One cool thing about them — if you turn the tablet into portrait mode, the stereo sound production will change accordingly. Regardless of orientation, they sound terrific — they get loud and clear enough to eliminate any need for external speakers.
Despite the power and the excellent display, the battery holds up well. A 6,000 mAh battery is enough to get the Tab S3 through over a day of mixed use, although this will depend on how bright the screen is during use. If you’re going to use it for binge watching 1080p video, I’d expect somewhere between 8 and 11 hours — for me, 4.5 hours of streaming took the battery down to 47%. Fast charging is possible using the included charger, which got me from 7% to 38% in 40 minutes.
Like a lot of tablets, the home button doubles as a fingerprint reader. It works quickly and reliably, and you can record your fingerprint in such a way that it can be recognized regardless of thumb orientation. It’s a small convenience, but it’s a nice added touch.
Keyboard and Stylus
Samsung has made a magnetic keyboard cover and an S Pen stylus for the Galaxy Tab S3. The keyboard is surprisingly comfortable to type on for something complementing a 9.7″ device. The keys are well spaced, and I didn’t find myself having to adjust to a smaller keyboard the way I would with other tablet keyboard covers.
The keys feel soft in a good way, too, and Samsung did well to use a magnetic connection that requires no Bluetooth pairing. Unfortunately, it’s not a strong connection, and it comes disconnected very easily when you try to use it in your lap or another uneven surface (and a disconnect will instantly put the tablet to sleep). Another disappointment is that the keyboard cover costs $130 extra — it’s a good keyboard, but $130 is a really hard sell, especially when the angle of the stand can’t be adjusted and there’s no touchpad.
The redesigned S Pen is included, and it’s excellent. This stylus was made just for the Tab S3, so it’s much bigger and more comfortable to hold than the one we know from the Note line. It’s also got a flatter shape, so it won’t roll around on a desk.
The S Pen works similar to the smartphone stylus. That includes Air Command, which brings up a menu of S Pen functions on the side of the screen when you hover over it with the stylus. Most of these functions are related to note taking, but there’s some new stuff here that was introduced with the Note 7 before it got pulled — Translate, Magnify, and Glance.
Magnify turns the S Pen into a magnifying glass, which is handy for reading fine print on this smaller tablet browser. Glance is a cool productivity feature — it’ll minimize one running app into a small square in the bottom right. The app can be viewed as a full screen preview with a hover, or brought up with a tap.
Translate needs a lot of work. The idea is that you can hover over words in another language to get an instant translation, but it’s not a useful feature yet. A lot of major languages are missing (it can’t translate from Chinese) and the stylus can only highlight and translate one word at a time, which is useless for the purposes of translation for understanding. Oh, and lest we forget, that rad feature that lets you trace a box around a video to create a gif is still there, and still awesome.
When it comes to taking notes or sketching, the S Pen is pretty good. The nib has 4,096 levels of pressure, which allows for really smooth and subtle sketching. The handwriting-to-text feature is also terrific — if there’s anything holding the Tab S3 back from being a great productivity tablet for creatives, it’s not the S Pen. There’s also no need to charge it, which is a nice plus.
It’s the software that’s still an impediment. It’s no accident that the best productivity tablets run Windows 10. Android isn’t well-suited for the purpose, and while the split-screen feature in Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay works well, the screen is too small to make it worthwhile. The little bits of extra time it takes to switch apps adds up, and the lack of a touchpad on the keyboard cover makes you use the touchscreen more than you’d like.
The usual battery of Samsung TouchWiz apps is here, although a lot has been cut over the years. What’s still here is largely only useful to its fullest extent if you own a Samsung phone, as well — there are apps that can sync notes, notifications, and settings across Samsung devices. There’s also an ad-free Kids app with curated content by Fingerprint, although it does cost $8 per month to use. You’ll also find a dedicated live tech support app.
The Tab S3 also comes with Microsoft Office apps, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneDrive, Skype, and OneNote. For the same reasons we described above, it’s hard to get the most out of these apps on a tablet (with the exception of OneNote, which is great for taking notes on any platform).
If anything will rankle here, it’s that the Samsung and Microsoft apps can’t be uninstalled. The good news is that aside from those, there’s no other pre-installed bloat to deal with.