DNA Test: Samsung’s Tab S2 is true iPad alternative
By DNA Test Team August 19, 2015
- New 4:3 ratio is more comfortable to use to read and browse the Web
- Super AMOLED display, 4G voice and data and expandable storage help it stand out
While global attention of late has been focused towards Samsung's smartphones with the recent launch of the Galaxy Note 5 and S6 edge+, the South Korean giant continues to stay committed to the tablet market, in particular the high-end segment.
Samsung’s recent Galaxy Tab S2 line is squarely aimed at those looking for a premium Android alternative to Apple's iPad.
While the earlier Samsung Galaxy Tab S series released in late 2014 came in a 16:10 aspect ratio with 8.4-inch and 10.5-inch variants, the new Tab S2 takes a page from Apple’s playbook and is designed around a more compact 4:3 aspect ratio display.
As such, the scaled down 8-inch and 9.7-inch Tab S2 variants are positioned in the inevitable match-up against Apple's 8-inch iPad Mini 3 and the 9.7-inch iPad Air 2.
The Tab S2 8.0 and 9.7 models sold in Malaysia come with 32GB of on-board storage with support for LTE (Long Term Evolution) or 4G (Fourth Generation) networks. In terms of colours, these tablets are available in a matte pearlescent white, black or a bronzed gold finish.
Both the Tab S2 tablets have similar hardware and differ primarily in terms of screen size, weight and battery size.
Hardware and design
Our review unit is the Tab S2 9.7, the larger model. Externally, it has the dimensions of a slightly cut down glossy magazine and is finished primarily in light polycarbonate, with a silvery chamfered trim along the edges.
At 392 grams, it’s light enough to be toted around easily and the even heft lets you hold it in both portrait and landscape styles single-handedly without too much trouble.
Compared to its predecessor, the 4G version of the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, the Tab S2 is lighter by 75 grams and thinner by 1 mm. Against the Apple iPad Air 2, it's appreciably lighter by 52 grams.
The top and left sides of the Tab S2 9.7 remain unadorned. On the right side, you’ll find the volume rocker and power button, along with slots for a micro SD card and a SIM card.
The base of the tablet comes with a 3.5 mm audio jack, a micro USB slot for docking and charging duties and grilles for the stereo speakers.
The back plate is interesting as it has an unusual design elements. It comes with a matte finish that helps to repels fingerprints. Unfortunately it’s made of plastic, rather than premium grade materials like glass or metal.
The left and right edges have a distinct beveled edge while one side has a pair of rounded metallic knobs recessed into the casing. These are designed to interface with Samsung’s magnetic Book Cover case accessory.
Rather than the usual snap-on cases that cover the entire back plate, the Book Cover attaches itself securely via the aforementioned magnetic knobs.
As for the rear camera, Samsung placed a slightly raised lip around the lens to protect it from scratches rather than going for the typical flushed look.
The front of the tablet comes with a selfie camera at the top, as well as the usual capacitive menu and back buttons that flank the physical home button. The home button itself also doubles as a fingerprint reader.
Display and camera performance
The main attraction of Samsung's flagship devices is by and large their bright and colourful Super AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode) displays.
The Tab S2 9.7 comes with a 9.7-inch Super AMOLED display with 1536 x 2048 resolution, producing a reasonably sharp 264 PPI (Pixels Per Inch) that matches up spec for spec with the iPad Air 2's display.
While it's a slight downgrade from last year's Tab S 10.5 which sported a 2560 x 1600 resolution panel and 288 PPI, it's less unwieldy and lighter to carry around.
Colours are lush and vibrant while the text is crisp onscreen. If you should find the colours overly vibrant, you can select from half a dozen other different preset colour options that optimise the screen for different content like movies, photos and books.
There is also a ‘basic’ mode that turns the colour saturation down a notch so images look more like its real-life counterparts.
The display is perhaps the most important aspect of buying a tablet, and in this case, the Super AMOLED displays from Samsung’s tablets take the crown in terms of contrast, blacks and colours.
If you are looking for the tablet with the best display in the market, there is just no other device that can match Samsung’s offerings.
Fortunately, other factors, like the new dimensions of the Tab S2 9.7 also help, allowing for easier reading of e-books and web browsing compared to its wide-screen predecessor and it's generally handier to use, due in part to its weight.
However when watching wide-screen movies, you will have to just accept the black bars at the top and bottom of the display.
The speakers were adequate but unexceptional. They provided good volume when maxed out but that is the extent of its capabilities. It's sufficient for viewing movies and video calls.
Toting it around all day across several business trips, both in and out of town and in several flights out of town and back, didn't involve any undue inconvenience. It's light enough that you can add it to your work bag without much thought.
Tablets aren’t typically expected to produce great photos or videos, since it remains an awkward practice to take pictures with a large tablet. So how did the Tab S2 fare in terms of imaging features?
The rear camera on the Tab S2 9.7 is an 8 megapixel camera with autofocus, but there is no flash provided.
The user interface offers quite a few options including the obligatory auto mode, a panorama shot mode, a HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode, a dual camera mode that integrates a shot with stills from the front and rear camera simultaneously, a virtual shot mode that lets you take a 360 degree picture of an object that you can interact with, such as winding it back and forth to view an object from all angles.
It also comes with a manual ‘Pro’ mode that lets you modify the camera exposure, ISO and white balance settings, as well as a 'Shot & More' mode that captures a burst of photos and then selects the best one for you.
This comes in handy when taking shots of fast-moving subjects like pets and kids, since the sensor isn’t all that fast.
Captured stills are very acceptable in daylight, with good colour accuracy, but less so when under low light conditions. However they are otherwise sufficient for use in social media. These shots can also be modified with a choice of eight different filters.
Videos can be captured in 2560 x 1440 resolution, but if you want to use video stabilization and the option to also take photos at the same time, you will need to record in a lower 1080P resolution. Still, the video quality at 1080P is sufficient for short clips for casual use, as well as uploads to Facebook and YouTube.
The front camera in the meantime, offers a Beauty mode to enhance your selfies and can also render the shot in one of eight different filters.
Performance and Battery Life
The Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 has a respectable ensemble of hardware in the form of Samsung's own Exynos 5433 64-bit octa-core chipset that pairs up a 1.9GHz and 1.3GHz quad-core processors. Added to this is 3 GB of memory and 32GB of on-board storage, along with a micro SD card slot and a nano-SIM slot.
In addition to mobile data, the tablet allows you to also make and receive phones calls as well, but the experience is awkward at best, so using a Bluetooth headset is probably a good idea here.
The tablet runs on Android Lollipop 5.0.2 with Samsung's TouchWiz user interface and is also ‘Knox’ compliant, which installs a separate secure partition for work applications on the device.
This time around, Samsung included a few relatively useful selection of apps pre-installed, such as Skype, Line as well as Microsoft's OneNote, Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
The tablet also offers 100 GB of free storage space on OneDrive for two years in addition to a free one year subscription to local movie subscription service iFlix.
New additions to Samsung's TouchWiz UI (user interface) on the Tab S2 include a Smart Manager mode that lets you manage your battery life, app usage, memory and device security settings in one fell swoop.
Like other Samsung tablets and smartphones, you can enable an Ultra power saving mode that minimises processor usage and turns changes the colour screen to grayscale, to extend the battery life.
In use, the Tab S2 9.7 was ideal for reading magazines and e-books without having to pinch and zoom back and forth to read them. Web browsing was a similarly pleasant experience.
The bundled productivity apps came in handy, although typing out a Word document or a spreadsheet even on the admittedly large sized tablet will take a while. This tablet will work best when paired with a wireless keyboard and a suitable stand to prop it up.
While it has a significantly smaller battery than its predecessor, the 5870 mAh battery on the Tab S2 9.7 is more than sufficient to last 2 to 3 days of usage, with web browsing, checking e-mails, light video watching and video calls.
With its lightweight form factor, beautiful screen, expandable storage, voice call capability and respectable hardware specifications, the Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 asking price is certainly not cheap at RM1999. The smaller 8-inch model retails for slightly less at RM1699.
Even so, it's still more affordable than Apple's iPad Air 2, which retails at RM2151 for an LTE-enabled variant without expandable storage nor the ability to make phone calls.
Clearly there are far cheaper Android tablets in the market today, from well-known brands like Asus and Lenovo to upstarts like Teclast and Xiaomi.
However note that none of these vendors sell tablets with Super AMOLED screens, and most of their tablets still use the notebook PC-like widescreen form factor (except for Xiaomi’s MiPad).
So if you don’t already have a tablet, or need to upgrade your current one to something that can cope with today’s most demanding Android apps and games, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S2 comes highly recommended for your entertainment and light productivity needs.
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