Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 review: valiant effortAugust 8, 2018
What is an Android tablet with a keyboard, mouse, and pen? Well, it’s still an Android tablet. The Galaxy Tab S4 is the new flagship 10.5-inch tablet that Samsung is aiming toward people who want a device that’s lighter than an ultrabook but still has a keyboard and pen.
Samsung has done everything it can to transform the Galaxy Tab S4 into a “real” computer, even though it still runs Android 8.1. That strategy revolves around giving the Tab S4 a desktop-style environment with individual windows and improved multitasking called Samsung DeX.
But turning an Android tablet into a hybrid doesn’t come cheap — at least not by usual Android tablet standards. Pricing for the Wi-Fi version of the Tab S4 starts at $649, which includes the S Pen. However, the keyboard is an additional $149. That makes a complete setup $800, which is $10 less than a 10.5-inch iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard (minus the Apple Pencil).
You can also link a Bluetooth mouse if you already have one to complete the DeX experience. (And, as you’ll see, you kind of need to.)
Aesthetically, the Galaxy Tab S4 is a good example of straightforward industrial design for a tablet. It measures 7.1mm thin and weighs 482 grams (1.06 pounds) so it definitely passes as lightweight. It has a glass back and front, comes in white or black, and is well-balanced, no matter how you pick it up.
Since it’s mostly glass, the Tab S4 is a fingerprint magnet of the highest order. Once I wiped it off a few times, I realized Samsung still deserves credit: it’s a unique and good-looking tablet without excessive branding.
If you take a look around the Tab S4, you’ll notice the gold contacts on the edge of the long side (meant for the keyboard), a volume rocker, power button, microSD card slot, 3.5mm audio jack, and a USB-C fast charging port.
The one major takeaway I have from using the Galaxy Tab S4 hardware is how beautiful the screen is. It’s a 10.5-inch, 2560 x 1600 sAMOLED display. (Yes, Samsung rebrands the tech its displays use.) Brightness can be cranked up to the max, and it still produces an image with tons of contrast and saturation without blacks looking washed out. The crisp image the Tab S4 produces means that it’s highly suitable for photo retouching, drawing doodles, or watching the new season of Luke Cage.
The Tab S4 definitely has one of the best-looking tablet displays of the year, and it’s not just because of Samsung’s use of display tech and color balancing. The bezels on the sides have shrunk compared to last year’s Galaxy Tab, so it’s more visually striking and immersive to look at. However, if you appreciate more color-accurate screens, there’s a chance you might not like the Tab S4’s oversaturated color profile.
On its own, the Tab S4 is a powerful media-consumption device. But Samsung’s real goal for this tablet is to make it a productivity device. The $149 keyboard doubles as a stand and case for the Tab S4, but you can’t adjust the angle, so it only really works in one position.
On the left side of the keyboard, there’s a removable S Pen holder, but it feels chintzy. It sometimes can accidentally snap off before you have to snap it back on again, and it’s an odd place to cut corners.
Another oddity: there’s no trackpad. So if you really want to take advantage of the DeX desktop mode, you’ll need your own Bluetooth mouse, or you can use the S Pen as a mouse replacement, which is awkward.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that typing feels decent. It doesn’t have a lot of travel, but it isn’t as shallow as the MacBook Pro’s butterfly keyboard. However, the keys are incredibly small, and despite having young, nimble fingers, I often struggled to hit the backspace key quickly or get used to the even smaller number row. If you want to send dozens of emails with the Tab S4 keyboard every day, you should practice a lot to commit the layout to your muscle memory. Also, the keys aren’t backlit, so using the Tab S4 keyboard at night is a crapshoot.
One pleasant surprise was Samsung’s decision to include an on-screen keyboard button, which brings up a small version of the native full-screen Android keyboard when you’re in DeX mode. It’s helpful if you want to add emoji, type using your voice, and add GIFs or stickers.
The only included accessory, other than a charger, is the S Pen. This year, it’s been redesigned for the Tab S4. Design-wise, it reminds me of a faux Montblanc pen, but Samsung prefers calling it “refined.” And it is! It’s lightweight, balances in your fingertips like a real pen, and has a soft tip. It tracks very well and reminds me less of the Galaxy Note’s S Pen and more like the Surface Pen, which is often used by artists for professional design work.
Our resident talented artist and Circuit Breaker reporter Dami Lee drew a quick doodle and said it “felt better and more natural than an Apple Pencil.” While you can’t flip the pen over to use it as a digital eraser, it does support Samsung’s Air Command features. You can annotate screenshots, write out notes, draw, sign documents, and do pretty much anything else a digital pen is meant for.
DeX is Samsung’s specialized software for giving Android a desktop interface, with windows, browser tabs, and a taskbar. On the Tab S4, it’s available as just another mode, whereas on Samsung phones, you have to plug into a weird dock to enable it.
Samsung DeX is going to be one of the Tab S4’s biggest selling points and for good reason. It’s amazing what Samsung has accomplished with Android here.
You can have a dozen Android apps open at a time in an environment where you can resize them as windows, move them around, go full-screen with just one, or have the option of projecting the whole thing on an external TV / monitor.
There’s still a downside: Android apps optimized for tablets are few and far between, and those that do exist definitely haven’t been designed or optimized to run on the Tab S4 in DeX mode.
Performance-wise, I had some concerns about Samsung using an older Snapdragon 835 chipset with only 4GB of RAM, but I haven’t come across crashes or lag at all. Overall performance doesn’t become an issue until you hit a dozen apps running at the same time. At that point, I noticed resizing windows wasn’t as snappy, but the Tab S4 still persisted and didn’t crash.
Of course, there are some holes in Samsung’s execution of DeX. For example, you have to reopen all the apps you were working from when you switch between the Android and DeX interface, unless you enable the “DeX Labs” feature, which carries them over (but not always).
There’s also the fact that some Android apps, like Netflix or Pokémon Go, don’t seem to work with DeX. It can’t run them full-screen even if you enable a DeX Labs feature that forces non-supported apps to resize. Still, most Android apps should play nice — hopefully.
The most unusual peripheral for an Android tablet is probably a Bluetooth mouse. DeX makes good use of a mouse because you can right click on apps in the taskbar to close them or otherwise access options that would usually be hidden with a long press. What’s unusual is that a mouse is really necessary to make the most of DeX, which makes the whole thing feel a little less portable.
Is using the Tab S4 in default Android tablet mode worth it? Only if you can’t use the app in DeX mode or if you don’t have a keyboard. Otherwise, there’s really no reason to use it like you would most Android tablets. Screen real estate isn’t utilized as efficiently, so DeX is the only point where the Tab S4’s software really shines.
For those of you wondering about Bixby, Samsung’s often-delayed virtual assistant: it’s delayed. Samsung says Bixby should launch for the Tab S4 next year.
The Tab S4 has great cameras on the front and back. (I’ll save what I think about taking pictures on a tablet for another time.) The main 13-megapixel camera can shoot 4K up to 30 fps, while the front-facing supports up to 1080p HD.
On the front, the Tab S4 also houses the sensors for its iris and face scanner unlocking feature. These are hit or miss because the Tab S4 doesn’t always “see” my face if I’m using it with the keyboard and the desk I’m at is too low. However, it does sometimes work in pitch black darkness, so that’s kind of nice.
Most of the Tab S4’s weight comes from the massive 7,300mAh battery. Samsung advertises 16 hours of battery life using the Tab S4 for video and productivity. That’s not far off: I got around 15 hours of use before hitting critical battery levels by binge-watching on Netflix and writing out the occasional Slack message or email with the keyboard. If you use the Tab S4 conservatively (no GPS, Bluetooth, and 50 percent brightness) it shouldn’t be difficult to hit the 16-hour mark.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 is a great effort to make the ideal Android tablet. Samsung DeX makes the Tab S4 truly special, but the lack of optimized apps for Android and DeX modes means your software choices are quite limited. Samsung did a remarkable job of making the Tab S4 seem like it’s more than the sum of its parts. I just wish the parts were better.
Photography by Stefan Etienne / The Verge
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