With its relentless marketing and range of products, Samsung has taken the lead in the global two-horse smartphone race. But the tablet market is different. It's still very much Apple's iPad versus the others. Although Samsung has, globally, reached the No. 2 spot in tablet sales, it has yet to gain real mindshare.
It's not for a lack of trying. Keeping up with Samsung's interminable stream of tablets is like trying to keep track of "Fast and Furious" sequels. It has released nearly 40 distinct models in the time it has taken Apple to release its seven iPad models -- 10 in the past six months alone.
But with its newest Galaxy Tab S, Samsung has finally decided to apply its successful Galaxy S smartphone strategy: build a premium, flagship product with better specs than Apple's, and then market the heck out of it.
The plastic construction of the Galaxy Tab S tablets make them feel cheap compared with Apple's metal and glass iPads. Patrick Conlon/The Wall Street Journal.
Yes, I said "better". Arriving in stores next month, the Tab's hardware is an improvement over any preceding Samsung tablets, including a higher-resolution and brighter Super AMOLED screen, and a sleeker, more svelte design. It also boasts many features the iPad lacks, including a fingerprint sensor, a split-screen app mode and multiple-user account support. And even though both models are slightly larger, they're priced the same as Apple's iPad Mini and iPad Air: the 8.4-inch model starts at $US399 and the 10.5-inch version at $US499.
The Tab S has aped many of the successful hardware features of the Galaxy S line of phones and has matched the iPad's battery life and beaten the iPad on screen quality. But the tablet's downfall is the same as Samsung's flagship phone: sloppy, subpar software.
I like to imagine that deep in Samsung's labs, some mad scientist aimed his Honey, I Blew Up the Kids contraption at the Galaxy S5 smartphone and out of a billow of smoke emerged the Tab S. The tablet has the same plastic dimpled back, rounded rectangular home button and metallic frame around the screen as Samsung's newest phone.
However, at 0.25 inch thick, the Tab S is actually thinner than the smartphone and noticeably lighter than Apple's tablets. Both Tab S sizes are easier to hold up with one hand than the competing iPads. But as usual for Samsung, that lighter weight comes at the cost of a solid build. The plastic construction makes the tablets feel cheaper than the all-metal iPads.
It's the Tab S's 2560x1600 pixel display that makes it feel like the most premium tablet out there. The resolution is higher than the iPads' and the AMOLED screen -- versus the LCD panels on the iPad and most tablets -- makes everything pop. In some cases blues, greens and whites are oversaturated and don't appear as natural as iPad's display. But Samsung's adaptive display feature automatically adjusts the contrast and brightness in specific apps to compensate.
Bottom line: this is the ultimate Netflix tablet, delivering a jaw-dropping crisp picture with deep blacks and vibrant colors and playback of at least 10 episodes of your favorite hour-long TV show. Comparable with the respective-sized iPads, the smaller Tab S streamed over 10 hours of video and the larger model over 11 hours before their batteries gave out.
It's a great tablet to read on, too. The "Reading Mode" softens the background and sharpens the text while the AMOLED display cuts down on the glare in direct sunlight. It's still no E Ink screen, but on a sunny day viewability was dramatically better on the Tab S with brightness set at 75 per cent than the iPad at maximum brightness.
But that commendable hardware engineering is soured by the same cluttered software experience of the Galaxy S5. The tablets are littered with third-party apps, promotional widgets for Samsung's services and unsightly custom trimmings that add little value. And despite the tablet's octo-core processor (yes, eight cores), the bloat seems to cause sporadic slowdowns and even stuttering in apps. It's unfortunate because underneath all the junk there are a few really useful new features.
With multi-window mode, I was able to keep an eye on Gmail while surfing the Web using Chrome. The feature, which is a staple of Windows 8.1 and may eventually turn up on iPads, really does improve the multitasking experience. However, I couldn't get many of my favorite third-party apps to work in side-by-side viewing, including Spotify and Twitter. (Many of those apps still haven't even been optimised for Android tablets. You get better designed apps on the iPad.)
There's support for multiple user accounts, too, another feature that would be nice to have on the iPad. Up to eight users can log in with their fingerprints. But like Samsung's phone, swiping requires much more precise maneuvering than it should. On more than one occasion, I was locked out of the tablet for 30 seconds after trying to swipe my registered finger too many times. A company spokeswoman said "improvements to the scanner are on the radar".
Samsung's new Galaxy Tab S tablets are available with two different sized displays: 8.4-inches and 10.5-inches. They are thinner than the Galazy S5 smartphone. Patrick Conlon/The Wall Street Journal.
Samsung is working as hard as Google, Apple and Microsoft on what I call the "ecosystem trap": engineering their own devices to work better together. When the Galaxy S5 and Tab S are within Wi-Fi range from each other (about 100 meters), you can remotely navigate the phone via the tablet's screen, transfer files between devices, access all your phone apps and even text and talk on the phone. The feature, called Side Sync, works very well and can be useful if you don't want to miss a call or text while your phone is charging in another room.
After years of indistinguishable Samsung tablets, the Tab S's gorgeous screen, rail-thin design and long battery life make it the best tablet the company has ever made. Though not the best tablet ever made.
Like smartphones, tablet technology has hit a point where hardware components don't matter as much as the software that let's us manipulate them. To that end, the Tab S doesn't push the category forward enough, nor can it a match the iPad's clean and simple interface or its breadth of tablet-optimized apps.
Of course, that might not matter. Samsung has finally delivered a tablet equivalent of one of the world's most popular smartphones -- and gives those who have bought that phone a few compelling reasons to buy a Tab S over an iPad. That may work just enough to get a lot more people asking "iPad or Galaxy Tab…S?"