Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: The best Android tablet you can buy today

Samsung’s Tab S3 sits effortlessly at the top of the Android tablet market, but wouldn’t you prefer an iPad instead?

4
Price when reviewed 
599
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If you specifically want to buy an Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 is still the best you can get. However, the  Galaxy Tab S3 hasn't come down in price much since it was released last spring – in fact, it's still on sale for the original £600 asking price at both Currys and Argos.

In that time, a cheaper £319 iPad has become available that, despite costing practically half the amount, is significantly faster. What's more, the new entry-level iPad supports the Apple Pencil,  meaning for a little over £400 you can be the proud owner of a new tablet and stylus. This makes it harder than ever for us to recommend the Galaxy Tab S3, despite it being a perfectly competent tablet. If you do decide to buy one, however, make sure you pick it up from Currys, which is currently offering a bundle that includes a pair of AKG Y50BT headphones at no extra cost.

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Original review continues: There's no real tablet market: there's an iPad market, and then there are the scraps. And while Windows has made impressive strides in the convertible, 2-in-1 and high-end market, the majority of Android tablets have fallen into the low-end category. Even this, thanks to competition from bigger and bigger phones, is becoming less attractive as time wears on. So, with all this in mind, what does Samsung want to achieve with the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3, its latest 9.7in tablet?

The Tab S3 is clearly aimed at the same market as the 9.7in iPad Pro. It's a good looking, powerful device that (unlike the iPad Pro) comes with a pressure sensitive stylus in the box, and there's also an optional keyboard that looks very much like the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover. This means that, like the iPad Pro, it's meant to be more than just a device for consumption. And, as we'll see later, that's an issue for the Galaxy Tab S3.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: Design

The good news is that Samsung has really created a nice design with the Galaxy Tab S3. It has a high-resolution AMOLED display (2,048 x 1,536, which is identical to the iPad Pro), quad core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 820, 4GB RAM and 32GB storage.

The display is the kind of thing Samsung executives will be proud of and with some justification: it's bright and generally easy to read. However, it's AMOLED, with all the pluses and minuses that involves. Black really is black, contrast is effectively perfect and colour coverage is excellent.

To my eyes, AMOLED always looks a touch over-saturated and in the default colour mode, the Tab S3 is certainly that. Fortunately, for those with sensitive eyes, there’s a selection of different colour profiles that can be used to tone things down.

Again like the iPad Pro, the Galaxy Tab S3 has four speakers, with an AKG-branded "quad-stereo" array, which automatically detects the orientation you're holding it in. It sounds OK - streets ahead of anything with only one or two speakers - but a little less crisp than Apple's equivalents.

Where the Galaxy Tab S3 has a clear advantage is the included S-Pen. I'm not a fan of Samsung's software, but the way the company has worked to make S-Pen more useful is impressive. Yes, you can simply use it as a simple pen with third-party apps such as Microsoft OneNote, but hover the pen close to the edge of the screen and you get a pop-up menu of useful options for note-taking, screenshots and more. It's well thought-out and genuinely useful.

However, the S-Pen isn't perfect. I'm not an artist but my partner is, so I gave her the S-Pen to evaluate as a drawing implement. Her view? Not as fluid as the Apple Pencil, with noticeably more lag as you draw and (at least in the Samsung Notes app) a lack of sensitivity that requires too much force to activate.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: Performance

Inside the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 is a quad-core Snapdragon 820 – a decent processor, but it's not at the cutting edge. That’s reflected in a Geekbench 4 multi-core result of 4,208 and a single-core score of 1,751. Obviously, the Tab S3 blazes past Google’s Pixel C and the older Tab S2, but it’s marginally bested by Apple’s new iPad, with its 4,204 and 2,490 scores.

Yes, that's right: the Tab S3 is beaten by Apple's latest iPad, not the iPad Pro. That means it's significantly slower than the 9.7in device it ostensibly goes head-to-head with.

In addition, while the battery is slightly larger than the Tab S2’s, the bump to 6,000mAh doesn’t seem to have paid off. The Tab S3 lasted 11hrs 43mins in our continuous video playback test with the screen set to 170cd/m2 – that’s nearly three hours short of the Tab S2’s 14hrs 33mins and further behind the new iPad’s 14hrs 47mins.

That Snapdragon 830 must be pretty power-hungry. On the upside, the device recharges speedily via the USB Type-C port on the bottom. If there's one positive thing we're seeing across tablets and phones this year, it's the widespread use of USB Type-C. Apple, please take note.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: Software

I mentioned at the start that the Galaxy Tab S3 is intended, just like the iPad Pro series, to be something you can replace a laptop with. And this is where you run slap-bang into the limitations of Android as a tablet operating system.

First, the good points: unlike the situation a couple of years ago, the applications are there to do some serious work. Microsoft's core Office applications are all now on Google Play, are preinstalled on the Tab S3 and they're very good. Likewise, you'll find Trello, Slack, and other work essentials available.

But multi-tasking remains even less elegant than the equivalent on iOS. Some apps – for example Facebook – simply don't work well with the split-screen system, and many still don't work in landscape orientation.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: Verdict

To buy the Galaxy Tab S3 with 32GB of memory, you'll pay £599. That's £50 more than the equivalent Apple iPad Pro 9.7in, although you'll need to add in an Apple Pencil (£99) to get all the functionality of the Tab S3, which makes the iPad Pro a little more expensive.

Had the Galaxy Tab S3 been £100 cheaper, it would have been a genuine competitor for the iPad Pro; in fact, it would have been hard to argue in the iPad's favour. But being pitched at around the same price means it's a much tougher sell.

If you want an Android tablet, the Galaxy Tab S3 is decent alternative to the Pixel C. It’s faster, comes with stylus compatibility and a stylus in the box, and the option to add a keyboard as well. But as a productivity device, it’s far more expensive; bought with the keyboard cover it’s £120 more expensive than the Pixel C with its keyboard and, as always, you'll get more frequent software updates with Google's product.

And if what you want is a tablet, rather than specifically an Android tablet, either the cheaper iPad or iPad Pro is a better option. The iPad is £200 less, lacks a pen, but runs faster and has access to the superior iOS tablet software library. The iPad Pro 9.7 is a little more expensive once you buy the Apple Pencil, but significantly faster and again has better software.

That puts the Galaxy Tab S3 in a difficult place. Yes, it's the best Android tablet around, but it's not as good as an iPad and it’s  considerably pricier than the Google Pixel C, making it really something that's only for the most determined Apple rejectors.

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