Introduction, design and display
Update: Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is a lot like an iPad, except it has had a price drop, unlike Apple’s always-pricey tablet. The review has been revised to reflect this change.
When I first wrote about the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, my dad remarked of the news story, “So, I heard Samsung is making a new iPad?”
This perfectly sums up how average consumers view tablets as a product category. Apple now makes the Kleenex or, in the UK, Sellotape of tablets, and they’re called iPads.
Prices were also identical, launching at $499 (£399, AU$599) for the 9.7-inch tablet, and $399 (£319, AU$499) for its 8-inch mini equivalent. However, you can find them on discount in the US starting at $399 and $299, respectively, and Samsung’s devices start at 32GB of space, while Apple’s entry-level models are still a paltry 16GB.
Regardless of the price changes, they’re still a lot a like. It’s really no wonder as to why there’s mainstream confusion. Samsung and Apple are making phones that mirror each other more, if you look at the iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S6.
The good news is that, once I got to hold the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 in my hands, I discovered some differences that favor Samsung’s new tablets, and a few that do not.
Weight, design, and software features make the new Galaxy Tab one of the best tablets to date, even though the slate looks like it’s doing its best impression of an iPad, and isn’t too different from previous Samsung tablets.
The Galaxy Tab S2 feels nicer to hold in two hands than the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 and its sibling, the Galaxy Tab 8.4. In fact, it’s now light enough to comfortably clutch in one hand.
Weighing just 389g for the 9.7-inch tablet and 265g for the 8-inch version, it sheds the extra weight of its Samsung tablet predecessors, and it’s also noticeably lighter than Apple’s entire iPad line.
That’s a big deal, believe it or not, because holding the larger Tab S2 in its ideal position – in bed reading Flipboard while holding the tablet in the air – isn’t a strain over long periods of time.
Similarly, if you throw this tablet in a backpack it feels like no extra weight has been added. It’s easy to store and effortless to hold, even with its near-iPad dimensions.
The 9.7-inch version measures 237 x 169 x 5.6mm, and the 8-inch model 199 x 135 x 5.6mm, beating Apple’s sub-pencil-thin thickness of 6.1mm.
The Samsung Tab S2 is lighter in part because it’s backed by a soft-touch plastic cover instead of an aluminium shell. Metal edges outline the tablet instead of a plastic frame this time.
The entire device may not be metal, but it does feel smooth. It’s better than the dimpled plastic of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S, yet remains just as grippy.
Two small, springy buttons are embedded into the back of the Tab S2, but they’re meant for clipping a cover onto the tablet and aren’t releases to pop off the back. It’s all sealed shut.
There is, however, a microSD card slot on the frame to optionally boost the 32GB and 64GB configurations with an additional 128GB of expandable storage.
Alongside this same rail are a solid-feeling power button and volume rocker. Stereo speakers, a headphone jack and an off-center micro USB port line the bottom of the tablet.
The Tab S2 has a physical, fingerprint-sensing home button in front with the usual oval shape, and two capacitive buttons on either side. These keys light up by default every time the display is touched.
The beams of light are a bit distracting when scrolling and reading text near the bottom of the screen, and turning them off in settings doesn’t help orient your fingers in the dark. This wider tablet isn’t like a narrower phone, where you know the exact location of these keys.
The latest Galaxy Tab comes in three colors: Black, White and Gold. Gone are the fancy names like Dazzling White and Titanium Bronze, reflecting Samsung’s minimalist design with this year’s ultra-thin tablet.
Samsung has the best displays among smartphones with its Galaxy S6 and Note 5 handsets, and the same is mostly true of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2.
It boasts a bright Super AMOLED screen with vivid colors and a 2,048 x 1,536 resolution that matches the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 4. That’s good, but not the best from Samsung.
The Galaxy Tab S slates had a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 with more pixels per inch. The Tab S2 is technically a step down, even if you can’t notice at first glance.
What happened? While the S1 sported a narrow, movie-friendly 16:9 aspect ratio, the new Tab S2 is wider, with a letter paper-sized 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s more suited for web browsing.
Samsung dialed back the resolution in its rejiggering of the screen, but that the pixel count shouldn’t concern you as much as the aspect ratio, especially for widescreen movie watchers.
The Galaxy Tab S2 display is still really sharp and vibrant, but has a different objective that’s bent on three things: web surfing, Flipboard reading and iPad rivaling.
Specs and performance
At the heart of the new tablet duo is Samsung’s Exynos 7 5433 octa-core System-on-a-Chip that combines another 1.9GHz quad-core processor with a 1.3GHz quad-core processor.
Clock speeds are the same as the last-generation Galaxy Tab S and don’t reach the Galaxy S6 and Note 5 performance levels, but its ARM-based cores have been upgraded in a year’s time.
The same applies to the graphics chip and RAM found inside the Galaxy Tab S2. It has a Mali T760MP6 GPU that’s new to the Samsung tablet line, but that’s still a step behind its phones. The RAM remains 3GB of LPDDR3, instead of the 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM in the Note 5.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 shows performance gains over last year’s tablets, but its benchmarks trail the iPad Air 2. Running Android 5.0.2, its Geekbench 3 scores averaged a healthy 4,077.
What’s interesting is that, while Samsung is a bit clock-speed-shy with its tablet chipsets, Apple in contrast goes all out with its iPads. The iPad Pro has its highest-end A9X chip.
The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Note 5 topped the charts on our benchmark rankings, while Apple’s iPhone line has always fall short. The iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus stick have a new, but more conservative A9 processor.
The good news is that the Galaxy Tab S2 is still a snappy performer when TouchWiz doesn’t bog down the interface, and the operating system consistently stays out of the way here.
Better yet, Samsung makes a fair trade-off with the internal storage specs. All of Apple’s devices begin with 16GB of storage for the same (and at some stores, cheaper) price as Samsung’s 32GB phones and tablets.
That’s more important to many file-hoarding consumers who have gigabytes worth of music, photos and apps stored locally, than a tablet that ekes out a win when it comes to processor performance under pressure.
Android 5.1.1 and apps
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 comes with Android 5.0.2 out of the box, but the operating system can be upgraded to Android 5.1.1. It was ready to go for me immediately.
That won’t matter too much, because Samsung has already made a bunch of tweaks to Google’s lockscreen notification-infused software through its always-meddling TouchWiz interface.
Samsung is ahead of Google’s software update by incorporating a component fingerprint sensor into the home button. It also allows its devices to be silenced from the volume rocker.
Google stripped this function from stock Lollipop and is bringing it back in Marshmallow. Its current phones and tablets devices stop short, toggling between volume and vibrate via the rocker.
Splitscreen mode continues to be a big part of Samsung tablets, and multitasking works best on the larger Galaxy Tab S2. A long press on the “recent” touch key quickly divvies up the screen.
Apple’s new iOS 9 operating system adds true multitasking for the first time, but its half-and-half “Split View” is reserved for the iPad Air 2, iPad mini 4 and iPad Pro and works with only a few apps at launch.
There’s potential there for Apple, but Samsung does it the best for every app I’ve tested – except Flipboard. The magazine news reader isn’t compatible with splitscreen mode.
However, I’ve become a big fan of swiping to the leftmost homescreen on Samsung devices and becoming caught in the latest news presented in a beautiful Flipboard layout.
It’s really how Apple should arrange its leftmost iOS 9 menu, bringing the new Apple News app out from the shadows. Of course, now that I’ve said it in a Samsung review, it’ll never happen out of spite.
This is where Samsung is known for its Android meddling: giving you apps you never wanted and never asked for. The company has learned its lesson in the last two years – to an extent.
Tab S2 contains useless Internet, Email, Memo apps, even though it also has Android-required Chrome, Gmail, Drive apps. Gallery is a bit faster than Google Photos, so that’s a keeper.
Well, they’re all really keepers because you can’t delete many Samsung-made apps: Contacts, Gallery, Camera, Music, Video, Clock, My Files, Smart Manager, Calendar, SideSync and Galaxy Apps (in case you want more of these) are all stuck on your Tab S2.
It’s a pain, because who wants their app drawer stuffed with generic Internet or Email apps? I did find uses for transporting files via SideSync and playing movie files more quickly through Video, but it should really be up to me to decide which apps stay and which ones go.
Samsung also throws in a bit of bloatware, for better or worse. There’s a Microsoft apps folder full of Office, Skype and OneDrive apps, its own Samsung Milk Music, Samsung+, Screen Saver, a CNN for Samsung and Next Issue apps.
Thankfully, while Samsung would love to steer you into downloading new apps through its Galaxy Apps store, it includes the Play Store in the app drawer.
Battery life and camera
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 battery life is also underpowered when compared to Apple’s iPad Air 2 and last year’s Samsung Galaxy Tab S.
Its battery capacity is the smallest of the three tablets at 5,870mAh and 4,000mAh for the 9.7-inch and 8-inch models, respectively. The iPad Air 2 has 7,340mAh, while Samsung’s own Galaxy Tab S1 packed in a 7,900mAh battery.
Samsung’s 9.7-inch tablet did better than I anticipated in our routine battery life test, thanks to its power-saving “big.LITTLE” CPU configuration. But it could’ve lasted even longer.
Beating the Galaxy Tab S2 was last year’s Samsung tablet, the Galaxy Tab S1, which saw a decline to 87% from a full charge during the same 90 minutes of HD video.
I still felt like the newer tablet could’ve lasted longer in day-to-day use outside of our battery life test, and that might happen with the Android Marshmallow update.
Google’s Android update has a special Doze mode that retains more battery life when devices are in a sleep state. This is something Apple’s iPad line does well, and is almost certainly why I feel like the iPad Air 2’s real-life longevity is closer to the Tab S2 battery life than lab tests show.
I expected more from the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 when it came to charging, too. It takes about four hours to fully juice up, and there’s no fast-charging capability here. Wireless charging is also absent.
You’re not going to (or shouldn’t) use them, but the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 has two cameras: one on the back that’s 8 megapixels (MP) and one on the front that’s 2.1MP that you’re hopefully using for video conferencing and now selfies.
The 8MP camera is OK with enough light, but can’t compare to any camera inside Samsung’s phones. It doesn’t inherit that 16MP sensor we’ve grown to love in the S6 and Note 5. The 2.1MP camera photos look even noisier and should be avoided at all costs.
The rear camera can now shoot 1440p video at 30 frames per second, up from the 1080p video from the Tab S1, but don’t look for a 4K video option. Such high-resolution video isn’t ready for Android tablets yet.
Samsung does bring the now-familiar interface of its camera software to the Tab S2. But, while the layout is the same, features like wide selfies, RAW files and YouTube Live are missing.
How does the Galaxy Tab S2 look compared to the rest of the market? Here are some other choices you may prefer to Samsung’s latest attempt.
iPad Air 2
We love the iPad Air 2 – there’s no denying that, it’s one of favorite tablets out there and it’s hard to go wrong with this slate. But it is a little more expensive than the Galaxy Tab S2, and has a very different set up to Samsung’s slate.
It may over a year old and the iPad Air 3 is near, but the iPad Air 2 has one of the best screens around and the processing power that would impress any tablet owner. But the Galaxy Tab S2 does hold its own against the iPad Air 2 with another powerful processor set up.
If you enjoy iOS on a tablet though, this is probably your number one choice as it’s running iOS 9.1 and offers the best overall experience.
Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet
Sony’s Xperia Z4 Tablet is probably the most suited piece of competition compared to the Galaxy Tab S2. Sony has done really well in its latest tablet by including a 10.1-inch 2K display in a beautiful design that’s slimmer than we’ve seen before from the company.
It runs Android and is set up with the ugly Sony UI, but it does come with PS4 Remote Play to make up for it. It means you can play your PlayStation 4 on your 2K screen anywhere in the house, and one day you could maybe even play it on a different internet connection.
The keyboard is also nicely set out so it’s easy to work from the Xperia Z4 Tablet – if you’re looking for something a little more premium than the Tab S2, then maybe go for Sony’s best slate yet.
Sitting just between the two different screen sizes of the Galaxy Tab S2, the Nexus 9 comes with an 8.9-inch Full HD display. It impressed a lot of people when it first launched and it employs the same 4:3 display ratio as the Galaxy Tab S2.
The speakers on the Nexus 9 are particularly impressive, but you’ll need to go for a larger storage version as the Nexus 9 doesn’t come with a microSD slot.
Plus the design isn’t anything special, especially if you’re not a fan of the traditional Nexus look. But the price is a big factor, it’s dropped a lot in the last year. This could be the tablet you want if price is an issue.
iPad Mini 4
Apple’s third Mini tablet was a bit of a let down without adding much new apart from Touch ID, but the iPad Mini 4 has made up for that stumble. If you’re looking for a tablet closer to the smaller slate in the Galaxy Tab S2 range, this will be your choice.
Much like the iPad Air 2 it comes packing iOS 9.1 – with possibly the best tablet app line up out there – and a beautiful screen. But this time it’s in a smaller package with a 7.9-inch display.
There’s no 3D Touch here though like we were hoping for from Apple, plus it’s still running on an older processor set up so it’s not exactly perfect. But that said, this is the best smaller tablet you can buy right now… if you’re willing to pay Apple prices.
Is the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 enough of an upgrade over the company’s 2014 tablet? It’s certainly has a new shape and it’s thinner. In this way, it mimics the iPad Air 2, but not in enough areas.
As Samsung’s thinnest and lightest tablet, the Galaxy Tab S2 is easy to tote around. Its 9.7-inch model’s weight fits in between the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 4. Its 8-inch tablet is even lighter. Yet it upgrades to a metal frame, keeps the microSD card slot and uses a more comfortable, soft touch plastic back.
To Samsung’s credit, the TouchWiz software doesn’t get in the way of Android 5.1.1 too much, and it includes extra features, like a fingerprint sensor in the home button and multitasking. The Tab S2 is not as powerful as it could be or as long lasting, but it’s enough for a consumer tablet.
Besides the svelte design and slight specs upgrade, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 isn’t always better as much as it’s different from the Galaxy Tab S1. The tablet is less powerful than an iPad Air 2 and has a smaller battery compared to Apple’s tablets and Samsung’s own tablet from last year.
It’s not best for movies, either, with its more boxy 4:3 screen, instead of a wide-screen-friendly 16:9 aspect ratio. That makes it a matter of taste, but no one will like the fact that Samsung backed off the pixel count in the transition to the new screen shape.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is a lightweight tablet that’s a lightweight upgrade over the 2014 Galaxy Tab S. Andbeyond the thinner and lighter design, it can’t keep up with the iPad Air 2.
There’s still plenty of reason to invest in this reading and web surfing-friendly tablet. Its size and shape is better suited for everything but video, and for some, that’s a big plus.
It has stronger multitasking functionality to rival iOS 9 and features that Google isn’t premiering until the Android Marshmallow launch. Samsung is slightly ahead of other Android tablets, even if this year’s update is as small as the form factor is thin.