Screen matters. The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 ($399, 16GB) is the best small tablet on the market right now largely because of its screen, a shimmering Super AMOLED panel that makes your Web pages, videos, and games look positively glorious. It's a crowded field out there right now, and you may be able to find a small tablet that's better for you and your specific uses. But at the moment, the Tab S 8.4's expandable memory and multimedia prowess make it best for the casual browsing and media playback most small tablets are used for.
The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 and Galaxy Tab S 10.5 are extremely similar tablets, just with different-sized screens and a $100 variance in price, so much of this review will be the same as our review of the 10.5. We did test both tablets separately, however.
Physical Design and Screen
The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 has a design similar to the Samsung Galaxy S5, but manages to look classy rather than chintzy. A big part of it is getting rid of that ridged, chrome bezel around the edge in exchange for a more subtle band. The 8.4 comes in Titanium Bronze, which is a dark gold color, and Dazzling White, which is white. It's stunningly thin and effortlessly light—at 8.38 by 4.24 by 0.26 inches (HWD), it's thinner and lighter, Samsung would have you know, than the iPad mini 3. (10.3 ounces vs. 11.6 ounces.)
The back is slightly textured, soft-touch plastic, with the same stipple effect you see on the S5; there are also two circles that Samsung's line of cases snap on to. Stereo speakers on the top and bottom edges suggest that you watch video on landscape mode; ditto for the IR emitter, which is on the right side. I'm amazed that Samsung got a microSD card slot into something this thin, but there it is.
The screen, though, is the real reason you're here. It's a 2,560-by-1,600 panel like the one on the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9, but it's a different technology: AMOLED. This turns out to be a big deal.
All you have to do is load a video. The Fire HDX 8.9 has a great LCD screen, laminated for lower reflectivity and better blacks. But colors punch well above their weight on the Tab S 8.4, and outdoor visibility, especially, is kicked up a notch.
I remember Samsung's previous AMOLED tablet, the Galaxy Tab 7.7, and that one went a little too far—colors looked genuinely lurid there. Just like on the Galaxy S5, Samsung has used smart software to dial back the color saturation and keep things looking realistic.
The AMOLED screen also sips, rather than gulps, power. This combined with the 4,900mAh battery yields terrific battery life. I was quite surprised to pull 11 hours, 52 minutes of video playback with Wi-Fi enabled and the screen set to maximum brightness. Far better than the results I've seen from Amazon, Apple, or Google tablets recently.
Performance and Networking
The Galaxy Tab S uses a custom Samsung processor, an "octo-core" Exynos with four 1.9GHz Cortex-A15 cores and four 1.3GHz cores that it switches to when it wants to save energy. On benchmarks, it's a notch behind the latest chips, like the Nvidia Tegra K1 in the Nvidia Shield Tablet and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 in the Amazon Fire HDX. Compared with the Apple iPad mini line, it holds its own on productivity, but falls well behind on GPU performance.
That's my main concern with the Galaxy Tab S: Low graphics frame rates made screen transitions a little gummy and meant this isn't the ideal tablet for high-end gaming. Where the Galaxy Tab S gets 14fps onscreen with the GFXBench T-Rex benchmark and 2.9 fps with the Manhattan benchmark, the iPad mini 2, Shield Tablet, and Nexus 9 all double or triple those results.
Android 4.4 KitKat is on board, with some useful extensions. I love Samsung's dual-paned multitasking mode, which really amps up productivity. Samsung's software sits a little more lightly on the S tablets than it did before. Yes, you can swipe left to get to Samsung's confusing Magazine UX, but you don't have to. Unfortunately, Samsung hasn't announced a Lollipop upgrade for this tablet yet, so don't count on it. But Lollipop's most tablet-friendly feature, multiple user profiles, is already present and supported.
You'll also get some so-called gifts, but they're optional rather than mandatory downloads. The best teasers include three months of Marvel Unlimited comics and three months of Evernote Premium.
Mandatory preloads include Samsung's redundant music player, which has no advantages over Google Play Music; Samsung's video player, which is much easier to navigate than Google's video gallery; Paper Garden, an e-magazine app to add to every other e-magazine app in the world; and Samsung's very own app store.
There's one software glitch that concerned me: The tablets perform poorly with Google's Chrome browser. I found complex pages stalling in Chrome, and I got only an 800 or so in the Browsermark benchmark—a lower score than you'd get on a Galaxy S4 phone. Benchmark scores doubled using Samsung's Internet browser instead, so use that.
The Galaxy Tab S models we tested were Wi-Fi-only, with 802.11 a/b/n/ac wireless, GPS, NFC, and Bluetooth 4.0. Wi-Fi performance was competitive with the iPad mini on distance, but not on speed. Tested against a Meraki router about 20 feet away, we saw double the speed on the iPad as compared with either Tab S, 60-70Mbps down as compared with 20-30Mbps. At 50 feet, the iPad registered 20Mbps as compared with the Galaxy Tab S with around 10Mbps. Only at 75-100 feet, where speeds were low for everyone, did they even out.
The only LTE model available is with AT&T, and it costs $529. The AT&T model supports all of that carrier's LTE bands, including the new band 29 for enhanced downloads. In theory, it'll work decently on T-Mobile's network and with very limited success on Verizon's, but it's locked to AT&T.
Camera and Multimedia
The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 comes with 16GB of storage, of which 11.5GB is user-accessible; you'll fill that up pretty quickly with media, so it's good that the tablet supports microSD memory cards.
The 8-megapixel main camera and 1-megapixel front camera are surprisingly good, for tablet cameras. Outdoor shots were quite sharp, and the LED flash lit up a dark room. The UI and special modes match the Galaxy S5. Both cameras had no trouble achieving 1080p video at 30fps indoors or outdoors, although indoor 1080p videos were a bit noisy. I'm no fan of tablet photography, but these tablets will get the job done.
Video playback, on the other hand, is the Galaxy Tab S's specialty. The tablets have no problem playing H.264, Xvid, or DivX content, and there are plenty of other video playback apps for watching various kinds of files. The Tab 8.4 is also the perfect size for e-reading and digital comics, and it comes with a three-month Marvel Unlimited subscription. Comics, whether through Marvel Unlimited or ComiXology, look gorgeous here.
The dual stereo speakers are loud enough to fill a room, although there's basically no bass. Headphones and Bluetooth speakers also work well here.
Comparisons and Conclusions
Android tablets have certainly grown up. For the past few years, we've recommended tablets like the Nexus 7 because they're less expensive than iOS and Windows alternatives. But the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 isn't less expensive; at $399, it costs more than the iPad mini 2 and the Asus VivoTab Note 8. And those tablets have strengths that the Tab S doesn't, most notably better collections of games and productivity apps.
But I see small tablets primarily as lean-back entertainment devices, so screen, weight, and storage rule supreme. (If you're looking for a productivity tablet, you'll want a larger model like the iPad Air 2 or Microsoft Surface Pro 3.) And the Tab S 8.4 outmatches all comers in those key small-tablet strengths.
If you have a large library of music and video files, Android is the superior platform. The Tab S's microSD card slot lets you easily transfer files and expand the tablet's capacity, the open Android platform lets you transfer and play a wide variety of media without having to deal with iTunes, and nothing beats this screen.
There are other good Android tablet choices, as well. It's a crowded field. The Nvidia Shield Tablet gives you great gameplay for $100 less, at the cost of significantly cheaper-feeling hardware. The Fire HDX 8.9 streams Amazon content in a way the Samsung tablet doesn't, but its lack of Google Play really hobbles it with productivity apps.
So for this holiday season, I'm happy to recommend the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 as our small-tablet Editors' Choice. If you intend to read, surf, or watch on your pocket-sized tablet, it simply shines.