The Samsung Galaxy S5 was a significant step past the S4, but the step was subtle: It was in the screen and the software. The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 ($499, 16GB) pours the S5 equation into the best Android media tablet we've seen so far. It's slim, well-designed, and beautiful. Its faults aren't its own: While it's the nicest high-end Android tablet we've ever seen, it's surrounded by competitors that are slightly better choices for most tasks.
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The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 and 10.5 are extremely similar tablets, just differently sized with a $100 difference in price, so much of this review will be the same as our review of the 8.4. We did test both tablets separately; they just usually had the same results. I come to slightly different conclusions about them, though.
Physical Design and Screen
The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 uses the Galaxy S5's design cues, 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 10.5 comes in Titanium Bronze, which is a dark gold color, and Dazzling White, which is white. It's stunningly thin and effortlessly light—at 9.74 by 6.98 by 0.26 inches (HWD), it's thinner and lighter, Samsung would have you know, than the iPad Air (1.03 pounds vs. 1.05 pounds).
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 in 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 it did.
The screen, though, is the real reason you're here. It's a 2,560-by-1,600 panel like on the Galaxy Tab Pro, but it's a different technology: AMOLED. This turns out to be a big deal.
All you have to do is load a video. On an LCD screen like the Tab Pro, things are sharp enough but look a little washed-out and bloodless. Out in sunlight, they look genuinely pale. Colors punch with a lot more weight on the AMOLED screen.
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 power, which combined with the 7,900mAh battery gave it terrific battery life. The 10 hours, 57 minutes of video playback on max brightness easily beat the iPad Air, which needs to be cut to half brightness to reach 10 hours.
Performance and Networking
The Galaxy Tab S uses the same processor as most Galaxy Tab Pro models, an "octo-core" Exynos with four 1.9GHz cores and four 1.3GHz cores that it switches to when it wants to save energy.
CPU benchmark performance was on par with the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 devices like the Asus PadFone X, HTC One M8, and for that matter the last round of Samsung tablets. But something felt a little gummy about the screen transitions. The GFXBench graphics benchmark scores tell the tale: The super-high-res screen really takes a toll. Where the Galaxy Tab S models get 14 fps onscreen with the GFXBench T-Rex benchmark and 2.9 fps with the Manhattan benchmark, the iPad Air scores 21.2 fps and 8.8 fps respectively.
Android 4.4 KitKat is on board. 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.
One preloaded app is really worth calling out: SideSync. If you have a Galaxy S5 phone, you can mirror its screen in a window on your tablet and transfer files by dragging and dropping.
You can use your tablet as a speakerphone, but I'm even more intrigued by the idea of playing games stored on your phone, on the tablet. Android games don't usually have cloud-based saves, and I get pretty far on my phone, but might want to continue at home. This is a kludge, but it's a useful one.
You'll also get some so-called gifts, but they're optional rather than mandatory downloads. The best teasers include 3 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 which 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 the Galaxy S4 phone. Benchmark scores doubled using Samsung's Internet browser instead.
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 Air 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.
Samsung has said there will be LTE models with all four of the major U.S. carriers later this summer.
Camera and Multimedia
The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 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 30 fps 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 10.5 is also the perfect size for digital comics and magazines, and it comes with a three-month Marvel Unlimited subscription. Comics, whether through Marvel Unlimited or Comixology, look gorgeous here. It's a pity that the Android Marvel Unlimited app is so horribly unstable, full of crashes and stalls. This isn't Samsung's fault, but it makes the experience less appealing than on an iPad.
The 10.5's dual stereo speakers are loud enough to fill a room, although they have basically no bass. Headphones and Bluetooth speakers also work well here.
Comparisons and Conclusions
Let's establish first that the Galaxy Tab S models are for people who prioritize media consumption. For productivity, nothing beats a Windows 8.1 tablet, although the iPad can come close; Android is just short on world-class tablet-centric productivity apps. The best tablet games also still come out on iOS first.
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, and the open Android platform lets you transfer and play a wide variety of media without having to deal with iTunes. But if you're looking for streaming services, they usually come first to the iPad.
The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 slaps down the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet with its far-superior screen; if you're into media, those punchy colors are also worth the $20 extra over Samsung's own Tab Pro.
The Tab S's three most critical competitors are the Editors' Choice Apple iPad Air, which still rules in terms of having the widest range of high-end games and streaming media services; the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, a low-cost choice that streams Amazon video, which the Tab S can't do, and the hyper-productive Windows-powered Asus Transformer Book T100TA. Less-expensive large Android tablets tend to be less appealing than their smaller cousins, so there isn't much 'good-enough' competition from cheaper large Android tablets.
The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 is the best Android tablet around right now. But our Editors' Choice still stays with the iPad Air because of software, not hardware. The air has a better library of streaming services, better productivity software, and even one of Samsung's flagship apps, Marvel Unlimited, runs more stably on the Air than on the Galaxy Tab S. If you're dead-set on an Android tablet, the Tab S will delight, but the Air is still a safer bet for the platform-independent.