The Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 (32GB), the world's most powerful Android slate, is a perfect example of the "pro tablet" dilemma. Much like Apple's 9.7-inch iPad Pro, this is a tablet that's priced like a laptop, but its mobile operating system holds it back when it comes to productivity. Its saving grace is the S Pen, making the Tab S3 brilliant for sketching and note-taking—but that may not be worth $599.99.
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We've been down this road before. Android- and iOS-powered tablets make terrific media consumption gadgets, and their respective styli let them dip into productivity. Apps that look and feel like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, and other high-end creator titles appear on the Apple and Google Play app stores. But they lack the full functionality you get from Windows. That's fine when you're paying less than you would for a similar Windows tablet, but once you get into the $600-$800 range, you don't want to have to make compromises.
The Galaxy Tab S3 is a big, silvery slab with a glass back. At 9.35 by 6.65 by 0.23 inches (HWD) and 15.1 ounces, it's slightly thinner and lighter than the 9.7-inch iPad Pro (9.40 by 6.60 by 0.24 inches, 15.4 ounces).
That glass back makes me nervous. It's pretty enough, but I don't see the point, other than making the tablet more breakable. After all, the Galaxy Tab S2 has a nice matte back, and the iPad line does just fine with metal. The glass here is Gorilla Glass 4, and it's not slippery, which is well and good, but it really feels like a potential point of failure.
The front and rear cameras are both positioned to be used in portrait mode. On the bottom, there's a USB-C charging and syncing port that supports Qualcomm Quickcharge 3.0 and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The 2,048-by-1,536, 9.7-inch screen appears identical to the one on the Galaxy Tab S2. It has the perfect blacks and brilliant colors that only AMOLED can produce, and makes iPads feel a little washed out. Samsung says it supports HDR, but right now the only examples of HDR you can find are a few streaming videos on Amazon; there just isn't enough content for this to be a meaningful feature yet.
The Tab S3 runs Android 7.0 Nougat on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with 4GB of RAM. That's far more powerful, processor-wise, than the chip in the Galaxy Tab S2 (a Samsung Exynos), and you can see the difference primarily in gaming frame rates: On the GFXBench Manhattan test, the new tablet gets 33 fps where the old one got 7. Better graphics and processor performance also contribute to the butter-smooth feeling of using the S Pen in drawing and note-taking applications. Faster processor performance isn't really perceivable in other uses, such as the browser or office apps.
This is, obviously, not stock Android—is it ever?—but Samsung has really dialed back the bloatware. The redundant web browser and music player are gone, in favor of Google's options. Samsung's proprietary dual-window multitasking still has a few useful features added in: Quick Connect lets you fling content to TVs and set-top boxes that support it, and you can download a free Kids Mode for parental controls.
Samsung Flow lets you share content and show notifications from a Samsung phone on the tablet or the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S PC. But as very few people have a TabPro S, it ends up being much less useful than Apple's Continuity, as it's unlikely to work on your desktop.
The Tab S3 we tested is a Wi-Fi-only model, although carriers will sell an LTE version in the future. Wi-Fi performance was absolutely spectacular in testing, especially on the 5GHz band, where I got faster uplink than on the Galaxy Tab S2. The tablet supports dual-band 802.11ac.
The tablet only comes in one memory size, 32GB, of which 18.5GB is free. You can add a microSD card to a slot on the side to provide up to 256GB more storage, but you can't use Google's Adoptable Storage to merge that with internal storage.
Battery life is excellent on the 6,000mAh cell: We got 9 hours, 9 minutes on our video streaming test, which outpaced the five and a half hours we saw with the iPad Pro. And that was at full screen brightness, which is very, very bright; you're more likely to use the tablet at half brightness, where it would surely outlast its promised 12 hours.
S Pen and Keyboard
You're here for the S Pen. While you can get a great media consumption tablet for $200 less than the Tab S3, Samsung's Wacom-powered plastic pen sets this slate apart from both competitors and its predecessor.
The included S Pen is a flattened oval with a 0.7mm tip and an action button on the side. Because it's flattened, it doesn't roll away. Serious pen users, though, should spring for the Staedtler S Pencil, which looks and feels just like a classic European pencil. Unfortunately, we don't have a date or price for that accessory yet.
I found this to be the most accurate iteration of the S Pen ever: In OneNote, Evernote, and Autodesk Sketchbook, it didn't drop any lines or dots tapped on the screen. It's definitely pressure-sensitive, with pressure showing up in a wide range of art apps, but it isn't tilt-sensitive. For taking notes, it's superior to the Apple Pencil because it's lighter and less fatiguing. It's also cheaper to replace, at $79 vs. $99, and has no battery, so it doesn't need to be charged.
Irritatingly, there's nowhere to stash the S Pen unless you get the $129 keyboard case (pictured here), which has a loop on the side that the pen tucks into. The loop does not fit the S Pencil, which slides out of it. For the record, Apple also doesn't offer a place to put your Apple Pencil, but Samsung didn't need to repeat that mistake.
The keyboard case connects via magnet and has clicky keys. It's a four-row keyboard with dedicated number and arrow keys, which is great, but the keys are just a bit too small (at just about a half-inch wide each, as compared with around five-eighths of an inch on a full laptop or desktop keyboard) for long typing sessions.
Audio and Video
Samsung, like Apple, went for quad speakers here. The speakers can tell which rotation you're in; the top ones play "near field" sound and the bottom ones "far field," to give you a sense of space. They're 6db louder than the Galaxy Tab S2's speakers, but I still found them to be noticeably tinny rather than rich. Also, if you're holding the tablet in landscape mode, you're probably blocking two of the speakers with your hands, a problem that most tablets (including Apple's) have.
The Tab S3 has a 13-megapixel main camera and a 5-megapixel front camera. The main camera records 1080p and 4K video in any lighting conditions. The front camera also does well with 1080p and 4K video, so video chatting is not a problem.
Still pictures are another story: We weren't impressed with either camera. Photos taken with the main camera often looked like they had a haze or veil over them, prompting us to wipe the lens, which didn't help. The front-facing camera showed heavy artifacting when we looked at photos pixel for pixel.
Comparisons and Conclusions
No other Android tablet has the Galaxy Tab S3's specs. But no other Android tablet (except for the occasional Sony slate) has the Galaxy Tab S3's price. At $599.99 (or $729.99 with the keyboard), the Tab S3 competes with not only the iPad Pro, but with Windows detachables like the Lenovo Miix 510 and the Acer Switch Alpha 12, and that's where it runs into trouble.
The Tab S3 makes a great media consumption, sketching, and note-taking device. For pure media consumption, though, you might as well go for the Asus Zenpad 3S 10 or the new iPad and save yourself $200 or more. For true productivity, meanwhile, Android still feels weak and crippled compared with the full Windows versions of apps like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, and even web browsers that include Flash and Java. The iPad Pro faces the same dilemma.
So, I'll repeat: You're here for the S Pen (or even better, the S Pencil). The Galaxy Tab S3 is ready to capture your ideas, bubbling over in script or image. For media consumption, go with a less expensive pick. For true productivity, get Windows.