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Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: The best Android tablet will cost you a lot

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S3 is a direct shot at Apple’s iPad Pro.

Apple’s (AAPL) original iPad was the standard-bearer for tablets. But a lot has changed since the company debuted its first slate 7 years ago. Straight-up tablets are falling out of style, as consumers increasingly turn toward productivity laptop-tablet hybrid devices like, well… the $599 iPad Pro.

Which brings us to Samsung’s new Android-powered Galaxy Tab S3. Available March 24 for $599, the Tab S3 is designed to let you use basic productivity tools like Microsoft’s (MSFT) Office suite, edit photos using Photoshop Express, draw directly on the device’s display using the included S Pen stylus and, of course, watch movies and browse the web.

But the S3 has stiff competition in the Pro. And while the S3 bests the iPad Pro with its stunning display, comfortable keyboard and included stylus, it falls short in others like battery life and audio. And its hefty price tag doesn’t help.

An entertainment powerhouse

The Tab S3’s design is attractive but derivative, hewing closely to the look of the company’s Galaxy S7 smartphone from its aluminum edges to its glass-coated rear panel. The slate is roughly the same size as Apple’s iPad Pro, save for a tenth of an inch or so here or there.

The most important part of any tablet, though, is its display, and that’s where the S3 shines. The Tab’s 9.7-inch, Super AMOLED screen, as all similar Samsung panels, produces vibrant colors and when you add in its HDR (high dynamic range) compatibility, which increases a display’s contrast ratio so you can see a wider range of hues, images practically jump off the screen.

The Galaxy Tab S3 has an absolutely stunning display.

Everything from app icons and text to movies and photos look absolutely stunning. Next to the iPad Pro, the Tab S3 offers brighter, more vivid colors and more detailed images. The difference between the tablets’ panels is so striking that similar photos look completely different on the S3 and iPad.

Samsung has also made a lot of noise about the Galaxy Tab S3’s surround sound speakers. Tuned by AKG by Harman, the speakers produce loud, clear, crisp audio. Whether you’re watching a movie or listening to your favorite guilty pleasure (late ’00s pop-punk), the S3 offers excellent audio quality.

The iPad Pro, though, is just a bit better. Bass drums hit harder, high notes sound higher and vocals come through cleaner. If your main concern is listening to music with your tablet, the iPad Pro is the easy choice. For most people, though, the Tab S3’s display quality will trump the iPad’s audio.

Productivity at a price

To ensure the Tab S3 isn’t just another entertainment tablet, Samsung added a magnetic keyboard cover to the mix. That keyboard, however, isn’t included with the price of the tablet, so you’ll have to shell out an extra $129 if you want to get the full experience. That’s a pricey proposition for something that adds basic typing functionality. Of course, Apple charges $149 for its Smart Keyboard cover, which is also a lot to ask of customers.

The Tab S3’s keyboard is pricey, but offers plenty of key travel.

That said, Samsung’s keyboard is surprisingly well built. Keys are nicely spaced and offer plenty of travel. Touch typists used to hammering out emails on their laptops will probably find the keyboard a bit cramped, though. I often found myself having to readjust my hands, but the experience is worlds better than using the mushy keys on Apple’s Smart Keyboard.

Thankfully, Samsung was smart enough to include its wonderful S Pen stylus as part of the S3’s package. The company says it narrowed the top of the stylus to 0.7 mm in order to make the writing experience feel more like a ballpoint pen. And you know what? It does. There’s none of that weird gliding sensation you find with other styluses and pressure sensitivity means the S Pen can detect when you’re pressing particularly hard and automatically darken and thicken your pen strokes.

The Tab S3 comes with Samsung’s S Pen stylus.

Apple’s stylus, the Apple Pencil, costs an extra $99. And while it’s a great writing and drawing tool, it doesn’t offer the kind of helpful functionality of the S Pen, which lets you quickly open a blank note, see all of your notes, capture a part of the display and translate text on-the-fly via its Air Command app.

Power and more power

Samsung’s Tab S3 is powered by quad-core Qualcomm processor that provides more than enough oomph to handle all of your daily tasks. I noticed a bit of slowdown when I was typing in the Microsoft Office app, but beyond that I didn’t see any issues while using the S3. Apple’s iPad Pro, meanwhile, is smooth as silk all the way through.

Samsung’s Tab S3 is a great tablet, but it’s a bit too expensive.

When it comes to battery life the Tab S3 should last you plenty of time. I’ve been using the S3 for about a week and I saw the battery life trickle away faster when I pumped the display brightness all the way and was streaming Netflix. Doing the same on the iPad Pro didn’t impact the battery life nearly as much. Overall, the Pro’s battery is certainly stronger than the Tab S3’s, but Samsung’s slate is no slouch.

The tablet to get?

The S3 really is a fantastic tablet, but is it the one to get? If you’re not already an Apple user and aren’t beholden to its myriad services like iTunes and iMessage, then the Tab S3 is is an easy choice. My one problem with the S3? Its price. At $599 for the slate itself and an extra $129 for the keyboard, Samsung’s tablet is ridiculously expensive. For that price you could get a comparable Chromebook or, for about $100 more, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, which offers the functionality of a full Windows 10 PC.

If you’ve got a wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket and really want a new Android tablet, you can’t do much better than the Tab S3. But if you want a slate that’s equal parts entertainment and productivity, you might want to consider the Surface.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.