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Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S Tablet: Great Hardware Marred by Too Much Software

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

Let’s just face it: Tablets may now be fully baked.

They’ve pretty much reached their maturity. There’s not much more anyone can add to them.

It happens. Sometimes, products fulfill their destinies and stop growing. We don’t complain about the lack of breakthrough new features in lawnmowers, toasters, or even PCs, do we?

Samsung is only making the sense of stagnation worse by flooding the market with very similar tablet models — nine different Android tablets this year. Trying to describe and review them, let alone trying to choose one to buy, gets exhausting.

But here’s a shot: a review of the latest hot tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S.

The hardware
Samsung has done an excellent job on the hardware of this device. It’s available in two sizes, $500 for the 10.5-inch model, $400 for the 8.4-incher. (Those are the 16-gigabyte, WiFi-only models. $50 more buys you 32 gigabytes; no cellular version is available yet.)

Samsung Galaxy Tab S in two sizes

Here’s what’s good about these devices:

• Weight. Weight makes a huge difference in an object you have to hold all the time you’re using it. The Samsung tablet is much lighter than the iPad: two-thirds of a pound instead of a whole pound. It’s slightly thinner, too.

(Unfortunately, one way Samsung made this tablet so light is by building it from plastic instead of metal. The back is cheesy dimpled plastic, pocked by logos and fasteners, which are designed to attach to special cases.) 

Back of Samsung Galaxy Tab S

• Expansion. You can expand the storage of this tablet by buying a microSD card and popping it into the slot. (iPads, by contrast, are not expandable.) Note that the Android operating system doesn’t permit you to store apps on a memory card — only files, like music and movies.

• Battery life. The usual: You’ll get a couple of days of typical use out of it.

• Screen. Nobody exactly complains about the screens of existing tablets, but this one looks wonderful. The sharpness, brightness, and color saturation are excellent. (It uses something called AMOLED technology.)

Galaxy Tab S screen

On this tablet, the margins around the screen are very narrow on the short sides. Small margins are nice, of course, because they make the tablet itself smaller, but they’re also tricky to hold when you’re trying to watch a movie or read a book.

• Camera. No matter what, you’re going to look goofy using a tablet to take pictures. But in any case, the camera on this tablet is very good; it even has a flash on the back, which is rare on tablets.

Clearly, the makers of the Android tablets are doing a wonderful job of hardware innovation. (See also: Sony’s even thinner, lighter, waterproof tablet, the Xperia Z2.)

Xperia Z2 partly immersed in water

But there’s more to the usefulness of a tablet than its physical self. The hardware design is only one of the three key things that matter when you buy a tablet. The other two are the software and the ecosystem.

The software situation
The painful truth for Android tablet makers is that the iPad, even after all these years, is still the best tablet for apps. There are more apps for the iPad than for Android tablets, and they’re usually better. Companies also tend to release apps first for the iPad. For example, Adobe’s latest free tablet apps, Voice, Line, and Sketch, are all iPad-only.

Samsung is doing what it can to address the app situation by writing its own software and overlaying its own design on the standard Android operating system. Here are some of the elements on the new Tab S:

• Papergarden is a central app for buying and reading magazines. You have a catalog of 24 to choose from — riveting reading like Country Living, Redbook, HGTV Magazine, and Dr. Oz The Good Life.

• Quick Briefing is a side panel that displays your day at a glance: today’s events, stock quotes, alarms, and the bookmarks for your three favorite websites.

WatchON is Samsung’s remote-control app for TVs and other entertainment equipment.

Three Samsung apps

• Split screen. As on other Samsung tablets, this one lets you split the screen between two apps, which can be very handy. You can read your email while watching a video, for example. However, only 13 apps work on a split screen. Fortunately, they’re the ones you’d use most often in that configuration — Email, Video, Chrome browser, Gmail, Music, Maps, and so on.

Screen split between Gmail and Maps

The ecosystem
These days, the question is not “What tablet should I buy?” It’s “Which ecosystem should I buy into?”

Each company — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Samsung — is working hard to make its products part of a seamless whole. Your calendar, address book, and photos are all synchronized across your gadgets from a single company, for example. Each company maintains an online store for songs, TV shows, and movies that works best on its own gadgets. Each company is trying to make its phones, tablets, computers, and watches work together.

The first Samsung smartwatches, for example, worked only with Samsung phone and tablet models (the new Android Wear watches, one of which is made by Samsung, work with any Android phone). Apple’s upcoming smartwatch, no doubt, will work only with iPhones and iPads.

On the Tab S tablet, Samsung offers something called SideSync. If you own a Samsung Galaxy S5 phone, this feature lets you view your phone’s screen on the tablet’s screen. A temporary, private WiFi connection hooks up the two.

Galaxy phone and tablet

The idea is that your phone can be across the room, perhaps in its charger, while you’re on the tablet — and you can run the phone’s apps, drag photos between phone and tablet, and even answer a call on the tablet. It should take fewer steps to get going, and this trick requires this exact Samsung tablet model and that exact Samsung phone. But for the true-blue Samsung family, it could be handy.

So there’s the Google/Android ecosystem, which the Samsung Android products fit into, and then there’s Samsung’s own ecosystem, which has some unique features but really limits you to using Samsung’s products.

The classiness czar
The problem with this tablet, as with so many Samsung efforts, is that nobody at the company is in charge of class, beauty, or elegance.

You can’t move two inches on this tablet without being interrupted by some unnecessary warning or dialog box or license agreement.

Montage of pop-up boxes

All the interruptions diminish the joys of using your new machine.

Also in the Too Much department: There’s so much software piled on software here that the whole affair is becoming hard to figure out, hard to navigate.

Does a tablet need two power-saving modes? Does it need both an Accounts system and a Kids’ mode?

Do we need ads for apps on the Home screen?

Does a tablet need to ship to customers with two Web browsers?

Dialog box asking user to choose a browser

Does it need two different Settings apps? Two competing music apps? Separate apps for Gmail and other email accounts?

The whole thing screams of design by committee — or, worse, design by rival marketing teams — and it’s nuts.

And then there are the features that sound whizzy but simply don’t work. Like the fingerprint scanner on the Tab S (and on the Galaxy S5 phone). It’s not like the one on the iPhone, where you just touch your finger to it; instead, you have to swipe your finger across it, at the right angle and speed, if you want it to unlock your tablet. It’s balky. You deserve better for your $500.

You know what Samsung should really do? Hire a “classiness czar.” There needs to be somebody available to pull the Stop handle, somebody at the end of the line who can say: “Guys, guys — we already have a music app. Why are we building another one?”

Or, “Hey, people — why don’t we consolidate all the license agreements and permissions boxes into one? Or figure out a way to eliminate them entirely, as Apple has done?”

Until that happens, Samsung will continue to produce tablets, like this one, with extremely impressive hardware — and a hot mess of software that holds these machines back from becoming truly great.

You can email David Pogue here.