The first Android tablet I ever used was the original Galaxy Tab. It was a 7" Android tablet running Android Froyo, and it seemed a lot like a large version of my Galaxy S. In hindsight, it wasn't a very good tablet, but Samsung was one of the first Android vendors to enter the market and they were working with a version of Android that had never been designed with tablets in mind. As Android moved to Gingerbread and then to the tablet exclusive release of Android Honeycomb, Samsung was always among the group of manufacturers producing Android tablets. While some vendors like LG and HTC have left and returned to the tablet market, Samsung has continually producing new Galaxy Tab tablets, and those tablets constitute a very large portion of the Android tablets that are sold each year. 

While the naming styles of Samsung's tablets have changed over the years, last year the company settled on using the same S moniker that their smartphones have used for years, and that brought us the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 and Galaxy Tab S 8.4. This year Samsung has continued with their Galaxy Tab S naming scheme and has released two new tablets under the Galaxy Tab S2 name. These new tablets bring serious changes to both the hardware and form factors of the original Galaxy Tab S tablets, and I'll be evaluating the larger of the two models. You can view the specs for both tablets and how they compare to their predecessors in the chart below.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S Series
Model Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5" Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4" Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7" Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0"
SoC Samsung Exynos 5420
4x Cortex A15 @ 1.9GHz
4x Cortex A7 @ 1.3GHz
Mali T628MP6 @ 533MHz
Samsung Exynos 5433
4x Cortex A57 @ 1.9GHz
4x Cortex A53 @ 1.3GHz
Mali T760MP6 @ 700MHz
RAM 3GB LPDDR3
NAND 16/32GB NAND + microSDXC 32/64GB NAND + microSDXC
Display 10.5" 2560x1600 SAMOLED 8.4" 2560x1600 SAMOLED 9.7" 2048x1536 SAMOLED 8.0" 2048x1536 SAMOLED
Dimensions 247.3 x 177.3 x 6.6mm 212.8 x 125.6 x 6.6mm 169 x 237.3 x 5.6mm, 389g 134.8 x 198.6 x 5.6mm, 265g
Camera 8MP Rear Facing. 2.1MP Front Facing
Battery 7900mAh
(30Wh)
4900mAh
(18.6Wh)
5870mAh (22.3Wh) 4000mAh
(15.2Wh)
OS Android 4.4.2 KitKat Android 5.0 Lollipop
Connectivity 2x2 802.11a/b/g/n/ac + BT 4, GNSS, microUSB 2.0
Launch Price $499 $399 $499 $399

As far as specs go, we're looking at some serious upgrades, and some changes that may be seen as sidegrades or even downgrades. First and foremost, the SoC receives an enormous bump from Exynos 5420 to Exynos 5433. Unfortunately, like the Galaxy Note 4 Exynos, the Galaxy Tab S2 still has a 32bit kernel and runs in AArch32 mode. Fortunately this doesn't really have any significant performance implications, but I thought it was worth noting for anyone that may be interested.

Moving beyond the SoC, you may notice that the resolutions and sizes of the displays change substantially. Samsung, like many other vendors, is finally moving away from the 16:10 aspect ratio and adopting a 4:3 display ratio which is very close to the 8.5x11" paper used in North America, although not as close to the A series paper used in most other countries. Samsung has settled on 8.0" and 9.7", the latter of which surprises me as it's the exact same size as the standard iPad despite Samsung being able to make displays of whatever size they wish.

What's interesting is that in moving to a new aspect ratio and smaller sizes, both displays lose almost a million pixels of resolution. The drop in PPI on the larger model is fairly significant too, from 288ppi on the Tab S 10.5" to 264ppi on the Tab S2 9.7" In practice I really don't think this matters that much on the 9.7" Tab S2, as I never felt like any elements of the UI or text looked heavily aliased or fuzzy. That being said, with Samsung making their own OLED displays it would have been perfectly possible to maintain their existing pixel density and just make panels of different sizes.

With the new display sizes come new form factors, and both tablets are substantially thinner and lighter than their predecessors. This also results in a drop in battery capacity as there's only so much room to fit batteries inside the chassis, and how this impacts battery life will be investigated later in the review.

Design

When Samsung announced the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge I uttered a well-deserved "finally" with regards to the design of the phones. The aluminum and glass construction was a long overdue and greatly appreciated improvement to Samsung's existing industrial design, and I still think the Galaxy S6 is a pretty great looking and feeling device. However, upon seeing that the design really only used a metal frame and a sheet of glass overtop of a plastic back, I immediately knew that there was no way the design would scale up to tablets. There's simply too much fragility in that type of design, especially as you scale it larger. Since I suspected that Samsung still wasn't at the point where they would be producing aluminum unibody tablets, I wasn't surprised by the design of the Tab S2 tablets when they were announced.

Both versions of the Tab S2 have the same thickness, just 5.6mm. The larger model of the two that I am reviewing has a mass of 389 grams. The thickness and mass are enabled by the Tab S2's construction, which consists of a metal frame around the edges of the device but a plastic back cover. This is obviously a trade off, and I'll start with what's good before discussing what negatives come from it. The most obvious advantage is the low mass. When you pick up the Tab S2 you will be amazed that you're holding a full size tablet. You can't really notice a difference between its 5.6mm thickness and the 6.1mm thickness of the iPad Air 2, but the difference made by the lower mass is enormous. This is the first full size tablet I've used where I can honestly say I don't feel fatigued after holding it for a long period, and that's something you can't really accomplish with an aluminum unibody chassis. In that regard, the Tab S2 definitely has an advantage over every other full size tablet that I've used, and it encourages you to use it more and take it with you in situations where you may decide to leave a heavier tablet at home.

Of course, the obvious negative impact is the feel of the device. The metal frame honestly does nothing to improve the feeling of the Tab S2, especially on this white model which has a coating applied to the frame. The coating also doesn't seem very durable, and there were already chips in it by the time the tablet got to me. Overall it just doesn't feel as nice or well-built when you hold it as an aluminum unibody tablet does. What also disappointed me is that even though it's 5.6mm thick, there's still a small degree of flex to the back cover, particularly near the bottom. The materials used in a tablet can also have an impact on thermal performance which could limit performance in sustained workloads.

Making a device ends up really being a balance of trade offs. I love how light the Tab S2 is, but I'm not a huge fan of the materials used. Every consumer will have their own priorities, and I'm sure many people will find that the low mass and small thickness is worth the compromise in materials. It's also worth noting that this year's design is still miles ahead of the terrible dimples and faux leather plastic of the original Tab S, even if it's not at the level of the Venue 8 7840 or the iPad.

While I'm still on the topic of the materials and the back cover, you'll notice above that the back cover has two metal circles on the back. These are used for attaching Samsung's keyboard cover. I actually wasn't able to get the keyboard cover and I haven't seen it on sale anywhere at this point, but the existence of a first party keyboard case is something worth noting. As for the rest of the back cover, it's pretty much just an unbroken piece of plastic apart from the slightly extruding camera stack and the Samsung logo in the middle.

As far as primarily plastic tablets go, the Tab S2 is a pretty good device. I love how light it is, but at the same time I don't feel like the plastic build befits a $500 flagship tablet. It also doesn't feel quite as sturdy as the Venue 10, but I think Samsung's goal was to make a thin and light device that wouldn't be cumbersome to hold and carry around. They definitely succeeded in doing so, and I think that while there's a group of users like myself that feel a $500 device deserves the absolute best construction and materials, there's another group that feels the $500 should go toward making a device as light and portable as possible. 

System Performance
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  • BoneAT - Friday, October 16, 2015 - link

    Just a little note on my observations, Brandon.

    I measured a peak brightness level of 505 nits @100% white screen with auto mode on, under sunlight (actually phone flash over the light sensor). When white image was under 10% of the screen size, I measured a monumental 812 nits. The Tab S2 9.7 can get very bright under circumstances.
    Reply
  • GreyFox7 - Friday, October 16, 2015 - link

    Lackluster performance from a middling SoC. Why they heck would they put a Exynos 5433 in a tablet and try to compete head to head with iPad Air? They have better SoCs, this is just silly cost reduction but it wont sell so the result will be a complete wasted effort. More wood on the fire of declining tablet sales. Samsung, get your head examined. Reply
  • R. Hunt - Friday, October 16, 2015 - link

    I very much doubt a more powerful SOC would make any difference in the big scheme of things, given the disparity in brand and ecosytems at this point. They're not going to sell as well as the iPad no matter what, so yeah, it's about cutting costs. There's a reason Samsung are pretty much, along with Sony, the only OEMs left still trying with high-end Android tablets. Reply
  • StrangerGuy - Friday, October 16, 2015 - link

    It's called throwing mediocre stuff on the wall and hope something sticks.

    Frankly, there is so many Samsung tablets sharing the same Galaxy Tab branding from the low to the high end, coupled with not so stellar track record of providing updates for their devices that I get a complete apathy just by seeing the brand.
    Reply
  • digitalgriffin - Friday, October 16, 2015 - link

    With the poor battery performance,
    Poor CPU performance
    Slow Graphics
    Lower Resolution and smaller screen
    Cheap Frame
    And Expensive price

    This has to be one of the WORST Tablets in it's price range.
    Reply
  • nerd1 - Saturday, October 17, 2015 - link

    I have used most tablets out there (apple one includes ipad 1, ipad air and ipad mini 3) and this one is the best for me. 8 inch one has good battery life BTW (14 hours video playback based on notebookcheck benchmark) Reply
  • Losttek - Saturday, October 17, 2015 - link

    After my Nexus 7 died, I searched a long time for a 7-8" tablet replacement and eventually ended up with this. I tried the iPad Mini 4 and Zenpad Z580 (the $199 version since I couldn't find the $299 one in stock anywhere) but the Tab S2 was the superior option.

    The iPad Mini 4 is excellent hardware wise. It no longer uses a horrific screen with washed out colors and is easily comparable to the Air 2. Better than the Tab S2 even, with sharper text despite similar PPI (pentile screen at work again). Performance is quite snappy and tabs no longer had a reloading problem with 2GB of RAM. However, what killed it for me was iOS. I hate the locked down filesystem. I hate the vastly inferior notifications. I hate the crappy default keyboard, and 3rd party ones were even worse. And the list goes on and on. iOS was just to unbearable for me and I ended up returning it.

    Zenpad. Oh ho, was this thing a piece of ****. Filled to the brim with ASUS bloatware that can’t be disabled, performance issues, intermittent WIFI, a bipolar screen that constantly adjusts brightness for no reason, and etc. Even at $199, it's not worth it. What's funny is the people calling this the Nexus 7 successor. Really, have you even tried using the device?

    And the Tab S2. So-so battery life, but amazingly thin and light. Performance is good enough for me (I don't game) and the design feels great in the hand. The screen is good, but not superb. And unlike other Android tablets, it actually has built in multi-window support. This was the best Android tablet I could find, and I've been satisfied with it so far. But I didn't pay full price for it because I took advantage of a Best Buy promotion. Would I pay $399 for this thing? Eh, doubtful.

    Android tablets are in a pitiful state right now, and the Tab S2 was the best I could find. If anyone knows of a better option, I'm all ears.
    Reply
  • nerd1 - Saturday, October 17, 2015 - link

    After trying the latest ipads and ipad minis I think tab s2 is better. Yes, the full price is silly but mine is from singapore. It is LTE version which I can use as a phone too. Reply
  • THEDKGUNNER - Saturday, October 17, 2015 - link

    If beeing a power user means playing games, I'm not a power user, but I do have a few comments. I own a Nexus 9 and a tab s2 8.0, and seems the nexus more ore less obliterates the tab s2 in almost all those fine benchmarks. Funny thing is, my tab s2 blows the nexus out of the water in terms of fluidity, speed and feel. There's just no comparing the two.Same goes for screen. Maybe because I have the 8.0, but there is just no comparing the two. I couldn't care less about the comparison to the iPad. I just plain don't like iOS so not an issue. For an android tab though, I've tried nothing that comes close to the s2. All depends on your needs I guess, but the total bashing of this tab based on benchmarks and subjective feelings is kinda ridiculous.

    By the way, I love the plastic back. I can actually hold it without loosing grip. I hate that I need to have a cover on my s6 as well, just to keep it in my hands.
    Reply
  • thedons1983 - Saturday, October 17, 2015 - link

    I sure hope the software is better than it was on the first Tab S, because I hated that thing!! It was incredibly buggy and laggy, and overall was a complete disappointment. The reviews were great, but the actual experience was terrible. I hope that this review is more accurate. Reply

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