A clean slate
A TABLET AND STYLUS COMBO THAT AIMS TO SATISFY ALL YOUR NEEDS, FROM ENTERTAINMENT TO SKETCHING AND WRITING NOTES
The newest addition to Samsung’s high-end tablet line-up sports a specification that’s very close to Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. At first you might be taken aback by the Tab S3’s price tag, which looks like a worse deal than the Californian company’s nearest equivalent, but actually Samsung’s deal is a little better value: it bundles a redesigned version of its S Pen with the tablet, making this a more tempting proposition as a device on which to take handwritten notes and sketch out ideas using a pressureand tilt-sensitive stylus. LET’S GET PHYSICAL Give or take a few millimetres, the S3’s dimensions are very close to those of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. It weighs a little less than Apple’s tablet, but it’s lighter by no more than a maximum of 10 grams, depending on whether you go for the Wi-Fi or 4G model.
Samsung clearly puts some thought into the portability of accessories, not just its main devices, and one thing for which it deserves praise is the USB travel charger which is a really pleasing design. Back to the S3 itself, though: a bonus of its design is that its body is made of glass. Picking it up while cold is a less chilling experience than touching the metal back of an iPad, for example.
More unappealing, though, is the tablet’s 6mm thinness, which can become uncomfortable if you grasp it around the tablet’s left or right edge for a long period of time. As with many other tablets, if you’ll often hold the S3 in that way, we suggest buying a case to bulk it up just a little. Yes, it’s weird that we prefer our high-end tech to be a touch larger rather than as minute as possible, but that’s the situation we have at the moment.
Samsung’s placement of the wake/sleep and volume buttons, which share the same edge, isn’t ideal if you’re switching from an iPad or another tablet on which they are split between two sides; we found it rather too easy to press the former button by accident when wanting to adjust the volume, though as with anything, you learn the layout over time.
which has the same quad-speaker arrangement, as a stand-in for a room-filling sound system, we would be dissatisfied with using the S3 in that way. Its bass output feels limp to non-existent, even on tracks that should be saturated with it, and it’s a telling sign that we wanted to stick on a pair of good headphones even in the privacy of our home.
When it comes to visuals, though, the S3 is far from disappointing. The resolution of its Super AMOLED display is 2048 x 1536 pixels – an exact match for all 9.7-inch iPads dating back to 2012. That sounds old hat, yet it’s great in practice, and the screen tech delivers a punchy and sharp picture. The S3’s support for HDR content offers something a little special where video is concerned, given that it can make scenes look more natural thanks to increased detail in highlights and shadows. For now, though, this feature is limited to content sourced through Amazon’s Prime Video app. Though HDR video is still uncommon from video providers on the whole, Netflix is rolling it out to mobile devices, and at time of testing it wasn’t available. However, it should be here soon if not now.
In terms of its less visible tech specs, the S3 doesn’t disappoint. It shouldn’t, either, given that it sports a full 4GB of memory and a strong quad-core processor. It’s super-smooth in use; we felt no signs of sluggishness as we moved around the system and jumped between apps.
The S3’s rather light 32GB of built-in storage matches the amount you get in an entry-level iPad Pro, though Samsung has gone one better – it’s opted for the flexibility of a microSD slot that supports card capacities up to 256GB, so there’s plenty of room for expansion later on, if your needs grow.
THOU SHALT CREATE
With the S3 being an iPad Pro rival, it’s not all about passive enjoyment. Samsung provides an S Pen with it, which you can use for everything from drawing simple sketches to taking notes to creating multilayered artful masterpieces. It’s mercifully shorter than Apple’s sometimes unwieldy-feeling Pencil, and 9mm thick at its widest point. It also shuns its rival’s mimicking of a traditional writing tool by having a slightly flattened shape,
with a thumb button that calls up customisable shortcuts on one of the flatter edges.
One of the S Pen’s benefits over the iPad Pro’s Pencil (which costs an extra $145 on top of that tablet’s price) is that you don’t have to charge it up at all. Though admittedly a small bonus, given Apple’s tool can quickly regain a useful amount of charge, it means the S Pen will not stop working at an awkward moment, and you can forget all about checking a battery level indicator and instead focus on the task at hand.
Another very welcome feature is the S Pen’s built-in clip for attaching it to a pocket. This security is all but a necessity, given there’s no recess in the S3’s body in which to store the stylus. It pays off especially when considering the S Pen’s length, which is short enough that many pockets will easily accommodate it. In contrast, there’s no clip to be seen on Apple’s Pencil, and we found it pokes out of most pockets.
There are some drawbacks though, largely related to using the S Pen as a drawing tool. The tip of its nib measures an appealing 0.7mm across, and Samsung says the pen supports 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity – which is as difficult to discern as it sounds. Latency between your movements being translated into on-screen details varies between apps, but in the best case scenario it’s very short, with our handwriting just minimally trailing our actions.
Some apps handily detect the pen’s angle of tilt, enabling you to manipulate virtual brushes for different effects in your creations. However, the nib’s length and the thickness of the pen’s neck mean that you can tilt only a short way before the latter brushes against the screen, breaking the contact between the nib and the screen.
Ultimately, that’s an issue with the S Pen’s design resembling exactly what its name suggests; as a ballpoint pen held in a more upright orientation, it’s comfortable and precise enough for taking notes and making simple sketches, but if you’re of a more artistic bent, an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and a suitable graphics app will make for a more satisfying experience.
Samsung says this version of the S Pen feels and writes “just like your favourite ballpoint”. Indeed, we found it enjoyable as a method of taking notes, but again when drawing, we found the sense of friction between the nib and the glass surface felt stickier than with Apple’s Pencil, which glides across its tablet. That became plainly obvious when using different drawing tools, as the friction began to get in the way, breaking what little suspension of disbelief can be mustered when using a digital pen.
None of these things are ruinous to the S3’s S Pen experience; it’s very comfortable for making notes, whether that’s in a formal meeting, writing a casual shopping list, or exploring digital drawing tools as an absolute beginner. It’s less satisfying than the Apple alternative as a drawing or illustration tool, though, and if that will be the main thing you do with your tablet, and if you’re willing to entertain the notion of using iOS, we recommend spending the higher amount on an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.
Despite their lack of bass, the S3’s four speakers are a significant benefit in games and video where stereo placement matters
The new S Pen is comfortable and pocketable
Only 23GB of built-in storage is usable
Storage is easy to expand after you buy
A powerful, polished tablet with a number of great upsides