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Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 Review & Rating

Productivity and Android tablets aren’t exactly synonymous, but don’t tell Samsung. The $649.99 Galaxy Tab S4 aspires to be the ultimate work-minded Android slate. And in many ways, it is, with powerful hardware, a useful S Pen stylus, and a bevy of productivity features. That said, apps like Adobe Photoshop are the same limited versions you get on any Android tablet, and you can forget about easy file management and image editing. DeX integration brings an approximation of the desktop experience, but requires a $150 keyboard accessory for the full experience. So while the Galaxy Tab S4 is the undoubtedly the finest Android tablet you can buy right now, it’s still far less productive than a Windows 2-in-1.

Design

The Galaxy Tab S4 is a refinement on the design of the Tab S3. It’s still a big slab of slick glass with metal sides, but the bezels are narrower and the fingerprint sensor has been removed. Instead of unlocking the slate with your thumbprint, you can enable Intelligent Face Scan, which uses a combination of your facial features and your irises to identify you. It’s quick to set up and worked reasonably well in testing as long I remembered to look at the sensor, and it even worked with my glasses.

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The Tab S4 is pretty svelte, at 9.8 by 6.5 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and 1.06 pounds. It’s similar in size to the Microsoft Surface Go (9.6 by 7.0 by 0.3 inches, 1.15 pounds) and Apple’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro (9.8 by 6.8 by 0.2 inches, 1.03 pounds). Samsung’s $150 Book Cover Keyboard adds to the thickness, but makes the tablet’s slippery body a lot easier to grip.

In portrait orientation, the right side has a power button, a volume rocker, and a microSD slot certified to work with cards up to 400GB. The bottom has a USB-C charging port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The left side has a set of magnetic POGO connectors that attach and sync the slate with the keyboard.

Display and Multimedia

Front and center is a gorgeous 2,560-by-1,600, 10.5-inch screen. It packs in a crisp 287 pixels per inch (ppi), making it sharper than the Surface Go (217ppi) and the 10.5-inch iPad Pro (265ppi). It has the perfect inky blacks and brilliant colors Samsung’s AMOLED panels are known for, and makes the Surface Go look washed out by comparison. It lacks the 120Hz screen of the iPad Pro for smoother screen transitions, but viewing angles are great and the screen gets bright enough to easily see outdoors.

The tablet features a quad speaker setup, with a pair of drivers on each side when in landscape orientation. Audio is loud enough to fill a room, and great for watching movies or playing games. Dolby Atmos enhancements actually seem to produce a bigger sound field, which is impressive.

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The slate also boasts a far-field microphone array for use with voice assistants like Samung’s own Bixby, Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa. But even a little bit of background noise threw the microphones off in testing, and the tablet often failed to recognize my voice even after retraining it several times. Dedicated devices like the Google Home or Amazon Echo offer a much better voice assistance experience.

On the plus side, the Tab S4’s dual-band Wi-Fi can get impressively fast, even in the highly congested setting of PC Labs. We saw speeds of 90.5Mbps down and 94.4Mbps up at a distance of 40 feet from our test router while on the 5GHz band. The tablet also has Bluetooth 5.0 for streaming to two audio devices at a time, and an LTE version is available.

Processor, Battery, and Camera

The Tab S4 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor clocked at 2.35GHz. In benchmark testing, it scored 6,311 on PCMark’s work performance test, which measures a variety of tasks like web browsing and video and photo editing. It’s far more powerful than less expensive Android slates like the Lenovo Tab 4 10 (3,312), though it can’t match the capabilities of the latest Snapdragon 845 processors which you can find in phones like Samsung’s own Galaxy S9 (7,515).

4GB of RAM is enough to ensure smooth performance, but a bit more memory would have helped maximize the Tab S4’s multitasking capabilities. Using it as a standard tablet isn’t a problem, but once I launched into DeX mode and started opening multiple Chrome windows and apps, things started to bog down a little, and at one point Chrome stopped responding and crashed. More RAM would give the slate a bit more leeway when it comes to running various applications and make it feel more like a laptop.

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The battery clocks in at 7,300mAh, and lasted for 8 hours, 33 minutes of streaming full-screen video over Wi-Fi at maximum brightness. That’s significantly longer than the iPad Pro lasted over LTE (6 hours, 54 minutes), but shorter than the Surface Go playing back video from internal storage (9 hours, 56 minutes). It supports Samsung’s adaptive fast charging with the included adapter.

We weren’t very impressed by the Tab S3’s 13MP rear camera last year, and the Tab S4’s camera doesn’t offer much of an improvement. It’s about on par with the average midrange phone outdoors and in decent lighting, taking reasonably clear shots with accurate colors. Photos are awash with noise indoors and in low light, however, to the point of looking downright unpleasant. The rear sensor can record 4K video at 60fps. Again, it’s fine in good lighting, but lacks stabilization and drops frames in lower light.

The 8MP front sensor is serviceable, though pictures often look soft, and it tends to over-smoothen facial features. It’s fine for video chats.

DeX and Keyboard

Software is what sets a “pro” tablet apart from the rest of the crowd. Any device aspiring to be used for productivity needs to give you the ability to multitask with multiple windows without apps closing or reloading on you, along with the ability to drag and drop items, and ideally some functionality in image and photo editing. In these regards, the Tab S4 excels.

Where devices like the iPad Pro attempt to haphazardly incorporate split-screen multitasking and app docks, the Tab S4 takes a different route by having a full-scale desktop reminiscent of Chrome OS. The moment you dock the slate into the keyboard accessory, you’re prompted to switch to DeX mode, or you can set the tablet to launch into DeX mode automatically. Switching modes only takes a few seconds. Once you’re in DeX, you get what’s essentially a desktop experience, with a taskbar, the ability to open multiple resizable windows, and drag-and-drop functionality for certain apps like Messages, Myfiles, Samsung Notes, Gallery, E-mail, and Gmail.

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In many ways, the Tab S4 is closer to what Microsoft was shooting for with Continuum, rather than current 2-in-1s like the Surface Go. The interface is a bit more limited than I prefer, and trying to access any kind of content through an SD card or in the internal storage leads you into a confusing morass of Android directories and root folders. For instance, you can’t readily edit photos on an SD card, and then drag and drop them from the File Manager to Adobe Photoshop.

That said, once you fire up Microsoft Office or Chrome, the Tab S4’s advantages over other Android tablets become apparent. I was able to open multiple Chrome tabs, separate and resize the windows, and have other apps like Google Docs and the Gallery open at the same time. You’ll eventually hit the limits of what the tablet is capable of at some point; as mentioned, I reached a point where Chrome stopped responding and had to be closed. But for the most part, everything ran smoothly.

For even more of a desktop-like experience, the Tab S4 can be connected to a separate monitor with an HDMI adapter cable (not included), letting you transfer your experience to a larger screen.

S Pen and Writing

The black plastic S Pen stylus is a sleek oval tube that looks and feels just like a real pen, down to its comfortable grip. There’s a fine point at the very tip, an action button on the side, and unlike the Apple Pencil, it doesn’t need to be charged. When you’re not using the pen there’s a detachable holster that comes with the keyboard case. In case it isn’t obvious by now, if you’re buying the Tab S4, you should also plan on buying that keyboard.

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I mostly used the S Pen to take notes and found it to be an accurate, pressure-sensitive stylus that never had issues with input. I’m not much of an artist, but for those who are there are plenty of apps like OneNote and Autodesk Sketchbook that can take advantage of the pressure-sensitive tip for sketches. Of course, there’s also Samsung’s built-in features like Screen Off Memo, which lets you write on the screen when the slate is off, Live Message, which lets you send animated images to your contacts, and Translate, which can pick out text from a document or a web page to translate it.

Naturally, you can also take notes, and handwriting recognition is excellent. S Note even helps you stay in the lines—if you write into a pink box at the bottom of the page, it’ll resize your sloppy handwriting so it doesn’t sprawl all over.

Software and Features

The Tab S4 runs Android 8.1 Oreo with Samsung’s heavy UI layer and customizations on top, which includes visual changes and added apps and features. Surprisingly, Samsung has significantly dialed back on the bloatware here. At setup, you’re given the option to install several of Samsung’s apps or not. Choosing not to still leaves you most of Google’s own app suite.

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In terms of extra features, you have the Bixby voice assistant (sans physical button), Samsung’s integrated Knox security for enterprise use, a Kid’s Mode with parental controls, and Samsung’s SmartThings app, which can control compatible smart home devices.

Despite these preloads, out of 64GB of internal storage, the slate has 49.7GB available for use. That’s a fair amount of space, especially when you take into account the fact that DeX essentially functions as a second operating system. If you need more storage you can always use a microSD card.

Conclusions

In some ways, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 feels like it has a bit of an identity problem. It offers a fantastic multimedia experience with its sharp screen and great audio, but if you want a tablet just for entertainment, the $329 iPad has similar features and even more apps for half the price. The Tab S4 also has a solid set of productivity uses with DeX mode, but real work is likely better accomplished with an inexpensive Chromebook, which will have larger keyboard and can also run Android apps. Or you can spend more on a Windows-powered 2-in-1 that can run all the desktop programs you need without compromise.

Still, the Galaxy Tab S4 is the best Android tablet you can buy today. It has a beautiful build, a gorgeous display, solid audio, and some genuinely useful productivity features. And if you love to sketch, draw, or take notes by hand, the Tab S4 can’t be beat.


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