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Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 review: Cute, compact, but functionally challenged

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MSRP: $399.99

The Good The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 features a lightweight and compact design for a 10-inch tablet. Its screen is impressively bright, and a 64GB storage expansion option is always an appreciated extra.

The Bad The "hit-box" for the capacitive menu and back buttons is too large, and errant touches are common. Performance is slow when quickly switching apps and Wi-Fi speeds dramatically decrease the farther away from the router the tablet is. And $400 for a device with pre-2012 components is asking too much.

The Bottom Line The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 is a sleekly designed tablet but, with more powerful and cheaper options available, it feels like more of the same, rather than an upgrade.

Visit for details.

6.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 5

Review Sections

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 stylishly embraces a more simple aesthetic compared with its predecessor. For a 10-inch tablet, it manages to be a rather compact device; it's lightweight and sleek, with thin bezels and a clean, cohesive design that would make any iPad melt with flattery.

Unfortunately, Samsung continues its trend of lackluster updates to its 10-inch Galaxy Tab line. While I appreciate the Tab 3 10.1's stylish turn, its specs are only a modest upgrade from the Tab 2 10.1, resulting in noticeably lackluster performance. In fact, "change" -- instead of "upgrade" -- is a better way to describe its new components.

Also, the tablet's design is plagued by trigger-happy menu and back buttons. The two buttons can too easily be activated, and I found myself accidentally pressing them a lot, even after I'd become painfully aware of their over-sensitivity. However, its design -- certainly not its functionality -- is what prevents it from being completely forgettable.

Samsung didn't attempt to push the envelope with the Tab 3 10.1 and succeeded in producing a mediocre device. Thanks to its dull hardware upgrades and the resulting underwhelming performance, the tablet proves an inferior product in a sea of much wiser choices.

For the same price, the Google Nexus 10 offers a higher-resolution screen, faster performance, and is much more functional.

Design
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1, the largest in the Tab 3 family, boasts a simpler and smaller design than any previous Galaxy Tab 10.1 model. Its trim size is because of its skinnier bezels and revamped metallic border. While the Tab 2 10.1's thick frame housed front-facing speakers, the Tab 3 10.1 relocates them to the left and right edges.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Google Nexus 10 Apple iPad (fourth generation)
Weight in pounds 1.12 1.32 1.33 1.44
Width in inches (landscape) 9.6 10.3 10.4 7.3
Height in inches 6.9 7.1 6.9 9.5
Depth in inches 0.31 0.35 0.35 0.37
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.5 0.9 0.9 0.8

The 10.1-inch tablet is relatively thin and light, although it's no Sony Xperia Tablet Z. It's also comfortable to hold in both hands and feels solid, but the tactile sensation of the smooth plastic back gives it an inexpensive feel. Thankfully, it isn't slippery and you can actually get a pretty good grip when holding it.

On the bottom bezel there is a navigation array that consists of two capacitive menu and back buttons with a physical, slightly raised, Home button in between them. This design choice is reminiscent of Samsung's Note line but, thanks functionality issues, it doesn't translate well onto the 10-inch Tab 3. Although a physical Home button is a useful addition that offers quick access to the home screen and a view of all open apps, the menu and back buttons are unwelcome intrusions to the basic usability of the tablet.

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The Tab 3 10.1 weighs a little over 1 pound. Josh Miller/CNET

In order to trigger the menu and back buttons, you don't need to directly touch the icons, but merely place a finger in their immediate area. The active space, or hit-box, on the bottom bezel that initiates the menu and back functions spans for a little over 3.5 inches.

There shouldn't be a learning curve to holding a tablet, but the Tab 3 10.1 has one. The navigation array's hit-box is hard to avoid while using the device in its designated landscape orientation because it's the same space your hand casually occupies when holding it.

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The capacitive buttons' functions can be triggered from over an inch away from the icon. Josh Miller/CNET

My left thumb unintentionally grazed the back button consistently -- it's really more like a back-space -- and exited me out of whatever I was doing; I became accustomed to continually checking my fingers to make sure they were in an area that wouldn't touch its hit-box, instead of, you know, actually enjoying my time with the tablet. The last time I touched something this sensitive, I was comforting my best friend after a bad breakup.

The back and menu buttons on other Android devices are usually placed in the onscreen navigation bar, and, although the extra space freed up on the Tab 3 10.1's screen is nice, I would gladly sacrifice it for a less frustrating experience. In addition, there is very little control over the capacitive buttons; you can only change the amount of time they stay lit. Despite this option, the buttons remained bright while streaming Netflix and while using a few other apps.

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The back looks like a typical Samsung Galaxy device. Josh Miller/CNET

The tablet's top edge is home to the power/sleep button, volume rocker, microSD expansion slot, and IR blaster. Sitting not too far away is the headphone jack on the top-left corner, which is right above the speaker on the left edge. A Micro-USB port and microphone pinhole are located on the bottom edge, and the right edge houses its speaker at its top. There's an ambient light sensor and 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera in the center of the top bezel and a 3.2-megapixel rear camera in the top-center of the tablet's back.

Software features
The Tab 3 10.1 runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean with Samsung's TouchWiz UI skin. Features include Smart Stay, which puts your tablet to sleep when you're not looking at it, and a useful notification panel that's somewhat customizable.

The Smart Stay function worked fine but not as well as advertised. It often had trouble detecting my eyes, even though I was looking directly at the screen and, because of its inconsistencies, the feature proved to be as useful as a normal screen sleep setting. The amount of time it took to detect that I had taken my eyes off of the screen was around the same amount of time it took for my selected screen timeout function to kick in. The Tab 3 10.1 doesn't feature the Smart Pause or Smart Scroll options that other Galaxy devices have, so the setting is more like Smart Stay lite.

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The shortcut tray offers easy access to commonly used settings.

The shortcut tray that is easily accessible by swiping down from the top of the screen allows you to turn features like Wi-Fi, GPS, Smart Stay, and screen rotation on and off, as well as adjust the brightness level. You can customize which order these settings are in, but you cannot add any new ones to it. Below these settings are notifications and a small black bar that lets you know which Wi-Fi network you're connected to.

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You can only customize the order of the shortcuts in the tray, not the actual settings you have access to.

The Tab 3 10.1's built-in IR blaster allows it to be used as a universal remote, and it offers a few apps to help you do just that. I couldn't get Peel's Smart Remote to work with my cable box instead of my television, so instead I favored Samsung's universal remote/video hub app Watch On. I was able to easily browse TV listings, set reminders, change channels, and turn my television and cable box on and off.

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Insert Jeopardy music here.

The setup took some time because of connectivity issues, but otherwise the feature worked smoothly, however, slowly. The app is responsive but suffers from some serious lag issues; it took some time to launch, and navigating from one screen to another always took a couple seconds.

The integrated streaming-video content through the app is convenient for on-demand viewing but its search option isn't very thorough. Search results are often limited to Samsung's own Media Hub service, Hulu Plus, and Blockbuster Video, even though Netflix and Google Play offer the same content.

Other Samsung features are nice additions but didn't function well. The S Voice app often didn't recognize my voice commands, and I found it to be more maddening than helpful. The feature is activated by double-pressing the Home button but can be easily deactivate through the settings.

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Say what?

Group Play, a feature that lets you share and edit files in real time with other Samsung users on the same Wi-Fi network, worked mostly as intended, but didn't always notify me when I'd successfully shared a file. The Tab 3 10.1 doesn't have the multiwindow feature that the 8-inch Tab 3 does, but it's probably for the best considering that it already weakly supports its single-window performance.

Hardware features
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 houses a 1.6GHz dual core Atom Z2560 CPU, 1GB RAM, and 16GB or 32GB of internal memory. I tested the 16GB model and it had about 11GB of free space out of the box. Its microSD expansion slot can support up to 64GB.

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The IR blaster and microSD card slot are nice additions to the otherwise simple tablet. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance
Performance-wise, the tablet was responsive when doing simple activities like checking e-mail or reading an e-book, but, when it came to multitasking and switching quickly between apps, it was slow and frequently lagged. Performance speed noticeably took a dive if a few apps were open at once or while downloading files.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Google Nexus 10 Apple iPad (fourth generation)
Maximum brightness 421 cd/m2 411 cd/m2 368 cd/m2 455 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.44 cd/m2 0.47 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 956 795 836 939

Despite impressive benchmark results, real-life gaming performance left much to be desired. Riptide GP ran smoothly and the graphics looked rather sharp, however, the Tab 3 10.1 performed painfully slowly when running N.O.V.A. 3. Loading each level took anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes, and the game occasionally suffered from choppy frame rates and lagging. The long load times would effectively put the kibosh on any kind of groove or rhythm you might have established from the previous level, rendering the tablet unfit for serious gamers.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Atom Z2560 PowerVR SGX544MP (dual-core) 1GB Android 4.2.2
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad (4412) Mali T400MP4 (quad-core) 2GB Android 4.1.2
Google Nexus 10 1.7GHz Dual-core Samsung Exynos 5 Dual (5250) Mali-T604 (quad-core) 2GB Android 4.2.2
Apple iPad (fourth generation) 1.4GHz dual-core Apple A6X PowerVR SGX554MP4 (quad-core) 1GB iOS 6.1.3

3DMark (normal)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics Test 1 Normal (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics Test 2 Normal (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Although the tablet never crashed or froze on me, it was occasionally buggy. It asked me to update apps that had no updates available, dropped Wi-Fi connections randomly, and frequently displayed old notifications.

The tablet's Wi-Fi speeds were directly, and sometimes dramatically, affected by how close it was to the router. The time it took to download Deer Hunter Reloaded continually increased the farther away the Tab 3 10.1 got from the router. In comparison, the Nexus 10 showed some slowing down as well, but still outperformed the Tab 3 10.1 by a long shot.

Download time (in minutes) Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 Google Nexus 10
1-foot distance 2:38 2:08
10-foot distance 5:09 3:28
20-foot distance 10:34 3:27
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The headphone jack sits a little awkwardly on the top-left corner. Josh Miller/CNET

The speakers produce decent and balanced audio quality. At full volume they're pretty loud for a tablet and the move to outward-facing speakers, instead of front-facing ones, didn't negatively affect my listening experience.

Neither of the tablet's cameras have manual focus or flash. The rear 3.2-megapixel camera took clear photos, although they weren't the sharpest, and it did a good job at replicating life-like colors. The front camera is a little soft but otherwise takes well-exposed photos.

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The 3.2-megapixel rear camera is decent but probably not worth taking it out of your bag to snap a shot.

The tablet's 10.1-inch TFT LCD screen gets the job done but is rather unimpressive. It wins points with its high maximum brightness and deep black levels, but its resolution is average, if not subpar by today's standard, at 1,280x800 pixels. It was visibly less sharp than the Nexus 10 when it came to images, video, and text, but it replicated color saturation more vibrantly. The screen was very responsive to touch but often suffered from the tablet's tendency to lag when trying to do too much at one time.

Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 8.3

The family of Tab
The 10-inch Tab 3 is one of three Tab 3s now in the market. There's also an 8-incher and a 7-incher. We got the 8-inch version at the same time as the 10-incher, but have yet to receive the 7-inch Tab 3.

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The screen is a bright feature. Literally. Josh Miller/CNET

After handling the Tab 3 10.1 like a temperamental toddler, using the 8-incher was a refreshing change. It matches its sleek and light design with good performance and useful features, deeming it the best pick out of the two. Although the Tab 3 10.1 includes many of the same features, it's missing the multiscreen option, has a much lower screen ppi, and suffers from too many functionality issues for a $400 device. Since the 7-inch Tab 3 has yet to arrive, judging by its disappointing specs, we're keeping our expectations low.

Conclusion

My experience with the Tab 3 10.1 was more frustrating than functional. Even while cutting it some slack for being a midrange tablet that's impressively small and light for a 10-inch device, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 fails to make a good case for taking it home.

The tablet's specs resemble the Tab 2 10.1's too closely to be considered an actual upgrade. The Tab 3 10.1's tendency to lag coupled with its flawed navigation array functionality don't justify the starting price of $399. For the same amount of money, you can get the Google Nexus 10, which offers faster performance, a better screen, and no frustratingly sensitive capacitive buttons.

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