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Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 review: An excellent tablet at a premium price

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MSRP: $379.99

The Good The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3's light, comfortable design, myriad useful features, and bright colorful screen makes the 8-incher one of the best small tablets on the market.

The Bad A price of $300 is a lot for any small tablet, and some features like Smart Stay and Watch On’s search don’t work as well as intended.

The Bottom Line It costs a bit more than we'd like, but the Galaxy Tab 3 is Samsung’s best non-Note tablet yet.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

The 8-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 is the latest example of the company's weird pricing decisions. At $300, the Tab 3 is expensive for a small tablet that -- aside from its 1.5GB of RAM -- has fairly modest specs and hardware features.

In the "small tablet" space -- 7- to 9-inch screen sizes -- great models are more affordable than ever. The Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, Fire HD 8.9, Nook HD, and Nook HD+ are all available for $269 or less. Of course, one reason they're so affordable is that they're all 2012 models that are effectively on closeout, with new models due imminently (or likely not at all, in the case of the Nook).

That's where the 8-inch Tab 3 steps in. Of the three new Tab 3 models -- there's also a $400 10-inch version and a $200 7-incher -- it's the one with the best feature set: a sharp bright screen, good performance, a light comfortable design, and Samsung's multiwindow feature that allows two select apps to run concurrently on the screen. It also has an easy-to-set-up remote control/TV guide component and microSD expandable storage.

My initial reaction to the Tab 3's price was, "Wow, if only it were a tad lower, they'd have my money!" After all, $30 more would get you an iPad Mini, which still boasts the best app ecosystem around.

On the other hand, the 8-inch Tab 3 is $100 less than the nearly identical Note 8 -- and all you're not getting is the stylus that comes with that model. So, while I would have liked to see the 8-inch Tab 3 clock in at closer to $270, it's still a pretty satisfying package at $300.

Design
While other 8-inch tablets like the iPad Mini and Galaxy Note 8 push the one-handed cupping limit, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 feels slim and trim by comparison and fits comfortably into not only my considerably large hands, but based on anecdotal usage around the CNET office, much smaller hands as well. It's essentially a thinner, narrower version of the Note 8 without any S Pen Stylus slot to worry about; it's bezel width and overall girth have received a notable cleaving. It's a hair heavier than the iPad Mini, but its narrower design makes it easier to hold.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 (8-inch) Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Apple iPad Mini Google Nexus 7
Weight in pounds 0.70 0.76 0.68 0.74
Width in inches (landscape) 8.2 8.2 7.8 7.8
Height in inches 4.8 5.3 5.3 4.7
Depth in inches 0.27 0.31 0.28 0.40
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.75 0.7 0.81 0.8

The Tab 3 is still obviously plastic, but with its smooth, rounded corners and well-placed physical features, it doesn't feel cheap. The navigation array from the Note line makes a return here with the bottom bezel playing host to a home button, menu button, and back button, features typically found on the actual screen of pretty much every post-Honeycomb (Android 3.0) tablet. The removal of the array from the Tab 3 screen translates to apps and games getting just a little extra room to stretch their legs, resulting in a game like Real Racing 3 using the full screen as opposed to only some of it, as it does on most Android tablets.

I've always been a fan of physical home buttons, and unlike the iPad Mini's, the one featured here is raised just enough above the bezel to be easily found while not attracting many errant presses. The back button functions as you'd expect, and the menu buttons provide quick access to options like search, settings, and creating folder. Recent apps are accessed by holding down the home button for a second. The hit boxes for the menu and back buttons are calibrated accurately, so you likely won't press unless you actually intend to, something with which the 10.1-inch version of the Galaxy Tab 3 struggles.

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The menu, home, and back buttons harken back to the desolate pre-Honeycomb days, but actually work surprisingly well in this case. Go figure. Josh Miller/CNET

Along the right edge of the Tab 3 are the mic pinhole, power/sleep button, volume rocker, and IR blaster. The bottom edge includes a pair of dual speakers surrounding the Micro-USB charging port. On the left edge is a microSD card slot, and on the top, a headphone jack. The top bezel has an ambient light sensor and 1.3-megapixel camera. The smooth, plastic and "gold-brown" (it also comes in white) backside houses a 5-megapixel camera (thankfully) in the top-left corner, where all back cameras should be.

Software features
The Tab 3 ships with Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean and includes Samsung's TouchWiz UI skin. Though some take issue with the somewhat Fisher-Price-ian look of the interface, Samsung of late has added a number of useful features to balance out the over-use of pastels. The most useful feature is the easily accessible shortcut tray that lets you turn off features like Smart Stay, Multi Window, Screen Mirroring, Wi-Fi, Reading Mode, and GPS among others by simply swiping down from the top of the screen and tapping the feature on or off.

Samsung's multiwindow feature allows for two select apps to run simultaneously onscreen with a fairly deep pool of compatible apps, including Twitter, Facebook, and Chrome. Each window can be easily resized to support virtually any ratio, but doing so with your finger is a little less precise compared with using a stylus to accomplish the same thing on the Note 8.

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Multiscreen in action. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Smart Stay is the now overhyped feature that should put your tablet into Sleep mode if, using the front camera, it detects that your eyes aren't watching the screen. While the feature works on our 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab 3 unit, it didn't function correctly on our 8-inch tablet.

Group Play lets you share files with other Samsung users on the same Wi-Fi network and alter the files in real time. This ranges from pics, docs, music, and select multiplayer games. It's a cool concept and something I could see being used effectively in work meetings, but I can't think of many practical uses for a consumer. Also, once you've joined a group, you won't be able to connect to the Internet until you manually disconnect from the group.

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Group Play can be pretty useful in a business setting. Just make sure you leave the group before attempting to connect to the Internet. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Watch On
Watch On is Samsung's universal remote/video hub app that integrates streaming-video content and OTA and cable TV. It includes typical social sharing "this is what I'm watching" options and is a pretty effective and accurate TV guide, but the real standout feature is its powerful and potentially very useful search.

Searching for a particular piece of video content returns results sorted by delivery system. In other words, if you search for "Thor," Watch On returns a number of matching options. Choosing the "Thor (2011)" movie option takes you to an information page with its Rotten Tomatoes score, sharing options, IMDb info, and related content. Then, tapping the "Watch Now" button shows a list of video delivery services like Samsung's Media Hub and Blockbuster Video. You then choose through which service to watch the movie, and that service's app will launch and take you directly to the "Thor" page, where you can choose to stream, purchase, or rent the video.

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I know that this is available on Netflix. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

The service requires that you've both created and signed in with your Samsung account. Unfortunately, it's not yet compatible with all media apps. After searching an episode of the original "Star Trek," I only had the option to watch it via Samsung's own Media Hub service or Hulu Plus. Not Netflix, despite its availability there. The app also doesn't appear to be compatible with TV shows and movies available on the Google Play store.

Hardware features
The 8-inch Tab 3 houses a 1.5GHz dual-core Exynos 4 Dual (4212) CPU and 1.5GB of RAM, and includes support for 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and GPS, as well as gyroscope, accelerometer, and a digital compass.

Performance
The Tab 3 houses an 8-inch screen with a 1,280x800-pixel-resolution screen. That's 189 pixels per inch (ppi) compared with 163 on the iPad Mini, and the relative difference in clarity is immediate and dramatic, especially with fonts. Fonts on the Note 8 lack the jaggy, unpolished look they deliver on the iPad Mini. Tab 3 fonts are clear and sharp, and the screen's sharpness is only buoyed by its extremely bright and colorful plane line switching (PLS) panel. Three screen presets are included: Dynamic, Standard, and Movie. Each adjusts the screen's contrast to be more appropriate to the setting.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Apple iPad Mini Google Nexus 7
Maximum brightness 395 cd/m2 458 cd/m2 399 cd/m2 288 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.39 cd/m2 0.47 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2 0.28 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,012:1 974:1 814:1 1,028:1

The screen responds quickly to swipe requests and delivers page turns smoothly at 60 frames per second; however, there is a second-long, but still noticeable, delay after pressing the home button as the tablet sometimes appears to stall.

The Mali T400MP4 GPU is a capable if unimpressive chip for gaming. Riptide GP ran at a very playable frame rate, but never came anywhere near the 60fps smoothness I look for and have only seen rarely in tablets. Other 2D games like Angry Birds, however, look beautiful thanks to the screen's high ppi and large color palette.

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Games on the Tab 3 take up the full screen. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Just to give you an idea of its 3D performance, here are a few 3DMark test results I conducted. As with the Note 8, notice that while the Tab 3 trails behind the Nexus 7 in GPU prowess, it more than holds its own on the CPU front. Unfortunately, 3DMark has yet to be released on iOS. Once it is, I'll update this review with iPad Mini results.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 (8-inch) 1.5GHz dual-core Exynos 4 Dual (4212) Mali T400MP4 (quad-core) 1.5GB Android 4.2.2
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad (4412) Mali T400MP4 (quad-core) 2GB Android 4.1.2
Google Nexus 7 1.2GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 ULP GeFOrce (12-core) 1GB Android 4.2.2
Apple iPad Mini 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 PowerVR SGX543MP2 (dual-core) 512MB iOS 6.1.3

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

Graphics Test 1, 720p (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics Test 2, 720p (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

The 1.3-megapixel front camera features typical "only good enough for crude video chatting" quality, with washed-out colors and plenty of screen "snow." However, the 5-megapixel rear-facing shooter is fairly capable as tablet cameras go. The camera's aperture appears to be set fairly high, so it has trouble capturing enough light, but with enough ambient light in the mix, it captures more details than the iPad Mini's rear camera.

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 8.0 10

The family of Tab
The 8-inch Tab 3 is one of three Tab 3s now in the market. There's also a 10.1-incher and a 7-incher. We got the 10.1-inch version at the same time as the 8-incher, but have yet to receive the 7-inch Tab 3.

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What other Tab 3 can do this? Well, pretty much all of them , but the 8-incher most likely does it best. Josh Miller/CNET

If you're wondering what Tab 3 to get, I can emphatically say the 8-incher is definitely the pick of the litter. The 10-incher includes many of the same features, but is missing the multiscreen option, has a much lower screen ppi, and makes errant presses common because the hit boxes for the back and menu buttons are too large. I've yet to see the 7-inch in person, but judging by its disappointing specs, I'm not expecting too much.

Conclusion
The Galaxy Tab 3 costs $300, which is maybe a tad much. I would have been much happier with something in the $270 range. But with all the features it offers, it's a bit difficult to raise too big a stink about the price. It's the best non-Note tablet Samsung's produced, and as 8-inch tablets go is the best Android alternative to the iPad Mini.

It includes oodles of useful software features, has a light comfortable design, and good performance. There's nothing here that will necessarily blow you away, but there's enough good here to easily earn a recommendation. Just know that the tablet market is in the middle of a transition right now, and the next few weeks will likely reveal many new and even more powerful tablet choices.

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