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Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7 review: Pretty design suffers from subpar screen

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7 is thin, light and stylish. It has a long lasting battery and offers many premium app perks for free. Its microSD slot accommodates cards up to 128GB.

The Bad The screen's low resolution looks pixelated on the 9.7-inch screen. Given its average specs, its $299 price feels too expensive.

The Bottom Line The Samsung Galaxy Tab A is satisfyingly simple tablet, but its lackluster screen and relatively high price make it forgettable.

6.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6

In the case of the Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7, bigger isn't better. Though the 9.7-inch model shares specs identical to the 8-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab A , the lackluster screen resolution looks better on the smaller model than on the 9.7-incher.

To its credit, the Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7 is a fine tablet with steady performance and an earnestly modern design. It even comes with a few free software goodies, like trial subscriptions to The New York Times and The Economist, as well as in-game bonuses for a few select games, like The Hobbit: Kingdoms and Pac-Man Friends.

The downside, like many Samsung tablets, is its overreaching price tag. At $299 (UK availability has yet to be announced, but the US price converts to around £190), it's too expensive for what you're getting. However, the Galaxy Tab A 8.0, with the same amenities, is priced at a more reasonable $229/AU$299 (US price converts to around £148). If you don't mind a smaller screen, downsizing is a good idea.

Editors' note: The Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7 is similar to the Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0 and parts of their reviews are similar.

Design

The Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7 sports a relevant and chic design that resembles a second-rate Galaxy Tab S . It's slim, thin, and lightweight.

Dimensions compared

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7 Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 Samsung Galaxy Tab S Apple iPad Air
Weight 1lb (450g) 1lb (450g) 1lb (450g) 1lb (450g)
Width (landscape) 9.5 inches (241.3mm) 9.6 inches (243.8mm) 9.7 inches (246.4mm) 9.4 inches (238.8mm)
Height 6.6 inches (167mm) 6.7 inches (170.2mm) 7 inches (178mm) 6.6 inches (167.6mm)
Depth 0.3 inch (7.5mm) 0.29 inch (7.4mm) 0.26 inch (7.4mm) 0.29 inch (6.6mm)
Side bezel width (landscape) 0.5 inch (12.7mm) 0.5 inch (12.7mm) 0.4 inch (10.2mm) 0.8 inch (20.3mm)

Its plastic construction gives it a bit of a cheap feel, however it doesn't look like an inexpensive piece hardware; the charcoal-gray backpanel slightly shimmers in the light and its smooth texture gives it a sleekly streamlined form.

The Galaxy Tab A 9.7's design is also comfortable. In addition to the smooth backpanel that feels pleasant on your fingertips, the rounded edges makes gripping that tablet comfortable.

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Comfortable despite its thin profile. Josh Miller/CNET

On the right edge you'll find a power button with a volume rocker below it and a microSD card slot a few inches below that. On the bottom you'll find a Micro-USB port and headphone jack sitting in between two speakers.

Features

Running Android Lollipop 5.0, the Tab A features Samsung's TouchWiz overlay. The skin is user-friendly, easy to navigate and chock full of software goodies.

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Who doesn't like free stuff? Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

It comes stocked with Microsoft Office apps, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It's a nice addition, especially for students and those interested in a portable workstation, however without a keyboard the software isn't convenient to utilize.

As an owner of a new Galaxy tablet, you get a few free perks. The "Galaxy Gifts" include 3-month trials of Evernote Premium , Audiobooks by Audible and The New York Times, as well as a 6-month trial subscription to The Economist and Blinkist. There's also in-app bonuses for a few games and select apps. These "gifts" are common for Samsung's high-end models, so it's nice to see them on the budget-friendly Galaxy Tab A 8.0.

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Samsung's TouchWIz UI is easy to use and customize. Josh Miller/CNET

If you're already entrenched in Samsung's Galaxy, the SideSync 3.0 app is useful for streamlining your devices. The app mirrors your phone's screen, so instead of taking out your phone to respond to a text message, you can simply do so using the tablet. It comes in handy whenever you're carrying around both devices, but only need to use one.

The Galaxy Tab A 8.0 also has a multiwindow function. For a pretty basic tablet, it smoothly handles running two apps are once. Not all apps are capable of utilizing the function, but common, frequently used ones like the Google Play store, Gmail and Chrome can. It won't replicate what your laptop can do by any means, but for basic multitasking, it's a useful convenience.

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Charcoal and chic. Josh Miller/CNET

Hardware

The Samsung Galaxy Tab A houses a 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU, 1.5GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, with a microSD card slot that's expandable up to 128GB.

Other hardware features include Bluetooth 4.1 and GPS.

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The microSD card slot expands storage up to 128GB. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance

Like its smaller counterpart, the Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0 isn't a fast performer. However, it tends to run without a hitch once apps load. Checking email, surfing the Web, streaming video and playing simple mobile games are all smooth sailing.

Large games and apps take awhile to load -- anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds -- and if downloading apps or updates, performance slows down and lag can occur -- though this is typical of most budget tablets.

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Web pages take a few seconds to load. Josh Miller/CNET

The Galaxy Tab A 9.7 features a 1,024x768-pixel resolution screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, text can appear pixelated, though it doesn't make it hard to read -- it's just a stark reminder that you're not exactly rolling with the best. This is forgivable on the 8-inch model, but the 9.7-inch Tab A's screen looks unattractively outdated.

Fortunately, HD video still looks sharp and crisp. However, heavy video-watchers might want to think twice about picking up this Samsung model; the 4:3 aspect ratio adds to letterboxing (the thick black bars above and below the video), meaning the video doesn't fill the screen, and the solitary speaker provides lackluster audio quality. Also, since it's on the bottom edge, the speaker is easy to block -- though that might be for the best.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Samsung Galaxy Tab A 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon APQ 8016 Adreno 306 1.5GB Android 5.0.2
Nvidia Shield Nvidia Tegra K1; 2.2GHz quad-core A15 ULP GeForce Kepler 2GB Android 5.0
Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 Exynos 5 Octa 5420; 1.9GHz quad-core Cortex A15 & 1.3GHz quad-core Cortex A7 Mali-T628 MP6 3GB Android 4.4

3DMark (Normal)

Nvidia Shield Tablet
28,104
Samsung Galaxy Tab S (8.4)
13,623
Samsung Galaxy Tab A
4,333

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Gamers should also be weary of the Galaxy Tab A. In 3DMark benchmarks it ranks very low and, considering that for the same price you can buy one of the best gaming tablets, it's pretty disappointing. I didn't have many hiccups while playing games, however these benchmarks indicate that if you're heavy on the gaming, you can do better.

After testing the tablet in the CNET Lab, by looping a local video in airplane mode, the Tab A averaged an impressive 15.7 hours. Now that's what I call a tablet with great battery life.

Battery test result
Samsung Tab A 10 15.7

Conclusion

In an age where more pixels make for a better tablet, a lackluster screen can be forgiven for a lower price. This is not the case with the Samsung Galaxy Tab A 9.7; its pixelated display and simple specs are not worth its price. However, the competitive price on the smaller 8-inch counterpart makes the dull screen pardonable.

If you don't mind the price tag or a smaller screen, you should also consider the Nvidia Shield tablet, which dutifully outperforms both Samsungs. The upside to a quiet year in tablets means that some of last year's models have reduced to a price comparable to or lower than the Galaxy Tab A 9.7. You can currently get both the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 or the LG G Pad 10.1 for less than the Galaxy Tab A 9.7's starting price.

The tablet itself isn't too shabby -- it would make a great budget option if priced correspondingly. Unfortunately it's not, making other models with better performance or lower prices better options.

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