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

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.

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.

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 This is forgivable on the 8-inch model, but the 9.7-inch Tab A's screen looks unattractively outdated.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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