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Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 review: Premium small tablet for premium price

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 packs a sharp pixel-dense screen, zippy performance, and oodles of software features inside a comfortable and lightweight slate.

The Bad The $399.99 starting price is expensive. It's too easy to block the speakers and trigger the capacitive buttons unintentionally when holding the tablet in landscape orientation. Performance lags when using the multiwindow function.

The Bottom Line The premium specs and high-end feel of the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 make it well worth the high price.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

The Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 may not be one of the most affordable tablets around, but you get what you pay for in the best way possible. The 8.4-inch slate offers a comfortable design, a bounty of software features, solid hardware with smooth performance, and one of the most pixel-dense screens to date.

In addition to Samsung's new Magazine UX, the tablet introduces a new standard with its 2,560x1,600-pixel-resolution screen. The Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 is the smallest tablet to rock that high a resolution, a title once held by the slightly larger Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, and the 8.4-incher now boasts the highest pixels per inch of any tablet.

The possible deal-breaker for many could be its $399.99 starting price, but considering it's almost the same price as the popular Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display, maybe a similar niche for a high-end Android experience on a small tablet will develop.

If you want a small but affordable tablet, options abound, like the Nexus 7 and Dell Venue 8, but those bargain buys can't hold a candle to everything the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 offers. If price isn't a concern and you want more than a basic slate, the Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 is a great option that offers a premium tablet experience with smooth and speedy performance in a sleek package.

Design
The 8-inch tablet rocks the same faux-leather back, fake stitching, and silver spine that other Samsung tablets have been donning for awhile. Personally, I'm not crazy about the look, but the texture is comfortable. The white-and-silver design is fashionably sleek and the rounded back gives the illusion that the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 is thinner than it is.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 LG G Pad 8.3 Google Play Edition Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display
Weight in pounds 0.73 0.82 0.74 0.75
Width in inches (landscape) 8.62 9.1 8.5 7.87
Height in inches 5.05 6.2 5 5.3
Depth in inches 0.28 0.31 0.33 0.29
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.6 0.7 0.63 0.7

The compact tablet is lightweight, yet it feels solid. The smooth, rounded corners of the Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 allow the slate to comfortably melt into your palms when you're holding it for long periods of time, like through an episode (or three) of "House of Cards." It easily fits in one hand -- even with my small hands I didn't have to stretch my fingers uncomfortably -- and, at 0.7 pound, it doesn't weigh down your wrist.

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The tablet is pretty light for how powerful it is. Josh Miller/CNET

The front facade of the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 is designed with a dominant portrait orientation, with the bottom bezel housing the home button, as well as two capacitive buttons. The top bezel houses a 2-megapixel camera and an ambient light sensor that was a little too dim for my preference.

Above the top bezel, on the wraparound metallic spine, sits the 3.5mm headphone jack. Not too far away, on the rear side, sits the back 8-megapixel camera with an LED flash right below it. The power button and volume rocker reside on the right edge, with the infrared port in the middle, for optimal remote usage. The bottom edge houses the two speakers with a Micro-USB port in between them, and the left edge is home to the microSD card slot.

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Adjusting your palms to avoid blocking the speakers and capacitive button can be tricky. Josh Miller/CNET

A tragic downside to the tablet's design is the placement of the capacitive buttons on the bottom bezel. When using the tablet in landscape orientation, the capacitive buttons -- whether in your right or left hand -- can accidentally be triggered by the simple grazing of a finger. This is especially frustrating if you're in the middle of a movie (or a "House of Cards" binge).

Software features
Samsung's latest version of TouchWiz offers many of the same options as before, but the new Magazine UX adds a fresh Flipboard functionality. Instead of putting widgets on the same screen as normal app icons (which you can still do), the Magazine UX pages are completely composed of tile-like widgets. You can choose between news, social, and app widgets and the customization options are simple, but a bit time-consuming to set up. I found some of the news widget categories to be less interesting than others, with as few as one update per day, and the social widgets were too small and showed limited information, making it a constrained way to consume your social media.

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The Magazine UX widgets are easy to customize and resize. Screenshot/Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Though the integration with Flipboard is nice, you're often just led into the app itself from the Magazine UX page. It's like a glorified shortcut made beautiful, only to take advantage of the pixel-dense screen. But I digress, because I eventually came around to liking it, since the Magazine UX added more photography, as well as colorful imagery, to the day-to-day tablet experience. However, it was a little buggy at times -- I was frequently asked to make my "first magazine" after trying to save articles, even though I already had many magazines set up, and swiping between pages sometimes lagged.

I like the new Windows 8-reminiscent experience of the Magazine UX pages, but also appreciate the regular ol' TouchWiz features just as much (I'm talking to you, WatchOn remote). If you're not a fan of the Magazine UX, you can minimize its presence on your tablet, but Samsung offers no way to opt out of it. For a different perspective on Samsung's Magazine UX, check out Eric Franklin's review of the Samsung Galaxy Note Tab Pro 12.2.

Samsung's Pro line of tablets, which include a 10.1-incher and the abovementioned 12.2-inch behemoth, ship with a few productivity apps, including Hancom Office, a six-month free subscription for WebEx Meetings, and a two-year subscription to RemotePC, which allows you to remotely access your PC or Mac from the tablet. RemotePC worked well as a way to access files and perform other small tasks, but it lagged too much to use as you would your normal workstation.

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The design predisposes the tablet to a portrait orientation, but using it in landscape can spice things up. Josh Miller/CNET

Hardware features
The Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 houses a Snapdragon 800 chipset, with a 2.3GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU and Adreno 330 GPU. There's also 2GB of RAM and 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, with a microSD card slot.

The 8.4-inch slate also packs an infrared port, stereo Bluetooth 4.0, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope sensor. With their respective adapters, the Galaxy Tab Pro can support Ethernet, HDMI TV-out, and a USB host. The tablet features Wi-Fi 802.11 ac/a/b/g/n, and will be available in 3G and LTE versions.

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The rear camera works best in well-lit situations, otherwise things get fuzzy easily. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance
The 2,560x1,600-pixel-resolution screen makes the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 one of the most pixel-dense screens to date. The super-sharp screen has great wide viewing angles and it more than satisfies in clarity and color when it comes to watching HD video or gaming.

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HD video is super-sharp and vibrant, like Frank Underwood. Josh Miller/CNET

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 LG G Pad 8.3 Google Play Edition Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display
Maximum brightness 361 cd/m2 472 cd/m2 289 cd/m2 370 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.36 cd/m2 0.40 cd/m2 0.24 cd/m2 .46 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,002:1 1,180:1 1,204:1 804:1
Pixels per inch 359ppi 339ppi 273ppi 326ppi

For a tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4's cameras aren't too shabby. The rear camera takes sharp photos with lifelike color, and the flash option works surprisingly well at night -- for both photo and video -- as long as what you're capturing is in the flash's range, of course. Dark photos without the flash come out grainy and even when you use the Smart Stabilization mode, which helps brighten the image, it tends to oversaturate colors and over-contrast the image.

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Despite the low-light possibilities, using the flash in dark situations always worked best. The left photo is without the flash, the center photo uses a low-light mode, and the right one uses the rear LED flash. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

The front 2-megapixel camera is pretty decent; photos are both a little grainy and fuzzy, and there's a slight reddish tint to the photos. Video taken with the camera was surprisingly stable, even when taken while the camera was moving around. The quality is still a bit fuzzy, but I was impressed by the image stabilization.

Gaming performance is smooth and fast. Mobile games like Flappy Bird, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush ran without a hitch. Large games sometimes crashed if there were too many apps open, but they otherwise loaded quickly and performance was consistently smooth.

Device CPU RAM OS tested
Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 2.3GHz quad-core 3GB Android 4.4
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 2GB Amazon Android Mojito 3.0
LG G Pad 8.3 Google Play Edition 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600 processor 2GB Android 4.4.2
Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display Apple A7 1GB iOS 7.0.3
3DMark (Unlimited)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

The two bottom speakers go surprisingly loud. Some genres of music sound flat, but vocals, no matter what genre, tend to sound crisp and clear. Horns and cymbals are tinny and harsh if too loud, not an uncommon problem, but otherwise, for tablet speakers, the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4's are pretty, pretty, pretty good.

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The large number of customization options truly do optimize your listening experience. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Just like a few Samsung Galaxy tablets before it, the Tab Pro 8.4 has multiwindow capabilities. By simply swiping left from the right edge, you can make a variety of multiwindow apps appear, for your productivity -- or procrastination -- pleasure. All of the apps launched fast and once I got the hang of resizing the windows, it was a great way to quickly look things up without having to exit the app I was using. Unfortunately, the Netflix app doesn't allow streaming while a window is open, so you can't simultaneously watch "House of Cards" and browse dog breeds on Chrome. Even though I enjoyed being able to use the multiwindow function at my whim, it often caused performance to slow down and lag, discouraging me from using it often.

Conclusion
The Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 makes a good case for spending more to get more. Its top-of-the-line specs and zippy performance come in a package that will appease the aesthetically inclined and the business professional alike. Its $400 starting price is an expensive far cry from what you'd pay for some small slates, like the Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, but, in the face of this budget-tablet flood, the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 offers more than those models -- a lot more. The Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display costs the same amount, but if you're more interested in a high-end slate with Android appeal, the Samsung Galaxy Pro Tab 8.4 ranks high in the niche of premium small tablets.

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