The Galaxy S5 may be Samsung's darling child, packing in everything a top-end phone should, but if its 5-inch screen just doesn't cut it for your sofa surfing, turn your attention to the Galaxy Tab S 8.4.
This 8.4-inch tablet shares many of the design cues of the S5 phone, including the soft-touch dot-effect back and physical home button on the front, but packs in a super high resolution display, an octa-core processor (that's eight cores in total) and comes with the latest Android 4.4 KitKat software on board.
It's an impressive piece of kit on paper, but it's going to have to do a lot to edge out the iPad Mini with its similarly high-resolution Retina Display. The Tab S 8.4 can be picked up now with Wi-Fi only and 16GB of storage, directly from Samsung for £319 or for $398 in the US from Amazon. The Retina Display iPad Mini can be had with 16GB of storage also for £319 (or $352 in the US, again from Amazon, which is cheaper than the Apple Store).
The Galaxy Tab is clearly the product of the same design team that worked on the Galaxy S5 as it's easy to spot similarities between the two products. Most notably on the back of the tablet, which has the same soft-touch, rubberised feel with dotted pattern that you'll find on the phone. It feels good to hold and I think it's a definite improvement over the glossy, plastic feel of previous models.
It's an extremely slender bit of kit, measuring only 6.6mm thick -- that's slimmer even than the 7.5mm iPad Mini. The Mini's one-piece metal body feels more sturdy than than the Tab S' plastic build, but it comes down to a matter of personal taste whether you prefer the matte metal of the iPad or the dot-effect of the Tab S. I'm personally quite keen on the bronze colour, which stands out quite a lot from the other smaller tablets, most of which tend to just come in various shades of silver.
It's longer than the iPad Mini, but it's narrower, as its screen has a 16:9 aspect ratio. It's just about narrow enough for you to slide it into an inside jacket pocket, but I'd still recommend finding a nice case for it -- the Knomad Mini by Knomo will match that bronze colour well -- if you want to keep it safe from the knocks and bumps of everyday life.
Tucked into those skinny edges are the volume and power buttons, the headphone jack, Micro-USB port and microSD card slot (hidden under a little flap). The back panel is home to a couple of little buttons that push in to allow one of Samsung's proprietary covers to attach. Although they're fairly innocuous, I'd still prefer to see the back panel remaining unbroken, with the case attaching magnetically.
The tablet is available in either 16GB or 32GB versions -- if you go for the smaller one, I recommend also investing in a microSD card, particularly if you want to store a lot of movies locally to watch on the plane.
The Tab S's 8.4-inch display has an impressively high 2,460x1,600-pixel resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 359 pixels per inch -- slightly edging out the 326ppi of the iPad Mini. Although the Tab S is sharper on paper, in reality, it's not a difference you'd ever really notice. Both displays are extremely crisp, with small text on Web pages or magazines looking pin-sharp and high-definition photos looking great.
The Tab S has a Super AMOLED panel, which Samsung boasted at the launch is much brighter and more vivid than the iPad's. While this is true -- colours have an extremely vibrant punch to them -- it's perhaps so colourful that it makes pictures look a little unnatural, almost as though you've boosted the saturation slider in Photoshop. The iPad's display is less vivid, but its colour tone is more natural.
If you're after colour accuracy for photography and graphics purposes, the iPad's "honesty" makes it the better option. If you want glossy Netflix shows like "Breaking Bad", "Planet Earth", or, erm, "SpongeBob SquarePants" to look so vivid it hurts, go for the Galaxy Tab S. It's searingly bright, too, doing a great job at countering the worst of the overhead office lights in CNET Towers and should be easily readable in bright sunlight.
Android KitKat software and Samsung extras
The Tab S arrives with the latest version of Android 4.4.2 KitKat on board -- I'd be annoyed to see anything less than the latest software on a new top-end slate -- upon which Samsung has applied its TouchWiz interface. Although the tablet functions much like any other Android slate, Samsung has thrown in a whole host of visual tweaks, not to mention a huge amount of preloaded apps and services.
You'll find Samsung's usual lineup of bundled apps, including its own Internet browser, calendar, email client, the WatchOn TV guide (which works with the infrared TV remote), a Samsung app store, as well as some new additions like Paper Garden (Samsung's own magazine service) and SideSync 3.0.
SideSync lets you connect your Galaxy phone, using an app, and mirror the phone's screen on the tablet, allowing you to swipe around the interface as though you're on your phone. It's a fairly interesting feature, although I'm not entirely sure why you'd need it; however, I found the connection to be pretty unstable and it regularly disconnected in my testing time.
Add to that a whole host of preloaded third-party software like Evernote, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times, Flipboard, and Hancom Office Viewer and that sleek slate suddenly seems very cluttered. It's not so much the volume that's the problem -- it's the duplication. Google already has its own browser, app store, and magazine service, so Samsung adding its own versions of these is likely to be extremely confusing, particularly to new users -- the question of "which do I use?" is likely to come up on numerous occasions.
Some of the third-party apps can be removed, so you can declutter to a certain extent, but Samsung's app store and services like SideSync and WatchOn can't be uninstalled. If you're buying the slate for a technophobic relative, I recommend at least hiding the superfluous apps so they don't appear in the app tray. You really won't miss them.
The app clutter isn't the only thing that's likely to confuse new users. Like most of the recent Samsung Galaxy range of tablets and phones, the settings menu is so vast and so rammed full of tweakable settings for every aspect of the device that it can be incredibly difficult to actually find your way around the various tabs. Even obvious things like 'About Device' are unhelpfully stored under 'More' rather than 'Device' which seems just a little daft.
Battery life and processor performance
The tablet is powered by an Exynos 5 octa-core processor. That's eight cores in total, but it's really made up of a 1.3GHz quad-core processor that's used for basic tasks and background processing, and a faster 1.9GHz quad-core chip that kicks in for more demanding tasks like gaming. It doesn't use all eight cores at once for monster power. Instead, it's designed to help make the slate a bit more efficient with battery power by not using all its power at once.
That's the theory, anyway, and in practice, I'd say it's probably working. In my own use, I found the tablet was able to slumber in standby overnight without dropping much power and could idle for several days and still have a bit of charge left. I've found my iPad Mini to still have charge after a week of sitting in standby, which I don't think the Tab S is able to achieve, but it's not far off.
In use, it's a different matter. The biggest drain is of course that high-definition, super-bright screen. If you play a lot of games with the brightness on max, you can just watch the power drain away in a morning. After 2 hours of streaming video on max brightness, the power level had dropped from full to 79 percent, which isn't too bad. I'll be putting it through more battery drain tests in the coming days and will update this review with my findings.
If you're reasonably careful about how you use the tablet, you won't struggle to get at least a day of use. If you're a casual tablet user -- sofa-surfing in the evening and a spot of RSS feed browsing over breakfast, then you should expect to get at least a couple of days. If you want to get the most from the battery, then keeping the screen brightness down will be the biggest help. Turning off nonessential services like GPS and Wi-Fi will help as well and try and avoid anything too taxing like gaming or video streaming until you're in dashing distance of a plug.
With such a meaty supply of power purring away under the hood, it should come as no surprise that the Tab S is a very capable piece of kit. Navigation is swift, apps open without delay, and graphically intense games like Asphalt 8 played without any frame rate drop or slowdown. Flicking between open apps using the multitasking carousel was easy too, and it coped fine with having two apps (Google Maps and the Chrome browser) open at once using the dual app feature.
On the back of the slate is an 8-megapixel camera. Camera performance is unlikely to be the main reason you opt for one tablet over another -- it's not likely to become your dedicated camera for out-and-about shooting -- but it's good to know you have a good snapper on hand for when your pet does something totally adorable.
Luckily then, the camera seems perfectly capable of that sort of quick snap shooting. On my first shot of various squishy objects, I was pleased with the rich colours and there's a decent amount of detail too.
In lower light, things weren't quite as good. There's quite a lot of image noise in the shadowy areas of this scene and the white balance has resulted in a warmer, less natural hue.
The camera is perfectly adequate for most things, though, so long as you take your shots in good light, and it's better than the cameras you'll find on a lot of low-end smartphones. It's not going to replace your dSLR, but it'll do fine for getting snaps for Facebook -- and that's all you really need from a tablet, isn't it?
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 has plenty going for it -- it's got an attractive, portable body, tonnes of power, and a gorgeous screen that makes glossy TV shows and movies look powerfully vivid. It's a great alternative to the iPad Mini, particularly if you're already an Android user and have bought apps that you can redownload onto the tablet.
It's not perfect, though. Its interface comes precluttered with additional Samsung software and a host of third-party apps which, together with the vast settings menu makes the tablet somewhat complicated to get to grips with -- particularly if you're not used to Android. If you're new to the tablet world and aren't yet committed to an ecosystem, the more simplistic iPad Mini might be a better choice.