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Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 review: A big screen in a slim package

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 has bright and vividly colorful screen. Its rail-thin design is comfortable and ultracompact. It comes with 32GB of storage, a microSD card expansion slot and fingerprint scanner. Battery life is long.

The Bad Unlike previous models, there's no IR blaster. In smaller hands, it's not as easy to use as the 8-inch model.

The Bottom Line The large, sharp screen of the 9.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is great for watching media and playing games at home or on the road.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

Like its 8-inch counterpart, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 is a divinely designed Android tablet with a stunning screen. Starting at $500, it's a high-end model with premium specs that rival the best tablets out there. However, it packs more internal storage inside of a slimmer and lighter body, all for the same price as the similarly sleek Dell Venue 10 7000 and Apple iPad Air 2 .

The 9.7-inch Samsung tablet boasts an eye-watering Super AMOLED screen that's sharp, rich in color and vibrant. As the bigger model in the Galaxy Tab S2 lineup, the larger screen is better for playing games and watching video than the 8-inch version. Otherwise, it boasts the same specs.

Tablets with a sharp screen, smooth performance and slim design are a dime a dozen, but the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 is the thinnest and lightest yet. With dimensions and performance comparable to its best competition, its slimmer size, brilliant screen and generous internal storage are small but significant differences that set it apart.

Editors' note: Except for their screen size, the 8-inch and 9.7-inch versions of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 are almost identical. Portions of their reviews are similar.

Design

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is -- to date -- one of the thinnest and lightest tablets of its size class. It's a mere 5.6mm thin and 0.86 pound (265g) light, slightly edging out its main competition; the Dell Venue 10 7000 , Sony Xperia Z4 and Apple iPad Air 2 .

Specs compared

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 Sony Xperia Z4 Apple iPad Air 2 Dell Venue 10 7000
Weight 0.86 pound (389g) 0.87 pound (393g) 0.96 pound (437g) 1.32 pounds (597g)
Width (landscape) 9.34 inches (237.3mm) 10 inches (254mm) 9.4 inches (240mm) 9.6 inches (243.4mm)
Height 6.6 inches (169mm) 6.6 inches (167mm) 6.6 inches (169.5mm) 7.7 inches (195.4mm)
Depth 0.22 inch (5.6mm) 0.24 inch (6.1mm) 0.24 inch (6.1mm) 0.24 inch (6.2mm)
Side bezel width (landscape) 0.56 inch (14.2mm) 0.56 inch(14.2mm) 0.8 inch (22mm) 0.25 inch (6.3mm)

The sleek design is paired with a premium look and feel. It might feel less refined to those who prefer the aluminum builds of the iPad Air 2 or Dell Venue 10 7000 , but it's heaps better than last year's plastic faux-leather texture with fake stitching accents.

The right side of the tablet houses the power button, volume rocker and microSD card slot. To insert a microSD card, you must use a small pointy object to eject the tray. A thick needle or paper clip should do the trick. On the bottom edge you'll find two speakers with a headphone jack and Micro-USB port in-between them.

The buttons are located on the right side. Josh Miller/CNET

Speaking of the edges, though the corners are nicely rounded, the edges themselves are flat. This gives you a surface big enough to rest your fingers on the sides when using it. The dimensions of the 9.7-inch tablet aren't as one-hand-friendly as the 8-incher, but if you have big hands you might be able to make it work. Still, holding it in two hands was an easy feat thanks to its light weight. The plastic back on the tablet has a smooth matte finish. It felt fine on my fingertips, but I preferred the suedelike finish on the back of the Galaxy Tab S2 8.0 -- it felt more comfortable and luxe.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is so easy to carry around, the barely there description of its presence is akin to an advertisement for panty hose or Invisalign braces. When I had it in my bag -- even with the 8-inch model in there, too -- I didn't notice the difference in weight, and it's so thin, it fit into any crevice I squeezed it into.

The 9.7-inch model is one of the thinnest large tablets around. Josh Miller/CNET

Aside from its convenient portability, it's very comfortable to use. Everything from gaming to reading felt pleasant and my hands or wrists never tired when holding it for a long time. Since it's made of plastic, similar to the Sony Xperia Z4 , it lacks the high-end aesthetic that aluminum-backed models have -- like the Dell and Apple tablets -- but it's the main reason why it's a featherweight.

If I were to use the Galaxy Tab S2 every day during a commute or every night while reading before bed, I'd definitely pick the lightweight nature of the plastic construction over the finesse of an aluminum design. It's easier on your hands and wrists, and no sweat to carry around everywhere. Despite its other great attributes, I'd have to say that its minimal design, aesthetically and physically, is my favorite thing about the Samsung tablet. However, compared to its 8-inch sibling, the 9.7-inch S2 is a bit clunkier and for smaller hands, not as easy to wield.

You get a few free apps and magazine subscriptions with the purchase of the tablet. Josh Miller/CNET

Features

The Galaxy Tab S2 runs on Android Lollipop 5.1 with Samsung's TouchWiz overlay. If you've used a Samsung tablet or phone before, it'll look familiar. There aren't any dramatic changes to the UI, but the Flipboard-esque Magazine feature that premiered on last year's Tab S is notably absent. Considering there's already an app that closely resembles the reading-aggregator function, this isn't a big loss.

Like the Tab S, the new model packs a bunch of free goodies straight from Samsung and most of them lend themselves to the new reading-friendly screen size. Included with your purchase of the Galaxy Tab S2 are free six-month subscriptions to The Economist and The Guardian publications, as well as one for Pocket, an app that saves content for reading later. There's also a 3-month subscription to Scribd subscription, which is like Netflix for books, and free premium content on Stitchr, a podcast app. If you're into writing as much as you like reading, Samsung also throws in free downloads of the Hancom Office apps.

samsunggalaxytabs2.png
From left to right: multi-window function and home page of the Connect app Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Also like last year's model, the Galaxy Tab S2 has multiwindow functions and fingerprint scanner. The fingerprint scanner on this model works a bit differently; instead of swiping your finger down the home button, you simply place it on top of it. You can save up to four fingerprints. I found the functionality a lot better than on last year's model and, after saving all four of my thumb and index fingerprints, it became easier to use than the usual swipe to unlock function.

The Galaxy Tab S2 has a new Connect app, which is a hodgepodge of content. It consists of three main sections: Support, Discover and Promotions. The Support section has a variety of FAQs about using the tablet and access to video chat help with a Samsung representative. The Discover section features tips and how-to information, like how to transfer data from your old phone to the Tab S2. Lastly, the Promotions section has music videos, movie trailers and discount deals on other Samsung products, like TVs and Blu-ray players. If I were new to Samsung or Android, I'd probably appreciate the Connect app more, but as an old-timer, it didn't offer me anything to make me keep coming back for more.

samsunggalaxytabs2screenshot.png
An example of some of the "promotional" items offered through the Connect app. Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

Hardware

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 houses an octa-core Exynos 5433 chipset, comprised of a 1.9GHz and 1.3GHz quad-core CPU. It also has 32GB of internal storage and a microSD card expansion slot that's expandable up to 128GB. The Samsung website lists a 64GB version, but only the 32GB model is available for purchase, and Samsung hasn't released details on when and if that more capacious one will be available. In the meantime, though, Samsung's 32GB model is delivering twice the capacity of the entry-level iPad Air at the same price.

Other features include Bluetooth 4.1 with low-energy function (BLE) and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac MIMO -- which is faster than regular Wi-Fi.

The 4:3 aspect ratio is better for reading that watching movies, though you can still do both. Josh Miller/CNET

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