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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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

Performance

Last year's Galaxy Tab S had one best screens I've seen on a tablet. The Super AMOLED display stunned with incredibly dark black levels, radiant brightness and vibrantly saturated colors. The Galaxy Tab S2 follows in those footsteps, but with a smaller and brighter screen.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 Apple iPad Air 2 Dell Venue 10 7000 Sony Xperia Z4
Maximum brightness 331 cd/m2 413 cd/m2 235 cd/m2 247 cd/m2
Screen resolution 2,048x1,536 2,048x1,536 2,560x1,600 2,560x1,600
Pixels per inch 264ppi 264ppi 302ppi 298ppi
Aspect ratio 4:3 4:3 16:9 16:9

Its 9.7-inch screen and 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution is a step down from the 10.4-inch screen and 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution on the Tab S, though both have the same amount of pixels per inch, at 264ppi. The larger model has the same resolution as the 8-inch Galaxy Tab S2. They both look visually stunning, but since the screen is smaller on the 8-incher, it packs more pixels per inch, technically providing a sharper image. In a side-by-side comparison, the distinction wasn't very noticeable.

The difference in resolution from the new to the old model is barely discernible and the downsizing isn't a significant downside to the new model. The lower resolution is an understandable change, due to the smaller 4:3 aspect ratio screen. The size is more square than rectangular, and better for activities like reading and surfing the Web, while 16:9 is better for a cinematic video-watching experience.

Regardless of the difference in size, the screen is still one of the best found on a tablet. It's captivatingly crisp and colorful. The Galaxy Tab S2's screen cranks up the color with a punch of saturation that makes video appear more vibrant and cinematic. Green and yellow shades are most notably rich. HD video looks razor-sharp and the saturated colors and stark contrast on the bright screen make for a satisfyingly vivid viewing experience. Unfortunately, the luminous quality of the display comes with a downside.

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Yellows and greens are especially saturated. Josh Miller/CNET

The bright screen is great for visibility -- I can comfortably see it outdoors on a sunny day or in a bright room with lots of windows -- but details can get lost. When displaying an image or video with different shades of white, the brightest spots appear blown out and some detail becomes indiscernible.

For example, when viewing a video of an overcast sky, the curvature, size, wrinkles and texture of some clouds are indistinguishable at bright spots in the screen. It's as if a blur tool were used on the brightest whites, blending them together to mix one shade to rule them all. The Dell Venue 10 7000 (which isn't sold in Australia) fared better in displaying these details, producing accurate colors that appear lifelike. Though I appreciate lifelike color, when it comes to watching movies, I enjoyed the impact of the saturated colors on the Galaxy Tab S2.

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The TouchWiz UI is similar to last year's version. Josh Miller/CNET

Gaming

Large games like N.O.V.A. 3 and Dead Trigger 2 launched rather quickly, and so did each level in the games. In comparison to the Dell Venue 10 7000 , it loaded the first level of N.O.V.A. 3 about twenty seconds faster. (Data for the Apple iPad Air 2 and Sony Xperia Z4 were unavailable.) Thanks to the sharp Super AMOLED screen, graphics looked great. The slightly saturated range of colors made backgrounds vibrantly pop and dark scenes looked dramatic with high contrast and dark black levels.

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As seen on the 8-inch model, gaming graphics look dramatic and colorful. Josh Miller/CNET

When I initially ran 3DMark benchmark tests on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 it was running Android 5.0.2 and the tablet scored fairly well. After updating to Android 5.1, the results took a plunge. I didn't notice a huge difference in gameplay performance, but I did run into infrequent low frame rates during the cut-scene portions of games. We've contacted Samsung for more information about the effect the software update has on gaming benchmarks and we'll update when we have more information.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 Exynos Octa 5433 (1.3GHz quad-core Cortex A53; 1.9GHz quad-core Cortex A57) Mali-T760 3GB Android 5.1.1
Apple iPad Air 2 Apple A8X N/A 2GB iOS8
Dell Venue 10 7000 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3580 PowerVR G6430 2GB Android 5.0.2
Sony Xperia Z4 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 81064-bit octa-core Adreno 430 3GB Android 5.0.2

N.O.V.A. 3 Level 1 load time (in seconds)

Dell Venue 10 7000
41.6
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7
26.3

Note:

Shorter bars indicate faster performance

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Sony Xperia Z4
24561
Apple iPad Air 2
21647
Dell Venue 10 7000
21004
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7
11759

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Editors' note: The Nvidia Shield tablet -- one of the best Android tablets for gaming -- was excluded from the comparison because it's been recalled due to fire hazards.

Battery life

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 lasted an average of 12.7 hours after testing it in the CNET Labs. That's slightly less than the 8-inch model, but still a good amount of time for a tablet. While using it, I only had to charge it every two or three days, and it fared well on stand-by. The Samsung Galaxy Tab A has a longer battery life, at 15.7 hours, but that's a cheaper model with a lot less going for it.

Cameras

Tablet cameras are more for convenience (document scanning, video calling) than the everyday photography on your smartphone. Most take underwhelming photos with washed out colors, evident graininess and a lack of vibrancy. The Galaxy Tab S2 is a welcomed exception. It won't replace your DLSR or anything, but with the bar set so low, it has some of the best cameras found on an Android tablet.

The center photo shows some of the on-screen controls. Xiomara Blanco/CNET

On the front is a 2.1-megapixel camera and it's not only good for video conferencing, you can also get yourself some decent selfies out of it. Pictures are crisp with enough detail to look sharp, but not enough for you to pull out a blurring tool for your blemishes. Color also looks accurate and it does pretty well in low-lighting. There is a bit of a graininess quality to the photos, but that's to be expected from a 2.1-megapixel camera.

You'll find an 8-megapixel camera on the back of Galaxy Tab S2. There is a variety of scene modes, including panoramic, HDR and virtual shot, which can take a 360-degree photo. Photos at the full resolution look impressively sharp and color accurate. The rear camera also did pretty well at taking photos in dark environments, though graininess increases when doing so.

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The pair of Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 tablets Josh Miller/CNET

Conclusion

If you're interested in a tablet for reading, watching movies and playing Hearthstone, you have many worthy tablet options, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is one of best. In comparison to its main competition, the Apple iPad Air 2 and the Dell Venue 10 7000 , the Galaxy Tab S2 offers more for your money.

The Galaxy Tab S2 offers 32GB of internal storage for $500 (£399) which is the same price as the 16GB models of the Apple and Dell tablets. (The Dell tablet is not available in the UK) For the equivalent amount of storage, you'd pay $50 (£33 if converted) more for the 32GB version of the Dell, and -- since Apple doesn't offer 32GB models -- you'd have to pay an extra $100 (£80) for the 64GB iPad Air 2. The Dell and Samsung tablets also have microSD card slots to further increase their storage capacity to 128GB.

The Apple iPad is arguably the most popular tablet around and its user-friendly operating system and robust App Store give it an edge over Android models. However, if you haven't invested a lot of time or money in iOS apps, and don't care about the Apple tablet's "cool factor," the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is just as good as the iPad Air for casual use. If you want a smooth performing tablet with a large screen that's easy on the eyes and wrists, the Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 offers one of the best deals.

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