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Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 review: A small and skinny tablet with a supreme screen

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 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.

The Bottom Line The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2's brilliant screen, plentiful storage capacity and slender build make it a great tablet for everyday use at home or on the go.

8.1 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

Late 2016 update

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is among the best deals going in the tablet space. It has many of the same virtues as Apple's iPad Air 2, which starts at $399 (£379 in the UK, and AU$569 in Australia): both are slim, light, fast and fantastic for consuming media. But the entry-level 32GB Tab S2 starts at $250 (£319, AU$549) and throws in a fingerprint scanner, a dazzling AMOLED screen with 2,046 x 1,536 pixels, a stellar 13 hours of battery life, and a microSD slot for adding storage. It comes in two sizes -- a compact 8-inch model and a larger 9.7-inch version ($350 in the US, £349, AU$699) -- each with a 4:3 aspect ratio that's particularly well suited to Web browsing and reading.

That noted, the premium tablet landscape is abundant with great choices. In September 2016, Apple gave a boost to its lineup of iPads, increasing the base storage capacity of the excellent iPad Air 2 from 16GB to 32GB, and dropping the 64GB model entirely. That makes the adjusted retail prices as follows: $399 for the 32GB model (£379, AU$569), $499 (£469, AU$719) for the 128GB model without cellular connectivity, and $629 (£589, AU$879) with it. We don't think the marginal price difference makes the tinier, slightly less powerful iPad Mini 4 the better deal.

Google's Pixel C was the first tablet made and designed by Google, and it's built to showcase everything that Android has to offer. But it's pricey, starting at $500 (£480, AU$670) for the 32GB model and $600 (£559, AU$800) for the 64GB version, and that's before you spring for the $149 (£209, AU$200) keyboard accessory. And then there's Microsoft's Surface Pro 4. Equipped with robust processing power, a perfectly sized display and just-right aspect ratio, and a few critical add-on accessories, the Pro 4 has solidified the Surface's position as the gold standard for Windows tablets.

Check out CNET's head-to-head comparison of Google's Pixel C, Microsoft's Surface 3, Apple's iPad Air 2, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 for a detailed view of how the specs stack up.

Editors' note: The original review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0, first published in September 2015, follows.

With an exceptional design in tow, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0 gives the Apple iPad Mini a run for its money. The 8-inch Tab S2 is thinner and lighter than both the iPad Mini 4 and the Dell Venue 8 7000, and it offers twice the amount of internal storage for the same price as each of them. (A 9.7-inch version of the Tab S2 is also available, and is otherwise almost identical.)

Running Samsung's Android-based TouchWiz user-interface, the tablet is similar to the company's flagship Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge smartphones, which also utilize the UI. Though it lacks an exciting or cutting-edge feature, the absence of a gimmicky factor doesn't change the fact that the Galaxy Tab S2 is one of the best Android tablets available.

It has a spectacular HD screen with vivid color and this new model sports a 4:3 aspect ratio (last year's Tab S had a wider 16:9 screen that was geared toward video watching) that's prime for reading, apps and surfing the Web. It also features consistently smooth performance, a fingerprint scanner and decent cameras -- a rarity for a tablet. All of that is packed into a superskinny and featherweight design that looks cool, feels comfortable to hold, and is so compact, it'll barely make a dent in your bag.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 doesn't come cheap, starting at $400 for the 32GB model, yet it's a worthwhile investment if you're interested in an Android tablet for everyday use. Its petite dimensions make it a perfect portable companion for an everyday commute or travel. A great iPad alternative with sleek design, vibrant and sharp screen, plentiful storage.

Editors' note: The 8-inch (reviewed here) 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 available. It's a mere 5.6mm thin and 0.58-pound (265g) light, slightly edging out its main competition, the Dell Venue 8 7000 and Apple iPad Mini 4.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0 Apple iPad Mini 4 Dell Venue 8 7000
Weight 0.58 pound (265g) 0.65 pound (298.8g) 0.67 pound (306g)
Width (landscape) 7.8 inches (198.6mm) 8 inches (203.2 mm) 8.5 inches (216mm)
Height 5.3 inches (134.8mm) 5.3 -inches (134.8 mm) 4.9 inches (124mm)
Depth 0.22 inch (5.6mm) 0.24 inch (6.1mm) 0.24 inch (6mm)
Side bezel width (landscape) 0.56 inch (14.2mm) N/A top bezel: 0.18 inch (4.6mm); other: 0.69 inch (17mm)

Its design itself is sleek with a premium look and feel. The build might feel cheap to some who prefer the aluminum backs of the iPad Mini 4 or Dell Venue 8 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 between them.

The buttons slightly protrude from the edge. 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 8-inch tablet are just right for one-handed use. Even with my small hands, I could comfortably hold it with a secure grip. The smooth suede-like finish on the back is also comfortable against your fingertips -- it almost doesn't feel like plastic.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is so easy to carry around, the barely-there description of its presence is akin to an advertisement for pantyhose or Invisalign braces. When I had it in my bag -- even with the 9.7-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 thinnest tablet to date. Josh Miller/CNET

Aside from it's 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. The plastic build lacks the high-end aesthetic that aluminum-backed models -- like the Dell Venue 8 7000 and Apple iPad Mini 4 -- have, however it's the 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 wrist, 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.

The back has a suede-like feel. 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, however the Flipboard-esque Magazine feature that was 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 6-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 three-month subscription to Scribd, 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: multiwindow 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 a 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 that of 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 as well as 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 was 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; Samsung hasn't released details on when and if the 64GB one be available.

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 TouchWiz UI hasn't changed much. 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 8.0 Dell Venue 8 7000 Apple iPad Air 2
Maximum brightness 331 cd/m2 368 cd/m2 413 cd/m2
Screen resolution 2,048x1,536 2,560x1,600 2,048x1,536
Pixels per inch 320ppi 361ppi 264ppi
Aspect ratio 4:3 16:9 4:3

Its 8-inch screen and 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution is a step down from the 8.4-inch screen and 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution on the Tab S. The difference in resolution is barely discernable and the difference isn't a significant downside to the new model. The lower resolution is an understandable change, due to 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.

Colors on the screen are vibrantly saturated. Josh Miller/CNET

Regardless of the difference in size, the screen is still one of the best found on a tablet. It's captivatingly crisp and a 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.

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 -- however 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.

The small screen is better for reading and surfing the Web, than watching video and gaming. Josh Miller/CNET

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 was used on the brightest whites, blending them together to mix one shade to rule them all. The Dell Venue 8 7000 fared better in displaying these details, producing accurate colors that appear life-like. Though I appreciate lifelike color, when it comes to watching movies, I enjoyed the impact of the saturated colors on the Galaxy Tab S2.

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 8 7000, it loaded the first level of N.O.V.A. 3 twice as fast. 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.

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 game play performance, but I did run into infrequent low frame rates during the cut-scene portions of games. We've reached out to Samsung for more information of 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 8.0 Exynos Octa 5433 (1.3GHz quad-core Cortex A53; 1.9GHz quad-core Cortex A57) Mali-T760 3GB Android 5.1.1
Dell Venue 8 7000 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3580 PowerVR G6430 2GB Android 5.1

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

Dell Venue 8 7000
36
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0
12.6

Note:

Shorter bars indicate faster performance

3DMark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

Dell Venue 8 7000
21,167
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0
11,877

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

After testing the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 in the CNET labs, it notched an average battery life of 13.2 hours. That's pretty darn good for a tablet. While using it casually, I only had to charge it every two or three days, and it fared well on stand-by; after fully charging it and not using it for two days, it still had a healthy 91 percent of battery life left.

One of the better tablet cameras around. Josh Miller/CNET

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 that is not only good for video conferencing, but you can also get yourself some decent selfies out of it. Pictures are crisp with enough detail to look sharp, but not enough to necessitate that you 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 is accurate. The rear camera also did pretty well at taking photos in dark environments, though graininess increases when doing so.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is also available in a larger model that's better for watching movies and gaming. Josh Miller/CNET

Conclusion

Everything about the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is incrementally better than the Galaxy Tab S. It's not exceptional, and it doesn't break the mold, but it's a fine successor to last year's version. That said, it's still one of the best Android tablets available. Compared to similarly sleek and slim Dell and Apple tablets, it's also a better deal.

The 16GB models of the Apple iPad Mini 4 and Dell Venue 8 7000 go for $400 at retail price. For the same price, you can get the Galaxy Tab S2 with 32GB -- double the amount of storage. The Dell and Samsung tablets also have microSD card slots, whereas the Apple model does not. The leg-up the iPad has on the two Android-based models is the Apps Store's vast selection of apps and iOS 9's eye-pleasing and user-friendly UI. The Dell Venue 8 7000 and Galaxy Tab S2 have similar performance (we've yet to review the iPad Mini 4), so the choice between the two comes down to picking 16Gb or 32GB of internal storage and personal aesthetic preference.

It's increasingly hard for a tablet to stand out in such a saturated market. Without a highly marketable gimmick or a fruit logo on its back, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 can blend into the crowd as just another Android, but its supremely skinny design, stellar screen and ample storage capacity should catch the eye of anyone interested in a tablet for a daily commute, traveling or reading before bed. It's not exactly the Android version of the iPad, but it's close enough and cheaper for it.

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