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Premium tablets are at a crossroads. It's no longer good enough to have great performance, an amazing display and stellar sound. If you're going to charge laptop prices for a tablet, you better make one that can be used for productivity tasks, too.
Samsung's Galaxy Tab S4 ($650, £599) attempts to do that, but instead of running a desktop OS, Samsung's done some clever software acrobatics to give you a desktop-like interface and the capability to use a keyboard, mouse and a secondary display if you want. And Samsung includes a full-size S Pen that extends the Tab S4's usefulness even further.
Powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, the Tab S4 is essentially an Android competitor to Windows 10 two-in-ones like the Asus NovaGo, HP Envy x2 and the Lenovo Miix 630 ($850 at Amazon.com). The big selling points for those are long battery lives and optional LTE connectivity so you can more safely work anywhere. However, Android performs better than Windows with the Snapdragon mobile processor, giving the Tab S4 an edge.
Still, priced at $650 for the Wi-Fi-only version from Amazon, Best Buy and Samsung's website, the Galaxy Tab S4 is pricey and that's without a keyboard (another $150). It starts at £599 in the UK, which converts to about AU$1,060. An LTE version (a Verizon exclusive to start, but will come to other major carriers including Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular later in Q3 2018) makes it a better idea for mobile workers. In a market filling up with inexpensive Windows two-in-ones and premium Chromebooks that can run both web and Android apps, the draw for a premium tablet like this is a little unclear.
The bundled S Pen is an excellent addition to the tablet experience. It's a full-size pen making it comfortable to hold and use and it doesn't need charging.
Press the button on the barrel while hovering over the screen and you'll get a menu of pen productivity tools. You can even write on the display without opening an app or even unlocking the tablet, which makes it particularly handy for jotting down a quick to-do or shopping list. While writing on glass still doesn't feel quite the same as a pen on paper, the S Pen tip has the smooth glide of a gel pen with just a modicum of delay.
For however useful and fun to use the included S Pen is, it's the Book Cover Keyboard that's really the driver for Samsung's productivity push for the Tab S4. That and the new DeX desktop-like interface that changes the tablet's Android interface into a desktop-style experience. The feature first popped up in Samsung's Galaxy phones using the DeX Dock and pad and for the most part the experience is the same, which is to say it's not going to replace an actual PC or even a Chromebook, but it works in a pinch.
You can switch to DeX from the S4's Quick Panel settings or, if you have the keyboard cover, you can have it change automatically when you sit the tablet up for typing. Attach a USB-C adapter with an HDMI output and you can work on an external display while simultaneously using the Tab S4 as a giant touchpad, or grab the S Pen and use the S4's screen like a Wacom tablet.
You can also continue to use the S4 as an Android tablet, so you could keep a video playing on the tablet while you continue to work on a PowerPoint presentation on another display. There's USB and Bluetooth mouse support, too, so you don't have to rely on the touchscreen for navigation.
What's irritating is there is no touchpad on the keyboard cover -- Microsoft managed to squeeze a usable one onto its smaller Surface Go cover since that device has a built-in kickstand. Actually, there are several irritating things about the keyboard cover starting with the fact that it's not included and is pricey at $150.
While I was able to type reasonably fast on it, it's definitely cramped and not backlit. The cover also sits the screen at a single viewing angle, which works for desks, but not much else. And despite being connected to the tablet by a set of magnetic pogo pins, the keyboard would intermittently stop responding.
Plus, as soon as you disconnect the tablet from the pins, the screen locks and requires you to put in your PIN or use the iris scan if you've set it up. That means every time I switched from typing to using the screen as a tablet I would have to wake it and unlock it.
Keyboard aside, the DeX experience is pretty decent if you're just looking to get some simple work tasks done without pulling out a full laptop. About to board a plane but need to dash off a quick email or make a last-minute edit to a presentation? The Tab S4 has you covered. Want to run a Skype video call on the tablet while you look at a large spreadsheet on a second display? You can do that with the S4, too.
There are about a dozen or so DeX-optimized apps including Microsoft Office, though those require a subscription to use for writing and editing. Other apps I tested like Google Docs and Gmail worked fine, though, and you can put them side by side and resize the windows. You can drag and drop between apps, but that's currently supported in Messages, My Files, Samsung Notes, Gallery, email and Gmail only.
App performance in DeX was generally smooth, but not without the odd sticky, glitchy response when moving windows around with multiple apps running. Text input in Microsoft Word seemed to be a bit laggy on occasion, too.
Although tablets can be good for work, they typically excel as entertainment devices and the premium Tab S4 is no different. Moving up in size from the the 9.7-inch Tab S3 (which had a screen ratio of 4:3), the S4 has a 16:10, 10.5-inch, 2,560x1,600-pixels Super AMOLED display. With its narrower bezels, though, it's similar in size to its predecessor.
The bezels are made possible because Samsung ditched the Home button, which was also used for unlocking the Tab with a fingerprint. You can now use an iris scan to do that, which can be frustrating to use, especially in DeX mode, since you have to line up your eyes with boxes on the screen. It generally works fast if your eyes are lined up right at the start.
Samsung paired the screen with AKG-tuned speakers -- four of them -- that have Dolby Atmos sound to make whatever you're listening to more immersive. The tablet was great for watching video, especially with the wider screen ratio, and the display has excellent color, contrast and brightness. Along with movies and binging on TV, I loved using the S4's big display for reading comics in the Comixology app.
Game performance seems to have improved from the Tab S3 as well. I played a few rounds of PUBG in my brief time testing. It automatically set graphics to high and gameplay was smooth as I jumped across the map, taking out opponents and snatching up loot. The speakers are loud and clear, but no substitute for a good set of headphones.
Samsung claims up to 16 hours of video playback from the Galaxy Tab S4's 7,300-mAh battery and it supports fast charging via its USB-C port. We're still in the middle of testing battery life, but in anecdotal testing it's lasted for about 7 hours of mixed use.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 doesn't disappoint as a high-end Android tablet thanks to a great display, good audio quality and solid performance. The DeX interface feels like a half measure, though, just good enough to make it worth having for basic office tasks. It makes more sense with LTE as well, so you can pick up and work anywhere without connecting to a VPN or sketchy Wi-Fi. As long as you know that going in, it might be worth the hefty investment.
|Samsung Galaxy Tab S4||Google Android 8.1.0; 2.35GHz Qualcomm 895; 3.24GB RAM; 64GB Storage|
|Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018)||Apple iOS 11.3; 2.3GHz A10; 2GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 128GB Storage|
|Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017)||Apple iOS 11.2.6; 2.3GHz A10X; 4GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 512GB Storage|
|Microsoft Surface Pro (2017)||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-7600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640; 512GB SSD|
|Samsung Chromebook Pro||Google Chrome OS; 900MHz Intel Core m3-6y30; 4GB RAM; Intel HD Graphics 515; 32GB storage|
|Asus NovaGo TP270QL (T-Mobile)||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 Mobile processor; 8GB 1,866MHz LPDDR4x onboard; Adreno 540 Graphics; 128GB SSD|