Samsung’s latest tablets are saddled by familiar problems
If you want to buy a tablet that can possibly replace your laptop, there are two options most people go for: Apple’s iPad Pro or Microsoft’s Surface Pro.
Samsung has been trying to elbow its way into the productivity tablet conversation for years, but it’s never quite reached the level of Apple or Microsoft in terms of functionality, quality, or popularity. A lot of that comes down to the software: last year’s Galaxy Tab S6 was beset with bugs, confusing software, and unfinished features that just ruined the experience, despite the S6’s impressive hardware.
This year, Samsung is giving it another go. It’s sticking with its Android-based approach, but it’s now offering two different sizes — the 11-inch Tab S7 and the 12.4-inch Tab S7 Plus — to more squarely compete with Apple’s two iPad Pro models. The Tab S7 starts at $649.99, while the Tab S7 Plus commands $849.99. Both come with Samsung’s S Pen stylus in the box, and either size can be paired with an optional keyboard case for $199.99 or $229.99, respectively, which brings the total up to $1,079.98 for a Tab S7 Plus and a keyboard.
For those prices, the Tab S7 stacks the specs, including high-end processors, high refresh rate displays, quad-speaker systems, and even optional 5G connectivity. I’ve spent the last week using both sizes for everything from casual reading and video watching to getting my daily work done as an editor of a high-output online publication.
To get right to the point, I will tell you that the Tab S7 pair represent a marked improvement over the Tab S6, including in both hardware and software. They have incredible displays, fast performance, and far fewer bugs and issues than last year’s model. The Tab S7 Plus, in particular, provides the best movie watching experience you can hold in your hands.
But great hardware isn’t enough, and there are just too many places where the software is more frustrating to use than Apple or Microsoft’s tablets to justify the Tab S7’s asking price.
In terms of hardware, there’s very little to complain about with either model. The absolute best thing by far about either Tab S7 the display. The S7 Plus has a 12.4-inch OLED panel that is bright, vibrant, and pixel-dense. Colors practically jump off the screen, and the blacks are as inky and deep as they are on the LG OLED TV hanging in my living room. Topping it off is the 120Hz refresh rate, which makes every interaction buttery smooth. The 11-inch Tab S7 swaps out the OLED for LCD but maintains the 120Hz refresh rate. It’s also an excellent screen that is bright enough to use outdoors and has almost as punchy colors and contrast as the S7 Plus. It really only looks worse when you do a side-by-side comparison, so just don’t do that if you’re leaning toward the 11-inch model.
My only gripe with either display is that they have 16:10 aspect ratios and therefore a much smaller surface area than their iPad Pro counterparts. This isn’t a problem when you’re watching movies or YouTube, but when it comes time to get work done, the Tab S7 models feel cramped. That more rectangular aspect ratio makes them awkward to use in portrait mode, as well — I can manage to hold the Tab S7 in portrait mode for a short while to read a book, but the Tab S7 Plus is really cumbersome in this orientation.
The rest of the Tab S7 design is taken right from the iPad Pro’s playbook: an even border around the screen with rounded corners, matte finish aluminum on the back, and sharp-edged, squared-off sides. Unoriginal as it is, the fit and finish are appropriate for this price level, and nobody can deny the Tab S7 is a nice-looking device.
Aside from the obvious size difference and the type of displays used, the Tab S7 and S7 Plus differ in their biometric unlocking systems. The Tab S7 integrates a fingerprint scanner into the power button, which works quickly and reliably. The S7 Plus has an in-screen fingerprint scanner, like Samsung’s high-end smartphones. Sometimes in-screen scanners can be finicky, but I had no issues using it in my tests.
Samsung put four speakers into both Tab S7 models and dolloped a bit of Dolby Atmos and AKG tuning on top. The result is a loud, full experience that sounds great whether I’m watching a YouTube video, listening to some Spotify, or dialing into a Zoom call. They are almost good enough for me to forgive Samsung for not including a headphone jack.
Sadly, the microphones aren’t quite up to the same level. Those on the other end of Zoom calls said I sounded muffled and distant, despite my ability to hear them perfectly fine. Samsung was smart enough to put the front-facing camera on the long edge of the screen, so when you’re using it in the keyboard case the camera is on the top, not the side, just like a laptop. It’s not the best camera I’ve ever seen, but it does run laps around most laptop webcams at this point and is much less awkward to use than the iPad Pro’s front-facing camera.
On the back is a dual-camera system with a standard and ultrawide lens. They are fine, but what I’m glad to see is an LED flash, which is useful when scanning documents and was missing from the Tab S6.
The other half of the Tab S7 hardware discussion is Samsung’s optional (and expensive) keyboard cases, which allow you to use the S7 or S7 Plus in lieu of a laptop.
There are some good ideas here. For example, I like how the keyboard can be separated from the tablet and there’s still a part of the case protecting the back and providing a kickstand for watching video or drawing. It’s way more flexible than Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which basically forces you into having all or nothing. The back cover also keeps the S Pen in place when I toss the tablet in a bag and instead of the weird adhesive that was part of the Tab S6’s case, Samsung is using magnets to attach it to the tablet, so it’s much easier to take on and off.
But that flexibility comes at a price when I try to use the Tab S7 on my lap, where it’s all kinds of wobbly and unstable. I can make it work, but it’s way less comfortable than an iPad Pro, Surface Pro, or traditional clamshell laptop on my actual lap.
The keyboard and trackpad have good feel and action. I particularly like the new multifinger gestures that let me navigate the software with swipes on the trackpad. But there are annoyances here, too, such as the function row that can’t be set to media controls by default. I have to press the Fn key every time I want to pause music or adjust the volume. The 11-inch version of the keyboard omits the function row entirely, making it even more difficult to work on.
The trackpad also has terrible palm rejection, which sends my cursor flying across the screen erratically all day long, and you can’t disable the inverted (or “natural”) scrolling on it, which frustrates me.
I do not pretend to be an artist, but Samsung’s included S Pen stylus is easier to write with than the Apple Pencil, thanks to its softer tip, and I don’t need a matte screen protector to stop the stylus from skidding across the screen like I do with the iPad. It’s also nice to hold and doesn’t cost an additional $129 like Apple’s.
It’s not a controversial statement to say that the weakest part of Samsung’s tablet offerings is that they run Android, which hasn’t worked well on tablets in, well, ever. That’s still the case with the S7, though if all you’re doing is browsing the web, checking Facebook, and streaming Netflix, the software is fine. It’s when you try to do some more demanding things or branch outside the most popular apps where you run into some problems.
To try to overcome some of Android’s large-screen shortcomings in a productivity context, Samsung developed DeX a few years ago. It attempts to provide a more traditional desktop-like experience, complete with overlapping windows and a taskbar at the bottom.
To get to the DeX mode, you use a keyboard shortcut or have the system switch automatically when the keyboard is attached. The system will do a soft reboot and bring you out of the traditional Android home screen and launch something that doesn’t look hugely different from current versions of macOS. Apps are available through a launcher, you can see all of your notifications and settings in the lower-right corner, and when new apps open in a windowed box, they don’t take up the whole screen.
This is all a good idea, in theory. The thing that enables productivity on a desktop or laptop computer is the ability to have more than one window open at a time, whether that’s a second browser or document to reference while writing or a chatbox while you compose an email. It’s also a familiar interface that the vast majority of people are comfortable with, unlike the iPad’s unique approach to multitasking.
The problem is that even though Samsung has been working on it for years, DeX still feels like an unfinished project and it’s not something the base Android system supports well. DeX’s rudimentary window management has no window snapping or virtual desktops and is jarring to use when coming from a modern desktop OS. I can’t use the trackpad to select text in a webpage or app for some reason.
Then there are the bigger issues, like when crucial apps refuse to open in DeX mode (hello, LastPass) or don’t want to cooperate with Samsung’s hacky window resizing controls (looking at you, Pocket). Apps frequently just crash when I’m in the DeX environment, and if I close up the tablet and open it up later, I can expect that all of the apps I was working in will be gone. It’s just not something I’d want to rely on for work every day.
(Also, this is exceedingly pedantic, but the mouse pointer is rotated counter-clockwise a few degrees more than the once in Windows or macOS, and it looks odd and off-putting to me.)
Samsung has done a good job of making sure its own apps, such as the browser and calendar, work well, and Microsoft’s Office suite and Google’s apps stretch across the screen more elegantly. If you bail on DeX and use it in the standard Android mode, you can use Samsung’s multiwindow feature that lets you run three apps at the same time (much like you can on the Galaxy Fold).
But the reality is that the vast majority of Android apps just kind of look stupid on such a big screen. Apps I use every day, such as Feedly, don’t offer multiple columns, and Twitter is just a stretched-out version of the phone app. Even if they do format themselves well for the bigger display, few Android apps offer any kind of support for keyboard shortcuts, a particular pain point when I’m managing my inbox in Outlook.
All of that adds up to a frustrating experience when you’re trying to do anything more productive than send off a few emails or research a new vacuum to buy.
Both Tab S7 models have Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon 865 Plus processor inside, plus 6GB of RAM in the S7 and 8GB of RAM in the S7 Plus. In my testing, neither showed any slowdown or chug, even when bouncing between multiple apps and running a handful of tabs in the browser. I was able to chat with my colleagues in Slack, compose articles in our CMS, browse Twitter, watch Doug DeMuro videos on YouTube, and keep up with my RSS feed just like I do on a laptop every day of the week. Technically, Apple’s processor is faster than the Qualcomm in a benchmark test, but in the real world, the Tab S7 Plus feels no slower than the iPad Pro, at least for the tasks I ask of it.
Battery life, though, is a mixed bag. For typical “tablet stuff” — reading books or articles, browsing the web, watching video, playing games, etc. — the Tab S7 and S7 Plus have no trouble lasting 10 hours or more between charges. But when I use them as workstations in place of a laptop, that stamina plummets to less than four or five hours. That’s not out of line with my experience on the iPad Pro under the same use cases, but it does mean that I’m charging the tablet at least once or twice a day when I’m working. Fortunately, there’s support for 45-watt fast charging, though the included charger is a measly 15 watts.
At the end of my testing period, I mostly became frustrated because Samsung made some forward progress compared to last year’s Tab S6, and there are things I like or even love about the Tab S7. The hardware is top-notch, the display is perhaps the best you can get on any mobile device, and the audio experience is excellent. These really are the best media consumption tablets I’ve ever used, and I’d rather pick up the S7 Plus to watch the latest episode of Lovecraft Country than an iPad Pro.
But when you’re spending over a thousand dollars on a tablet and keyboard, it’s reasonable to expect more than just an excellent movie watching experience, and that’s once again where Samsung’s tablets fall short.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge