At just a snip under $500 USD the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is around the same price as the Apple iPad Air, making the device Android tablet royalty compared to most affordable Android tablets on the market. It is clearly a top class device but is it really a genuine competitor to Apple’s iconic tablet? Mobile Geeks put the Galaxy Tab 1.0.5 S to the test to see just how far Samsung’s tablet making skills have come.
If there is one aspect of the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S that really demonstrates the state of Samsung’s engineering prowess, it is evidenced by the sheer thinness of it. At 6.6mm thin, it is very possibly the thinnest Android tablet on the market. The display on the 10.5 S also speaks quality, but hey, we are used to seeing Samsung flex its considerable muscle in the area of its Super AMOLED panels, so no surprises to see a good looking screen here. If there are areas where we have been critical of Samsung in the past, it would be regarding the plastic construction and finish employed on the flagship Galaxy smartphone series; we see in evidence once again on the Tab 10.5 S and in truth it does nothing to help it compete with the iPad Air. Let’s look at the hardware side of things in a little more detail.
Before delving deep in to the review, make sure you check out this detailed video review from our buddy Roland:
Galaxy Tab 10.5 S: Hardware Overview
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is, as the name suggests, a 10.5 inch Android tablet that sports a very high resolution, QHD 2560 x 1600 AMOLED display. The device is powered by the Exynos 5420, an octa-core that packs four A7 Cortex cores and four A15 Cortex cores. The Exynos 5420 is a more than capable alternative to Qualcomm’s equivalent offerings, with plenty of performance for gaming and other demanding tasks.
As with some recent smartphones, we are seeing a fairly generous 3GB of system memory implemented here on the Tab 10.5 S, which is good to see and should keep multi-tasking and app switching as smooth as possible, even with memory-intensive apps like games. In terms of internal storage the Tab 10.5 S arrives with 16GB of flash storage although a 32GB would certainly have been appreciated for a top-tier tablet. This is especially true when you can no longer install larger apps on the microSD in Android Kit Kat. There is a microSD card slot however which is always useful for storing larger files and music collections for example.
The rear of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 1.5 S is fitted with an 8MP camera which we would fully expect to out-perform cheaper, competing tablet cameras, not least because Samsung simply know how to do cameras. The sensor itself is equipped with Auto-focus and an LED Flash which should help with low light conditions. On the front of the Tab 10.5 S you will find a pretty basic 2.1MP camera that pretty much the equal of that we saw on the Galaxy S5.
Weighing in at only 465 grams with a thickness of of 6.6mm, the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is both lighter and thinner than the Apple iPad Air. It is great to see that Apple is not alone in creating a thin and light device of the same ilk as the iconic Air. The Tab 10.5 S puts most other tablets in the shade, but proves that an Android tablet can indeed be as slim and light as the Apple iPad Air. The slim shell of the Tab houses a 7,900mAh battery that should also provide a good nine hours of usage.
There are other impressive specifications too, such as the inclusion of Gigabit WiFi (802.11ac) plus Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, MHL support and GPS. The model we tested was equipped with an LTE modem which has theoretical bandwidth of 150MBit/sec. Network connectivity is achieved with a MicroSIM card slot.
In short the customer is getting a very generous package that in the long term, will help to strengthen Samsung’s position of leadership in the Android tablet space.
Design and Build
As I mentioned earlier, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S takes its design led from other devices in the Galaxy series, most notably the flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S5. The one area of contention that frequently divided opinion was the finish of the back cover, a kind of dimpled effect that almost resembled leather. I was certainly no big fan of the design, which in fairness contributed the lightweight build of the S5 and managed to retain a quite business-like, almost briefcase-styling. I just felt that the plastic finish lacked the class that a uni-body metal chassis brings to a device. Devices from Apple, HTC and now Huawei have a much more premium feel as a result of the metal styling which might add a little weight, and will almost definitely mean forgoing a removable battery, but at the end of the day, it just feels more high-end than plastic ever will.
The finish on the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is indeed that same dimpled plastic, which does quite well to repel fingerprints, and feels good in terms of grip, but can feel a little greasy at times. The plastic finish might not scream class, but Samsung have tried to add some ‘Bling’ when it comes to the trim around the chassis which appears to be made of a bronze/gold material. Whether or not this combination of plastic and gold speaks to you in terms of class, is entirely a question of individual taste. One thing is for sure, we are getting a one of the thinnest and lightest 10 inch tablets that there has ever been, so perhaps we should be slightly forgiving of the materials used which can essentially be seen as a means to an end.
Samsung have once again done well in terms of audio speaker placement with a pair of stereo speakers placed at either side of the side edges of the device. This positioning works well and means the audio is clear and audible when used in almost all positions. Overall the design is sleek and attractive and you know you are getting a premium tablet, despite all that plastic. The introduction of metal as a build material may have reinforced the overall class of the device, but we will not dwell too much longer on that.
The bezels of the device are relatively thin compared to some other Android tablets but they are big enough when used in the hand. The Galaxy Tab 10.5 S also retains the hardware buttons on either side of the home button. A move that I am in favor of, considering that this space would not be used for any other purpose, and on-screen buttons do in fact encroach on screen real estate.
The are flaps along the edge that allow access to the SIM and microSD card slots, which can be a little fiddly probably due to the sheer thinness of the tablet’s frame. The device is not water or dust proof as we saw on the Galaxy S5 however.
Super AMOLED Display
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S LTE has the best display of all 10-inch tablets we have encountered. This is just simple fact. The extremely high resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 pixel display provides a pixel density of 287 pixels-per-inch and all content displayed appears very crisp and sharp, even if the panel of course does not reach the extreme pixel density of smaller displays with the same resolution. Indeed the user experience of the Tab 10.5 belies its PPI count, looking as good as anything out there.
The display of the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is of course a Super AMOLED panel, an area where the Korean company has significant leadership. The specific Super AMOLED panel in use here uses a strip-wise pixel arrangement that looks much better than previous PenTile Matrix displays we saw on the previous Galaxy Tab 8.4 S. The physics of the pixel arrangement themselves offers a much better viewing experience than the PenTile arrangement.
The contrast ratio of the Super AMOLED display is extremely high because basically the only pixels that are needed are the one that are illuminated. This means that if an area of the screen is supposed to be black, then it actually will be made of a non-illuminated pixels. Contrast ratio can be notoriously difficult to measure and I will not attempt to do so here, but suffice it to say that it is good.
When it comes to accurate color representation users may want to consider turning off the devices automatic color adjustment which can adjust how the colors on the display are presented. In theory the software should adjust colors to give the best color representation based on environment and light, but in reality the optimization levels are configured in a very aggressive way that makes the colors overly bright and resonant and a little exaggerated. It shows the full capabilities of Super AMOLED display technology but it fails to be natural.
The viewing angles of the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S are extremely good, to the point where you will find virtually no distortion or washing out even at the most acute angles. The display brightness is more than sufficient with readings at around 300 Lumins, which is actually some way off what we saw on the Galaxy S5, but it is still a very bright panel that offers good reading capability outdoors, a fact that is helped by the screen’s high contrast levels. Despite perhaps the temptation to ask for even more brightness, the panel of the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is exceptionally good and will offer a great media content experience.
Samsung has equipped the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S with a comparatively high-resolution 8-megapixel camera which is positioned centrally at the top of the back cover of the device, which I would consider this good positioning when several vendors have tended to place it in the corner where it can easily be obscured by your finger. The images produced are similar to what we have seen on equivalent 8MP smartphone cameras. No hardware image stabilization is offered, but one especial feature worth noting is the is the LED Flash located beneath the camera sensor which does a good job of brightening darker scenes.
How useful is a camera on a tablet anyways? A question to which I am not sure I can answer with any certainty. Nevertheless, in decent light conditions the Galaxy tab 10.5 S does produce some pretty decent pictures, but as the light recedes the quality is affected. In terms of image stabilization, Samsung does offer a software solution that works reasonably well, plus there are manual adjustable settings for ISO levels although the software tends to do a good job on auto.
It is good to see that Samsung has brought pretty much all of its camera features from its smartphone range to the tablet space on the Tab 10.5 S. The full gamut of settings await within, including image quality, ISO , White Balance and more. However Samsung has tidied up its the confusing menus systems that we saw on earlier TouchWiz implementations, disposing of some unnecessary features and functions along the way.
The stereo speakers of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S are well positioned on the side edges of the device, with small slits on the upper section of each edge that are so easily obscured by your hands when holding the tablet. The most obvious design consideration is that the very slim build of the device makes it difficult to integrate speakers of any size, so considering this handicap and the small cavity involved, the speakers actually have little to work with.
The audio playback during movies reveals a solid stereo experience due to the separation of the speakers which allows you to distinguish one speaker from the other. One down side however, is that there is a lack of bass frequencies, so the Tab 10.5 S can sound a little tinny. Overall, however the tablet offers disappointing audio that lacks bass and volume.
Performance with the Exynos 5420
As we mentioned earlier, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is powered by the in-house developed ARM-based Samsung Exynos 5420. The Exynos 5420 is an octa-core processor based on the big.LITTLE architecture from ARM. This means that it has a total of eight separate CPU cores, four of which are low power ARM Cortex-A7-based cores suited to less intensive tasks like phone calls, messaging etc, backed by four high-performance cores using the advanced Cortex-A15 architecture. The idea is that the A15s kick in only during more intensive tasks that require the extra beef (heavy browsing, gaming etc), but the smaller guys take care of other tasks, allowing the more power hungry cores to power down, thus saving energy. The Exynos 5420 also features the ARM developed Mali-T628 graphics core.
In everyday operation, the benchmarks prove that the Exynos 5420 is more than capable of powering a device of this caliber. The benchmarks however do reveal a disparity between the competency of the Cortex CPU cores and the Mali graphics core. While the CPU cores deliver impressive results in some benchmarks, for example AnTuTu scores breach the 35,000-point mark, bringing the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 in the top group of current high-end SoCs, somewhere between the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 (both using the top tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 801). The Exyos has to admit defeat in terms of graphics power, with only around 13,000 points in 3DMark Unlimited. This is quantifiable proof that the Snapdragon from Qualcomm and its Adreno 330 graphics remain top dog in terms of 3D gaming and other GPU intensive tasks, with the Mali some way behind.
That is not to say that the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is not capable of gaming. It ran the games that we tested admirably and without stuttering. The Adreno may in fact offer higher frame rates and extra headroom for most intensive games, but the Exynos is still a powerful mobile chip that impresses overall. One thing that we noticed is that the heavily modified and slightly cumbersome TouchWiz UI can at times prove to be a burden for the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S which can stutter occasionally during transitions, an issue we hope that Samsung can address in future.
Despite its slim and lightweight frame, the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S packs a pretty hefty battery with a capacity of 7,900mAh. In our testing we found that with 70 percent brightness and continuous web browsing and video playback the tablet was capable of running for 14 hours continuously, which is impressive for a device of this size. The effects of full brightness and of course LTE connectivity will be negative towards power drain. In an extreme case which includes cranking the SoC up to full performance, the battery will last for 4-5 hours. If you are a more casual user that tends to pick up your tablet only for intermittent use, you find that the device will hold its charge for several days, perhaps even a week. In cases where the device is left completely idle, the tablet will hold its charge, almost indefinitely.
Software: Samsung TouchWiz UI
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S runs the Samsung TouchWiz UI on Android 4.4.2 Kit Kat, as you would expect. The TouchWiz UI takes a departure from many other Android UIs we have looked at recently which have tended to sway towards the cleaner, more simplistic side of software design. Recently the EMUI from Huawei and MIUI from Xiaomi have impressed with very simplistic, but highly customizable designs that a leaf from the book of Apple in many respects. Samsung have stuck to their guns however, yet again creating a monster of a user interface that certainly may intimidate some users. This is the case as the larger screen of the tablet has afforded a few special features that can take some getting used to.
One feature that I cannot personally recommend is the My Magazine screen, which basically consists of a (slightly Windows 8 inspired) separate tiled interface that sits to the left of the main Home screen offering live feeds of data including news and social networking information. The supremely annoying thing about My Magazine is that it cannot be removed. The closest you will get is to remove all but one tile, a result that proves to be even more annoying.
Within the massive load of pre-installed apps there is surely some serious dead weight with plenty of third party apps that users are unlikely to want or need. Samsung is basically guilty of bloatware. We have mentioned this before of course. Personally I tend to prefer devices that play a careful balance between their own in-house developed app solutions and more establish Google apps. In the case of the Tab 10.5 S we find that the calendar widget uses Samsung Calender only, and not compatible with Google calendar. Again, this is quite frustrating and reeks of a company trying to pull you away from the Google app eco-system and pull you into theirs.
There are some positives. The multi-screen function works well and impresses on the larger 10 inch screen. Multiple apps can be arranged parallel to the display. You only need to swipe in from the right side of the screen and to be presented with a list of multi-window-enabled apps. The whole thing works well, allowing you to easily change the window sizes and open and close apps as you please.
Visually Samsung’s user interface certainly takes some getting used to. The design is dominated by various bright colors, which tends to enhance the impression of overload senses unfortunately. Once you get used to it the interface can be a lot of fun, but unfortunately, the large variety of functions and the complex visuals combine with the high resolution of the display to degrade overall performance at times. The interface stutters quite often when scrolling and during transitions. Perhaps less is more.
One special feature of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is that the manufacturer has opted to integrate a fingerprint reader, the first of its kind on a tablet as far we know. It is in fact the same sensor that you will find on the Samsung Galaxy S5, and if you have read that review, you will know that I am not the biggest fan. The fingerprint reader we find on the Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is just as useful to the one on the Galaxy S5, i.e. not so useful at all.
In my testing, I found the Galaxy Tab fingerprint reader to work correctly and identify my fingerprint only about 40% of the time. I am pretty sure that the vast majority of users of S5 have actually disabled the feature, and I am certain that the same will be true of the Tab 10.5 S.
The real disappointment however is that we have recently seen a much better implemented fingerprint reader on the Huawei Ascend Mate 7. The sensor used is of much better quality and the result a much more practical, and usable solution. Samsung take note.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5 S is without doubt a incredibly well-made tablet that really shows how much experience the Koreans have with such products. The hardware is so light and thin, it really is the best Android tablet in this form factor that I have ever used. In terms of build, performance and overall quality, it cannot be faulted. We used the more expensive LTE capable version in our testing and it has proved to be a great device for web surfing and even light productivity.
The issues that arrive with the Galaxy Tab 10.5 are more specific to issues that Samsung has in general and are not restricted to this device alone. A bloated software package with a complex UI that seems to be a visual attack on the senses at times, is not what we are looking for. The plastic finish (the one I promised not to mention again) needs a rethink, at least.
Overall the Samsung Galaxy tab 10.5 S is one of the best, if not the best Android 10 inch tablet you can buy. It is not cheap at 579 Euros/$500 (LTE version) but it is a very high quality piece of kit.