Among popular tablets, there are small ones, with seven-inch screens, and standard-sized ones, with 10-inch screens. But for some users, the perfect combination of portability and usability lies in between, with tablets boasting screens of about eight inches.
The best-known product in this segment is Apple’s 7.9-inch iPad mini, which starts at $399 with a high-resolution Retina display. But Samsung, which makes tablets in a wide variety of sizes and types, is mounting its latest assault on the mini with the new $400 Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4, and I’ve been testing it.
The Pro 8.4, which uses Google’s latest KitKat edition of Android, is one of four models in Samsung’s new Pro series, which is designed to be both its premium tablet line and to appeal to people who consider themselves “professionals.”
My verdict: Samsung has done a nice job, but not a great job, on this product. Some impressive hardware engineering has been offset by weak battery life and a limited selection of tablet-optimized software.
On the hardware side, the Korean electronics giant has managed to squeeze about six percent more screen real estate than the iPad mini offers into a body that’s slightly thinner, lighter and narrower. And even though the screen is larger, it has a higher resolution.
The device is long and narrow, and Samsung says that while it can be held either way, it’s primarily meant to be held vertically, in portrait mode, which I found can make it a bit top-heavy and create the feeling that you’re using a really big smartphone.
The screen is vivid and crisp. Indoors, photos and videos really pop. But it was one of the worst screens I’ve ever used outdoors. In bright sunlight, it was often unreadable, and even in the partial shade of a screened porch, watching a movie was a less than optimal experience.
The rear camera is eight megapixels, versus just five megapixels on the iPad mini, but I found little difference in photos and videos I took for my tests.
There are also some hardware limitations. In the U.S., at least at launch, Samsung is only making available the base 16 gigabyte, Wi-Fi-only model. The company says a 32GB model will be available in some other countries. And it says it could also offer a cellular model in the future. (The storage can be expanded with an optional flash memory card.)
By contrast, depending on how much you want to spend, the iPad mini is available with up to 128GB of internal storage and with cellular connectivity.
The biggest disappointment on the hardware front for me came in my battery test, the same one I perform on every tablet. For the test, I set screen brightness to 75 percent, turn off power-saving features, leave on the Wi-Fi to collect email in the background and play videos till the tablet dies. In this test, the Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 lasted a pathetic five hours and 11 minutes, less than half the iPad mini’s time of 11 hours and 17 minutes.
As I have found with other Samsung products in the past, the company is far better at hardware than software. The amount of software clutter and duplicative apps has been reduced, but not eliminated, on this new tablet. There are still two app stores, two video players and two music players — a Google version and a rival Samsung version. Plus, unreliable features — like the one that tries to detect when you’re looking at the screen — are still available as settings, though not turned on by default.
But there are some better software features, as well. Unlike Apple, Samsung has for awhile built into its devices the ability to have more than one app open, each in its own window. Now, on this Galaxy Tab Pro, those multiple windows can float atop others — like on a PC or Mac. And they can be minimized to just a floating bubble, ready to be summoned again.
Another interesting feature is the new virtual keyboard. Samsung made a major effort to make it more like a computer keyboard, adding a Control key and a forward Delete key. This means you can use the familiar Windows key combinations, like CTRL-Z for undo. Some users will love this, others will ignore it.
Samsung has bundled a Korean-made mobile office suite, called Hancom, which it says was built expressly for Samsung devices. Apple and others also build in free office suites, but this one is meant to look and work like a PC program. It’s packed with rows and rows of icons and long drop-down menus, like Microsoft Word on a computer.
Finally, there’s the software feature Samsung is touting the most, something called the “Magazine UX Home.” This is a screen layout that eschews icons and even standard Android widgets for large, colorful, adjoining blocks containing photos, text and other content.
There are two types of such screens. One can combine a news feed with snippets from apps like email, calendar and the tablet’s built-in office suite. The other, a special Samsung version of the excellent Flipboard news-reading app, lets you browse through stories on a variety of topics, from Sports to Arts.
Samsung refused to comment on Re/code’s story that it had privately caved to pressure from Google to scale back its separate apps activities, which competed with Google’s own. But a Samsung spokesman did note that the Magazine Home screens appear on the new tablet only after more traditional Android apps screens featuring Google’s own apps.
A final point on software. Like all Android devices, the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 has access to an undisclosed (but relatively small) number of apps that are especially optimized for tablets. Most of the apps that run on Android tablets are stretched phone apps. By contrast, Apple iPad owners can choose from more than 475,000 apps that have been optimized to take advantage of the larger tablet screens, with added panels and modules and the like. (And the iPad can run all the iPhone apps, as well.)
The weak battery life and limited tablet software selection prevent me from recommending the new Tab Pro 8.4 over the iPad mini. But for Android lovers who want a roomier screen in a smaller body, it’s worth considering.