Tablet

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4: Sharp videos on the go

The large Oled screen on Samsung's Galaxy Tab S4 is great for playing games and watching videos, but the tablet has some way to go as a pseudo-laptop

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde.

Its best side is as an Android tablet for media consumption. Thanks to its stunning Oled screen, it is one of the few mobile devices capable of displaying HDR (high dynamic range) videos from Netflix.

This 10.5-inch display is not only larger than the 9.7-inch screen on last year's Tab S3, but it now looks more prominent because the top and bottom bezels have been reduced.

It lacks a front fingerprint sensor, unlike the S3. Instead, the S4 recognises you by using a combination of iris and face data. Dubbed Intelligent Scan, it is not as fast as the standard facial recognition on Android devices, but is said to be more secure.

Intelligent Scan even works when the tablet is in landscape orientation, which is unheard of (and unavailable for the Note9 or Galaxy S9 smartphones), though my left hand often ends up blocking the camera.

Samsung has upgraded the battery capacity to 7,300mAh, up from 6,000mAh on the S3. It says the S4 is good for 16 hours of video playback.

While it only lasted 14 hours and 10 minutes in my video-loop test, the test was conducted with the screen at full brightness, which is not usually the case for normal usage.

  • SPECS

    PRICE: $998 (Wi-Fi), $1,098 (LTE)

    PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (quad-core 2.35GHz and quad-core 1.9GHz)

    RAM: 4GB

    DISPLAY: 10.5 inches Amoled, 2,560 x 1,600 pixels

    CAMERA: 13 megapixels (rear), 8 megapixels (front)

    STORAGE: 64GB, microSD expandability up to 400GB

    BATTERY: 7,300mAh

  • RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 3/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 2/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 5/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

But its ugly side shows up when you are using it as a pseudo-laptop.

You can do so by attaching it to the optional Book Cover Keyboard accessory and enabling Samsung DeX for a custom desktop interface designed to improve Android as a multi-tasking, productivity platform.

DeX follows standard desktop interface conventions.

At the bottom-left corner is a Windows Start-like button that shows installed apps when pressed. At the bottom-right corner is a status bar with the date and time, volume control and search. Next to it is the Android notification shade, though it pops up instead of sliding down.

Pressing the Alt-Tab keys brings up Android apps that are open in a grid layout for you to cycle through. Drag the edges of app windows to resize them. These app windows all have Minimise, Restore and Close buttons at their top-right corners. You get the idea.

The keyboard itself feels slightly cramped. It is not too bad as I can still type about 60 words a minute on it. But it has no backlight or touchpad.

As a result, I have to rely on using my fat fingers to move and select things on the screen, which is not ideal because the DeX interface has a number of small icons.

I can pair the S4 with a Bluetooth mouse if precision is needed, though it is cumbersome to carry a mouse around.

Another input option is the free and excellent S Pen, which is pressure-sensitive and responsive. However, the S Pen's Air Command software that offers quick shortcuts for screenshot capture or note-taking does not work in DeX.

This inconsistency is one of the issues I have with DeX. Firstly, when you switch between DeX and the normal Android interface, you are warned that you may lose data as open apps may be closed during the transition.

Mobile apps that are not built for DeX (Samsung lists only 17 DeX-optimised apps in its Galaxy app store) still display in DeX like they would on a smartphone. That is to say, their app windows cannot be resized and you can switch only between portrait and landscape orientation, neither of which fill up the S4's screen entirely.

An experimental DeX feature tackles this by making non-compatible apps fill up the whole screen. But every time you switch between this full-screen mode and the default window mode, the app has to be restarted.

Unlike Windows, DeX lacks a snap assist function to align app windows neatly, for instance, to fill up half the screen.

Now, DeX has a few other tricks, like the ability to use the tablet as a touchpad and virtual keyboard when the S4 is attached to a monitor.

But, overall, it feels like a work-in-progress and its success hinges not just on Samsung, but also support from third-party developers.

I can work with these DeX flaws, especially if they are temporary. But the S4 does not exist in a vacuum. Consumers have other options for a two-in-one hybrid device that can be both a laptop and a tablet.

Samsung is not helping with the S4's pricing. It costs $998 for the base 64GB Wi-Fi model, which has a last-generation mobile processor with only 4GB of RAM.

This is more than the Apple iPad Pro ($968), although Samsung bundles its stylus for free, unlike Apple. But you still need the keyboard cover ($228) for the laptop experience, bringing the total bill to $1,226.

Yes, this is cheaper than Apple's equivalent ($1,354 for tablet, stylus and keyboard), but Apple's platform has the lion's share of third-party tablet-optimised apps.

And then there is Microsoft. The new Surface Pro starts at $618, but even with the higher-end $828 model, it costs $1,114 with its keyboard and stylus accessories. Not to mention that Windows 10 is more of a productivity platform than its competitors.

In other words, the Galaxy S4 is a hard sell for productivity unless you must have Android app support. In which case, I would suggest a Chromebook because these laptops (some can transform into a tablet, too) now support Google Play Store.

But if you are talking about playing games, reading e-books and watching videos, the S4 is one of the best tablets for the job.

• Verdict: The Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 improves on last year's tablet for media consumption. But its multi-tasking, productivity-slanted DeX mode is not ready for prime time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2018, with the headline 'Sharp videos on the go'. Print Edition | Subscribe