OEMs are trying to make tablets that can replace your laptop, but most of us know that tablets can’t really do such a thing for power users. However, these new devices try to balance portability and power, giving users a device that’s easier to take along yet can also get things done like a traditional PC. Samsung’s latest attempt at this type of device is the Galaxy Tab S4, the successor to last year’s flagship Android tablet. And this time around, the Tab S4 boasts Samsung’s desktop-mode software called Dex.
Samsung hopes that including Dex will encourage users to go all-in with Android as both their mobile and desktop operating system—at least when they’re on the go. But Android isn’t a desktop OS, and, while Samsung bills the Tab S4 as a multitasking powerhouse akin to an iPad Pro or a Surface device, it doesn’t exactly perform as such. Dex, while useful in some respects, leaves a lot to be desired. Starting at $649, the Tab S4’s mixed bag of software and hardware capabilities proves that Samsung may want to embrace Chrome OS in tablet form sooner rather than later.
Look and feel
|Specs at a glance: Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 (Wi-Fi only model)|
|Screen||10.5-inch 2560×1600 Super AMOLED|
|CPU||Octa-core Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz + 1.9GHz)|
|Storage||64GB, expandable up to 400GB with microSD card|
|Networking||Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, MIMO, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth 5.0|
|Ports||One USB Type-C port, microSD card reader|
|Cameras||Rear: 13MP AF, Front: 8MP flash|
|Size||9.8×6.5×0.28 inches (249.3×164.3×7.1mm)|
|Weight||1.1 pounds (482g)|
|Other perks||4K video recording (3840×2160) @ 30fps, included S Pen, Dex technology built in|
From purely a design point of view, the Tab S4 improves upon last year’s Tab S3 nicely. Its dimensions are close to that of the previous tablet even though it doesn’t have the visible or tangible heft of a 10-inch tablet. Samsung minimized the bezels and removed the home button to make more space for the 10.5-inch Super AMOLED, HDR-ready display, giving you more screen real estate in a package that’s fairly close to the 9.7-inch frame of the Tab S3. Even with its slimmer bezels, the tablet is easy to hold with one or both hands, and it feels sturdy. Like the Tab S3, this new tablet has a Gorilla Glass back and metal edges that give it a premium feel worthy of its high price tag. Our review unit had a white back, which didn’t hold on to many fingerprints (and even if it did, its light color hid them well).
The removal of the home button means the removal of the fingerprint sensor, but the Tab S4 has Samsung’s “Intelligent Scan” face and eye scanner instead. This technology uses the 8MP front-facing camera to make a 2D map of your face and identify iris patterns, that way it can scan for those attributes to unlock the tablet when you glance at the lock screen. Setting these biometric login options is quick and easy after you make a password or PIN—simply line up your face and eyes with the correct boxes shown on the display, and, within a few seconds, it creates your facial profile.
The tablet correctly identified me when it was positioned both in portrait and landscape modes, and it didn’t get tripped up when I had my hair pulled back or my glasses on. While it’s a quicker, more convenient way to unlock the tablet, facial recognition software isn’t as secure as a fingerprint reader. I loved being able to simply look at the tablet to unlock it in just a few seconds, but if you prioritize security, you’ll want to make a complicated PIN or password to truly protect the information on the Tab S4.
While some will miss the fingerprint sensor, the switch to software buttons is a welcome one. Unlike the physical buttons on the Tab S3, these on-screen buttons move when you change the orientation of the tablet, so you always have easy access to them. Samsung deviates from the regular Android button order, placing the recent apps button on the left, followed by the home button in the middle and the back button at the right, but you can go into the Settings app to change it back if you wish. The S Pen can trigger these buttons now as well, and a long-press of the recent apps button brings up Android’s Split Screen mode. You can choose which of your most recently used apps you want to pair side by side on the screen or go to the app list and choose a program you haven’t opened yet.
The Tab S4 uses one USB-C port to charge, and it supports fast charging. Aside from that and the headphone jack, the only other port on the device is the microSD card slot, which many users will appreciate that Samsung hasn’t abandoned. The device comes with either 64GB or 256GB of storage, but it holds up to 400GB of storage with the optional addition of a microSD card. That’ll come in handy for those with a lot of data, like photos, music, or movies and shows, that they want to access easily but don’t want bogging down the internal storage.
S Pen and Air Command
The biggest design change comes not in the tablet itself but in its S Pen accessory. The stylus that comes with the Tab S4 isn’t the twig-like pen that Galaxy Note users are used to—Samsung redesigned it to look and feel more like a real pen or pencil. It’s longer and has a cylindrical body and one side button that brings up Air Command when pushed when the tip of the stylus is close to the Tab S4’s display. Air Command is the pop-up menu that holds numerous pen-based apps and shortcuts, including smart select, screen write, and Samsung’s drawing and sketching app called PenUp.
The new S Pen may be my favorite part of the Tab S4 in terms of its design, as it adds comfort, ease, and flexibility to the tablet experience—and the fact that you never have to charge the pen is a bonus. Air Command continues to be one of the bright spots of Samsung’s tablet experience as well. You can customize Air Command to include your most-used apps, and two new features have made their way to Air Command, too: Live Message and Translate.
Live Message lets you create animated gifs out of pictures and writing. The Tab S4 is the first Samsung tablet to have Live Message, and it works well with the new S Pen. It has various input modes for handwriting, including glowing hearts and rainbow text, and you can choose how you want to format the gif (high-quality gif, low-quality gif, or MP4) before saving it to your gallery and sending it in a message.
The new Translate feature lets you hover the pen’s tip over words and phrases to translate them to a selected language, and I wish it worked as well as Live Messages. While the translations were correct, the feature wasn’t consistent in identifying the correct words I wanted to translate. Hovering over a five-letter word in the middle of a paragraph on a Chrome webpage sometimes resulted in the translation for the word sitting in the line above it. It also couldn’t translate some longer words, like “punishments,” and instead tried to translate portions of that long word. The feature identified the second half of “punishments” as “mecensts” and attempted to translate that nonexistent word into Spanish.
Accessory use and UI
The kicker of the Tab S4 is a piece of Samsung technology that most won’t be familiar with. Last year, Samsung introduced Dex, software that was built into docks that allowed users to turn their mobile devices into makeshift desktop PCs that run Android. The first Dex docks were designed for Galaxy smartphones, so users could stick their smartphone on a dock, hook it up to a monitor, connect a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and work on a pseudo-desktop that runs Samsung’s modified version of Android.
The Tab S4 is the first Samsung tablet to have Dex technology built in, allowing users to launch Dex with just the tap of an icon in the notification drawer or settings panel. Dex can be used on the Tab S4 alone or when connected to a monitor via a USB-C to HDMI adaptor, and the former is how you would really get the pseudo-desktop experience. A 10.5-inch screen is fine for on-the-go tasks and portable entertainment, but anyone who expects to be as productive as they would on a full PC will need more screen space.
The Tab S4 runs Android 8.1 Oreo, and when in Dex mode, it’s still running that version of the OS. Samsung modified the look of Android to replicate a desktop UI, and it didn’t do a bad job. On the bottom-left corner are the traditional on-screen Android icons for all apps, the app drawer, home, and back, while the bottom-right corner has an expandable bar that holds a bunch of things. The time and date are a couple of the mainstays, but it also has quick-access icons for settings, the on-screen keyboard, Dex help, and battery, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi management. Icons for any open apps appear next to the Android controls on the bottom-left corner of the screen, and home screen-style icons can be placed on the desktop wherever you want, just like on Android’s regular UI. Android diehards and even those only vaguely familiar with Android will easily be able to jump into Dex mode without feeling disoriented or confused.
But the quirks come as soon as you connect the Tab S4 to an external monitor. Unless that monitor has a touchscreen, you need to pair a Bluetooth mouse with the Tab S4 to control anything on that second, larger screen. Also, the tablet’s display defaults to landscape Android mode when connected to an external monitor with Dex activated—so the external monitor looks like a PC running Android, but the tablet itself acts and works as an Android tablet. The monitor doesn’t work as a screen extender, so you can’t move open apps and windows from the monitor’s screen to the tablet’s screen. I was hoping to be able to work on the Tab S4 as I would my MacBook Pro when connected to an external monitor, but that’s not how it works, and it was jarring to figure that out.
Some webpages don’t render the way you would expect in Dex mode when connected to a monitor, as well. Working in WordPress was frustrating because all of the boxes and categories I use regularly were streamlined into one column, but on my laptop they’re spread out across the webpage. This may just be a quirk with WordPress on Chrome in Dex mode, but it is made even more confusing because the same page loads correctly on the Tab S4’s screen when in Dex mode but not connected to an external monitor.
Samsung included its Book Cover Keyboard with our Tab S4 review unit, so I was lucky enough to have a keyboard to test the tablet. If you’re not willing to shell out $149 for this, you’ll have to pair your own Bluetooth keyboard or do without—and doing the former makes Dex mode even less useful. Since Dex is, essentially, a desktop mode, you need everything you would need to run a desktop PC for it to work as conveniently as Samsung promises it does, no matter if you’re in Dex mode on the tablet only or when connected to an external monitor. When using the tablet alone, it’s possible to get by just using the on-screen keyboard, but that’s not going to push the device past tablet-level productivity.
Like most tablet keyboard cases, Samsung’s newest is just ok when it comes to typing experience. While I could have typed this entire review on it, I didn’t want to after completing a few paragraphs. The keys are too small and positioned too close together for me to type most words accurately, and the delete key (represented by a back arrow icon) is painfully small. Each sentence I typed contained at least three or four misspelled words, and that minuscule delete key made it harder to edit my mistakes.
You also must suffer through Android’s inconsistent keyboard support when using Samsung’s keyboard case (and likely other Bluetooth keyboards as well). If you want to type in Chrome without the keyboard case, you’ll always need to tap the appropriate text box before the on-screen keyboard pops up, allowing you to type. When connected to the Book Cover Keyboard, you can immediately type a Web address or a search query when you open Chrome. However, if you use Samsung’s browser, you always need to tap a text box before you can type, regardless of whether you’re in tablet mode or connected to a keyboard.
The S Pen works identically in Dex mode as it does in regular Android mode, but Air Command oddly doesn’t work. At its core, Air Command is just a more accessible menu that caters to S Pen use—so if you can use the S Pen and handwriting-capable apps in Dex mode, why can’t you access Air Command? Samsung didn’t give a reason for disabling Air Command while using Dex, and it was a disappointing discovery for me.