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Samsung's Latest Tablet Boasts Sleek Hardware, Confusing Software

Samsung's answer to the iPad Air is thin and light, and boasts a bright, sharp screen.

Last fall, Apple scored an engineering coup when it managed to shrink its full-sized tablet down to just one pound in weight and 0.29 inches in thickness, while retaining and even expanding its longtime lead over competitors in battery life. This svelte model was dubbed the iPad Air.

Now, in the never-ending race between rivals, Samsung is aiming to catch up. In July, it will begin selling a new flagship tablet, the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, which is very slightly lighter and thinner than the iPad Air — even though it boasts a larger screen. And it also offers impressive battery life, though, in my tests, not quite as good as the Apple’s.

Like the iPad Air, the Android-based Galaxy Tab S 10.5 will cost $500 for a Wi-Fi-only, 16 gigabyte model. A costlier model that can also use cellular networks is slated for later in the summer. Samsung is also offering a smaller 8.4-inch Wi-Fi model at $400.

These are the first of Samsung’s many tablets to carry the Galaxy “S” moniker, which the Korean giant reserves for its top-of-the-line gear, like the Galaxy S5 smartphone. And one reason for that designation is that the 10.5-inch model — the one most comparable to the iPad Air — is the first full-sized tablet to use a screen technology Samsung has been nursing along for years, and which it considers superior to the popular LCD displays used in most phones, tablets and TVs.

This technology is called “Super AMOLED,” and the company claims that it conveys numerous advantages, including truer colors, better contrast, less weight and thickness, and longer battery life. Samsung is so excited by this that a dense, nine-page guide to the new tablets issued to reviewers like me was entirely devoted to the screen technology, with nary a word about software or any other aspect of the tablet.

I’ve been testing the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, and I’m of two minds about it. I find the hardware impressive, including the display, though the color saturation may be a tad too strong for some tastes. But, as with so many Samsung devices, the software is a mixed bag. And one combined hardware/software feature, the optional fingerprint recognition, was a dismal failure for me.

The new Samsung is a bit longer and wider than the iPad Air. That makes sense, since its screen measures 10.5 inches diagonally, versus 9.7 inches for the Apple device. But it’s three-one-hundredths of an inch thinner, and 0.14 ounces lighter. For a full-sized tablet, it’s easy to hold for long periods of reading or viewing.

Since the big new feature here is the display, let’s start with that. Samsung explains that Super AMOLED doesn’t require a backlight, so it helps make devices that use it thinner and lighter. And, the company says, the technology turns off unused pixels to save on battery life. Samsung also claims that the display on the Galaxy Tab S has richer colors and better contrast than typical LCDs.

I’m not a display expert, but a company that is, DisplayMate Technologies, rated the display of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S as the best on any tablet.

To my eyes, and those of a colleague I asked, the Samsung’s display was very sharp, vivid and appealing. But both of us felt that primary colors were oversaturated in multiple photos — many taken by pros — of scenes where we had been present. To us, the same photos seemed to have more realistic colors when viewed on the iPad Air. This was true even though I was using the Samsung’s “Adaptive Display” feature, which adjusts the screen for things like pictures and videos in key apps, including the photo-gallery app I was using.

Whether digital pictures match reality is obviously subjective, and something that users will have to judge for themselves.

The hardware was fast and fluid, and includes a feature that the iPad lacks — a slot for an optional memory card.

This new Samsung did very well in my tough tablet-battery test, where I crank the screen brightness to 75 percent, keep the Wi-Fi on while collecting email in the background, and play videos back to back until the battery dies. It logged a very impressive 11 hours and 14 minutes, the second-longest result I’ve ever gotten on the test. The best was the 12 hours and 13 minutes posted by the iPad Air.

Samsung also offers an option called “Ultra power saving mode” that can extend the use of the tablet, albeit by changing the screen from color to grayscale, restricting you to only certain apps, and turning off Internet access.

Where this device left me unimpressed was in the software. There are some nice features, like a Kids Mode, and a free music-streaming service called Milk. There’s also a new, visually rich magazine app called Papergarden. And, as in earlier Samsung tablets, you can run two apps at once, in a split screen.

The tablet is also packed with free promotions that Samsung calls “gifts.” These include free subscriptions to various online newspapers and magazines, including Bloomberg Businessweek, and a year of free in-flight Wi-Fi from GoGo.

However, just as in its latest Galaxy S phone, Samsung has loaded a confusing array of duplicate apps into this tablet; generally, one from Google and one from Samsung itself. So there are two calendars, two browsers, two video players, two music players and two photo galleries, among others. In many cases, the device asks users which one to use when, say, opening a Web page or viewing a photo, but there’s no easy way to decide.

Samsung says it does this because its own apps support functions that Google’s don’t, such as stylus features used on its separate Note series of devices.

Also, the new Samsung only has access to an undisclosed, but limited, number of apps in the Google Play store that have been specially optimized for tablets. By contrast, Apple claims that more than 500,000 tablet-optimized apps are in its App store.

All in all, the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 is a very good premium tablet, especially if judged on hardware specs. I just wish the software was as impressive as the hardware.

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