After a quiet announcement earlier this summer, Samsung gave us our first look at its latest high-end tablets, the Galaxy Tab 2 series at its "London Unpacked" event in the UK. The latest in a long line of Samsung tablets, the Tab S2 builds on the Korean giant's 2014 efforts with high-end Android slates positioned at two key screen sizes — 8.0 and 9.7 inches.
The biggest change from last year's Tab S has to do with the aspect ratio of the new tablets' screens. Samsung has switched up to a 4:3 display on both models, while adjusting down to a screen resolution of 2048x1536 pixels, matching the iPad. On paper that's fewer pixels than last year, though both displays look spectacular — easily as good as competing high-end tablets, including Apple's.
Samsung's also keen to point out that the new aspect ratio makes its new tablets ideal for reading and web browsing. That's no great revelation five years on from the iPad's arrival, but it's true all the same. And now that more apps are optimized for a display of this shape — thanks to Lollipop and the Nexus 9 — it's easier to ship a 4:3 Android tablet.
On the inside there's a curious collection of hardware — an octa-core Exynos processor, but not the most up-to-date chip included in the Galaxy S6 and Note 5. Instead it's the year-old SoC powering the Note 4 in some markets. That's not a huge problem, though — both Tab S2 models performed admirably in our brief time with them, moving around the Android UI with ease, scrolling through image-heavy web pages quickly and easily managing multiple apps through Samsung's Multi window feature.
That's backed up by an ample 3GB of RAM and 32 or 64GB of internal storage, expandable via microSD.
On the software side, Samsung's TouchWiz UI sits atop Lollipop, resulting in a user experience that'll be familiar to anyone using one of the company's latest Android phones. Same icons, same clock widget, same apps, same color scheme.
Multi window is the killer app for a big Samsung tablet.
Fortunately system performance was smooth throughout, with none of the intermittent lag we've seen from some of Samsung's current handsets. We'll have to see how that changes over time, however.
Multi window, which we've enjoyed on Samsung phones for a few years now, really comes into its own on a larger display — particularly one with a 4:3 aspect ratio. The recent apps UI makes it easy to split the screen between two apps, and supported apps can also be minimized down to a floating window by swiping in from one of the top corners. While you're still limited to a small subset of apps, this is probably the closest thing the Tab S2 has to a killer app. It's taken Samsung a while to work out a decent UI for its multitasking setup, but what it's arrived at is pretty solid, and it works really well on a big screen.
Metallic chamfers like the Note 4, but there's still a good amount of plastic going on.
As for the hardware itself, Samsung offers up a cross between the Galaxy Note 4 and S6 line in its latest tablets. The back of both Tab S2 models is decidedly plastic — with magnetic dimples for connecting accessories — while the sides sport metallic chamfers like the Galaxy Note 4. Both are thin and light. Neither feels anywhere near as premium as Apple's iPads, but both are a substantial improvement upon the ho-hum design of the original Tab S (to say nothing of earlier Samsung tablets.)
It also seems like we've arrived at two screen sizes that make sense for most buyers. The 8-inch model is ideal for throwing in a satchel or handbag, while the 9.7 is big but not unwieldy. Beyond the difference in screen size, the only change is a slightly larger battery in the 9.7-incher, so you're getting the same experience whichever one you pick up.
The Galaxy Tab S2, in both its flavors, looks like a solid Android tablet. That said, there's no must-have hardware feature to tempt Tab S buyers to the newer models, nor does it match the industrial design or raw power of the iPad. Instead it's a refinement of the Tab S line at a price point below the super-high-end area dominated by Apple.
It's a safe bet from Samsung, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is due to launch globally later this month in Wifi and LTE-capable models.