Samsung Galaxy TabPRO 10.1 review: “Pro” in name only
There’s a certain minimum threshold that a product should be required to meet before it can rightfully wear the “pro” label. It should offer high-end specifications and enhanced capabilities over its more mundane, “non-pro” counterparts. Ideally, it should appeal to the consumer looking for a more versatile, more capable product. Above all, it should offer a top-notch customer experience.
With the Galaxy TabPRO 10.1, Samsung gets some of that right. This Galaxy Tab is far and away the most powerful yet produced, with capabilities never before offered on the company’s midrange tablet line. On the spec sheet alone, it blows away its immediate predecessor, the 10-inch version of the Galaxy Tab 3 we reviewed back in July. And it improves on that model’s industrial design as well, porting the high-end aesthetic elements of the Note line to the Tab family.
Yet the new Tab stumbles in the most important area of all: user experience. Because while its hardware may be impressive, its software is … less so. It’s not enough to render the TabPRO 10.1 un-buyable –there’s a lot to like here– but it’s certainly enough to warrant a more thorough vetting process than usual if you’re thinking of taking this tablet home.
Fortunately, we’re here to do some of that work for you. Join us after the jump for our Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 review!
Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1 Review Video
Hardware & Specs
To its credit, Samsung has apparently taken some feedback to heart when designing the new TabPRO family. Gone is the slick, slimy plastic of previous generations, the glossy “hyperglaze” replaced with the same rigid leatherette as found on the Note line. The faux stitching on the border doesn’t seem as detailed as on the higher-end tablets (and the Moleskine metaphor doesn’t hold up as well without the Note name) but the aesthetic upgrade is still welcome. In the hand, the 469g, 7.29mm-thick tablet feels just solid enough, adroitly walking the line between portability and durability. As with all tablets built to accommodate a 16:10 aspect ratio, it’s unwieldy to hold in landscape and awkward to use in portrait mode; as such, it’s most comfortably used on a lap, table, or with a stand.
As compensation for the awkward form factor, you get a display that’s better formatted for HD video, with a pixel density nearly double that of Samsung’s last outing. The TabPRO 10.1’s Super Clear LCD doesn’t have the deep blacks of Samsung’s more typical AMOLED panels, but its 2560×1600 resolution delivers 299ppi and some of the most vibrant colors you can find on any tablet. Whether you like Samsung’s tweaks to the color palette will depend on your tolerance for high saturation (you can adjust the color dynamics to a limited extent), and we could stand to see some better side-on visibility, but this screen’s Nexus 10-like resolution should keep most folks happy.
Under the hood sits one of two power plants, depending on which version of the TabPRO 10.1 you’re dealing with. The currently available model –the version we’ve been testing– is the SM-T520, a WiFi-only variant whose 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM serve to back up its Exynos 5420 SoC. This is the “Octa” CPU, with four 1.9GHz ARM Cortex A15 cores working in tandem with four 1.3GHz ARM Cortex A7s, augmented by the ARM Mali-T628 MP6 GPU. (The alternate version of the TabPRO 10.1, the SM-T525, offers LTE and is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 instead). A microSD card slot sits along the tablet’s right edge, offering up to 64GB of additional storage to augment the ~11GB available to users out of the box.
Giving the TabPRO 10.1 its eyes and ears is the full suite of connectivity hardware you can expect from any non-cellular Android tablet in 2014: dual-band WiFi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth 4.0 LE (with support for DI, HOGP, PAN, A2DP, AVRCP, HSP, OPP, and HID profiles), an accelerometer, and a gyroscope. Up top, Samsung has included its familiar IR port for home-entertainment control, but that’s not mirrored by a USB 3.0 port down below as it is on the larger TabPRO 12.2; the 10.1 makes do with a typical USB 2.0 socket instead.
All that gleaming new hardware serves as home to some of the newest software around. The Galaxy TabPRO 10.1 ships with the latest and least resource-intensive build of Android, 4.4.2 KitKat, skinned with Samsung’s newest third-party UI, the Magazine UX. You’d think that among all this newness floating atop all this raw power, the software experience would be the smoothest thing ever.
Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
When we first went hands-on with the Magazine UX at CES 2014, Samsung positioned it as an alternative to Android’s traditional operating environment, with the latter offered only for those folks who still wanted a legacy home screen. It was a compelling (if polarizing) possibility that excited those of us disillusioned by too many insignificant iterations on Samsung’s bloated old TouchWiz UI over the years.
But the Magazine UX isn’t a reinvention at all. It’s an expansion of the existing Flipboard-powered Magazine app we found too slow and cumbersome on last year’s Galaxy S 4. Not only has the app’s sluggish nature gone uncorrected in the new iteration, but the plugins that were to have given it more utility are anemic at best. There are a total of fifteen application plugins for the Magazine view, most of them confined to Samsung’s stock offerings like the Gallery, Video Player, and Email applications. While third-party support exists for YouTube and Twitter, those two apps make up a full third of the non-Samsung offerings.
That wouldn’t be such a bother if the Magazine UX at least did a good job of displaying the news and social feeds it’s designed to handle – but it doesn’t. With out-of-box settings, it doesn’t automatically refresh itself: you need to manually tap each tile to get the news. (Samsung says this is part of an effort to conserve battery life.) When we tried modifying this behavior in the Magazine settings on our review device, we were treated to a few minutes of spinning-circle disease before a nonspecific “Flipboard error” put us out of our misery. And this persisted even after a factory reset.
The “new” TouchWiz
A few minutes of this lackluster experience is enough to make you wish wish the Magazine UX could be disabled (it can’t). But even the TabPRO 10.1’s “standard” TouchWiz environment isn’t up to snuff. The entire thing feels like a Bundt cake shoved into a too-hot oven for half the prescribed time. Widgets inexplicably vanish or slide off the home screen. The device often takes up to three seconds to wake from standby – even with S Voice disabled. In landscape mode, Multi Window is rife with formatting problems when used with such major apps as YouTube and Twitter.
That latter complaint is probably our biggest; Multi Window is one of Samsung’s most compelling offerings. It’s one of the company’s biggest differentiators and it’s the feature we most loved on the Note II and Note 3. To see it executed so terribly with major apps like these is a huge letdown. Even if the fault lies with Google and Twitter for failing to optimize their apps for dual-window use, ultimately the choice was Samsung’s to ship the software in its current state.
The company told us it doesn’t see the same error with YouTube on its test devices, but it is currently working with Twitter to solve the formatting problem. Hopefully an update arrives to rectify some of the above issues soon.
On the plus side, Samsung has brought a few enhancements worth getting excited about. There’s an increased emphasis on taps and swipes in place of press-and-hold actions, as evidenced by Multi Window’s new flick-out dock and the replacement of the capacitive menu key with a dedicated multitasking button. The multitasking ribbon itself makes much more sense in its new location along the bottom of the screen as well, where the persistent Google search bar also resides – another handy addition. For those planning on sharing the tablet with a significant other or family member, the TabPRO’s support for multiple users will come as welcome news.
Finally, Samsung’s WatchOn feature for controlling a home entertainment system is excellent. From initial setup to channel surfing to toggling mute if a call comes in, this is a well-thought-out application that stands to delight couch potatoes everywhere. If you’re the type of television viewer who splits your attention between the TV screen and your tablet when you’re vegging, WatchON is meant just for you.
Casual tablet photography isn’t exactly something we’d recommend: there’s no way to do it gracefully, and odds are the shooter attached to your smartphone is better suited for whatever you’re trying to capture. But manufacturers have persisted in bolting cameras onto tablets nonetheless, presumably because they’re useful for more than making you look like a moron in public.
The 8MP camera on the back of the TabPRO 10.1 is more than capable of handling any casual photo opportunity you toss its way. It adapts well to a range of lighting conditions, and its viewfinder software is typical for Samsung cameras: feature-packed, but also easy to use. Most importantly (for a tablet use case), the shooter is plenty sharp enough to photograph text to be scanned into a document, and here its narrow field of view actually helps in framing the shot to be scanned. The 2MP front-facing camera isn’t bad either, at least for its intended purpose of video calling and the occasional Dual Shot.
Video from the primary camera is surprisingly clear, with quick autofocus and exposure adjustments, though the frame rate isn’t the best we’ve seen, and the microphone is very susceptible to wind noise.
We tested the Galaxy TabPRO over the course of seven days in both home and office environments, doing our best to get to know most of the bonus features Samsung includes with the device. To the company’s credit, there are quite a few: while some of the “Galaxy Perks” offered to new Galaxy Tab buyers are mere trial software, a few of the bundled apps are quite powerful.
The most visible example is the Hancom Office suite, which offers word processing, spreadsheet creation, and presentation capabilities – all of it capable of running in windowed form for a desktop-like experience. There’s also Samsung’s KNOX security software, PC remote-in capability, and device-level encryption for the enterprise/security-minded crowd.
As you might expect from a device with a processor as powerful as the Exynos 5, the TabPRO 10.1 has little trouble with even high-demand games. There was some graphic distortion in Rise of Glory: Sky Defenders which we tentatively attribute to the non-Adreno GPU (this title seems happiest on Qualcomm-powered devices), and the Netflix app was on one occasion beset by some peculiar chop, requiring a restart. Otherwise, the Tab didn’t give us much trouble in the media department. Audio performance from the side-firing speakers was above average, as well.
Finally, there’s the question of battery life. The TabPRO packs a 31 Wh battery (8220 mAh, 3.8V) and despite the device’s high-resolution screen, it lasts a fairly long while. We’re able to average two days between charges even with heavy use, with screen-on time usually landing between 4 and 5 hours. Sadly, the TabPRO takes its sweet time charging – around 5 hours from empty to 100%. So make sure you top it off before a road trip.
+ Crisp, colorful screen
+ Powerful chipset
+ Bundled software adds value
+ Good battery life
– Magazine UX undercooked
– Major deficiencies even in standard UI
– Lengthy charge time
Pricing and Availability
It’s fortunate for the Galaxy TabPRO 10.1 that review scores aren’t determined solely by software, because it’s tough to overstate just how underwhelming we find the new Magazine UX. This device’s powerful hardware is just no match for the overwrought software foisted upon it, and it makes day-to-day use of the tablet more chore than delight.
It’s the TabPRO 10.1’s raw capability –the useful bundled software, powerful processor, sharp display, and excellent battery life– that will appeal to those more interested in function than form. If you need a powerful Android tablet and things like stutters, starts, and surprise bugs don’t bother you, the Galaxy TabPRO 10.1 may well serve as a trusty (if inconsistent) companion. Just don’t expect it to deliver on its lofty brand name without some prompt updates; we don’t know many “pros” who would put up with its day-to-day frustrations.