Samsung Galaxy Tab S: One big blemish mars great Android tablet

A great screen and an elegant casing are sullied by a fingerprint sensor that barely works

Samsung's been on a downslide lately when it comes to its hardware designs. The nice-looking Galaxy S 4 was followed by the plasticky Galaxy S5, and while the various Galaxy Note and Galaxy Tab tablets have not been ugly, neither have they been pretty. Samsung's last high-profile tablet, the 12-inch Galaxy Note Pro, turned out to be an awkward device that no one talks about any more.

So it was a nice surprise to get my hands on Samsung's new Galaxy Tab S. The admittedly iPad-like casing is very attractive, adding up to the first elegant Android tablet. (The HTC One achieved elegance for Android smartphones a year ago.) The screen is simply gorgeous, dispelling my fears that its amped-up, "Miami Vice"-like colors would feel unnatural. Even the tiny speakers have rich sound.

[ Review: iPad Air and Retina iPad Mini won't knock your socks off. | Media tablet showdown: Retina iPad Mini faces newly beefed-up challengers. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

A useless fingerprint sensorWith one big exception, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S is the ideal Android tablet today. That exception is its fingerprint sensor, which works terribly. Apple's iPhone 5s Touch ID fingerprint sensor shows how such technology should work: You rest your finger briefly on a sensor pad to unlock the device or authorize a transaction. You can also teach it to use more than one finger.

Unfortunately, Samsung rushed its fingerprint-sensing effort in an obvious attempt to clone an Apple feature without doing it right. Remember those PCs a decade ago that had a sensor bar you could slide your finger across to unlock them? That's how the Galaxy Tab S's fingerprint sensor works: You slide your finger across the Home button. (And it recognizes only one finger.)

But that old-school technology almost never reads the fingerprint, rendering the feature useless on the Galaxy Tab S. You'll need to keep using a manually entered password -- sadly, a faster method. By contrast, the iPhone 5s's fingerprint sensor is so fast and accurate that you'll likely forget your password with repeated use.

A beautifully intense screenSamsung has long tended to oversaturate its screens' colors, creating a cartoonish color palette that draws your gaze but can feel unnatural. The Galaxy Tab S amps up that already aggressive palette, but somehow it doesn't feel garish. Instead, it feels vibrant and intense in an appealing way.

But the rest of Samsung's claims about its SuperAMOLED screens' superiority versus the iPad's are untrue. First, the Galaxy Tab S has a decidedly bluish color cast, so text is a bit harder to read than on the iPad's true-white display. Of course, that bluish tinge amps up the overall color palette, so a Galaxy Tab S's games and photos feel more intense than on an iPad. The iPad's screen is better for reading, while the Galaxy Tab S's display is more suited for graphical apps.

Samsung has also touted the Galaxy Tab S's ability to adjust its display based on ambient light conditions, particularly how it makes text extremely readable in bright sunlight. Yes, the Galaxy Tab S adjusts its screen brightness automatically if you enable that setting -- but so do most other tablets. It handles these adjustments well, but it's no better than an iPad in this regard. Also, the iPad's screen is actually easier to read in bright light than the Galaxy Tab S's screen, mainly because of the iPad's true-white color cast. In terms of readable brightness, the two devices are on par in both low light and bright light.

Where Samsung's claims about the Galaxy Tab S's screen are true is in comparison to most competing Android devices, as well as Amazon.com's Kindle Fire line. The Galaxy Tab S's screen is no better than the iPad (though usually on par), but it is better than the screens of all other Android and Kindle tablets I've tested.

A move to saner softwareIn the last two years, Samsung has been in a tizzy about being innovative, parading its execs at conferences worldwide to describe a future of a Samsung-dominated digital living room. Every fourth word in those speeches was "innovation." The result was a lot of half-baked software, epitomized by the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and a series of home entertainment technologies that have gone nowhere.

The last gasp of that tizzy seems to have been the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, characterized by a multiwindow mode that overwhelmed its hardware capabilities, which a device maker should have noticed before shipping such an "innovation."

The good news is that the software in the Galaxy Tab S is much saner. You won't find the half-baked apps sported by the Galaxy S 4, for example. And the Galaxy Tab S uses the same side-by-side window approach found in Microsoft's Windows 8 tablets and Samsung's own Android tablets before the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 disaster. In other words, you can run two apps side by side on the Galaxy Tab S, without slowing the tablet to a crawl.

As a result of Samsung's newfound restraint, the Galaxy Tab S is more like other Android tablets in terms of how it works and the apps you'll likely use.

At the same time, Samsung has added its own enhancements to the device's Android 4.4 KitKat OS. Even better, the enhancements are sensible, such as the app tray you get from sliding your finger from the right edge of the screen, or the optional quick-access app bar that you can show and hide at a touch. Samsung has also kepts its nicely designed, richer version of the Settings app and the notification tray.

The best Android tablet yetI tested the Galaxy Tab S 8.4, its "small tablet" size. That model costs $400 -- the same as an iPad Mini -- and comes with 16GB of RAM and Wi-Fi connectivity, in your choice of white or bronze bezels. The full-size Galaxy Tab S 10.5 costs $100 more. If you want to add storage capacity, you can insert an SD card into the Galaxy Tab S. If you want a cellular model, you're out of luck: Samsung doesn't offer a Galaxy Tab S with this capability yet, though it says it will in the future.

All in all, the Galaxy Tab S is the best Android tablet you can get. From a hardware design perspective, it holds up nicely against the iPad while making other Android tablets look cheap. Too bad the fingerprint sensor doesn't really work.

This story, "Samsung Galaxy Tab S: One big blemish mars great Android tablet," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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