At some time in the last few months, I reneged an earlier determination to never purchase another tablet again, let alone a Samsung device, a few of which I had reserved choice words for. The logic seemed infallible – the Nexus 5 was fast and trouble-free, with it’s big engine but adorably tiny fuel tank, and I was enjoying getting more things done on the X220 than any machine prior. But then there was an irresistable group buy, and I picked up the Tab Pro 8.4 on a whim. I also considered the Sony Z2 Tablet, LG G-Pad and even the Amazon Kindle HDX. Fortunately, this story ends well.
First off, if you were like me, you probably heard about the Galaxy Tab series in passing over the years. After the 714th Galaxy Tab or earlier, you tuned out and declared Tabs to be commodity rubbish. Samsung, in their unmistakable way, completely flooded the Galaxy line-up with a mind-boggling amount of options that required a degree to decipher. So here’s the 30 second guide on how to understand the Tab lineup.
3 tablet types for each of 3 sizes, and 2 more on top of that? Haha, nice one, you nearly had me there.
We all know the Galaxy S smartphone line [1 to 5], and we also know the Galaxy Note smartphones with the little pens [1 to 3]. So far so good. Now, the Galaxy Tabs come in a few flavours. There’s the bottom of the line vanilla Tab [1 to 3] – these are currently available in 7, 8.9 and 10.1 inch versions. Small, medium and big. Do NOT buy these tablets, they have low-end screens with low-end internals, are thick like mouldy burgers and you might end up throwing them through a window one day through frustration. So if you see a Tab and it looks bad, it’s probably a vanilla Tab.
Then next up, there’s the Tab PRO line, which is available in 8.4, 10.1 and 12.2 inch versions. Also small, medium and big. These have very high resolution screens, and beefy internals, but generally cost a bit more, especially the latter two. They are NOT all the same internally, I’ll get to that shortly. If you can find one cheap enough, you can’t really go wrong. They generally have better and faster everything. If you see a Tab and it looks OK, it’s probably a Tab Pro.
Stay with me here, because it’s about to get sloppy, because Samsung then introduced the Galaxy NOTE in large tablet forms, which come in 8 and 10.1 versions, which are similar to the Tab series, except they have the stylus/digitizer setup, which makes them easy to identify. They found it pointless to go smaller than 8, because the Note smartphone is already huge. It’s about here that most people have an aneurism and faceplant into their soup.
Now, if that wasn’t confusing enough, somebody at Samsung must have been positively appalled at the gaping pinhole in the lineup because they released the Note PRO in a 12.2″ format. I mean, how did we possibly survive before this? Unthinkable really. So we have plain Tabs in all 3 sizes, Notes with stylii in all 3 tablet sizes, and the Tab Pros in also 3 sizes. Just recently, they introduced two more Tab ‘S’ tablets, in an 8.4 and 10.5″ format, they are supposed to be the ultra high-end models, like the S5 smartphone. They are thinner than the Tab Pros, and slightly more powerful, but arguably very similar. The easiest way to tell these apart is the Band-Aid texture on the back, or if your eyes start randomly bleeding when you’re looking at it because of oversaturation.
There’s probably other Tab models if you look under the cushions or in old socks, but let’s just forget about those for now, for everybody’s benefit.
This is the only Tab that should exist really. There, saved you hours.
OK back to the Tab Pro 8.4, what makes it different? Two main things which are crucial here – the first is it’s the ONLY Tab Pro to use a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (the 800). The 800 is used everywhere in just about everything, it’s like the ballpoint pen. There’s plenty of documentation and support, lots of people port ROMs onto SD-based devices all the time – it’s a known thing. All the others use Samsung’s Exynos processors. I’m not sure why they did this, it could have been something to do with the 4G version and radio bands. The Exynos processor is much less commonly worked with, and there’s not as much knowledge or support about them. This has been the case for years, because Samsung like to play like that. Usually the words ‘Exynos’, ‘exploit’ and unrepeatable words are included in the same sentence on developer forums.
Why is this important? Namely because many people, including myself, completely detest manufacturer skins and bloatware on devices. For performance reasons, for privacy reasons, for workflow and productivity reasons. It’s like buying a car and then the dealership figuring that you’d probably like flouro-green leather and pink lining all over the place, as well as a megaphone on top to broadcast your secrets. Don’t like it? Too bad. Often, even freezing or removing the individual programs doesn’t remove the manufacturer’s framework from the device, or the dozens of phone-home processes, or many bits of useless fluff included. When people complain about Android devices, they usually refer to the carrier bloatware or unremoveable programs, not the hardware.
The solution is a ground-up clean ROM (CyanogenMod or AOSP-based), or a vanilla Google Play Experience/Nexus device, or nothing. You simply can’t force a custom ROM to run on hardware it’s not compatible with. In reality, this has been confirmed to be the case – as of now, there are exactly zero AOSP-based ROMs for the other Tab Pros, only the 8.4. The ROMs available for the 10″ and 12″ versions are based off the Samsung ROMs, with bits selectively removed or modded, but essentially still Samsung underneath. It’s like buying a brand name PC from a big-box store, going to add/remove programs and ‘uninstalling’ some junk toolbar programs and declaring the machine as good as a clean install. It’s not. If you’re even remotely technical, alarm bells should be ringing.
The second reason the 8.4 is worthwhile is the screen – it’s a 2560×1600 LCD panel in a 8.4″ format, which is delicious (359 ppi, higher than the iPad Mini w/Retina). Honestly, as entertaining as it is to watch manufacturers try to out-spec each other, I don’t think anything much higher is required, as can be seen by the current reviews of the LG G3 (with it’s absurd 538 ppi screen). At a certain point, people just can’t discern, and the tradeoffs add up.
In short, we’ve reached peak PPI.
The good news is the screen overall is good: brightness is good, viewing angles are impressive, colour saturation is pleasant, probably because it’s not an AMOLED screen. Physically, the screen area is around 3x the Nexus 5. It has other good bits, 802.11AC for that eventual AC upgrade, Bluetooth 4.0LE, MHL, OTG and for the road warriors – MicroSD slot (I tested a 64GB card without issue). Charging requires a 1A source, so your phone MicroUSB chargers should have no issues.
Physically, it feels light, it’s only about 40g heavier than the de facto mid-size tablet, the 2013 Nexus 7 (which is powered by the inferior Snapdragon 400), but the screen is noticeably larger. However, unlike the Nexus 7, I would struggle to fit this tablet in a pocket, it’s wider than I feel comfortable holding with one hand edge-to-edge. The aspect ratio also lends itself nicely to portrait reading, where the Nexus 7 felt squashed. I dislike the physical home button, as it moves around when you switch orientation. The salt in the wound is Samsung using a reverse layout to everybody else in the world (ie. back button on right, multi-tasking on the left). Not a deal breaker, but slightly annoying. There are two down-firing speakers and they work pretty well. This device isn’t waterproof like the S5/Z2, so don’t take it into the shower.
The performance is certainly not lacking. Even when driving a high resolution display, I had no issues with smoothness or loading times. The battery is sized at 4800mAh, about on par for the class. I found web browsing battery life to fall around 12 hours, and games shortening that to less than a few hours. The 800 was never the most thrifty of processors under load. Standby time is measured in weeks, as it should be. Video decoding in Plex/VLC/MXPlayer was accelerated and only consumed around 5-8% an hour. Some results of benchmarks, for what it’s worth:
Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 (vs Nexus 5) [vs Nexus 7 2013]
Quadrant – 24709 (N5 – 22820) [N7 – 6894]
Antutu 4 – 35377 (N5 – 26174) [N7 – 21240]
3DMark Ice Unlimited – 15857 (N5 – 26174)
Androbench Seq Read – 129MB/s (N5 – 98MB/s) [N7 – 58MB/s]
Androbench Seq Write – 20MB/s (N5 – 17MB/s) [N7 – 13MB/s]
Overall, I’m quite pleased with the Tab Pro 8.4 after having lived with it for more than a month. It was easy enough to load TWRP and CM11 on via Odin/ADB. It sees heavy usage regularly even up to now, which is telling. It’s compact and thin enough to carry places, and cheap enough to throw around without much concern. This is the crowning achievement of the Tab Pro 8.4 – it’s not the most powerful, or exceptional in any one way, but Samsung have created a very well-balanced and gimmick-free device, kept to good components and priced it affordably (it can be found for around $300-$350). Finally. And it only took 11 different versions.