Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review: this portable powerhouse is a glass-backed doozy

The new S Pen has a thinner 0.7mm tip, while the tablet takes cues from Galaxy phones

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Our Verdict

Samsung's new Android tablet is a stunning device that takes the fight to Apple's 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

For

  • Beautiful AMOLED display
  • Powerful specs
  • S Pen generally ace

Against

  • Tab S2 enough for most
  • Limited bass

Samsung announced two tablets at Mobile World Congress (MWC) back in February – the new Android 7.0 Nougat-packing Galaxy Tab S3 and the Galaxy Book – a Windows 10 convertible 2 in 1.

The Galaxy Tab S3 boasts a specification that’s very close to Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro and has a price point to match that - it's not a competitor to the basic new iPad, which more evenly matches up with the Galaxy Tab S2

The Galaxy Tab S3 boasts a 9.7-inch QXGA Super AMOLED display which supports HDR content (Samsung has partnered with Amazon Instant Video and says the device is designed with entertainment in mind) and a new S Pen with a smaller 0.7mm tip. 

Indeed, the S Pen is what makes the new Tab S3 a better value pro tablet than the 9.7-inch iPad Pro - the S Pen is bundled with the tablet, making this a more tempting proposition as a device on which to take handwritten notes and sketch out ideas using a pressure- and tilt-sensitive stylus.  

In use, the S Pen is super (we don't think you can tell that it's even more sensitive, it was extremely sensitive before). It slides into a loop on the case, but we do prefer it when stylii are magnetic so they can attach to the side of the screen. There is also a special edition S Pen - a Staedtler Norris special edition, designed to look like the famous pencil.

Galaxy Tab S3 design

Give or take a few millimetres, the S3’s dimensions are very close to those of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. It weighs a little less than Apple’s tablet, but by no more than a maximum of 10 grams, depending on whether you go for the Wi-Fi or 4G model. The S3 supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi plus 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, yet also works with older standards, so you can keep using your old router. 

Samsung clearly puts some thought into the portability of accessories, not just its main devices, and one thing for which it deserves praise is the USB travel charger for the UK. Our country’s three-pin plug design is a thorn in our side where portability is concerned, yet the prongs of Samsung’s charger flatten down into a more pleasing overall shape.

Back to the S3 itself, though: a bonus of its design is that its body is made of glass. Picking it up while cold is a less chilling experience than the metal back of an iPad, for example. Just as unappealing, though, is the tablet’s 6mm thinness, which can become uncomfortable if you grasp it around the tablet’s left or right edge for a long period of time. As with many other tablets, if you’ll often hold the S3 in that way, we suggest buying a case to bulk it up just a little.

Samsung’s placement of the wake/sleep and volume buttons along the same edge isn’t ideal if you’re switching from an iPad or another tablet on which they are split between two sides; we found it rather too easy to press the former button by accident when wanting to adjust the volume, though it’s something that you’ll adjust to in time.

Galaxy S3 audio and display

 Also like the iPad Pro there are four speakers, this time tuned by Harman’s AKG (its logo is even on the back), The device is rated at 0.64W. 

On that note, Samsung’s marketing of the S3 makes a lot of noise about its four-speaker sound system – as it should on a device that you’re likely to use for video, music, or both. 

The speakers are arranged around the four corners of the device, enabling them to deliver convincing stereo sound regardless of whether you hold the tablet in portrait or landscape orientation. It’s a significant benefit to entertainment, not least for action movies and certain types of game.

The speakers can pump out pretty loud sounds too, but it’s not all good news: their overall quality is merely adequate. Where we’ve used an iPad Pro, which has the same quad-speaker arrangement, as a substitute in the absence of a room-filling sound system for music, we would be dissatisfied with using the S3 for that. 

Its bass output feels limp to non-existent, even on tracks that should be saturated with it, and it’s not a good sign at all that we wanted to stick on a pair of good headphones even in the privacy of our home.

You have plenty of options for connecting headphones, thanks to a 3.5mm jack as well as the energy-efficient Bluetooth 4.2 standard.

When it comes to visuals, the S3 is far from disappointing. The resolution of its Super AMOLED display is 2048 x 1536 pixels – an exact match for all 9.7-inch iPads dating back to 2012. That sounds old hat, yet it’s fine in practice, and the screen tech delivers a punchy and sharp picture. The Tab S3’s AMOLED display is crisp, bright and colourful.

The S3 promises something a little special where video is concerned, in the form of support for HDR content, which can make scenes look more natural thanks to increased detail in highlights and shadows. For now, though, this feature is limited to content in Amazon’s Prime Video app. 

Though HDR video is something of a rarity from video providers on the whole, it’s disappointing that it’s unavailable from Netflix, which has been streaming such content to compatible TVs for quite a while now.

Galaxy S3 specification

When it comes to less visible tech specs, the S3 doesn’t disappoint – which it shouldn’t, given there’s 4GB of memory and a quad-core processor onboard. 

We felt no signs of sluggishness as we moved around the system and jumped between apps. The 4GB allocation is twice the amount found in Apple’s 9.7-inch Pro tablet – it’s no wonder the S3 is nippy!

The S3’s 32GB of built-in storage matches the amount you get in an entry-level iPad Pro, and Samsung has opted for the flexibility of a microSD slot that supports card capacities up to 256GB, so there’s plenty of room for expansion later on, if your needs grow.


The Tab S3 also has a separate keyboard that uses a pin interface like the iPad Pro (and Surface Pro before it).  USB Type-C is used for charging. The bundled cable has USB-A at the PC end for ease of connectivity.  

Galaxy Tab S3 S Pen

With the S3 being an iPad Pro rival, it’s not all about passive enjoyment. Samsung provides an S Pen with it, which you can use for everything from drawing simple sketches to taking notes, and creating artful masterpieces. It’s shorter than Apple’s sometimes unwieldy-feeling Pencil, and 9mm thick at its widest point. It also shuns its rival’s mimicking of a traditional writing tool by having a slightly flattened shape, with a button that calls up customisable shortcuts on one of the flatter edges.

One of the S Pen’s benefits over the iPad Pro’s Pencil (which costs an extra £99 on top of the tablet’s price) is that you don’t have to charge it up from time to time. Though admittedly a small bonus, given Apple’s tool can quickly regain a useful amount of charge, it means the S Pen will not stop working at an awkward moment, and you can forget all about checking a battery level indicator and focus on the task at hand, not whether your digital tool is about to let you down.

Another very welcome feature is the S Pen’s built-in clip for attaching it to a pocket. This is all but a necessity, given there’s no recess in the S3’s body in which to store the stylus. But it pays off in conjunction with the S Pen’s length, which is short enough that many pockets will easily accommodate it. In contrast, there isn’t a clip on Apple’s Pencil, nor is its length so easily pocketable.

There are some drawbacks though, largely related to using the S Pen as a drawing tool. The tip of its nib measures an appealing thin 0.7mm across, and Samsung says the pen supports 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity – which is as difficult to discern as it sounds. Latency between your movements being translated into on-screen details varies between apps, but in the best case scenario it’s very short, with our handwriting minimally trailing our actions.

Some apps detect how you’re tilting the pen, enabling you to achieve different effects in your creations. However, the nib’s length and the thickness of the pen’s neck mean that you can tilt only a short way before the latter brushes against the screen, breaking the contact between the nib and the screen.

Ultimately, that’s due to the S Pen’s design resembling exactly what its name suggests; as a ballpoint pen held in a more upright orientation, it’s comfortable and precise enough for taking notes and making simple sketches, but if you’re of a more artistic bent, an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and a suitable graphics app will make for a more satisfying experience.

Samsung says this version of the S Pen feels and writes “just like your favourite ballpoint”. Indeed, we found it enjoyable as a way to take notes, but again when drawing, we found the sense of friction between the nib and the glass surface felt stickier than with Apple’s Pencil, which glides across its tablet. That became plainly obvious when using different drawing tools, as the friction began to get in the way, breaking what little suspension of disbelief can be mustered when using a digital pen.

None of these things are ruinous to the S3's S Pen experience; it’s very comfortable for making notes, whether that’s in a formal meeting, a casually scribbling a shopping list, or exploring digital drawing tools as an absolute beginner. It’s less satisfying than the Apple alternative as a drawing or illustration tool, though, and if that will be the main thing you do with your tablet, and if you’re willing to entertain the notion of using iOS, we recommend spending the higher amount on an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.

The Galaxy Tab S3 is also compatible with Samsung Flow – a cross-platform app that enables you to push information, pictures and links between your devices. It's rather like Pushbullet, if you've ever used that. It'll be very useful for Galaxy owners (of any device) to push stuff across to their PC and vice versa. 

App-wise, there's plenty pre-loaded, with all the key Google apps as well as Samsung's key app suite like Samsung Notes. And if you have Office 365, then the Microsoft Office apps are also pre-loaded. 


T3 Verdict

The Tab S3 is a tablet and stylus combo that wants to satisfy all your needs, from entertainment to sketching and writing notes. When used for simple notes and sketching, the S Pen is generally great. Our only major grips are around the difference in responsiveness of the S Pen in various apps, the lack of bass and that the touch-sensitive button that opens the app switcher is irritatingly easy to knock. But overall, the Galaxy Tab S3 is an excellent tablet that really looks the part. It's a worthy competitor to the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, one of our best tablets

Liked this? Check out all the rest of our stuff we covered this year at Mobile World Congress