Book Cover Keyboard costs extra • Not many DeX-optimized apps • Fragile glass back
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S4 successfully juggles play and productivity with its special DeX mode, but the cost for the convenience is steep.
Tablets are finally living up to the “post PC” promise.
After years of serving as our obedient couch and bed consumption companions, tablets are now leveling up with productivity-driven features. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S4 is a great example of this shift from play to work.
The Android tablet is good for kicking back and watching Netflix or checking Twitter. But its marquee feature is the built-in “DeX mode” that makes the Android software look and function more like a PC that sets it apart from Apple’s iPad Pro.
It’s also really nice to see an S Pen included with the tablet instead of sold as a separate accessory. Ahem, Apple.
There’s little doubt the $650 Tab S4 is gunning for the iPad Pro, which also starts at the same price. I mean, every tablet is nowadays. Microsoft’s Surface Go seemed like it had the most potential — it starts at only $400 and it runs full Windows 10 — but ultimately its puny Intel processor and poor Windows 10 optimization for a 10-inch touchscreen held it back.
The Tab S4 mixes the best of both the iPad Pro and the Surface Go. With the tap of a software setting, the tablet’s UI switches between your tried-and-true grid-based homescreen to one that looks like Windows.
Just want to casually browse the web, or watch YouTube, or play Candy Crush? Leave the Tab S4 as is out of the box.
But, if you want to work in a PC-like space with a task bar, multiple resizable windows, and mouse and keyboard support, you’re gonna want to turn on DeX mode.
Bigger screen and louder sound
Tablet trends are heading in the same direction as smartphones: larger screens and slimmer bezels.
For the Tab S4, Samsung went with a 10.5-inch Super AMOLED display (2,560 x 1,600). As you’d expect from a Samsung screen, it’s bright, vibrant, and crisp.
This time around, though, it’s not a blatant copy of the iPad Pro. The screen’s aspect ratio is 16:10 compared to the iPad Pro’s 4:3, which makes it a little taller in portrait mode and a little wider in landscape. I found it easier to consume and create content in both portrait and landscape orientations compared to tablets with more narrow 16:9 aspect ratios.
Though the bezels are thinner, there’s still enough of it for your thumb and inner palm to rest on without touching the screen.
The Tab S4 also rocks clear and loud sound. Just like the Tab S3, there are quad stereo speakers firing out of the top and bottom of the tablet. The audio’s tuned by AKG and supports Dolby Atmos sound. They’re not front-firing speakers, but they still sound quite good for a tablet that’s so skinny.
Beyond these key tablet features, the Tab S4 is pretty standard for a Samsung slate. The rear is still made of glass like the Tab S3, which means it’s both a fingerprint magnet and more susceptible to cracking if dropped compared to aluminum or plastic tablets. Definitely pick up a case if you’re rough with your tablet.
Above the display is an 8-megapixel camera as well as an iris scanner. The camera has the same “Intelligent Scan” introduced with the Galaxy S9, which lets you unlock your device using both the less secure, but faster face unlock and the more secure, but hair slower iris scanner. In my tests, the Tab S4 recognized my face quickly and unlocked in both portrait and landscape orientation (not so much at angles, though).
On the rear is a 13-megapixel camera with autofocus. It’s a decent camera for a tablet. The photos can’t compare to shots from a flagship phone like the Galaxy S9, iPhone X, or Pixel 2, but they’re not terrible when the lighting is good. Low-light photos, however, are awful.
The Tab S4 also keeps all essential ports. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom with support for Samsung’s Fast Charging (a fast-charging plug is included in the box), a headphone jack, and also a microSD card slot for expanding the 64GB of internal storage.
For $650, there’s little room for cheap materials and poor build quality, and fortunately, Samsung doesn’t scrimp on the Tab S4.
Android transforms for work
Samsung’s marketing makes it clear the Tab S4 is all about productivity. But here’s the truth: Samsung’s been using productivity as a way to differentiate its devices from Apple’s for years. It’s not like Samsung’s just now realizing people want to be able to do work on their mobile devices.
Remember the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet? Samsung touted its S Pen Stylus and ability to run two apps simultaneously. Or how about the Tab S3? The company’s Galaxy Note series phones is an annual reminder of how much it cares about productivity. And let’s not forget Samsung’s efforts to turn its flagship Android phones into pseudo PCs with the DeX Dock.
The Tab S4 feels like a turning point for working on tablets. It essentially splits the difference between what Apple’s delivering with the iPad/iOS and the Surface Go/Windows 10.
At its core, the Tab S4 is still powered by a mobile operating system, Android 8.1 Oreo. However, the Tab S4’s ability to transform Android’s interface into one that resembles and works sort of like Windows makes it just a little more versatile than an iPad Pro in my opinion.
Despite all the work Apple has has done to make iOS on iPad better for productivity — Split View, Slide Over, and drag-and-drop (for some apps) — the software is still designed for touch. Likewise, Windows 10 and its full desktop experience is better with keyboard and mouse.
Android in “DeX mode” on the Tab S4 fulfills a space in the middle — its fully touch-compatible, but also supports keyboard and mouse (if and when you need it).
IMAGE: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE
IMAGE: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE
This DeX mode is the bridge between mobile and desktop I think many people have been waiting for. Connect the Tab S4 to Samsung’s $150 Book Cover Keyboard (sold separately) and it automatically switches out of its app grid homescreen into DeX mode, complete with desktop, task bar, and windowed apps.
The touchscreen still responds to your fingers or the S Pen, but because the Tab S4 runs Android apps, there’s none of the menu-heavy cruft found in Windows apps.
Pair a Bluetooth mouse — I connected a Microsoft Surface Mobile Mouse without any problems — to the Tab S4 and it really becomes PC-like. And if you really want to, you can buy a USB-C dongle to hook the Tab S4 up to an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse for an even more desktop-like experience.
Like with the Surface Go, I worried that the screen would be too small to display multiple apps or the last-gen Snapdragon 835 chip paired with 4GB of RAM would be too slow to keep things running smoothly.
But the Tab S4 surprised me. I was able to write the bulk of this review on it — with a handful of Chrome tabs, Spotify streaming music, and the Slack and Gmail apps open — without the Tab S4 slowing down the way the Surface Go did.
Right now, DeX mode’s biggest weakness is that there aren’t many apps optimized for it — meaning tuned for keyboard and mouse with support for resizable windows and things like right-click functionality. Samsung tells me there’s “over 60 apps” that are optimized for DeX mode.
Besides Samsung’s own suite of Android apps, Microsoft’s Office 365 apps and many of Google’s apps are also DeX-ready. As mentioned before, there’s also Slack and Spotify. Some games like Vainglory also work in fullscreen with keyboard and mouse.
Apps that aren’t optimized for DeX mode open up in non-resizable windows and keyboard and mouse support is hit-or-miss. For example, in Instagram you can scroll through the feed and click on posts with a Bluetooth mouse, but you can’t pull-to-refresh the feed unless you use the touchscreen.
The Tab S4 also lasts seemingly forever thanks to its huge 7,300 mAh battery. In DeX mode with WiFi on and brightness set to 50 percent, I got about 11 hours streaming YouTube videos at full HD resolution. For work in DeX mode with multiple apps open and multiple Chrome tabs, I got between 7-8 hours on a charge.
Samsung’s Book Cover Keyboard isn’t the best keyboard I’ve ever used with a tablet. The keys are a bit too small, making the whole experience cramped, despite the keys themselves having a good amount of travel.
My biggest issue with Samsung’s keyboard is that some keys, like the top row of number keys, are too darn narrow. I frequently found myself hitting the wrong keys because of their tiny size. Instead of the backspace button, my pinky would hit the bracket key below it. The tab and common buttons are also unusually narrow compared to the others.
Apple’s Smart Keyboard costs $160 and doesn’t have as many keys, but at least all of its keys are large enough to accurately hit. If you’re worried about a roomy keyboard, consider looking into a wireless one. It just won’t fold up and prop the Tab S4 the way Samsung’s Book Cover Keyboard does.
Cool, but hard to justify the cost
I really like Samsung’s thinking with the Tab S4. It tries to have things both ways and mostly succeeds. I much preferred and succeeded in working on the Tab S4 whereas I couldn’t on an iPad Pro and didn’t want to continue on a Surface Go.
The Tab S4 reminds me of new Chrome OS-powered tablets (productivity) trying to get play cred with Android apps, only it’s the reverse. The end goal is still the same: a tablet’s that truly functional for both work and play.
But even though I mostly liked using the Tab S4, its pricing is hard to stomach — $650 for a tablet is already a lot to ask. Factor in Samsung’s Book Cover Keyboard and the cost balloons up to $800. Add a Bluetooth mouse and that price jumps even further. Compared to an iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil ($910 total), the Tab S4’s a better value, but it’s still pricey.
For the money, why not just buy a laptop or a Chromebook convertible like Google’s Pixelbook? The Pixelbook runs Chrome OS, which is a PC-like experience, supports keyboard and mouse, and also runs Android apps in windows. It also has a larger screen; converts into tablet mode; and has a built-in trackpad, more ports, and a more spacious keyboard. Sure, it’s not as portable, but you get a lot more bang for your buck.
If money is no issue, the Tab S4 is a versatile device that won’t disappoint. It’s both a great Android tablet for content consumption and for productivity. For most people, though, the price probably isn’t worth the sleek convenience. A slightly larger Chromebook that runs Android apps works just fine.