How do you split the difference between a laptop and a tablet?
It’s a seemingly straightforward question, which has inspired an array of answers. Windows devices such as as Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Surface Go run Windows 10, an operating system designed to be both laptop- and tablet-friendly. There’s Apple’s iPad Pro, a tablet which aims to compete with PCs in power without quite becoming one. And lately, Google has been blurring the lines between Chromebooks and Android tablets, resulting in a new class of machine with shared DNA.
Then there’s Samsung. The company is the most prominent manufacturer of Android-powered devices, but it’s always liked to take an activist role in the experiences its products offer rather than simply relying on Google’s efforts. Starting at $650 for a version with 64GB of storage, its new Galaxy Tab S4 is an Android tablet which, with the addition of a case called the Book Cover Keyboard, becomes a laptop-style clamshell. (The case lists for $150, but is $75 when purchased with the tablet through September 8.)
Hardware-wise, the result looks a lot like Apple’s 10.5″ iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard cover combo. But the Galaxy Tab S4 offers DeX, an alternate interface which Samsung introduced last year in its Galaxy S8 phones. DeX runs Android apps in an environment optimized for productivity on a bigger-than-a-smartphone screen. The overall effect is Windows-esque, letting you drag windowed apps around, manage them with a taskbar at the bottom of the screen, and use a mouse rather than your finger to point.
With a Samsung phone, you need a desktop display and a $99 docking accessory to use DeX. On the Galaxy Tab S4, however, you can choose to use the DeX interface on the tablet itself, and even automatically switch into it when the tablet is in its keyboard case.
Imposing a desktop-style interface on an operating system conceived with mobile use in mind is an ambitious, imaginative feat of technical derring-do. The results aren’t seamless. But even before you take DeX into account, the Galaxy Tab S4 is the best Android tablet I’ve ever used; you might love it even if you wind up not loving DeX.
More screen, less border
The Galaxy Tab S4 is to last year’s Galaxy Tab S3 as Apple’s current smaller iPad Pro is to the model that preceded it. Both Samsung and Apple took a tablet with a 9.7″ screen and made the borders skinnier, allowing for a roomier 10.5″ display in a similar-size device. Though the end result isn’t as immersive as a miminmal-bezel phone, such as the Galaxy S9 or iPhone X, the extra real estate is obvious.
When Apple crammed a bigger screen into the iPad Pro, it left enough room for a physical home button with a Touch ID sensor. Samsung, however, has ditched the home button/fingerprint scanner. The home button is now on-screen, and you have a variety of ways to unlock the tablet, with the most seemingly advanced option being Intelligent Scan, which uses both facial recognition and iris scanning to identify you as you.
In theory, Intelligent Scan sounds like a close counterpart to the iPhone X’s Face ID. But I got off to a rocky start with it: It would accuse me of covering the sensor with my hand (even when I wasn’t) or tell me to raise the tablet to eye level (which is not exactly a natural gesture when the Tab S4 is in its keyboard case). Most of all, it struggled to recognize me when I was wearing my glasses. With practice, I got it to work well enough that it wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it still feels like Samsung eliminated the fingerprint scanner before it could replace it with something equally as simple and reliable.
Samsung got everything else about the Galaxy Tab S4 right, though, when you’re judging it as a tablet. The Super AMOLED screen is one of the best displays I’ve ever seen on a tablet, and its four speakers offer Dolby’s Atmos technology, which can give audio a dimensionality you don’t expect from a device this small. Even if you don’t care about DeX and the productivity angle and mostly want to watch movies or play games on a tablet, the Tab S4 has your number.
The S Pen stylus is also terrific. It feels good in the hand, offers 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, and delivers a pen-on-paper feel in apps such as Samsung’s Notes and Autodesk SketchBook. Though it looks more like Apple’s Pencil than the Galaxy Tab S3’s version of the S Pen, it comes with the tablet rather than being a $100 add-on like the Pencil. The Book Cover Keyboard has a caddy for stowing it. And best of all, it never requires recharging or swapping in a new battery, unlike Apple and Microsoft’s styluses.
Samsung says that the Galaxy Tab S4 can provide up to 16 hours of video playback on a charge, a claim which, if true, is impressively long. I didn’t have the tablet long enough to independently verify it. But using the Tab S4 at an airport lounge for about an hour and then spending most of a six-hour flight using it only drained about half of the battery’s life, suggesting that you should be able to take the tablet out into the real world without obsessing about bringing along its USB-C charger.
The DeX factor
If the Galaxy Tab S4’s DeX interface intrigues you, you’ll want to invest in the Book Cover Keyboard case, giving the tablet a laptop-like form factor. (At least, probably: If you supply your own HDMI adapter, external display, keyboard, and mouse you can also use the tablet like a desktop computer, in which case DeX shows up on the external display and the tablet screen either gives you the standard Android interface or works as a jumbo pen-enabled touchpad.) The Book Cover Keyboard provides reasonably comfy typing given its compact size; like Microsoft’s and Apple’s keyboards, it clicks into place and draws power from the tablet, eliminating the need to futz with Bluetooth.
It would be nice if its keys were backlit. And some folks will wish that Samsung had squeezed a trackpad below the keyboard–as Microsoft did with the Surface Go–to complete the laptop-like experience. (In its absence, you can point using any Bluetooth mouse, the S Pen, or your finger.) But my biggest complaint about this case is that it is, well, a case. If you want to use the tablet as a tablet, you either need to pry the case off or fold back the keyboard, which doesn’t hide as neatly behind the tablet as its Microsoft and Apple counterparts.
With the Book Cover Keyboard on and DeX running, the Tab S4 does provide an experience which can make you forget, at least briefly, that you’re using an Android device. If you’re at home on a Windows PC or Mac, it won’t take long to get comfortable with DeX’s windowed apps, taskbar, file manager, keyboard shortcuts, and other conventions. I didn’t do any formal performance testing, but the tablet provided enough computational horsepower to let me bop back and forth between as many apps as I liked.
Of course, the apps you’re running aren’t Windows or Mac software; they’re Android apps, and that’s where things get a little complicated. Samsung ensured that its own apps, such as its email, browser, and note-taker, run well in DeX. It’s also officially certified a handful of third-party apps, such as Microsoft’s Office suite, as DeX-ready. And many others I tried, from Slack to Spotify, behaved well in the DeX environment.
Other programs, however, show up in DeX looking like smartphone apps running in a window; you can rotate them between portrait and landscape orientations but can’t expand them to fill the screen. Facebook had the top of its interface chopped off. 1Password–as close as I have to an app I can’t live without–refused to run at all. (I was able to retrieve my login info by switching into standard-Android mode, using 1Password there, and then going back into DeX.)
Rummaging around in DeX, I found an option called “Force apps to resize,” which resides in a section of experimental settings called DeX Labs. It allowed apps which normally ran only in a window–such as SketchBook and Facebook Messenger–to expand to full-screen size. It carries a disclaimer that it can cause problems; I didn’t encounter any, and it made the DeX experience much, much better.
Overall, I get the sense that Samsung didn’t pour energy into rethinking how DeX and Android intersect on this tablet. Some apps–and parts of Samsung’s own settings screens–only work in portrait mode, which is a jarring disruption when you’re using the Tab S4 in its keyboard case. The tiny printed quick-start guide that comes with the tablet doesn’t explain DeX. Even the online help for DeX shows it being used with a phone and external display, not on the Galaxy Tab S4.
Jumping back and forth between DeX and the conventional Android interface–which I found myself wanting to do frequently–is also not exactly a breeze. You do it using an icon that’s buried in different places in the two interfaces, and the switching process takes several seconds, during which you get a black screen with a giant Samsung DeX logo. And an alarming message warns you about possible data loss if you don’t save your work, but does so after you’ve switched over. (Samsung is being extra-cautious: Android apps typically auto-save as you go, and I didn’t experience any issues.)
For all these reasons, DeX has a bit of a rough-draft feel to it. In the few days that I’ve had to live with the Tab S4, I’ve spent some time in DeX but also enjoyed using the tablet in more of a semi-laptop mode–in its keyboard case, but running the standard Android interface rather than DeX. It doesn’t feel like Windows, but it’s not bad and involves fewer surprises.
Samsung has a long history of piling its own software features on top of Android. Oftentimes, the results make you wish they’d left well enough alone. DeX on the Galaxy Tab S4 isn’t like that. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good idea with plenty of headroom to get better through future improvements. If Samsung follows up the Galaxy Tab S4 with a Tab S5 that has an improved version of the interface–and maybe a keyboard case with a trackpad–it could find a unique, welcome sweet spot between tablet and laptop.