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Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra review: Stunning hardware, but Android holds it back

Samsung's new Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra is its biggest, boldest, and best tablet ever made. It's a lovely piece of hardware, but it's one only a few can justify.
matthew-miller
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer on
Pros
  • S Pen included with fantastic performance
  • Lovely Super AMOLED display
  • Great sound from the speakers
  • Samsung DeX is very capable
  • Premium fit and finish
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Requires $350 keyboard for full potential
  • Android can be frustrating
  • Very wide for a tablet
  • No 5G option in the US

Samsung released three new tablets a couple of months ago, and we've taken a look at the Tab S8 and S8 Plus. For the past month, I've been testing the biggest Android tablet Samsung has made, the Tab S8 Ultra and it's a stunning piece of hardware that is likely to appeal to a small market of creative people.

I always thought the large 12.9-inch Apple iPad was too much for a tablet, but after owning one now for a few months, I've found that it's fantastic for getting work done on the go. The latest iPadOS 16 beta improves its functionality, as detailed by ZDNet's Jason Cipriani, and makes Samsung's job to capture the tablet crowd a lot harder. While the iPad 12.9 is indeed a very large tablet, the Tab S8 Ultra is still more than an inch and a half wider.

I enjoy using Samsung DeX with the tablet, especially now with the full second screen support for VMware. Samsung's Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra is clearly built for productivity, and Samsung pushes Android to its limits with optimization of its apps and DeX support. However, Android limitations can still be a bit frustrating, especially when apps show up in small phone form or only work in portrait orientation on a device that spends most of its time in landscape.

Specifications

Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1
Display 14.6-inch 2960 x1848 pixel resolution
Operating system Android 12 with OneUI 4.1
RAM 8/12/16 GB
Storage 128/256/512 GB w/ microSD card support
Cameras 13MP main and 6MP ultra-wide rear cameras. Two 12MP front-facing cameras
Connectivity Wi-Fi 6E 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax, Bluetooth 5.2
Audio Four speakers tuned by AKG with Dolby Atmos technology, three microphones
Battery 11,200 mAh
Dimensions 326.4 x 208.5 x 5.6 mm and 726g
Color Graphite
samsung-galaxy-tab-s8-ultra-3

Big 14.6-inch display

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

The S Pen comes with the Tab S8 Ultra and attaches magnetically on the back of the tablet. It also charges up wirelessly since it supports Bluetooth functions and Air Actions. An extra S Pen is $59.99. You can only purchase the tablet with 5G cellular functionality in the S8 Plus variant, making it likely the best Android tablet for most people.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Plus review

Hardware

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra is available in one color, graphite, so that makes it easier to decide which to select. Unfortunately, there is also no option for 5G connectivity on the S8 Ultra in the US, which seems like an oversight for a big tablet that competes with laptop pricing and size.

The key feature of the Tab S8 Ultra is clearly the stunning 14.6-inch Super AMOLED display with a 120 Hz refresh rate. It is big and very wide, making it perfect for multi-window use with multiple apps at once. The bezels around the display are very narrow, with a tiny notch supporting the two front-facing cameras. These cameras support dynamic panning while on video calls, so you are always in view.

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Tab S7 Plus vs Tab S8 Ultra.

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

The power and volume buttons are found on the top left side, assuming the default orientation for the tablet is landscape. A USB-C port is positioned on the center of the right side. The four stereo speakers are found on the top and bottom of both the left and right sides. Connection pins for the keyboard are found on the bottom.

Unlike the smallest Tab S8 that has the fingerprint sensor in the power button, an on-screen sensor is used on the S8 Ultra. This is similar to what we see from Samsung Galaxy flagship phones, but I'm not a fan as I can never get constant, reliable performance from these sensors, and I much prefer having the power button serve this function.

Front-facing cameras on tablets are perfect for today's world where we spend hours on video calling and having two on the front that supports auto framing that zooms and adjusts to keep you in the frame is great. Rear cameras are practically only useful for scanning documents, so having two cameras on the back isn't that necessary.

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The S Pen and rear cameras are on the upper right

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

A long oblong black glossy part is found to the left of the cameras and serves as the S Pen charging station. Unlike Apple, Samsung includes the S Pen in the package with the tablet, which is a significant saving to the customer and encourages stylus use.

Also: Galaxy Tab S7 Plus review: The best Android tablet is also best for business

Book Cover Keyboard accessory

The Book Cover Keyboard is sold separately for $349.99, but for a device like the S8 Ultra, it is an essential accessory to optimize the tablet experience. If you are an artist and will be spending all of your time with the S Pen on the large 14.6-inch canvas, then you won't need the keyboard. However, just about everyone else who is using the S8 Ultra needs the keyboard cover.

This accessory comes in two pieces, with the back piece attaching magnetically to the back of the tablet. It has a cool cover to keep the S Pen securely attached to the back of the tablet. It also has a superb hinge that runs the entire width of the tablet, similar to a Microsoft Surface Pro, so you can angle the tablet through a very wide range of degrees to use it exactly as you need.

samsung-galaxy-tab-s8-ultra-7

The keyboard cover has large keys and a sizable trackpad

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

The keys are large and well spaced with a decent amount of travel. There is backlighting within the keys, too, so you can use it in low-light conditions. A function key allows you to quickly toggle in and out of DeX mode, which is important for a Samsung tablet, and perform a number of other functions. Three custom app buttons are available so you can assign your most used apps to dedicated F1, F2, and F3 buttons. Press F2 to see a list of keyboard shortcuts available to you with this combo.

There are six rows of keys, including a top function row. The tablet's width, in landscape orientation, is enough to provide a comfortable typing experience. The trackpad is quite large, and multi-finger gestures are fully supported. You may experience some inadvertent palm presses, though, and it doesn't help that the hinge connecting the keyboard to the tablet is flexible.

samsung-galaxy-tab-s8-ultra-6

The case offers a long hinge similar to a Surface Pro device

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

This cover does not protect the edges of the tablet, but the back and the display are covered well. The magnets connecting the keyboard to the tablet are strong so that you can hold up the tablet, and the keyboard will remain attached.

Software

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra launches with Android 12 and OneUI 4.1, so it is running the latest Android software out of the box. Samsung DeX has also been improved, so you can switch or live in DeX and have a laptop equivalent tablet in your hands.

I'm getting tired of Google ignoring Android on tablets, and there are still some problematic apps. For example, Instagram only appears in full-screen portrait orientation, but Samsung has put a lot of work into optimizing the tablet experience. It is doing all it can to make the experience bearable. 

All Samsung apps work very well on the tablet, and many are also optimized to show split-screen views for improved productivity. Google also optimizes some apps, such as Gmail and Google Maps, for the tablet display. However, basics like Google Discover do not take advantage of the tablet display and show story thumbnails in a center two-column format. Google should be optimizing for the full display and providing a better tablet experience here. There appears to be very little effort by Google to bring an enhanced tablet experience to Android.

Many developers offer excellent tablet experiences. Microsoft does a solid job with some of its apps, such as Outlook, Office, ToDo, and OneNote, but there is room for improvement with others like Teams. The ability to sync Samsung Notes with OneNote is now possible, and this capability has me using the S Pen even more.

Also: The 7 best Android tablets: Ditch the iPad

You can set up the ability to sync your calls and texts between your Samsung phone and the Tab S8 Ultra, so this has been great to keep the flow of work going no matter which device I am working with. This is a similar experience to what iPhone owners see with a connected iPad.

Daily experiences and conclusions

When Samsung first announced the new Tab S8 lineup, I was excited about the possibility of the S8 Ultra. However, after using this big-screen Android tablet for a month, it has become clear that Google needs to make its core software better for tablets. Samsung has worked hard to optimize its apps for tablets, but not all developers have embraced the big screen of tablets.

The hardware itself is stunning, and it was a joy to use the monstrous Super AMOLED display with minimal bezels. I love that Samsung also includes the S Pen in the box. The keyboard cover, while expensive, is excellent when used in laptop mode and is key to being productive on the tablet. I also like that the keyboard can be removed for easy gaming and video playback with the hinged kickstand. It's too long and large for easy tablet use (taking notes, ebook reading, casual content consumption), and I still hate the on-screen fingerprint sensor. It also seems like an oversight to not have a 5G version for the US market.

If you can get over the size of the tablet, I can see people who sketch or draw enjoying the S Pen and the large display. Storing the S Pen on the back may not be optimal, though, as it will get knocked off and not charged up if you set the tablet down on a table without using a case.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra is a nice demonstration of Samsung's technical innovation, but the S8 and S8 Plus are likely much more practical for most people. When you jump to a tablet of this size and price, a full-fledged laptop is a better option than a tablet with an operating system that is not complete and optimized for the tablet form factor.

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