Samsung's Galaxy Tab 3 comes with microSD slot and a brilliant screen

Samsung launched three new Android Jelly Bean tablets at major U.S. retailers on July 7. I've just tried out a review unit of the 8-in. version of the Galaxy Tab 3 almost daily for about three weeks to get a good feel for the device. In the classic Samsung practice of building various permutations of its many devices, there are 7-in. and 10.1-in. versions of the Tab 3 as well, but I haven’t used either extensively.

In short, the 8-in. Tab 3 is a fantastic new tablet with a brilliant display that looks almost elegant in its white plastic case with a glass front. However, the $299 price seems too high compared to other tablets on the market.  I quickly learned I would probably prefer the smaller 7-in. version or even the larger 10.1-in. for ease of use, which I’ll explain more fully below. (The official name of the device is the Galaxy Tab 3 8.0, but some references also call it the SM-T310.)

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First, what many will say is the best feature of the device is its microSD card slot on the left edge, which increases its 16 GB of on-board storage.  You can insert up to a 64GB microSD card to store music and videos if you don’t trust the various cloud services that are quickly becoming a feature of some tablets. Those newer ones that rely on the cloud include the 7-in. new Nexus 7 built by Asus for Google which sells for $229 for 16 GB and $269 for a 32 GB version.

There’s a growing debate over whether an expandable storage slot is preferable over cloud storage.  In my opinion, it comes down to whether a user wants to keep track of those miniscule microSD cards with valuable content on them or, instead, wants to trust a cloud service to keep content safe and accessible (and probably incur a fee for the service in the process).

As Google points out with its cloud storage approach, users can access the content from any device and aren’t required to use Google Drive.   But the obvious counterpoint is this:  if many tablets and other devices used microSD slots, then it would be easy enough to share content over many devices. 

I personally can’t say that one approach is superior to the other, but I do confess that I have a lot of trouble using my clumsy fingers to fiddle with tiny components like microSD cards. On the other hand, I can get online cloud storage from so many places that it might make sense to have both options: buy a tablet with a storage card slot and use the expansion there along with cloud storage, or choose one or the other at will.  Average users might not even need more than the 16 GB provisioned internally, although it's useful to know that a single HD movie running two hours can exceed 3 GB, which means 16 GB can be sapped up by just five movies quickly.

You might argue that the card slot and internal electronics add to Samsung’s material costs with the Tab 3 devices, but it can’t be that significant of an added cost. By far, the biggest materials cost in a tablet or smartphone is the display.

About the display: it’s not rated as high for clarity and resolution as the new Nexus 7 but it is still very good.  Samsung’s spec sheet puts the 8-in. display at 1280 x 800 pixels or 189 pixels per inch, while the new Nexus 7 is rated at 1920 x 1200 pixels or 323 pixels per inch. (Of course, the new Nexus 7 comes with an inch smaller diagonal screen.)  Even with the lower rating with the Tab 3, I found videos from the Web and my home videos and pictures brilliantly clear on the Tab 3.

The rear camera is 5 megapixels and the front camera is 1.3 megapixels, and both offer stunning video and picture capture. The sound is Dolby Surround, which is very good, but not as good as the Beats audio I’ve heard on many smartphones.  And if the tablet sits upright in your lap, it is likely the two speakers on the bottom edge are covered up, which means you will end up using ear buds or headphones.

For the 8-in. version, Samsung packed in its own Exynos 4212 dual core processor, running at 1.5 GHz. Samsung, however, relied on Intel for the 10.1-in. version’s processor. I haven’t done any comparison testing of the two processors, but the Exynos ARM-based chip is very snappy 99% of the time.  I noticed some problems with reaction times to my onscreen touch in various applications such as weather, Pandora and Words with Friends, but couldn’t figure out if that was because of my touch, the processor, the touchscreen, or the software in various applications communicating with the Android 4.2 OS. 

Several times I had to restart Words with Friends to restart a frozen game and twice had to reboot the entire tablet. I never had to go so far as to reset the device entirely or hold down the Power/Lock key for 15 seconds.

Two native features in the Tab 3 designed by Samsung didn’t work properly, ever.  Smart Stay allows the screen stay on as long as you are looking at it, but I was constantly given a message at the top of the screen saying that Smart Stay couldn’t locate my eyes. (Seriously, it said that.) Apparently it works best in a well-lit room when the tablet is held squarely in front of one's face, situations rarely encountered when using a tablet.  I eventually shut it off.

Also, Smart Rotation allows what’s on the screen to rotate according to the orientation of your face. I left if on over many hours of use and never saw that it functioned at all.  I would call these innovations from Samsung interesting enough, but certainly not a selling point. Maybe they will work better for somebody with bigger eyes?

The 8-in. version does come with multi-window functionality allowing two apps to work side by side.  This function might be nice for having text on the left and a place to write on the right, but that really required having a Bluetooth keyboard accessory that I didn’t have.

Samsung not only seems to have several different sizes of its gadgets, but it also seems to want to immerse users in a world of Samsung add-ons, not unlike some of the wireless carriers.  For example, Samsung added a WatchOn service for recommendations on TV content, but I didn’t rely on it. I give credit to Samsung for trying a little of everything, but sometimes it all just seems a tad overwhelming and even confusing. I’m busy enough trying to sort through 750,000 apps in the Google Play store, not to mention the Samsung Galaxy Perks content. 

For playing all that content and other uses, the 8-in. Tab 3 comes with a 4,450 mAh battery. I found I could easily go for four days with up to several hours of use a day without needing a charge.  And that was for tweeting and playing music, videos and games—and of course reading Computerworld online amid checking my email!  (I never relied on it for writing stories, although I probably could with a cover/stand and a Bluetooth keyboard.)

Finally, about the form factor:  At 8-in., this device really was a bit awkward for me to use. It was really too big to hold easily in my left hand for any length of time (at nearly 4.9 inches in width, 8.26-inches in length, and 0.3-inches in thickness) while I touched the screen with my forefinger on the right hand.  I tried many times to do it, but found that while I could reach around the width of the tablet with my left thumb and fingers, it was far too heavy at 11 ounces to hold for very long—certainly over the course of multiple games of Words with Friends.

To accommodate the size and weight of the 8-in. Tab 3, I would find myself trying to prop it up on my lap while sitting in a chair or sitting up in bed, but even that seemed heavy. I have tried several 7-in. devices, and haven’t noticed as much difficulty using them for extended periods.  My preference still remains the the iPad 2 at 9.7-in., even though it is heavier.  With it, I can use the various cover permutations for propping it up on a table or desk or even on my lap. I know, I know, tablets are getting smaller, so I’m going to have to adapt.

The most annoying part of the 8-in. Tab 3 form factor was using it in portrait mode while playing Words with Friends (the only orientation that works in that particular game). I would usually resort to holding it on both sides while propped up on my lap due to the weight and size but found that the bezel is very slender on the left and right sides. That meant I had to avoid putting my fingers on the screen to prevent a false move in the game.  On the right side, I would grip the right edge, but repeatedly found I was hitting the sensitive sound control button in error or even the power button, which would black out the screen immediately. In landscape mode, the bezels are wider with the Tab 3, which makes it easier to hold the tablet while viewing a video or playing a more active game. Maybe I’m not cut out for this form factor in a tablet at all from any manufacturer, although I suspect there are a few other people who have faced this same problem. It’s not a big problem, but certainly can become annoying.

To sum up, Samsung really seems to want to be a people pleaser with all of its devices, and the Tab 3 family strives to delight.  I am not a power tablet user, however, so shelling out $299 for this Wi-Fi-ready Tab 3 at 8-in. seems pricey.  I want a lighter tablet in that smaller form factor, or perhaps should just concede it is easier to maneuver a larger tablet that will admittedly be heavier and more costly. Various retailers also sell  the 7-in. Galaxy Tab 3 version for $199 and the 10.1-in.Galaxy Tab 3 version for $399.

A variety of new tablets in the 7-in. to 8-in. form factor are now hitting the market. I’d definitely recommend that potential buyers play with them in the store before plunking down the cash to buy, if only to check out how user friendly they feel.

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