Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 Hands On

This new productive tablet is more phone- and laptop-like than ever

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S6
Samsung's new Galaxy Tab S6.

Lifewire/Lance Ulanoff

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The line between smartphones, tablets, and laptops continues to blur with every new device revealed these days. Samsung's new Galaxy Tab S6 is no exception.

The Tab S6 is beautiful from the first glance, 5.7 mm thin, and boasts a wide, 16:10 aspect ratio. It can also, with the addition of an optional, trackpad-enabled keyboard and the use of Samsung DeX productivity software, convert into a decent simulacrum of a tiny laptop.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6
Samsung's new tablet is attractive. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

Further, the Android-based Tab S6 is the rare 10.5-inch tablet to include both an under-the-screen fingerprint reader and a dual-camera system on the back, like many flagship Android and iPhone devices on the market. This acknowledgement of our odd passion for taking photos with unwieldy tablets points to an understanding that tablets are becoming, in particular, whatever kind of device you want them to be.

Designed to replace the Tab S4, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 fleshes out Samsung’s portable line, one that already includes the affordable and entertainment-friendly Tab A and the Millennial-focused Tab S5e.

Thinner and Sharper

When I met with Samsung earlier this week for a little hands-on time with the new tablet, most of the comparisons they made were to the Tab S4, which I first encountered almost a year ago. And those differences are striking.

At 5.7 mm thick, it’s practically 2 mm thinner than the Tab S4.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 sideview
The tablet is just 5.7 mm thick. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The bezel around the 10.5-inch AMOLED screen is thinner, though the display does not reach to the chassis edge.

From the front, the Tab S6 does look a little like an iPad Pro. It even has the flat edge, but where the rim meets the metal back, instead of a corner, there’s a gentle curve. This, combined with its thin frame and light weight, makes it quite comfortable to hold.

Holding the Samsung Galaxy Tab S6
It's pretty easy to hold the Tab S6 in one hand.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The S Pen is still included, but it’s been redesigned, getting thinner, lighter, and equipped with a grippier matte finish. It feels so much better to hold than the last S Pen. Best of all, it now magnetically attaches to the back of the Tab S6 (it slides into a little pen-shaped channel), where it can recharge.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 S Pen Compartment
Kind of nifty the way Samsung "hides" the S Pen here.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Samsung also redesigned the optional $179 keyboard cover (previously $149), adding a fairly responsive and click-y touch pad. As for the keyboard itself, it’s not quite full-sized, but offers a generally pleasant typing experience. There’s also a dedicated DeX switch key now. This lets you hold down the Function key and press the DeX button once to switch back and forth from the DeX productivity interface. DeX also lets you cast a desktop-like interface to a larger screen while keeping the Tab S6 in its native tablet form. One Samsung exec suggested I could get work done on the big screen while watching Netflix on the small one. I told him I would never do that, and he laughed as if to say, “Sure you wouldn’t.”

The Tab S6 Connected to a big sreen.
You can still connect your Tab S6 to a big screen and run the DeX interface there while keeping the Tab S6 in its native interface form.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I spent a little time switching between standard tablet mode and DeX; I was pleased with how quick it managed the switch. For those frustrated with trying to be productive in an all-touch environment, DeX can seem like a godsend. It not only transforms the interface into something closer to a Windows/Android experience, but it adds a mouse. Even better, you can use touch and the mouse together.

DeX mode
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 in DeX mode, which I activated using the DeX function key on the option keyboard.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

As with Samsung’s Galaxy Note line, the Tab S6’s included S Pen is more than a drawing and pointing implement. It also has customizable, Bluetooth-enabled remote control capabilities.

Using the S Pen to switch Cameras
Here I am using the S Pen to switch Cameras.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I launched the rear camera on the tablet, grabbed the S-Pen, and stepped back. While holding the pen’s lone button, I raised my hand. The view instantly switched to the selfie camera. I held the button and quickly lowered my hand and it switched back. To take a photo, I pressed the button once. If you don’t want to use the S Pen, the Galaxy Tab S6 also includes gesture control: you hold up your hand and, once the device recognizes your appendage, the device counts down to take a selfie (yes, you can lower your hand before the photo).

Power for More

In addition, Samsung has pumped up the specs to enhance productivity, gaming, and entertainment performance. Instead of a last-gen mobile CPU, Samsung has packed the Galaxy Tab S6 with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855, the same CPU you’ll find in the Samsung Galaxy S10 smartphone line. The $649 base model includes 6 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage (bumping up to 8 GB RAM and 256 GB storage will run you $729).

Playing a game on the Galaxy Tab S6
You can use the S Pen as part of your Galaxy Tab S6 gameplay. Here, we used it to cast spells in a Harry Potter game.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

In the demo room, I sat next to someone enjoying an Asphalt racing game session on one Tab S6. I grabbed another device and started playing Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. The imagery was smooth, sharp, and colorful on the Tab S6’s capable Super AMOLED display. I’ve tested a number of phones running the Snapdragon 855, so the highly enjoyable, stutter-free performance was not surprising. However, Samsung told me tablet optimizes game play through its new Game Booster technology that shifts processing resources and manages battery power to support the game.

Like the Tab S4, the new S6 includes a quad-speaker sound system, now powered by AKG Sound. They sounded fine, but I didn’t get a chance to really push them.

More Lens

I’m pleased that Samsung decided to enhance the rear camera, though I question pairing the formidable 13 MP standard camera with a 5 MP wide-angle lens. The few images I captured of the New York City skyline looked good, but I’ll reserve judgement until I can spend more quality time with the tablet. The front-facing camera is a decent, if unremarkable, 8 MP camera.

Dual cameras
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 is the rare tablet with dual real cameras.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Overall, the Tab S6 compares favorably to Apple’s 11-inch iPad Pro. At $649, it’s $150 cheaper than the iPad Pro base model (while offering double the storage), has more cameras, and integrates the fingerprint reader under the screen, while the iPad Pro uses Face ID. It’s also is both thinner and lighter than the Apple tablet. Samsung is also claiming 15 hours of battery life. The iPad Pro 11 is rated for 10 hours.

In addition, Apple makes you pay an additional $129 for an Apple Pencil, while Samsung is throwing in the S Pen with no extra charge.

I’m not saying the Samsung Galaxy Tab S6, which goes on pre-order on August 23, is set to knock out Apple’s iPad Pro. It's unlikely the Snapdragon 855 can beat Apple’s A12X Bionic CPU in head-to-head performance tests, for example. Plus, I haven’t actually tested the Samsung tablet fully, so only time will tell.

Still, I like what Samsung’s doing here: worrying less about the distinction between tablets and other mobile/portable devices and adding features and design touches that will appeal to the Tab S6 core audience of makers and doers who also want to have some fun on the side.