Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra review: when bigger isn’t better

Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra review: when bigger isn’t better

Tech demos are fun. They give us a look at what might one day be a commonplace, accessible technology in a package that some brave souls can choose to buy today.

When it comes to tech demos, Samsung is unmatched. It frequently brings products to market that aren’t quite fully developed or ready — see the first-generation Galaxy Fold phone or its absurdly expensive 100-inch Micro LED TVs. Those that want to live on the cutting edge of technology can pay a pretty premium for these tech demos to have them now, while the rest of us wait a few generations for Samsung to iron out the kinks.

The new Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra is a tech demo. The largest of Samsung’s Tab S8 tablet line (you can see my review of the more pedestrian Tab S8 and S8 Plus here), the Ultra explores the idea of a tablet — running a mobile operating system — that’s the size of a typical productivity laptop. It takes the features of the other Tab S8 models and stretches them behind a gargantuan 14.6-inch display. It also commands a steep price: the Ultra starts at $1,099.99 before you add accessories like a case or keyboard. Being on the cutting edge doesn’t come cheap.

Being on the cutting edge comes with other compromises too. It probably isn’t surprising to read that the Tab S8 Ultra’s massive screen makes using it as an actual tablet rather cumbersome. It also won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Android tablets that there isn’t much software that takes good advantage of the S8 Ultra’s giant screen.

If you’re looking for an Android tablet to go with your Android phone, you should just consider one of Samsung’s other Tab S8 models. But if you’re curious if a giant-screen tablet that runs a mobile operating system makes any sense at this stage, read on.

The Ultra is so large that using it as an actual tablet is difficult.

The Tab S8 Ultra brings the design of the other Tab S8 models (which themselves are replicating the Tab S7 design) to a larger scale. It’s an aluminum tablet that’s virtually all screen, with thin bezels and a surprisingly thin chassis. I have not bent the retail unit we purchased for this review in my time with it, but it doesn’t feel like it would take much effort to crunch it in half if that’s your goal.

Aside from its thickness, the other dimensions of the Ultra are Large. It’s nearly two full inches wider than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in landscape orientation (though, thanks to the magic of aspect ratios, it’s about a quarter of an inch shorter than the iPad) and tips the scales at 1.6 pounds before you add a case or any accessories. It’s not the kind of tablet that can be easily held in one hand, and even holding it up with two hands can be quite cumbersome.

That size and weight also put it more in line with Microsoft’s Surface Pro devices, which run Windows instead of a mobile operating system like Android or iOS.

The downside of its size is that the Ultra just isn’t great at the things I typically expect from a tablet: taking notes by hand, reading ebooks, or casually consuming content on the couch or while traveling. Doing any of those things with the Ultra is more unwieldy than with a more reasonably sized tablet. The 16:10 aspect ratio is great for a laptop but challenging for a tablet, which might be used equally in portrait or landscape orientations. The Ultra is comical to use in portrait mode, both due to its size and the aspect ratio of its screen.

Of course, the reason for this larger size is the display, which is a 14.6-inch, 2960 x 1848, 120Hz OLED screen. It’s a tremendous display, with the punchy colors and blackest blacks that OLED screens are known for, plus the high refresh rate makes every touch interaction feel very smooth. For movies and video, combined with the loud and powerful speakers, the Ultra’s screen is a treat.

But it doesn’t get as stunningly bright as the iPad Pro’s Mini LED panel, especially if you’re watching HDR content. The brightness is perfectly fine for using the tablet indoors or even outside at times, but if this is the best Samsung has to offer, I expected a little more on the brightness front.

The optional $350 keyboard case for the Tab S8 Ultra has large keys and a big trackpad, but it’s uncomfortable to type on and very unstable on a lap.

Since the Tab S8 Ultra is so big, it makes the most sense to use it in a keyboard case, much like you would a laptop. (This also goes for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which almost always lives in its Magic Keyboard case when I’m using it.) Samsung offers one such case, the Book Cover Keyboard, which comes with a staggering $349.99 price tag. With the keyboard attached, the Ultra assumes the posture of a Surface Pro, with an adjustable kickstand on the back and a detachable keyboard on the front.

The design of the case makes it very difficult to use the Ultra as a laptop since the keyboard doesn’t lock into the frame like Microsoft’s do. The whole thing is very wobbly, and because it’s so big, the kickstand part extends past my knees. You’ll also have a hard time using this set up on an airplane tray table. As a result, the Ultra in its keyboard case isn’t so much of a laptop as it is a computer you plant on a table or desk to use.

The benefit of the Ultra’s screen being so large is that the keyboard and trackpad in the Book Cover are also quite roomy. But sadly, that’s the only nice thing I can say about them. The keyboard’s keys have very low travel and are not very comfortable to type on, and the trackpad suffers from horrible palm rejection that constantly interrupts my flow when typing. Moving the cursor on the screen also requires “waking up” the trackpad by touching it for a second or two before the cursor shows up and is available, which gets quite annoying over the course of a day. If you happen to get the keyboard included in a bundle deal (as those that preordered the Ultra before launch did), then sure, it’s fine, but if you’re paying that steep retail price for it, prepare to be disappointed.

Using the Tab S8 Ultra in portrait orientation is quite cumbersome.

One thing that doesn’t cost anything extra is Samsung’s excellent S Pen, which comes in the box with the Ultra. It’s the same S Pen that’s available with Samsung’s other tablets, and it’s very good for writing notes, doodling, or marking up screenshots on the display. I can’t speak to how well it works for digital artists, so I encourage you to check out Brad Colbow’s YouTube review for that perspective (spoiler: the large screen plus the S Pen make for a compelling artists’ slate).

The S Pen can be magnetically attached to the back of the Ultra, just like the other Tab S8 models, where it can be stored and charged. If you don’t have a case on the tablet, don’t be surprised if the pen gets knocked off in your bag.

Since I’m on the topic of what comes in the box and what doesn’t, Samsung does not include a charging brick with the Tab S8 Ultra, similar to how it has packaged its high-end phones for the past couple of years. I shouldn’t need to explain that a $1,100 tablet not coming with a way to charge it is rather ridiculous, but here goes: it’s an indication that Samsung doesn’t expect this to be your only computer and assumes that you’ll use a charger from another device for it. The Ultra supports up to 45-watt charging, so chargers from most modern laptops will work fine, though most phone-sized chargers will be a bit underpowered.

The Tab S8 Ultra has two front cameras for video calls.

The last bit of hardware that makes the Ultra unique are its dual wide and ultrawide front-facing cameras, which live in a notch that cuts into the top of the screen. The cameras are fine — about on par with what you get from other tablets and work well enough for video calls (they are also on the correct side of the tablet, something Apple still doesn’t get right with the iPad). The notch is also fine — it never once distracted me or blocked me from seeing important information on the screen.

Samsung has added a feature that attempts to automatically keep your face in the center of the frame in a video call, similar to Apple’s Center Stage. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well and moves the camera around so much that colleagues of mine asked me to turn it off lest they get sick watching me on a Zoom call.

The standard interface allows you to run three apps at the same time on the Tab S8 Ultra.

Switching over to Samsung’s DeX mode provides more windowing options, but it’s limited compared to an actual desktop OS.

Inside, the Tab S8 Ultra is the same as the other Tab S8 models, though with the option for more RAM in the higher storage tiers. It has Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 paired with between 8 and 16GB of RAM. In the unit I’ve been testing — a $1,199.99 configuration with 256GB of storage and 12GB of RAM — performance has been snappy and responsive for all the tasks I’ve asked of it. My main disappointment has been how often tabs reload in the web browser when I’ve left and come back to them after some time; with this much RAM on tap, I’d expect that not to happen.

Oddly, Samsung is not offering a cellular-connected version for the Tab S8 Ultra, which makes it less appealing as a computer for frequent travelers.

The thing with the Ultra bringing a bigger screen and a bigger price tag is that it engenders bigger expectations for what you might be able to do with it. This is a tablet that’s as big as a laptop when paired with its keyboard case and comes with a premium laptop-level price tag.

And that’s ultimately where this tech demo falls short. While the smaller Tab S8 models can skirt by with poorly optimized apps that don’t quite make use of their screens, those deficiencies feel much more acute on the Ultra.

Take Slack, for example. Slack does not have a tablet-optimized version of its Android app, so when you launch it on the Ultra, the phone app is stretched to fill the vast expanse of the 14.6-inch display. There’s no way to view more than one conversation at a time or see a list of your conversations or rooms while you’re viewing another. The same can be said for countless other apps that aren’t developed by Samsung itself. It’d be comical if it wasn’t so disappointing.

Sure, you can use Samsung’s split-screen multitasking to share the screen with one or two other apps, or you can flip over to the windowed DeX environment to layer app windows on top of each other, like what you might get from a Windows or macOS computer. But neither of those things makes the Ultra as easy to use or work on as a Windows tablet or laptop might be.

I’ve detailed my frustrations with DeX’s limitations in the Tab S8 review, but all of them are even more frustrating on the Ultra, with its larger size and more productivity-focused pitch. A lot of the things you might expect to be able to do in a windowed desktop environment, such as easily resizing app windows to the vertical height of the screen or selecting text with the mouse cursor, either don’t work as expected or are limited compared to actual Windows. It feels very much like a shoe-horned solution to a problem that doesn’t go far enough to solving it, and Samsung’s development progress on DeX has been painfully slow compared to its advancement in other software areas.

There are some things that the Ultra is good at, such as video watching and game streaming or emulation, but it’s no better than Samsung’s smaller and less expensive tablets at them.

The Tab S8 Ultra’s larger size magnifies its issues compared to the smaller models.

Ultimately, the Tab S8 Ultra is a tablet that’s the size of a laptop, mimics a laptop’s form factor (especially when paired with its keyboard case), and comes with the price tag of a laptop. But it’s far from as capable as a laptop that is more comfortable to use and easier to be productive with.

Still, as a tech demo, the Tab S8 Ultra is an interesting thing, and it’s possible that Samsung will continue iterating on this idea of an oversized tablet in future generations, much like it has done with the Galaxy Fold line of phones. For now, it’s best to wait this out.