Overview & Design
Since the inception of the Google Android OS, devices that run this OS have predominantly relied upon ARM-based processing architecture (such as the Snapdragon series of SoCs from Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, NVIDIA and many others). However the processor giant Intel clearly made its intentions in 2011 to power the explosive growth of mobile devices with its x86-based processing architecture. To that extent, all Android OS versions released since 2012 have been recompiled to support both the ARM and Intel x86 processing architectures.
Since then, Intel has swiftly risen up the ranks to propagate its processing platform with several partnerships. While it had a slow start with the original Penwell platform using the Intel Atom Z2460 Medfield processor, it moved on with the Lexington platform and the Intel Atom Z2420 Medfield processor for value-class devices like the Acer Liquid C1 smartphone and the ASUS Fonepad, then on to the Clover Trail platform that uses dual-core Medfield processors like that on the HP Envy X2, and finally the current mobile platform from Intel for media consumption devices is the Clover Trail+, which has the same dual-core Medfield processors but with a more powerful graphics core. As hyperlinked, these are often seen in the form of the Intel Atom Z2560 processors and the chip giant scored a big win to partner with the largest Android device vendor in the form of the 10.1-inch version of the Samsung's Galaxy Tab 3 that we have for review today.
Compared to Samsung's 10.1-inch tablet predecessor, the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, this presents a processor switch to a dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z2560 processor from a Texas Instruments OMAP chip on the older counterpart. Apart from the processing platform upgrade, very little else has changed on the Galaxy Tab 3 (10.1-inch) as it retains the same 1,280 x 800-pixel resolution, and the tablet still has 16GB of internal flash storage, as well as a 3-megapixel rear camera. However, unlike the 2012 model, the Tab 3 (10.1-inch) supports LTE for much speedier data connectivity if your data plan supports it.
For those of you who aren't too familiar with Samsung's Galaxy Tab 3 line-up, the tablets are available in three different screen sizes: 7.0, 8.0, and 10.1 inches. We reviewed the Galaxy Tab 3 (8.0-inch) with LTE version just last month and while we normally don't review multiple screen sizes of the same line-up, we made an exception just to experience what an Intel-powered media tablet might offer different from the native-ARM powered devices. Moving on with the review of the Galaxy Tab 3 (10.1-inch) with LTE, for ease of reading and where not specified, we shall simply refer to it as the "Tab 3" henceforth.
Hardware Design and Software
Being a 10.1-inch tablet, we fully expected the Tab 3 to be a heavy behemoth like its predecessor. Yet, it only weighs 512g, a far cry from the Tab 2's 587g (though the iPad Air is lighter yet). The reduction in weight definitely makes for better handling, especially when you're reading in bed, or when you're holding it with one hand. However, the plastic back does make the overall feel of the tablet feel less premium. Having said that, we suppose Samsung needed a differentiator from their top offering, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 edition) that offers a faux leather finish on its plastic back.
Samsung, adopting a standard design across all their devices, has implemented the standard Android home button, with the back and menu capacitive keys on the left and right side of the home button respectively, all located in the same row at the bottom of the tablet. Now, the 'bottom' needs clearer definition. Unlike its smaller cousin, the 8-inch version of the Tab 3, the Tab 3 10.1 is landscape oriented, henceforth, the buttons are along the longer edge of the tablet. Clearly, Samsung thinks this tablet is best used in landscape mode.
Since it is for landscape use, not surprisingly, the speakers are situated on both the top left and top right edges of the tablet - just like the Tab 2 edition. With that, watching movies on the tablet allows for an audible experience. Our only gripe here is that the speakers aren't very powerful.
The landscape orientation does have its trade-offs, one being using the tablet for reading, which is typically done in portrait mode. Due to how the buttons are aligned, when in portrait mode, the buttons will either be on the left or right side of the tablet - which is where your hand will be when you intend to hold the tablet in portrait mode. This poses the potential problem of accidentally pressing the "Back" or "Home" keys.
Of course, one can avoid the problem by just holding the tablet on the side without buttons. However, such restrictive behavior makes reading feel unnatural, and therefore gives an overall negative user experience.
The tablet, interestingly, can make and receive calls. In-call audio sounds good; but for privacy sake and to avoid stares from other people when you place such a huge device to your ear, you can use the provided earphones.
Like the Tab 2, the Tab 3 has a 10.1-inch, 1,280 x 800-pixel TFT capacitive touchscreen. This yields a pixel density of 149ppi, which is the norm for mid-tier tablets.
Also, like its 8-inch sibling, it has a reading mode that helps to increase text legibility. Yet, unlike the Tab 3 8.0, we did not observe any discernible difference when engaging this mode on the bigger tablet.
Processor and App Compatibility
As discussed at the start of the article, the Tab 3 sports an Intel Atom Z2560 dual-core 1.6GHz processor that's based on an x86 architecture. While most non-game apps that are written using Android’s development kit can run on both ARM and x86 architectures with little issues, this may pose a problem for certain apps, especially games, that specifically implemented native code meant for ARM chips, thus making them unable to run on the Tab 3. Even though the Intel processor can apply binary translation on the fly to convert ARM code to be x86 compliant, there's no guarantee that it will be fast enough or work all the time.
We tested a handful of games, and these are what we found:
- Asphalt 8: Runs as per normal
- Despicable Me: Minion Rush: Runs as per normal
- GTA: Vice City: Runs, but lags
- Need for Speed: Most Wanted: Listed as “not compatible”
- Zen Bound 2: Crashed while loading
Most non-game apps run without issues.
For game apps, most of the new ones run on the Intel x86 chip without issues. This is most likely due to the advancement of various game engines in adapting to Android’s ever growing platforms, as well as increasing developer support. However, problems still exist for games that are coded either natively for the ARM processing architecture, or coded a while back when Intel's presence in Android platform was insignificant. Porting them to make it compatible with Intel's x86 architecture takes significant amount of time, so most developers just leave them as is.
As with almost all Samsung devices, the Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 comes loaded with Samsung's TouchWiz interface. Much of it is similar to that on the Galaxy Tab 3 (8-inch) which we reviewed, including a Smart Remote app that allows one to use the tablet as a remote control for one's television/radio.
However, one major difference between the TouchWiz on this Tab 3 (10.1-inch) vs. the Tab 3 (8-inch), is the lack of a multi-window function. This is disappointing as one would expect to take advantage of the larger screen estate to multitask more than one window at a time, yet it is not present on this 10.1-inch tablet.