If you’re interested in buying a high-end Android tablet this year, Samsung is making your decision easier than ever.
This year’s Galaxy Tab S9 tablets, which include the 11-inch Tab S9, the 12.4-inch Tab S9 Plus, and the massive 14.6-inch Tab S9 Ultra, are remarkably similar — you can base your entire decision on how much money you want to spend and what size screen you want. They’ve got the same screen technology, same processors, same color options, same designs, same accessory options, and largely all the same features across the board.
Compared to last year’s Tab S8 lineup, there are two tangible upgrades in the S9s: a new Qualcomm processor that promises to be a little faster (though speed and performance were never really issues in last year’s tablets), and IP68 water and dust resistance, just like most modern smartphones. That means you can use these tablets around a pool or bathtub, or more likely, you just won’t have to worry about life’s little mishaps at the coffee shop or when a toddler surprises you with their range when throwing a sippy bottle. I don’t know of any other non-rugged tablets that have this kind of water resistance — Android, iPad, or otherwise — so it’s a legitimate differentiator for Samsung’s models and a nice thing to have.
Water resistance isn’t something you’ll find on any iPad, but all three Tab S9 models have it
I assume that, if you are reading this, you already know why you want to buy a Samsung tablet, but to recap: they are good alternatives to Apple’s iPad lineup if you are already invested in the Samsung ecosystem by way of a phone, earbuds, or some other product. They share the same software as the phones so you can easily pass files between devices, respond to text messages from your tablet, or use the same apps across both. If you have a set of Galaxy Buds, they can seamlessly transition their connection between the phone and tablet depending on which one you’re using. It’s all very similar to how an iPad integrates with an iPhone, AirPods, and the rest of Apple’s ecosystem, and I go into more depth on it in my review of the Tab S8 and S8 Plus from last year.
Samsung’s high-end tablets are also excellent media consumption machines, with gorgeous OLED displays and great speakers. Movies, TV shows, and games all look and sound great on them. If all you plan to do with a tablet is watch movies on it, you can’t do much better than these, though you can get nearly as good of an experience for significantly less money from Apple, Lenovo, or OnePlus if that’s all you want to do.
Speaking of which: these tablets are expensive. Samsung actually raised the price of each model by $100 this year, so the cheapest Tab S9 starts at $799.99, the middle road Tab S9 Plus is $999.99 and up, and the big boy Tab S9 Ultra leaps up to a $1,199.99 starting price. They all still come with the (now also water-resistant) S Pen stylus in the box, but keyboards and other accessories can easily push the cost hundreds of dollars higher. And frustratingly, Samsung doesn’t include a charging brick, despite the fact that these support up to 45W fast charging and will take forever to charge on a typical phone-size charger.
I’ve been testing all three models for a few weeks and have recommendations for who each model is for. I’ve also included some competitive alternatives for each size below.
Galaxy Tab S9: the one for tablet stuff
Of the three sizes available, the 11-inch Galaxy Tab S9 is the one best suited for typical tablet tasks. I’m talking about watching video, reading books, taking notes, playing games, and light productivity such as sending emails. It’s the only one of the three that’s really comfortable to hold in your hands for an extended period of time, and it’s the only one that isn’t painfully awkward to use in portrait orientation due to its smaller size.
I also really like this size for taking handwritten notes using the S Pen, which is my favorite stylus to do this with. Samsung Notes is a full-featured note-taking app that comes included with the tablet and can sync with Microsoft’s OneNote. Additionally, the Android ecosystem is slowly getting more options we’re used to seeing on the iPad. Goodnotes, a longtime iPad note-taking favorite, is available for free for one year on the Tab S9 series, and I’ve been using Nebo a lot lately for its excellent handwriting-to-text conversion and cross-platform syncing.
In previous years, you had to buy the bigger Samsung tablets to get the best screens, but that’s not the case this time — the Tab S9 now comes with the same 120Hz OLED screen as its siblings, only in a smaller size. Combined with the Tab S9’s four Dolby Atmos-compatible speakers, it provides a great movie watching experience.
My main complaint with the Tab S9 is Samsung’s insistence on sticking to a 16:10 aspect ratio, which makes the Tab S9 a lot more rectangular than something like an 11-inch iPad Pro or the OnePlus Pad. The width of the Tab S9 is nearly identical to the width of those tablets, but you lose half an inch or more of screen height, causing web browsing to feel more cramped in landscape and everything to feel a bit too narrow in portrait.
You can multitask with Samsung’s extensive split-screen options on the Tab S9, and you can even run its desktop-like DeX mode if you want, but the smaller size screen makes this a bit awkward unless you stick to basic side-by-side apps. It’s not the tablet I’d choose to replace a laptop or get a lot of productivity work done on.
- Apple iPad Pro 11 or iPad Air: similar size and can be less expensive. It has better app selection but not as nice of a screen and doesn’t include a stylus.
- OnePlus Pad: much less expensive, better aspect ratio on the screen, but not as nice of a display and not as refined.
- Google Pixel Tablet: a lot less expensive and comes with a useful speaker / charging dock, but it’s not as nice of a screen or speakers and not as fast as the Tab S9.
Galaxy Tab S9 Ultra: the one to get work done on
There’s really only one reason to consider the enormous Tab S9 Ultra: you plan to use it instead of a laptop to get work done. That requires pairing it with a keyboard case — Samsung offers options with ($350) and without ($200) trackpads — which will make the price of this already expensive tablet even more. At $1,400 to $1,500, you’re looking at the price of a nicely equipped MacBook Air.
But if you do make that commitment, you might be surprised at just how much you can get done with this tablet. It’s all thanks to Samsung’s DeX feature, which replicates a desktop environment with free-form windows like you get on Windows or macOS but running Android.
In prior years, DeX came with a lot of frustrating limitations that stopped me from really being able to rely on it. But now, Samsung has addressed many of the issues, such as app compatibility, windowing, and input, and I can use DeX to do the majority of my work without any problems.
Compared to Apple’s Stage Manager feature on the iPad, DeX feels unchained. I can have as many windows as I want open and place them wherever I want and in whatever size I want. I can have multiple browser windows, multiple Google Docs windows, and tasks like music or video in the background while I work. I’ve got keyboard shortcuts (though not quite enough and not in enough apps) and trackpad gestures and mouse support. I can plug it into a larger display and extend everything to that bigger screen while still using the tablet’s display.
The Tab S9 Ultra’s 14.6-inch display is bigger than most laptop screens — and looks nicer to boot. Its expansive size gives me the room I need to spread my work out and not have to constantly jostle between apps and windows. Samsung’s built-in apps, most of Google’s apps, and Microsoft’s Office suite all take good advantage of the larger screen size with optimized layouts and features. Other apps, like Slack, Threads, and frankly, most Android apps — which look silly on tablets because they aren’t optimized for the larger screen — run nicely in contained windows in DeX that let them just use their phone-size layouts.
There are still some quirks here, like the occasional inability to select text with the trackpad in the Google Docs app, and the Ultra doesn’t always remember my window positions when I come back after not using the tablet for a few minutes. But it really shines with a small portable mouse and allows me to do lots of things I find frustrating on other tablets.
On the flip side, the Tab S9 Ultra stinks for most other tablet tasks. It’s too big and heavy to hold in my hands for an extended period of time, and its size makes it awkward to fit on an airplane tray table or even some smaller bags. It’s goofy to hold in portrait orientation and just Too Much when I want to read a book or article. It also takes up too much room on my desk when I use it to take handwritten notes during a meeting.
The Ultra frustratingly doesn’t offer a cellular connectivity option
Samsung also only goes halfway with making it the ultimate portable computer because it doesn’t provide any kind of cellular connectivity option. (That option is strangely and frustratingly limited to the Tab S9 Plus.) I used the Tab S9 Ultra on a train with my phone as a hotspot, and the connection was much slower and less reliable than on an iPad I can connect directly to a 5G or LTE network. Battery life is also less than I get from a laptop when using the Tab S9 Ultra in full-tilt DeX mode: it lasted about five or six hours on average before I needed to charge it up again.
In general, the Tab S9 Ultra feels a bit like it has an identity crisis — does it want to be an excellent tablet for media and entertainment? Or does it want to be a killer productivity machine? I think it should lean into the latter, but Samsung still has a bit of work to do to really fulfill that role.
- Apple iPad Pro 12.9: better app selection, lower price, brighter screen, faster processor, and cellular connectivity options, but not nearly as flexible of a desktop mode.
- Lenovo Tab Extreme: similar size and quality screen and speakers, and it includes both a keyboard and pen for the same price as just the Tab S9 Ultra tablet. But its desktop mode pales in comparison to DeX, and its processor isn’t as powerful.
Galaxy Tab S9 Plus: the one to skip
The middle-sized and mid-priced Galaxy Tab S9 Plus is a combination of the worst aspects of the larger Tab S9 Ultra and smaller Tab S9 without really providing a significantly better experience than either of them. It’s just mid.
The 12.4-inch OLED screen looks great, but it’s not as roomy as the 14.5-inch screen on the Ultra and too awkward to hold in your hands or use in portrait orientation. Because the standard Tab S9 comes with an OLED screen this year, you don’t have to spring for the Plus model just to get that feature.
Sorry, T-Mobile customers, no cellular for you
The one thing the Tab S9 Plus holds over the other models is an option for cellular connectivity, which is something I think every tablet should offer (and is an option on every single iPad). But even here, Samsung flubs it: it only sells carrier versions for AT&T, Verizon, and UScellular. If you’re a T-Mobile customer, sorry, I guess, and you can’t even get an unlocked version here in the US.
Cellular connectivity is certainly a niche, and given that the Tab S9 works better as a tablet and the Tab S9 Ultra works better as a productivity machine, I am having trouble finding a reason for most people to opt for the Tab S9 Plus.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Android tablet story this year is that you don’t have to buy a Samsung at all. Thanks to renewed efforts from Google and new entrants like OnePlus, there are more Android tablets to choose from than ever, and many of them are quite capable — and significantly less expensive than Samsung’s Tab S9 lineup.
But if you do opt to splurge on one of the Tab S9s, you’ll get a very performant tablet with an excellent screen, great speakers, and a lot of capability. Just go for the small one or the big one and skip the middle row this year.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge