Review of Galaxy Samsung Tab A8 (SM-X200) tablet

Intro

Essentially I wanted something more portable than a laptop for reading around the house, with a bigger screen than my phone (hence why I bought a moderately priced model).  It does that quite well.  I can't really compare it to other tablets, as I've only used a few (one very old and dire one, and a couple of other quite old ones that I'd just used one application on).

Actually, I'd like to use a tablet as a portable sheet music device.  But all the models with A4 sized screens are horrendously expensive, and I haven't found PDF reading software that's good for quick page changes yet, preferably with controllable with a remote foot pedal.  And how do you scribble quick changes on a PDF file?  You need the right program to write to a PDF, and probably need the same one to see them, later on.  I can't justify that cost, nor want to take the risk of carting something so expensive around in public where it could easily be lost, stolen, or damaged.  I only play music for fun.

Software

Thankfully it didn't come pre-installed with scads of annoying software, less than my phone had, though there's still some pre-installed that you mightn't like.  Samsung has an annoying habit of making their bundled software a duplicate function of other better software, and making them unable to be uninstalled (until they get sufficient bug complaints that they remove the software instead of fixing it).

I've loaded it up with a few of the apps I frequently used on my phone, and it's remaining nippy to use.  But I don't do gaming or anything I consider should be CPU-intensive, just reading, watching and listening to things.

Look and feel

It's quite a substantial tablet, it's not light and feels well-built.  It's probably a bit heavy to sit there reading from it like a book, or to carry around like a clipboad (how some organisations might use tablets for dealing with customers).

The screen has good resolution, colour isn't bad, and can go quite bright, but can't make it all the way down to black.  I've used it in daylight, but bright outdoor light is a bit of a challenge (that's no surpise, though).  The viewing angle isn't as wide as my phone, you really want to be within 40° of straight-on.  But then that's virtually a prerequisite of reading a flat screen, anyway.  If you laid it flat on a table, you're either viewing a dimmer version than desired, with some odd colours, or you're leaning forward and craning your neck down at a tight angle.  Or you do what I do, I'm forever propping it up on something to angle it better (cases with stands nearly always prop them up too steeply, into an upright position, and only in landscape mode).

Nicely, it will rotate into any orientation (unlike my phone, that would never rotate the picture into upside-down portrait mode—in portrait mode you always had any plugged-in cables digging into you, and at risk of getting bent out of shape, or broken).

Features

There's hardware buttons for power and volume (a rocker switch).

A USB-C power and data connector.

There's still a 3.5 mm headphone socket.  It's not particularly loud, though, so you're going to be stuffed if you had to listen to something that was recorded too quietly.  This is a common problem with any personal audio device, they don't measure the sound level of the audio signal and determine what's too loud, they just limit the gain.  A very quiet recording is always going to be very quiet, few have an option to boost quiet signals up to normal levels.

It has two microphone holes, and four speaker grills for stereo sound.

Testing sound recording using the supplied Samsung camera app, and Open Camera, using front and rear cameras, rotating the tablet around between portrait and landscape, I've discovered that the mike on the button side of the phone is always the left mike, and the mike on the top of the phone (other end from the earphone and USB sockets) is always the right mike.  In the grand scheme of things this probably means very little.  You're not going to get much stereo separation from mikes that close together, and you're probably not going to notice the direction being wrong.  You just get a nicer sound in stereo than mono.  If you edit your videos, you can always swap left and right as desired.  I did try getting it to use my headset's Bluetooth mike, but there was no option that would select it.  I don't know if a non-headset mike would get treated any differently.  It's not really the ideal device for recording things, anyway.  It's cumbersome and not that great, and there's no guarantee of what frame rate you'll get.

Further sound recording tests show that while it's sound system is good enough for things like video calls and chatting to camera, it's no good at recording anything that's loud (it distorts like crazy).  Even quieter audio is very poor in quality.  So, you won't be recording anything great, audio-wise, with this tablet.  It's the same problem with another cheap Samsung A11 phone, it's audio processing is terrible, but it did record not-too-badly if you turned it off.  But you don't often have any options to turn off audio processing, certainly not with the default apps.  Conversely a Samsung S9+ phone does a good job of recording sound.  It seems like that they've designed bad audio hardware into some devices, then tried to compensate for it with software.  That, or they've deliberately made the cheaper devices worse to push sales towards the more expensive ones.

Nicely, it automatically switches between using the correct speakers as you rotate the tablet around, between portrait and landscape, through a full circle, so that left audio is always left of your picture, and right audio is always right of your picture.  In landscape mode, the two speakers left of the screen do the left sound, and the two on the right side does the right sound.  In portrait mode the two speakers on the left, above and below the screen, are the left speakers; and the two on the right side, above and below the screen, are the right speakers.  Although there's far less stereo separation in portrait mode, it's still stereo.  Conversely, my phone would never rotate the picture into the upside-down position (meaning any connectors would be sticking into you in portait mode), and never really did stereo sound through its speakers (the speaker at the ear-piece end is always quieter than the speaker near the mike end, so you don't get a loud blast in your ear).

It has front and back cameras, though nothing remarkable, and most of the options in the Samsung camera app are ghosted out (you're locked into only being able to use it in a basic mode).  The resolution was okay, but they both over-exposed a bit.  I'm yet to try recording video, or sound, on it properly.  I've just being doing basic tests, probing its functionality.  It's a bit large and heavy to be holding up to use as camera.  And whenever I see people holding tablets up to use as cameras, they look like they're holding up a portable picture frame, to me.

They're never ergonomic, for a myriad other reasons.  Such as holding up the device to film with, there's no button near your finger.  You have to take your finger off holding it and fumble awkwardly at the touch screen, wobbling your shot.  Hardware buttons on the outside are rarely in the right place, or take so much pressure to press that you wobble your shot.  With some devices everywhere that you want to hold the camera means you end up accidentally touching some interactive surface interupting what you're doing.  Holding the device puts your fingers over the microphones.  There's good reasons that 35 mm cameras have kept the same basic design for decades.

There's no lights, so that means no using the cameras in dark areas without external lighting, and nothing to let you know when a camera is switched on.  Anybody with privacy concerns about spyware is going to have to resort to covering the camera up (not that camera tally lights were ever a 100% guarantee that the light would always be on when the camera was on).

There's a light sensor above the screen which is used for (optional) auto-brightness control of the screen.  I haven't discovered if anything else makes use of it.  Other devices use light detectors to discover when the case lid is shut, this one seems to sense the magnets in the case lid.

And there's the usual WiFi, Bluetooth, and even GPS, with the antennas along the side with the switches.  But this model doesn't have a SIM (so no mobile networking).  It can be wirelessly tethered to a Samsung phone and used to make phone calls and text messaging through it, though I noticed it get it wrong on at least one occasion (I tried answering a call on the tablet, yet the sound came from the phone).

Protective covers

It didn't come with any, so I had to buy one.  That was an exercise in annoyance. The official Samsung ones come in sealed boxes where you cannot see what's inside them, and the store had no demo ones out on display.

There's a semi-hard protective case that is a backshell-only (around $60).  It has a little fold out kick stand on the back (landscape orientation), but nothing to protect the screen.  It'd be okay for someone who uses it around the house, or has it on a desk all the time.  But needs something else to protect the screen if you take it anywhere.

I don't use the clear screen protectors.  Why spend money on a high-res screen only to make it blurry to look at, and difficult to use the touch screen?  I also find they get dirty quickly, don't clean as well as the glass screen does, and often get lots of muck trapped between the protector and the screen.  While they might protect the screen from scratches, but won't protect it from being cracked by a hard knock, or being pressed against an uneven surface.  You need a hard cover over the screen for that job.

There's a lighter-weight thing that has a hard cover that folds over the screen, or behind the back (around $80).  But it has nothing to stop the cover flopping open (no kind of catch), and has sharp edges all around.  That's not nice for hand-holding the tablet for extended periods of time.

That leaves looking for third-party products, and that brings about a new surprise:  The product is a Samsung Tab A8, but covers are often marketed as Samsung Tab 8, which are generic covers for 8-inch Samsung tablets, but this is a 10.5 inch tablet.  A more detailed product code for the tablet is SM-X200, so you need to search for cases using that product code.

So far, the only thing that seems to be available in local stores is a Cygnett product, around $60, but I've yet to check whether they've got the model suited for this tablet, or they've got the misleadingly named 8 inch version.

I've an allegedly leather phone cover made by Hanman that's quite nice, it's wallet style with some pockets for cards, and a magnetic catch that flips around over the cover.  If they made a tablet-sized version I think I'd be happy with that.  But again, internet searching is hampered by the confusing Tab A8 product naming.  I'm not sure if I found an 8 inch Samsung tablet cover, or an A8 tablet cover.

I've looked at some $30 generic imported products, from the cheap phone accessory stores (probably Chinese, everything seems to be).  Feature wise it seemed okay, it had an elastic strap you could pull over the outside to keep the cover shut, and had a pivot point so you could prop the tablet up in landscape or portrait orientation.  But the plastic parts look like that hideous cheap recycled plastic (inconsistent dark grey, smelly, sharp edges, and felt horrible to the touch).  And I'm a bit concerned that the pivot point could place harder pressure in the centre of the tablet's back, when travelling, than a simple flat case, even though I like the idea of being able to stand it up in either orientation.


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