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I impulse-bought this big Samsung slab which I guess represents the state of the art in Android tabletry and is trying to occupy an iPad-like spot in the ecosystem. It’s got issues but I’m keeping it. I’m writing this based on my perception that not many people have a tablet that’s not an iPad, so the territory is only lightly explored.

Credit is due to Nelson Minar, who has a sort-of-blog where he diarizes his personal tech divagations. It was his short, to-the-point piece on the S7+ that awoke the impulse and got me here. If you’re interested at all in this thing you should go read that. I’ll wait.

This is not gonna be an iPad comparo, if only because I’m not up-to-date on those. I occasionally use a two-year-old basic entry-level iPad and it’s cool, but I don’t think it’s trying to be what this is trying to be. I’m not too worried; I think that there are a lot of people who (like me) are pretty invested in either the iOS or Android ecosystems and, if they’re the latter and want a tablet, this is going to be a strong candidate.

[Update: Nelson dropped in a comment below pointing to his earlier post, Android Tablet: Samsung Galaxy Tab S5e, which talks more generally about Android tablets and software on them.]

Samsung S7+ tab displaying an MLB.tv ball game

The best part… · Nelson opened with the screen quality and wow, well yeah. if you want specs go look at the Wikipedia entry but let me tell you, it’s really big and really bright and really sharp.

The screen is made much more useful by this, uh, flat thing, that attaches magnetically to the back of the tab and has a little bulge on it to store the “S pen” stylus. It’s got a flap thingie at the bottom that you can bend out and back — the resistance is stiff — which is designed to prop up the tablet, both horizontally and vertically; the pen-holding bulge keeps it from falling over. Here’s a picture.

Galaxy Tab S7+ mounted vertically running Kindle.

This is Kindle displaying the 2nd page of Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, which by the way is the best fiction ever written, if your criterion is imaginative and skilful use of San Francisco as a backdrop.

I normally read books either on paper or on a Kindle Oasis, and like both. But I have to say I really like having a huge slab of bright, crisp, well-typeset text that holds itself up so I can scratch my butt or sip my coffee while I read. I’ve already inhaled one book on it and I’m sure there will be more.

The Economist app is brilliant too; many articles fit on a single page. Nelson mentioned comic books, which I haven’t tried yet.

Fast! · Really freaking fast, I mean; another nice thing about the device. I’ve never felt the urge to complain about my (now-outmoded I guess) Pixel 3’s performance, but this does everything faster. Plus once you’ve experienced 120Hz scrolling, it starts to feel addictive.

Android · Off the top there’s all this weird Samsung shit in your face but I followed Nelson’s advice and dropped in Nova Launcher, yielding a very Pixel-like experience. And Android, all these years later, has the best notification system of any computing environment, any form factor, that I’ve ever been near. To this day I’ll be working on my Mac and a couple of notifications will float up in the corner of the screen when I’m zoned in on something else; so what I do when I want to refresh context is (walking across the room first if necessary) grab my Pixel and pull down the notifications to see what’s happened.

Plus the gestural navigation and (maybe most important?) a Back button that basically always does the right thing.

The worst thing · It’s a real klunker. If you put the back-case-thingie on the back and the keyboard (yes, we’ll get to that) on the front, the combo is heavier than my wife’s 13" M1 MacBook Air. I usually just have the back thingie attached, because it’s so useful and also the pen-holding bulge is a comfy carry-grip. Feels heavier than I’d like.

Stripped of all attachments it’s acceptably light, I guess, but my hands don’t like the sharp corners.

Photography · Yep, it’s got a camera. At one point in history I wondered why tablets might need them, then I saw tourists walking around taking pictures with iPads and realized that they had attained the long-cherished ideal of WYSIWYG photography. So why not? Here are two pictures I took just now with it.

White rose, shot with Galaxy Tab S7+
· · ·
Native honeysuckles, shot with Galaxy Tab S7+

They’re OK. What’s actually interesting is that they were not only shot but processed on the S7+ with Lightroom, which is actually pretty delightful on this device. Delightful enough, in fact, that I wonder if I should look at non-Classic Lightroom, which I think would let me edit my Fuji pix on the slab.

[Having said that, for some reason I can’t get Lightroom to auto-import the pictures.]

A keyboard, you said? · Indeed. I plugged it in and set it up and yeah, it works, but I was having severe cognitive dissonance. What’s it actually for? You’re not gonna set this contraption up to facilitate replying to a chat message. Don’t know about you, but I use a keyboard when I’m in creative mode, which often means writing. So, here’s a shot of the S7+ with keyboard beside my 16" MBP for context, set up for writing.

Galaxy Tab S7+ beside a 16" MacBook Pro

What, you wonder, might be on the screen? Well, Emacs, obviously, because that’s what I write this in. In fact, here’s a screen photo with the first few paragraphs of an early draft what you’re now reading.

My custom Emacs mode for blogging works fine, although the syntax coloring went off the rails somehow.

Emacs running on the Galaxy Tab S7+

Yaks were shaved. There seems to be no native Android Emacs? I’m surprised and disappointed. But you can install Termux, which gets you a perfectly acceptable shell environment and a pkg command that can install open-source packages from, uh, somewhere. Then it’s more work than you might think to get files and programs onto the device; I ended up using Curl mostly.

So yeah, I could in principle blog on this thing. Mind you, I’d need to get Perl and MySQL and so on running, but if Emacs can do it that ought to be possible.

OK, I kid. Normal people who write their blogs in a nice JS-browser environment would probably find themselves perfectly comfortable living their social-media lives on an S7+.

But that keyboard… it’s a pretty strange beast. It has 12 function keys and, down in the bottom left corner, Ctrl, Fn, Cmd, and Alt keys; to the spacebar’s right are keys labeled “Lang” and “Alt Gr”. Because I’m in Canada (I assume) some of the labels are bilingual and there’s a special key reserved for É. What’s just wrong is that some of the keys don’t produce what the labels say they do. While I was fooling with the shell I obviously needed “<” and “>”. There are keys with those symbols on them but they don’t emit those characters. Fortunately, my muscle memory took me to shift-, and shift-. which worked.

So something went off the rails here. Having said that, it’s a perfectly nice responsive keyboard and, with a bit of practice, I could live with it.

Miscellania · There’s a stylus called the “S Pen” that is said to be magically responsive, understand drawing pressure changes, and usable as a remote control so you can wiggle it around and drive the S7+ from across the table. Don’t ask me about drawing, one reason I like computers is that I have shaky hands, plus no shred of talent at drawing or penmanship. So it’s unlikely I’d ever use this thing.

It comes with a SIM card slot. Um, I guess that’s nice? Not sure what the scenario is that makes that interesting.

The battery life is OK. I binge-read most of a book in a single multi-hour sitting and that burned half the power. So it’s unlikely you’d ever run flat in a day; that’s all anyone really needs I think?

Samsung · I bought it direct from their website, which was cheaper than Amazon, and it showed up plenty fast. But they strongly de-emphasized the S7+ in favor of the smaller S7; near as I can tell there isn’t actually a dedicated S7+ page, and I had to do considerable backing and filling to actually order the big slab. Perhaps this is a consequence of me being in Canada?

Nelson says he thinks the S8 is imminent, which might also explain the weirdness. If he’s right, and the S8 turns out to be lighter and more graceful, I’ll be grouchy.

History · I have a bit, with Android tablets. Back in the fall of 2010 I took the first “Samsung Galaxy Tab” on a world tour. It was controversial because Google hadn’t managed to ship the first “official” Android Tablet, so Andy Rubin was pissed. Later, I repeatedly sang the praises of the Nexus 7, which I carried for years. Both of these were at the 7" form factor, so this is the only “big” tablet I’ve ever owned.

Does the world have a place for Android tablets? I dunno. But I’m holding on to this one for now.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Nelson (Jun 23 2021, at 07:39)

Glad it's (mostly) working out for you! I haven't tried the keyboard or that case; I'm using a much slimmer cheap case from "ZtotopCase" whoever they are. It has some stand capability but not as nice as yours.

I love that you're using it like a mini-Linux laptop. Why not? I don't really use it that way myself though, for me it's mostly a thing for reading.

Have you tried Google's Keyboard and its voice recognition? I use it on all my Android devices instead of other forms of typing, it's amazingly good.

I'd like to highlight my other, older blog post for your readers: it talks more about the software environment from Samsung. https://nelsonslog.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/android-tablet-samsung-galaxy-tab-s5e/


From: Karl Voit (Jun 23 2021, at 11:14)

For reading documents, I prefer e-ink devices such as the Boox devices. I own a Boox Note Air. It has a battery for weeks of reading and it runs Android 10.

You can't expect to watch colorful images or videos (although it works). However, you can expect to be able to read documents in sunlight in perfect quality.

Android and keyboards, that's always some hazzle. There are apps that let you fix some of the issues (Keyboard helper app or similar). For users of vim (mostly Escape key) or Emacs (all modifier keys), Android is no good option from my perspective. It never was and obviously, it is no priority for Google to improve the situation.

Otherwise, an e-ink tablet with a bluetooth keyboard would be an almost perfect companion for ssh/zsh/vim/Emacs work on the road.


From: Terry Jones (Jun 23 2021, at 11:37)

Tim / Nelson - cool that you know each other, I had no idea. I met Tim in 1987 or so, and Nelson in 1993 I guess. how the decades slip by. I'm still in emacs 365 days a year, though never (yet) on a tablet.


From: Jason Carter (Jun 24 2021, at 14:14)

I would be interested to see how the experience has been as a parallel to learning to be productive/code in the chromebook/android/crostini world which has been great for me on a 4K Lenovo C630. I never flip it to tablet mode - it's kind of a monster/novelty when in that form factor. The keyboard is certainly not as much an issue once you get past pinky reconfigs.


From: Meower68 (Jun 29 2021, at 15:41)

I've been using an Asus Zenpad Z8 for multiple years. My beloved has the slightly newer Z8s. Both are 8" Android tablets. They have SIM slots and, in our cases, they're populated. The devices use Verizon 4G, which has the largest network in this area.

Both of us are in our 50s. Neither of us really likes using a smartphone, anymore, The screens are sufficiently small that you have to use a small typeface to get a decent amount of info on-screen at once. I'm still hanging in there with a Pixel, with everything jacked up as large as possible, but there some apps which simply don't work well with that.

We bought a new home, last year. For the year or so prior to that, we were routinely driving for a couple hours each way from our old home to open houses we wanted to attend. Using the smaller, lighter, touch-based tablets was much more convenient than hauling a laptop along. If your vehicle has a WiFi hotspot, the 4G may not matter to you. We don't have one so having 4G connectivity built into the devices was (and still is) extremely handy. We'd set up a Google Map with multiple houses on it, based on when various open houses started and ended, and my beloved would drive from open house to open house with me navigating on the tablet. If there was a confusing intersection coming up, I'd just show her the screen so she knew what to expect. Our main vehicle for these excursions had neither GPS nor Android Auto so a larger screen was very helpful for that "quick glance" to get her bearings. A smaller screen would, at best, take longer to comprehend, if she could parse it at all.

The fact that these devices can function as WiFi hotspots has come in handy more times than I care to count.

The screen is large enough that, if necessary, I can use it to VPN into my employer's network (from just about anywhere 'cuz 4G) and do many things which would, otherwise, require a laptop. I wouldn't want to try running an RDP session on my smartphone but it's quite do-able with an 8" screen (running better than 1080P resolution; the specs on this thing were, and still are, rather nice). Paired with a cheap Bluetooth keyboard, this thing is a decent sub-notebook machine. I've penned some rather long emails and documentation that way. I don't even own a personal laptop anymore because this tablet does most everything I'd be doing with such a machine.

I'm seriously considering a 7.8" e-ink device when it comes time to replace it (for reasons others have mentioned). My niece recently acquired 10" device, and Bluetooth keyboard, and has been quite pleased with it. I'm holding out for color e-ink to come down a little more in price. When I can get that for $350 or less, it'll be time to pull the trigger. So far, those are north of $400.


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June 22, 2021
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