Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0
17th Oct 2013 | 16:26
Standing still means moving back in the 7-inch tablet race
Since then the aforementioned devices have sent the compact tablet market into the stratosphere, offering potent combinations of price, performance and unique features. As such, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 needs to do a heck of a lot more to impress us here in 2013.
Samsung has once again hit a pretty sweet sub-$200/£200 price point. At the time of writing you can pick this unassuming 7-inch tablet up for $179.99 (£180) - that's less than the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 hit the market for, and more pertinently it's slightly less than a brand new second generation Google Nexus 7.
The trouble is, when it comes down to it, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 isn't even in the same league as the first generation Google Nexus 7 in terms of specs and performance. But we'll come onto that later.
We'll start with a typical piece of Samsung design. The Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 follows the same visual template as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and, by extension, the Samsung Galaxy S4. This means it's a functional, solid, yet plasticy piece of kit.
It lacks the understated class of the latest Nexus 7 and the sheer premium feel of the iPad mini, with details such as a glossy white plastic back panel and silver plastic rim feeling dated and unappealing.
As ever with Samsung's designs, though, the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 somehow feels sturdy and well built despite its cheap appearance. You can imagine it surviving a fair few drops with scarcely a scratch to show for it - though we didn't put this to the test.
This 7-inch tablet is clearly intended to be held and used in portrait mode first and foremost. The orientation of the Samsung branding and of its two capacitive hardware buttons tells you as much, as does the way the tablet sits comfortably in a single handed grips when aligned this way.
At 300 grams the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is 44g lighter than the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, 8g lighter than the iPad mini and just 10g heavier than the 2013 Nexus 7. It's pretty much average for the modern 7-inch tablet, in other words, and while it doesn't exactly feel light in the hand it was undoubtedly comfortable to hold for extended web browsing and gaming sessions throughout our test period.
As mentioned, the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 adheres to the established Samsung design manual, which extends to its hardware controls. Whilst other manufacturers are ditching or stripping back this element in keeping with Google's reference Nexus designs, Samsung continues to supply its devices with three core controls.
Central to these is a physical lozenge-shaped home button, which is also used for bringing up the multitasking menu (through a long press) and Samsung's Siri-like S Voice feature (through a double press).
Either side of this you have two capacitive buttons. On the left is a contextual menu button, whilst on the right is a back button. Whether you prefer this approach to the virtual commands included in stock Android is a matter of personal preference, but there's certainly something to be said for the consistency and familiarity of Samsung's approach.
On the right of the device you have some reliably clicky buttons for power and volume, which are ideally placed for that aforementioned single-handed grip, and up top you have a standard 3.5mm headphone port.
Flip over to the bottom of the device and you'll find the expected microUSB slot and two small speaker grilles, emphasizing that this is device that's meant to be operated in portrait. Movie watchers and landscape gamers will need to employ a set of headphones to get proper stereo sound, but we'd always recommend that anyway.
Our issues really begin with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 when you move beyond its conservative external design, though. Powering the tablet is a dual-core 1.2GHz Marvell Armada PXA986 CPU. Hardly a cutting edge component, and certainly well off the pace of the quad-core chips found in both generations of Nexus 7.
1GB of RAM is respectable, but again half that found in the new Nexus 7 and other modern Android devices.
There's a choice of 8GB or 16GB of internal storage, and once again you can opt to expand this by up to 32GB via a welcome microSD slot, which is readily accessible behind a somewhat flimsy plastic door on the lower left-hand side.
If the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0's internal specs are underwhelming, wait until you lay your eyes on its 7-inch LCD display. Viewing angles are good thanks to IPS technology, but its 1024 x 600 resolution feels woefully out of date next to the 1280 x 800 offered by last year's Nexus 7, let alone the 1920 x 1200 display featured in this year's model.
With a deeply unimpressive pixel density of 169ppi, text and images have that fuzzy non-descript appearance that we thought we'd left behind with the advent of HD displays.
Testing Ubisoft's vibrant Rayman Jungle Run game on the device resulted in decent performance and a clear enough picture, but those luscious 2D worlds that burst with so much color and detail on other modern devices simply felt muted and indistinct.
Frankly, we can't see any meaningful improvement over the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 screen - and even that felt below par more than a year ago.
On the plus side, while we wouldn't call it razor-sharp we didn't notice any of the outstanding responsiveness issues that we found with last year's model, and we had little problem hitting links and other small command prompts on the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0's 7-inch display. Thank goodness for small mercies.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 runs on Android 4.1.2, which isn't the very latest version of Google's mobile OS, but it's still reasonably current. It's classed as Jelly Bean, just as the latest version (4.3) is.
This means that you're getting one of the best tablet operating systems out there, with excellent multi-tasking and widget support perfectly suiting the larger screen size - when compared to your average smartphone, that is.
Of course, this being a Samsung tablet, you get the by-now-familiar TouchWiz UI layered on top. It's easy enough to use, but it still looks a little garish and, yes, dated compared to a stock Android tablet like the Nexus 7 (either one).
We have to say that the lock screen isn't immediately intuitive to use if you've never used a Samsung device before. There's a rather vague swipe-anywhere system in place that's easy to use but poorly signposted, as is the ability to jump straight into five pre-set apps from here.
Into the main OS, and it appears to have been stripped of many of the extraneous gizmos and apps that make their way into high-end Samsung devices these days, giving the UI a fairly clean if old school look.
You'll find three home screens by default, all operating on an endless carousel and accessed via a lateral swipe. By default, Samsung has occupied the top third of each home screen with a widget.
The main one has an AccuWeather widget that shows off the time, date, and weather conditions of your current location. The right-hand home screen contains Video and Game Hubs, which are essentially shortcuts to Samsung's all-but-superfluous multimedia offerings (more on which later), and will be of little use to anyone invested in the Google ecosystem.
Finally, the left-hand home screen contains a Flipboard widget. Of all the third party apps to select for this we think Samsung at least went with a useful one, as the news aggregation service is a brilliant experience on any tablet.
Suffice to say you'll want to add your own app icons and widgets to the home screen pretty quickly, which you can do by tapping the Apps menu button to the right of the fixed menu bar. It's then a typical case of dragging and dropping what you want onto the home screen of your choice.
Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 with its Android Ice Cream Sandwich-based OS, the experience here is more like a smartphone than a tablet, with none of the desktop-like tool bars along the bottom.
Samsung packages its own keyboard software into the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0, and as ever its pretty good. You get a handy dedicated layer of numerical keys along the top, and there's a predictive word-suggestion tool above that should you wish to speed up the process of word entry.
It's not as elegant as the official Google keyboard, but then that's available on the Google Play Store as a free download should you wish to make a switch.
Multitasking is pretty much unchanged from the stock Android experience, which is to say that it works very well indeed. Pressing and holding the Home key brings up a list of thumbnails representing your recently opened apps, each frozen at the point you left them. Simply tap to re-enter, or swipe to dismiss. Easy and clear, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 handles it with apparent ease.
The Notification menu is accessed in the same way as other Android devices, by dragging down from the top of the home screen. This experience is very similar to stock Android, with the ability to preview messages and other notifications and even respond to them from within the menu.
Samsung has added its own raft of toggles for quick access to Wi-Fi, GPS, screen rotation lock and other commonly used functions. These can be customized from the Settings menu, though there's only one additional possibility to choose from.
All in all, general performance on the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 was decent when the device wasn't engaging in anything too intensive. We didn't notice any major lag when swiping between home screens or booting up apps.
A large part of that is down to the finely honed Android Jelly Bean OS, but praise also has to go to Samsung for the way it's kept its UI snappy - even if we're still not massive fans of it from an aesthetic standpoint.
However, we did notice severe lag when returning to the home screen from a playing a video or a high-end game. Here's where the Galaxy Tab 3's hardware shortcomings are really exposed next to its better equipped quad-core rivals.
We even managed to momentarily hang and even crash the device on a few occasions when navigating through our many photo thumbnails in the Gallery app. Not good.
We also had one unusual and rather worrying technical issue, whereby we removed the tablet from our bag to find that the device had reverted to a black screen with a core Android message about an emergency upload mode. This required a forced reset to correct, but we weren't able to repeat the issue, so just take it as a note of caution.
As seems to be the case with a perplexing number of third party tablets, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 adopts the stock Android browser as its default web surfing tool of choice.
There's not a great deal wrong with this browser - it's both intuitive and stable, and you can pull your Google Chrome desktop bookmark across. It's just that it's also virtually redundant when Google Chrome itself is available for Android. In fact, Google Chrome is pre-installed here, but Samsung has buried it in the app menu.
One of the first things you should do is reverse this state of affairs and promote Chrome to your web browser of choice. Not only do you get seamless bookmark and search syncing between the desktop and Android versions, it's also quicker and more refined.
Still, as we've already mentioned, the stock Android browser is perfectly adequate. You can open multiple tabs by touching the plus icon at the top of the screen, and there's a familiar unified text field for putting in searches and specific URLs alike. There's also a decent bookmarks facility.
Indeed, your web browsing experience won't be limited by Google's second-choice web browser, even if you do choose to ignore Chrome. It's far more likely to be restricted by the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0's poor display.
It's already quite small as it is, but add in that below-par resolution and you have a seriously underwhelming web browsing experience. In fact, we'd hazard a guess that your smartphone probably offers a better web browsing experience, assuming you have a half-decent example with a 720p or Retina display.
Text remains murky and blurry at any level of zoom other than up close. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 runs mobile web sites brilliantly - both in terms of performance and appearance - but this being a tablet, you're more likely to get the full website experience, and that's lacking here.
Not only do full websites look ugly on this tablet, they also load up quite slowly on the default web browser. Opening up a TechRadar story took around six seconds before it was readable, and as many as 20 seconds before the story was fully loaded.
Chrome improves that significantly (or at least hides its loading process better), and also formats the story better for the Galaxy Tab 3's display.
Unlike other recent tablet releases, then, you'll probably not want to spend too much time browsing the web on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 - Chrome or no Chrome.
One related issue we noticed was the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0's Wi-Fi performance. While it connects just fine, we noticed that it struggled for range. When using the device in an adjacent room to the one containing the Wi-Fi hub, we struggled to get more than two bars our of five.
Samsung evidently wants to funnel you towards its own video store offering with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0, as evidenced by that Video Hub widget on one of the home screens.
You'll need a Samsung account in order to access this Video Hub, and doing so also signs you up for Samsung's ChatON chat service. More important to this section, you also get a voucher code for a free movie download when you sign up, which makes it worthwhile signing up irrespective of the service.
It's unlikely you'll want to use the Video Hub much once you've claimed your free movie, however. It's a pretty extensive but also quite standard video rental and purchase service with availability and pricing that's pretty much equal to Google's own offering, which is included here as part of Android's Google Play Store.
The thing is, the Google Play Store is a much nicer service to look at and use. Google's software design is simply streets ahead of Samsung's.
Plus, if you've used an Android device before it's very likely that you'll already be signed up and invested in the Google ecosystem through apps or music purchases, so there's likely no need for any sign-up even if you've never rented a film from Google before.
So, it's a case of more needless duplication in order to push Samsung's own offerings. Take our advice and stick with Google here, as it's not just nicer to use, it will stand you in better stead for the future when one day you decide to purchase a non-Samsung device without giving up your entire video library.
The video playback experience is fine and dandy, with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 handling 720p and 1080p playback smoothly. Of course, with that 1024 x 600 resolution it can't truly do full justice to either, so you'll lose a lot of detail even if the source material is top notch.
As a standard definition video player, though, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 benefits from the company's typically strong and wide-ranging codec support. It handles H.263, H.264, MPEG4, WMV and DivX without a problem.
When it comes to music on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0, it's a similar story to video in that Samsung has replicated the functionality of Google Music with its own Music Hub. However, there's even less reason to go with Samsung's offering here.
Where the Samsung Music Hub is a simple, competitively priced by slightly charmless MP3 music store, Google Music is a boldly wide-ranging offering.
Here you can not only purchase tracks but upload your existing record collection into the cloud for safe storage and streaming to any Android device. You can also stream unlimited music in a Spotify-like subscription service, which is free for the first 30 days.
Again, all of this is tightly integrated with Google's existing media ecosystem, so signing up and purchasing music is effortless.
Sound quality on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is fine through a decent set of headphones. The speakers are pretty clear and loud, but as mentioned already there's not great separation between the two.
Unusually, Samsung doesn't provide its Readers Hub by default on the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0, and nor does it appear to be available in the Samsung Apps store. But this doesn't really matter, as once again Google has a superior option pre-installed on the device.
Google Play Books and Google Play Magazines offers you all of the ebooks and magazines you could want through that familiar Google Play Store interface. It's pretty seamless.
Reading books on the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is actually not too bad. Despite the Screen's sharpness issues it remains bright and clear, and the formatting of the Google Play Books reader ensures that text is of a decent size too.
We can see it being a little tiresome for those marathon reads, but we find that to be the case with tablets in general. You still can't beat a good dedicated ebook reader for such things, or, you know, a book.
Apps and games
The Google Play Store has really stretched its legs in recent times, offering a selection of apps that rivals Apple's iOS App Store and a browsing experience that is, for our money, a darned sight better.
Pretty much all of the biggest apps are here. Instagram, Vine, Flipboard, Instapaper, Pocket - all major applications that are now available for Android. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 handles them all adequately.
What's more, the sheer number of apps on the Google Play Store - one million and counting - means that if an app is missing, or you don't particularly like a certain app, there's likely to be several alternatives to select from.
One lingering flaw with the Google Play Store is a relative lack of tablet-specific apps. Most are simply the smartphone versions crudely upscaled for larger screens, although Google has partially addressed this with a dedicated 'Tablet 101' section for highlighting tablet-friendly apps on the Google Play Store
As it happens, this isn't so much of an issue for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0. It's low-res 7-inch display simply isn't big or sharp enough to really take advantage of traditional tablet apps, so in a curious way it's an excellent front for the Google Play Store.
As with its media offerings, Samsung includes its own app store, Samsung Apps. It shouldn't have bothered, as it lags behind the Google Play Store in every regards - intuitiveness, accessibility, design, range and price.
At least here the Google Play Store is given its own home screen icon by default.
In terms of Samsung's own stock app offerings, it's a relatively bare bones effort by the Korean manufacturer's usual 'everything and the kitchen sink' standards. Not that this is a bad thing.
Highlights include a pretty standard note-taking app called Memo, a group sharing app called Group Play that allows you to share documents and music in real time with other Samsung device owners, and a fairly decent calendar app called S Planner.
We should also give some due to Samsung's own Gallery app, which pulls out shared and locally stored images alike in a nice, concise, branching grid view. There's also a nice - if slightly pointless - 3D thumbnail presentation view, though as noted already this seemed to stretch the Galaxy Tab 3's limited hardware to breaking point.
Google's excellent app service extends to gaming. While it's not quite up to iOS standards just yet, Android is home to a massive range of top quality games.
For example, you can't get such recent iOS mega-hits as Plants vs. Zombies 2, Worms 3 or Kingdom Rush: Frontiers on Android at the time of writing, you do get such left-field critical hits as A Ride into the Mountains, Rymdkapsel and Sine Mora. A clear sign of progression.
Given our criticism of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0's technical clout - or lack thereof - we're pleasantly surprised to report that it handles games quite well. As well as the aforementioned Rayman Jungle Run, we also ran Real Racing 3 without too much of a hitch.
That's the best of 2D and 3D respectively, both running smoothly on the Galaxy Tab 3. Of course, a large part of that has to be down to that low-res screen. The device's humble processor has far fewer pixels to push around the screen than the likes of the Nexus 7 range, so it doesn't need as much power to run at a decent rate.
You'll be able to run the latest games on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0, then, but they won't look as good as they could do.
Camera and battery life
We're not massive fans of the idea of taking pictures with a tablet, to put it mildly, but if a manufacturer is going to include a camera it had better be decent. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0's camera... is not.
What we're talking about here is a 3.2MP camera with no flash assistance, so like the rest of the tablet's specs it feels somewhat lacking from the get go. This is added to by the presence of a fixed focus system, taking away a great deal of the flexibility we've come to expect from our smart device camera.
Don't even think about grabbing those Instagram-friendly macro shots here. You'll be sorely disappointed, as the backgrounds tend to come out clear leaving the foreground a blurry mess.
That extends to general shots. We'd love to say that the Galaxy Tab 3's camera punches above its weight, but it simply doesn't. Images end up washed out, noisy and lacking in vibrancy and color accuracy.
The maximum 3.2MP resolution here also sports a somewhat odd aspect ratio that appears rather square by today's widescreen standards. Perhaps it is suited to Instagram photos after all.
Despite this lack of quality, the camera interface is reasonably intuitive. Along the right side of the screen you have your virtual shutter button, as well as a toggle for stills or videos and a little preview pane for viewing your last shot.
Along the left you have your settings shortcuts, which can be edited according to preference. By default you have Shooting mode, which lets you choose between single or panorama shots, as well as the ability to share your photos with other local devices, or to share according to facial detection.
Smile shot will only take a picture when the subject smiles, and It works pretty well - as long as you define 'smile' as 'great big cheesy grin.'
Elsewhere you can choose from a somewhat meager three filter effects, alter the brightness, or dive into slightly deeper settings such as white balance presets, metering and scene modes.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is capable of shooting 720p video, though it seemed more comfortable with 480p in our tests. Performance was merely okay in our recordings.
Video quality defaults to 480p here, and it's tempting to wonder whether this isn't just to make your videos quicker and easier to share, but also because this is the level at which the Galaxy Tab 3's camera is most comfortable.
The failings of the tablet's camera have a bearing here too, with our indoors test showing up a lot of noise in low light conditions. We were impressed with how quickly the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 camera adjusted to changes in light, however.
When it comes to the video interface, it's pretty much identical to the still photo mode. You can still apply those three effects and tweak the brightness and white balance, as well as adjusting recording resolution and opting to limit the video size in order to be suitable for attaching to an email.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 comes with a 4,000mAh battery, which is roughly the same size as the second generation Google Nexus 7. Despite the tablet's plasticy build, the back panel is non-removable, meaning that the battery cannot be readily replaced.
Samsung claims that the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is good for seven hours of video playback. In our tests this was born out by an average battery level of 85 percent following the running of our standard 90 minute-long 720p video - but that was with automatic screen brightness turned on.
Bump the screen brightness up to full and that average drops to 78 percent, which is about normal for an Android device.
In our general experience, the tablet comfortably stood up to a good two days of moderate use, which involved checking email, surfing the web and a little light games playing.
Camera and video samples
We're not quite sure what Samsung was hoping to achieve with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0. It's like the company has been in a state of Nexus-denial over the past 12 months or so, failing to even acknowledge the existence of two generations of Google-approved compact tablets.
But exist they do, and the brutal fact is that both Nexus 7 models are better than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 in virtually every way.
What's more, the most recent Nexus 7 was only slightly more expensive than the Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 when it launched in the UK, whilst the original Nexus 7 can currently be picked up for slightly less.
Even without these unflattering Nexus comparisons, though, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is a deeply unremarkable tablet with underwhelming performance and a low-res display that remains ostensibly unchanged since the launch of the original Galaxy Tab.
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The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 continues with the Korean manufacturer's design philosophy, which has obviously won it a great number of fans over recent years. It's a solidly built tablet that nonetheless sits light in the hand.
Similarly functional is Samsung's TouchWiz UI, which in this stripped back form treats the Android Jelly Bean OS relatively lightly.
We're also happy to see a microSD slot for memory expansion purposes, which is the one thing it has over the latest Nexus 7.
As popular as Samsung's design language has been, it's evidently growing a little long in the tooth. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 looks cheap.
That sense of cheapness permeates the device, making its way to an unremarkable dual-core processor and a disappointingly fuzzy display, and on into a 3.2MP camera that's so bad it was hardly worth including it.
All of this would be forgivable if the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 was one of the cheaper 7-inch tablets on the market, but it isn't.
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There's no getting around it - the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is a deeply average tablet that's been way over-priced by Samsung.
Its specs aren't really good enough to show off the best of the Android platform. In particular, the tablet's 1024 x 600 display seems like it's from a bygone era before 720p YouTube videos became the norm. It seems to actively discourage protracted web browsing sessions, too, which is surely much of the point of a modern tablet.
But then, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 isn't really a modern tablet - it's a reminder of the way tablets used to be in the not-too-distant past. If you want to see where the next generation of Android tablets is headed, check out the similarly priced Google Nexus 7.