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Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3 Review

The Samsung Tab Active 3 reckons it’s tough enough to take all the knocks and scrapes you can throw its way

Verdict

The Galaxy Tab Active 3 is the very definition of a niche device, and one that lacks the performance and refinement for most people. For those who value robustness above all else, however, it’s a pretty tough tablet to beat.

Pros

  • As tough as it claims
  • Can be used with gloves on
  • S Pen function
  • Can be used without battery

Cons

  • Limited performance
  • Android tablet experience still limited
  • Feels pricey

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £539
  • Samsung Exynos 9810 processor
  • 4G LTE (Cat. 6)
  • MIL-STD–810H + IP68 certified
  • S Pen stylus
  • Replaceable 5050 mAh battery

We take it for granted that the iPad is the best tablet on the market. But really, it’s only the best for some of the people some of the time.

For delivery drivers, manual labourers, construction workers, and those undertaking the kind of home projects that would have your average Apple Store employee scurrying for the microfibre cloth, no iPad is up to the task.

The Samsung Tab Active 3 reckons it’s tough enough to take all the knocks and scrapes you can throw its way. The following review will try to figure out whether that’s true, and just as importantly, whether it can perform the even tougher task of being a decent tablet.

Design – Chunky and suitably utilitarian

Even without the hard-wearing shell case that ships with the Galaxy Tab Active 3, this is a tough, no-nonsense piece of kit. Its all-plastic build sports reinforced corners and a removable, flexible, hard-wearing rear panel.

That last point matters, because it means that you can remove and replace the Tab Active 3’s battery. The optional SIM and microSD cards fit into a pull-out try on the left edge, so you won’t have to rip the back off every time you need to access it – though you will have to remove the case. This represents an improvement over the Galaxy Tab Active 2.

At just shy of 430g without that case, it’s pretty hefty for an 8-inch tablet (the iPad Mini is 300g. It’s also pretty thick at almost 10mm.

The front of the tablet is notable for the provision of three physical hardware buttons just below the display. It feels rather like a relic from a bygone era, a sensation that’s only enhanced by a sizeable chin and forehead.

Remember, though, that this tablet has been designed for use in inhospitable conditions where bulky gloves may be worn. It makes perfect sense to have physical buttons over wishy-washy gestures, and you do at least get a solid fingerprint sensor under the central home button.

The sides of the Galaxy Tab Active 3 hold some interesting elements. To the right there’s an extra red button that can be assigned to open any application with a press or hold.

In a working environment, there’s often that one app that you need constant speedy access to. This button can get you to that app, even from the lock screen, and it doubles as a camera shortcut and shutter button.

The opposite edge holds a pogo pin connector, which will only really be useful for certain business use cases. But again, that’s what this hard-working tablet is meant for. On the bottom you get a 3.5mm headphone jack, a USB-C port, and a single speaker.

Ruggedness – Truly hard to beat

The Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3 is a pretty ordinary tablet with an extraordinary level of ruggedness. To that end, Samsung sent along a simple test kit to help put the tablet through its paces.

I buried the Galaxy Tab Active 3 in a couple of inches of sand and immersed it in a bucket of water for several minutes to help put its IP68 water and dust resistance rating to the test. It came through both trials relatively unscathed, though some lingering grit did seem to jam up the multitasking and back buttons for a brief while, before a combination of water and use worked it loose.

When it came to the water immersion, the Tab Active 3 worked perfectly both during the test (when I kept the PUBG lobby running) and immediately after, once I’d towelled it down.

It’s also possible to delve into the settings and increase the screen sensitivity, enabling you to use the tablet with gloves on. I tested this out with a set of heavy duty work gloves that Samsung provided, and it worked well, with the odd missed input. Together with those physical fascia controls, it’s genuinely viable to use the Tab Active 3 without removing your mitts – warehouse workers and campers rejoice.

Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3-9

Finally, the drop test saw me releasing the Galaxy Tab Active 3 (in its case, I should add) onto a hard concrete floor from a height of roughly 1.5 metres. Except for a slightly scuffed case, the tablet emerged unmarked and totally functional. Samsung’s claims of military grade MIL-STD–810H ruggedness seem to be accurate.

Screen and S Pen – Improved display with a clean writing experience

I’d hesitate to call the Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3 a truly compact tablet – it’s too tank-like for that – but it does pack a smaller-than-average 8-inch display. This places it in similar territory to the iPad mini.

This is a decent PLS TFT panel, which is Samsung’s IPS equivalent. At 1200 x 1920 it’s plenty sharp enough, and it gets pleasingly vibrant for an LCD. Outdoor visibility is good, as you’d expect, even if it does wash out a little in bright light. It’s a big step up from the Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 2, at any rate.

Samsung also supplies its S Pen here. This plastic stylus doesn’t slot into the tablet itself, like with Samsung Galaxy Note 20 phones, but rather into a large and tight-fitting slot on top of the protective case.

Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3-9

The up side to this is that the S Pen here is much thicker and, well, pen-like than the skinny stick that comes with the Note 20 Ultra (for example). It’s much easier and more comfortable to use, especially with cold or gloved hands.

Otherwise the writing experience is very similar to the Note, with the same 4,096 levels of pressure allowing for convincing, natural handwriting and sketching. You also get that familiar button for bringing up the pen menu and quickly starting notes.

Specs and Performance – Outdated silicon achieves the bare minimum

The Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3 packs Samsung’s own Exyno 9810 CPU. This is an old flagship chip, which previously powered the Samsung Galaxy S9 from early 2018.

It should be clear that this is far from a star performer. Average Geekbench scores of 329 (single-core) and 1290 (multi-core) really aren’t too hot, and trail well behind even your average £300 smartphone.

Of course, the Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3 isn’t meant to be a multimedia powerhouse. Even so, I put it through its paces with PUBG, where it ran adequately on medium settings. The main thing is that general navigation is nice and smooth, though I did start to note major pauses when flicking back to older open apps in the app switcher menu – doubtless thanks to a mere 4GB of RAM.

Elsewhere you get 64GB of storage, which as mentioned can be augmented via a microSDXC slot.

There’s also a 13-megapixel f/1.9 camera here. That’s hardly a spectacular set-up by modern smartphone standards, but then no one is buying this for their holiday snaps (hopefully). It will do a good enough job with practical applications like scanning barcodes, documenting deliveries and the like.

Meanwhile, an 8-megapixel f/2.2 selfie camera should see you through those Zoom meetings just fine.

Software – Samsung’s usual box of tricks

The Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3 runs on Android 10 with One UI 2.5. You’ll probably have your own clearly defined feelings about Samsung’s custom Android skin by now.

It’s a love it or tolerate it effort, with big bright icons, lots of customisation potential, and the Samsung Daily news and notice board to the left of the home screen rather than Google Feed. It’s not as egregious with the bloat as it used to be, and it’s slick and fluid to navigate through.

You also get Samsung’s DeX UI, which lets you connect to compatible TVs and displays for a more PC-like experience, even using the tablet itself as a trackpad. I found that it worked reasonably well with my 2020 LG TV, despite the fact it technically isn’t supported.

From a more general perspective, the Android tablet experience continues to trail Apple’s iPad platform by a considerable distance, especially when it comes to third party app optimisation. Sadly, that’s something that Samsung can’t do much about.

The company’s S Pen software, however, has gotten really good, especially the wonderful Notes app that can read your handwriting and convert it to digital text. It’s got genuine productivity chops.

Related: Best iPad

Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3-9

Battery Life – Large battery can be removed from the equation

Samsung has outfitted the Galaxy Tab Active 3 with a 5050 mAh battery, which is way bigger than its predecessor’s rather weedy 4450 mAh cell.

It’s good for a claimed 11 hours of video playback or internet time, and 81 hours of audio playback. You’ll comfortably get through a couple of days of the kind of mixed, functional usage that it’s been designed for. Though obviously, if you’re hammering the LTE connectivity and consuming a lot of video content, your experience may vary.

I’ve already mentioned that the Galaxy Tab Active 3 battery can be removed and replaced, which is rare enough these days. But the really interesting new feature is the ability to use the tablet without the battery even installed.

I discovered this by accident, having assumed that the battery was merely flat. Sure enough, I plugged in the tablet and it booted up fine sans cell, which felt somehow magical.

In terms of practical applications for this feature, I can well imagine hot-swapping batteries or keeping the Galaxy Tab Active 3 as a constantly running, permanently plugged in warehouse workhorse.

You also get a 15W charger, which isn’t exactly lightning quick, but it gets the job done. The Galaxy Tab Active 3 will detect when the port is wet and remind you to dry it before charging.

Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3?

The Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3 really is a specialist tool for a very specific set of scenarios. If you need a large-screen device that can stand up to the rough and tumble of a particularly physical job, it’s ideal.

For literally any other tablet use case scenario, you’re better off with one of Apple’s products. The latest iPad Air 4 costs just £40 more, and ruggedness aside, it’s vastly superior to the Tab 3 in every way. The value proposition here is highly questionable if robustness isn’t of paramount importance.

Unless you really need the precise super-tough credentials of the Tab, it would be tempting to suggest buying the iPad Mini and investing the extra £140 in an Apple Pencil and a ruggedised case.

But for those who need their tablet to stand up to the (quite literal) daily grind without worrying about a few scratches, it’s one of precious few options.

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