Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3 full review
As a global tech giant, Samsung produces an incredible amount of hardware each year. Its high-end TVs and flagship smartphone usually make most of the headlines, but there are plenty of devices specifically targeted to certain industries.
Among them is the Galaxy Tab Active 3, a rugged tablet that’s aimed at b2b customers and those working in extreme environments. With a host of durability features, it feels well optimised for this purpose, but does it make sense for consumers to pick one up? Read on to find out.
Design and build
The design of the Tab Active 3 feels like taking a trip back in time, with huge bezels and physical navigation buttons below the screen. Both of these have long since been upgraded on consumer-focused tablets, but they make a lot more sense on a rugged device like this.
Samsung has demonstrated the Tab Active 3’s suitability for use in extreme environments, including situations where gloves are being worn. Therefore, having a large area to hold onto without obstructing the screen is more than welcome – the 68.5% screen-to-body ratio means little on a device like this.
Even with the touch sensitivity settings changed, using on-screen buttons would also be extremely fiddly, let alone the gestures that have replaced them in some cases. The physical equivalent here are impressively tactile and responsive, and the home button also doubles as a fingerprint scanner. It proved to be very reliable and impressively resistant to dust and moisture, as you might expect from a rugged tablet.
One slight inconvenience from a personal point of view was that the position of back and recent buttons couldn’t be swapped, as is usually the case when displayed on-screen. However, this is very much a minor concern, and something I quickly got used to.
The design of the Tab Active 3 also leaves plenty of room for a 5Mp front-facing camera, which also supports face unlock. I found the latter to be a great alternative to the fingerprint scanner which worked well in most lighting conditions, and it proved extremely useful in situations where I wanted to quickly unlock the device hands-free.
The screen itself is an 8in, 1200x1900 LCD display with a 16:10 aspect ratio. It's not quite the 1440p AMOLED display you’ll find on Samsung flagships, but it feels well optimised for its intended purpose. With rich, vivid colours and excellent detail, it’s unlikely you’ll wish Samsung invested any more in what is already a very good display. It might not be the greatest for content consumption, but I doubt many people are buying the Tab Active 3 to scroll Twitter and watch Netflix.
As you might expect from a rugged tablet, the Tab Active 3 offers an excellent amount of grip. The back of the device is made from a textured polycarbonate that feels like you’re already using a case. After reviewing quite a few slippery phones and tablets recently, it's a refreshing change. The only other design choice of note here is a camera module, which houses a single 13Mp rear sensor with flash and sits almost flush with the back of the display.
The most interesting inclusion on the sides of the device is a red ‘Active key’, which sits just below the volume controls and power button. By default, a single press will launch the camera while press and hold opens the calendar, but both can be customised in Settings. I image this will come in handy in a variety of situations, especially when you can’t afford to waste time searching for a specific app.
You’ll probably want to stay in Settings to adjust the power button (known here as ‘Side key’). A long press is set to launch Samsung’s Bixby virtual assistant instead of the power off menu, but this can easily be changed if you prefer a more traditional setup.
On the opposite side you’ll find a set of pogo pins, which can be used as an alternative to the USB-C port for charging. I couldn’t test this for myself, but it’s great to have both options here. The LTE model I tested also has a small flap on the SIM tray, meaning it can be removed without the need for a separate tool.
The downward firing speaker on the bottom of the device combines with the earpiece for an impressive stereo experience. Audio is rich and punchy, although it does lack some of the bass you’ll find on quad speaker setups. You still get the option for wired audio via the 3.5mm headphone jack.
The Tab Active 3 is built to provide excellent durability, and that’s taken a step further with the rugged case included in the box. It fits snugly on the device to provide an extra layer of protection, especially round the potentially more fragile corners. It’s also where you’ll find an S-Pen, although this is much more basic than the version you’ll find with the Tab S7+. It works well for navigating around with precision, but don’t expect to use it for any digital artwork.
Tested to the limit
Samsung has specifically designed the Tab Active 3 for use in extreme environments, with military grade protection and IP68 water and dust resistance. In fact, Samsung was so confident in its rugged credentials that it sent me a testing kit alongside the device, in order to put it through its paces.
There were six tests in total, although one involved charging to 100% and the other was to test the full range of features, both of which I’ll talk about in detail later in the review.
From the others, it’s clear that the Tab Active 3 can stand up to the rigours of daily life for almost all business users. Submerging the device in sand was a little unusual, but offered a good insight into its dust resistance. The tablet worked just fine after removing, although the navigation buttons were a bit sticky until a few hours later.
It’s a similar story for water resistance, with the IP68 rating stating it can survive in up to 1.5m of water for up to 30 minutes. Despite only submerging the device for just a few seconds and wiping it down, I had to wait quite a few minutes for it to respond to touch again. That’s fine for one-off accidents, but don’t rely on it to be fully functional immediately after a dunking.
I approached dropping the device from a measured distance of 1.5m with plenty of caution. The Tab Active 3 meets the military-grade standard which means it can withstand a drop from this height, but I wasn’t convinced until the device came out unscathed. The impact with the ground looked dramatic, but it’s reassuring to know that a fall from this height won’t damage the device.
It’s also impressive to know that the device can be used with gloves. Samsung provided some heavy-duty ones as part of my review kit, which you can use on the Tab Active 3 after adjusting touch sensitivity settings. It also worked with an everyday pair that I had at home, although as you might expect they all struggle with precision. It’s fine for occasional use, but with just an 8in screen it’s easy to tap the wrong button.
The Tab Active 3 performed well in these tests overall, but there are some caveats that you’ll have to be aware of.
Hardware and performance
Samsung’s own Exynos 9810 chip powers the Tab Active 3, and it combines with 4GB of RAM and 64GB storage on the model I tested. There’s also a model with double the storage, but it’s not currently available in the UK - fortunately it supports microSD card expansion up to 1TB.
The 9810 was first introduced back in 2018 and first powered devices like the Galaxy S9 smartphone, so performance is solid but far from class-leading. It was able to handle multiple open apps with relative ease, and the physical navigation buttons meant switching between them was seamless. There was some slight slowdown when using endless scrolling apps like Twitter, and noticeable lag during demanding games such as Asphalt 9, but neither are likely to be common uses for a rugged tablet. It will run almost all the apps on the Google Play Store without too much of an issue, provided they’re up to date and optimised for tablets.
The usual benchmarks we run at Tech Advisor give an indicator of the performance you can expect, but the dearth of true rugged tablets make direct comparisons difficult.
As mentioned above, the Tab Active 3 also supports 4G LTE connectivity on the model I tested. It offers full calling and texting functionality, but the mobile internet connection is likely to be the most useful offering. There’s also Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0 and full GPS and NFC functionality, making it a great device for using on-the-go.
Software and features
The Tab Active 3 comes running One UI 2.5 over Android 10, with Android 11 not expected to arrive on the device until June. Samsung’s skin is primarily designed for smartphones, but it’s far more effective here than on larger tablets like the Tab S7+.
While there are a handful of Samsung-themed apps that you can’t uninstall (bloatware), all of these are optimised for larger displays with all the navigation buttons located in the bottom half of the display.
The other major UI change is Samsung Daily, the company’s answer to the Google Discover page accessed by swiping right from the home screen. I didn’t find it nearly as useful as the Google equivalent, but it can easily be disabled.
Bixby’s appearances are fleeting these days, especially if you’ve stopped it from being triggered with a long press of the power button.
Samsung is also heavily promoting the Tab Active 3’s DeX support, which allows you to connect the tablet to a compatible monitor for a desktop-like experience. I wasn’t able to test it for myself, but past DeX experience suggests it’ll be a useful addition to the device’s suite of features.
A rugged device always needs great battery life, but on paper the Tab Active 3 falls slightly short of the mark. Its 5,050mAh cell is smaller than you'll find on many tablet, but you have to remember this is just an 8in LCD screen and not a larger OLED panel. Even so, battery benchmarks suggest it’s about average for battery life – 7hr13 and 8hr23 in Geekbench 4 and PCMark’s tests respectively is nothing special.
That’s roughly in line with my usage, too. I was able to get a full day on a single charge with moderate usage, or comfortably two with slightly less screen time. I did notice that standby time was a big improvement on many Samsung devices I’ve tested, though.
However, the Tab Active 3 does have two extra tricks up its sleeve. The battery itself is removable, meaning you can easily swap it out for another cell when you run out of charge. It’s refreshing to see a device with a removable back, considering their scarcity on modern devices.
If you’re concerned about using a battery in extreme environments, the Tab Active 3 also has a ‘No Battery Mode’. This allows it to be used without a battery when connected to the mains, although Samsung does acknowledge that this can limit device CPU performance.
Price and value for money
Considering the Tab Active 3’s dated internals and design language, it doesn’t come cheap. The 4GB/64GB model, currently the only one available in the UK, will set you back ￡539/US$489.99 from the Samsung website.
There’s still relatively little competition among tablets at this price point, although you can pick up the 2020 iPad Air for just ￡579. On the Android side, Samsung’s own Tab S7 is only slightly more expensive at ￡619, while there are plenty of other great options in our best tablet chart.
Nothing can rival it in the rugged tablet space, but you’ll have to be sure that you want a device with the extra durability features the Tab Active 3 offers. For many business customers, it’s probably worth the money, especially if you’re buying in bulk. For anyone else, it’s a hard sell.
The Tab Active 3’s industrial design, huge bezels and physical navigation buttons make it quite unlike any other device Samsung makes, but with good reason. People in the market for a rugged tablet won’t have an issue with any of those things, and may even prefer them to the modern alternative.
However, it’s the Tab Active 3’s durability credentials that are the star of the show here. With military grade protection and IP68 water and dust resistance, it can withstand submersions in sand, water and drops from 1.5m. There’s even a setting which means you can use the touchscreen with gloves, while the S-Pen offers a useful alternative for navigation.
The high asking price might stop many people from taking the plunge, but the Tab Active 3 sits out on its own as the rugged tablet to beat.
Check out How we test: Tablets for more information on what goes into one of our reviews.
Samsung Galaxy Tab Active 3: Specs
- Exynos 9810 processor
- Mali-G72 GPU
- 4GB RAM 64GB storage
- 8.0in 1200x1920 display,60Hz
- Front-mounted fingerprint sensor
- 13Mp,f/1.9 rear camera
- 5Mp, f/2.2 front-facing camera
- Stereo speakers
- Wi-Fi 6
- Bluetooth 5.0
- MIL-STD-810H compliant
- IP68 water and dust resistance 5,050 mAh battery (removable)
- 15W wired charging
- 3.5mm headphone jack 285 x 185 x 5.7 mm
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