Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 marries an ambitious pen input and user interface to hardware that's a little tough to digest, especially when you can get better for less.
In light of the recent ban on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and its ongoing litigation with Apple, it'd be hard to imagine that Samsung hasn't thought twice about its tablet strategy. Continually pushing out a revamped iteration of the flop before it (see: Galaxy Tab 2 10.1) has proven to be as ineffective as it is effortless, a sign of the times that just may have given birth to Samsung's latest flagship device, the Galaxy Note 10.1. It marks a shift from "content consumption to content creation", an evolution that Samsung is banking on to finally cement its name in the tablet market.
But is the integration of the S Pen into the user experience enough for the Note to stand out in a sea of Android tablets trying to do just that? And, more important, has Samsung found a niche worth a $500 price tag? Let's find out.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 is mostly fast and fluid, a testament to its top-notch processor and 2GB of onboard RAM. It's also handsome and well-designed, taking cues from the GS3. Samsung's S Pen has evolved into a sophisticated tool with exciting potential.
That said, the Note 10.1 feels like it may snap in half at any given moment, and its certainly one of the least-sturdy tablets on the market today. The 1200x800 display is a joke compared to its competitors, and really distracts if you're familiar with nicer screens.
Inside this review
The Galaxy Note 10.1’s hardware is both familiar and new at once, a testament to the number of inspirations Samsung drew upon while creating its latest flagship, and that we were at Samsung's unveiling of the Note 10.1 at Mobile World Congress in February. Think Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 design with an infusion of the Galaxy S 3's polish. It's likely safe to say that one place Samsung did not find inspiration for the Note is Apple — say what you will about the ongoing dogfight between the two companies, but you’ll be hard pressed to find many similarities between this Note and the iPad.
There is a certain flimsy feel to the Galaxy Note 10.1, even more so than we’ve seen on previous Samsung tablets. The company has never been known for releasing the most sturdy products on the market, but here I’d go as far as to say that at time I was afraid I’d break the Note in half. Call me crazy, but at times the tablet feels hollow and brittle—who knows, it may be stronger than it looks, but I sure as hell wouldn’t be willing to test it.
All that aside, the Note is a truly attractive device, and might just be Samsung’s most handsome tablet to date. The brushed plastic is the same as what we’ve got in our pockets on the GS3, though the Note trades in Pebble Blue for a off-shade of grey that I would have described as Pebble Grey (missed opportunity, Samsung). I prefer the cleaner white version, but that’s just a personal preference.
The Note's volume rocker, power button, microSD slot, and IR blaster are all housed on the tablet's top edge, while the microphone and proprietary dock port are located on the bottom edge. Both the left and right sides of the tablets are button-free, allowing you to comfortably hold the Note without fear of bumping a control. The tablet's backside contains its 5-megapixel camera. The Note is available in two storage options: 16GB for $499, and 32GB for $549.
The Note’s beauty fades when you reach the front of the tablet, which is occupied by a 10.1-inch display that looks downright dismal next to the higher-res screens we’ve been seeing more and more of. Six months ago I’d be blown away by the Note’s color clarity and viewing angles. Today, the 1200x800 resolution is distracting more than anything -- it's painfully apparent watching app icons slog by as you swipe through the homescreens. We’ve been told that Samsung stuck with the lower resolution because of compatibility issues with the Wacom digitizer, which validates the choice, but doesn’t make it any easier on the eyes.
Flanking the display are two stereo speakers that I can confidently say produce some of the best sound I've ever heard on a tablet. They won’t replace your home audio system by any means, but for viewing video and listening to music on the go, they certainly get the job done. Volume is surprisingly loud for the speakers’ size, and if you have the patience to putz around with Samsung’s on-board equalizer, you’ll eventually find a sound that suits just about every need. Perhaps one of the best aspects of these speakers is their placement: situated in the top left and right corners, these front-facers are nearly impossible to muffle, whether you’re laying the Note on its back, standing it up, or holding on to it in your hands.
Galaxy Note 10.1 performance
Much like the Galaxy S3, Samsung has included its 1.4 GHz quad-core Exynos processor, paired with 2 gigabytes of RAM. Without having to worry about a super high-res display, these components can focus on producing impressive performance, and rest assured they don’t disappoint. The Galaxy Note 10.1 is the most fluid and responsive Android tablet I’ve ever used outside of the Buttery-smooth Nexus 7. That’s a big accomplishment, considering that similarly spec’d tablets are often left stuttering and stammering without any good reason. I still found a bit of hesitation when flipping through homescreens, but that’s really the extent of my complaints -- and, again, the lower resolution is playing tricks on our eyes. Opening apps is immediate, scrolling is fluid, and web browsing is nearly flawless.
The Note performs admirably in most apps, including the graphics-intensive Photoshop Touch (more on that later). Benchmarks justify real-world performance, lifting the Note above just about every other Android-powered device on the market today. Remember, though, that that’s not to say the Note is the most powerful device on the market — always take benchmarks with a grain or five of salt.
The S Pen
The Note wouldn’t be a Note if it weren’t for the onboard secret weapon, Samsung’s S Pen. You’ve met a version of it before on the original original 5-inch Galaxy Note, but it's undergone some major reconstructive surgery. Samsung has made both subtle and obvious alterations to the technology to completely revamp the experience, and it’s apparent as soon as you put pen to paper (er, screen).
The first thing you’ll notice is the S Pen’s new shape—rather than its original rounded girth, today’s S Pen is ridged, similar to a pencil, presumably in order to prevent roll-away. Its multipurpose button has also received some texture for easier reach.
Inside, the S Pen contains no moving parts and no batteries to replace—it draws all of its power from the mothership, and relies on radio waves to communicate with the face of the Note. Thanks to the Wacom digitizer, the S Pen can take advantage of over thousands of levels of sensitivity. Not impressed? Take it for a spin--the S Pen is the most precise stylus (sorry Samsung!) I’ve ever used, and its performance can come close to being compared to a real pen and paper. Luckily, Samsung has jam-packed the Note 10.1 with software to take full advantage of its latest toy.
Also, look for several models of the S Pen to see release. They won't all be Skinny MInnies.
Samsung really isn’t interested in anything I’ve said up to this point. With its launch of the Note 10.1, the company has made it clear that a unique user experience is far more valuable than spec sheets and benchmarks. As a result of its newfound focus, the Note ships with Samsung’s signature TouchWiz atop Android 4.0.4. (Jelly Bean is on its way, says Samsung.) And while this TouchWiz is nearly identical to the iteration shipping on the GS3, the Note includes some customizations and apps tailored to its S Pen.
Slide the S Pen out of its rear silo and a quick menu of five apps (ala Samsung’s quick app menu), each designed or optimized to take full advantage of the technology. Present here are S-Organizer (Samsung's standard calendar app, optimized for 10 inches), Polaris Office (which takes on a whole new level of intuition thanks to the S Pen) and Crayon Physics (a simple time waster that's a fun way to show off the Note's capabilities). In addition, the menu contains the two most important S Pen apps, S-Memo and Photoshop Touch.
Likely the first thing you’ll want to play around with is Samsung’ S-Memo app, a perfect way to get a feel for how the S Pen interacts with the Note. S-Memo is loaded to the brim with templates and suggestions for using the app, removing some of the pressure you might feel with a pen and a blank screen. Most were quite handy, too: whip your Note out during a meeting, for example, and dive straight into the “Meeting Notes” template, which makes your scribbles a look a bit more professional in the boardroom
S Note is more than just a blank notebook, and includes a couple of really cool features that add some legitimacy to the Note’s functionalities. You can write a word and have it converted to text, or draw a shape and have S-Note spruce it up for you. The formula match, which will convert your doodles to mathematical formulas using Wolfram Alpha’s engine, is a taste of what kind of role the Note can play in the classroom.
What separates Samsung’s S Memo from other note-taking apps is its palm-rejection capability, which makes writing on the Note far less aggravating than the experience on similar tablets. In a perfect world, S-Memo and other S Pen-optimized apps would ignore your palm while it rests comfortably on the screen, paying attention only to the movements of the S Pen. This technology works about 90% of the time—while I never had trouble with my hand interfering with what I wrote, it did close the app, bring up the multitasking menu, or even open the settings on occasion.
For the photogs out there, the $499 pricetag might sting a bit less knowing that the Note comes preloaded with an S Pen optimized version of Photoshop Touch, which delivers on its promise of a premium touch-based photo editing experience. (OK, so it only saves you $9.99. But still.)
The S Pen works beautifully here, and makes photo editing a much more personal experience. Tasks that can be cumbersome on regular old Photoshop are both simpler and more fun with the S Pen. And here’s where that pressure sensitivity really comes into play: touch ups and edits can be as precise or as broad as you’d like here, which really proves the S Pen's versatility and value.
As useful as Photoshop Touch is on the Note, I don’t think it’ll replace the full suite, and for now may lend itself more to fun than to professional-grade performance. One reason for this limitation is the Note’s dull screen, which really takes the wind out of the sails of diving into a full-res photo. If the display’s pixelization doesn’t bother you on the Note’s basic UI, you’ll be hard pressed not to miss it while you’re knee deep in a photograph.
S Pen aside, Samsung threw in some goodies for good measure, including the really cool (and perhaps equally important) “Multiscreen” feature. Samsung calls this “true multitasking”, and I might have to agree with them. Open up one of the compatible apps (Internet, Video Player, Polaris Office, Gallery, and Email), and you’ll have the opportunity to open another compatible app right beside it. Death to toggling, Samsung says, as this feature literally splits your screen in half, giving each app equal real estate. Tasks that would have taken unnecessary extra steps on any other Android device, like taking a screenshot of a webpage and pasting it into your email, are now a breeze to accomplish. It’s a bit of a drag that this functionality is only supported by a limited number of apps, as I’d love to someday play Temple Run while keeping an eye on my Twitter feed (I’m such a 24-year-old), but for now, Multiscreen’s existence itself is a promising sign of things to come.
The Note’s got an IR blaster on board, which means that if configured correctly, it can control your home entertainment system with nothing more than a quick setup. Thankfully, Samsung included this functionality, and the included Peel smart remote app does indeed work as advertised. You’ll need to tell it what kind of equipment you have and of course you need to be within viewing distance of the device you want to control, but once configured you’ll be flicking through channels in no time. There are some bugs here, such as the channel jumping before you're even done plugging in the number, but nothing here seems like a dealbreaker, and Peel can only get better updates.
Let's keep this simple: don't buy a Galaxy Note 10.1 for its cameras. The technology here serves one purpose: to produce photos that lend themselves to doodling all over. While the Note 10.1 retains the GS3's camera interface, the optics here pale in comparison--take away the mustaches, hats, and bubble quotes and you'll be left with lackluster photos and video limited to 720p. The Note 10.1 is not your next camera.
The S Pen-touting Galaxy Note 10.1 will be both a blessing and a curse for Samsung. On one hand, Samsung has created a device that stands out amongst its competitors with unique features and a truly different user experience. In the same breath, the S Pen is sure to scare away folks who balk at the idea of reverting back to a stylus. I’m here to say that love or hate the S Pen, the Galaxy Note 10.1 just may be the best 10-inch Android tablet on the market today.
Even if you decide to take the S Pen out and throw it in the garbage, you’ll still have a decently performing Android tablet. Samsung has finally managed to create a tablet that lives up to its promises in terms of performance and usability. The quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM deliver a smooth, powerful experience and can handle just about anything you throw their way. And if you do keep an open mind about the S Pen, you might find yourself using it in ways you never expected.
Where the Note 10.1 really stumbles, though, is the display, which is disappointing at best and abysmal at worst. If you’ll use your tablet primarily for watching movies, you’re going to look elsewhere. And if you’re the type to throw your tablet around without much consideration for its wellbeing, the Note might be a bit too delicate for your needs.
Two thousand words later, the question remains, is the Note 10.1 worth $500? My gut reaction is a mixed one, especially considering that you can buy the best Android tablet -- that'd be the Nexus 7 -- and have an extra $300 left over. I would also have an easier time justifying the price if the Note 10.1 shipped here in the U.S. with HSPA+ connectivity as it does overseas, but alas our market is limited to WiFi only (an LTE model, Samsung says, is on its way).
But with that said, the Note offers a truly forward-thinking tablet experience that just might be unique enough, for some, to justify its $500 price tag.