Samsung’s new ‘Pro’ tablets introduce a new magazine-style UI and productivity features atop Android 4.4 KitKat
Samsung was the first big-name manufacturer to launch an Android-powered tablet with the original Galaxy Tab back in 2010. Yet over the past year the company that dominates Android phone sales has seemingly shied away from the high-end tablet space. With the exception of the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, Samsung’s recent Android tablets have focused on the mid-range and entry-level spaces.
But that’s about to change in 2014, as Samsung kicks off its CES presence with not one but four new high-end Android slates across three screen sizes: meet the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro and Galaxy Note Pro series.
At 12.2 inches, the larger Note Pro and Tab Pro devices are big — really big
The Galaxy Tab Pro line adds three new devices — the Tab Pro 8.4, 10.1 and 12.2, while the Galaxy Note tablet series goes big with the addition of the Note Pro 12.2. All four are the spitting image of last year’s Galaxy Note 10.1 — less curved than earlier Samsung tabs, with the same faux-leather effect on the back, complete with stitched trim effect. Originally intended to bring the look and feel of a leather-bound notebook to the Note 3 and Note 10.1, it seems this aesthetic is now a central part of Samsung’s design language. (We’ll be watching with interest to see whether future Samsung smartphones — beyond the Note series — start to include this trademark back panel.)
At 12.2 inches, the larger Note Pro and Tab Pro devices are big — really big. You’re effectively carrying around a laptop display strapped to a laptop battery (the larger devices sport enormous 9,500mAh juicers) and it shows in the tablets’ weight. Holding the Note Pro 12.2 or Tab Pro 12.2 in one hand for any length of time soon becomes uncomfortable, so neither of these is really a one-handed tablet. The 10.1-inch Tab Pro is more manageable, but we still think the sweet spot for tablets lies in the 8-inch range, which is why the 8.4-inch Tab Pro strikes us as the most compelling of Samsung’s new tabs.
Thankfully Samsung hasn’t skimped on hardware in the smaller members of the “Pro” family. All four devices have gorgeous 2560x1600-resolution LCD displays and octa-core Exynos or quad-core Snapdragon processors depending on whether you pick up the Wifi-only or 4G LTE versions. RAM and internal storage does vary slightly, however — the 8.4 and 10.1-inch tabs include 2GB of RAM and 16/32GB, while the 12.2-inchers up this to 3GB with 32/64GB internal flash. Either way, the entire Pro lineup consists of comfortably high-end products.
Around the back, all four sport 8-megapixel rear shooters, which look to be of similar quality to the Note 10.1 2014 Edition’s main camera.
The old TouchWiz launcher is gone, replaced with a new tablet-centric Magazine UX
Cutting-edge internals are all well and good, but the most interesting part of Samsung’s new tablet range is its software. The company wants these new tablets to become capable productivity devices as well as content consumption platforms. To that end, the Note Pro and Tab Pro series have undergone some serious changes.
First up, and most noticeably, the old TouchWiz home screen launcher is gone, replaced with a new tablet-centric “Magazine UX.” This is a cross between a standard Android home screen and the Flipboard-style “My Magazine” app from the Note 3 and Note 10.1, meaning it’s a content-centric deal. You can still add regular app shortcuts and widgets if you want, but the focus of the new Samsung launcher is on content, specifically delivering relevant personal info on a big-screened device.
All four 'Pro' tablets run Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box
By default there are three main panels to scroll between — personal space, workspace, and social and media space, though you can still customize things to your own preferences. The standard views show stuff like the weather, unread email, calendar appointments, news, social updates and favorite apps in a grid layout. Items in the grid can be rearranged and added or removed by pinching out to reveal the editing mode. This consists of various blocks you can add into place and resize, and the result is much less dead space on-screen, and a UI that looks more attractive on a larger display than the upscaled phone launchers of old. Things become a little disjointed, however, when you realize that there’s still a separate area in the app drawer for standard Android widgets.
All four “Pro” tablets run Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box, and Samsung has actually utilized a couple of KitKat’s main features in its new tablet UI. The new home screen uses immersive mode, meaning you won’t even see the status bar unless you swipe down from the top. Many of Samsung’s TouchWiz apps also use a transparent status bar, and elsewhere you’ll be given a white-on-black bar that looks a lot like stock KitKat. The overarching design language of the TouchWiz UI, however, remains bright, colorful and somewhat messy. And we noticed a few performance hitches in the pre-production devices we used — not unsurprising considering this isn't final hardware; hopefully Samsung will have these kinks ironed out by the time the tablets ship.
Samsung’s mutlitasking capabilities, a longtime differentiator for its phones and tablets, have been upgraded in the “Pro” series. Multi-window, now accessed by swiping inwards from the right bezel, can arrange up to four apps on-screen at a time in a grid view, and resize these as desired. There’s an improved windowed mode for some apps too, which lets you resize them without squashing them out of place. Both features are limited to a small (but growing) subset of Android apps, nevertheless most of the major apps you’ll want to run side-by-side, such as Chrome, YouTube and the Play Store, as well as most of Samsung’s own apps, are supported.
And interestingly, Samsung has finally killed the dedicated menu button, replacing it with a task-switching key. Samsung reps couldn’t comment on how legacy apps needing a physical menu key would be handled, though the number of Android apps still needing menu key functionality is relatively small these days.
The productivity focus of the “Pro” series tablets has seen Samsung add preloaded apps for getting stuff done on the go. The full Hancom office suite is included, with apps for editing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. The Remote PC app allows you to control your PC or Mac, and transfer files between your computer and your tablet, over a wireless connection. And six months of Cisco WebEx Meetings is included, too. It’s part of a free content package for each “Pro” tablet user that Samsung says is valued at $700.
And of course the Note Pro 12.2 includes Samsung’s S Pen stylus, with all the pen-centric software features we saw on the Note 10.1 2014 Edition, such as the Air Command radial menu, action memos and Pen Window. What’s more, the larger screen should make the Note Pro 12.2 even better for drawing and note-taking — if you can manage the heftier weight.
Samsung is also introducing a bunch of accessories with its new tablets — including a branded S Action Mouse (with stitched trim, naturally), a universal Bluetooth keyboard, book cover case and ethernet connector.
The Magazine UX an interesting development, and we’re eager to see how it stands up in real-world use
So the Galaxy Tab Pro and Galaxy Note Pro devices represent a continuation of Samsung’s strategy in the Android phone space, making devices at a size (and hopefully price point) to suit everyone. And while we’re not yet convinced that a 12.2-inch tablet will appeal to the mass market, at least you’ve got plenty of options at other screen sizes. Samsung’s KitKat-based tablet UI is also an interesting development, and we’re eager to see how it stands up to real-world use.
There’s no pricing information available for the Tab Pro or Note Pro devices just yet, but both are due to emerge internationally in Q1.
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