review Samsung has launched a slew of Android-based tablets over the past several years as it continues its mission to take on market leader Apple with its dominant iPad. But the Korean electronics giant continues to fall just short of success. With its stylish stylus, will the Galaxy Note 10.1 be the model to break Samsung’s tablet drought? Read on to find out.
The overriding feeling you get when you pick up the Galaxy Note 10.1 for the first time is that it’s what happens when the excellent design sense evident in Samsung’s stellar Galaxy S III line meets the world of generic Android tablets. The Galaxy Note 10.1 is composed of most of the same materials as the Galaxy S III, with our model having a back and border surrounding its screen of nice white plastic, with a border surrounding the entire package and small highlights elsewhere being made from the same smooth metallic substance found on the Galaxy S III.
The fact that Samsung has taken this approach is fair enough; like Apple with its iPhone and iPad line, it’s logical that Samsung wants to maintain its design philosophy between the various devices in its line-up. And it’s worth noting that this is precisely what Apple has done with its iPad mini line; the bevelled edged of the new smaller iPad are more reminiscent of those found on the iPhone 5 than on previous Apple iPads.
However – and this is where the Android tablet ethos comes in – the Galaxy Note 10.1 doesn’t feel like Samsung has really thought through how this approach will leave the user feeling in the case of a larger tablet form factor. On the Galaxy S III, Samsung’s materials feel entirely appropriate for that device; a smartphone needs to be as light as possible these days. But when you pick up the Galaxy Note 10.1, you’re left with the feeling that it’s just one step above the previous generation of mediocre Android tablets. It’s intangible and hard to explain, but the feeling is there; this device doesn’t feel premium. We felt OK holding it, but we didn’t enjoy the fondling experience, unlike with the iPad mini and Nexus 7, for example, or even the Galaxy S III.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 boasts a plethora of ports and connections; a phenomenon also found on other, previous generation Android tablets. The left- and right-hand sides of the tablet are port-free, which makes sense, as these are probably the parts where your hand will be holding it most of the time, and the bottom of the device contains just the tablet’s power and USB synch slot (note: This isn’t a standard microUSB outlet but a specialised Samsung model with an input similar to Apple’s original iPad/iPhone/iPod jack before Lightning replaced it). But on the top can be found a microSD card slot, a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, a volume rocker and a power button.
The Galaxy Note’s stylus, which Samsung calls an ‘S Pen’, slots into the device on the side at the bottom, and its screen has a couple of nicely sized speakers surrounding it. There’s a camera on the back and above the screen and a few Samsung logos.
The weight of the Galaxy Note 10.1 is actually a little lighter than that of the iPad: The Wi-Fi version clocks in at 597g and the 3G version at 600g, while Apple’s newest iPads come in at 652g (W-Fi) and 662g (3G). It’s enough to make the Galaxy Note 10.1 a little nicer in the hand than the iPad weight-wise.
Overall, the Galaxy Note 10.1 feels like most other Android tablets in the hand, but with a slide edge. It’s a little cumbersome and feels a little cheap, but it’s more stylised and comfortable than other Android tablets we’ve tested. The exception this rule would be the Google Nexus 7 (manufactured by ASUS), the original Kindle Fire and the original 7” Galaxy Tab (which launched back in 2010 at a price premium which locked it out of the market). We’re not sure why, but we don’t really feel as though the Android manufacturers out there have really nailed the 10” tablet form factor yet.
If you compare the Galaxy Note 10.1’s design to that of its biggest rival, the iPad, the Galaxy Note 10.1’s slightly lighter weight and grippy plastic make it a tad more comfortable in the hands. However, the iPad’s premium feel brings it out ahead of the Samsung model in some respects. We’re not sure which we would prefer to use in practice from this perspective.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 improves on most of the features which you expect to come with an Android tablet. For starters, its processor has a lot of sheer kick to it; it’s a 1.4GHz Exynos quad-core model, appearing to be the same one found in the Galaxy S III. It comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models and its microSD card slot can take up to 64GB of extra space. Its main camera is a five megapixel mode and its front-facing camera a 1.9 megapixel model. Bluetooth, 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi is present, including support for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, and the battery is a beefy 7000mAh model. The 3G model supports HSPA+ up to 21Mbps in the 850, 900 and 2100Mhz bands which are used for 3G in Australia. 2GB of ram is included.
On other areas, however, the Galaxy Note 10.1 disappoints. It only runs version 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) of Google’s Android, although Samsung is currently deploying the vastly improved Jelly Bean version to users, and its screen resolution is only 1280×800 – far below the 2048×1536 resolution of Apple’s ‘Retina Display’ on the iPad. And no 4G model is available in Australia.
Perhaps the main feature of the Galaxy Note 10.1 over rival tablets, including Apple’s iPad, is the fact that it ships with its S Pen stylus. And much of the tablet’s interface and bundled apps have been generated with this feature in mind. The tablet comes with a dedicated ‘S Pen Experience’ series of apps designed specifically to take advantage of the S Pen, ranging from the S Note app to the S Planner calendaring system and Adobe Photoshop Touch.
OK, let’s get the obvious out of the way, and then we’ll move on to the specific S Pen features of the Galaxy Note 10.1.
Firstly, the battery performance of the Galaxy Note 10.1 is solid, as we have come to expect from 10.1” tablets with their ginormous batteries. You can expect to run the Galaxy Note 10.1 for the better part of a week without the battery giving up, even if you’re watching sporadic video and using intensive apps such as games. As with the iPad, the Nexus 7 and virtually every other popular tablet out there, these devices are large enough that they can contain a beefy battery. We had the Galaxy Note 10.1 for a few weeks and only had to fully recharge it once after its initial charge. You’ll be able to leave it on your desk for most of a week and come back to find it still with charge. Don’t worry about this aspect of the tablet.
The second aspect of performance we need to talk about is the user interface. Frankly, in this regard, we still haven’t really met a 10” tablet that we really like. Android has gotten a great deal more consistent, fast and usuable with recent updates – the Ice Cream Sandwich version made Android really usable for the first time on 10” tablets, and Jelly Bean supercharged the Nexus 7 so much when we tested it that we’re really keen to see what it can do with the 10” form factor when it comes to the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the Nexus 10.
However, as reviewed (with Ice Cream Sandwich), the user interface of the Galaxy Note 10.1 is just not that great yet. Samsung has layered a lot of custom apps and its TouchWiz interface on top of Android, and we found the whole experience a bit laggy and jaggy.
There are two factors at play here. The first is that, in our opinion, mobile manufacturers just do not seem to be really understanding the 10” form factor yet at a deep level. This applies to the iPad as well – if you discount the many specialised iPad apps and look at the operating system itself, in many ways, the iPad’s interface is just a blown up version of the iPhone’s. And in Android that factor is magnified. We think many of these niggling issues have been fixed with Jelly Bean, but our Galaxy Note 10.1 didn’t have Jelly Bean, so it’s hard to know.
The second is that despite its solid CPU, some aspects of the Galaxy Note 10.1 appeared a little jaggy and slow. The tablet’s dual-app feature, which lets you run some of its apps side by side with half a screen each, is noticeably laggy, and while most apps perform as you expect, you don’t feel like you’re using a 1.4GHz processor when navigating around the operating system and performing basic tasks. In comparison, the Nexus 7 which we recently tested was absolutely silky smooth and a delight to use; so we put this factor down to Samsung’s custom UI and apps and the lack of Jelly Bean underneath it all. Perhaps patches will fix this issue down the track.
Now to the S Pen.
In general we’ve never had a huge use for styluses on tablets; in the past they haven’t functioned that well. That’s why we were surprised by how well the S Pen works with the Galaxy Note 10.1
The tablet is surprisingly nuanced; when drawing or writing, it really picks up on how hard you’re pressing on the screen and mimics the feeling of a real pen, pencil or brush quite well. We had a blast taking notes using it and drawing stick figure images; your reviewer is no artist, but the S Pen is sensitive enough to bring out creativity from anyone. There’s a lot to be said for analogue user input in an age where almost everything we do is so digital. Your reviewer has been operating a paperloss office for three years or so; using the S Pen with the Galaxy Note 10.1 brought back that feeling of fluidity into our thinking.
When thinking about the S Pen, it’s important to realise that the device is fundamentally different technology-wise to the way that you can draw images, even using a stylus, on the iPad. Using the Note 10.1 and the S Pen was more reminiscent of the Wacom pads which have been so popular with digital artists for years (and in fact, we believe it’s based on similar technology) than dragging your hand or a stylus across the iPad, which can be used for this kind of work but wasn’t fundamentally designed for it. We tend to think of the iPad in terms of its digital apps; using the S Pen with the Galaxy Note 10.1 was a much more natural experience for some things. It’s really cool when you find yourself scrawling notes across other documents on the Galaxy Note 10.1, for example, or just doodling idly while on the phone ☺
The handwriting recognition is also quite good; not perfect, and it has its quirks, but if you are the sort of person who likes that kind of thing, the Galaxy Note 10.1 does it well enough to be functional, which is more than we can say for more attempts we’ve seen.
There are two caveats to all of this: Firstly, it did seem to us that the apps which Samsung included for the S Pen were kind of rudimentary. The PC and Mac ecosystem has had dozens of complex applications serving this need for years, Corel Painter being one good example; in comparison, S Note and Photoshop Touch are OK, but seem quite basic, given the sophistication of the hardware and software integration in the S Pen and Galaxy Note 10.1.
Secondly, as with all stylus inputs we’ve seen, there is a slight delay between when you do something with the S Pen and when it hits the screen. This can be milliseconds when you’re drawing or sketching, or it can be a second or so if writing fast. It’s enough so that you can’t just write as you would normally – you need to get used to this slight delay and account for it. Realistically, however, most digital artists of any kind or those who like taking digital notes are already used to this kind of thing; and the Galaxy Note 10.1 is pretty standard in this respect.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 is certainly a mixed bag. It’s not a standout tablet which immediately grabs you, like the Nexus 7 has so many people. And it’s not anywhere near being a true rival to Apple’s iPad; it has a ways to go in terms of its software development before it gets to that point. However, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is still a very solid Android tablet which we would place above most of the rest of its 10” Android competitors. If the superior Nexus 7 and 10 models hadn’t already launched, it would be close to leading the pack.
For those who are really interested in being able to use a stylus with their tablet for real work or play, the Galaxy Note 10.1 should be on your list for consideration: And make sure you install Jelly Bean as fast as possible. For everyone else, we suspect you’ll be better served by an iPad, or a Google Nexus 7 or 10.
Image credit: Samsung