Review: The first Android tablet that could replace an iPad

Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 offers significant ease-of-use improvements, plus pen computing the iPad can't match

For years we've been reading about the alleged iPad killer, a mythical device that never arrives. There have been impressive Android tablets in recent months, but on the whole, it's been clear to everyone but the most ardent Android fanboy that Apple's iPad is the superior tablet in almost every way.

But the new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 to be released in the United States tomorrow changes the game. I've been using a loaner unit for a couple days now, and it's the first Android tablet that I could see replacing my iPad. It certainly bests Samsung's previous flagship, the Galaxy Tab 2. Samsung has succeeded in making the Note a great tablet, with very nice user interface enhancements that add up to a satisfying and, dare I say, intuitive experience. Samsung has amped up and improved on the good Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," with close attention to detail and user experience -- Apple's hallmarks. Best of all, the hardware looks and feels great.

The innovations in a nutshellSamsung has done more than smooth out the Android experience. The Note takes the intriguing pen capabilities from the 5-inch Galaxy Note "phablet" and brings a more sophisticated version of them to the tablet. Many people like the phablet, but I found it too small to use as a tablet and too big to use as a smartphone. The screen was too large for thumb-typing, for example, yet too small for reading my calendar.

I have no such reservations about the Note 10.1. The 10-inch tablet is the perfect size for a pen interface -- there's enough screen real estate to doodle and annotate, and the onscreen keyboard is quite easily typed on -- like the iPad's keyboard, but with Android 4's better complement of onscreen keys (such as numerals being available on the main keyboard). It's the right combination of pen and keyboard.

Samsung is the main innovator in the mobile market after Apple -- the tiresome lawsuits over design and patents notwithstanding -- and that adaptation really shows in the Galaxy Note 10.1. For example, rather than simply port its pen interface from the phablet to the tablet, Samsung has introduced a split-screen mode for Android apps so that you can run an app on one side while having your pen-savvy notetaking area in the other. I've grown quite comfortable switching screens on my iPad and various Android tablets, but being able to scribble without leaving the app entirely is really useful.

Microsoft's decade of bad pen computing in various Windows versions may have convinced Apple to ignore the technology. However, I believe a stylus has a useful place on a tablet, where simple drawings are often more effective than text for some types of notes and where annotations are helpful in presentations and other collaborative activities.

[ See how the Galaxy Note 10.1 compares to other Android tablets and the iPad. | Also on InfoWorld: The best Android productivity apps and the best tablets on the market today. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Consumerization of IT newsletter today. ]

I was also pleasantly surprised that the Note 10.1 was able to connect to my company's secure Wi-Fi network, whereas all previous Android devices have failed (but not the Pad). Alas, the Note still can't connect to our Cisco IPSec VPN. Here's hoping a software update by either Google -- which has long been aware of the problem -- or maybe Samsung will finally fix that and let me use the Note 10.1 on the VPN as I can my iPad.

The other Samsung enhancements are small. One is the ability to change the system font. (A word of caution: The other fonts are hard to read, so don't bother. Maybe when the font store goes live there'll be ones worth using.) Another is the ability to set up your ChatOn, Dropbox, and even Web server accounts where you establish your email and related accounts. All that's missing is the ability to print, a capability that only Motorola Mobility has brought to an Android tablet.

Of course, the Note 10.1 takes full advantage of the strengths of Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich." Except for the ads placed on the home screens (Samsung, please don't become a Dell!), the Android 4 experience is unmarred by the dubious UI changes common to Android devices.

Taken all together, the Galaxy Note 10.1 offers the polish, usability, and sophistication that have long been the province of the iPad. It also adds pen capabilities the iPad doesn't even attempt. The iPad still has some big advantages -- AirPrint, AirPlay, iCloud, and much better apps -- but the differences have narrowed noticeably thanks to the Note 10.1. Let me explain its strengths -- and weaknesses -- in more detail.

Welcome to pen computingThe big differentiator in the Galaxy Note 10.1 is its support for a pen -- or stylus, if you prefer. There's one tucked in the bezel, where it's out of the way and yet always available. The pen capabilities in the Note 10.1 tablet are similar to those in the Note phablet. But there are some differences.

The first difference was frustrating: It's less obvious how to call up handwriting recognition when in a text field on the Note 10.1 tablet than in the Note phablet. The secret is to tap and hold the speech-recognition key (the microphone icon) between the Sym key and the spacebar. That pops up a menu where you choose the handwriting-recognition icon, which then remains easiiy accessible in place of the microphone icon. Basically, you use this key to cycle through speech recognition, handwriting recognition, and keyboard entry as needed.

Within the handwriting "keyboard" you'll find handy icons for accessing symbols through a menu and for switching back to the text or speech keyboards. There's also a feature to recognize mathematical equations, which engineers, mathematicians, and scientists (and their students) will appreciate.

Handwriting recognition is passable, not great, though a menu of options appears that you can tap to hone the accuracy as you write. For most people, the Note 10.1 won't be for handwriting recognition but for drawing and annotating. This is where the Note 10.1 really shines, but only in apps designed to support the pen.

So far, only a few third-party apps support the stylus, mainly games and art titles. The Note 10.1 does come with several programs, including Adobe Photoshop Touch for photo editing and painting and Samsung's S Note for notetaking. They offer a solid glimpse of what's possible.

The handwriting "keyboard" on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.

The multiscreen capability debuting in the Note 10.1 is also intriguing. In a compatible pen-based app such as S Note, tap the Multiscreen button to get a menu of apps that can split the screen -- for example, the browser, Video Player, Polaris Office, and Email. The app opens on one side of the screen, with S Note (or other pen app) on the other. You can swap the screens if desired.

What you get is the ability to jot notes while referring to the contents of that other app. You can capture the screen, then crop the image in the Gallery app and paste it into other apps. The process is not smooth, but it's possible to add drawings and artwork to documents and so on.

The multiscreen view on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.

Clearly, the pen capabilities are for specialty needs, but the beauty is that they're there when you need them and out of the way when you don't.

A nicer, much friendlier interfaceAndroid 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" has made it easier to set up your tablet, with a cleaner user interface and more intuitive settings that provide more context and explanation than before. It really helps get your Android tablet the way you want it. The Galaxy Note adds a few more bells and whistles, resulting in an even smoother overall experience. For example, you can add Dropbox and other accounts in the same settings area where you add your email, Google, and Samsung accounts. The Galaxy Note also breaks out LDAP and Exchange ActiveSync as their own options, so users can more easily find and use them.

I also like Samsung's subtle way to change the keyboard in the Note 10.1: Use the pinch gesture to switch keyboards among the fixed, floating, and split views -- though be careful you don't actually tap some keys while doing so. You can also access the clipboard from the keyboard, such as to paste screenshots and other Gallery images into a presentation or document.

If readable fonts ever become available, the ability in the Note 10.1 to change the system font should be welcome; for now, stick with the default Helvetica S. But the crisp screen, pleasing color palettes, and clean application chrome all make the Note 10.1 a pleasure to use. A great example of this is the S Planner calendar app Samsung provides: In the Note phablet, it's hard to read, in garish colors, but in the Note tablet, it's beautifully readable with paperlike backgrounds and a clean color palette.

Even more, S Planner is a better calendar app than the stock Android version, providing more sophisticated repeating events (also not available on the iPad) and a year view. On the Note 10.1, you'll enjoy working in your calendar.

The Note 10.1 also uses Samsung's prior UI enhancement of a hiding app dock at the bottom of the screen -- clearly inspired by the Dock in OS X, but still welcome. Finally, it supports solid security and management capabilities, using the Android 4 capabilities augmented with Samsung's SAFE extensions. It should meet most businesses' security standards.

Then there are the other recent Samsung innovations introduced in the Galaxy Tab 2 tablet and Note phablet. One is the tracking ability that uses the front camera to search for your eyes, so the screen doesn't go to sleep when you're reading but otherwise not interacting with the device. Another is the use of an internal gyroscope to detect tilt, pan, and rotation of the device, which is then used for actions such as scrolling -- you'll like it in action and flying games.

The rest of the UI is Android 4, with its useful widgets, multifunctional notifications tray (where you can change network and other hardware settings, as well as see notifications such as new emails), handy app tray with live thumbnails, and solid array of accessibility options for the disabled.

A pleasing physical design that doesn't look like an iPadOn the physical side, the Note 10.1 has a well-designed bezel with a distinct look and feel -- not an iPad copy as the Galaxy Tab clearly was. You get the usual upper-end hardware: 1.4GHz ARM processor, 5-megapixel rear camera, 1.9-megapixel front camera, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, speakers, and audio jack. You get a few extras, such as an IR port to control Samsung TVs and an SD card slot that supports 64GB cards. A docking stand is included as well.

What you don't get is HDMI output to mirror your display to a monitor or projector. Don't expect to give presentations on stage with the Note 10.1. Too bad -- its pen-based annotation capability would be perfect for such presentations.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 ships in several models, in white and dark gray color choices. In the United States, there's just the Wi-Fi only model, available for $500 with 16GB of storage and for $550 with 32GB of storage. Models with 3G and LTE cellular radios are planned, but Samsung hasn't said when they might appear in the U.S., what they might cost, or what carries they would be available for. Given how very few Androdi tablets actually have cellular models these days, I'm a little worried that they'll never arrive, leaving the iPad the only road-warrior-friendly tablet. Also planned is an upgrade to Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" later this year.

Some Android capabilities improved, but most Android gotchas remainI mentioned earlier that the Galaxy Note 10.1 was able to sign into our secure Wi-Fi access point -- a first among Android devices I've tested. The Note 10.1 seems to have fixed the problem in Android.

Another apparent fix is in the stock Android browser (you don't get Google Chrome on the Note 10.1), which is much more compatible with AJAX-based sites than previous Android devices. Text selection doesn't always work in TinyMCE editing fields, but most of the controls do, and text selection works fine in Java windows. Buttons for uploading images from the tablet also work, even letting you choose the source application. In that last regard, the Note 10.1 outdoes the iPad. For text selection, the iPad usually works well in TinyMCE windows but has trouble in Java windows -- the opposite of the Note 10.1.

The Note 10.1 doesn't work with Cisco IPSec VPNs, unlike the iPad. And the selection of apps in the Google Play app store still don't hold a candle to what you can get for iOS. But there are decent apps for the basics, from Polaris Office and Quickoffice for office productivity to the popular games.

Turning on encryption in Android remains an extra step that takes your tablet out of commission for up to an hour, and you often have to sign in twice when encryption is enabled: once for the encryption password and again for the lock screen password. In contrast, they're one and the same on an iPad. Fortunately, you only have to enter the encryption password after a shutdown or restart on the Android tablet, so if you let it sleep, you'll end up having to enter just the lock screen password.

But the list of flaws in Android continues to decline, both as Google works on the core OS and as Samsung adds its own enhancements.

This article, "Review: The first Android tablet that could replace an iPad," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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This story, "Review: The first Android tablet that could replace an iPad" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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