Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 review: the pen sets this Android tablet apart

With pen input and a highly customized version of Android 4.0, the Note 10.1 distinguishes itself in a crowded market.

By Melissa J. Perenson, PC World |  Consumerization of IT, Samsung Galaxy

With the release of Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 Wi-Fi tablet the venerable stylus takes center stage setting this innovative slate apart from the tablet masses. On Wednesday Samsung officially announces this Wi-Fi only 10.1-inch tablet with prices that start at starting at $500 up to $550. The table goes on sale Thursday. For the past few days I've been testing the Galaxy Note 10.1 Wi-Fi. While the tablet has some rough edges and one glaring omission amongst its specsit lacks a high pixel density displaySamsung has put together a solid performer that has wide-reaching appeal.

The standout feature of Samsung's latest offering is the S Pen which opens up a whole new dimension of functionality and creativity thanks to Samsung's preloaded software and Android tweaks. Since the tablet was first introduced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the Galaxy Note's specs have changed. Six months ago, Samsung said the Note 10.1 would pack a dual-core CPU and 1GB of memory, as well as have internal storage of up to 64GB. For its final release, though, Samsung bumps the Note 10.1 to a quad-core Samsung Exynos processor with 2GB of system memorymaking it the first shipping tablet I've tested with that much RAM. Gone is the 64GB internal storage option; Note 10.1 comes in 16GB ($499) and 32GB ($549) varieties, expandable via MicroSD card by up to 64GB.

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Design

The Note 10.1 has a distinctive but not especially high-end look. It ships with either a white or dark gray plastic back, and matching bezel with silver plastics accents around the edges. The tablet is neither the thinnest nor the lightest tablet, but it compares respectably to others in its size class. It measures 10.3 by 7.1 by 0.35 inches, and it weighs 1.31 poundsslightly more than the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity but noticeably less than the Apple iPad weighs at 1.44 pounds.

The Note 10.1 is largely designed with the intent of holding it horizontally in two hands, with the front-facing 1.9-megapixel camera centered above the display, and stereo speakers mounted on either side. When I held the tablet in both of my hands, I tended to keep my hands towards the bottom edges, which meant my fingers didn't obstruct the speakers. However, when I held the tablet vertically, the audio sounded a bit skewed.

Pen Takes Center Stage

Along the top edge (when held in horizontal mode) is the power button and volume rocker, the sturdy flap covering the MicroSD card slot, infrared port for use with an HDTV, and headphone jack.

One nifty addition: A slot that houses the included S Pen. Samsung will have several after-market pen options available as well, but the included pen is larger than its Galaxy Note phone cousin. I'd personally prefer the thicker barrel of the optional S Pen Holder Kit, but I found the one that comes with the tablet serviceable for casual use. Having the pen's resting place neatly tucked into the tablet makes the pen infinitely more useful than a separate stylus could ever hope to be.

While the pen is not something I found myself reaching for all the time, I did find it convenient and used it more often than I expected. I liked having the option to vary my input between my fingers and the stylus, and I quickly appreciated how the S Pen could change how I'd approach note-taking, making annotations, and sketching out diagrams or formulas. While students, artists, designers, scientists, and other specialists will clearly benefit from the pen, its use transcends far beyond that and will appeal to casual tablet users of all stripes.

The S Pen in Action

Samsung's S Pen is based on a Wacom's pressure-sensitive technology. The pen felt highly responsive, with little lag and integrated palm-rejectiona useful inclusion for better productivity that capacitive-touch styluses can't provide. Samsung has improved the Note's pressure sensitivity significantly compared with the original Note phone: The Note 10.1 is at 1024 levels of sensitivity, compared with just 256. The pen's detection distance is better, too: 14mm on the Note 10.1, to the Note's 8mm.

Software

With the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, Samsung offers its most tailored OS and locked-and-loaded app selection yet. Samsung ships the Note 10.1 with Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich on-board. Jelly Bean will come, according to Samsung, by the end of the year.

Like other Samsung devices, this tablet is not for Android purists. Most of the overlays and modifications make for a more friendly experience - though occasionally I find the multiple paths to doing the same thing more confusing than helpful. For example, I tired of the pop-up utility launcher that runs along the bottom of the screen, simply because it was easy to accidentally launch.

TouchWiz and Few Sour Notes

Samsung does its most far-reaching TouchWiz (Samsung's custom touch user interface) overhaul of the Android OS seen on one of its tablets yet. Among the tweaks: It replaces such basics as the Settings menu and the layout of the Notify launcher. The Notify launcher adds new options to existing menus. The trade off is you get more control over many options, but in other cases Samsung clutters the interface. Changed also is the stock Android keyboard which is now a Samsung keyboard with off-white buttons with black letters, and a dedicated number row.

Samsung has, bizarrely, hobbled the Note 10.1's productivity potential by not allowing you to attach any file to an outgoing Gmail message. The only attachment option there is for the Gallery, which means you can't take notes (or create a document in the Polaris Office app) and then send it via your Gmail account anywhere else. My gripe here is with adding attachments to email associated with outbound email associated with my Gmail account.

Another annoyance is Samsung's new power settings. Yes, you get them, but I'm not convinced there's ever a real reason to reduce the screen frame rate and lower the brightness at the same time. Furthermore, the Smart Stay feature is under the Display options and not power saving, even though this feature uses the front camera to make sure you are still using the tablet and it should keep the brightness up.

Finally, and most egregious, is how Samsung auto-dims the display when the battery hits 5 percent left. Samsung takes this farther than other tablet makers by not allowing you to adjust the brightness back up if you so choose; and the brightness level it goes to is so low that the dark image you do get is practically useless, making the extra 30 minutes or so of battery life you'll get in this state questionable at best.

And Now the High Notes

Many of the software enhancements I liked are features that emphasize multitasking on the tablet.

Some of my favorite additions were first introduced on the Samsung Galaxy Siii phone. My favorites were the resizable pop-up video player (which launches a video into a separate overlay window that can be placed anywhere on the screen) and the dual-screen option that Samsung's enabled for side-by-side views. Currently, the dual-screen mode is available for just six apps: Samsung's own native S Note app, Web browser, and video player; a Note-enhanced version of Polaris Office; and Google's Gallery and email apps. Hopefully Samsung can grow this number.

This dual-screen ability, dubbed "Multiscreen" by Samsung, is unique, and offers the closest approximation to Windows and having multiple windows open at the same time I've seen on an Android tablet. Samsung's implementation is a kludgeyou must first select the content you want to copy using the S Pen, then take a screenshot of it, and then cut the content from its original source and drag it over to the app on the other screen. For example if you are taking a picture from the Samsung mobile web browser and pasting it into a Polaris Office document. This feature may require at least twice the number of steps to do what you'd do in Windows, but I still appreciated the effort to make Android feel more grown-up and viable for productivity use.

Performance

As noted earlier, the Note 10.1 has a 1.4GHz Exynos quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. That extra system memory helps with multitasking, according to Samsung. However, it may also help boost application performance. In particular, I noticed that the Google Gallery performed better than on previous Ice Cream Sandwich Samsung efforts; the Gallery was zippier and more responsive, and had little lag when rendering high-resolution images. But whether this improvement can be credited to Samsung's version of Android 4.0, to the Samsung Exynos processor, or to the extra memory is unclear.

The Note 10.1 excelled in our lab tests, setting new high-water marks for graphics performance on Android tablets, and for Web browsing across all tablets. On two core tests from GLBenchmark 2.1.4, the Note 10.1 was far and away the best Android tablet tested to date, logging 99fps on Egypt Offscreen and 125fps on Pro Offscreen. That's a sizable improvement over the next closest Android tablet, the Nvidia Tegra 3-based Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700; that tablet attained 74fps on Egypt Offscreen, and 96fps on Pro Offscreen. The Apple iPad remains at the top of the graphics performance heap, though, with 139fps and 234fps, respectively.

The browser tests include our own custom page load test, in which the Note 10.1 excelled, requiring just 7.6 seconds to load as compared with 11.6 seconds on the Acer Iconia Tab A700. And on SunSpider, the Note 10.1 blasted through the test in 1.2 seconds, as compared with the Google Nexus 7's 1.7 seconds. As with the Google Gallery, the browsing test performance may reflect the tablet's internal guts, or it could be due to the software, in this case Samsung's own Web browser, which is different from the stock Android browser.

Digging into the Display

The Note 10.1's display was both a disappointment and a surprise. The display carries a resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels, the same as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 and the Toshiba Excite 10.1. That means no high-pixel density clarity or detail on text or graphics, as you'd find on the Acer Iconia Tab A700, Apple iPad, and Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700.

However, Samsung has clearly done something with this tablet to boost its display performance. The sharpness and color of images is dramatically better than the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, and my high-resolution images in the Google Gallery had sharpness and detail that came close to what you'd find on the high-pixel density displays. (Another observation: Android tablets typically struggle with skin tones, but the Note 10.1 produced some of the most realistic skin tones I've seen.) Text clarity was better than than on the abysmal Galaxy Tab 2, but it couldn't hold a candle to what you'd get on any of the high-pixel density displays.

Samsung Adds New Custom Apps

Samsung adds tons more new apps of its own creation. Most notable among them: the S Note app that's designed for note taking, sketching, formulas, and handwriting-to-text use with the S Pen. You also get customized music and video players, and a customized version of Google Gallery that adds face-detection tagging (also seen on the Galaxy Siii phone). A bonafide task manager is now integrated into the recently used apps pop-over. And you can easily share content from the tablet with a TV or other tablet users using a new share options.

Among the preloaded apps are Barnes & Noble Nook, Netflix, Dropbox, and Peel Smart Remote. As a bonus, you get Adobe's Photoshop Touch app, a $9.99 value that works well with the S Pen input. Even though Samsung scaled back on its pen-specific apps from what it originally showed earlier in the year, it's important to point out that the Note 10.1 benefits from how much effort Samsung has clearly put into integrating software with the pen capability. Other tablet makers have added pens, without the software component, and in those cases the pen becomes an afterthought, not an integral part of how you use the tablet.

Sadly, the selection of S Pen apps in Samsung's own S Suggest guide was paltry at this writing; and many of those that were available were optimized for phone and not a tablet screen twice its size. Hopefully, Samsung will get more app developers on-board with S Pen support, and reveal Note 10.1-specific apps in the S Suggest guide. Only then will the S Pen advantage truly live up to its potential.

Bottom Line

Granted, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 lacks the one competitive spec that other top-tier tabletsspecifically the Acer Iconia Tab A700, Apple iPad, and Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700have at the same or lesser price. Samsung's rendering enhancements help lessen the sting of this omission somewhat, but the difference is clear, particularly with text-heavy content.

But, when you factor in the handy stowaway S Pen and Samsung's pen-optimized software, and suddenly the Note 10.1 gets an edge all its own. Throw in the Galaxy Note 10.1 Wi-Fi tablet's solid performance, and the Note 10.1 is squarely back in the mix.

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Originally published on PC World |  Click here to read the original story.
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