Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 is pricey but has its charms
The Galaxy Note 8.0's humble chassis and $400 price tag don't inspire much confidence, but you'll find quite a lot to like here.
The Galaxy Note 8.0 will set you back $400, and I'll admit that I had some trouble figuring out why. It certainly isn't the aesthetic appeal, as the Note 8.0's white plastic shell--standard fare for Samsung's Galaxy lineup--doesn't evoke much in the way of gadget envy. Although it's appreciably light at just shy of 12 ounces, the tablet is wholly generic, a Wi-Fi-only plastic slab with an 8-inch, 1280-by-800-resolution display that could be anything, save for the humble Samsung branding sitting on the top bezel.
What the tablet lacks in looks, however, it makes up for in other areas. The Note 8.0 centers its user experience on the S Pen stylus, once a curio, now a staple of the Galaxy Note family. Coupled with Samsung's "Premium" suite of supporting apps and a few clever tricks, the latest entry in the Galaxy Note lineup just might prove to be a compelling contender. Let's see how it stacks up against the competition.
Eye of the beholder
The plain plastic shell doesn't do much to help this model stand out from competing tablets. But that's all right; the Note 8.0 is sturdy, and while it's technically a bit heavier than Google's Nexus 7 (by about 5 grams), you'll be hard-pressed to notice much of a difference. My hands are admittedly a bit large, but the 8-inch device is no more cumbersome than the Nexus 7 or Apple's iPad Mini, and I had no trouble toting it while sitting or lounging about.
The accoutrements are fairly standard: The headphone jack sits on the top edge, and the Micro-USB port sits on the bottom. The right side offers a power button, volume control buttons, and an IR blaster for controlling your television with Samsung's WatchOn app. The left side hosts the MicroSD card slot; you can use 32GB MicroSD cards to bolster the 16GB tablet's paltry 10GB of available storage space.
Under the hood are 2GB of RAM and a quad-core 1.6GHz Exynos processor, which drive the 8-inch 1280 by 800 TFT display. While 1080p displays are all the rage on larger tablets and new smartphones, the Note 8.0's display suits its screen size rather well. The vibrant screen offers accurate color reproduction and generous viewing angles, though glare and reflections become a problem should you take the tablet outside into direct sunlight.
A pair of speakers sit on the bottom edge of the device, and although they're fairly loud and deliver decent audio quality (devoid of much in the way of bass, as expected), their position means that you need to keep an eye on your hands when holding the tablet in landscape mode, as you'll inevitably block the speakers and muffle the sound.
Keeping up with the Joneses
The Note 8.0's specs look great on paper, so its stellar performance isn't really a surprise. The tablet tackled all of the Android games I threw at it with aplomb, and streamed HD video with grace. The results become especially impressive if you're a fan of Samsung's multiwindow feature, which allows you to split the device's screen in two and use a select number of apps on either side. I've yet to find the allure of watching YouTube clips while browsing the Web, and the Note 8.0's 8-inch screen makes things a bit more cramped than the displays of larger, more generous devices like the Galaxy Note 10.1. But doing so is possible, and it works rather well.
Strong performance always takes a toll in some way, however. The Note 8.0 eked out a middling 7 hours, 30 minutes on our video-playback battery tests, falling behind competitors such as the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini. I got quite a bit more juice out of the Samsung tablet by moderating the amount of streaming I did and not getting overly enthusiastic with my gaming sessions, but monitoring battery life is never fun. The Note 8.0's battery performance isn't catastrophic by any stretch, but if you're a heavy user or you rarely hang around a power outlet, keep this in mind.
Almost forgot: The Note 8.0 has two cameras, a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front and a 5-megapixel shooter on the rear. The front-facing camera is suitable enough for video chats, but nothing to write home about. The rear-facing camera is actually fairly decent. The slow auto-focus ultimately limits your shooting speed, but the camera produces decent images in a pinch, even on its default shooting mode. You'll find toggles to tweak the ISO, white balance, and exposure--as well a macro focus mode and a number of scene settings--but I never found much reason to futz with those. I never found much reason to use the camera to shoot anything actually, but tablet cameras are apparently popular enough for companies to keep including them, so have at it. The tablet has no flash, though.
Battle of the bloat
And then there's the S Pen. I'll be blunt--I love styluses. The Note 8.0's virtual keyboard isn't bad, but I'll always appreciate being able to scrawl with a pen over trying to find a nice position to prop a tablet up. The S Pen is docked into a small groove on the Note 8.0's right corner, and it offers much more than just excellent handwriting recognition.
For starters, the Note 8.0's "page buddy" feature reacts to how you're using the device, popping up context-aware home-screen pages when you do things like plug in headphones or set the tablet in a dock. I configured it to change the virtual keyboard to a pen-friendly handwriting-recognition pad whenever I detached the pen, making it easy to jump between typing quick search queries or writing extensive notes. You can even use the pen to operate the capacitive buttons on the front of the device, which is neat.
But I'm not sure it's worth all of the extra baggage. The S Pen stylus is a capable device, and plenty of apps take advantage of it, but Samsung's TouchWiz software largely consists of apps that replicate native Google functionality, and the sheer number of them is a bit overwhelming. You'll find a calendar app, voice control software, a number of options for playing or sharing media, Samsung's own app store, and more. When you first fire up the device, it prompts you to register for a Samsung account (it's optional) before you even enter your Google credentials, which can be incredibly confusing if this is your first experience with Samsung's wares.
The Galaxy Note 8.0 offers strong performance, neat features (especially if you like styluses), and most important, a great user experience. But it costs $400, and it offers only Wi-Fi connectivity and 16GB of storage. A cellular version is available outside of the United States, and the omission here is lamentable, since you can buy a 32GB Nexus 7 with cellular connectivity for $300. Sure, the Nexus 7 is getting a bit long in the tooth, but that's a $100 difference.
Are the S Pen, a faster processor, and an extra inch of screen real estate worth that much to you? If so, you won't be disappointed. But as fond as I am of the stylus--and honestly, the entire package--I'm hesitant to call the Note 8.0 a clear victory for Samsung.