Our review of the 2014 edition of Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 shows it's a sterling machine, but can it match the mighty iPad Air?

Samsung's Note phablets has achieved reasonable success, but the larger-screened tablets bearing the same family name have yet to impress. The company’s first effort, the Galaxy Note 10.1, showed promise, but was let down by its questionable design and had a screen that was, for want of a better phrase, a bit pants.

2014_12014_2

What a difference a year makes. Samsung has taken a second bite of the Note tablet cherry and is back with another effort, cunningly named the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. So how does it stack up to the original, and can it hold a candle to the market-leading iPad Air?

Look at me now

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition is as attractive a tablet as you'd hope to encounter, particularly in the world of Samsung. The original Note 10.1 had a frame only a mother could love, but the 2014 model is very easy on the eye thanks to its ivory bezel and thin chrome edging. The faux leather back (complete with faux stitching) won't be to everyone's taste though — the design may date quickly at best and offend animal lovers at worst.

2014_5

The 2014 Edition feels great in the hands. It's light, tipping the scales at 540g for the WiFi model and 547g for the 3G or LTE iterations. It might seem a brute in comparison to the 469g Air, but side-by-side they are similarly svelte. The new Galaxy Note 10.1 has comfortable edges and its controls and ports are logically arranged. On the face of the device lives a physical home button, which also activates Samsung's S Voice voice control feature, plus capacitive buttons for going back a page or canceling a command and a context-sensitive menu button.

2014_72014_8

At the top edge you’ll find an infra-red blaster, power button and volume rocker, while the bottom is home to a micro USB port. The left side gets a 4.5mm audio jack and oneof two stereo speakers. The right, meanwhile, houses the other speaker, a concealed microSD card slot and a dedicated slot for the bundled S Pen stylus.

Look into my eyes

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1's cameras, located on the front and rear of the device, are worthy of special mention. The user-facing camera can be used for Skype video calls or snapping selfies, as one might expect, but it also busies itself spying on the user. The camera works in conjunction with Samsung's Smart stay feature, which constantly scans the outside world looking for eyes peering at it, and if it finds them, it'll keep the device unlocked with the screen backlight active. If it loses sight of your peepers, it'll begin a countdown to locking the device and shutting off the backlight to save battery power.

2014_6

It's a clever feature, but it gets annoying quickly, as it all too often loses track of the user's eyes if you're using it in less-than-ideal lighting conditions, such as at night or in shadowy environments. At this point, it’ll post a not-quite-discrete-enough message saying it can’t track your 'balls. Luckily, you can turn it off. We did.

The rear 8-megapixel camera is rather less annoying, taking decent enough snaps — for a tablet. fast motion video is an option, but the lofty 4K video recording of the Note 3 is nowhere to be seen, sadly.

Big Screen

2014_screen

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1's display is arguably its best feature. It runs a whopping 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution, so everything looks absolutely pin sharp. Its colour reproduction isn't particularly accurate, with display settings ranging from the extremely saturated to slightly saturated, but as long as you aren't worried about proofing images for print or editing colour-critical documents you'll be a happy bunny. We certainly enjoyed using it.

Mighty pen

2014_3

The major advantage Note devices have over their alternatives is the fact they all come with an S Pen stylus. The unit bundled here lives in its own dedicated slot and can be whipped out and used to navigate the user interface or, more usefully, to write and draw with. It’s pleasingly accurate — not far off the experience you get with an actual pen or pencil — and the software does a surprisingly good job of turning your scrawl into digitized text. We’re not sure we’d give up using the virtual keyboard for it (who the hell uses pens in real life anyway?) but if you’re set on using this method of input then you’ll appreciate it.

Power ranger

The Samsung Galaxy 10.1 2014 Edition is about as powerful as tablets come, on paper. Its beating heart, if you can call it that, is Samsung’s own Exynos 5 chip — a quad-core processor paired to 3GB of RAM and either 16GB or 32GB of storage. On paper it’s a real rocket, and in practice it’s pretty damn decent, running apps of all varieties smoothly. In practice, it's not quite as buttery smooth as the specs might imply, feeling ever-so-slightly clunky when switching between apps. Expect around 7 hours of web browsing from its 8,220mAh battery pack.

Control freak

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, coated in Samsung's nifty TouchWiz user interface. As a result it offers an impressive list of easily accessible features. Cool tricks include the ability to multitask, browsing Facebook or emailing while viewing a movie for example. There are lots of cool gesture controls too, like the ability to mute audio by placing your palm flat against the screen, or swiping the edge of your palm along the display to take a screenshot.

screen1screen2screen3

The Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition comes with a host of apps pre-installed, some more useful than others. S Note is a solid note taking app that let's you put the S Pen to good use, while S Planner is a decent calendar app.

screen4screen5

Samsung Video app, meanwhile, is absolutely fantastic for TV and movie buffs. It lets you use the Note 10.1 2014 Edition as a giant remote control, changing channels and adjusting the volume. It even lets you navigate your TV schedule using an electronic programme guide — simply tap whatever program you want on the tablet and your TV fetches it for you. It’s incredibly slick.

Verdict

2014_4

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition is a significant improvement on the previous model. It’s better designed, feels nicer in use, packs more features and is generally a tablet we’d be pleased to pull out in a public place. It’s not all perfect — it’s let down slightly by the occasionally less-than-smooth user experience, and it’ll forever live in the shadow of the thinner, slicker iPad Air, but if you need a tablet with a stylus and you really don’t fancy joining Apple’s legion then you’ll generally be happy with it.