We all know the pen is mightier than the sword, but is the stylus mightier than the finger? While Steve Jobs wasn't convinced, Samsung has heavily invested in the humble stylus. First came the Samsung Galaxy Note, a phone come tablet with a 5.3-inch screen and a stylus, branded an S-Pen. Following huge success with the phablet, almost a year on Samsung has released the latest in the line, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. It's bigger, more powerful and considerably more sensitive but is it worth your time and money?
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - Design
Starting with the look, feel and build, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is a dead-ringer for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 2. That means you get a 10.1-inch display and front facing stereo speakers and camera. The two-tone tab looks plasticky and feels it too. Flip it over to reveal a 5-megapixel rear facing camera with flash and high gloss surface. What’s our first impression? Overwhelmingly underwhelmed unfortunately.
There are some really nice elements to the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 such as the IR port and microSD card slot at the top, but these delight us thanks to their utility, not their visual flair. Also along the top of the tab are the power button, volume rocker and 3.5mm headphone jack.
The bottom right hand corner of the tab houses a cavity where the S-Pen docks. As with the tab itself, the S-Pen is very, very plasticky. Thanks to its size, it’s much more usable than the tooth pick like pen on the original Note, so feels comfortable despite feeling cheap.
All in all therefore, we’re kicking off with the Samsung Galaxy Note’s weakest point. Although it doesn't creak or feel delicate per se and it is light (which is a great considering you'll likely hold it a fair bit), but it certainly doesn’t feel like a £400 flagship.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - Screen
There are two key facets to the screen on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. First off, there’s the quality, next, there’s the S-Pen input.
In terms of quality, the 1280x800 resolution TFT panel is tired. The technology behind it, PLS (Plane Line Switching) is generally well known for accurate colours and good viewing angles, though the sad fact is it won’t stand up against sharper screens like the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, or the new iPad. On the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 in particular, viewing angles are poorer than expected, with head on viewing required for decent colour accuracy and contrast.
Why has Samsung kept the screen resolution so tapered? It’s been suggested it has something to do with the Wacom layer that enables for the 1024 levels (yes, 1024 levels) of pressure sensitivity. Ultimately, although it's not much to look at, it's the most responsive, accurate tablet display we've ever used when coupled with the S-Pen.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - User Interface
Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich is a respectable version of Google’s OS to have on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, though as with the Samsung Galaxy S3 and all other Samsung Galaxy products, laid on top in thick, gloopy portions is TouchWiz Nature UX. Despite being the latest version of TouchWiz, it feels considerably fatter than any version we've seen before.
Samsung gives you a variable number of homescreens, an apps drawer, task viewer and notifications dock. There's an extra dock that expands from the bottom of the screen to reveal a few shortcuts, all of which open floating windows. These include Alarm, Calculator, Email, Music Player, S Note, S Planner, Task Manager and World Clock. The floating windows are handy and we use apps like the Calculator and S Note all the time, though the Task Manager shortcut noticeably slows down the whole tab.
Pinching homescreens results in some stutter as you enter overview mode, undoing sketch strokes isn’t as instantaneous as the we expected from blisteringly fast processor. In fact the general UI doesn’t feel too dissimilar to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in terms of speed, despite having double the number of cores.
There are additional smart options like multi-screen, allowing you to take advantage of your tablet screen size by having two apps simultaneously open side by side. This is useful when checking something online and copying content across applications, but it also exacerbates the Note 10.1’s stutter.
While this bloated UI would be a deal breaker on any other tablet, the S-Pen acts as something of a saving grace if you’re inclined to explore, especially after opening a couple of pre-installed applications, installing a couple from the Google Play Store and enjoying the 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - S-Pen
This is the reason you buy the Note 10.1. Despite the light plastic pen feeling more like a toy than a serious tool, it has the potential to do some pretty impressive stuff.
S-Note is the only app thus far to take advantage of the pressure sensitivity on the Note 10.1. It’s more advanced than the version you’ll find on the original Note with a tablet optimised UI and additional functionality to support shape, text and formula recognition. There's a filing system for organisation of notes, and the hand writing recognition is also better, feeling considerably more natural on the 10.1-inch display. Despite praising it, the app is far from perfect. Leaning on the tab with your palm for example will register your palm as a touch. This prevents natural sketching, and is one of a number of quirks to get used to with the app and tab in general.
Photoshop Touch is a revelation on the Note 10.1, giving you most of the functionality of Photoshop Elements, only now on your tablet, the accurate stylus support is priceless. We reviewed it on a dual-core tablet, but the application runs noticeably faster on the Note 10.1. We were up and running in minutes with tutorials and using pictures taken on the tab itself, stitched a couple together to great effect. Below is an example of what you can do with the PhotoShop Touch, an S-Pen and the lasso tool while on a train out of London. It is irksome that the application doesn’t support pressure sensitivity, though the fact it’s pre-loaded, saving you £6.99 is a bonus from the offset.
Sketchbook Pro too runs considerably faster on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 than on any dual-core device, certainly any with dedicated pen-input. Instantly therefore, the Note 10.1 becomes the best device to sketch on with the application supporting layers, multiple file formats and the option to export your sketches as layered PSD file. The drawings below were created using Sketchbook and S Note.
It’s a shame that the potential of the Note 10.1’s S-Pen is only partially realised right now. While we’d like to think this will change, it didn’t to a huge extent with the original Note, so we’re staying realistic. In the same breath, Samsung still has dominance over the Stylus tablet market. S Note works well, the pressure sensitivity makes handwriting and doodling incredibly natural and there is no better device on the market with which to use PhotoShop Touch or Sketchbook Pro.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - Camera and Multimedia
There’s a 5-megapixel autofocus camera on the back of the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (as with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 2), except this time there’s a flash to help things along. Give it some perfect lighting conditions and you’re laughing as you can see from the sample shots in the top row below, however with its f/2.7 lens and mediocre sensor, as soon as you even think about the lights dimming, noise increases.
Dynamic range isn’t great, the lens isn’t the quickest to focus and given the potential imaging editing capabilities the S-Pen could have provided, the camera is a let down. Even the flash isn’t the standard Samsung Galaxy fare, helping indoors in close quarters, but doing very little compared to the Samsung Galaxy S2 or S3. The only element the camera on the Note 10.1 shares with the quality mobile flagship is the customisable user interface.
Video is shot at 720p and we’re glad to see the Note 10.1 packs touch to focus mid recording. For a quad-core device, we expected 1080p as with the Asus Transformer Prime and Samsung Galaxy S3, but the 720p resolution is passable, both on the device and when exported. Frame rates are a smooth 30fps making everything look fluid.
Movies playback well with four cores powering everything along. Thanks to Samsung pre-installing a range of codecs on board, chances are your video files will play on the native video player. This means the you can take advantage of the pop up player, turning your movie into a floating video window leaving you free to thumb through the tablet's interface. While we liked it on the Samsung Galaxy S3, we love it here on the 10.1-inch display and doesn’t slow other activity down. Watching video content on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1’s display is also pretty great with the lower resolution not being too noticeable, though viewing angles leave a lot to be desired. This relatively solid movie experience is compounded further still by the front facing speakers which, while not as crisp as headphones are better than most mono rear facers as found on other tabs.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - Connectivity and Storage
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is as connected as a 10.1-inch tablet needs to be. There’s a 3G version available and both variants come with Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, GPS and Bluetooth. Web browsing is great on the 10.1-inch screen and thanks to the Ice Cream Sandwich, you can install Chrome browser for the best mobile browsing experience out there. There’s also an IR port on the top side of the Note 10.1, so it can be used as a TV remote control.
With 16GB hidden inside the Note 10.1, we’re off to a good start in terms of storage. Thanks to the micro SD card slot up at the top, you can expand this up to an additional 32GB. Irritatingly, Samsung insist on using a proprietary charging port. Unlike Asus’s Transformer range, there’s also no HDMI port so if you have any desire to output your video content, you’ll need to rely on DLNA or purchase a costly MHL to HDMI adapter.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - Performance and Battery
We’ve touched upon the UI stagger, now we can explain why it’s such a grievance. The processor inside this tablet is fast. Put it through a benchmarking test and it comes out on top across the board in almost everything. It therefore staggers as a direct result of Samsung choking it with bloatware and dare we say - un-optimisation. We begrudge hating on Sammy for innovating - the floating video window is fantastic and we wouldn’t have the S-Pen if it didn’t try new things, but in the Note 10.1 it works against them.
Keeping perspective in check though, 3D games still run well, full HD movies are chewed up and spat out and a bit of putting up with stagger will still give you the best stylus experience on a tablet available. It just won't perform like the iPad or Asus Tegra 3 devices, even though it really should be.
You can expect around 8 hours of battery life from the 7000 mAh battery on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 with constant use which once again falls slightly short of the competition.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - Conclusion
We end this review with a spot of deja vu. When we reviewed the Nokia 808 PureView, it was poor phone with a mind blowing feature - the camera. In the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, we have a mediocre tablet with incredible pen input. How much this will matter will depend on the type of user you are, but to this reviewer, it matters a lot. Anyone who sketches, designs, mind maps or edits photos will be extremely well served with the Note 10.1 and the pre-installed PhotoShop Touch app. Even if you’re a simple note taker, pardon the pun, you will love this accurate, pressure sensitive, unique device. If you don’t see yourself taking advantage of its S-Pen though, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is a flawed tablet and you should look to the Asus Transformer Pad series, Nexus 7 or iPad to satiate your tablet needs.