Does the future of tablets include a pen? Samsung seems to think so. Its newest slate, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, blends some of the top features of its previous tablets and smartphones into a 10-inch Android device. This $499 tablet not only has a built-in S Pen, but a bevy of apps to take advantage of what Samsung considers the first true content creation tablet. Read on to find out whether the Galaxy Note 10.1 has what it takes to win you over.
At first glance the Galaxy Note 10.1 looks a lot like the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. The front is dominated by the 10-inch touch screen and black glossy bezel, which is rimmed in silver plastic. As with the Tab 2 10.1, we like the fact that the Note 10.1's speakers are on the front of the tablet and are high enough up so that you won't cover them with your thumbs.
The one giveaway that this is Samsung's newest tablet is the small slot on the lower right that accepts the stylus, which Samsung calls an S-Pen.
The stylus itself docks securely in the tablet, and feels comfortable to hold. For those looking for something thicker, Samsung sells an attachment that the S Pen slides into. (Of course, you won't be able to dock it in the tablet.)
Along the top edge of the tablet are the power button, volume rocker, microSD card slot, IR transmitter and a 3.5mm headphone jack. We would have preferred to find the volume controls on the left or right side, within easier reach of an index finger.
Unlike the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity, the Note 10.1's back panel is made of plastic, not aluminum--sorry,the striations aren't fooling anyone--so it doesn't feel quite as premium as the $499 price suggests. It also picked up fingerprints quickly.
At 10.3 x 7.1 x 0.35 inches and 1.3 pounds, the Note 10.1 is a hair smaller than the Tab 2 10.1 (10.1 x 6.9 x 0.38 inches) but about 0.02 pounds heavier. The Asus Transformer Infinity TF700 measures 10.35 x 7.11 x 0.33 inches and weighs an equal 1.3 pounds.
The 10.1-inch display on the Note 10.1 has a resolution of 1280 x 800 and is plenty bright. We measured a brightness of 441 lux, which outshines the Asus Infinity (433 lux), the third-generation iPad (386 lux) and the A700 (309 lux), as well as the category average (356 lux).
However, this tablet has a lower resolution than similarly priced tablets such as the Acer Iconia Tab A700 and ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity, which have resolutions of 1920 x 1200, not to mention the Retina display on the New iPad. While explosions in trailers such as "The Expendables 2" were bright and fiery, there was a noticeable lack of detail. The viewing angles are just fair; reflections got in the way when viewing the panel off axis.
Smart Stay, introduced on the Galaxy S III, keeps the screen turned on as long as the tablet detects you're looking at it. If this feature is active, a small eye appears in the dock, next to the battery life meter.
As mentioned, the Note 10.1's speakers are located on either side of the display, a feature we greatly appreciate. Whether watching movies or listening to music, we liked that the sound was coming directly at us. While bass was a little underwhelming, both the highs and the lows on Kool and the Gang's "Summer Madness" came through without any distortion, even with the volume cranked. In the first-person shooter "N.O.V.A 2 HD," the sound of our character's machine gun ricocheted around the room.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 ships with Android Ice Cream Sandwich, but Samsung says the tablet's operating system will be upgraded to Jelly Bean sometime in the fall of 2012.
Samsung also leaves its own imprint on the interface. By default, the lock screen (pictured) shows four shortcut icons: S Note, Browser, Video and Gallery. We like that you can change these to any app of your choosing, though it's buried in the Security settings.
The Note 10.1 also makes the same drip-drip sounds as the Samsung Galaxy S III when you swipe or press on the screen; we found these effects annoying and immediately turned off Touch sounds in the settings menu.
Samsung's Mini Apps (pictured right) are on board; press the small carat at the bottom of the display, and seven thumbnails appear for Alarm, Calculator, Email, Music Player, S Note, S Planner and Task Manager. You can edit these, but unfortunately there are eight apps in total, so you have to decide whether the World Clock, the only one missing, is worth it. While you can't resize the Mini Apps, you can move them around the screen, a nice touch.
One thing we like is that if you pinch on the keyboard, it launches three different layout options for you: a QWERTY keyboard (pictured), a floating keyboard (pictured in S Note section below), and a split keyboard. We found the latter to be easiest to use when holding the tablet in landscape mode. We also appreciated the slight haptic feedback, which gave a gentle buzz when we pressed a letter. Another plus: There's a dedicated number row above the letters.
Separating the Galaxy Note 10.1 from other Android tablets is its inclusion of a stylus, the S Pen. While not an active stylus as you'd find on, say, a Lenovo ThinkPad notebook, the S Pen does communicate with the Note via radio waves. That means the tablet is able to sense when the pen is hovering. This also lets you access drop-down menus on Web pages, making mobile surfing more like the desktop. The S Pen has 1,024 levels of sensitivity, so it responds well to various levels of pressure.
When you remove the stylus from its slot, a Shortcuts toolbar appears along the right side of the screen. This contains icons for stylus-friendly apps S Note, S Planner, Crayon Physics, Photoshop Touch and Polaris Office. Unfortunately, you can't customize these icons.
Considering the S Pen's prominence, the S Note app is potentially the most valuable piece of software on the Galaxy Note. However, we found the app somewhat cumbersome to use. It begins with the less-than-intuitive interface. For example, an icon in the upper left lets you switch between edit and view modes, but it's not immediately clear which mode you're in. As a result, we found ourselves accidentally drawing on pages.
The app has three neat features: Handwriting to Text, Formula Match and Shape Match. As their names suggest, they convert your scribblings to text, mathematical formulas or geometric shapes, respectively. Individually, all worked well. Our chicken scratch was quickly and correctly turned into text, Formula Match not only wrote out formulas but let us look them up in Wolfram Alpha. Shape Match drew perfect circles and squares.
However, S Note isn't smart enough to know on its own whether you're writing text, a formula or a shape; you have to first select the feature from another, somewhat inscrutable icon. Once or twice, the app converted a sentence to a series of squares and lines because we were in the wrong tool. And you can't retroactively have the app convert your handwriting to text. Finally, none of these features works in the S Note Mini app. That app is just for jotting quick notes.
Polaris Office also has a handwriting-to-text feature, though it's a little tricky to find. With the keyboard open in Polaris, press and hold the Settings button to the left of the spacebar, and a small menu will appear; select the icon with the stylus, and a small writing pad will replace the keyboard. Polaris Office worked even better than S Note in converting our handwriting, and worked faster, too. The app even suggests words and phrases, making it a lot more useful than S Note for writing.
One of the more touted features of the Galaxy Note is its Multiscreen multitasking, which splits the screen in two so you can have two apps running side by side. Currently, it works only with six apps: Internet, Video Player, Polaris Office, Gallery, Email and S Note.
Let's say you're composing a note and you want to cut and paste into it an image you see on the Web. You can long press the photo with a pen in the browser window, select Copy and then tap Clipboard in the S Note app and choose the image you want to drop into your note.
Here's another helpful scenario. You can read your inbox in one window and open Web links embedded in message in the other window. Yes, you get less real estate for both apps, but we found the resolution workable.
To switch the position of windows, you can either drag them with your finger or tap an icon up top and then select Switch Windows. Our only complaint with multitasking--other than the limited number of supported apps--is that having two windows open resulted in lag.
The Note 10.1 has another multitasking trick up its sleeve. The Video Player can be popped out into a floating, resizable window, so you can, in effect, do three things at once. Actually, you can do even more, as you can launch mini-apps on top of all this, too. With all these windows, though, it would be nice to be able to bring one to the front or move one back.
The 1.4-GHz quad core Exynos processor and 2GB of RAM in the Note 10.1 put up some impressive numbers on our benchmark tests. On the Quadrant benchmark, the Note scored 5,259, nearly twice the average (2,712) and almost 400 points higher than the TF700 (4,897), which uses Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor.
On the graphics-focused An3DBench test, both the Note 10.1 and the TF700 had identical scores of 7,937, about 700 points higher than average.
Real-world performance was mixed. While playing "N.O.V.A 2 HD," our charater moved around fluidly, and on-screen graphics rendered smoothly. When we compared the Note 10.1 with the Toshiba Excite 10, the former was quicker to change orientation from landscape to portrait. However, when switching from apps to the home screen, the Samsung was a hair slower than the Toshiba, whose animations were also smoother. We also noticed some slowdown when running two windows on screen at once, especially when opening or closing the second app.
Our configuration of the Note 10.1 has 16GB of onboard storage; the tablet accepts microSD cards of up to 64GB.
Another app that takes real advantage of the S Pen is Photoshop Touch, which is included on the Note 10.1, but normally costs $9.99in the Google Play store. There's a learning curve with this app, but it provides some pretty powerful editing tools, including layers, gradients, a number of auto adjustments and filters. Having all these tools at our disposal made the lack of a higher-resolution display all the more noticeable.
S Suggest is a portal of S-Pen optimized apps; selecting one brings you to either Google Play or the Samsung App store. There are about 25 S-Pen apps, ranging from Evernote to the Galaxy Note Coach's Playbook ($1.99).
We had a little fun with the ComicBook app, which lets you make your own graphic novel by importing photos and adding comic-book-style titles and captions. You can then export your creation to Facebook, Twitter or email or even print it out. However, as of this writing, some of the features within the app, such as changing the color on text, were not yet ready.
Like previous Samsung tablets, the Note 10.1 has the Peel Smart Remote app, which, in conjunction with the tablet's IR transmitter, can be used to control your entertainment center. We were able to set up the app in a matter of minutes and were channel surfing in no time.
Samsung includes several apps to let you share content on the Note 10.1 with other devices on the same Wi-Fi network. AllShare Play uses DLNA technology to let you beam to a connected TV, for instance. AllShare Group Cast lets you share the same presentation (such as PowerPoint or a PDF) with other Note owners. Even cooler, any annotations made by you (or them) show up on all of the devices in real time.
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In a similar fashion, Share Shot lets you share photos taken on the Note 10.1 with other Share Shot-enabled devices, such as the Galaxy S III.
Other preinstalled apps include Kno for downloading textbooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, Netflix, ChatOn and Dropbox, which comes with 50GB of free storage for two years. Samsung apps include Music Hub, Music Player and Game Hub.
Photos taken both indoors and outdoors with the Note 10.1's 5-MP rear-facing camera came out fairly well. We would have preferred a bit more saturation--reds had a pinkish hue--but in general they were sharp and didn't suffer from much graininess. Video, on the other hand, suffered from a whitish haze that bleached everything save for bright yellow taxicabs. The 720p recording also lacked detail.
The front-facing 1.9-MP camera was also sharp, as we were able to pick out individual gray hairs on our head (much to our chagrin). As with the rear camera, colors were a little washed out, but not egregiously so.
On the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the Note 10.1's 7000 mAh battery lasted 9 hours and 37 minutes, which is about 20 minutes less than the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, but more than two hours longer than the tablet average (6:52). However, when the Note's battery drops to 5 percent, the screen automatically dims to about 10 percent brightness. By comparison, the ASUS TF700 lasted 7:39 and the A700 lasted 8:02.
Samsung will offer two versions of the Note 10.1. A 16GB version costs $499, and a 32GB version costs $599. The 16GB version will be offered in gray or white, and the 32GB version will come only in gray.
Samsung has created one of the most versatile Android tablets yet in the Galaxy Note 10.1. The S Pen is well-integrated with the software, and we see both professionals and creative types picking up this device. And while we wish the dual-window multitasking capability supported more than a handful of apps, this feature can save you time. On the other hand, users are likely to be flummoxed by S Note's interface, and we were frustrated by occasional lag.
Overall, the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 is a better value. It costs the same as the Note but has a higher-resolution 1920 x 1200-pixel screen, a sturdier aluminum case and twice as much internal storage. To be sure, there's a lot to like about the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1--its speakers, battery life, and remote control capability are all excellent--but shoppers will need to decide whether the pen is mightier than the other specs.