Name: Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Type: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich tablet with S Pen stylus
Specifications: Click here for full specs
Price as reviewed: £399 (16GB, Wi-Fi model)
The gigantic Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone gets even bigger as it makes the transition into a full-blown tablet as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. Can that fancy S Pen stylus shine now that it's got some more screen real estate to play about with, or is the iPad still the go-to tablet for creatives? Read on to find out!
Despite landing with Note branding, the Galaxy Note 10.1 has (initially at least) more in common with Samsung's Galaxy Tab range than the super-sized Android smartphone. 10.1-inches in size, it borrows the same spacious bezel design that featured in the Tab 10.1, finished in a pearly white plastic casing with grey highlights that extend onto the rear. It's a reasonable finish, with a little flex and (thankfully) enough space for front-facing speakers to the left and right edges when held horizontally, though it's a bit of a fiend for picking up grubby marks. A black version is also available, which we haven't seen yet, though would expect wouldn't get grimey quite so quickly.
Measuring just 8.9mm thick and weighing 583g, it's slightly lighter than the iPad, and just as easy to carry around all day without too much hassle or it causing achey arms. The 10.1 inch screen runs at 1280x800; a reasonable resolution, but by no means the sharpest (especially when compared to the Apple Retina Display, which Samsung themselves have a hand in building) and a little low considering the "creative" functionality Samsung are so keen to push, which we'll get to a little later. Regardless, it's colourfully bold, and satisfyingly bright to boot.
You'll find a snappy quad-core processor clocked at 1.4GHz under the hood, backed by 2GB of RAM and 16GB of onboard storage in the entry level model. We got our hands on the Wi-Fi only version, but a 3G enabled Note 10.1 is also on the market, while all models support AGPS and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity. Around the edges of the tablet you'll find a microSD slot for expanding the storage capacity of the tablet by as much as a further 32GB, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a docking connector and power button. A 1.9MP camera sits on the front, and a 5MP snapper capable of 1080p video capture sits on the rear. Annoyingly, the charging and data transfer connection is a proprietary one, meaning you'll always need the exact cable to hand if you're looking to side-load media content, or even refill a little juice on the device.
On the bottom right edge you'll find a slot for the S Pen, Samsung's stylus device that sets the Note 10.1 apart from the Android tablet pack. Get it out and things get interesting.
S Pen, Interface and Apps
Just like the Galaxy Note smartphone, the Note 10.1 set its sights on keen scribblers and note takers thanks to its bundled S Pen stylus. As with the tablet itself, it's bigger than the version that came with the Note smartphone, being both longer and thicker, making it more comfortable to use for extended periods of time, and by extension, more accurate. It also now has a squared finish, meaning it won't roll of your desk and get lost.
Using Wacom technology, the S Pen tip is pointier than other styluses designed for use with capacitive touchscreens. It's also apparently much-improved over last year's model when it comes to the levels of pressure it can recognise; 1,024 compared to 256 for the original. Whether or not you can actually notice it in action is another story, but there's no denying that the S Pen is far more responsive and accurate in use than other tablet pens out there.
When it comes to apps and interface features that use the S Pen to its full potential however, it's a mixed bag. The pre-installed Photoshop Touch is by far the best in this department.Working on the same principle of layers as the desktop version of Photoshop, you can easily open images or existing sketches and edit them using the pen, with shading and colouring easily and accurately achieved using the S Pen. Here the tablet comes into its own; artists who need a simple way of digitising their ideas on the go have a powerful tool when Photoshop Touch and the S Pen come together.
In this regard, it's a shame the screen isn't of a higer resolution than 1280x800; those who may be keen to use the tablet in a professional capacity will find this frustratingly low, especially when compared to the 2048x1536 of Apple iPad Retina Display, or even the full HD 1080p screens of the Acer Iconia Tab A700 or Asus Transformer Infinity. For a flagship device it's a real shame, and altogether crazy when you think that Samsung make a percentage of the Retina Displays themselves anyway.
Samsung's own S Note app has potential too, letting you join together images, videos and notes using handwriting recognition, but a clunky interface makes it far from intuitive. There's also Polaris Office onboard too if you need to get some serious work done.
Frustratingly, many of the features you'd hope to be universal across the tablet don't work exactly as you'd hope they do. For instance, you can't use the S Pen to jot down an email in note form, and it be translated into typed text. There's also no key advantage to navigating the tablet solely with the pen as an alternative to finger input. As a result, aside from Photoshop Touch, there's little opportunity for the S Pen to shine over simply using your fingers with the tablet.
Also, despite Samsung claiming to have developed technology that ignores your palm resting on the screen when using the S Pen, I still noted occasions where blotchy marks would mar my work, underneath where my hand had been placed.
Ice Cream Sandwich, with some Samsung twists
The Galaxy Note 10.1 misses out on getting the latest version of Google's Android OS (4.1 Jelly Bean), instead opting for the still-excellent Ice Cream Sandwich. Jelly Bean should be coming to the Note 10.1 before the year is out, but you'll still get a wonderful experience from Ice Cream Sandwich anyway. You'll get facial recognition unlock options, the full suite of Google's native apps (Gmail, YouTube, Maps etc) and access to the Google Play store, where thousands upon thousands of apps are waiting to be downloaded too.
Samsung's TouchWiz UI is laid over the top of Ice Cream Sandwhich, and will be familiar to any smartphone or tablet owner who has tried any Samsung Android-based Samsung devices over the past few years. For the most part, it's less obnoxious than previous efforts, letting the superb Android UI do its vanilla thing in most places, but there's still a few tweaks here and there.
For starters, you get a handful of Samsung-built apps bundled into "hubs" under the music, video and games headings, and also mini app tray that can have its contents customised, should you be looking for a quick way to launch apps from the homescreen without scrolling through what could eventually become an overflowing app drawer deeper within the menus. Samsung Galaxy S3 owners will also recognise the return of the Pop Up Play feature, allowing you to play and drag around a locally stored video in a small resizeable window, which can be placed over the top of anything else you're doing on the tablet. It's usage is admittedly limited, but it does well to show just how powerful the quad-core processor is. This overlay view extends to a handful of Samsung's utility apps too, though they frustratingly tend to get in the way of key system notifications.
The best new feature here though is the ability to have two windows for apps snap side by side when using the tablet in landscape orientation. You could for instance devote half the screen to the web browser, and another half to the S Note app or Polaris Office, or even the video player, snapping to the sides similarly to how the system works in Windows 7. Right now it's limited to just six apps which is unfortunate as it could be a great feature for multitasking and research note taking with the S Pen. Hopefully more apps will be given this extra functionality soon, but a few other improvements are also needed; the recent apps pop-up menu stretches half screen apps into an ugly widescreen orientation, and there's a notable delay when jumping from one half screen to the other. Get this right, and Samsung have a killer feature on their hands.
The spruced up Google Play store makes getting media content onto the Galaxy Note 10.1 a breeze. It's a shame then that Samsung insist on using a proprietary cable for data transfer as well as charging; if you're looking to sideload locally stored content onto the tablet, you're always going to have to have that exact cable handy, not just a regular microUSB cable that's pretty much the prevalent transfer system for mobile devices these days.
Front facing speakers give a far better feeling of stereo sound than with other tablets, who usually resort to sticking them around the back, which, while of course not offering the detail or bottom end of dedicated speakers, means the Galaxy Note 10.1 sounds pretty good when watching a movie or listening to songs.
The screen too, though not the highest resolution we've seen, is bright and colourful, with viewing angles wide enough for a few friends to crowd around and watch if necessary. File type support is wide reaching too, with 720p video (closest to the screen's native resolution) looking really wonderful, playing back without any sign of judder.
One really nifty feature is the ability to use the tablet as an IR remote. With a zapper built into the device, you can use the Note 10.1 to control all the different items in your home cinema set-up. It worked really well with our Panasonic TV and Onkyo receiver, and while we can't vouch for every possible combination, it's a useful, welcome addition if you can get it to work with your gear.
Inside the Note 10.1 is a 7000mAh battery. That's good for roughly 8 hours or what we'd consider average usage with the tablet (a fair bit of Wi-Fi web browsing, some 3D gaming, video streaming and locally stored video viewing), but you may see that stretch a little further or come up a little shorter depending on your personal usage habits.
Still Camera and Video Capture
You're not likely to use the camera on a tablet very often, but if you're likely to use a snapper on any slate, we'd assume it'd be the Galaxy Note 10.1, with its S Pen editing and Photoshop Touch support.
In that regard, the camera does a fine job snapping away fairly crisp, 5MP stills. Focussing is a little hit-or-miss, but colours are again bold without being overly saturated, and as detailed as you're likely to see from a camera of this ilk. Scene modes and a smattering of exposure options help you tweak the images before exporting them elsewhere too.
Video can be captured at 30fps for 1080p video. The results are decent (crisply detailed with accurate colours, but suffering from some judder when in motion), and nothing more exciting than you'd expect from what's essentially an ancillary feature of any tablet. If photo and video capture are what you need, you should know by now to buy a camera, not a tablet.
Judging the Galaxy Note 10.1 is a little bit difficult. Priced similarly to other top-tier Android tablets, it performs admirably as a regular slate, offering a solid Android experience, and runs Google's OS and demanding apps without a hiccup. Its screen isn't class leading, but is bright and colourful, and makes for a good media player. However, the Note 10.1's unique selling point is its S Pen. For the most part it works well and is comfortable to use, but is let down by a lack of software support beyond the (admittedly very good) Photoshop Touch app. As a tablet with a side helping of stylus fun, the Note 10.1 is a very good proposition. However, those looking to use the S Pen beyond gimmickry, in a professional capacity, may find the Note 10.1 doesn't quite deliver all it promises.