Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 review: Testing the stylus-toting tablet

An underwhelming tablet with a standout stylus

Too many devices these days suffer from Yet Another Android Tablet Syndrome: They're okay but unremarkable -- and in a sea of similar-looking slates, they end up blending into the pack and drowning in obscurity.

With its new Galaxy Note 10.1, Samsung is fighting to avoid that fate. The Galaxy Note 10.1, announced initially in February and then introduced to the market last week, relies on a stylus -- an S Pen, as Samsung calls it -- to provide distinctive features. The product builds upon the concept introduced with the company's 5.3-in. Galaxy Note phone -- a device that, despite initial skepticism, has sold 10 million units worldwide, according to Samsung's recent estimates.

So does the new Note 10.1 deliver? I've been using the tablet extensively for the past several days to find out. After all, the Android tablet market is a crowded space, and top-notch tablet experiences are now available for as little as $200. If Samsung expects people to drop $500 to $550 for for a 16GB or 32GB model, respectively, it had better be a fantastic tablet to use.

Body and display

I won't beat around the bush: The Galaxy Note 10.1 doesn't make the best first impression. The tablet -- which is 0.35 in. thick and weighs 1.3 lb. -- feels plasticky and cheap, more like a budget product than a premium device. The rear casing flexes with the slightest bit of pressure from your fingertips. Compared to the impressively sleek tablets available at the same price and, like Asus's Transformer Pad Infinity, for example, the Galaxy Note 10.1 has an almost toy-like build.

The body, unfortunately, isn't the only thing about the Note 10.1 that underwhelms. The tablet's 1280 x 800 LCD screen is okay but not great -- certainly a far cry from the high-definition displays available on other comparably priced devices, such as the aforementioned Transformer Pad Infinity or Acer's Iconia Tab A700. From a $500 tablet today, I expect far better.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 has two okay-but-not-great cameras: a 5-megapixel shooter on the back and a 1.9-megapixel camera on the front. With most tablets, I don't worry too much about camera quality -- honestly, how often do you hold up a giant slate to capture important photos? -- but given Samsung's emphasis on artwork and content creation with the Note, its less-than-stellar specs could be worth, well, noting.

The Note 10.1 has a power button and volume rocker on its top, as well as a microSD slot, an infrared blaster to control your TV via a prepackaged app called Peel and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The tablet's bottom has a slot for the S Pen stylus and a proprietary charging port. If you want to connect any USB devices to the Note or plug it into a TV via HDMI, you'll need special adapters; Samsung sells them for $30 and $40, respectively. (Though the Samsung site lists the adapters as being for the Galaxy Tab, company reps assure me they're compatible with the Galaxy Note as well.)

The new Galaxy Note has two front-facing speakers flanking its screen. I found the sound quality to be quite good, relatively speaking; the fact that the speakers face frontward makes a noticeable difference compared to the side or rear placement many tablets use.

Under the hood

Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 has some impressive-sounding hardware under its hood: The tablet runs on a quad-core 1.4GHz Exynos processor along with a full 2GB RAM.

Given those specs, it's surprising how inconsistently the Note performed. Once again, the device proved itself to be okay but not great: I experienced plenty of lagginess and stuttering even in basic tasks like swiping between home screens and opening and closing the app drawer. System animations were jerky at times instead of being smooth and crisp like they should be, particularly with the kind of power this device is packing. All considered, it's hard to blame anything but Samsung's bloatware for those problems (more on that in a bit).

The Galaxy Note 10.1 has a 7000mAh battery, which I found to be more than sufficient for keeping the tablet up and running during the day. The Note seems to hold its charge well; even with a full day of moderate use, my review unit never came close to hitting the empty mark. With typical levels of daily activity, you ought to be able to easily go a few days without having to recharge.

As mentioned earlier, the Note comes with a choice of either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. Its microSD slot allows you to add up to 32GB of external space, according to Samsung. The Note also includes a free two-year subscription for 50GB of cloud storage from Dropbox. If you want to keep the subscription beyond those two years, you'll have to pay $10 a month or $100 a year; otherwise, you'll be defaulted back down to Dropbox's free 2GB level.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 does not have Near Field Communication (NFC) capabilities, meaning it cannot take advantage of the contact-free sharing and tile-tapping functions shown off in Samsung's marketing of its recent Galaxy S III phone.

The S Pen

All right -- so how 'bout that stylus? Samsung's Wacom-powered S Pen is clearly the star of the Galaxy Note show, and it adds a lot of interesting elements into the tablet-using experience.

The S Pen is just over 4.5 in. long and weighs next to nothing. It feels like you're holding one of those tiny miniature golf course pencils. You can use it in place of your finger for regular tablet tasks -- swiping and scrolling, tapping icons, selecting links on Web pages -- but the S Pen's true value lies in its drawing and writing capabilities.

These capabilities are highlighted in a series of S Pen-optimized apps Samsung has bundled in with the Note's software. The most prominent is a program called S Note, which allows you to scribble notes, write messages and even perform math problems using the stylus.

The S Note interface isn't exactly intuitive -- I frequently found myself tapping around to try to figure out what functions were where -- but once you get the hang of it, it's pretty cool. The handwriting-oriented elements strike me as more of a novelty than anything; the software is supposed to be able to recognize what you write and convert it into typed text, but its accuracy was hit and miss in my experience. And with all the excellent virtual keyboard options available on Android, not to mention the platform's voice-to-text input feature and Bluetooth keyboard possibilities, it's hard to imagine many situations where inputting text by writing would be more practical.

The creative uses of the S Pen software, on the other hand, could definitely be useful -- especially for folks interested in drawing, doodling and manipulating images. Some of these things can be done in the S Note app, but even better is Adobe's Photoshop Touch application, which normally costs $10 but comes preinstalled on the Note 10.1.

The stylus works wonderfully in the Photoshop environment: The pressure-sensitive technology is both accurate and responsive (it boasts 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, a substantial upgrade from the 256 levels present in Samsung's original Note phone). It also prevents the tablet from sensing other touches while you're using the pen, which means resting your palm on the surface won't mess things up. My only complaint is that the Note's mediocre display is far from ideal for image-based work.

The stylus also excels at marking up PDF documents: While Samsung's own S Note software isn't too great for this -- its PDF-import function failed to properly import some text during my tests, and it was able to export files only as blown-up, fuzzy-looking images instead of proper PDF documents -- I found a free third-party app called iAnnotate PDF that worked quite well with the S Pen.

Using iAnnotate PDF, I was able to modify documents as if I were using actual markers on paper. The stylus made it easy to highlight text and make handwritten notes in the margins. Users may or may not locate this app on their own -- it took a bit of searching and experimenting to discover it, and other third-party PDF apps I tried didn't work at all with the stylus -- but if found, it can add an important element into the S Pen experience.

Samsung suggests a handful of other S Pen-compatible apps -- about two dozen in all -- via a built-in app-recommendation tool called S Suggest. Most of the apps are sketching, painting or writing programs -- essentially subtle variations on the S Pen apps already on the device. There are a few games, too, most of which are drawing-related.

(Incidentally, Samsung's S Suggest utility didn't actually perform properly in my experience: Every time I tapped on an app it recommended in order to start a download, the utility gave me an error informing me that the app did not exist. I ended up having to make mental notes of its recommendations and then search the Google Play Store manually to find and download those titles.)

The rest of the software

The Galaxy Note 10.1 utilizes a custom Samsung operating system based on Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich release. The software, known as TouchWiz, is similar to what was used on Samsung's Galaxy S III phone.

I've never been a huge fan of TouchWiz; in its misguided efforts at making Android its own, Samsung trades the sleek simplicity of Google's 4.0-level OS for a far more busy and cluttered alternative. As I've written before, many of Samsung's UI changes seem to have been made merely for the sake of change and at the expense of user experience. The result is a visually inconsistent interface that loses out on the strides Google has made with Android over the past year.

The changes also result in a struggle to keep up with current software: Even at launch, the Note's OS is based on a dated version of Android. Samsung has promised it'll upgrade the Note to the more current Android 4.1 Jelly Bean release sometime "later this year," but with the company's track record for Android upgrades -- including its failure to fulfill an upgrade promise for the Note smartphone earlier this year -- it's hard to take its pledges at face value. Put simply, if timely and reliable software upgrades are important to you, buying a Samsung TouchWiz device is a risky gamble to take.

In terms of actual features, Samsung has made a few interesting additions to the Note's OS. One example is a feature called Multiview that allows you to view two apps simultaneously, side-by-side on-screen, in adjacent windows. This is an innovative idea that opens up a lot of possibilities for a tablet, like being able to view and copy text or images from a Web page while working on a document.

The problem is that Multiview is incredibly limited in its current implementation: The feature can be used with only six apps -- a list that includes Samsung's skinned version of the now-dated stock Android Web browser and an unexceptional preinstalled office tool called Polaris. Apps like Gmail and the more current Chrome for Android browser are not supported, nor are popular Android office apps like Documents to Go, Quickoffice or OfficeSuite Pro.

A somewhat similar feature is Samsung's Pop-Up Play, which lets you watch a video in a floating box while conducting other tasks. The box can be moved around your screen on top of other apps or activities. It's very impressive, especially with the ample screen space a tablet provides, but there's a catch here, too: The feature works only with standard video files saved on your device's storage -- meaning it won't work with clips from YouTube or movies from Google Play. With that restriction, I'm not sure how often it'd come in handy.

Another noteworthy-sounding feature of the Note is strangely M.I.A.: Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 promotional materials show off something called Learning Hub, which is supposed to let you watch lectures and other educational content while simultaneously viewing supplementary reading material and even taking notes on-screen.

After going on a wild goose chase to find the feature on my device, I discovered some fine print in Samsung's press release that said Learning Hub is currently available only in Korea, the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China and Singapore, and will "gradually roll out to other global markets" at some point in the future. A representative from Samsung told me the U.S. would be among those markets but was unable to provide any estimate, specific or general, as to when the feature might actually arrive.

At a Glance

Galaxy Note 10.1

Samsung

Price: $US500 (16GB model), $US550 (32GB model)

Pros: Excellent stylus-based drawing and markup capabilities; good battery life; support for external storage; better-than-average speakers

Cons: Cheap-feeling, plasticky build; disappointing display; inconsistent performance; bloated interface based on dated version of Android; requires separate accessories for USB or HDMI connectivity

Samsung has also baked in a bunch of bloatware, including its usual set of content-purchasing hubs and a slew of random apps that you may or may not want. You can't easily uninstall any of that stuff, unfortunately, but Android 4.0 does allow you to disable it and hide them from view.

Bottom line

Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 is an underwhelming tablet with a standout stylus. The ultimate question is whether the stylus alone is enough to outweigh the device's significant shortcomings.

For $US500, you're getting a tablet with a cheap-feeling, plasticky build; a disappointing display; inconsistent and at times choppy performance; and a bloated UI based on an already-dated version of Android. But you're also getting the S Pen, which adds an exceptional element no other tablet can provide.

If you're an artist or designer -- or someone who places a lot of importance on the idea of writing or drawing on a device -- then the value of the S Pen might be enough to make the Note worth considering. If you're just looking for an all-around great tablet, though, you can do far better for the same money or less.

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