Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 deep-dive: Almost a laptop replacement

Samsung's new Android tablet offers a great display and a lot of useful features, but can it substitute for a laptop?

Samsung's big Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 tablet offers a desktop or laptop computer experience -- almost.

The new Note Pro has a crystal-clear 12.2-in. diagonal LCD display at 2560 x 1600 pixels, which provides 30% more screen real estate than on a 10-in. tablet. The viewing experience is complemented by a stunning sound system that makes playing videos truly immersive.

With a 9,500mAh battery, a Samsung Exynos 5 Octa Processor and 3GB of memory, I was able to get more than 13 hours of battery life with intensive use (including streaming much of the original 1990 BBC trilogy of House of Cards), impressive by any standard.

There are many other hardware plusses, including Samsung's customary micro SD slot that lets you add up to 64GB of internal storage. An 8-megapixel rear camera comes with a super quick shutter speed (rated at zero by Samsung) and full HD video at 60fps; there's also a 2-megapixel front camera.

My Wi-Fi-only review unit came in black with a faux leather back and a glass screen that, unfortunately, did little to reduce outdoor glare. A white version is also available, and Verizon Wireless now offers a 4G LTE version.

Samsung is pitching this tablet mainly as a productivity machine for writers, artists, executives and students who are mobile and need a way to create content as much as they consume it. So I decided to give it a try for 10 days -- first, at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona and afterward in my home office.

At 1.7 lb., the tablet felt heavy. It weighs more than the Microsoft Surface 2 (1.5 lb.) and the iPad Air (1 lb.) -- and at 11.6 x 8 x 0.32 in., it's noticeably larger as well. Still, it is much lighter than the 4.5 lb. MacBook Pro that I regularly use for work.

The limits of a virtual keyboard

To make the Note Pro truly an effective mobile productivity device at MWC, I needed to carry along review units of the Samsung Bluetooth keyboard ($60), the S-Mouse ($40) and the Book Cover case ($70). Unfortunately, even with these add-ons, there were problems.

At a Glance

Galaxy Note Pro 12.2

Samsung

Price: $750 (32GB); $850 (64GB) for Wi-Fi-only. 32GB 4G LTE model available at Verizon Wireless for $750 w/ two-year wireless agreement or $850 w/o contract

Pros: Brilliant, large display; full virtual keyboard; superior voice and digital pen input; outstanding battery life; useful and innovative Magazine UX feature

Cons: Inconsistent touch reactions; flimsy Book Cover makes it hard to prop up the tablet; priced too high for a market filled with alternatives

I tried -- in a cramped newsroom cubby -- to prop up the Note Pro with the snap-on Book Cover; the cover wrapped around the back to work as a stand. Then I placed the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse in front. Unfortunately, the Book Cover was too flimsy to offer much stability, especially if I needed to touch the screen, so I quickly reverted to my laptop instead.

Typing on the separate physical Bluetooth keyboard with the Note Pro worked okay. However, when I didn't have the time or space to set up the keyboard -- for example, at news conferences and during meetings where a table wasn't nearby -- typing on the virtual keypad was practically impossible. The "keys" wouldn't always respond quickly to my touches, and when I tried to hit the keys a bit more forcefully, they seemed to "stick," so that a string of letters would be produced even after I lifted my fingers away.

I found out later that recent surveys have shown that up to 40% of IT shops are considering replacing their employees' laptops with tablets. (Perhaps that's because many workers are willing to trade a heavier laptop for a lighter tablet; hopefully, they don't really need the ability to type quickly or often.) The touch on the virtual keyboard obviously takes some adjustment -- I saw other fast typists at MWC making use of virtual keyboards on their tablets -- but I never found the proper pressure and gave up because I had a quick alternative with my MacBook.

One ergonomic note on using a tablet regularly: To type on a tablet that sits flat, most people have to bend their head, neck and back over the screen. It's bad posture by any measure. Most of us know that using a laptop for long periods for years can worsen posture problems, but using a tablet all the time can be potentially worse -- as my test of the Note Pro reminded me.

Google Voice and S Pen input shine

Fortunately, the Galaxy Note Pro has input options other than typing, such as Google Voice and Samsung's digital S Pen.

I tried using Google Voice for voice input. I must say, I have never used a more efficient tool to dictate emails and documents quickly; there wasn't even a training period involved. When did voice recognition get so good? Unfortunately, it's hard to dictate in a crowded newsroom.

The S Pen (available with recent Samsung smartphones and tablets) allows you to do a wide variety of tasks. For example, by pushing a button on the S Pen, you can quickly capture a screenshot or draw a line around an object to select it. Pressing the button while holding the pen near the screen brings up a little Air Command radial pop-up window to give you several choices for quick tasks like writing an action memo or finding contents anywhere quickly on the device, including all the video clips or emails written in the past day or the past month.

These two excellent input options made the virtual keyboard's shortcomings easier to bear and increased the appeal of the unit as an all-the-time device.

Excellent software features

The Galaxy Note Pro also features the new ability to run four separate app windows at once on the screen. I was able to view a YouTube video in one of the four, while keeping Gmail open for new emails in another, with Google Maps and the Computerworld website open in the other two. When I pressed the home button to revert back to the home screen, small icons of each of the four previous apps still remained in their appropriate locations; touching one of the icons took me back to that app.

While some Android purists might be concerned that Samsung has added its Magazine UX customizable user interface to the Note Pro, I found the interface beautiful and functional.

For example, I created a screen that had several rectangular widgets showing general news, sports news, tech news, and so on. Each widget (like the tiles in Windows Phone) remained active and easily accessible. It's truly an example of Samsung improving on the Android experience.

Samsung also has beefed up productivity on the Note Pro with a number of perks, including a new word processing, spreadsheet and presentation suite called Hancom Office Suite. I fiddled with many of the functions in Hancom Office and found them similar to what's possible with Microsoft Office, although many IT shops and workers will probably wish to stick with the more familiar Microsoft suite if a workaround can be arranged.

Other perks include a $25 Google Play store credit, a year of Gogo inflight Wi-Fi (which has a potential value of up to $700 and could justify the Note Pro's purchase price for frequent fliers), a one-year free subscription to Business Week and 12 weeks free of the New York Times. There's also six months free of Cisco WebEx, three months free of Sirius XM Internet radio and 50GB of Dropbox cloud storage free for two years.

Bottom line

All this doesn't come cheap: If you want the Wi-Fi-only versions, you need to be willing to shell out $750 for the 32GB model or $850 for the 64GB model. If you also purchase the keyboard, mouse and cover that I used at WMC, it can add up to $170 more. At that point, you might be asking yourself: Why didn't I get a Chromebook for $320?

(If you need connections outside of Wi-Fi, Verizon offers the 32GB model with 4G LTE for $750 plus a two-year wireless agreement or with no prepaid contract for $850 with its More Everything wireless plans.)

Samsung is known for offering many different models of the various devices it makes and already has a range of tablet screen sizes -- it has now added a 12.2-in form factor. The Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 is powerful and capable, and could be valuable for many students and mobile workers if they can adjust to typing on a virtual screen or with a Bluetooth keyboard. If only it didn't come with such a high sales price.

This article, Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 deep-dive review: Almost a laptop replacement, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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