With all the buzz surrounding the Galaxy Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, it’s easy to forget that Samsung is also releasing a new tablet. Then again, while Samsung has proven that there is undoubtedly a strong demand for large-screen “phablets” like the first two Galaxy Notes, it hasn’t had as much success in selling its tablets.
Last year’s model of the Galaxy Note 10.1 introduced native S Pen support to a 10.1-inch form factor, but it didn’t exactly set the tablet world on fire. This time around, Samsung is taking a closer cue from its more successful Galaxy Note smartphone line. The Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) is extremely similar to the Galaxy Note 3, but expands all of its same software and features across an even bigger screen.
The new Galaxy Note 10.1 is super fast, relatively lightweight and has features galore. S Pen support is better than ever; combined with the software enhancements, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is a multitasker’s dream. It also works with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch. It’s one of the few Android(s goog) tablets that demonstrates clear advantages over Apple’s(s aapl) almighty iPad.
And yet, I can’t quite recommend that anyone should buy the Galaxy Note 10.1. Starting at $549.99 for the 16GB version, the Note is priced even higher than the iPad, which already sets a relative threshold for high-end tablets. Unless you really think the S Pen is worth the premium, you’re probably better off buying a lower-priced tablet along with a separate stylus and saving yourself well over $100.
Design: The Galaxy Note 3’s bigger sibling
Physically, the Galaxy Note 10.1 takes the look of the Galaxy Note 3 and expands it across a tablet form factor. The slate measures 9.57 by 6.75 by 0.31 inches and weighs 1.18 pounds. The fourth-generation iPad, by comparison, measures 9.50 by 7.31 by 0.37 inches and weighs 1.44 pounds. While both tablets share similar measurements, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is a good deal lighter, and you can really feel the difference when you use it. You’re far less likely to encounter forearm fatigue after extended use, which is nice.
The tablet comes in either black or white, with a faux-chrome rim around the perimeter. But given the Galaxy Note 10.1’s extravagant pricing, Samsung is still seemingly unable to craft a device that feels high-end. At least it tried harder this time. Samsung claims the faux-leather back panel of the tablet will inspire “analogue nostalgia.” While I liked the look of the material in photographs, in person it is clearly just textured matte plastic. And the “detailed stitch” around the edges of the panel is little more than an embossment. It almost makes me nostalgic for the chintzy plastic backing on most of Samsung’s other products.
Held horizontally, there’s a Samsung logo on the top of the tablet, next to a front-facing 2-megapixel camera. There are two haptic feedback enabled capacitive touch buttons on the bottom, on either side of the physical home key. The top edge is home to power and volume buttons, as well as an IR blaster. Stereo speakers flank the tablet on either side, with a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left, and a microSD card slot and S Pen on the right.
The screen has received a big upgrade from the original. This time around the 10.1-inch panel features 2560-by-1600-pixel resolution, which works out to 299 pixels per inch. That places it on par with the Nexus 10, and actually makes it denser than the 2048-by-1536-pixel iPad, which has 264 pixels per inch. The screen gets incredibly bright, and colors look super saturated. My only complaint it that it uses a PenTile pixel matrix, which can cause text and images to appear fuzzy if you look closely. Most people won’t even notice it, but when you do, it can drive you a little crazy.
The back panel doesn’t come off, but Samsung has stuffed a gigantic 8220mAh battery inside, which makes for excellent battery life. I didn’t have to charge the tablet after using it heavily for two days in a row, often with the screen brightness set to max. You shouldn’t have any trouble using the tablet all day or streaming Netflix(s nflx) for hours on end.
Performance: As fast as tablets get
The Galaxy Note 10.1 comes in two different flavors. The Wi-Fi models uses Samsung’s 1.9GHz octa-core Exynos processor, while the LTE variant uses a 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm(s qcom) Snapdragon 800. Both come with 3GB of RAM. Either one will be plenty fast.
I tested the Wi-Fi version with Samsung’s octa-core chip. I put it up against the LG G2, which uses a 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800; roughly the same chip you’ll find in the LTE Note 10.1. It’s also one of the fastest Android phones available right now.
Benchmark scores were extremely similar. The Galaxy Note turned in 33768 in the AnTuTu benchmark, just edging out the G2’s 33359. AnTuTu tests overall system performance, including CPU, GPU and RAM. And while the Galaxy Note shows a slight edge, both scores are high enough to land them at the top of the rankings chart.
Geekbench 3 simulates real-world, processor-intensive tasks, and scores single-core and multi-core performance separately. The Galaxy Note showed a slight advantage again, scoring 957 for single-core performance and 2603 for multi-core, while the LG G2 turned in scores of 888 and 2229, respectively.
While the Galaxy Note 10.1 is in many ways the fastest Android device you can buy right now, anecdotally, I encountered a few hiccups. I noticed some light stuttering on home screen transitions. This became more pronounced while using Samsung’s built-in My Magazine software. Once you get an app up and running it’s smooth sailing, so I think it’s reasonable to blame the bulk of the slowdown I encountered on Samsung’s UI, which can sometimes feel a bit bloated (I’ll touch on this more in a bit). It’s also a little buggy. I encountered moments where my touches wouldn’t register at all until I pressed the button power to refresh the screen. Hopefully these issues will be remedied in a future update.
While performance is solid overall, in the grand tradition of tablet cameras, the Galaxy Note’s 8-megapixel rear camera feels like an afterthought, despite the seemingly high megapixel count. Images look soft and waxy, and colors are somewhat washed out. The 2-megapixel front-facing camera is similarly unimpressive, but works fine for video chat.
S Pen 2.0
The biggest differentiating factor between the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the competition is Samsung’s inclusion of the Wacom-powered S Pen. Physically, it’s similar to previous iterations included with last year’s Galaxy Note 10.1 as well as the Galaxy Note 2. I’d still prefer it to be a bit longer, but previous Galaxy Note owners will be happy to hear that the Note 10.1’s S Pen finally works on capacitive touch buttons, which was a curious, frustrating omission in the past.
On the other hand, you can also buy a $20 Wacom Bamboo stylus for use with just about any other tablet, so what makes the S Pen special? It’s primarily in the software.
As mentioned earlier, the Galaxy Note 10.1 features the same software modifications and enhancements as the Galaxy Note 3, and both are designed with the S Pen in mind. In addition to returning features, like pressure sensitivity, palm rejection and the S Note app, Samsung has created a number of built-in new features called Air Commands.
Air Command is initiated automatically when you remove the S Pen from the holster within the tablet. You can also activate it by hovering the S Pen right above the tablet’s screen and clicking the button on the side of the pen. This feels a little awkward at first, but you get used to it.
Air Command is a series of five quick actions you can perform with the S Pen. The simplest of these actions is Pen Window. This lets you draw a window anywhere on your tablet screen to open a compatible app inside of it. These apps include an alarm, calculator, contacts, ChatON, Hangouts, YouTube, or a web browser. You can draw the apps as big as you want, though you can’t go much smaller than about a quarter of the screen, which actually feels a little too big for something like a calculator. Still, it’s helpful for multitasking, allowing you to perform two actions at once without having to switch windows.
S Finder is another relatively simple feature, similar to Spotlight on Apple’s OS X. It allows you to search for content on your device or on the web. The cool part is that you can even use the handwriting feature to search for symbols that you have drawn in your memos (like a star).
Screen Write takes a snapshot of the current screen, lets you annotate or draw on it with the S Pen, then save or share it with someone else.
Scrap Booker lets you draw a ring around anything you find interesting – like a video clip or an image while searching the Web – and place it in a digital scrapbook. You can then access this content in Scrapbook app or on other devices with the Samsung viewer app.
Finally, Action Memo seems a lot like an update to the S Note widget from previous Note devices. It’s basically a tiny yellow sticky pad that allows you to jot down quick notes. The key difference from S Note is that you can now choose a corresponding action for the notes you take. For instance, you can write down someone’s contact information, and Action Memo will read your handwriting and create an actual listing for you in your tablet’s Contacts page. It works surprisingly well.
The trouble is, aside from genuine note taking through S Note, and maybe some experimentation with Action Memo, I’m not sure how much I’d actually use any of these features. To me, most of Samsung’s additions feel like they are in search of an audience, rather than the other way around. This feeling carries over into Samsung’s new Magazine UI.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 runs Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean), along with a healthy dose of customizations from Samsung. Samsung’s TouchWiz UI looks similar to what we’ve seen in recent iterations. The biggest change comes in the form of the My Magazine feature.
My Magazine is essentially a Flipboard-powered app/UI that transforms your tablet screen into an interactive feed for news and social networking updates. To get to My Magazine, all you have to do is swipe up from the bottom of the screen, or press the home key when you’re on the home screen. (That last feature actually caused me to open the app on a number of occasions I wasn’t trying to. Luckily you can disable it.)
My Magazine begins with a setup screen that lets you choose what type of news you want to receive. You can also choose which social networks you want to access, but a lack of Facebook confounds me. There’s also a Personal channel, which will pull together your recent photos, notes, emails and calendar entries.
You can switch between feeds by swiping horizontally across the screen. Swiping vertically will bring you more stories from within the feed you are in. The information is presented in roughly two to six tiles per screen, each of which will typically link you to a website, social network, or the original file on your tablet if you tap on them. It’s an attractive interface that makes using the tablet more enjoyable, but it doesn’t offer any significant improvements over the standard Flipboard app – which, by the way, does let you hook into your Facebook(s fb) account.
Of course, the Galaxy Note 10.1 also supports Multi Window multitasking, which allows you use two apps in a split-screen mode. This feature has seen some improvements since last year. For instance, you can now drag and drop content between windows, provided the apps are compatible. You can also now run the same app in both windows (though this only works for the internet and some messaging apps). And if you often run the same two apps together, you can create a “paired window” so you don’t need to choose each app individually each time. The Galaxy Note 3 can do all of this too, but it’s much easier to use on the larger tablet screen.
Perhaps my favorite feature is the fact that the Galaxy Note 10.1 remains a killer universal remote control. Through Samsung’s WatchON app, I was able to connect the tablet to my Sony(s sne) HDTV and Time Warner(s twc) cable box within seconds, and Samsung’s software interface is clean and easy to use. I’d take the Galaxy Note 10.1 over a standard remote control any day.
As I spent time with the Galaxy Note 10.1, I kept asking myself, what makes this tablet special? And actually, plenty does. It’s super fast. It has a comfortable, lightweight design. The S Pen can be used in lots of different ways, and Samsung has packed in plenty of features you just can’t get with an iPad.
On the other hand, there is still nothing clear about what makes this tablet $150 more special than, say, the Nexus 10. Sure, Samsung is offering some free bundled content, like trial subscriptions to Dropbox, Hulu Plus and the New York Times, among others. But for a lot less cash, the Nexus 10 gets you the same size screen and resolution, along with timely software updates straight from Google. It’s not as powerful as the Galaxy Note, but I’d expect that to change with rumors of a second version of the tablet on the way. If you really like Samsung’s My Magazine feature you can download Flipboard for free. And a Wacom stylus will set you back $20. That means you’ll be saving well over $100 compared to the Galaxy Note 10.1.
The 2014 Edition of the Galaxy Note 10.1 is an improvement over the original in just about every way. But if Samsung really wants to capture the Android tablet market the same way it has with smartphones, it needs to figure out a way to offer more features than the competition without such a significant increase in price.