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Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 review

Is a stylus all we ever really needed?

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (1024px)

It’s no secret that I’ve been excited to review the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 for weeks now. I spend all day editing and critiquing documents, and I’ve been imagining a parallel world created by the Note’s stylus: a world where I edit articles with red ink instead of a track changes dialog, where I suggest layout revisions with a quick dash of a pen instead of screenshots and email, and where I am really good at drawing cars that turn into airplanes.

On paper, the Note 10.1 seems extremely capable of creating that world: it has an extremely fast quad-core processor, the ability to run multiple apps side-by-side on the 10.1-inch display, and, of course, Samsung’s Wacom-powered S Pen stylus, which has been upgraded from the smartphone Note to offer 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. Other Android devices have tried and failed to meaningfully incorporate stylus support, but only Samsung’s 5-inch Galaxy Note smartphone has ever been a success, and I had high hopes the Note 10.1 would simply be a larger version of that experience.

Essentially what I am saying is this: get out of my dreams, get into my car.

But is the $499.99 Galaxy Note 10.1 really all I’d hoped it to be? Is proper stylus support on a modern tablet finally a reality? Read on to find out.


Video review

Video review


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

It's a Galaxy Tab with a pen


You won’t notice much of a difference between the Note 10.1 and the older Galaxy Tab 2 10.1— in fact, they look almost identical. It’s interesting Samsung’s stuck with this design, since it first debuted as a hasty lawsuit update to the original Galaxy Tab after Apple sued Samsung for copying the iPad. It’s certainly distinctive, though, with a dark silver border framing stereo speakers on the front edges, and a dark gray bezel around the screen.

It’s handsome enough, but it unfortunately it’s all plastic all the way around — and you’ll feel it the instant you pick it up. Not only does the plastic back flex in your hand, but the shiny finish quickly picks up fingerprints and other smudges, belying its faux brushed-metal texture. It all just feels a bit cheap — a stark contrast to other Samsung tablets like the Galaxy Tab 7.7 and the decidedly-premium feeling Nexus 7, which costs just $199.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 10.3 x 7.1 0.35 1.31
Nexus 7 7.8 x 4.7 0.41 .74
Asus Transformer Pad TF30 10.4 x 7.1 0.39 1.39
Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10.4 x 7.1 0.31 1.29
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 10.1 x 6.9 0.38 1.3
Acer Iconia Tab A510 10.4 x 6.9 0.40 1.50
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 10.1 x 6.9 0.34 1.20
Apple iPad (3rd gen., 2012) 9.5 x 7.3 0.37 1.44

The front of the Note is of course dominated by its 10.1-inch display, which is... okay. It has solid viewing angles and brighter colors than the Nexus 7 display, but at 1280 x 800, it’s nowhere close to matching the resolution or clarity of the new iPad’s Retina Display or even other similarly-priced Android tablets, which are starting to feature 1080p displays. I also think it looks a bit too contrasty and harsh, but I am extremely picky.

The Note has cameras, which I did not use. You will probably never use them either, because a quick glance at the recorded output of the cameras suggests that any other camera in range of your person is probably better.

Around the top edge of the Note you’ll find a headphone jack, a microSD card slot, the sleep / wake button, a volume rocker, and an IR blaster for use with the bundled Peel smart remote app. On the opposite edge you’ll find Samsung’s weirdly inconvenient proprietary charging connector, which looks almost exactly like Apple’s ubiquitous 30-pin iPhone / iPad connector but is something else entirely. A micro USB port would have been much more useful — Apple gets away with a proprietary connector because it enables a robust accessory ecosystem, but there’s no such benefit with the Note. Instead, there’s just the dawning realization you will one day lose this weird cable and find yourself alone in a room with a dead piece of plastic, tapping away with a pen that leaves no ink and no trace of your earthly existence.

Speaking of the pen, there is one. Samsung calls its stylus the S Pen, and it fits into a slot at the bottom right of the Note. The slot is actually quite clever, and can sense when the pen is inserted; the OS plays a little sound. A quick-launch menu pops up when you pull it out again. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way to customize the apps shown on this menu. I hope you like the Crayon Physics icon, because you’re going to see it every time you pull out the Note’s stylus.

The bundled S Pen is a nubby little thing — it’s much shorter than a regular pen, and weighs almost nothing in the hand. There’s a button on the side that engages various functions in different apps, but for the most part all of the action is in the tip, which can register 1,024 levels of pressure. Since it’s Wacom technology underneath, you can use any Wacom Penabled stylus, which is a nice plus.

So hey, it’s a Galaxy Tab with a pen. Let’s talk about it.

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S Pen

S Pen

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Samsung’s S Pen is easily the best integrated stylus system around. The digitizer is fast and responsive, the pen is fluid and accurate, and the pressure sensitivity is amazing in apps that support it. Compared to iPad styluses, which are all basically hacks that simulate a fingertip, the additional precision of the S Pen is a revelation. It’s very much the difference between a fine-tip pencil and a gigantic permanent marker.

At the system level, the pen is more or less invisible to Android — using the pen is just like using your finger in most places. It’s actually sort of odd to use a pen on a 10-inch tablet; using the Note feels much more deliberate and measured with the stylus compared to swiping away with a finger. Switching between the stylus and finger input isn’t particularly natural, either — once you’ve got the stylus in hand you’re probably not going to put it down.

Back in February when Vlad first reviewed the original Galaxy Note smartphone, he said the S Pen allowed you to "sketch, doodle, annotate... and that’s about it." Nothing much has changed in the months since — if anything, the Note 10.1’s stylus integration is less powerful than its smaller predecessor, since it doesn’t have handwriting recognition at the system level. Where the original Note’s software keyboard would let you press a button and begin writing on the screen to fill in any text field, the Note 10.1 doesn’t appear have any such functionality. (I looked repeatedly.) It seems like a late scratch; there’s still documentation for the feature floating around in the system. Vlad didn’t think the keyboard handwriting recognition was very reliable on the smartphone Note, so perhaps it’s not that much of a loss.

Update: You can turn on handwriting recognition at the system level, but it's hard to find — you have to long press on the gear icon on the keyboard, and then slide over to the T symbol. (Simply tapping the gear brings up the keyboard preferences screen, which tantalizingly lists "handwriting" but offers no way of turning it on.) There's no way normal people would find this setting, but it's probably just as well — the handwriting recognition is pretty hit-or-miss, and it seems to only really understand cursive. If you write in fast block print like me, it's really not useful at all. But still, it's there. See our additional video above for a demonstration.

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Apps

Out of the box, the main use of the stylus is in the S Note app, which offers a number of different note templates and handwriting-recognition options. The templates are mostly superfluous, but the handwriting recognition is actually quite useful: you can have S Note automatically recognize words, math formulas, and basic shapes. It all works until you try to do something even slightly weird: the language recognition fails out if you write on an angle, the math recognition doesn’t seem to be editable once you insert a recognized formula, and the shape recognition simply refuses to understand a figure 8.

What’s more, it’s not particularly hard to get way ahead of S Note and the digitizer when you’re writing fast. There’s a little bit of lag between your pen strokes and the ink appearing on screen on almost any stylus-enabled device, but if you’re writing fast on the Note everything seems to slow way down. It’s often better in other handwriting apps, so I’m willing to blame S Note, but it’s not a good look for the out-of-the-box halo app.

Samsung also bundles in Photoshop Touch, which offers a nice glimpse of the pen’s potential for editing images. It’s the same app available for other Android tablets and the iPad, but it’s really well-suited to the Note, with support for the pressure-sensitive S Pen and lots of filters and effects to play with. Unfortunately the Note’s rather average screen doesn’t lend itself to serious photo editing, but it’s still fun to play around in Photoshop Touch.

Overall the S Pen feels like great technology that’s waiting for a killer app to support it, and S Note is simply not that app. To complicate matters, stylus support is sort of meaningless unless the rest of the tablet is great. And that’s where the Note’s glimmers of potential begin to seem a bit cruel — with software like this, the S Pen's potential will remain forever unrealized.

Software

Software

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I was so excited to get the Note 10.1 that I rented a car on a Saturday afternoon so I could get to the office and pick up my review unit faster than just taking the train. (This is a true story.) I grabbed the box, jumped back in the car, and raced home with fevered anticipation.

Then I booted up the Note and encountered Samsung’s TouchWiz Nature UX. Things immediately went downhill.

Although the Note runs Android 4.0, Samsung has thoroughly repurposed Google’s open-source operating system with its latest version of TouchWiz. It’s much more than just a skin; it’s almost an entirely different operating system. And while parts of it are extremely interesting, other parts of it are almost completely nonsensical.

To start with, Samsung has decided that almost every single action in Nature UX should be accompanied by a bloop-bloop plopping sound. It is the default setting on both the Note and the Galaxy S III, and it is almost impossible to understand how this decision was made. I have not encountered a single person who thinks a tablet or phone should incessantly bloop at them. It is also impossible to understand why Samsung thought quite so many actions deserve sound effects; if you switch on the Note and do nothing except immediately head into the settings to deactivate the sounds, you will still hear at least three bloops.

Then I encountered TouchWiz and things went immediately downhill
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Yes, you can text and watch video at the same time
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Samsung also insists on replacing perfectly wonderful Google apps with ersatz versions: instead of Gmail, Samsung puts its home-grown mail client on the homescreen by default. Instead of Chrome, there’s a reworked version of the older Android browser, now labeled "Internet" as though a person buying a $500 Android tablet with a stylus in 2012 is confused about the web / internet distinction. Perhaps most egregiously, the Android calendar app has been replaced by something called S Planner, which looks like nothing so much as Apple’s hideous iPad calendar application, faux-leather texture and all. S Planner is a Pyrrhic victory in the Samsung-copied-Apple debate; there is simply no moral high ground here to claim.

Samsung did add some interesting TouchWiz features to the Note, however. A small persistent menu at the bottom of the screen houses "mini apps," which can be opened at any time and float above everything else on the screen. They’re kind of like old-school Mac desk accessories: Alarm, Calculator, Music Player, S Note, the email app, S Planner, the task manager, and the world clock can all be popped open and used anywhere in the system, and a single button will drop you into the full app. It’s rather convenient.

In the same vein, you can also play a movie in the video player and then pop it out so it plays in a floating window while you do other things on the tablet. Assuming you’ve got a library of local video files to play, it’s really quite cool, and it works well since it offloads video playback to the GPU. The Galaxy S III shares this feature, but it makes a little more sense on a tablet — there’s more room to get the video window out of the way.

(Yes, you can text and watch video at the same time. Nice.)

You can also open a few special apps side-by-side in "multiscreen" mode — the built-in browser, Samsung’s mail client, the S Note notes app, the video player, the gallery, and the bundled Polaris Office document editor. Unfortunately, you can’t run just any app in multiscreen mode, which greatly lowers the utility of this feature. I was hoping multiscreen would effectively create a pair of seven-inch displays and turn Android’s lack of proper tablet apps into a strength; phone apps look fine on the Nexus 7’s similarly-sized screen, after all. Sadly that’s just not the case, and multiscreen will remain largely unused if you are a rational person who wants to use Chrome and Gmail instead of Samsung’s less-powerful alternatives.

Performance

Performance

Add in all the bloop bloop sounds and the whole thing just feels chubby

Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 5306 1,929 59fps 57fps 9,325
Nexus 7 3,605 1,740 64fps 32fps N/A
Asus Transformer Pad TF300T 3,623 1,358 63fps 31fps 9,614
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 2,590 849 28fps 14fps 4,911


All of these additions makes the Note extremely slow, even though it has a ridiculously fast 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos processor and 2GB of RAM. On paper, that’s basically more powerful than any other mainstream mobile device, but the Note is quite laggy in day-to-day use. Just flipping between homescreens can result in some stuttering when you hit a widget-heavy layout, and I even noticed occasional slowdowns when simply swiping the lock screen to open the device. The Note is simply not as smooth or responsive as the Nexus 7, and it’s so far behind the iPad that the comparison doesn’t really seem fair. Add in all the bloop bloop sounds and the whole thing just feels chubby.

The Note’s performance suffers worst of all in its special multiscreen mode. Android isn’t really designed to run two apps at once, and switching between the open "windows" results in lengthy delays while the system catches up to your inputs. In practice it makes multiscreen essentially useless, since you can’t really use two apps at once — you’re just as well off using the standard task switcher.

The Note also seems to get much slower over time: when I first pulled it out of the box, I clocked a blistering Quadrant score in the 5000 range. After using the Note for a day or two, that score fell to 3570. A restart netted another score in the 3500s, which rose to the low 4000s on retests before tapering off. That’s only slightly faster as the smartphone Note, which has two fewer cores — and it’s significantly slower than the quad-core HTC One X. It’s pretty clear none of this software is well optimized to take advantage of the raw horsepower available.

That might change eventually, since Samsung says the Note will be upgraded to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean sometime this year. Jelly Bean noticeably improved the responsiveness and fluidity of Android, but Samsung is going to have to do a lot of work on its part to make sure those improvements aren’t overshadowed by TouchWiz.

I didn’t have time to run our complete battery test, but in my casual testing the Note happily ran for three days before I needed to charge it.

Wrap-Up

A disappointing Android tablet with a pen is still a disappointing Android tablet

It’s pretty clear that people want their tablets to support pen input — the huge market of iPad styluses is proof positive of that. Samsung’s S Pen system is way ahead of the curve in that regard: it’s responsive, it’s precise, and it works well enough, most of the time.

But a pretty good pen system built on top of a disappointing Android tablet still makes for a disappointing Android tablet. There’s just no reason to suffer through it: the Nexus 7 costs less than half as much as the Note and is without question the best Android tablet available. The iPad costs the same $499 and offers an unrivaled selection of apps, an industry-leading display, and so many stylus accessories and note-taking tools that you won’t even remember that the S Pen makes them all look a bit primitive. And a regular notebook and pen do not make blooping sounds at the slightest provocation.

In a way this all makes sense: the smartphone Galaxy Note achieved success because it was built atop of the internationally-bestselling Galaxy S II. By contrast, the Note 10.1 is based on the mediocre Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. Perhaps Samsung needs to perfect its basic recipe before it starts mixing in additions.

GOOD STUFF

  • S Pen works well
  • Photoshop Touch is fun

BAD STUFF

  • Sluggish performance
  • Overbearing Samsung software
  • No killer S Pen apps

THE BREAKDOWN

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Design 7
  • Display 7
  • Camera(s) 5
  • Speakers 7
  • Performance 5
  • Software 5
  • Battery life 8
  • Ecosystem 5
The Verge
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