In this detailed review of the Galaxy Note 10.1 (aka N8000), we look at the tablet aimed at boosting creativity and productivity with its powerful specs and innovative S-Pen and how useful it can be for creative professionals, students or just as a powerful workhorse. Despite its specs, it weighs a modest 580g – 70g less than the iPad-with-Retina and 20g less than the Nexus 10. It comes with a number of apps that support the S-Pen and we’ll look at how these fare later in the review. A note about model numbers – the N8000 refers to the Wi-Fi + 3G version whilst the N8010 refers to the Wi-Fi only version.
Besides the quad-core 1.4 GHz processor, the Note 10.1 boasts 2GB of RAM (although 1.78GB is available for user apps) and comes in either White or Gray and with the option of 16GB storage or 32GB store. Again, in our 16GB version only 11.75GB is available for our own use and, judging by this, around 28GB will be available for use in the 32GB version.
The 1280×800 IPS LCD display gives it a decent 149 PPI (Pixels per Inch), powered by a Mali 400MP graphics processor. The built-in ambient light sensor makes itself known with aggressive brightness changes – a bit too eagerly at times we might add. The Gyroscope and Accelerometer are put to good use with the Note’s innovative Tilt-To-Zoom feature whereby tilting the tablet back zooms out the current content. It has a standard volume rocker and power button along the top edge, alongside a MicroSD card slot, an IR (Infra Red) transmitter and 3.5mm headphone jack. Although there’s no USB slot, the proprietory connector at the bottom edge of the tablet next to the microphone can interface with USB devices through Samsung’s own cable that comes in the box. Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n comes as standard along with Bluetooth 3.0 and GPS. With dimensions of 25cm x 17cm x 9cm, the 10.1″ display has a chunky bezel around the edges – and we wouldn’t want it any other way for our big ogre-like hands.
As for the exterior shell, it comes in either white or dark gray and on the front, running along the sides are 2 grills that house stereo speakers. For the slippery fingered amongst us, it’s important to be especially careful as the back is very smooth and prone to slippage. The surface does end up looking great, but it can easily be dropped if you’re not paying attention – we managed to drop it less than 2 days after getting it as we were moving things around (fortunately it just bounced off our sofa and onto the carpet). The bottom line is that a rugged case is a must for this one.
High Spec cameras aren’t amiss on this artsy tablet and indeed we get a 5MP rear shooter and a 1.9MP front-facing one and as our test shots show at the end of this review, they’re a decent pair and a wise choice for a tablet whose audience would consist of photography enthusiasts. Alongside the cable, also in the box is a charger that connects to the mains through the cable mentioned earlier and also headphones which, rather thoughtfully, come bundled with 3 different sized ear plugs. We appreciate that. Of course the S-Pen comes with it – but don’t do what we did and panic if you don’t see it straight away. It’s tucked away neatly into a cavity in the tablet itself.
Performance & Multi-Tasking
Having a quad-core processor is a bit like having 4 brains – on the one hand, it has the productivity boost that 4 tasks can be done simultaneously and truly independently but on the other hand, in theory it should draw more current and hence drain the battery quicker. But we found the battery to last for a surprisingly long period of 8 hours of heavy use. Also, in practice although each core can independently do work there are other shared areas which can give a less-than-smooth experience when multitasking. For example, the storage and RAM are shared and if multiple apps need to access these heavily it will cause interference and stutters. Our experience was generally good when we ran several combinations of apps side by side, but there were occasional pauses and jams. It’s curious that Samsung have only allowed the screen to split 2-way in the default OS that it comes with, even though it’s got 4 cores. Fortunately, it’s an easy upgrade to update the OS to JellyBean which boosts the split view from dual-screen to multi-screen. Multitasking aside, we still found the performance to be sub-par given the hardware the Galaxy Note is running on. Being a regular user of the Nexus 10 (a Dual Core 1.7 GHz processor), the extra 1/2 to 1 second lag in opening apps, switching screens, bringing the keyboard up etc. is very much noticeable and although it’s understandable because Samsung has customised the OS, the lag is unacceptable given the fact they themselves are also manufacturing the Nexus 10 for Google!
On the multitasking itself, the Galaxy Note makes this a prominent feature of several apps – it has a dedicated ‘MultiScreen’ menu option at the top on some apps that literally boasts the functionality of splitting the display and running an app on each. This menu option is available on just a few apps though – Polaris Office, S Note, Video Player, Gallery, Email or Internet unless you update your tablet to Android 4.1. It’s an easy upgrade – and highly recommended.
S-Note & S-Planner Apps
There’s several apps for use specifically with the S-Pen and which are available on the apps store but for this review, we’ll concentrate on Samsung’s bundled S-Note and S-Planner. We’re pleased to see the quality of Samsung’s S-Pen apps is quite high, a huge bonus given this first version of the app for a 10.1″ tablet, as bespoke apps typically tend to be rushed out the door with buggy behavior in an effort to meet release deadlines. The S-Note is a very comprehensive app and I imagine would be used most with the S-Pen. There’s a myriad of options (that take a bit of getting used to) but the basic workflow is you load something, edit it and export it. You can start from a blank page, an existing image or one of a number of predefined templates to create diary entries, magazine pages, recipes etc. Your work is stored in a folder structure easily navigable within S-Note itself, which is perfect if you plan on doing a lot of work with this app.
There’s also some really nice in-built functions like taking a picture straight from the app or navigating on Google Maps, again within the app, and selecting a rectangle for perhaps a meeting venue and it gets inserted into your working page. There’s also 28 (yes, we counted) clip art images – of birthday cakes, ice cream, balloons, callouts, pencils etc. and also various shapes to insert (think Microsoft Office ClipArt). It also has a ‘Record Sketching’ option, which allows you to playback how the sketching was created – a somewhat bogus addition in our opinion. For long term continuous use, we soon found our hand getting tired having to hover above the screen the whole time we’re sketching. Resting our hand on the tablet causes interference with our work and results in screen zooming, inadvertent pen strokes from our hand and gaps in lines the pen draws. Fortunately Samsung has given us a solution for this – going back to the folder view, selecting ‘Settings’ and ‘S Pen Only’ blocks out everything except the S Pen’s movement – perfect!
As for the sketching itself in the S-Note app, there’s several modes – i) freehand or text entry with a selection of nib textures and colours and ii) productivity mode. The former is self-explanatory, although it does have some nice options like the highlighter and thickness selection. Productivity mode is more interesting – it can effectively transform our wavy lines into straight ones automatically and we’ll upload some samples showing this in the near future with a very simple software application layering diagram. This took a painfully long time but the Shapes feature mentioned earlier helped us complete it in just a few minutes. So this is reasonably useful. The next option in productivity mode automatically recognizes handwriting and converts it into editable text. We were initially skeptical with this but as the images above testify, we were blown away by how accurately it can recognize text. You can see despite missing some strokes altogether (the vertical stroke in the h on the last line), it’s done a perfect job of recognizing the text. If only the conversion was quicker, this feature could be one of the most prominents points about this tablet and this pen. And we’ve no doubt this will be a case of tuning an algorithm rather than adding more hardware seeing how the tablet already runs a beastly quad-core processor. We’re keeping our hopes up on a software upgrade to optimise the performance.
For any sort of day-to-day work, the ability to export and import is critical and fortunately the option is present in the S-Note app, albeit only to/from JPG or PDF. It can also be “shared” directly from the S-Note app with other contacts – something we were able to take full advantage of in our workflow of first shooting a picture, cropping it and bringing into S Note, then highlighting an area with a brush and sharing it via email – all quite painlessly.
As we mentioned, the S Pen is a serious attempt and it’s not to be scoffed at. There’s some humble suggestions we can think of for the Note 10.1 v2 – if there ever will be such a thing – that could make this tablet a serious consideration for professionals. We’d recommend to Samsung to have 2 sides to their pen, one that allows editing and one that allows moving the page. This will save having to bring down the menu bar at the top of the S-Note app, switch modes, move the page and change the mode back. They could even potentially extend this to 4 sides with another 2 more modes. To further extend the possible uses of the S-Pen, integration with the likes of Adobe Reader to annotate PDF documents would be a winner amongst students. Infact, personally, given how accurate their handwriting recognition is, if they were to now incorporate speed improvements in the handwriting recognition and also consider the integration with Adobe Reader to annotate PDFs, I’d seriously consider replacing my personal tablet (a Nexus 10) with a Note 10.1 v2. And I’m pretty sure I’d end up doing so.
The S-Planner is a standard Calendar which we imagine Samsung included as it doesn’t require having an account with Samsung or Google. It does integrate seamlessly with Google Calendar and changes on the calendar are synchronised in a smooth sub-5 seconds. As with most Android tablets, it’s frankly best to have a Google Account so email and appointments are sync’d across all devices.
While we’re on the subject of apps, it’s worth briefly mentioning some of the other apps that come bundled with the tablet as it’s not your typical bunch. Photoshop Touch is one of our favourites, facilitating a neat way to modify images – from cropping/resizing to changing brightness and from adding gradients to replacing colours with a color picker! Needless to say, we’re quite impressed with this app and with the accuracy using the S-Pen’s cursor-on-hover feature (more on that later), a semi-professional level of basic photo editing can be done albeit requiring a healthy dose of patience. In the image below, we’ve added a semi-transparent gradient to an image quickly and easily.
Another promising app is the ‘Learning Hub Store’ which comes pre-installed on the Galaxy Note. The idea is that, after signing up to a free Samsung Account, you can download apps that facilitate learning at all levels. From Dictionaries to Cookbooks to TED talks and from Guitar Guides to childrens books like Animal Fun, there’s a variety of content here. Some of it is free, some paid. Unfortunately this app seems somewhat abandoned as there doesn’t seem to be any work actively being done in loading new content into this store. To compounds matters further, even after deciding to buy an e-book we couldn’t finalise our purchase as the app came back with ‘Service unavailable’. What about downloading some free content? Computer says no – that comes back with ‘Try later’. We really wanted this to work so we duly obliged to the instruction and tried again another day. No luck. This could have been a breakthrough app for Samsung, so it’s sad to see it in this state. It’s probably best summarised in the words of a reviewer of this app in the Play Store “If only I could give no stars, this app has so much potential and no follow through”. But instead, some universities in the UK are giving out iPads to students to assist in their studies.
The Galaxy Note is often touted as a tablet suited to ‘creative people’ and this is repeated time and again in reviews, magazines, articles etc. and the S-Pen is a pivotal aspect of that. So it’s only right we spent a fair amount of time with the stylus and see just how much creative assistance it can provide. As noted earlier, the Photoshop Touch app is a very nice app and we liked its speed and responsiveness and range of functions. But actually, past the initial excitement of being able to do this on a tablet, it’s functionally the same as a basic desktop photo editing application like IrfanView or FastStone that most people occasionally dabble with on their desktops or laptops. Also, if any sort of professional work was started by someone in the arts industry we can imagine they’d quickly become frustrated with the limited feature set. It certainly shouldn’t be compared to a graphics tablet. The apps are good, the pen is advanced but like anything innovative it takes time for it to mature – we’re just not sure if the concept of doing serious creative work could mature on a tablet to the point of being used professionally. However, for the time being, it could work for cartoonists, designers or any other scenarios where a scratch pad is needed for rough sketches, mind maps, brainstorms etc.
As mentioned, the S-Pen rests discreetly in a cavity in the bottom-right corner of the tablet. The worry with this sort of design is a stylus could fall out with a bit of rigorous movement but fortunately, it’s a tight fit so there’s no worries on that front. It’s a nice looking stylus with a pressure-sensitive end and a clickable button along the top edge for use with the index finger. The S-Pen does feel somewhat gimmicky – a bit like one of those disposable pens that Ikea give out. But as started this isn’t a joke stylus but one of the most advanced we’ve seen in this category. The first thing you notice when you take the pen out of its cavity is a whoosh sound and a panel that pops up on the right-side of the display with stylus-specific apps – S-Note (mentioned earlier), S-Planner, Crayon physics, PS Touch and Polaris Office.
There’s also a dedicated page in the settings for the S-Pen, which has options to change between 3 sounds (or none) when the pen is attached/detached, disabling pen detection (to preserve battery life – apparently) and options for automatically launching apps when the S-Pen is detached. One other critical option that Samsung had the good sense to include is an option called ‘Hovering pen icon’. Enable this (as it’s disabled by default) and you get a small cross-eye appearing on the screen wherever the stylus hovers (above the display up to about 15mm) and provides for the high level of accuracy mentioned earlier when doing photo-editing, writing, drawing, selecting etc. The serious aspect of the stylus mentioned earlier comes to mind. The hovering ability of the S-Pen has several other clever applications too that Samsung have integrated – for example you can hover over an album to preview images, hover over the progress bar of a movie to preview frames at various intervals or hover over a scrollbar to scroll there.
As an entertainment device
Watching films on the Galaxy Note is a smooth experience and the 1280×800 display packs a punch. Sure, there are higher resolution displays like the Retina display and the Nexus 10′s, but the Note’s display is still thoroughly enjoyable. Placing the Note in a lounge and setting the volume to maximum you can clearly hear the sound from the front-facing stereo speakers sitting on a sofa several metres away. The usability of the speakers has clearly been much thought about as the speakers only cover the top edge of the bezel leaving the lower edge clear to allow holding on to the tablet with both hands. The Infra-Red transmitter is very usefully placed at the top of the tablet and there’s a bundled app that’s makes it easy to setup the connectivity between the laptop and your TV.
Keen photographers using this tablet will be glad to see the cameras on the Galaxy Note have specs above the norm of other tablets. For starters, the front camera is a reasonable 2MP shooter whilst the rear is a 5MP with LED flash. That can take images fairly quickly, with the maximum resolution hitting 2560 x 1920 though with each image typically taking 2MB+, that MicroSD card slot will come in very handy. Here’s 2 images we took in the afternoon with the 5MP camera; by tweaking the exposure levels and ISO settings we managed to get some really nice photos. We’ll be putting more up in the near future in the Galaxy Note 10.1 Image Gallery, including some with the front camera.
Of course, being an Android tablet the hundreds of thousands of apps on Google Play are available for download. We’re also got quite fond of the S-Suggest app, which randomly suggests apps in a non intrusive way on a panel on one of the 7 home screens (Side Note: We found the hilarious ‘Fake Internet Explorer’ app through this S-Suggest app).
The Galaxy Note 10.1 has the potential to be the studying aid for any student from GCSE level upwards. There is of course the stylus and S-Note app which give students the ability to take handwritten notes, drawings and scribblings and convert as much as possible to text. Then there’s the Learning Hub which although might be underdeveloped at the moment, may go on to great heights. But that’s where the perks of having a Galaxy Note above any other Android tablet end. We’ve got difficulty calling them perks though, because as mentioned before, the handwriting recognition is prohibitively slow in converting to text whilst the Learning Hub may continued to be left abandoned. Also, the stylus very much lacks integration with other apps so its use is somewhat restricted to those cases specifically targeted by Samsung. Without the 4.1 JellyBean update you can’t, for instance, compose an email with it. Although the update alleviates this somewhat by targetting some more use cases, we’d really like to see it be a genuine ‘smart’ replacement for wherever a keyboard can be used. This is no doubt a difficult task requiring serious development effort but it’s worth Samsung seriously considering investing in this and capitalizing on the efforts made thus far with its advanced stylus and furthering this. Else this tablet and its potential future variant will be another in the android slush of tablets market – but with a high price tag.
Otherwise, for standard functions like researching, emailing and reading it performs just fine albeit the weight and cost doesn’t justify buying it primarily for this purpose as there are better alternatives for that. However, there’ll always be certain pockets of people who’ll find it particularly useful to have a stylus over a keyboard – those with dyslexia or who find holding a stylus a mental trigger come to mind. Regardless, it can still perform the many useful functions of a typical tablet for doing researching, exchanging emails, reading e-books, writing essays etc.
One nuance that got fairly annoying when using the keyboard to do an extended length of writing is that the row of numbers at the top of the keyboard stretch right across the display and even over the backspace. For anyone who does a lot of typing, especially touch typing, this means that you’ll most likely keep hitting the ’9′ key instead of the ’0′ key, until you’ve adjusted. Not a huge deal but big enough to cause an interruption in the flow of typing that it’s worth mentioning for people who’ll be typing heavily using the keyboard.
Although the target audience for the Galaxy Note 10.1 is of course mainly creative people or those who need a multi-tasking, quad core beast of a tablet let’s not forget the Galaxy Note is nonetheless still an excellent choice as a regular Android 4.0+ tablet. The extra price paid for the stylus can be justified though if you do – or think you might do – some light image editing or sketching. And it’s not just image editing that could be done with an app on any other tablet without the use of a Stylus – as mentioned before, the hover-over-screen gives the stylus the unique advantage of making very fine, pinpoint adjustments to images or drawing. Or if it’s to be used for sketching or writing study notes, it would fare well provided you have some patience with the delays in the recognition – but let’s not forget, we’re talking about some very intelligent handwriting recognition that just works. It’s a shame that the potential of the Learning Hub hasn’t been fully realised by Samsung as that could have been decisive for students to consider parting with their hard-unearned student loans. Overall, Samsung’s executed this delivery of a 10.1″ tablet with powerful specs and a smart stylus very well and if its innovative features would come in handy, it’s one to consider seriously.
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