If you want your product to sound like it belongs in the future, why not name it after the future itself? Taking a page from the auto industry, Samsung named its new Galaxy Note 10.1 for the coming year, dubbing it the 2014 edition. And, judging from what we've seen of the new Note so far, it's clear Samsung has greatly improved upon many of the original's shortcomings; it even added more storage space! Unfortunately, though, Samsung also boosted the base price by $50 as a result. So how does it hold up? Does the new Note 10.1 trick us into believing it came from the future, or is it too easy to look through Sammy's "futuristic" marketing campaign? Gaze into the Magic 8 Ball with us to find out.
We're not claiming sole responsibility here, but we'd like to think that Samsung read our review of last year's Note 10.1, and heard our frustration. At least, Samsung heard someone's complaints -- the 2014 edition addresses many of those issues. Where the original felt cheap, its replacement actually looks the part of a $550 device. For starters, it sheds the chrome bezel that previously adorned each side of the tablet, so the new slate, which measures at 243.1 x 171.4 x 7.9 mm (9.57 x 6.75 x 0.31 in.), is shorter, narrower and thinner. Not only does this make the 2014 edition look sleeker; the lack of big chrome lips means the front is also less distracting -- a nice consideration that lets us focus on that beautiful display. Additionally, at 19.05 ounces (535g), the tablet is lighter than the first Note 10.1 and the Nexus 10, which tip the scales at 21.16 ounces (600g) and 21.27 ounces (603g), respectively. This, combined with its overall size, makes this model much easier to handle.
Samsung also added a touch of elegance to the back of the device by swapping out the standard glossy plastic back, the company's go-to build material for at least the last two years. Here instead, we have a soft, textured "leather-like" material that's meant to resemble a leather book cover. Happily, it does a good job masking fingerprints, and it makes for a sturdier grip too. (We also like that the "leather" stretches across the back uninterrupted; on the first edition, the rear cover was broken up by a band of chrome along the top.) And if you're curious about our use of scare quotes, Samsung confirmed that the back cover is actually comprised of polycarbonate. Still, it feels better-made than most of Samsung's earlier tablets. We did, however, find one curious exception that made us less certain of its durability: there were some spots near the center of the tablet's back that had a bit of give, as if those areas had air pockets underneath the cover.
If you've read our coverage of the Galaxy Note 3, you'll notice a lot of similarities between it and the new Note 10.1. This is typical for Samsung, a company that likes to crank out several different devices all bearing the same general design. Last year's contoured, "inspired by nature" aesthetic isn't anywhere to be seen on the new Note lineup. Rather, Samsung is taking the skeuomorphic route this time around: the chrome sides feature ridges that, we've been told, are supposed to mimic a closed book, and a single line of stitching borders the fake-leather back. Just like on the Note 3, the stitching is merely there for decoration. Obviously, this isn't surprising -- manufacturers typically don't stitch phones together -- but this feels a little over the top, if you ask us.
The front of the Note 10.1 shares the same capacitive and physical button placement as the Galaxy Tab 3 10.1. This setup, which sits at the bottom under the display, includes the menu button on the left, home in the center and "back" on the right. The soft keys are now capable of sensing the S Pen (much like on the Note 8.0), which means you no longer have to adjust your grip on the pen every time you want to hit the back or menu buttons. A front-facing camera and proximity sensor sit just left-of-center above the screen. And that's it: your searches for an LED notification light will be fruitless here.
While the 2014 edition keeps things uncluttered on the front and back, it's a different story on the sides. All four edges have something going on: a power button, volume rocker and infrared on the top; a covered microSD slot (supporting up to 64GB) on the right; a micro-USB socket on the bottom; and speaker grilles on both the right and left. Those speakers, by the way, aren't necessarily any larger than most, but they're some of the loudest we've tested; regardless of which room in the house I was in, I could easily hear the music blaring.
We already mentioned the presence of a micro-USB port, which for most tablets is actually quite standard. But given the Note 10.1's extensive similarities to the Note 3, which launched at the same time, it seems odd that it didn't get the same USB 3.0 connection as the phone. We aren't complaining about the lack of the unsightly connector, but it doesn't make much sense for the two devices to share so many other commonalities and actively choose not to stick to a standard port.
The Note 10.1 sports a beautiful WQXGA (2,560 x 1,600) TFT LCD panel, which is precisely the resolution bump we wanted to see in last year's unit (that one had a much lower-res 1,280 x 800 panel, if you'll recall). It's so much of an improvement, in fact, that you'll be hard-pressed to find anything better in a 10.1-inch tablet. It's the same size and resolution as the Nexus 10, although the Note offers more usable space since it lacks virtual navigation buttons. Even better, it offers more-saturated (yet still natural) colors, along with superb viewing angles.
The original Note 10.1 may not have come with the latest version of Android out of the box, but the 2014 edition does. You'll enjoy Android 4.3 Jelly Bean from the very beginning -- well, Samsung's TouchWiz'd version of it, anyway. Unfortunately, that means you won't be able to add multiple users as you can on vanilla Android. Indeed, fans of the untouched Google experience will find TouchWiz frustrating to deal with; unlike its predecessor, the 10.1 has little (if any) resemblance to the Nexus 10's ROM. The icons, notification menus, Google search bar location, app tray setup and more are completely different. There's also a full suite of Samsung features on board, such as the company's App Store, S Voice, Samsung Link, Smart Stay / Rotation / Pause / Scroll, Group Play, S Translator, Story Album and so on.
Of course, Samsung's got a reputation for adding tons of features and services on each new generation of devices -- most of the aforementioned features surfaced that way -- but the company didn't seem to go overboard with the 10.1 or the Note 3, relatively speaking. Aside from the S Pen stuff, which we'll discuss shortly, the only major overhaul to TouchWiz this time around is a new feature called My Magazine.
My Magazine, which you can access by swiping up from the bottom of the home screen, looks like a crossbreed between Flipboard and HTC's BlinkFeed, a service that debuted on the One. Uncanny? We can't speak to the similarities with HTC's software, but My Magazine is actually a collaboration between Samsung and Flipboard, so in that regard, at least, the resemblance was intentional. But here's the kicker: despite its involvement in the feature, Flipboard isn't going anywhere; its app is still pre-loaded on the new Notes, and is still as rich in content as it always has been. My Magazine, on the other hand, is designed for casual surfers who are looking to kill a few minutes here and there.
All told, there are four categories that you flip through by swiping to the left or right, and each screen presents a series of tiles, all of which vary in size from an eighth of the screen up to half. The first category is "Personal," which is made up of selections from your scrapbook, email, calendar, gallery, S Notes and other native apps on the device. "Social," as you might expect, aggregates your Twitter, Google+, Flickr, Tumblr, Sina Weibo, 500px and other social media feeds. (Facebook is noticeably absent.) "News" displays articles based on your selected interests, and "Here & Now" bundles movies, Yelp reviews, TripAdvisor content, Groupon deals and other things that are happening locally. There's also a shortcut bar along the top-right corner that lets you access the app menu and a few core apps, so you have easy navigation to other parts of the tablet.
So is My Magazine a worthwhile feature? Owners who simply want to be cured of their boredom will probably glean a fair amount of use out of it, but we grew frustrated by the limited amount of customization -- we could filter news genres, for instance, but couldn't request specific sites -- and we found ourselves favoring the official Flipboard app instead. A feature like My Magazine actually makes more sense on a smartphone like the Note 3 because its content seems to be more casually curated, which is ideal for people who only have a minute or two to glance at their phone in the elevator or while waiting for the train. This formula doesn't apply as much on tablets, since we only tend to use them when we have time to really consume content. It may become more useful if Samsung opens the feature up to developers, but for now it feels limited.
A feature we still haven't grown tired of is Multi Window, a dual-screen multitasking mode that first debuted on the Note series last year. Samsung offered third-party support through its SDK, and a plethora of developers jumped on board, helping to make the feature more robust. Fortunately, Samsung is not only keeping it around -- it's also expanding its capabilities. First, the new Notes have drag-and-drop functionality. This means that you can drag a file of your choice -- say, a map or a picture -- and drop it into your other app. Tasks like inserting photos into an MMS are faster now, as a result.
Second, you can now have two screens from the same app (so long as the developer supports it), which means you can look at photos side by side; you can have two browser tabs open simultaneously; and so on. This is a wonderful and long-needed enhancement, but we'd like it even more if Samsung added a way to open up new browser tabs directly into a second screen; currently, you need to open the new tab within the same screen, activate the second screen with a blank tab and then use the drag-and-drop feature. Suffice it to say, we're surviving just fine without it, but it's one of the first things we attempted to do when we began playing with the new software.
Third, you can finally save whatever combination of apps you want. In other words, if you frequently use Maps and Email together, you can now have that particular dual-app combo take up its very own spot in the sidebar. It saves you from having to open up Maps and then Email, which turns into a tedious and time-consuming process when you do it enough times (or if you accidentally back out of those screens).
When Samsung debuted the first Note in 2011, it worked hard to dispel the idea that the phone shipped with a "stylus." These days, the company doesn't have to prove anything to anyone, as the S Pen has found success in its very own ecosystem. S Pens are now numerous -- there are six now, by our count -- and they're like snowflakes (S Nowflakes?) in that no two are exactly alike, despite the fact that most of them (excepting the version used in the OG Note) have identical functionality and can work with any device in the series. They just can't fit in each other's enclosures, since some pens are bigger, wider and / or longer than others, but they all feature the same type of tip with identical sensitivity. In this Note 10.1 (as well as the Note 3), Samsung designed the pen to fit into its holster regardless of which side is inserted. Even then, this is pretty subtle; the telltale sign that you're using the new Note 10.1 pen are the metal-like ridges at the top, which make it easier to pull out of its slot. As soon as you do that, the tablet detects that the S Pen been removed and automatically pulls up a new Air Command menu (although you can change it to Action Memo or nothing at all, if you prefer), rather than its own special home screen.
In essence, the 2014 edition of the Note 10.1 gets blessed with the same software enhancements as its smartphone companion, the Note 3. Feel free to check out our review of the phone for more details, but we'll discuss the S Pen features here as well. As with other recent Notes, you'll be able to enjoy features like Air View, which lets you hover the pen over words, gallery albums, calendars and other items to get an expanded view of the content you're hovering over. New to this fall's Notes, however, is the ability to click the button over this content (provided the blue dot is actively throbbing) for a menu with additional options, such as editing, sharing and so on.
As part of the Air Command menu, which can also be called into existence by hovering the pen over the screen and pressing the button, you can take advantage of five different options. Scrap Booker does exactly what it sounds like: regardless of what app you're in, circle the content you want to hang onto and it'll retain that information in the scrapbook of your choice. Action Memo replaces the old S Note widget and is designed to let you quickly draft a note or jot down a phone number. S Finder is like Spotlight for TouchWiz, but with more options to filter through the massive amounts of content you've amassed over the years to find what you want. Screen Write takes a screen grab and opens it up in an editor for you to do as your creative mind pleases. Pen Window lets you draw a rectangle on the screen to pull up a menu of apps that offer floating widgets -- so far, you can get a calculator, the in-house browser, YouTube, alarms and a few more options. These widgets can be resized (although they can often look a bit strange when they're stretched out) and will remain on the top of the screen. They can also be maximized to fit the full screen at any time, or you can shrink them down into Chat Head-style icons that you can place anywhere you like.
We'd like to just say the Note 10.1's camera is your stereotypical tablet camera and move on with the review, but we'll do our due diligence; we can't simply assume it's a horrible excuse for an image-capture device, so we decided to take it for a spin. However, after spending some time with the camera, which features an 8-megapixel sensor, we've come to pretty much the same conclusion that we have with other devices in this category: it's better than nothing, but you'd be crazy to make this your new point-and-shoot replacement.
The Note 10.1 has most of the typical Samsung camera features you've come to expect: ISO, metering, burst shot, white balance, exposure, LED flash and plenty of other manual settings. It also has several modes, such as Drama, Sound & Shot, HDR, Night, Best Face and Eraser, but it doesn't have Surround Shot (aka Photo Sphere) like the Note 3 has. The viewfinder is absurdly big, just like any other tablet, and we have a much harder time keeping the camera from shaking simply due to its overall size.
Performance-wise, the camera produces natural colors -- as long as they don't get washed out by daylight, which is unfortunately a frequent occurrence. Shots taken indoors don't typically suffer from this effect, since the amount of daylight coming into the room is limited, but that brings us to another issue: narrow dynamic range. In any photo that consists of both shadows and bright highlights, don't expect the ISP to reconcile both -- even areas that aren't incredibly shady turn out much darker than they should. Low-light images are excessively noisy, and while some cameras are noisier in order to pick up extra light, the Note 10.1's night shots are still way too dark for our taste.
The Note's video quality is set at 1080p resolution and 30fps, and footage was recorded at a bit rate of 17.1Mbps. The obvious side effect of using a large tablet for making movies is constant shaking, but otherwise the device took respectable footage with only a small amount of choppy motion and frame skips. The mics picked up our voice clearly while filtering out the cars in the background, but it sadly picked up the sounds of a slight breeze.
Performance and battery life
With the 2014 Note 10.1, you'll find yourself using one of two chips: the 3G and WiFi-only versions come with an octa-core Exynos 5420 chipset built in, while the LTE unit features a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800. Since we tested the WiFi-only model, our experience with the new Note has been completely based on that Samsung chip. Let's dive into more specifics on what this experience entails. The 28nm Exynos 5420 utilizes big.LITTLE architecture, which means the "eight-core" setup is actually two sets of quad-core processors, and only one of them is used at any time: the stronger of the two is a 1.9GHz set of Cortex-A15 cores, while the other is comprised of 1.3GHz Cortex-A7s and is used for the mundane and menial tasks. The idea is to save energy by only using the more powerful cores when it's absolutely necessary, although our prior experiences with octa-core Exynos chips -- last seen as the 5410, found in the Galaxy S 4 -- didn't offer an advantage in power consumption over Qualcomm's Snapdragon. All of this sounds pretty powerful, and it's helped more by an astounding 3GB RAM and a six-core ARM Mali-T626 GPU.
Galaxy Note 10.1 2014
HP Slatebook x2
SunSpider 0.9.1* (ms)
GFXBench 2.7 HD Offscreen (fps)
*SunSpider: scores were run on Chrome using v0.9.1 for consistency. Note 10.1 scored 1,063 on v1.0.1. Nexus 10 scores were run on 10/1/13 using Android 4.3.
As you can see above, the benchmark scores are nothing to scoff at. With the exception of SunSpider (which seems awfully low, comparatively speaking), the metrics appear in line with other top-shelf Android devices, with the Tegra 4-powered HP Slatebook x2 holding a lead in several categories. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases in which our real-life experience didn't match up with those benchmarks as closely as we'd like. The tablet never went so far as to crash or freeze on us, but it felt much more laggy than we were expecting, given the powerful silicon inside. Transitions and animations were choppy; the screen wasn't always responsive; and there were too many times when the processor seemed overwhelmed trying to keep up. It slowed down even more when we tried out more intensive activities. It also struggled when we pulled up a YouTube movie on a Pen Window, loaded a Multi Window screen with another YouTube movie playing and a pop-up video simultaneously playing at the same time; we could tell that the processor was doing everything in its power to stay afloat. You might say that lag shouldn't come as much of a surprise when stress-testing a tablet, but we've become increasingly more intolerant of these kinds of glitches as the available processors continue to get more powerful.
This sluggish performance was also apparent when we played graphically intense games like Asphalt 8 and Riptide GP 2. The chip had difficulty keeping up with the demands of the latter game, so there were choppy stretches (complete with frame skips galore) immediately followed by what appeared to be a much higher frame rate than usual as the GPU finally caught up to the game. Asphalt 8 didn't struggle in quite the same way, although it still had its share of problems; run-throughs were usually pretty smooth, but there were plenty of times when we noticed that various graphic elements were either slow to populate or just missing entirely. In one instance, we noticed a rock wall slowly growing from the ground up, because the GPU was still hard at work creating it as we passed by.
We don't want to imply that our experience with the Exynos chipset was all bad, but suffice to say, we were underwhelmed given our expectations going into this review. With its top-of-the-line components and premium price point, we expect the absolute best performance, and this particular device doesn't seem to give us any material bump over the Nexus 10 (in fact, the Nexus 10 often had greater responsiveness than the Note 10.1). This is a tablet that proudly boasts the year 2014 in its name, yet it doesn't carry the power we've come to expect from a 2013 flagship. That said, we must again point out that our experience is specific to the Exynos-powered versions of the device, and the Snapdragon 800 may offer completely different -- and drastically improved -- results.
The battery life on the WiFi-only 10.1 was also disappointing. Its 8,220mAh cell is considerably larger than the last model's 7,000mAh version, which we're guessing is to help manage the demands of the Exynos SoC and the high-resolution display, but we didn't actually see a corresponding improvement in runtime. While we can't speak to the performance of the 3G or LTE versions when constantly connected to a mobile network, the WiFi-only version makes it through between two and two and a half days of light to moderate usage, and between a day and a day and a half of heavier use; ultimately, it wasn't as good as the first Note 10.1. In our rundown test, in which we play a locally stored HD movie on an endless loop, our tablet only squeezed out seven and a half hours each time, which isn't unheard of for a high-end slate but still lower than we were expecting. (We even ran it a second time and double-checked our settings to make sure it wasn't a fluke.) This is yet another area in which we're anxiously awaiting the LTE model to see how it runs under the Snapdragon 800.
We mentioned earlier that the Note 10.1 is one of the loudest tablets we've ever used. In fact, we were satisfied with the entire multimedia experience; audio was loud, clear and full when we plugged our headphones in. HD movies and video clips looked stellar as well.
Configuration options and the competition
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition comes in white and black with 32GB and 64GB storage options. Our review unit is a white WiFi-only 32GB, but LTE models with Snapdragon 800 are on the way, if you prefer the ability to toss in a SIM and get data outside of your preferred hotspots. Samsung hasn't revealed the pricing or launch timeframe for the LTE models, but the WiFi-only version will be available in the US on October 10th, with the 32GB going for $550 and the 64GB offered for $600. The original Note 10.1 started out $50 cheaper, but that version offered 16 fewer gigabytes of storage space.
Price-wise, the 32GB model is actually $50 cheaper than the current WiFi-only iPad of the same size, while the 64GB can save you $100 over its iOS competitor. If you're specifically pining for an Android tablet, you could choose the Samsung-built Nexus 10, which starts at $399 for 16GB and $499 for 32GB. This gets you a display with the same resolution, a stock Android experience complete with punctual updates, a snappy dual-core Cortex-A15 processor and other similar stats. Another option is the Toshiba Excite Pro, which retails for $500 and boasts a 2,560 x 1,600 screen and Tegra 4 SoC. Last but not least, Sony's competing tablet is the Xperia Tablet Z for $500, but it comes with a lower-res display and 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro.
This year's version of the Galaxy Note 10.1 is a tad more expensive than its predecessor, but is it worth the $550 for the baseline model? In terms of hardware, there's no doubt that Samsung has massaged all of the sore spots from the first Note 10.1: it's thinner and lighter; it offers a gorgeous display and top-notch sound; it packs better specs; and it sports a cleaner design. What's more, the S Pen features are actually useful. In many respects, Samsung's new tablet is competitively priced with other high-end devices in the same category.
Sadly, its inclusion of an eight-core Exynos chip oddly resulted in sometimes-sluggish performance -- something you don't expect to see on a premium device like this. Casual users may not notice or care that it's not up to par (although we believe that they'd be just as satisfied, if not more so, with the lower-priced Nexus 10). You can bet, though, that its overall performance will be a dealbreaker for power users and early adopters. If you crave the advanced stylus functionality, this is still the best option available for its size -- but that's not saying much, given the limited competition. We suppose it's going to have to do, though, until the 2015 edition rolls around.