EVGA Tegra Note 7 review: a gaming tablet with much to offer, much to learn

There's no shortage of tablets available on the market, but it's surprisingly difficult to find one that performs well for an affordable price. Aside from the Nexus tablets Google has put out over the past two years, we've only seen a few products in the $200 price range deserving of our praise. Now NVIDIA is trying its hand with the Tegra Note 7, a mid-sized, WiFi-only tablet that comes with a a clever new type of stylus and a powerful Tegra 4 chip promising strong gaming performance. Our US review unit is dubbed the EVGA Tablet, though it will be sold under different brands in other parts of the world. Read on as we share our experiences of the $200 tablet, which is available for pre-order today and shipping on November 19th.

Gallery | 48 Photos

NVIDIA Tegra Note 7

Hardware

The Tegra Note is a 7-inch tablet powered by a quad-core Tegra 4 chipset, and comes with a stylus that takes advantage of a new NVIDIA-branded tech called DirectStylus. There's some solid oomph here -- especially for $200 -- but that also means a few compromises had to be made, a fact that becomes obvious even after you've spent just a few minutes with it.

After showing off the tablet to several Engadget editors during Expand, their first comments were almost always about its weight. For a 7-inch slate, 11.29 ounces (320g) is considerably massive compared to many other 7-inch tablets on the market. The Nexus 7, for instance, is more than an ounce lighter, and though that may not sound like a big deal, the difference is quite evident in a side-by-side comparison. Additionally, in terms of general size, the Tegra is 5mm wider than the Nexus and 0.9mm thicker, so it's generally heftier, too.

That said, the Note 7 was never intended to be as elegant as its Google-branded competitor. NVIDIA's heavily focused on the gaming potential, and indeed, its design language appears to reflect that. The three-segmented plastic back is a little too busy, with the dimpled rubber section in the middle making the device look more durable than it really is. The other two sections, on the other hand, are smooth, glossy and awfully scratch-prone -- something I learned the hard way after tossing it in my backpack a few times. Not only does the tablet hold up poorly against wear and tear; it doesn't feel like a solid device, either. Applying any amount of pressure to it will result in creaking, so we're not left with much confidence the device will stand the test of time.

There's a lot going on around the edges of the device. In all, there are six openings, including an especially long one along the left side that acts as the holder for an optional smart cover (more on that later). On the opposite side, you'll find an open microSD card slot and a volume rocker. The busiest area of the device is the top side, which houses the power button, 3.5mm headphone jack, micro-HDMI port and micro-USB port. Finally, the stylus holster and bass speaker grille are featured on the bottom. As an aside, the buttons here are barely raised above the rest of the frame, making them difficult to press.

For a device in its price range, the Tegra Note has a decent enough IPS display, with the resolution topping out at 1,280 x 800 (217 pixels per inch). Still, it's a hard sell when you compare it to the $230 Nexus 7, which rocks a higher-res, 1,920 x 1,200 panel with a pixel density of 323 ppi. The viewing angles are pretty good, though outdoor readability is rather average (it's nothing to write home about, but you can at least see it well enough at the brightest setting). The colors, on the other hand, are washed out and nothing looks quite as sharp as on the Nexus 7.

Given the processing muscle running the show, this was a big miss on NVIDIA's part. Indeed, a good deal of Tegra 4's charm lies in its gaming prowess; we would have wanted a higher-res display to bring out the fine details in more sophisticated games. However, if you'd prefer to plug into an HDTV, it's certainly possible to hook the Note up using an HDMI cable and attach a Bluetooth game controller (any controller will do, but NVIDIA has partnered up with Nyko to offer an optimized model that uses the same exact setup as the Shield). Of course, this sort of defeats the purpose of toting around a portable 7-inch tablet, but gaming enthusiasts probably won't mind so much.

On either side of the display sits a speaker grille, which helps create a stereo effect when you're watching a movie or playing a game in landscape mode. The tablet also has a VGA front-facing camera, which may come in handy for quick video chats.

We rarely give much attention to branded cases or covers, but we feel that the smart cover is worth a mention here because NVIDIA integrated it into the Note's design; instead of using magnets, the company made a smart cover that's attachable via a slider mechanism that takes up the entire left side of the tablet. Aside from its method of attachment, this smart cover does the same thing as the one we've recently seen on the iPad lineup: It comes with a multi-segmented face that can be folded up to convert the cover into a stand, and it puts the tablet to sleep when you close it. It's a little flimsy, but it did its job without incident.

Tegra Note 7 Nexus 7
Pricing $199 $229
Dimensions 7.83 x 4.69 x 0.38 inches (199 mm x 119 mm x 9.6 mm) 7.87 x 4.49 x 0.34 inches (200 x 114 x 8.7mm)
Weight 11.29 oz. (320g) 10.23 oz. (290g)
Screen size 6.97 inches 7.02 inches
Screen resolution 1,280 x 800 pixels (217 ppi) 1,920 x 1,200 pixels (323 ppi)
Screen type IPS LCD IPS LCD
Battery 15.17Whr 15Whr
Internal storage 16GB 16/32GB
External storage MicroSDXC, up to 64GB None
Rear camera 5MP, AF 5MP, AF
Front-facing cam 0.3MP 1.2MP
Video capture 1080p 1080p/30fps
NFC No Yes
Radios WiFi-only varies by market; LTE/HSPA+/GSM/EDGE
Bluetooth version 4.0+LE v4.0
SoC 1.8GHz Tegra 4 (4+1 core architecture) 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro
RAM 1GB 2GB
WiFi Dual-band 802.11b/g/n Dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n
Operating system Android 4.2.2 (stock, will be upgradeable to 4.3 and 4.4) Android 4.3 (will be upgradeable to 4.4)

DirectStylus

The other Note series -- the one made by Samsung -- uses an S Pen, which is basically an active stylus that takes advantage of a Wacom digitizer integrated into the display. While these are nice-to-have features, they also make a product a lot more expensive. Otherwise, though, the only option would be for manufacturers to go with a passive stylus. As a quick primer, passive styli aren't pressure-sensitive (brushes don't get wider strokes if you push down harder on the screen, for instance), nor can they sense your palms resting on a different part of the screen or bezel. On the other hand, they at least make for much more affordable products.

NVIDIA's new solution, known as DirectStylus, seeks to bridge the gap between these two types of stylus technologies. The company's goal is to make you feel like you're using an active stylus... even if it's just a passive one. Basically, then, active elements like pressure sensitivity and palm rejection are all here, and they work surprisingly well. The Tegra Note 7 comes with this technology built in, along with a stylus included in the box. Most passive styli will do the trick on a DirectStylus pad, but the fine-tipped implement here is comfortable to hold and easy to use as a writing utensil. Conversely, we tried using NVIDIA's stylus on a Nexus 7 and it worked just as well as any passive stylus would, but without the pressure sensitivity or palm rejection.

On the Note, we noticed a very slight delay in the time it takes for the screen to pick up what the pen is doing, but it's small enough that you may not always notice it. Interestingly, you can even customize the delay length so it takes even longer for your pen strokes to show up on-screen, but we couldn't think of any particularly compelling reason to do this. Still, that's not to say someone couldn't find a clever way of taking advantage of it.

Software

The Tegra Note comes with a mostly stock version of Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2, although you will notice some contributions from both NVIDIA and the various brands that choose to sell the device. The most obvious changes are the ones related to DirectStylus: When you pull the pen out of the holster, you're prompted to choose either a drawing app or a note-taking app, although you can go into the settings and tell the Note to launch any specific app of your choice instead. When the stylus is removed, two new buttons will appear in the virtual navigation bar at the bottom of your screen: one on the left and another on the right.

On the left, you'll see a stylus mode toggle switch; choosing this will disable any human touch, allowing you to draw or write without accidentally touching the pad with your hand and messing up your masterpiece. The stylus will still work when this mode isn't activated, but in our experience, the Note tended to ignore finger touches in NVIDIA's pen apps anyway, so this all might be a moot point.

The button on the right is a lasso-type screenshot tool that lets you clip a part of the screen and takes you to a special edit page, which you can use to tweak your clipping. If you need to crop, move or change your selection, or if you just need to add a hand-written annotation to that particular clip, this is where you do it. You'll also be able to save it or share it directly from here. If you choose to save it, the screenshot will show up in your gallery.

Aside from any pen-related apps, the Note 7 may also feature preloaded software from the distributor itself, as well as a special camera app that we'll talk about in more detail in the next section.

NVIDIA has said that one of the Note's strengths is its upgradeability through over-the-air updates. Indeed, it's promising that the device will receive Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) next month, as well as 4.4 (KitKat) later down the road. This is a strong selling point for people who are already concerned about Android fragmentation and the fact that a large number of existing devices won't be upgraded to KitKat. Even so, the Note likely won't get the updates as promptly as the Nexus 7 since the device utilizes special NVIDIA firmware that the company will have to develop and test before pushing out any updates.

Camera

Rather than using the stock camera app as the default option, NVIDIA worked out a partnership with Camera Awesome instead. The app has been on iOS for quite a while, but the Tegra Note marks its debut on Android. At least part of the reason for rejecting the stock version is because the company wanted to showcase some of the latest and greatest imaging features made possible by Tegra 4, and NVIDIA felt that this particular app would do a better job doing so. Unfortunately, there's more to camera performance than a nifty app. In fact, not even Camera Awesome can save the 5MP shooter from its disappointing image quality.

Before we dive too deep into the details, we need to add a disclaimer. One of the key tenets of the Chimera tech featured in the Tegra Note's camera is Always-on HDR (AOHDR), which is supposed to take advantage of the power of the Tegra 4 to make sure users can snap a real-time HDR shot without waiting several seconds for the camera to process it. (This feature is supposed to work for HDR video as well.) Sadly, it isn't ready for prime time yet, so NVIDIA is shipping the tablet without this feature and will include it as part of the Android 4.3 over-the-air update, which is expected to roll out next month.

As part of the Chimera experience, the camera also features video stabilization and object tracking (aka tap-to-track), which allows you to lock focus on one particular object and track it, regardless of where that object moves or how you move your viewfinder. The object-tracking feature works pretty well, but it's ultimately like putting lipstick on a pig; many of our shots suffered from soft focus, and tap-to-track can't do anything to fix that. Really, that feature can only ensure moving objects don't get even softer. It did help in a small number of situations, but it was the exception rather than the rule.

In terms of overall performance, the Tegra Note camera is sometimes capable of producing decent shots, but our experience was hit-or-miss, with a heavier emphasis on "miss." Many of our images taken in direct sunlight were more washed out than we would have liked; the color in most situations is inaccurate; and we noticed that our indoors shots featured light streaks emanating from windows, lamps and other sources of light. Low-light pictures were about as good as we'd expect from a tablet camera, which is to say they were noisy and the sensor didn't pick up enough light. Also worth noting: the Note lacks an LED flash, which would have come in handy here.

Gallery | 41 Photos

NVIDIA Tegra Note 7 camera samples

The Camera Awesome user interface is a little confusing. For stills, it offers a semicircle of various modes, but there's no way to tell what each icon represents until you select it and switch into that mode. After using the camera enough times, you'll get used to where everything is placed and what each mode can do, but it'll take a bit of time to feel comfortable with it. The number of customizable settings is also rather limited, although we at least were able to manipulate ISO, white balance and exposure.

Imaging performance typically isn't a priority on tablets, but change is in the air and user expectations revolving around having a good photo-taking experience on such a device are quickly escalating. Even NVIDIA's pitch drove this point home: It took great care to emphasize the Note's superior photography features, but our experience unfortunately didn't live up to the hype.

Performance and battery life

NVIDIA's bread and butter is its graphics performance, and it does a fantastic job in this arena with Tegra 4. Even though we'd love to enjoy this kind of processing power on a higher-res display, we're impressed to see the company push out a $200 device with such a high-end chip. On the CPU side, it features four 1.8GHz Cortex-A15 cores and a fifth "+1" core that's meant to take care of menial tasks that don't need the additional processing power. For graphics performance, you'll have 72 cores at your disposal.

All told, we noticed that the Tegra Note was just a bit faster than the Nexus 7, loading apps and performing other standard tasks at a quicker rate. When it comes to gaming, however, the devil is in the details -- and Tegra 4 has a lot of tiny ones added throughout titles that are optimized to run on NVIDIA's platform. The average user may not notice a lot of the small differences between the two devices, but upon closer inspection we can see more of the effects the character has in his or her interaction with the environment. There are also more shaders and fewer frame skips. For those of you who still like benchmarks, we've included a small table of results which puts the Note 7 against a couple of its other strong competitors.

Tegra Note 7 Nexus 7 Galaxy Note 8
Quadrant 2.0 16,066 6,133 6,830
Vellamo 2.0 3,314 1,597 1,766
3DMark IS Ultimate 16,473 10,271 2,894
SunSpider 1.0 (ms) 586 602 1,224
GFXBench 2.7 Offscreen (fps) 20 15 4.8
CF-Bench 34,386 15,366 15,128
SunSpider: lower scores are better

We got mixed results with our battery life tests. In normal use, we were able to get around a day and a half of juice, but then again, we didn't spend much time playing games on it during that tenure. If you're more of a casual user and don't need to be checking your tablet 24/7, we're sure you can squeeze out two to three days of juice before it's time to recharge. In our standard video playback test in which we run a high-def video on an endless loop, the Note lasted just a little over ten hours, and when we subjected the device to nonstop games (both optimized and non-optimized games were represented), we got almost five hours.

We appreciate NVIDIA's decision to offer stereo speakers on the top of the device, with an extra grille for bass. This results in a solid, full sound that's enjoyable to listen to. The volume is quite loud in most places, but it's pretty difficult to hear it in noisy environments -- though, we'd much prefer using headphones in public places anyway (for our sanity and that of those around us), so this likely isn't going to be a make-or-break factor. With headphones, however, volume level was never a problem, and we usually ended up turning it down because it was too loud.

The competition

One of the Tegra Note's fiercest competitors is the new Nexus 7, which costs $30 more and boasts a full HD display, a quad-core Qualcomm S4 Pro chipset and a lighter, more elegant design. But as we mentioned earlier, there are plenty of other 7- and 8-inch options out there. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is the only other one with unique stylus support -- it even goes one step further by offering its own S Pen ecosystem -- but you're looking at twice the price as a result. Amazon's also heating up the market with the Kindle Fire HDX line, which starts at $230 for the 7-inch model, the same price as the Nexus 7. Be warned, though, that you don't get the same Google Play access as other Android devices, and you may also have to deal with "Special Offers" (read: ads). Lastly, if you're flirting with iOS, last year's iPad mini is now sold for $299, while the brand-new version with Retina display is available now for $399.

Wrap-up

For all of the Tegra Note's struggles, we appreciate how challenging it is for a manufacturer to build a spectacular $200 tablet and still be profitable. Google sells the Nexus 7 for only $30 more, but the company's Nexus devices typically sell at a price that isn't much more than its total build cost. With that in mind, NVIDIA has done a great job making Tegra 4 less expensive for the masses. However, it had to make some compromises to get there.

Aside from the cheap build quality, though, the Note performs well. If you're in the market for an inexpensive 7-inch tablet, there are two reasons you might want to pick up the Tegra Note: you play a large number of games, especially graphic-intensive ones, and/or you need a smaller, inexpensive tablet that comes with a stylus. Outside of that, it needs a lighter, thinner, sleeker design and a higher-res display to enhance the stellar gaming performance; only then will it be truly tempting. Oh, and one more thing: can we do something about the name?