Mobile World Congress, a debutante ball of sorts for the wireless industry, is an oddity; set against a landscape more famous for its modernist accents and marathon nightlife than propensity for forward-facing gadgetry. Yet every year, despite this cultural contrast, mobile's best, brightest and even little known descend upon Barcelona to showcase the incoming tide of next-gen wares. It's a wonder, then, that for all the bombast and spectacle, Samsung, a titan in the cluttered Android field, chose to occupy a sizable swathe of the event's booth real estate with a glut of mid-range and less-than-fresh devices. Save for one notable product.
Without the halo of its still secret unicorn, the Galaxy S III, to power the brand's visibility, the company turned the spotlight on its other flagship -- the Galaxy Note 10.1 -- as more of a rightful successor to its O.G. Galaxy Tab of the same size, not the recently debuted Tab 2 (10.1). Confused? That's understandable, but this broad-screened fella's outing marks a stark transition away from the Note as smartphone, established by its 5.3-inch forebear, to a concrete series of S-Pen equipped products. Its beefier dual-core 1.4GHz CPU and 1GB RAM notwithstanding, this is, for all intents and purposes, more of a gentle update than a full-on refresh, as most of the build, screen (1,280 x 800) and camera setup remains virtually unchanged.
Solidifying the unit's place atop the industry's top-shelf mantel, is its inclusion of Google's latest ICS OS (4.0.3), slathered here in a TouchWiz skin, and the addition of two pre-installed S-Pen apps: Adobe PS Touch and Ideas. So, software improvements aside, why should this tablet, an admitted work-in-progress that's lacking the finishing touches of a final production model, occupy a space on your finely tuned tech radar? Why should you devote a portion of your gadget-lusting heart to the promise of a killer device currently lacking any known pricing or availability? Well, to answer those questions, Samsung let us spend some brief, albeit quality time with the Note's in-development next of kin. So follow on after the break as we explore its digitizer-optimized nooks and crannies and whet your appetites for what's to come.
With the Note 10.1, it appears Samsung's holding fast to the axiom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Except in this case (pun intended), the O.G. Tab 10.1's glossy, plastic back (a veritable forensics wet dream) has now been replaced by a matte finish. So you can safely say goodbye to that unsightly trail of fingerprint sludge. That's not the only surface change separating the two, however, as its color scheme has also taken a subdued turn, ditching the bright, metallic border for a darker gunmetal grey. The dual speaker setup gets a minor placement tweak, shifting over from its former landscape orientation along the device's left and right edges to the front face surrounding the bezel. And really, that's about as cosmetically altered as this tablet gets in this generational leap.
As you'll see in our side-by-side comparison shots, all of the ports have been relegated to the exact same alignments they occupied on the Tab 10.1, with the minor addition of a covered microSD slot. Yes, this Android slate leaps past the storage handicap of its elder with the ability to expand that capacity from its 16GB, 32GB or 64GB configurations -- especially handy given the library of images this multimedia tool is sure to harbor. The same dual 2MP front-facing / 3MP rear camera setup is present, as well as a proprietary charging dock at the device's base, with the power button, volume rocker, IR blaster and 3.5mm headphone jack sitting tidy up top.
If you've spent any time with Samsung's original 10.1 slate, you'll definitely notice the Note 10.1's slight increase in thickness and heft. It's really rather a marginal swelling, and barely noticeable at that, but we would've preferred to see this tablet maintain the slimmer profile of its ancestor. The same goes for the encasement around the screen. Whereas the Tab 10.1 offered users an all-over round-edged design, the Note 10.1 strays right where it counts, transforming those curves into hard lines. Which, if you're holding this in landscape, contributes to a less-pleasing in-hand fit. Again, you shouldn't be bothered much unless you're a stickler for premium ergonomic fit.
When Apple unleashed its new iPad to the market, several OEMs with tablets waiting in the wings were left, undoubtedly, scratching their heads. Not content to join its rivals at the 1,920 x 1,200 highwater mark, Cupertino vaulted past with its 2,048 x 1,536 Retina display and set a new standard in the process. It goes without saying the Note 10.1's display tech isn't of that caliber, nor is it of the full-HD variety, either. Again, Samsung's stuck to its guns and left the 1,280 x 800 resolution spread across its 10.1-inches unchanged. No surprises here, as colors on the screen pop with brightness, stopping just short of being over-saturated, while viewing angles are similarly strong, although you'll have to contend with quite a bit of glare.
Performance and S-Pen
Forget about the body of this beast for a moment. Aesthetics are not what the Note 10.1's about. Samsung crafted this tablet to be the harbinger of its S-Pen line, more so than its smartphone stablemate. So, the focus should be on the software inside, not its looks or samey specs. But before we dive in to parse through the various UI embellishments that make this less of a tablet and more of a tool, we have to again stress that performance and even the array of available apps could change. Samsung's still tinkering with this guy in its labs and the final model could look and function much differently when it finally hits retailers' shelves.
With those caveats addressed, let's turn our attention to the OS. From what we've seen so far, this is a slate that looks to the past for its inspiration, but thankfully, that memory-mining doesn't involve a resurrection of Honeycomb 3.2. Android fanpersons should be pleased that Samsung's keeping its eye on the future, loading the Note 10.1 up with a skinned version of 4.0.3 -- that skin being TouchWiz, naturally. It's not the pure vision of Ice Cream Sandwich set forth by Andy Rubin's team, so if you're not familiar with Sammy's range of devices, you'll be none too chuffed. For everyone else, this UX overlay shouldn't be much of a hindrance as it retains most of ICS's functionality and flourishes, speeding along respectably and even including a handy screenshot shortcut amongst the software navigation keys.
Bolstered by a dual-core 1.4GHz processor and 1GB of RAM, you'd expect the Note 10.1 to dazzle with an immediacy of response and lightning-quick transitions. Unfortunately, that's not the case as it's obvious the slate could do with a heavy bit of optimization. While navigation through the various homescreens is smooth, it's the loading of applications that really highlights the tab's few rough edges. Indeed, there's a lag evident when accessing apps that could lead you to misinterpret this hesitancy as a lack of responsiveness and effect another tap. Happily, that's not the case. The screen does successfully read your gesture, but it will take up to five seconds, in some instances, for a selected program to load.
A Note by any other name would simply be a Tab, which is why this slate comes bundled with a differentiator: the S-Pen. When Samsung first unveiled this tablet at MWC, it also outed an update to its digitizer pen tech. The stylus shown off at the company's booth simplifies workflow by adding an eraser function to the bottom end -- a feature easily enacted by a flip of the pen -- sidestepping the need to access the in-app menu. We weren't able to procure that particular S-Pen from Samsung, so we had to make do with a basic one borrowed from the Galaxy Note and sheathed in a luxe holder. While that adds a bit of girth and protection, transforming the S-Pen into a proper, elegant and easy-to-grip pen, the inclusion of a function button close to the tip can prove to be somewhat irksome. Truly, we wrestled with settling on an acceptable position so as to keep from accidentally triggering the screenshot function tied to that shortcut key. This nuisance can simply be avoided if you choose to forego the use of that casing.
We've already touched upon the disconnect between touch recognition and the loading of apps when using your fingertip. Switch over to the S-Pen, though, and you'll initially be convinced the problem has worsened. That's simply not the case, however, as the accurate use of the S-Pen requires careful attention and a bit of readjustment on the user's part. It works best when you find its happy medium: a tap that is neither too aggressive nor too light upon the screen. It can be a tad slippery to navigate precisely, a fact we'll revisit later, but to move the uninitiated along, Samsung's added a helpful setting to display an onscreen cursor which tracks your movements.
Bear in mind this isn't a review of the full-fledged product. That in-depth feature will hopefully come at a later date when Samsung manages to iron out the kinks and get this tablet to the market. So, in the interest of giving you a glimpse of the raw processing power fueling this iteration, we've done a side-by-side with the Tab 10.1 it's meant to outdo. Take a look at the chart below and you'll see the Note 10.1 benefits from that extra 400MHz, overtaking its aging and lower clocked predecessor in nearly every benchmark we tested. No doubt that ICS OS it runs had a hand in this performance leap, though Sammy's O.G. tab did take home the crown, albeit barely, in Sunspider 9.1 results. Given time for additional optimization and we're sure that final production model will see even further appreciable gains.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Linpack single-thread (MFLOPS)
Linpack multi-thread (MFLOPS)
Sunspider 9.1 (ms, lower numbers are better)
Software and S-Pen apps
Remember that old iPhone meme, "You're holding it wrong." Well, the same could apply here if we swap out "holding" for "touching." The Note 10.1 is, after all, a digitizer and its various applications, even the non-stylus specific ones, all make ample use of the S-Pen. That includes Google's suite of apps, as well as any third party software (none of which are final) that Samsung chooses to pre-install, like Polaris Office, Zinio, Photo Editor and Crayon Physics Deluxe. Will you want to keep that stylus in hand throughout your use? The answer to that very question all depends on the mode you intend to slip into: creativity or productivity. For applications associated with the latter category, it'll be hard to resist the temptation to switch to your own digits, as depressing keys on the software keyboard or even relying on the inbuilt handwriting recognition software takes too long; makes the entire process inefficient. You won't encounter that issue if you happen to be simply selecting apps, links or menu settings, but for the purpose of text input, it's inadvisable. Don't take this a con, though, because the S-Pen does have lovely benefits -- you just have to know where and when to make use of them.
Google's Play market doesn't yet offer users the ability to cut through the clutter and isolate the scattering of stylus-friendly apps, but Samsung's own storefront does. Separated by categories, prospective Note 10.1 owners will need to merely highlight 'S Choice' to browse the available selection of S-Pen compatible applications. Using this curated Android market, we were able to download a handful of complementary programs, like Animating Touch and Hello Color Pencil.
If you own the Galaxy Note, then this app should seem familiar. As one of the few programs Samsung's created to take full advantage of the S-Pen, you'll find most of your note-taking and handwriting recognition needs will be met here. After selecting one of a handful of themes (ranging from a memo to musical notation paper to graph paper), users are then given the option to choose from one of three function modes -- formula, shape or text match -- which all perform exactly as they sound. Select the math option and your screen will be divided into two, with the lower portion dedicated to input and the above a near final preview of your entry. Scrawl in an equation and the software will do its best to discern it, translating your arithmetic up above and presenting you with the option to go ahead and calculate. It's pretty simple stuff and, more often than not, the software was able to accurately determine which numbers and symbols we'd written down.
The shape function has a less obvious utility and was cause for a bit of trial and error to work properly. It won't correct your attempts at anthropomorphic sketches, but if the composition of basic circles and squares poses you great difficulty, this neat mode will redraw them for you in proper alignment.
Sure enough, the addition of those two modes are an added bonus, giving users something to do with that S-Pen, but they're also superfluous at best. The real meat and potatoes of S-Memo is its plain 'ol ability to render your illegible print into readable type -- a feat it pulls of with an almost complete sense of ease. Trigger this function and an onscreen gesture guide will immediately fill up the screen. Overall, these shortcuts are a breeze to accomplish, with a swipe back used for deletion, swipe to the right or down used for spacing, as well as the ability to correct misspellings by overwriting on the faulty letter.
Get down to the business of actually entering text and, at first, you'll feel as though you've re-entered primary school; adapting your print from its idiosyncratic scribble to the more staid and traditional forms of our alphabet. Once over that learning curve, however, your experience with the handwriting software should lend itself to a measured pace. Yes, it's necessary to intermittently interrupt your writing to manually enter the approved text into the appropriate field above, but that's really the only speed bump in an otherwise smooth ride. When you've finished whatever it is you set out do with the app, you can then share it to various social media, export, print or merely save for a rainy day.
Abandon all hope for variation, ye who enter this app -- redundancy abounds. At first glance, S Note is nothing other than S Memo dressed up with templates as opposed to themes. Does this make any difference? If you happen to be in a cutesy mood and want to mock up a postcard with an image from your own gallery or even a magazine page with a video embed, then it's a resounding yes. Otherwise, it's more of an amusing diversion that makes use of the S-Pen than creative pro tool. For the sake of a cohesive user experience, Samsung could've simply rolled this app's feature set into S Memo, making for a more robust, stylus-friendly feature set.
Ideas is the first of the two Adobe apps that come pre-installed on the Note 10.1: a Photoshop-like application that significantly lowers the bar so non-creative types can doodle and play. Really, it's a dumbed-down version of PS Touch, offering a scaled down set of editing functions that amounts to nothing more than amateur hour for aspiring graphic designers. Pulling from a selection of images (be they pre-loaded, imported or snapped with the dual camera setup), users can add their creations in layers, adjusting brush size, opacity and color as they go. Professional types will likely want to steer clear of Ideas in favor of the fuller companion app. For the everyman, however, it's a welcome addition that could serve to gently ease newbies into the complex world of image manipulation that awaits them in PS Touch.
Have a Wacom tablet at home? Then you'll be pleased to meet PS Touch -- the Note 10.1's undisputed S-Pen gem. Creative pros will find comfort in this tablet adaptation of Adobe's über-popular Photoshop program, as most of the features, though laid out differently, remain intact. While it's not a complete replacement for a desktop graphics workstation, the app does give pros some flexibility, letting them create on-the-go much the same way they'd do in the office or at home. While you wouldn't want to rely solely on this application for the majority of your workflow, it could come handy in pinch, offering up an outpost for moments of sudden inspiration outside of your traditional workspace.
To its credit, Adobe's tossed in a variety of tutorials to walk users, both new and experienced, through the app's many functions. It's not a completely intuitive walkthrough, as the correct implementation of a step won't prompt you to move on; you'll have to be a bit self-reliant and trust in your own skill set for that. Follow through and you'll be rewarded with knowledge of PS Touch's image manipulation capabilities that can then be applied to your own projects. That's not to say you'll successfully complete every tutorial with precision -- or at all, for that matter. Some of the features require a deft hand and deep understanding of the more advanced principles of Photoshop. Without that prior experience, users will likely skim the surface or default to the simpler and less intimidating Ideas.
Samsung's still chiseling this S-Pen flagship into final form, so we'll avoid passing a verdict on its pros and cons. What we can speak to is its usefulness as more than a standard tablet; as a tool for creative professionals looking to extend their workflow beyond the confines of the traditional work environment. Seen in that vein, there's a strong argument for designers to hop on board and claim the Note 10.1 as their own. With an array of apps that lend themselves well to sketching, annotating and moderate-to-heavy image editing, pro users should find this a satisfying on-the-go crutch. Armed with the S-Pen and a generous 10.1-inches, those moments of sudden inspiration won't go wasted, as you'll be capable of whipping this slate out and translating those fleeting moments of genius into visible and safely contained ideas.
Move outside of this user base, however, and the tablet becomes more of a novelty, with its true power left untapped by the lowered demands of the casual consumer. It makes sense, then, why Samsung chose to branch out the category with a stable of slates dedicated to the precision of a stylus and general productivity to its Tab series. We can't say for sure if this is a must-have device -- that all hinges upon its unknown price point and production-ready performance -- but as it stands, the Note 10.1's future looks promising.
Zach Honig contributed to this report.