For better or worse, Samsung's sticking to the durability of its signature plastic enclosures. Brushed aluminum backs, it would seem, are for other OEMs. So if premium builds are tops on your checklist, you can safely stop reading now. In its prototype form, the Note 10.1 felt like a luxury item, thanks to its matte enclosure (then gunmetal gray). But in a surprising reversal of course, that subdued finish has since vanished, only to be replaced with the same sort of glossy backing used on the OG 10.1. It's no small wonder that the company made this change, given its bloated lineup of near-identical tablets. This is an Android slate that calls attention to itself, though it might not be the right kind.
There's no two ways about it: the Note 10.1 looks and feels kind of cheap. Starting with our most serious complaint, it's prone to the squeaks and creaks of inferior budget devices, which is definitely not something you'd associate with a $499 product -- let alone a flagship. Despite our protestations, though, this is Samsung's M.O. But, as with the company's other halo product, the Galaxy S III, we ultimately decided it's best to make peace with this lack of design flair and instead try to appreciate the feature set that makes it a stand-out device.
Back when it was still in development, the Note 10.1 had one glaring flaw: the lack of an S-Pen slot. That oversight's since been remedied and as a result, the chassis is a tad wider at 0.35 x 7.1 x 10.3 inches (8.9 x 180.4 x 261.6mm), allowing it to accommodate that housing along the bottom right edge. On the surface, that's about that's about the extent of the tablet's alterations (take note: the HSPA+ global version adds a SIM slot for voice and data use).
The arrangement of its ports and hardware keys have remained unchanged, matching the layout on the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. There's a proprietary charging slot on the bottom edge, a dual-speaker setup flanking the screen and a power button, volume rocker, microSD slot (supporting cards up to 64GB), an IR blaster and 3.5mm headphone jack up top. Around back, the Note 10.1 is completely blank, showcasing only Samsung's logo. You will, however, find a silver strip along the upper half of the lid, which houses the 5-megapixel rear camera (up from 3 megapixels when it was first announced) and a single LED flash. As for the module's companion 1.9-megapixel front-facer, it sits above the display along with an ambient sensor.
Perhaps the most important changes here are the ones Samsung made to the Note 10.1's internals. Whereas it was announced with a dual-core CPU, the company's swapped that out for the more powerful quad-core Exynos 4 clocked at 1.4GHz -- and what a difference four cores makes. To complement this processing might, Samsung threw in a healthy 2GB RAM and a 7,000mAh battery to keep the experience afloat. We'll delve deeper into the performance later on, but rest assured this tab can take whatever you throw at it and then some.
So the overall construction holds fast to the tried-and-true approach of Samsung devices past, but how does it feel in hand? Well, considering its dimensions have expanded, it still feels reassuringly light and manageable. Weighing 1.31lbs (0.6kg), it's comfortable to hold in one hand while you grip the S-Pen in the other, though the edges could do with a bit of softening.
And how about that S-Pen? Has it seen an evolution? Are there any additional bells and whistles packed into it? Does its oblong shape make for a natural fit in-hand? Well, yes, no and sorta kinda. Allow us to elaborate. For all its girth, the S-Pen still feels as light as a feather -- and that's not necessarily a good thing. Like the tablet itself, the pen conveys an inferior and ultimately disposable feel. For what it's worth, there's a well placed function button located on the side of the pen that's easy to find with your finger. If that's not impressive enough, Samsung will sell two additional pens -- one with an eraser tip and the other a larger holster for a more natural grip.
Ding, ding, ding. That's how many times the bell should ring to count out the Note 10.1's 1,280 x 800 TFT LCD display. Samsung obviously made a compromise to keep costs down, but there's really no reason for the company to have settled on such a middling display. When we previewed the tablet it was a work in progress, so the forgettable display was easier to forgive -- Apple's new iPad had just seen a public launch, leaving Samsung plenty of time to rejigger its part list and potentially bump that screen to 1,920 x 1,200 resolution. Yet, the company didn't and we remain confused.
Still, it's a serviceable panel: its colors are balanced (helped by a Dynamic and Movie mode) and viewing angles are sharp, though the screen does fall prey to a little washout and glare. Mainly, we're frustrated by the tab's pixel density, and we can't imagine graphic designers and other creative types will be impressed either.
Performance and multitasking
The guts of the Note 10.1 should be a source of pride for Samsung's engineers, and nowhere is this more evident than in the tablet's slick multiscreen implementation (more on this in a moment). But while anecdotal software impressions can paint an abstract picture of what's happening under the hood, benchmarks lay out a blueprint for what's truly possible, and hint at what potential might be lying untapped. Since the tab's spec list is an uneven mix, we pitted it against a range of contemporary Android slates that share some of the same traits -- be it a similar resolution, multi-core CPU or Android 4.0 as an OS. In this instance, many of the rivals we selected -- Acer's Iconia Tab A700, ASUS' Transformer Pad TF300 and Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 -- pack Tegra 3 internals. (The dual-core Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 does not.) Yet, despite being armed with such considerable horsepower, none proved a fair match for Samsung's proprietary chipset. That's not to say the Note 10.1 notched undisputed wins across the board; we logged a marginal AnTuTu loss and a Nenamark result that put in on par with all those Tegra 3 tablets we mentioned.
So about that multiscreen option. This feature, which wasn't demoed on the original model announced at MWC, affords a convenient split-screen view. All told, you can choose from six apps -- S Note, Gallery, Video, Browser, Polaris Office and Email. But the multitasking fun doesn't end there: power users can load a pop-up video player on the upper half of the screen, call up various of mini apps from an onscreen shortcut or drag and drop clipboard content from the browser or Gallery to S Note and Polaris Office. During our testing, we launched as many as eight apps simultaneously, which appeared to have no detrimental effect on video playback and only slightly hampered the slate's overall response time. In real-world usage, you'd be hard-pressed to find a scenario where such extreme multitasking is even necessary, and we suspect that workhorse potential will satisfy even the most discerning power users.
As you might expect, the Note 10.1 delivers consistently solid performance unless burdened with an unrealistic workload (see above). All told, the tablet delivers a snappy, fluid experience, which happily doesn't include many jarring transitions.
The Note 10.1 comes in two flavors: HSPA+ and WiFi-only (the former is already available at online retailers like Negri Electronics). For now, at least, only the WiFi version will be available in the US. So while we can't say how long the tab will last when tethered to an always-on 3G connection, we can speak to the longevity of the WiFi-only variant. As it happens, this is the same 7,000mAh battery used in the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, except here it's tasked with supporting a quad-core processor. How does it fare? With light to moderate use, it's easy to spread one full charge cycle over the span of three days -- that's with some casual browsing, streaming video consumption, social media monitoring and brief photo-taking. But for as long as the device might last you in the real world, it's also exceptionally slow to recharge, so plan accordingly and don't say we didn't warn you.
Under the duress of our more formal battery rundown test, which entails looping a video off local storage with the screen brightness fixed at 50 percent, the Note 10.1 held out for a solid eight hours. Again, bear in mind that figure represents the strain of both the Exynos 4 and the 10-inch 1,280 x 800 screen. Had Samsung chosen to boost the display quality to full HD, this real-world result would have depreciated even further, forcing the company to go with a bigger battery and a weightier tablet. Even so, this showing places the Note 10.1 far down on the tablet totem pole, smack dab between the Kindle Fire and Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus -- not exactly a flattering comparison.
Software and S-Pen apps
In a perfect world, the Note 10.1 would hit retail running Jelly Bean right out of the box. That's our dream scenario for this and every other Android device, but as we've grudgingly come to accept, most manufacturers want to put their individual stamp on Google's unified operating system. And so, we're faced with a skinned version of Ice Cream Sandwich, now bumped to 4.0.4 and predictably cloaked in Samsung's TouchWiz UX. Purists shouldn't have much difficulty acclimating to this particular overlay as it's actually quite light, though it is stocked up with 21 pre-loaded apps -- Kno, Barnes & Noble Nook, Netflix, Peel Smart Remote and Dropbox, just to name a few. Samsung assures us an upgrade to Android 4.1 will arrive sometime this year, so expect more concrete news on that front in the coming months.
To speak of Ice Cream Sandwich's ins and outs is to rehash yesterday's news. With that in mind, we won't retread such familiar territory. Instead, let's focus on what Samsung's done to optimize the tablet for that S-Pen. From the moment you retrieve the stylus from its in-shell holder, a vertical mini-menu slides out from the screen's right edge displaying five optimized applications and a settings option. This shortcuts toolbar can is customizable in that you can have a certain app open when you remove the pen from its slot. Right now, only five applications are designed to take specific advantage of this functionality: S Note, S Planner, Crayon Physics, Photoshop Touch and Polaris Office. And, as with the Galaxy Note phone, the S-Pen can also be used to take screenshots (just long-press the function button while touching the pen to the screen).
Samsung's already made the S-Pen's SDK available to developers, so there's a chance the Note 10.1 could find much richer support in the future. Realistically, though, users will have to make do with Samsung's curated software suite or use S Suggest (the company's recommendation engine) to find other optimized apps. So what's really changed since we last saw Note 10.1 in March? For starters, the S-Pen's sensitivity level has been increased to an impressive 1,024 degrees of pressure. You won't have much need for such nuanced touch support with general use, but fire up PS Touch or S Note and you'll begin to appreciate the precision. The same goes for the tablet's palm rejection -- the ability for the slate to detect stylus input while your hand rests on the screen. This, too, has been refined since we took that earlier build for a spoin.
Optimized app support would seem to be the logical means to effect successful S-Pen implementation throughout the slate, but Samsung's taken it one step further, tossing in the mouse-like ability to hover (aided by an optional icon setting) and trigger dropdown menus when browsing web sites. It's a small flourish, but one that catapults the Note 10.1 past other devices, transforming it into a bona fide productivity tool.
Much has been said about the Note 10.1's inclusion of PS Touch, an app that normally costs $10 in Google's Play store. Though it's a pared-down version of the full desktop program used by pros, it does offer a robust suite of tools that should please pros and amateurs alike. Samsung's worked closely with Adobe to hone the app so that first-timers adjusting to stylus-guided navigation will find the experience intuitive. To that end, there's even a collection of handy tutorials ready to hand-hold newbs through the post-production process.
Notably absent, however, is Adobe's other Photoshop-like companion app, Ideas. Even odder, it was installed on the pre-production model we first saw at MWC and then tested in our preview. Fortunately, its absence won't negatively affect users, as that app is basically a distilled version of PS Touch, just with fewer practical applications. We're not sad to see it go, and we also won't miss S Memo, another pre-release app that's been kicked to the curb. Like Ideas, Memo was more or less a redundancy, a sandboxed version of S Note that had no reason for existing on its own. Unlike Ideas, however, Samsung chose to fold S Memo into S Note as a template option -- exactly where it always belonged.
Otherwise, the majority of S Note's functions have stayed the same. Users can still choose from an assortment of pen options, brush sizes and colors for handwriting-based input or opt for text-based input using the onscreen keyboard which, thanks to the company's tweaking, is now offered in three layouts: traditional QWERTY; Floating, which permits users to adjust its onscreen placement; and Split, Samsung's take on a thumb keyboard. Menu options are present to export your creations in .pdf, .jpg, .snb or text format and send via email, Dropbox, Bluetooth or WiFi Direct.
Handwriting recognition on the Note 10.1 is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was the last time we tested this thing. Much to our delight, the tablet's software was able to correctly make sense of our illegible cursive, translating our chickenscratch into proper text. Take the time to write neatly in print and you'll find no fault with the slate's powers of comprehension. Even the shape function has been enhanced so that it now more consistently rearranges sloppy geometric figures into appropriate configurations.
But the most noticeable and welcome improvement is actually the mathematical function, of all things. Users that input equations into the slate will be presented with a search option on the upper half of the screen, thanks to a partnership with Wolfram Alpha. Select that, and the Note 10.1 immediately segues into multiscreen mode, pulling up the browser and displaying a list of responses tailored to that specific query. Again, it's a minute touch, but on the whole, it helps to elevate this Samsung slate above its run-of-the-mill Android competition.
The Note 10.1 should not be your go-to for photography or at least, not the device you rely on for fleeting moments of inspiration. No, this slate's rear 5-megapixel module doesn't handle impromptu image capture with any sense of skill. It's actually downright frustrating with its focusing difficulties and the considerable lag between the moment you trigger the onscreen shutter button and the final result. During our photographic walkabout in downtown New York City, we found ourselves snapping several takes of the exact same image and never quite landing on a still that met our expectations. Also, the tab's lack of a full HD screen is extremely apparent here, as it led us to believe on more than one occasion that the images we'd shot were of inferior quality. That wasn't totally the case, as our final batch of 2,560 x 1,920 shots did turn up some above-average pictures with an acceptable level of detail and depth of field. On the whole, though, photos tended to have a blurry quality -- softly lit and filtered, despite the abundant outdoor lighting.