Overseas, it doubles as a phone. Here in the US, it's just a tablet with an S Pen onboard. For its stateside debut, Samsung's stripped the Galaxy Note 8.0 of the very HSPA+ radios that made it an 8-inch curiosity at this year's Mobile World Congress. Now, as it's primed to go on sale, the Note 8.0 has sobered up, combining a host of compelling TouchWiz software tricks lifted from its high-profile Galaxy mates into a more serious, along with a more pocketable, size.
Its 8-inch form factor may be new, but the bits used within should be plenty familiar: Samsung's borrowed elements from previous products, including the Note 10.1's 1,280 x 800 TFT display (albeit with a higher pixel density of 189 ppi). Meanwhile, the Note 8.0 draws inspiration from some Samsung phones, too, with chrome accents, a bulging rear camera module and a build that manages to be reminiscent of both the Galaxy S III and Note II. What's more, it packs a 1.6GHz Exynos 4 Quad inside -- yep, just like its predecessor. It'd be easy to pass the Note 8.0 off as a comfortable retread; a Best of edition for the Note line. In a way, it is. But, Samsung's not so daft -- there's a cushy market for tablets as a second screen and the company knows this all too well. So, can it best the iPad mini as the go-to, do-everything couch companion? Or is this $399 tablet more of a supernova for the Galaxy line? Follow along to find out.
Pen can now be used to tap the capacitive soft keys
Not many tablets this size with pen support
Disappointing battery life
No HSPA+ option in the US
Even if you rarely use the S Pen, the Galaxy Note 8.0 is a solid tablet in its own right.
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To love Samsung is to accept the company's hallmark: plastic. You can't have one without the other, and no amount of consumer uproar is going to change the company's position. Time and again, the company has defined premium by durability and a sheer abundance of software, and not necessarily by sexy industrial design. So, brace yourself for the obvious and expected jabs at what can only be described as the Note 8.0's wallflower design. It's inoffensive, unappealing and wholly forgettable -- which might even be the point. And that's not just some leap of reasoning. We know from our GS 4-focused talks with Samsung's US design studio, that an appeal to the senses boils down to materials, an approach that's clearly at play here.
But, try as we might to wish the company's product line into something more refined à la HTC or Apple, the Note 8.0's unremarkable, all-plastic shell serves a purpose. It's unassumingly sturdy, soft to the touch without being slippery, light in hand without feeling disposable and just wide enough at 210.8 x 135.9 x 7.95mm (8.3 x 5.4 x 0.31 inches) to be perfectly manageable for single-handed use. Unless you're suffering from Avian Bone Syndrome, the Note 8.0 won't fatigue your wrists with extended use; a portion of its weight is wisely distributed at the base to keep the tablet from falling out of your grasp.
You may not notice it initially, but Samsung's Note 8.0 isn't as monochromatic as it appears. Examine the device's backplate close-up and you'll notice a much more subdued implementation of the cross-hatching we first saw on the Galaxy S 4. And that's about as much ornamentation as you'll find on the Note 8.0; the rest of its back side is a vast expanse of white, punctuated by the hump housing a 5-megapixel camera (no flash) and an understated Samsung logo just below. Underneath that non-removable backplate lies the 4,600mAh battery.
Unlike previous Notes, the hardware keys (power button and volume rocker), IR blaster and S Pen all line the Note 8.0's right side, with a covered microSD port occupying the opposite edge all by its lonesome. This clean arrangement was a smart move on Samsung's part, one that should save consumers the confusion of fumbling around simply to raise or lower the speaker volume. Speaking of which, the dual-speaker setup on the bottom edge (over by the micro-USB port) isn't nearly as user-friendly. Whereas the Note 10.1 positioned its speakers on the front face (read: out of the way of consumers' hands), the Note 8.0's smaller size and portrait orientation mean users will have to be mindful about not covering the lower speaker when watching video in landscape.
Head-on, the Note 8.0 looks just like any other high-end Galaxy device: capacitive buttons for menu and back hug the physical home button below the display, while the company's logo, a front-facing camera and sensor reside up top. Thankfully, much of that front face is dominated by the 8-inch screen -- the surrounding bezels are generous enough to accommodate thumbs without hampering the tablet's overall flair. That's not to say it's a perfect fit. We did have to be somewhat mindful when reading an e-book, for example, as any accidental encroachment of the thumb onto the edge of the screen can trigger a page flip. It's not ideal, but it's also not unworkable.
As for the S Pen, allow us to nitpick for just a moment. There's nothing wrong, per se, with the ergonomics of Samsung's stylus: it's essentially unchanged from what ships with the Note II, only its base is marginally larger. What irks us, though, is the slight notch Samsung's allotted for its removal, now placed on the right side of the Note 8.0. Users familiar with the Note II will undoubtedly reach behind the tablet, out of sheer habit, to detach the S Pen. Thus, it forces Note diehards into a bit of retraining. Again, it's a very minor quibble, but we'd prefer if Samsung kept the experience consistent for its user base.
It may be the Note line's claim to fame (and existence), but we can't shake the feeling that the S Pen is now just a relic, a built-in accessory necessary to distinguish the very first Note as a new category. A justification, even, for its then-ostentatious screen size. As we move deeper into 2013, we now find mega-smartphone displays becoming the norm. One could even argue that Note-sized smartphones might eventually even cannibalize the need for tablets proper. And yet, barring creative professions like graphic design, there's no real productivity boost to be had, no efficiency gained by resorting to a stylus over the finger.
We can isolate only a handful of cases where consumers may prefer the S Pen: content previews, for example, on Flipboard or menu dropdowns on sites like Amazon. Aside from that, though, we're hard-pressed to care about the pen. In fact, we've found it hampers our workflow when attempting to compose an email or a simple text in Google Voice -- something the keyboard's Swype-like input mode handles with ease.
When the Note 10.1 debuted, we pooh-poohed its display for its fairly low 1,280 x 800 resolution. On that device, the poor pixel density wasn't just a distraction; it also detracted from the Note 10.1's usefulness as a graphics workstation. Repurposed on an 8-inch screen, however, that resolution becomes much more palatable, thanks to a higher ppi of 189. Contrast that with the lesser 1,024 x 768 IPS display and 163 ppi on Apple's 7.9-inch iPad mini and it's clear which mid-sized tablet wins the eye candy war.
When it inherited the legacy of the Note 10.1's display, the Note 8.0 also lost that other signature Samsung spec: AMOLED. No, the Note 8.0 doesn't boast the oversaturation common on the near entirety of Samsung's mobile portfolio, but the TFT LCD display employed here is bright, balanced and readable even at full tilt. Yes, there's some washout apparent at a 15-degree turn, but it doesn't really have any meaningful negative impact on the user experience. If you aim to use the Note 8.0 outdoors, then we advise you to seek out shade. Discerning the contents of the screen in daylight, even at full brightness, was a downright chore. Handily, there is an option for outdoor visibility buried within the camera settings, but outside of that specific software, the setting has no effect on general-purpose usage.
To introduce a new Galaxy product is to unleash a virtual cavalcade of software bells and whistles.
The Samsung effect can be dizzying. To introduce a new Galaxy product is to unleash a virtual cavalcade of software bells and whistles. For Samsung, software is the star -- not the Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean that lies beneath and definitely not the hardware pulling it all together. It's a pattern that continues to snowball with every successive flagship device -- a TouchWiz feature overload. For sure, a small subset of users familiar enough with past Galaxy flagships will be able to find and make use of the plenitude of software features. But what about new users? Where's their crutch? Say what you will about skins, but the real terror of TouchWiz is how anti-user it becomes with every successive product generation by sheer dint of features. The list includes AllShare Play, AllShare Cast, Group Play, Smart Stay, ChatOn, WatchOn, Air View (now compatible with Flipboard), Pop-up Play, S Note, Awesome Note (a one-year exclusive), Reading Mode, Multi Window and on and on (we presume) for the perpetuity of the Galaxy.
The Note 8.0 has three faces. It can be a tool for creative expression, a multi-tasking hub or a lean-back device for entertainment. If only it still retained the HSPA+ radios of its global counterpart: it could even function as a stand-in for your phone. But let's bring it back to reality, where the US variant is but a WiFi product only. This is a tablet made for the connected, post-PC household in dire need of an all-in-one device. Want to watch live TV without having to reach for the remote? You can do that now with the inbuilt IR blaster and WatchOn, Samsung's Peel-powered live-TV programming guide / remote control application. The app's setup process is relatively painless, prompting users only for TV manufacturer, ZIP code and service provider to get started. Of course, consumers can opt for more tried-and-true streaming services like Netflix or Hulu Plus for their video fix -- both well-suited to the device's 8-inch real estate.
While eight inches is great for video consumption, not everyone's going to want to saturate their brains with moving images. And for those people, Samsung's included a special Reading Mode. Accessible via the dropdown menu, this feature adjusts the Note 8.0's screen for people using it as an e-reader. It's not restricted to certain applications, either. Users can whitelist a selection of applications (e.g., Gmail, Kindle, etc.) from the display settings submenu, so you're not just restricted to Samsung services. In practice, though, the effect is barely noticeable.
All software aside, perhaps the greatest innovation ushered in with the Note 8.0 is the ability to tap the capacitive buttons with the S Pen. Take a moment and let that soak in. The Note line's greatest weakness is now gone for good -- your fingers are now totally unnecessary. It's curious that Samsung chose the Note 8.0 as the showcase for this long-clamored-for addition. The Note as a tablet is still somewhat unproven commercial territory -- not so with the Note as a smartphone. Samsung could've easily pumped out a Note III with this slight tweak, an Exynos 5 Octa CPU and a 1080p display and then sat back to watch while it printed money. Except, it didn't. So now we know what to look forward to on the next Note phone, and we're that much happier for it.
Performance and battery life
As much as Android purists would love to see OEM skins divorced from the hardware, the Note 8.0's combination of Jelly Bean, TouchWiz and an Exynos 4 Quad clocked at 1.6GHz paired with 2GB RAM makes for a harmonious marriage. Indeed, we've seen this setup before -- you need only look to the Note II for proof of that -- which means we have no complaints where its real-world performance is concerned. The UI is responsive, navigation is brisk, animations are fluid and apps launch nearly instantly. In fact, all hums along so smoothly that it's easy to take the Note 8.0's ace performance for granted.
What you may have a gripe with is the longevity of the Note 8.0's 4,600mAh battery. To be frank: it's good, not great. While it did get us through the weekend on a single charge (about two and half days, in all), that was largely to do with careful power management on our end -- and that's with WiFi always on and connected. Rather than pummel it into the ground with heavy, abnormal use, we took a more practical approach to the Note 8.0, using it for light web and Twitter browsing, bursts of e-book reading and the occasional YouTube or Netflix video or two. More than likely, this is how any prospective owner will use the tablet, so a two-day average is what you should anticipate.
Now, when it comes to standardized testing, the Note 8.0 doesn't fare so well. Under the duress of our typical battery rundown test, which involves looping a video until the device gives out, it eked out a paltry seven hours and 18 minutes. That's with WiFi and Bluetooth enabled, Twitter set to sync at 15-minute intervals, one push email account and brightness set to 50 percent. If you take a look at our chart below, you'll see that this puts the Note 8.0 on par with the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus and ThinkPad Tablet -- both late-2011 products.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0
Apple iPad mini
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7
Apple iPad (late 2012)
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Apple iPad (2012)
9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Google Nexus 7
Lenovo IdeaPad K1
Acer Iconia Tab A200
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
Acer Iconia Tab A500
Samsung Galaxy Tab
Benchmarks are another matter altogether. Unfortunately, we can't paint an accurate picture of raw performance vis-a-vis the iPad mini or Kindle Fire HD -- our suite of tests just isn't compatible with Apple's iOS-based iPad mini or the forked version of Android on the Kindle Fire HD. Instead, we look to the Note 8.0's next-best Android rival, the Nexus 7, for an apples-to-apples comparison. That ASUS-made tablet might be getting up there in age, but its mix of pricing and performance has proven to be a hot seller for Google. But as you can see from the scores below, its Tegra 3 and lone GB of RAM simply can't hold a candle to Samsung's Exynos 4 Quad and 2GB RAM. The Note 8.0 all but smokes the Nexus 7 (save for an inconsistent framerate result), even notching a nearly sub-1,000ms SunSpider score.
Galaxy Note 8.0
ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better
We've resisted it as much as possible, but the people have spoken and those people use their tablets as cameras. We know because we've seen it in the wilds of New York City (mostly around tourist sites). We've even seen it at press events. So, we'll refrain from knocking the ridiculousness of it all and just get to the point. The Note 8.0 has a 5-megapixel rear camera and no accompanying flash. If you ask us, that omission on Samsung's part should clue you in as to how seriously the company takes imaging on a tablet. The camera's there because it has to be, not because it's remarkable, but it ain't half-bad either.
The Note 8.0's camera software falls short of the polish and comprehensiveness of, say, the Galaxy S 4, but it's not entirely lacking, either. The usual suspects are all here -- scene and shooting modes, filters and toggles for ISO, exposure and white balance -- but you won't find much need for them. The Note 8.0's default shooting mode does a superb job of capturing scenes, be they landscape, portrait or even macro. The same goes for the autofocus, which you can also tap-to-adjust, though we found little need to do so. On the whole, color reproduction seems balanced with just a slight loss of finer detail evident in shots with a greater depth of field. As you'd expect, fully zoomed-in shots yielded incredibly blurry images, but set the focus to macro and you should be pleased with extreme close-ups. Suffice to say, the Note 8.0's camera should more than adequately service soccer moms sitting on the sidelines.
Our 720p video samples appeared washed out and delivered choppy playback with a noticeably low framerate. Towards the end of our clip, you can even see how the Note 8.0 jumps a few frames causing a moving cab to magically pop forward. On the other hand, the audio quality is remarkably clear, especially given the surrounding traffic at the time of the recording. So even if you can't quite see the precious moment you aimed to record, you'll definitely be able to hear it.
When we think of the Note 8.0, only three competing tablets spring to mind: Apple's iPad mini, Amazon's Kindle Fire HD and Google's Nexus 7. Where you'll sink your money largely depends on the ecosystem you want to buy into or have already heavily invested in. Barring that, the specs don't differ much from tablet to tablet; each of them offers 1,280 x 800 resolution, save for the iPad mini's 1,024 x 768 screen.
Just as important is the price. The Note 8.0's obvious advantages are its quad-core CPU, double dose of RAM and S Pen input. But at $399 for a WiFi-only 16GB model (the only configuration offered in the US), it might seem expensive to consumers who don't know any better, especially compared to the more budget-friendly Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, both available with 16 gigs of storage for $199. That places the Note 8.0 at a $200 premium. Its price tag becomes slightly more tempting when you contrast it with the $329 Apple charges for the iPad mini. And, even still, it's only by a difference of $70. Given that, Samsung must convince consumers that a dual digitizer with pen support is worth the premium. If it is indeed a stylus you're after, though, well, you know where to go.
Given that the Note 8.0 reads like the greatest hits of Samsung's Galaxy on paper, you may expect it to be a triumph of engineering. And, in a way, it is. With a vibrant 8-inch, 1,280 x 800 display, powerful Exynos 4 Quad processor and healthy 2GB of RAM, the Note 8.0 soars. Its skinned Jelly Bean OS is devoid of any software pitfalls threatening to muck up the user experience. Certainly, its abundant suite of TouchWiz add-ons provides extra value to consumers willing to dive deep and explore the system's nooks and crannies. It really is an exceptional second screen for the home, subbing as a content hub for video and TV control with WatchOn, as an optimized e-reader thanks to the LCD-dimming Reading Mode and as a productivity tool bolstered by dedicated S Pen apps, Polaris Office and Awesome Note. True, the battery life leaves something to be desired, but apart from that, the Note 8.0 seems to have it all, do it all and do it well.
So what's the kicker? There isn't one, really. We've already highlighted just how insane that $399 price tag seems compared to all the other mid-sized tablets out there. But then again, that's a comparison to relatively old, less-powerful hardware. As we said before, the Note 8.0's competing in a league of its own -- at least, for the time being. We may not be so sweet on the S Pen anymore, but its inclusion is more of a bonus than anything else. All told, the US Note 8.0 is a solid product. In fact, it's quite nearly the Swiss Army knife of Android tablets. Or, it would've been, if Samsung had just left those damn HSPA+ radios intact.