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.