samsung galaxy note 10.1 review 01 640x426After the success of the Samsung Galaxy Note, Samsung has decided to “double down” with their stylus-powered line of product, and that’s how the Galaxy Note 10.1 was born. It brings everything that was good with the Galaxy Note smartphone into a 10.1 tablet which is also equipped with an infra-red sensor.

Along the way, the company made some improvements on the pressure-sensitive display: it can now sense 1024 levels of pressure, making it possible for the electronic “ink” to grow larger or go darker as the pressure increases. The usage of the stylus is completely optional and all the usual finger gestures still work as you would expect.

As a non-stylus device, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 seems to be a very good tablet, but for stylus users it shapes up to simply be the best tablet. Now, we’re going to put that to the test and see if the Galaxy Note 10.1 can live up to the expectations. Ready?

Technical highlights

OS: Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
Display: 10.1″ WXGA (1280×800) LCD
Dimensions: 262 x 180 x 8.9 mm, 600g (3G), 597g (WiFi B/G/N)
Processor: 1.4GHz Exynos Quad-Core Processor
Storage: 16/32/64GB internal + microSD (up to 64GB card)
Battery capacity:  7,000mAh
Cameras Main(Rear): 5 Megapixel Auto Focus Camera with LED Flash, Sub(Front): 1.9 Megapixel Camera

Context

We all use tablets differently, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with mine: I typically use it at home to check email from the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and I reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is a bit tedious. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, and watch Netflix in bed with it.

During tradeshows, the tablet becomes my main email device – that’s particularly true with 4G tablets (not the case here) as their long battery life provides previous relief for my laptop that I need for critical tasks that can’t be done on the tablet (custom software, work comfort, video-editing, file manipulation…).

On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks (FB, G+), a receipts manager and random apps (<20), but I rarely play games or do something super-intensive like video editing. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where I’m coming from…

Industrial design

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The Galaxy Note 10.1 has been designed with a simple idea: it has to have everything that a high-end tablet offers in terms of media consumption, but also all the “note-taking” capabilities that should come with a device called “Note”, and that includes a nicely sized integrated stylus.

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Here with a protective case from Samsung

The design of the Galaxy Note is a bit different from the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. The front has a very noticeable gray contour that that encapsulates the (front) speakers. The metallic-looking silver border is made of plastic. In our opinion, things may have looked nicer without it but we wonder if Samsung has added this design element to avoid further legal trouble Apple. We guess that we will never know for sure.

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The location of the speakers is optimum

The left and right sides don’t feature any buttons, so nothing gets in the way while holding the Galaxy Note 10.1 horizontally. Also, the loud speakers are in the best possible spot: far away from the hands and thumbs and facing the user. Companies like Dolby would probably say that this is a great way of doing things. On many tablets, it is very common to have a speaker placement with which hands/fingers may cover the speakers.

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At the bottom of the tablet, there is only a Samsung proprietary connector, which is similar to the one found on previous tablets. You can use it to charge, sync and connect to a dock. All the action is actually at the top of the tablet. There you will find the Power and Volume controls, along with a microSD slot, and infrared (IR) emitter and the 3.5mm audio jack port. The IR emitter is relatively unique (Sony has one too), and we’ll get back to that a bit later. Finally, at the lower-right on the tablet, there is the integrated S-Pen, which fits right into the tablet’s body.

Samsung has listened to user feedback after the Mobile World Congress demo in February. The early Galaxy Note 10.1 did not have an integrated pen, and used a dual-core chip that was (and felt) much slower. Both aspects of the tablet have been largely improved since then.

Display

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As usual with Samsung, the Galaxy Note 10.1 comes with a quality display but it comes with a caveat: it only has a 1280×800 resolution, which is getting increasingly low these days: the iPad gen 3 gets a huge 2048×1536 IPS display and the ASUS TF700 climbs to 1920×1080.

The color reproduction is quite good, but being an LCD, you can’t expect it to beat an AMOLED display for contrast-ratio and color saturation. The 7” AMOLED tablet from samsung should have more “popping” colors and blacks.

Yet, the color reproduction and brightness are still good enough, and the Galaxy Note comes with something that no other tablet has: 1024 levels of stylus pressure sensitivity. This feature is based on the same technology that is used in some Wacom tablet used by graphic designers, so that tells you how practical it can be for stylus-based applications. We’ll get back to the usage models later…

What’s new?

Samsung has added an impressive number of software features in the Galaxy Note 10.1, but if we had to boil it down to three, it would be like this:

1/ Infra-red emitter: this allows the Galaxy Note 10.1 to interact with legacy audio/video devices like TV, HiFi, Set-top boxes and more. Given that tablets are most often used in the living room, this is a big deal.

2/ Stylus based interaction and 1024 levels of stylus pressure sensitiveness. This is a feature that has a die hard fan base. If you care about “computing with a pen”, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is basically the best option available for this price.

3/ Multitasking: the idea is that working in one app at a time is often not very efficient, especially if you need to see information from different apps at the same time (like emailing text information visible in an image). The Galaxy Note 10.1 has the ability to run apps on top of one another (via widgets), or next to each other (via split-screen). Less switching leads to more productivity.

Killer apps

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Multiscreen is a feature that allows the Galaxy Note to display two applications side by side. Because it requires some work on the apps, only a Samsung apps (but not all) do support it right now. Email, the web browser, Video player, Gallery, S Note and Polaris office as far as we can tell. If you don’t have a superhuman photographic memory, The Galaxy Note 10.1 will help.

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Pen writing: The new S-pen is fantastic, it has over 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity and it allows to fine tune the quality of the strokes you want to draw with, and this, in various applications including Samsung S-Note and Photoshop Touch. The previous version of the S-pen had a hard touch on the screen, the result was only single type of stroke could be provided for drawings, given them a “S-pen” style. With the multiple level of pressure sensitivity, your drawings can now really have any style of brush or pen stroke you desire, making it the ultimate tool for digital art creation.

S note: The updated S-note app has a better hand recognition technology and it is pretty impressive. Similarly, it is possible to use the S-pen across a number of other app including the email application.

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Hubert Nguyen isn’t happy about this Photoshop job :)

Photoshop Touch: I have extensively tested Photoshop Touch using the S-pen, basically by doing all the tutorials. It is really a pleasure to use the Photoshop Touch app with the S-pen, everything is much easier to do. When drawing or going over a complex shape to select it and separate from the background, the precision of the pen is necessary, I cannot imagine doing that with my fingers.

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TV Remote: to use the Galaxy Note 10.1 as a universal TV remote, Samsung is using the Peel app which can download TV programs from the most popular providers and more importantly personalize it to your own preferences. By adding, removing and rating TV shows, the Peel software learn your tastes and can subsequently suggest more shows that you may like.

It is also possible to filter programs by “HD”, which is important for anyone who subscribes to an HD service, and overall the app provides a good user experience. Once a show is selected, an infrared (IR) signal is sent to the TV or set top box and the change happens. At the moment, there is no way to set up recordings from peel, but this is clearly on everyone’s wish list.

Peel does save a lot of time when compared to browsing the rather terrible Cable TV guide. Now we would love to see a version of the app that uses high-resolution artwork, but overall the Galaxy Note 10.1 is an awesome smart remote.

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Virtual keyboards: Ironically, despite having hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal, most users still refer to text-based communication as being the “critical” application for them. That’s why you must not underestimate the importance of a virtual keyboard. The more productive you want to be, and the more likely this element may get in the way. There are 3 virtual keyboard in the Galaxy Note 10.1:

1/ The full-size keyboard can be seen in horizontal and vertical mode. This is the classic tablet keyboard and it is rather classic. We like the fact that there is a row dedicated to numbers, so there is no need to switch too often.

2/ The keyboard can be minimized and used as a “floating keyboard”. This is handy if you want more space for your application. Just pinch the keyboard to switch from one to the next.

3/ The split keyboard separates the keyboard in two halves. This is typically great when holding the tablet on a horizontal position. This allows you to type with both thumbs without over-extending your fingers.

Skype: incoming video calls work surprisingly well on the Galaxy Note 10.1. It’s not uncommon that Skype experiences micro-hangs, or general low performance – especially after the initial loading while it is searching for contacts etc. This time, everything was smooth. It may be due to a recent Skype update, so we will have to go back and check older tablets, but in any case, it works great.

Audio chat is easy and should work perfectly, and we’re glad to report that incoming video looks very clean (on a good network). Outgoing video is unfortunately pretty blurry, which is fairly common on Android tablets – although things have been getting better on recent phones. It’s too bad because the tablet hardware should be able to compress a decent video feed.

The issue is clearly not with the front camera quality because, when we switched to the back camera, the image was still blurry and pixelated. We’re not sure if Skype or Samsung should do something about this, but some work is required. Probably using hardware encoding instead of software encoding…

Entertainment

Video: The Galaxy Note 10.1 was able to play our usual 1080p videos without breaking a sweat. Most of them have a bitrate of 5-6Mbps, and look better than the Google Play rentals. If you want to have the best possible quality movies, you can still encode them yourself. Note that the 1280×800 resolution of the tablet doesn’t allow the movies to be displayed in their native 1080p format. Things look good, but they could look better on other tablets like the TF700 or the iPad gen 3.

Gaming: given its graphics and CPU performance,  the Galaxy Note 10.1 can clearly can run any Android video game. In the end, this comes down to availability and potential exclusive deals, so make sure that titles that you want are available. We’ve played with Grand Theft Auto and Riptide GP: both were very fluid and fast (looked like 60FPS).

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Speaker-quality: Thanks to their placement at the front of the tablet, the speakers offer an excellent sound experience. As we said earlier, this is the best placement because hands and fingers don’t cover them and they don’t blast the sound in the back or on the side, but directly towards the user. Finally, the 10.1 format is conveniently large enough for a good left/right stereo setup — this is a bit more challenging on smaller tablets according to audio experts.

Imaging (very good)

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Photo: in terms of photography, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is also a very good camera, and in most of the photos, it can be compared to the iPad Gen 3. Small differences often appear depending on the automated controls of the white balance, but overall, snapping photos with both tablets yield very good shots – clearly among the best that can be obtained with a modern tablet.

Video: the video recording performance of Galaxy Note is pretty decent, but for some reason, it only records in 720p (1280×720). While the recordings are nice, they’re not as nice as 1080p shots that we’ve done with the iPad Gen 3, and we suspect that the Galaxy S3 may do better as well. Overall, it’s probably not a problem if you don’t plan on using this as a video-enthusiast. However, if you shoot video for work, or are a bit edgy on that front, it’s worth checking our video samples.

Performance (excellent)

Antutu is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance.

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The Samsung Exynos quad-core processor inside the Galaxy Note 10.1 serves it well in the Antutu benchmark. It scores very high, at the top of commercially available tablet, just in front of the ASUS TF700 which uses the fastest NVIDIA Tegra 3 to date. At this point, only the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro development kit has been proven to be faster in our tests, but no product using this chip has it the shelves yet.

Nenamark 2 is a test aimed at measuring the graphics processor performance. It is handy, but keep in mind that the latest games use much more complex techniques that are not represented in this test.

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The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 could have scored higher in Nenamark 2, and at this point the tablet is limited by the number of pixels of the screen: at 1280×800, there is simply not enough work to stress the graphics processor, which spends some unknown amount of time waiting for the next batch of data to render. The result is that Nenamark 2 runs at a solid 60FPS. This is yet another reminder that we badly need in-game benchmarks.

The ASUS TF700 could have bumped into the same issue, but its superior resolution 1280×800 adds enough workload to make Nenamark 2 relevant for a bit longer. Note that all our results in Megapixel/sec are resolution-independent.

SunSpider is a Javascript test that mostly measures how good the Javascript engine is. Performance jump of 100% have been witnessed after software updates, so keep in mind that this is NOT a great CPU test. It also uses only one core even if more are available, so it won’t be able to differentiate much between single and multicore architectures. Also, please don’t consider it to be a “web performance” test, because it is not. Most of the perceived web performance is felt during the load time and rendering time, both of which often have nothing to do with Javascript performance.

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The Samsung Galaxy Note does very well in JavaScript performance. It is the fastest commercial tablet that we’ve tested, and only the SnapDragon S4 Pro (development edition) and the Intel Medfield tablet are faster. S4 Pro tablets will hit by the end of the year, and we haven’t tested a commercial product with Intel’s medfield yet.

“Perceived performance”: Synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. What they don’t show for example is the user experience is smooth and responsive (responsiveness is not always solved with brute-force processor power). In the end, what good is raw performance if you can’t perceive it?

Overall, the perceived performance is excellent, especially compared to the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. The Note 10.1 feels a lot faster, reacts quicker and has excellent keyboard response time. The “ink” could use some speed improvements (it’s a bit laggy), but as far as we’ve seen, it’s pretty much the best that you can get on a tablet, so it’s hard to complain.

Battery life

The battery life was in-line with what we expect from a high-end tablet. In our tests. With a capacity of 7000 mAh, it’s enough to power the system for extended periods of time. Here are a few measurements that we’ve done:

  • Overnight depletion (8 hrs): 4% (WIFI ON, GMail and Facebook sync ON).
  • 1 hr movie rental (Dark Night from Google Play, 50% display ): 11%
  • 1hr music playback (display OFF, volume 50%+headphones, shuffle songs): 1%

As you can see, the Galaxy Note 10.1 can be left alone for about one week before running out of battery. During long flights, you should be able to play HD movies for about 9 hours, and music uses next to nothing: in our tests, one hour used only 1% of the battery. Because this number is so low, there is room for rounding error, but you get the picture: you won’t have to worry about battery life when listening to music with the display OFF.

Keep in mind that battery life varies a lot depending on the apps that run in the background, your network reception, your local network density and the amount of time that the: display is ON. You can always refer to the Android battery report to see what is consuming the power. Finally, keep in mind that network transactions generated by apps can appear as “Android” as it is ultimately the OS that handles those transactions.

Conclusion

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If you don’t use the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 as a stylus device, it is a good tablet, but chances are that you can find very competitive offers out there that will outperform it in one way or another. The value of the Galaxy Note 10.1 is clearly not in the “specs” alone.

Instead, if you are interested by the idea of using a stylus, Samsung pushed the boundaries by introducing new usage models. By offering a tablet with a quality pressure-sensitive surface and stylus, the Galaxy Note 10.1 lets users use a natural way of creating information in a more comfortable form-factor than the 5.3” smartphone is. Additionally, Samsung did add some very interesting multi-tasking and productivity apps and features which should not be neglected.

Finally, we found the infra-red emitter to be an excellent idea.  While we may not buy the tablet to be a fancy remote, once you have it, you may as well use it as such, and this is so much better than any Cable or TV guide.

I hope that this review was useful to you, and if you have additional questions or if there is something that we have not yet covered, leave a comment, and we will try to reply while we still have the tablet at the office. Thank you!

Filed in Featured >Reviews >Tablets. Read more about galaxy note 10.1, Samsung and Tablet Reviews.

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