Hands on Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (Updated)

Update: Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean started rolling out for the Galaxy Note 10.1 in Europe yesterday, and it has been reported that it does help performance significantly.
Update 2: We added our video review on the Galaxy Note 10.1 – and you can find it here. Unfortunately, our opinion of the device has not changed….
Although Samsung are leaps and bounds ahead of other Android smartphone manufacturers when it comes to sales numbers, their tablet offerings have never lived up to that same potential. The Galaxy Tab series never truly took off, and with competitors like Acer, Asus and Amazon launching some great products, Samsung haven‘t had their moment in the sun with its tablet offering.
The electronics giant had to throw everything into their new tablet, even landing James Franco to be the official face of the Galaxy Note 10.1. A quad-core Exynos chipset with 2GB of RAM is pretty serious performance spec, but Samsung wanted the Note 10.1 to be more than just powerful.

Here is a summary of some of the key features:

  • 10.1″ 16M-color PLS TFT capacitive touchscreen of WXGA resolution (1280 x 800 pixels)
  • 1.4 GHz quad-core Cortex-A9 CPU, Mali-400MP GPU, Exynos 4412 Quad chipset, 2GB of RAM
  • Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich with TouchWiz
  • S Pen input
  • Quad-band GPRS/EDGE and quad-band 3G with HSPA connectivity (HSDPA 21 Mbps, HSUPA 5.76 Mbps)
  • 16/32/64 GB of built-in memory
  • 5 MP autofocus camera
  • 1.9 MP front-facing camera
  • 720p HD video recording @ 30 fps with stereo audio
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi Direct, dual-band, Wi-Fi hotspot
  • Stereo Bluetooth v3.0
  • HDMI TV-out (adapter required), USB host (adapter required)
  • microSD card slot
  • 1080p DivX/XviD/MKV video support
  • 7,000 mAh Li-Po battery

This device could very easily become a niche product because of the functionality of the S-pen. Artists, graphic designers and other professionals might have a lot of use for a device with those capabilities. But Samsung wants it to have wide spread appeal. Let‘s see what it has to offer for the everyday user.
Design and Build

As you can see, the review model is a hazy blue-grey colour and we must say it looks quite nice. Samsung obviously wanted to change the look and feel of their devices after all the drama with Apple in the courts. That being said it does still look a lot like the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. The frame houses the two speakers on the sides and it does help the stereo sound to be directed towards you. This helps a lot for gaming and movies compared to the speakers on the sides of the slate. The metal also works well with the coloured bezel.
The back is also a bit different, having the frame include the camera and LED flash. The camera lens is now rectangular, rather than circular. The 5MP camera takes decent photos, but it‘s nothing to write home about. Other than that, you have to deal with the public ridicule of walking around snapping photos with a 10 inch tablet.

At the top you will find the 3.5mm audio jack, as well as the SIM compartment and the slot for the microSD card. It also houses the Power/Lock button next to the volume rocker like it has been on all their 10 inch tablets.
There‘s no earpiece on the tablet, but it is capable of receiving and making phone calls. You will either have to use a headset, or loudspeaker mode. The microphone is at the bottom, which is something to remember should you want to make phone calls with it, as you can easily hold your hand over it. The Note 10.1 also has the proprietary 30-pin connector for charging and USB connectivity. The bottom right corner houses the S-pen.

So that‘s basically what the device looks like, but what does it feel like to hold in your hand? I‘m afraid this is where things start looking less rosy. Although the glossy plastic used doesn‘t look bad, it doesn‘t feel nice to hold and can actually be very slippery. It also leaves a lot of fingerprints, which are much easier to spot in this colour than they would be on a white Note 10.1.
Furthermore, the Note 10.1 is quite heavy to hold in one hand when compared to other tablets. It‘s a bit thinner than the new Galaxy Tab 10.1, which does help with portability, but it doesn‘t make it any easier to hold.
Then there‘s the build quality. The tablet I use on a permanent basis (when not using review models) is the first Galaxy Tab 10.1 and I‘ve always said they should make it more sturdy and of better materials. It‘s not bad, but it doesn‘t have that premium feel you would look for in a high performance device. They chose not to use the same basic materials as on the Samsung Galaxy S3, where on the smartphone it wasn‘t a big issue. Unfortunately, the newly designed plastic for this tablet is horrible and exacerbates the problem.
Just by holding it on one of the sides with one hand, you start hearing creaks. You will often find that this horrid plastic moves and bends; it feels cheap, it has absolutely no rigidness. If you lightly press on the back, it flexes up and down like a thin piece of Glad Wrap covering yesterday‘s leftovers. Take a closer look at this following photo:

The white, wave-like reflection is actually straight lines on the ceiling. If the plastic had any rigidness in it, it would be a flat surface and give an undistorted reflection of the ceiling. I find this deeply unsatisfactory. You would also think that the glossy nature of the back of the device would help in attracting less scratches, but it doesn‘t do that either.
This coming from the world‘s largest Android OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) is extremely lazy, and they should be ashamed putting such a high price tag on it.
S-Pen and Screen

The S-Pen stylus is the party piece of the Note 10.1, and has been redesigned after having debuted on the 5.3 inch Galaxy Note smartphone/tablet hybrid. The biggest difference now is that it is square in shape, with rounded corners. It does feel better to hold than the previous version.
Unfortunately, this feels pretty cheap too. It is basically just a hollow tube. Also, we would have loved to see more functionality from the button on it. Hopefully more developers will look to take full advantage of it. You can use the button as an eyedropper in Photoshop, which comes pre-installed. Other than that, you can take screenshots with it or trigger the back or menu buttons, and that‘s about it.
The S-Pen doesn‘t need to be touching the screen to be used as input, as the tablet knows where you are pointing it. This is the most accurate we have seen with this kind of technology to date, and Samsung will undoubtedly take it even further in the future.
When you remove the stylus from the tablet, a shortcut menu automatically appears on the right-hand side. That‘s all good and well, but it is not at all customizable. It would have been great to put in your most used apps when using the stylus in this menu. The only thing that you can change for this feature is that instead of opening the side menu, it can automatically open a specific app in that short menu. How much are you going to use Crayon physics?

The tip of the stylus isn‘t too hard and you won‘t accidently damage the screen, as it is on a spring.  The screen can sense various degrees of pressure, which actually works very well when drawing.
Talking about the screen, unfortunately there is nothing very positive to say about it. It fails to impress, coming in at a resolution of 1280×800 pixels, with a pixel density of 149ppi. Samsung didn‘t even bother putting in an AMOLED screen, using older technology. Compare that to the Nexus 10 that has a pixel density of 300ppi, also built by Samsung. We know they make great screens; couldn‘t they fit a modern one?
Battery Life and Performance
The Galaxy Note 10.1 has a 7000 mAh battery, which is quite substantial. The battery will only lose about 25% of its power if it was to lay mostly idle for a week, we were impressed to find. Samsung say it will give you 2080 hours on standby, and the talk time is estimated at 74 hours.
When you look at the hardware inside this device together with the nature themed UI, it‘s clear that the Note 10.1 wants to be a big Samsung Galaxy S3. Unfortunately, the performance is by no means as clear and crisp as on the smartphone. When you look at the benchmark test results it looks quite good, coming out at the top:
But as we all know, there is a big difference between benchmark performance versus real world performance, and the problem is that the device requires a lot more juice. This is the first tablet that truly wants to empower it‘s user to do multiple things at once. But in order to do that, it uses so much processing power that there is not much in reserve for the regular tasks it needs to perform.
The performance out of the box is unnecessarily sluggish, because of all the widgets that come standard on this version of Ice Cream Sandwich on TouchWiz. It creeps along at around 15-20 frames per second; the swiping between home screens feels slow. Removing these widgets do help a bit, but ultimately TouchWiz slows is down too much for a premium high-end tablet. You can float apps around in little windows, moving them wherever you want, even while using split screen. The ability to run multiple apps like this is brilliant, but the performance needs to be refined drastically.

User Interface

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 runs Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, of course with the TouchWiz UI overlay. I am not a huge fan of TouchWiz for many reasons (like performance draining noted above), but I‘m not going to discuss them here again. Feel free to see what I think of this user interface in the review of the Samsung Galaxy S3.
One of the nice features directly from the phone is the home screens. You can pinch gesture on any of them and you can then add, delete or rearrange home screen panes.

You can do the same thing in the app drawer, but it would have been much simpler if you had the option to rearrange them by size or alphabetically or something of that sort instead of manually having to drag and drop.

The notifications are in the bottom right hand corner of the notification bar and they look very much like the smartphone edition of TouchWiz. You have access to quick settings for GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth controls, and also the Sound, Notifications and Flight mode. This saves you the effort of having to go to the settings menu.

On the left of the taskbar you have, like on most Samsung tablets, the Back button on the left followed by the Home, Recent Apps and Screenshot buttons. The dedicated screenshot button can be quite useful when using the S-Pen, as you can immediately make notes on a screenshot and save it for use later.
The Recent Apps button shows you the recent ones opened. They can be closed one by one by swiping them to the left or right, or all can be closed at once by pressing Remove All. If you open the Task Manager you have more detail on applications that have been opened, downloaded and more.

The app drawer (pictured at the top of the section) and the widget drawer (below) look the same as before.

Other than that, all is pretty much the same as we saw in the Samsung Galaxy S3, including the ugly folder icons, unfortunately.

Mini Apps
Samsung have included mini applications to boost the multitasking capabilities of the tablet. These include messaging, email, S Memo and S Planner, music player, calculator and the task manager. It closes like a normal window would on a desktop. The diagonal arrow on the left-hand side will switch to the full version of the app, taking your work with it, also lending a desktop feel to it. It does work surprisingly well.

You open them by tapping the middle system bar arrow and it brings up the mini apps, which can of course be accessed from any screen or application. It then comes up with a row of thumbnails. You can then select the app you want, or press Edit and slide through the available mini apps and choose which ones you would like on the bar as shortcuts.

The only problems I have with these apps are that they look, feel and work in a very generic fashion and don‘t lend as much use as you would expect them too, nor as much as you would want them to. Artists (of which I am certainly not one) will probably find the drawing in S Note quite useful, though.

Split Screen
When you are first using this feature your reaction is something like: “œWow, that‘s pretty cool“. And yes, it does look nice, but it has the same problems that the Mini Apps have. It only works with the Browser, Polaris Office, S Note, Video Player, Gallery and Email.
This feature is simple to use. When using an app that is compatible with “œMultiscreen“, as they call it, you simply press the “œMultiscreen“ button on the top-right corner and select the app with which you would like to split the screen.

The best functionality it has is to copy text across apps. You can copy some text from a browser, or you can jot down a note while reading the site and save it for later. Or watch a video while searching the lyrics of that song. That‘s basically it.

The novelty wears off pretty quickly. It does work well when you want to insert formulas from websites where you can‘t copy the text, though. The S Note app has formula recognition. You write the formula in the note after selecting the f(x) button, as pictured above. You can then select Insert to add it to your note where it replaces your handwritten one.
For this device Samsung fitted a 5 megapixel main camera and a 1.9 megapixel front-facing camera. The image quality is what you would expect from a 5 MP, not bad but barely above average by today‘s standards. The colour rendering is a bit off and detail is average at best. For a tablet, I believe that is fine (even though many people are saying the cameras aren‘t good enough for a flagship device), as they are not very conducive to photography. Would you want to be seen walking around with a 10 inch tablet taking pictures of your favourite tourist spots? I think not.
The cameras are more tailored for video chatting, and for this it works very well as both cameras can shoot 720p videos. It‘s still below the standard of 1080p, but to me that doesn‘t make a difference in a tablet.
Samsung set out with huge ambitions for this tablet. Its internal hardware is very powerful and comes with 2GB of RAM, which is great. The pressure-sensitive stylus does work very well, and if you are in a certain field of work you will probably get a lot of value out of it. For a flagship, high-end device costing around R9000 though, it‘s simply not good enough for the average tablet user.
The novelty ideas surrounding mini applications that float around and split screens simply do not work as well as Samsung would have wanted it to. This, in conjunction with TouchWiz performance and a sub-par screen is already a deal-breaker at that price. But then there‘s the build quality of the tablet, which makes you want to twinge and creak every time it does. For that price, you can buy two Nexus 7 tablets (which even feel more expensive) and have some change to boot.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is definitely not the Samsung Galaxy S3 of tablets, which is what it was meant to be. Perhaps Samsung were looking at Apple with its fluid OS and wonderful screen and thought they needed to add nifty features, without making them as good as they need to be. Internationally, the tablet is selling quite well, though, mostly because of the aggressive marketing strategy.
A bigger problem, perhaps, is that Samsung underestimated the Android competition. The Acer and Asus tablets are now a couple of steps ahead of Samsung in terms of overall quality and user experience. I truly believe Samsung had their swing-and-miss moment, if you will, and the Galaxy Note 10.1 will become a speciality product for people who can make good use of a tablet with a stylus.