For the rest of this review, I’ll do my best to keep puns to a minimum. I’m note kidding.
Design and build quality
Upon opening the Galaxy Note 10.1 box you may be a little confused. Why is there a Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 in your box? Don’t worry too much, they just look remarkably similar to each other. Take it out, ensure the pen is in the bottom right corner, and breath normally.
There are a few other minor differences between the Note 10.1 from the Tab 2 10.1. The Note 10.1 is slightly longer (262mm vs 256.6mm), a fraction wider(180mm vs 175.3mm), slightly thinner (8.9mm vs 9.7mm), and just a tiny bit heavier (600g vs 588g).
For better or worse, Samsung has stuck with the button and port configurations from the Tab 2 10.1. Everything but the power connector is on top – power, volume rocker, microSD, IR LED, 3.5mm jack, and (standard) SIM slot – while the power/data connector remains at the bottom.
On the front, on either side of the screen, are the speakers, with a front-facing camera in the top centre. The rear-facing camera is perched at the top centre of the back, with its LED flash to the right of it.
The back is, unfortunately, a glossy plastic (possibly the same as the Galaxy S3) with a little too much ply to it. It picks up fingerprints at an alarming rate and shows them off like it’s something to brag about. Samsung’s fondness for plastics is definitely not winning any favour here.
With the rest of the Note 10.1 being so similar to the Tab 2 10.1, the same complaints hold – having almost all the ports and buttons at the top makes it feel cramped, the covering flaps for the SIM and microSD slot don’t seem like they’ll stand the test of time, and the 3.5mm jack makes things awkward when plugging headphones in. Samsung essentially kept the bad parts of a prior design and piled on.
Internals and performance
Things are a little different inside. There’s a quad-core 1.4GHz CPU with a Mali-400MP GPU backed by a whopping 2GB of RAM and 16/32/64GB storage (expandable by up to another 64GB).
There’s dual-band WiFi (a/b/g/n), Bluetooth (v4), and HSPA (21Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up) support.
In benchmarks, these specs shine. In our usual AnTuTu test, the Note 10.1 let rip, scoring an impressive 12,221.6, placing it well above the Nexus 7’s 10,924.6, and scoring more than double that of the third place Motorola Xoom 2’s 6,068.2.
In real use though, performance wasn’t always as snappy as we would have liked. This is probably due in part to the Note 10.1 using Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which doesn’t have the performance improvements of 4.1 (Jelly Bean), as well as Samsung’s own skin atop Android. Removing Samsung’s homescreen widgets and using 3rd-party replacements instead improved our homescreen experience. However, doing so obviously didn’t increase performance in other areas.
Screen and responsiveness
The Note 10.1 features a (surprise!) 10.1-inch screen with a resolution of 1280×800. We’re not sure if it’s the exact same panel as the Tab 2 10.1 and we didn’t have a Tab 2 10.1 to compare side by side, but they seemed very similar.
We didn’t have any problems with responsiveness which couldn’t be attributed to the software. No news is good news, they say.
As with the Tab 2 10.1, colour reproduction was good, viewing angles were decent, and we had no complaints about brightness. However, the resolution stuck out as a lowpoint; the Note 10.1 just couldn’t provide as crisp a viewing experience as some competitors. Why Samsung decided to not go all out with the Note 10.1’s screen and slap on a 1080p monster will haunt us for months.
Having the two speakers on the Note 10.1 facing forward definitely plays in its favour. Sound from these was loud and clear and, though not perfect (particularly on the low-end), it’s among the best built-in tablet speakers we’ve heard to date.
The Note 10.1 also comes with a set of earphones. Sound quality from them was about what can be expected from bundled headphones – good enough until you can get to your regular, preferred sound carriers.
The Note 10.1 has a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash. We snapped a few photos, but felt that such images should not be shared with unsuspecting victims.
Pictures were noisy at the best of times and blurry messes otherwise. As if it’s not enough that you look ridiculous snapping photos with your tablet.
The front-facing camera is 1.9 megapixels and functions for video calling.
In general day-to-day use with browsing, social networking, watching the odd video, note taking (obviously), and maybe a few minutes of gaming, the Note 10.1 could go for days. Two days of heavy use is within easy reach and it’s more likely you’ll get three or more.
However, in our usual video looping test (720p video at 65% brightness with WiFi on and syncing), the Note 10.1 only managed 5-6 hours. We ran it a few times as it didn’t seem quite right, but we always got between 5-6 hours. This places the Note 10.1 second to last on our list and at about half the amount that the top ranking Nexus 7 (11 hours) gave us.
The S Pen is what sets the Note 10.1 apart from other tablet offerings. Along the bottom edge is a built-in slot to keep it within easy reach.
When you pop it out, a menu slides out from the right side which shows the some apps for your quick-launch convenience. Once that menu is gone, however, there doesn’t appear to be a way to get it back (except by putting the pen back and pulling it out again). This seems like a prime place for bezel gestures (like the Blackberry Playbook) and we certainly tried it, but to no avail.
Using the S Pen for note taking worked relatively well, though responsiveness wasn’t always the best – sometimes you’d need to apply quite a bit of pressure for anything to happen. Other times, you could find yourself writing quite a way ahead of what’s being displayed on the screen and you’d need to stop for a second or two for the Note 10.1 to catch up. There were also times when we’d be using the pen in the browser and suddenly we’d be zooming in or zooming out as if the browser had somehow detected a double tap.
The biggest problem with the S Pen is that there aren’t a whole lot of apps that make use of it. Considering that it’s a Samsung-only feature, I don’t see that changing much.
Samsung has doled out its usual lathering of skinning, bringing along its latest version of TouchWiz.
The mini apps from previous versions are still there and are still quite useful, but limited to only those that Samsung has bundled (Alarm, Calculator, E-mail, Music player, S Note, S Planner, Task Manager, and World Clock).
A new addition that caught my attention was a split screen feature. The idea being that you can open two apps side by side and switch quickly between them. Unfortunately, this is also limited to only those apps decided by Samsung. The built-in browser, Polaris Office, S Note, Video Player, Gallery, and Samsung’s default e-mail app all get the green light, but other apps are left out to dry.
Split screen also doesn’t work as well in practice as we expected it to. For one, auto-brightness goes absolutely wild when switching between different apps – the Browser and S Note were prime examples of apps that did not play well together with this feature. We eventually turned off auto-brightness as it was just too distracting. For another, switching between side-by-side apps was not particularly fast – it took a few seconds for the new app to get focus each time.
A final software addition worth mentioning is the keyboard. Samsung obviously uses their own software keyboard on the Note 10.1, but it has something new: pinching it will bring up a dialog that lets you select a different layout – normal, floating somewhere in the middle, and split.
The pinch gesture itself isn’t particularly intuitive – you pinch closed to bring up the menu all the time (instead of, say, pinching open when using a full QWERTY keyboard and closed when using split), and it seems like Samsung would have been better off using a button to control it instead.
Samsung again has some of the best internal hardware on offer with the Note 10.1, but it’s let down by an average screen, some poor external design choices, and software with good ideas but poor execution.
Tack on the S Pen, which is supposed to be a headline feature but also doesn’t perform very well in practice, as well as a price tag of R8,499, and you should know everything you need to about the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.
This isn’t the tablet that will change everything, nor is it one that we would recommend purchasing.