With the inclusion of a stylus, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 attempts something different for full-size tablets. In certain apps the S Pen (as the stylus is called) does improve precision and can make note taking a much faster affair. Also, if you're willing to put in the time learning the apps and gestures, the S Pen can deliver a useful and rewarding interface experience. But if you've no artistic aspirations and typing out your notes is your preferred method, does the S Pen offer any real benefit?
Not really. For general tablet usage your finger is still the best tool for the job, and unless you have a specific need for an electronic pen (say, you're an artist) or are willing to a take long hike over a slow, steep learning curve, there's really no benefit to using it.
Thankfully, even if you don't use the pen, the Note 10.1's fast overall performance, sensible design, great-looking screen, and useful features make it the best Samsung tablet yet.
Editors' note: Due to the increasingly changing tablet landscape, we've lowered the score of the Note 10.1 from 7.5 to 7.3.
If you've ever held the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 in your hands, then you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the Galaxy Note 10.1. Aesthetically, the tablets are nearly identical, with only a few physical differences to speak of: the Note 10.1 comes in a white model and a black model (as opposed to only gray), sports a wider bezel, is a bit thinner, and weighs slightly more than the Tab 2 10.1. Speakers grace the right and left bezel and the top bezel sports a 1.9-megapixel camera that sits right next to an ambient light sensor. Directly opposite, on the back, is a 5-megapixel LED flash-supported camera (up from 3 megapixels on previous Galaxy Tabs). The top edge holds a power button, a volume rocker, a microSD slot (supporting cards of up to 64GB), an IR blaster, and a headphone jack. On the bottom edge are the dock connector and a microphone pinhole. The tablet is fairly light and comfortable to hold and while it does feel like smooth plastic, it doesn't feel unpleasantly plasticky or cheap.
|Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1||Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1||Asus Transformer Tab Infinity TF700||Apple iPad (third generation)|
|Weight in pounds||1.32||1.28||1.32||1.44|
|Width in inches (landscape)||10.3||10.1||10.4||9.5|
|Height in inches||7.1||6.9||7.1||7.3|
|Depth in inches||0.35||0.38||0.33||0.37|
|Side bezel width in inches (landscape)||0.9||0.74||0.8||0.8|
Lastly, there's a 4-inch-long, ill-placed holding space in the tablet's bottom-right corner for the S Pen Stylus. The problems with this placement are, one, the S Pen can easily fall out if you're holding the tablet up while removing it, and two, when the tablet sits in a docking station, the holding space is too close to the desktop for the S Pen to be removed unless you undock it first. Not a huge design faux pas, but just a strange choice not to place the holding space on the top.
The S Pen has gotten a redesign since its appearance on the original Galaxy Note. The new stylus is longer and thicker, and has its sides squared off to keep it from unexpectedly rolling away. Also, the pen button is now grooved to make it a bit easier to find with your fingertips; however, I found myself consistently pressing the button by mistake.
The point of the S Pen is to give you an alternative to using your fingers, and while this feels fine for navigating menus and swiping through pages, when it comes time to type, I prefer using both hands, as it's faster and more comfortable than the search-and-peck routine the S Pen forces you into. Also, the stock S Pen is a little too light and thin for my tastes. I much preferred using the original S Pen encased in the S Pen Holder Kit with its extra weight and mass making it feel much more like a actual, quality, ink pen.
Samsung also built some shortcut gestures into the pen, making tasks like screen capture, calling up an app's menu, and going back to the previous screen a simple act of holding down the pen button and swiping or tapping the screen in the appropriate way.
The Note 10.1 ships with Android 4.0.4, the latest version of the OS before Jelly Bean (version 4.1). Samsung says the tablet will be upgraded to the new OS in 2012, however. If you're familiar with Samsung tablets, the inclusion of the company's custom UI, TouchWiz, on the Note 10.1 will probably not shock you. Thankfully, Samsung toned down the oppressively Fisher-Price-ian look, giving a more natural, quieter aesthetic. Along with TouchWiz comes the only reason for the UI to exist, in my opinion: the mini apps tray, now upgraded to support limited customization. You can now swap apps (chosen from an increased, but still very small pool) in and out from the tray, and the Task Manager, which lets you kill apps and clear the RAM, is still the most useful app in the tray.
The only other notable included apps are the ones most compatible with the S Pen: S Note and Photoshop Touch. However, while these apps reward those willing to deal with learning how to use them, jumping right into it feels like the equivalent of diving 30 feet off a cliff into an ocean only to find a bed of jagged rocks, just under the water's surface, waiting for you. Figuratively speaking, of course.
In S Note, while there are eight templates to choose from, there's no clear way to open a new, completely blank sheet of "paper." Also, there are icons in the app that have no obvious purpose. I know that the pen icon in the upper right corner has a function, but the app doesn't explicitly let me in on the secret and only after attempting to draw with my fingers did I discover that the icon turns on pen-only mode. It may have other functions, but I don't know. Other tools like formula match, shape match, and text match were initially not the easiest features to find. The functionality is there, but it's unfortunately hidden under a thick veil of inhospitableness.
While Photoshop Touch thankfully has a very useful tutorial and according to Samsung is optimized for S Pen use, it's strange that the pen's pressure sensitivity features isn't turned on by default. This is a feature Samsung should want to be completely obnoxious in touting, but the only reason I know about it is because a Samsung rep told me about it during a demo. Samsung needs to bring this level of education to the masses of people interested in this product who have never used Photoshop or a tablet. Let's hope the company finds a way to do so.
There's a general writing-to-text feature that works across most apps that include a typing component, but again, though it's a simple thing to enable, it's not turned on by default and instead I found it necessary to go to the reviewer of the original Note, Jessica Dolcourt, and have her show me how she enabled it on the phone. Even then, I still had to translate that procedure to a tablet interface. After a few minutes of near-apoplectic teeth grinding, some yelling, and maybe a few tears (yes, from me), we discovered the procedure: when the Samsung keyboard is onscreen, hold down on the gear icon and select the "T" symbol. Like I said, it's simple, but not obvious. It should be both.