Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) review

Pros

  • Excellent multitasking
  • Sharp and vibrant display
  • Pressure sensitive stylus
  • IR remote feature

Cons

  • Buggy at times
  • Expensive

The original Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 was one of our favourite tablets at the time of its release. Its built-in stylus, IR-emitter, and split screen multitasking made it a productivity powerhouse that other tablets just couldn't match. The 2014 Edition – priced at $550 (£340) in the US for the 16GB model, with the UK price still to be confirmed – is better in every conceivable way. It's lighter, faster, packs a higher resolution display, more stylus functionality, and even better multitasking capability.

This year's Note 10.1 is not without its flaws, though, as the software experience can be buggy at times. Fortunately, the Note 10.1 still offers the best stylus and multitasking experience available. It's one of the few Android tablets that can actually make your life easier, and if Samsung can iron out some of the software bugs, it'll make for a compelling alternative to the Apple iPad.

Design

Measuring 170 x 8 x 243mm (WxDxH), and weighing 560 grams, the new Note 10.1 is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, but still not as physically impressive as the 7mm thick Sony Xperia Tablet Z which weighs 495 grams.

Despite Samsung's best efforts to conceal the all-plastic build, the Note 10.1 still feels cheap. The faux leather back isn't terrible on its own, but when combined with the imitation chrome edges – seemingly lifted straight off faux metal, plastic utensils – the whole package ends up looking a bit tacky. It feels sturdy enough, though, and it's preferable to the slick glossy plastic that typically adorns Samsung products. The Note 10.1 is available in white or black.

There are power and volume buttons along the top edge, as well as the IR-emitter for controlling your home cinema devices. You'll find a flap covering the microSD card slot on the right edge and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left. Side-firing stereo speaker grilles can be found on the left and right edges as well, while a microUSB port sits at the centre of the bottom edge for charging and syncing – an upgrade over last year's proprietary port. The stylus is tucked neatly away in the upper right hand corner and uses the same pressure sensitive Wacom digitiser that's standard in Note devices.

Samsung upgraded the display here, and it now sports a 2,560 x 1,600-pixel resolution that amounts to 298 pixels per inch. That's better than the iPad's 263 pixels per inch, and the LCD panel on the Note 10.1 is exceedingly bright and vibrant. This isn't an AMOLED display, but colours look overly saturated in typical Samsung fashion. Samsung offers Dynamic, Standard, and Movie profiles for varying degrees of saturation and colour accuracy, so you can tweak the display to your liking. This is one of the better tablet displays I've seen, and gives the iPad a run for its money.

This is a Wi-Fi only tablet that connects to 802.11a/b/g/n/ac networks on the 2.4 and 5GHz bands. You also get Bluetooth 4.0 and GPS/GLONASS. The microSD card slot worked fine with our 64GB SanDisk card and the microUSB port is MHL-compatible for mirroring to an HDTV with the appropriate adapter, which also worked fine in our tests.

The Note 10.1 is also one of two devices that are compatible with the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch. The Gear is impressive, but feels a bit rushed. It's also probably a better fit for Note 3 owners since the call answering feature will be useless with the Note 10.1.

Stylus and multitasking

The Note's stylus was unique last year, but has since been imitated by competitors like the Toshiba Excite Write. But just having a stylus isn't enough, as we saw with the Write's lack of useful features and OS level integration. Samsung is still top dog with its suite of stylus friendly apps and baked in features. New this year is Air Command, which makes use of the stylus' proximity sensor to bring some of Samsung's most useful stylus features front and centre.

Hovering the stylus over any part of the screen and pressing the stylus button brings up a semi-circle menu with five options: Action Memo, Scrap Booker, Screen Write, S Finder, and Pen Window. Action Memo brings up a floating sticky note with Samsung's usual array of note-taking tools. Each memo minimises down into a floating icon until dismissed. Scrap Booker lets you create virtual scrapbooks by clipping whatever content is on the screen. It even preserves metadata like image URLs and link content. Screen Write captures a screenshot and lets you annotate it with your own notes. S Finder lets you search through all of your notes and content, including web history and apps.

Pen Window is Samsung's secondary multitasking feature, which supplements the improved multi-window feature. Multi-window is still here, but now you can drag the divider to resize the left and right windows. You can also save pairs of apps you like to open often, which is a nice addition. Pen Window lets you define another rectangular space for a third, fourth, or even fifth concurrent task to run in. These two features combined blow away any other tablet when it comes to multitasking, which gives the Note 10.1 a huge advantage in terms of productivity.

Performance

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Powering the Note 10.1 is Samsung's quad-core 1.9GHz Exynos 5420 processor with 3GB of RAM. That setup performed well on synthetic benchmarks, keeping up with recent Snapdragon 800 powered devices and slightly outpacing Tegra 4 powered tablets like the HP SlateBook x2 and Excite Write. It notched one of the highest Geekbench scores we've seen – which tests overall system performance – and managed a very impressive 59 frames per second (off-screen) and 42 frames per second (on-screen) in the GFXBench graphics benchmark. Web browsing tests were good, but the Tegra 4 powered SlateBook x2 handily beat the Note 10.1 in the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark, 660 milliseconds to 1095 milliseconds for the Note 10.1.

There's no doubt that the Note 10.1 has raw power to spare, but real world performance was a different story. Much as we saw with the Nexus 10, performance on the Note 10.1 isn't quite as smooth as its synthetic numbers might suggest. I saw far too many app crashes and system-wide bugs that made it feel like the software was rushed on the Note 10.1.

Gaming support, for instance, was erratic as graphically intensive games like Need For Speed Most Wanted and NOVA 3 routinely crashed only moments into gameplay. I noticed that after each new app was installed, the system needed to redraw elements of the home screen, like widgets. And there was just too much random lag when firing up apps or navigating around Android. Keep in mind that even the Nexus 10 and SlateBook x2 were also riddled with bugs and inconsistencies when we first tested them. Core apps like Chrome and Gmail are speedy and fluid, and the Note 10.1 is still among the fastest Android tablets available for web browsing.

The Note 10.1 is running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean with Samsung's heavy-handed TouchWiz skin. It's a pretty polarising feature that will feel overwrought to Android purists. You'll find the usual bevy of Samsung features and system-wide stylus integration that makes the Note line unique.

New to the Note 10.1 is Samsung's My Magazine interface – this is an alternative launcher, like HTC's BlinkFeed, that you toggle with the Home button while on the main home screen. It's powered by Flipbook, so the content and presentation are spot on here. It looks and feels like the Flipbook app itself, but with an icon in the upper right corner that hides or shows shortcuts to your favourite apps. I actually like this feature, but it seems superfluous to build it into the system itself, when the app would likely suffice, especially since there's no option to make it the default interface.

In our battery rundown test, which loops a video with screen brightness set to maximum and Wi-Fi on, the Note 10.1 lasted 7 hours and 31 minutes. That's an improvement over the original's 5 hours and 42 minutes in the same test, and should be enough to get through a full day of regular use.

Multimedia and cameras

Samsung tablets have always excelled when it comes to multimedia, and things are no different for the Note 10.1 The video player supported all of our test formats at up to 1080p resolution, while the music player had no issue with any format we threw at it. The speakers are now side-mounted, which is a downgrade from the front-facing speakers in last year's model. They get plenty loud, but as with any tablet, there's no discernible bass response.

The IR-emitter enables the now familiar remote control feature you'll find on any recent Samsung device. It worked with a variety of HDTVs, including Samsung and non-Samsung models, and a number of cable and satellite DVR boxes.

The 8-megapixel rear-facing camera is above average for a tablet. Images taken outdoors and in good lighting looked sharp and in focus, with mostly accurate colours and an impressive amount of detail. Under low lighting conditions image noise began to creep in, but pictures were still perfectly suitable for uploading to the web. The Note 10.1 can capture 1080p video at a steady 30 frames per second, and footage looks good in bright lighting, though it can begin to look a bit grainy in low lighting. The front-facing camera takes reasonable shots in favourable light – as well as can be expected from a 2-megapixel sensor – and it works well for Skype video calls.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition picks up exactly where last year's model left off, making key upgrades to the display and internal components, while building on its core stylus and multitasking features.

However, for all its upgrades, this year's Note 10.1 feels rougher around the edges, and the frequent app crashes were a source of frustration. Fortunately, though, the bugs and app compatibility are things that can be fixed with time via software updates, and Samsung has upped its game in terms of fixes of late.

One key sticking point this year will be price. As we mentioned at the start of this review, the UK price hasn’t been confirmed, but the US one is pitched at $550 (£340) for the base 16GB model. That means that Stateside, the Note is more expensive than the entry-level iPad 16GB, which is $500 (£310) – and the iPad is definitely still king when it comes to tablet apps.

The iPad, however, can't match the Note 10.1's multitasking or pressure sensitive stylus, and those are two features that genuinely change how useful a tablet can be. It's also worth mentioning that Apple is expected to release a new iPad in the coming weeks. We don't have any details on pricing or features, but it will likely be a strong contender, as ever.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition)

Screen Resolution

2560 x 1600 pixels

Operating System

Google Android 4.3

Size and Weight

170 x 8 x 243mm (WxDxH); 560 grams

Wi-Fi (802.11x) Compatibility

802.11a/b/g/n/ac; 2.4GHz/5GHz

Screen Type

IPS LCD

Battery Size

8220 mAh

GPS

Yes

RAM

3GB

Camera Resolution

8-megapixel (rear-facing)

Storage Capacity

16GB

Screen Pixels Per Inch

298 ppi

Additional Storage

MicroSD

Video Camera Resolution

1080p

Processor Speed

1.9GHz

Bluetooth Version

4.0

Screen Size

10.1in

CPU

Samsung Exynos 5420

Ports

MHL, microUSB

Storage Type

SSD