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The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 has made the digital notebook a reality

Ever since I got my first tablet I’ve been trying to replace my trusty reporter notebooks with a digital alternative. It seems really retro to cover high-tech products at events like Google I/O and CES with a paper notebook. Unfortunately, until recently, no tablet offered a combination of precise pen input, usable screen real estate, and a UI that allowed note taking in parallel with content viewing. Then I started working with a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, which provides solid versions of all three features. If your needs are similar, you may find that the Note 10.1 will finally let you ditch your paper notebooks.

S Pen stylus

With the tidal wave of finger-touch devices on the market, it is easy to forget that stylus input has a rich, multi-decade tradition in mobile devices. Only a few years ago the mobile productivity market was dominated by PDAs with small styli running Windows Mobile and Palm OS – fighting only with the then-mighty Blackberry for mindshare.

However, starting in 2007, the arrival of the iPhone’s capacitive touchscreen and fingertip interface drove all those platforms to near extinction in short order. Unfortunately, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Without precise stylus input, writing became a chore on phones and tablets. Most current tablet models are fine for quick jots, but writing pages of text is laborious at best. Drawing is a little better, but without pressure sensitivity, it is difficult to feel fully empowered as an artist or photographer.

Samsung’s S Pen technology addresses these issues in a big way – it’s an accurate pressure-sensitive stylus which registers precisely on the tablet’s screen. Samsung has also cleverly used its Air View technology (which reacts when the stylus is near the display) to provide intelligent palm rejection when using S Pen-enabled applications. Between Air View and application-specific coding, the Note does an excellent job of allowing both touch and stylus input while not having stray touches mess up writing or drawing with the S Pen. Applications without full S Pen support, like my standby for inking notes, Handrite Pro, get the benefit of limited palm rejection but require some careful handling to make them work well.

Samsung’s own improved S Note application is what makes the S Pen come alive. It provides a handy way to enter multimedia notes (raw ink, handwriting recognised text, sketches, formulas, photos, audio and video) and organise them into notebooks. Because it is designed to work with the multiple window interface on the Note, you can take notes on web pages or videos while you view them. By using Google’s Cloud Print I can also easily print my notes to our networked printer. Samsung provides a sync capability for S Note, but it is only to a Samsung “black box” that doesn’t seem to have any way to get at the information except from another Samsung Note.

The S Pen isn’t the only solution to a pressure-sensing, palm-rejecting stylus for mobile devices. Add-on products like the Jot Touch do something similar by connecting a stylus over Bluetooth, but they’re expensive and not tightly integrated into the system the way the S Pen is. Samsung actually uses multiple touch technologies to sense the proximity of the stylus and the precise pressure-sensitive touch of the stylus, at the same time as continuing to recognise the multi-touch gestures we have come to expect on mobile devices.

Multiple windows? What a radical concept

Three decades after windows were introduced to desktop computers, they’re finally re-appearing on our mobile devices. Samsung has done an excellent job of providing a multi-window system on its Note product line. It is much more flexible and powerful than Microsoft’s clunky screen-splitting capability in Windows 8. (See: Windows 8: A disastrous OS with an identity crisis).

You can easily put just about any application in half the screen, with a second application in the other half. You can change the amount of real estate for each application simply by moving a slider, or switch the applications around by dragging them. Screen rotation still works flawlessly. I found it easy to have a video or web page in one window while I took notes in the other.

Give credit to Samsung for pushing the envelope

Samsung takes a lot of flak over whether it truly innovates or just emulates Apple. It’s fair to debate that point in terms of design and basic smartphone features, but it is very clear that Samsung has staked out a unique piece of territory with its Note product line. By partnering with Wacom to obtain a high performance input solution, Samsung has a good chance to chip away at Apple’s stranglehold on content creators. Adding the innovation of multiple windows strengthens its advantage by leveraging the inherent multitasking capabilities of the Note’s base Android OS.

S-Pen-enabled applications are trickling out

Perhaps the biggest knock on the Note family has been that there aren’t a lot of applications that take full advantage of the S Pen, but that’s actually okay. Samsung’s own S Note is a pretty good note taking application – although I’d personally love to see Microsoft add ink input to the Android version of One Note. For photographers, the excellent UI of Adobe’s Photoshop Touch – bundled with the Note 10.1 – is made even better with an S Pen.

On the plus side, its quad-core 1.4GHz Exynos CPU pushes the relatively low number of pixels along briskly, even when taking notes in one window while watching a video in the other. And its MicroSD port and included USB host functionality are also a nice touch. Using an adapter from Samsung or a third party, SD cards full of images appear as soon as they are inserted. Coupled with the bundled version of Adobe Photoshop Touch, these features make the hardware a natural choice for photographers who want a simple and portable solution for their image editing in the field.

Samsung’s Note could still use some work

If you’re looking for the best replacement for paper on the market, a Samsung Note may be right for you. There are certainly some rough edges, though. The tablet and especially the S Pen are under-documented in the product package, although Samsung does provide an extensive downloadable user guide. The tablet uses a Samsung-proprietary 30-pin connector and is very fickle about charging with non-Samsung adapters. I also found the auto brightness setting too low for my liking, but it isn’t the only device with that problem. S Note is also weak on its syncing options, and because it uses a unique file format, there isn’t any way to edit S Note memos on your desktop machine.

However, if you can live with those limitations and the relatively stiff price tag, the Note 10.1 is a powerful and unique productivity tool. For more on the device, check out our Galaxy Note 10.1 Wi-Fi review.