The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, which retails at £399.99 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version, is the first tablet to actually change my workflow. It's the only 10in Android tablet with clear advantages for the consumer over the iPad. It's sure to become a cult classic for its three killer apps: Split-screen note-taking, pressure-sensitive drawing, and a universal living room remote control. Those features elevate it above other Android models, and earn this slate our Best Buy award.
The 10in Android tablet dilemma has been that they don't generally offer advantages over the iPad that consumers care about. Yes, Android tablets do things the iPad doesn't do: They usually sport removable memory, configurable home screens, and the ability to run Nintendo emulators. But those geek-centric advantages have largely been outweighed by the iPad's massive third-party app superiority. (The dynamic with 7in tablets is different, because they look better when running apps designed for 4in phones).
The Samsung Galaxy Note is a 10.1in tablet of average size and weight at 180 x 8.9 x 262mm (WxDxH) and 600 grams. It has a wraparound chrome bezel with stereo speakers on either side of the screen, as well as a larger grey bezel cradling the 1280 x 800 LCD screen.
One thing's clear: This will never be mistaken for an iPad. The screen is bright and sharp, although it's not as high-res as the screen on the new iPad. Text will look grainy if you're coming from the latest Apple wonder-slate, but you’ll be fine if you're used to any other device (though the Transformer Pad Infinity TF700, due out very soon, will also outstrip the Samsung device with its full HD resolution). The Note’s screen also gets very reflective outdoors because of the additional pressure-sensitive layer.
The Power and Volume buttons are on top, along with the microSD card slot and an IR emitter that comes into play when you use the Note as a remote control. On the bottom is the irritating, proprietary charging port, and the 5-megapixel camera is on the non-removable plastic back.
The Note's stylus slips unnoticeably into a slot in the corner. It comes with several extra tips. The stylus, which Samsung calls an "S Pen," works with the Wacom-enabled screen to pull off tricks involving proximity sensing, pressure sensitivity, and palm rejection that you won't find on any other desirable tablet today. (The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet also has a pressure-sensitive stylus, but it has a lot of other problems).
The Galaxy Note 10.1 connects to the Internet using Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n on the 2.4 and 5GHz bands. It also has Bluetooth 4.0 and GPS/GLONASS. The Bluetooth connected to both headsets and keyboards without a problem. Battery life was 5 hours and 42 minutes of video playback at max brightness with the 7000mAh battery, which is on par with the new iPad.
What makes the Note special
The Note isn't quite like other Android tablets because of three important features.
The first is that pressure-sensitive stylus. Used with the right app, it has both pressure sensitivity and palm rejection, which means you can rest your hand on the screen, take notes, and sketch. It's much more responsive than a standard capacitive stylus on an Android tablet, too. Third-party apps tend to support pressure sensitivity but not palm rejection. The tablet comes with Adobe's PhotoShop Touch, which supports pressure and palm rejection but has trouble registering subtle dot touches on the screen. The simpler Drawing Pad app has no problem with dots or pressure, but doesn't have palm rejection.
Then there's split-screen. Six apps can be run side-by-side, each taking up half the screen. Those apps are the Microsoft Office-compatible Polaris Office, S Note, the video player, the photo gallery, email, and the web browser. Add the "mini app" desk accessories which pop up from the bottom (Alarm, Calculator, Email, music player, S Note, calendar, task manager, and world clock) and you can actually have three apps on the screen at once.
Combine split-screen and note-taking, and you suddenly have a very useful tablet. I spend a lot of time in a lot of meetings. Now I'm able to pop up Google Reader on the left and jot down notes on the most relevant stories from RSS feeds on the right. Or pop up a promotional YouTube video on the bottom and take notes on what it's showing on top. This is the first digital note-taking device that has made me want to drop my trusty Livescribe Echo.
S Note isn't perfect. It has handwriting recognition, but you can't retroactively go back and recognise notes you took before you turned the mode on. It won't sync audio notes with written notes the way Livescribe does, which is a real bummer and makes it much less useful for interviews. But the split-screen feature is just killer for meetings.
Finally, the Note 10.1 is a home entertainment remote. The Note comes with Peel Smart Remote, which has had some serious bug-fix upgrades since I first saw it on the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus last year. It controls TVs, DVRs, and home stereos – and this year, it connected easily to our Sony TV.
General Android performance
The Note 10.1 is also a state-of-the-art Android tablet running Android 4.0.4 with heavy Samsung TouchWiz customisations. We anticipate it'll eventually get an upgrade to Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" (as the 2GB of RAM looks specced to support that upgrade) but don't hold your breath.
The Note's quad-core 1.4GHz Exynos processor benchmarked extremely fast on web browsing, general processing and simple graphics benchmarks, only falling short of Nvidia's Tegra 3 on Taiji, a more advanced gaming graphics benchmark. Along with the lack of Nvidia's exclusive high-end games, that underscores the fact that this is a business-creative tablet rather than a gaming tablet.
TouchWiz is stuffed full of Easter eggs on the Note. The calendar, music, and video players have all been given thoughtful, paned interfaces which take advantage of the screen size. Don't like the full-sized keyboard? You can switch the keyboard into "floating" or "split" modes, smaller keyboards with different screen arrangements (as shown below). Various auto-sharing options come into play if you're lucky enough to have a room full of Galaxy Notes or Galaxy S III phones.
Samsung tries to make the Note a media tablet by promoting its Music Hub, Media Hub, and Game Hub stores, but none of them are compelling. They're a slightly overpriced music store, a perfectly average movie store, and a short list of games. Fortunately, the tablet works fine with Nook, Kindle, Netflix, and Google Play, so the media bloatware is only a minor concern. There still aren't as many tablet apps for Android as there are for iOS, especially when it comes to games and creativity apps. We're recommending the Note 10.1 primarily for the apps that come with it straight out of the box.
Performance overall is pretty impressive. The Note currently comes as a 16GB model, although you can expand that with up to a 32GB memory card in the top-mounted slot. The video player supports H.264, MPEG4, and WMV videos at up to 1080p resolution without breaking a sweat, and the music player supports all the usual formats. The front-mounted speakers are nice and loud, although on the downside, HDMI output requires an adapter.
The 5-megapixel main camera and 1.9-megapixel front camera are decent examples of their ilk. Both cameras record sharp 720p video at 30 frames per second, indoors and out. The main camera takes decently balanced images with no blur, although they could be a wee bit sharper. The front camera takes sharp and clear photos in good light, grainy and noisy photos in poor light, both at an odd maximum resolution of 1392 x 1392.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 can actually make your life easier. If you spend a lot of time in meetings, if you think in images, or you want to use your tablet as a home remote control, the Galaxy Note 10.1 has features that are perfect for you.
That said, the current Apple iPad is still our number one recommendation for basic tablet users and folks who mostly want to browse the web, read books, and play games. Its Retina screen makes the text on web pages look gorgeous, and the Note can't match the great selection of tablet games for iOS.
But the iPad's upcoming pressure-sensitive stylus accessory, the Adonit Jot Touch – which is due out at the end of this month – costs extra and doesn't offer the sensitivity and palm rejection of the S Pen. And the iPad can't do the Galaxy Note's marvellous split-screen trick, of course. There’s no question that the Galaxy Note 10.1 should get a Best Buy award, and is well worth your consideration when it comes to picking a full-size tablet.