Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) review:

Top-notch specs on a pricey niche tablet

We'll get to the redesigned S Note app in a minute, but before that, you might want to know about some other apps you'll find. Watch On is there to change TV stations and set your DVR, and preinstalled folders group even more tools, like: a translator, video editor, calculator, the Knox security layer, and group play (for playing music, video, and games over multiple Samsung devices). Evernote, Dropbox, and Trip Advisor are also onboard.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014)
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Want to write instead of type? Just hover the pen over most text fields to get going. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Handwriting is something you can do in most text fields; just tap the icon of a pencil that pops up under your hover. Writing-to-text recognition is pretty good, but hardly perfect. It took me (no kidding) 10 attempts to get it to understand my last name, even after tidying up my looser style. The same happened enough times and in enough occasions to identify it as a chronic complaint. If the signature experience is in the pen, you had better make sure you get writing recognition exceptionally accurate.

That said, using the S Pen to write out e-mails, messages, notes, and even navigation feels natural on the tablet, even though I spend the majority of my day typing on keyboards. To meet the tablet's recognition software halfway, write legibly.

The new S Note
Samsung's note-taking app, the creative culmination of the Note experience, had always been a mixed bag. A straightforward writing tool on paper, in practice, problems with the S Note software made it much more difficult to accurately draw and write.

A completely overhauled app, the new S Note is a beautiful, logical, immersive experience that addresses most of the previous app's issues -- but others remain. Notes are now saved in colorful "jackets" that make them easy to distinguish by name and design when glancing at them on the overview screen. Settings are simple to access, and previews let you glance at your note before opening it. New templates (including a long-awaited blank sheet) give you more flexibility over how you write or draw, and virtually every onscreen control has been prettied up.

Samsung has wisely partnered with Evernote to save and sync S Note entries with its online repository of notes. You can also sync them to your Samsung account for online storage.

Most of the content of what you can do remains the same. I always found writing with the S Pen more comfortable on the tablet's vast screen than the smartphone's much tinier one. I was able to write a lot of lists, which I love to do, and sketch out ideas. The tablet really is something I'd take with me to meetings, to jot down items and doodle in the edges.

As before, you can insert all sorts of multimedia into notes, like voice memos, scrapbook items you saved, video clips, photos, and maps. You'll also be able to slap together simple charts and graphs, which you can also resize.

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Clip art, charts, and converting writing to text work well in the new, improved S Note app. Josh Miller/CNET

There are a still a few areas that need some work, though. A button keeps your hand from marking up the digital screen, but pressing my hand against the tablet when I wrote sometimes zoomed the app in and out while I was working. I also couldn't keep myself from accidentally pressing the S Pen button, which interrupted my flow and launched the Air Command toolbar.

In another annoyance, S Note only goes full-screen in landscape mode. You can't change the template on an existing page, but you can copy/paste elements across pages. Charts are easy to create, but less intuitive to edit, and if you do, you'll have to redo any resizing or placement. The editing toolbars occasionally disappeared, and desperate swipes to reinstate it just left more pen marks. It turns out, a three-finger gesture fixes the problem. For this surprise and a few others, I recommend running through S Note's Help files and tutorials.

Overall, Samsung's improvements make S Note a great place to compose and create, but the company's engineers shouldn't give up just yet.

As a reminder, performance results reflect the 1.9GHz Exynos 5 Octa CPU in this particular Note review unit. We'll update with results for the quad-core version when that model arrives.

Navigation was mostly swift and responsive, especially when swiping through home and app screens. Using gestures tied to the S Pen and hover functions slowed things down, and S Note's responsiveness when swiping from page to page also lagged a beat behind.

Gaming was hit or miss on the Note 10.1. The ever-popular Riptide GP2 speedboat racing game was satisfying and better than average. With effects tuned up as high as they could go, it revved up at a decent frame rate. It's a lower frame rate than you'll find on Tegra 4 tablets like the Toshiba Excite Write, and several editors noticed that graphics got a little stuttery during peaks of action.

However, the graphically intensive NOVA 3 game couldn't load Level 1 after more than five separate attempts at installation and loading on two different test devices. Even much more underpowered tablets have managed to load this game after several minutes, instead of crashing as it does here. Again, we'll rerun this test when the quad-core version of the Note 10.1 arrives in our hot little hands. This likely has less to do with the tablet's graphical horsepower than a one-off bug with this particular title.

Graphical benchmark tests using the 3D Mark app achieved a score of 13,677. This is lower than the Asus PadFone (September 2013) with 17,457, but higher than 2012's Nexus 10 (8,553) and iPad 4 (9,425).

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2012) Google Nexus 10 (2012) Apple iPad (fourth generation)
Maximum brightness 326 cd/m2 411 cd/m2 368 cd/m2 455 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.33 cd/m2 0.47 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2
Contrast ratio 987:1 795:1 836:1 939:1

The news is sunnier when it comes to video playback. Clips of various lengths played back beautifully over a strong Wi-Fi connection. I was able to play both saved and streaming HD video clips that played back smoothly and clearly, with rich color and well-defined edges. Performance in this area hinges on your bandwidth, so fully expect to see judder and pixelation when your connection is more tenuous.

The camera experience was also better than on most tablets, thanks to Samsung's inclusion of autofocus, and settings and tools to jazz up a scene. The Note 10.1 comes with most of the same modes you'll find in the Galaxy S4 smartphone (like HDR and panoramas), along with filters, voice control, and dual camera mode, which uses the front-facing camera to insert yourself into the shot.

Image quality didn't seem quite as crisp or precise on the 8-megapixel camera as you might get with a smartphone with the same assembly; that could very well be because a tablet is harder to handle and hold still, especially when hoisted at chest level or overhead. Still, if your tablet is also the only camera you have on hand, photos are certainly good enough to preserve a memory or share one with family and friends.

Front-facing photos alone look a little off if you stick with the beauty mode that will automatically air brush you when Beauty Mode launches by default. Photos taken this way made my skin look like a plastic mannequin -- a little too perfect, bordering on creepily unnatural.

This flower, taken outdoors in overcast lighting, came out nicely, even if using a 10-inch device as a camera is unwieldy. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

This third attempt at the photo was the clearest. Others came out blurrier and less defined. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video Battery life (in hours)
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) 7.8

New Note 10.1 versus the competition
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) is a premium tablet with a steep price. It performs at a high level across the board, and the S Pen's highly improved creation and navigation tools do indeed enhance the experience, particularly if you're looking for a two-in-one device that lets you really get hands-on with drawings, charts, and notes.

However, if you're not absolutely sold on the stylus and the unique capabilities it brings, I suggest you keep looking: the 2012 Google Nexus 10, forthcoming Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, and Apple's next iPad are cheaper options that compete well on core features.

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