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Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (Verizon Wireless) review: Innovative features, if you're willing to pay

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MSRP: $599.99

The Good The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (Verizon Wireless) features tangible UI improvements that make use of the S Pen in useful, logical, and cool ways. Its storage capacity can be expanded via microSD, and the IR blaster remains a thoughtful addition.

The Bad The price is far too high for only 16GB of native storage, and the build quality feels weaker and inelegant when you compare it with even lower-priced tablets.

The Bottom Line A better tablet now than it was last year, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 from Verizon Wireless is unfortunately still too expensive for most.

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7.2 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

When you boil it down, the question of the Verizon Wireless version of the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is this: despite its myriad cool, useful features, with only 16GB of storage, is it worth $600?

If pressed on that question, my answer would have to be no. That is, if you're simply looking for a simple tablet to do simple, tablet-y things with. If that describes you, know that there are plenty of cheaper tablets that will meet your needs.

If you're looking for something more robust, something different, something that can possibly scratch that artistic itch inside you, there is a strong argument that can be made in favor of the Note 10.1. Just know that there is a huge caveat about value. The Verizon Wireless version costs about $100 more than the Wi-Fi version that was released in 2012. It also includes many (but not quite all, yet) of the UI and software updates Samsung pushed to Note 10.1 Wi-Fi owners in early 2013. These changes are smart, useful, and logical, and integrate the S Pen in ways users should have been experiencing from the get-go.

Also, Verizon offers quite a bit of 4G plan flexibility with no mandatory contracts, thankfully. Six hundred dollars for an admittedly feature-packed tablet will still be too much for most, however, and unless you literally have need of a cellular tablet on the road, the cheaper Wi-Fi version that offers more feature flexibility and, likely, timelier updates is the way to go.

The Verizon Note, same as the Samsung Note
The original Wi-Fi version of the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 was released in the summer of 2012. Verizon is now offering the 4G tablet for $599 with 16GB of storage. That's a lot of money for a tablet, 4G or not. The original Note 10.1 started at $499 with 16GB of storage, and as of yet the price hasn't come down, despite a few specs getting a bit long in the tooth. The Note 10.1 has always been an expensive prospect, and with a 4G option, it's even more so.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 (Verizon) Google Nexus 10 Apple iPad (4th gen)
Weight in pounds 1.3 1.3 1.4
Width in inches (landscape) 10.1 10.4 9.5
Height in inches 6.9 6.9 7.3
Depth in inches 0.38 0.35 0.37
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.9 0.9 0.8

The basic physical design of the Verizon version hasn't changed at all; however, Verizon and Samsung have taken this opportunity to jazz things up a bit. The dull silver edges of the original are now brighter and shinier. The bezel and back are now a dark but somewhat bluish gray color. Also, there are now large "Verizon" and "4GLTE" logos on the back.

Speakers grace the right and left bezel, and the top bezel houses 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. The top edge holds a power button, a volume rocker, a microSD slot (supporting cards of up to 64GB), an IR blaster, a headphone jack, and a SIM card slot. On the bottom edge are the dock connector and a microphone pinhole. The tablet is fairly light and comfortable to hold, but compared with the Nexus 10's grippier build, the Note 10.1 feels plasticky and less durable.

Josh Miller/CNET

There's a 4-inch-long, poorly placed holding space in the tablet's bottom-right corner for the S Pen stylus. The problems with this placement are: 1) the S Pen can easily fall out if you're removing it while holding the tablet up; and 2) when the tablet sits in the 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 it's just a strange decision not to place the holding space on the top.

The S Pen has its sides squared off to keep it from unexpectedly rolling away. The pen button is grooved to make it easy to find with your fingertips, and while at first I found myself consistently pressing the button by mistake, I kicked that habit after a few hours of getting accustomed to using the pen.

Eric Franklin/CNET

Samsung also built some useful 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.

(New) software features
The Verizon version of the Note 10.1 ships with Android 4.1.2, aka Jelly Bean, which includes a number of legit and tangible Samsung-developed UI improvements. A Verizon rep told me the company will support the tablet with future upgrades but was mum on details.

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 has slowly toned down the oppressively Fisher-Price-ian look, now providing a more natural, quieter aesthetic. The mini apps tray now includes only those apps compatible with the Note 10.1's multiwindow feature, which makes it possible to run 2 simultaneous apps on the screen. You can also now horizontally resize each app to your heart's content. The compatible apps are limited to a scant 13, and although the Wi-Fi version of the tablet includes multiscreen versions of apps like Twitter and Facebook, Verizon has yet to implement this feature. One of my favorite and most useful mini app-tray apps, the Task Manager, can now be accessed only after tapping the recent apps button or going directly through settings.

Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

The unofficial poster child for the Note 10.1's interface innovation, S Note gets some notable improvements as well, and the veil of inhospitableness that greeted me in the first version of the tablet has largely dissipated. S Note now includes a brief text and video tutorial to make jumping into the app a bit less confusing, and the interface has been tweaked slightly -- you can now easily load a completely blank sheet of "paper" -- toward the same purpose. Icons now present their functionality much more clearly when tapped and can be further clarified by the new Air View feature that displays text bubbles describing each menu option's functionality when you hover the point of the S Pen over it.

Typing in a Web site URL, composing an e-mail, searching for an app in Google Play, or doing pretty much any action that would normally cause a software keyboard to pop up at the bottom on the screen now triggers a notepad to appear. And instead of pecking away at each letter with the pen, you can now simply write your entry directly in the text field. It's an incredibly useful change that dramatically improves the flow of the entire user experience. Also, the pen-to-text translation software is now much more accurate and even when an error occurs, it's much more likely to be the fault of the user now.

Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Photoshop Touch still includes its very useful tutorial, and the app now thankfully turns on the pen's pressure sensitivity feature by default.

With palm rejection, as long as the S Pen is in your hand (and is close enough to the screen to be detected), the screen will not recognize any other capacitive parts of your body, in particular your palm. So unlike some other stylus pens, where your palm disables the pen, with the S Pen's technology, you can place your palm flat down on the screen and still write ad infinitum. With the original Note 10.1 release, this feature didn't work as consistently as it should have, but it feels much more reliable now.

Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Given its Jelly Bean implementation, Samsung appears to have listened to critics of the Note 10.1's initial interface, and as a result has delivered thoughtful improvements, resulting in a UI that feels completely at home with the S Pen.

Hardware features
The most obvious and significant hardware feature on the Note 10.1 is easily the S Pen. The S Pen looks like a traditional stylus and pretty much feels like one too, but it differentiates itself from lesser digital pens. The pen's tip has a pressure-sensitive point that recognizes 1,024 levels of pressure. So, depending on the app you're using (not all apps support this), the harder you press the pen to the screen, the thicker the resulting lines.

This may be appealing to those (unlike myself) with actual artistic talent who know how to use shading to approximate three-dimensional figures in a two-dimensional space. Again, if you're like me and you have no idea what I just wrote, the Stylus' appeal is more limited, but the new features, especially improvements in navigation, make it a lot more alluring to us inartistic types.

Josh Miller/CNET

The Note 10.1 houses a 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos 4410 CPU and 2GB of RAM, and includes support for 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and GPS, as well as gyroscope, accelerometer, a digital compass, and of course 4G LTE through Verizon.

Performance
Whether I'm using the pen or my fingers, tapping through menus is still as swift a process as I've seen on any Android tablet, with no noticeable hangs or stops. Switching between apps also matches the fastest Android tablets available. Pages now scroll much much more smoothly since the update.

Josh Miller/CNET

The screen's 1,280x800-pixel resolution is fine for most purposes, but looks noticeably rougher when sitting next to the Nexus 10's 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution, especially when displaying text. Hopefully, the next 10-inch version of the Note will see a pixel-count upgrade.

I used Real Racing 3 as my real-world games benchmark. The game runs smoothly on the Note 10.1, and thanks to the Note 10.1's lower resolution, it at times pushes higher frame rates than the Nexus 10 does.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 (Verizon) Google Nexus 10 Apple iPad (4th gen)
Maximum brightness 446 cd/m2 368 cd/m2 398 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.79 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 564:1 836:1 812:1

The tablet's front camera won't wow you with its quality, but at 1.9 megapixels, it won't be distractingly poor either, as long as you're not planning to do more than some videoconferencing on it. The 5-megapixel back camera isn't capable of the same level of clarity or color saturation I've seen from higher-quality cameras such as the Nexus 10's, and its flash is too oppressive at close range.

As for battery life, the original Note 10.1 lasted 9.6 hours in our video battery test, and the Verizon version's results seem to be on a par with that.

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 (Verizon Wireless) 9.7

Conclusion
This isn't the device to get if you're only looking for a simple tablet to meet simple needs, as its features are much more closely aligned to the needs of artists and content creators.

The Verizon Wireless version is just as much a quality product as the Wi-Fi version, but unless you have specific need of a 4G tablet, the cheaper, more flexible Wi-Fi version is the way to go. However, there's an 8-inch version of the Note tablet coming soon. Keep that in mind when deciding where to spend your money.

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