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Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2012) review: Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1

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MSRP: $499.00

The Good The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 sports a proven, sensible design, a bevy of useful features, and fast performance. The S Pen Stylus is a unique addition.

The Bad Only a limited number of apps make full use of the S Pen and some of the ones that do can be buggy and confusing. Some S Pen features aren't enabled by default and others don't work properly.

The Bottom Line The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is the best Samsung tablet yet. If you can get over its somewhat high price, it's a sound Android tablet investment.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.3 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

Editors' note: As of October 2013, a newer version of this tablet is available.

With the inclusion of a stylus, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 attempts something different for full-size tablets. In certain apps the S Pen (as the stylus is called) does improve precision and can make note taking a much faster affair. Also, if you're willing to put in the time learning the apps and gestures, the S Pen can deliver a useful and rewarding interface experience. But if you've no artistic aspirations and typing out your notes is your preferred method, does the S Pen offer any real benefit?

Not really. For general tablet usage your finger is still the best tool for the job, and unless you have a specific need for an electronic pen (say, you're an artist) or are willing to a take long hike over a slow, steep learning curve, there's really no benefit to using it.

Thankfully, even if you don't use the pen, the Note 10.1's fast overall performance, sensible design, great-looking screen, and useful features make it the best Samsung tablet yet.

Editors' note: Due to the increasingly changing tablet landscape, we've lowered the score of the Note 10.1 from 7.5 to 7.3.

Design
If you've ever held the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 in your hands, then you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the Galaxy Note 10.1. Aesthetically, the tablets are nearly identical, with only a few physical differences to speak of: the Note 10.1 comes in a white model and a black model (as opposed to only gray), sports a wider bezel, is a bit thinner, and weighs slightly more than the Tab 2 10.1. Speakers grace the right and left bezel and the top bezel sports 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 (up from 3 megapixels on previous Galaxy Tabs). The top edge holds a power button, a volume rocker, a microSD slot (supporting cards of up to 64GB), an IR blaster, and a headphone jack. On the bottom edge are the dock connector and a microphone pinhole. The tablet is fairly light and comfortable to hold and while it does feel like smooth plastic, it doesn't feel unpleasantly plasticky or cheap.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 Asus Transformer Tab Infinity TF700 Apple iPad (third generation)
Weight in pounds 1.32 1.28 1.32 1.44
Width in inches (landscape) 10.3 10.1 10.4 9.5
Height in inches 7.1 6.9 7.1 7.3
Depth in inches 0.35 0.38 0.33 0.37
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.9 0.74 0.8 0.8

Lastly, there's a 4-inch-long, ill-placed holding space in the tablet's bottom-right corner for the S Pen Stylus. The problems with this placement are, one, the S Pen can easily fall out if you're holding the tablet up while removing it, and two, when the tablet sits in a 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 just a strange choice not to place the holding space on the top.

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This is actually the bottom of the tablet, where the ill-placed stylus slot resides. Josh Miller/CNET

The S Pen has gotten a redesign since its appearance on the original Galaxy Note. The new stylus is longer and thicker, and has its sides squared off to keep it from unexpectedly rolling away. Also, the pen button is now grooved to make it a bit easier to find with your fingertips; however, I found myself consistently pressing the button by mistake.

The point of the S Pen is to give you an alternative to using your fingers, and while this feels fine for navigating menus and swiping through pages, when it comes time to type, I prefer using both hands, as it's faster and more comfortable than the search-and-peck routine the S Pen forces you into. Also, the stock S Pen is a little too light and thin for my tastes. I much preferred using the original S Pen encased in the S Pen Holder Kit with its extra weight and mass making it feel much more like a actual, quality, ink pen.

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The original Note S pen (bottom) and the new S Pen for the Note 10.1. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung also built some 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.

Software features
The Note 10.1 ships with Android 4.0.4, the latest version of the OS before Jelly Bean (version 4.1). Samsung says the tablet will be upgraded to the new OS in 2012, however. 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 toned down the oppressively Fisher-Price-ian look, giving a more natural, quieter aesthetic. Along with TouchWiz comes the only reason for the UI to exist, in my opinion: the mini apps tray, now upgraded to support limited customization. You can now swap apps (chosen from an increased, but still very small pool) in and out from the tray, and the Task Manager, which lets you kill apps and clear the RAM, is still the most useful app in the tray.

The only other notable included apps are the ones most compatible with the S Pen: S Note and Photoshop Touch. However, while these apps reward those willing to deal with learning how to use them, jumping right into it feels like the equivalent of diving 30 feet off a cliff into an ocean only to find a bed of jagged rocks, just under the water's surface, waiting for you. Figuratively speaking, of course.

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Really? I can't just have a blank sheet of white paper to start my project? Screenshot: Eric Franklin/CNET

In S Note, while there are eight templates to choose from, there's no clear way to open a new, completely blank sheet of "paper." Also, there are icons in the app that have no obvious purpose. I know that the pen icon in the upper right corner has a function, but the app doesn't explicitly let me in on the secret and only after attempting to draw with my fingers did I discover that the icon turns on pen-only mode. It may have other functions, but I don't know. Other tools like formula match, shape match, and text match were initially not the easiest features to find. The functionality is there, but it's unfortunately hidden under a thick veil of inhospitableness.

While Photoshop Touch thankfully has a very useful tutorial and according to Samsung is optimized for S Pen use, it's strange that the pen's pressure sensitivity features isn't turned on by default. This is a feature Samsung should want to be completely obnoxious in touting, but the only reason I know about it is because a Samsung rep told me about it during a demo. Samsung needs to bring this level of education to the masses of people interested in this product who have never used Photoshop or a tablet. Let's hope the company finds a way to do so.

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No, I think you know what I meant, Mr. Writing-to-text interpretation software! Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

There's a general writing-to-text feature that works across most apps that include a typing component, but again, though it's a simple thing to enable, it's not turned on by default and instead I found it necessary to go to the reviewer of the original Note, Jessica Dolcourt, and have her show me how she enabled it on the phone. Even then, I still had to translate that procedure to a tablet interface. After a few minutes of near-apoplectic teeth grinding, some yelling, and maybe a few tears (yes, from me), we discovered the procedure: when the Samsung keyboard is onscreen, hold down on the gear icon and select the "T" symbol. Like I said, it's simple, but not obvious. It should be both.

The translation software itself isn't the most accurate, but that wouldn't be such a problem if the accompanying UI weren't as clunky. The writing space is at the bottom of the screen, with the software spacebar and Backspace buttons above that. Once again, it's a simple solution, but in actual practice can quickly become frustrating, especially after your third try spelling a word. On second thought? The translation software is just as much to blame here.

The Note 10.1 is the first tablet to include a feature called multiscreen. Multiscreen allows you to run two apps at once on the same screen; however, the apps you can can choose from are limited to a specific six (S Note, Polaris Office, Video Player, gallery, Email, and the Android 4.0 browser) -- unfortunately you can't swap in any app you'd like. The thought behind the feature is to give you the ability to create content by pulling assets from one app into another. At least that's the most useful purpose. You can also create a birthday card in S Note on the left side of the screen, while a movie plays in Video Player on the right, but thanks to the palm rejection feature not always working properly that becomes a bit of a problem.

With palm rejection, as long as the S Pen is in your hand, the screen will not recognize any other capacitive parts of your body, in particular your palm. So unlike 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 to your heart's content. Or at least, that's how it's supposed to work.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
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Multiscreen (see below) is one of the Note 10.1's biggest new software features. Josh Miller/CNET

There are times when placing my palm with pen in hand on the screen has no adverse effect, but there are other times when it does. Sometimes it's your palm inadvertently contributing to your latest art project and other times (as when running S Note and Video Player in the manner described above), severe lag can occur as your palm interacts with the video while you're attempting to write.

Peel's Smart Remote app
The Note 10.1's IR blaster, in conjunction with Peel's included Smart Remote app, helps turn your tablet into a remote control for your TV. Peel can take the place of your cable or satellite channel guide and display a list of shows currently playing locally on your provider's channels. Go to the currently playing tab and click on a show, and your TV switches to the appropriate channel. Peel does a great job of holding your hand initially through a step-by-step setup wizard. The setup only requires that you know your TV manufacturer's name, your cable/satellite provider, and your ZIP code. Thankfully, Peel spares us from having to know any more-detailed information; however, be aware that Smart Remote does not work with regular monitors, only TVs or monitor/TV combos. Though it's well-implemented overall, I'm still waiting for Hulu and Netflix integration, and an actual search feature would be useful.

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 differentiates itself from lesser digital pens. The pen's tip sports a pressure-sensitive sensor that recognizes 1,024 levels of pressure. Samsung says the original Note only got as high as 256. So, depending on the app you're using (not all apps support this), the harder you press the pen on the screen, the thicker the resulting lines.

This may be appealing with 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 has limited appeal as simply a tool used to navigate. I mentioned a difficult learning curve before; that really isn't limited to any one app. There is depth here for those willing to take the time to delve deeply, but the sharp jagged rocks of the confusing UI will scare many off. Also, for the most part, my fingers still work better.

The Note 10.1 houses a 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos 4410 CPU and 2GB of RAM. Tablet mainstays like 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth 4.0, and GPS are included as well as gyroscope, accelerometer, and a digital compass.

Performance
Whether I'm using the pen or my fingers, tapping through menus is 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. However, from an aesthetic standpoint, I was disappointed by how stuttery scrolling through pages and apps looked compared with the ultra smoothness most Tegra 3 tablets demonstrate.

I used Riptide GP as my real-world games benchmark. The game delivered frame rates roughly on par with what I've seen on 1.4GHz Tegra 3-based tablets like the Asus Transformer Prime, but doesn't include the Tegra 3-specific graphical effects. Also, the frame rate isn't as consistent or as high as on either the iPad 2 or third-generation iPad.

Web speeds on Wi-Fi were about typical using either Chrome or the default browser. App downloads over Wi-Fi at 5 feet away from the router were pulled down at a rate of about 1.8MBps, compared with the Google Nexus 7's 2.3MBps, with the scores averaged over three iterations.

The screen responds quickly to the S Pen and scrolls just as quickly as it would under a finger; however, the screen may be a bit too heavily calibrated toward accepting precise touches from the pen. Attempting to scrub through videos using just my finger didn't always work.

The screen's 1,280x800-pixel resolution is fine for most purposes, but I must admit to being spoiled by recent Android tablets like the Asus Transformer Infinity and Acer Iconia Tab A700 with their sharper 1,920x1,200-pixel resolutions -- a resolution I feel would have been beneficial on a tablet so focused on creating content.

The front camera won't wow you with its quality, but at 1.9 megapixels, it won't distract you 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 on higher-quality cameras like the Transformer Infinity's or the iPad's.

Tested spec Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 Apple iPad (third generation)
Maximum brightness (Super IPS+) 411 cd/m2 380 cd/m2 422 cd/m2 (644 cd/m2) 455 cd/m2
Default brightness 175 cd/m2 213 cd/m2 112 cd/m2 160 cd/m2
Maximum black level (Super IPS+) 0.47 cd/m2 0.39 cd/m2 0.34 cd/m2 (0.53 cd/m2) 0.49 cd/m2
Default black level 0.22 cd/m2 0.22 cd/m2 0.10 cd/m2 0.17 cd/m2
Default contrast ratio 874:1 974:1 933:1 941:1
Maximum contrast ratio (Super IPS) 795:1 968:1 1,241:1 (1,215:1):1 928:1

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 9.6

Conclusion
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 comes with 16GB of storage for $500 or 32GB for $550, and thanks to its fast performance, sensible design, and a bucketload of features, it's the best Samsung tablet yet.

However, as Jessica Dolcourt implied in her review of the original Galaxy Note phone, the S Pen's potential far outreaches its implementation and that price, no doubt driven by the inclusion of the stylus and its supporting technologies, should be about $50 lower. Especially given the limited usefulness of the S Pen for most people, the lack of the Jelly Bean OS at launch, and a lower-res screen than tablets are capable of.

If you're looking for a full-size tablet, the Asus Transformer Infinity is still the Android tablet to get because of its beautiful, high-res screen, fast performance, and useful features; however, artists looking to take their portfolios on the go or those willing to put in the time to learn a new type of interface will want to give the Note 10.1 serious consideration.

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