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Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) review: Top-notch specs on a pricey niche tablet

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The Good Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) has Android 4.3, impressive processing muscle, two fully loaded cameras, and a light, portable build. Improved S Pen features boost the tablet's productivity potential.

The Bad The faux leather back cover looks chintzy, and handwriting recognition is still imperfect.

The Bottom Line The improved S Pen goes a long way to making this high-end tablet worth the extra cost, but if you're not sold on the stylus, it's easy to find a better deal.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

Editors' note: This review currently reflects performance for the global model of the 2014 Note 10.1, with its 1.9GHz eight-core processor. It will be updated with results from the US quad-core version when that unit arrives.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) is the tablet you buy because you crave the stylus' unique drawing and handwriting capabilities. Remove the S Pen wand from the equation, though, and the Note's competitors start sounding like a much better deal.

Yes, the Galaxy Note 10.1 significantly upgrades the original Galaxy Note 10.1 with a fast octa-core (global) or quad-core (US Wi-Fi, LTE) processor, up-to-date Android, solid dual cameras, and useful software tools. Best yet, Samsung has corrected several problems that plagued its stylus-compatible apps in previous Note iterations.

But rivals like the Google Nexus 10 (2012) give you a similar or on-par display resolution, screen size, and specs for $50-to-$150 less than the 16GB Wi-Fi Note 10.1's $549.99 US price. (The 32GB US Wi-Fi version costs $599.99.)

If you're looking for all the whistles and bells, then pick the Note 10.1 for its niche multitasking achievements. Otherwise, those seeking a core tablet experience should get the Nexus 10 (2012), or hold out for the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 or Apple's next-generation iPad, which the company is expected to announce later this month.

What's new?
There are major design, hardware, and software updates over the original Note:
- Square design, "leatherlike" backing
- Much higher screen and camera resolution, faster CPU
- Micro-USB charging
- Android 4.3
- Air Command task shortcuts
- Overhauled S Note note-taking app
- Multitasking enhancements
- My Magazine app (by Flipboard)

Hardware and design
A distant member of the Samsung Galaxy S4 family, the Note 10.1 has the same squared-rectangle shape and steep, silvery sides. Like the Note 3, this slate gets a "leatherlike" finish on its plastic backing, down to molded faux stitching that attaches to nothing, but is meant to give an air of professionalism and class to the Note family going forward.

A lighter, smaller frame make this new Note 10.1 nice and portable without sacrificing screen size.

Josh Miller/CNET

I'm no fan of either the marketing jargon or the imitation leather, both of which feel cheap and forced to me. I do, however, like the smudge-free matte finish. Grip it the wrong way, though, and it's more slippery than it looks. This boils down to personal taste; several other CNETers liked both the Note 10.1's look and its feel.

Compared with featherweights like the Sony Xperia Tablet Z, the Note 10.1 is a bit of a chunker at 1.18 pounds. Even though it's lighter and slimmer than 2012's Nexus 10 and iPad 4, its weight could wear on you after time. The Note otherwise feels fine, and takes up much less space than its predecessor, which makes it easier to tote around.


Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014)Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2012)Google Nexus 10 (2012)Apple iPad (fourth generation)
Weight in pounds1.181.321.331.44
Width in inches (landscape)9.6210.310.47.3
Height in inches6.757.16.99.5
Depth in inches0.310.350.350.37
Side bezel width in inches (landscape)0.50.90.90.8

Samsung comes out swinging with a 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution (WQXGA) for its 10.1-inch display. This is a huge spike from the 1,280x800 resolution in last year's model, and the 299 pixel density makes a difference on the Note 10.1's Super Clear LCD screen. Colors are bold and beautiful on automatic brightness settings, and text, images, and video look crisp. This is important for a device so centered around content creation. If you keep track of these things, this 2014 edition has a slightly higher pixel density than Apple's fourth-edition iPad (299 versus 264).

As a bonus, the two capacitive buttons on either side of the home button respond to the S Pen's touch (just like on the Note 8 tablet and Note 3 phone). Pressing and holding the home button brings up recent apps. A double press launches S Voice; a triple press invokes My Magazine (more on that below). Using the stylus for tasks may require more premeditation than using your finger, but it does help keep the screen smudge-free.

Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014)

That's not leather you're gazing upon; it's plastic molded to looks like the real thing, stitches and all.

Josh Miller/CNET

Also like the Note 8 tablet, this Note 10.1 has a Micro-USB charging port instead of the less convenient proprietary charger on the original Note 10.1, but once again, you'll need to purchase a third-party HDMI cable and adapter to hook the tablet to your TV. The device has an IR blaster to remotely control the TV, and a microSDXC card slot that takes up to 64GB in external storage. Speakers integrated into the left and right spines sound nice and loud on maximum volume, with minimal tinniness and certainly less hollowness than you find on a typical tablet.

Two high-end cameras make their way onto the Note; an 8-megapixel shooter on the back, next to an LED flash, and a 2-megapixel camera on the front. As for color options, you'll have two: jet black and classic white.

Under the hood, the international version of the Note 10.1, the version I reviewed, packs in Samsung's eight-core 1.9GHz Exynos 5 Octa processor and a Mali-T628 GPU. In the US, you'll get Samsung's 1.3GHz quad-core Exynos 5420 processor instead. Until performance test results are in, don't automatically assume that eight cores are better than four.

The stylus slides snugly into its compartment.

Josh Miller/CNET

What you can count on are 3GB RAM and either 16GB or 32GB built-in storage. This model I'm testing is the 32GB variety. The Note 10.1 (2014) draws power from its 8,220mAh battery. Connection options for the Wi-Fi version include the usual suspects: GPS; Wi-Fi, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac; USB 2.0; and Bluetooth 4.0.

Multitasking wonderland
Samsung has given both its new tablet and Note 3 phone a handful of smart, important productivity enhancements through new stylus software. Any time you pull the S Pen from its holster, or click the S Pen button on the side while hovering over the screen, the new Air Command fans out with a palette of five shortcuts you can take.

Air Command fans out as a task shortcut. On the left, a fresh preview pane and look for your notes.

Josh Miller/CNET

Action memo can "read" your scrawling handwritten addresses, e-mail addresses, and the like, and drop them into an address book, onto a map, or stick a URL into a browser. Accuracy seemed pretty good in my tests, and I've been known to produce some pretty bad chicken scratch. The other shortcuts were equally good at doing what they say with lassoing items for the scrapbook, saving screenshots of pages you can immediately annotate, and my favorite: initiating the universal search.

Even though it looks great, using the Air Command shortcut wheel wasn't always the fastest way to do something. Since you're hovering over it to navigate, there's a bit of delay as you pan the wheel. One shortcut, Pen Window (which launches an applet on top of whichever screen you're on), takes three steps to use. At that point, it might just be faster to find the app or shortcut on your own.

The tablet's 10-inch screen is a natural canvas for writing, drawing, navigating, and doodling.

Josh Miller/CNET

Multi Window is Samsung's name for split screen, which just means that you can drag two app windows onto the screen for simultaneous side-by-side use. Pull the frame to adjust the window size, and tap the blue dot separating the screens for more options, including dragging and dropping items across screens. New functionality lets you create templates for your favorite combinations, say two browser tabs or your e-mail and the gallery. I always enjoy that pressing and holding the back button toggles Multi Window on and off.

OS and apps
2014's Note 10.1 runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, which mostly delivers some behind-the-scenes improvements (but it feels good to be current). Samsung's TouchWiz interface for tablets rides on top, bringing with it a host of add-on functionality. There's Air View to preview items like photos and tool tips, Smart Pause to halt a video when you look away and resume when you look back, and screen mirroring, to name a few.

You launch Google Voice Actions and Google Now by tapping a button on the home screen, and can dig into the settings to turn on gestures for a variety of actions, like waving your hand to browse an image or cover the screen to pause or mute what's playing.

Here's something entirely new to the tablet. Swiping up from the bottom of any home page opens My Magazine, a Flipboard-made news-reading experience. It's a stylish, cool way to discover and share the news, but has one fatal flaw. Although you can select different categories you'd like to read -- technology, travel, food, science -- you can't actually pick your outlets. Boo-hiss.

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)

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.

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.

Performance
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 specSamsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014)Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2012)Google Nexus 10 (2012)Apple iPad (fourth generation)
Maximum brightness326 cd/m2411 cd/m2368 cd/m2455 cd/m2
Maximum black level0.33 cd/m20.47 cd/m20.44 cd/m20.49 cd/m2
Contrast ratio987:1795:1836:1939:1

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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