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

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MSRP: $549.99
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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.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

Review Sections

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.

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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)

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)
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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