It may be Samsung's latest tablet, but the Galaxy Note 10.1 doesn't stray too far from Samsung's previous efforts in terms of looks and feel. If you sat it next to last year's Galaxy Tab 10.1, you'd probably notice the distinct aluminium frame around the bezel of the newer Note 10.1; but without it, old and newer are virtually identical.
We were disappointed to discover that the same can be said for the tablet's 1280x800-pixel screen. Samsung chose PLS screen tech for this display, and, while it is perfectly serviceable, there is nothing extraordinary to set it apart from the pack. Apple has its Retina display in the new iPad and Asus has a full-HD IPS screen in the Transformer Infinity. As Samsung's best tablet release for the year, we'd have thought that the Koreans would bring out the big guns.
We've read in other reviews that some members of our industry feel that the Note 10.1 is cheaply built. We don't see it the same way. The tablet is built out of plastic, but it feels solid enough for the kind of punishment that it's likely to receive as a portable device. We also like that the plastic helps make the unit lighter, and although the Note 10.1 is slightly heavier than the Galaxy Tab, it is quite a bit lighter than this year's iPad.
As it is with nearly all tablets, the internals of the Note 10.1 are not user accessible, so you can't swap out the battery. Its 16GB of internal memory is expandable via a microSD card slot on top of the tablet. One of the design features we like most is the tablet's front-facing speakers. Almost all other tablets we've seen position the speakers on the rear or the base of the device, so that the speaker grilles are covered by your hands when you are using it.
Being a Note-branded product, the tablet comes with a Samsung S Pen stylus, which slips snugly into a groove along the bottom right. The pen itself feels a bit cheap, but it works as advertised, which is the most important thing, we suppose.
There is also an IR blaster on top of the tablet, meaning that you can download a third-party TV-control app and use the tablet to change the channels or adjust the volume instead of hunting around for the dedicated TV remote. This is a feature that we've only seen on a handful of tablets, and although it is completely secondary to the task that the tablet is designed to perform, it is a perfect fit on a device which most people say they use while curled up in front of their TVs.
If you see any of the promotional material around the new Note 10.1, chances are that you're already aware of some of the tablet's unique features and capabilities. While Apple's iPad offers a bare-bones experience out of the box — one that you augment by downloading dozens of apps — Samsung attempts to give you a productivity boost with its S Pen and associated apps.
S Memo is a good place to start. As the name suggests, this app is designed to help you create notes beyond simple scribbles. With S Memo, you can have your handwriting converted to text, and your poorly drawn circles, triangles and squares polished into digitally perfect shapes. It can even solve some mathematical equations that you scrawl with the stylus. You can start a new memo by choosing from a number of rich-looking templates, and you can share your creations as easily as any image on the tablet. Better yet, you can cut and paste images from apps, like the web browser, to use in your own documents.
The other high-profile feature is a new multitasking option available in a few of the core apps. When you are in one of these apps, like the email tool, you can hit the Multitask button on the top taskbar to launch a second app and have both displayed side by side. This certainly seems like a great idea; it's just poorly executed, unfortunately.
Multitasking seems like a great idea, but its no more useful than using the standard Android multitasking option.
(Credit: Screenshot CBSi)
For starters, the list of compatible apps is so limiting as to make it kind of pointless. It is a shame that you can't hit "Multitask" and then select any installed app to see them side by side. There's also very little that you can do with the two open apps besides look at them. You can't find a photo in your gallery and drag and drop it into an email, for example. At the end of the day, it's just as easy to use the built-in Android full-screen multitasking option to achieve practically the same result.
The same goes for Samsung's Pop-Up Play, a feature that lets you display a video window over the top of any other application window. We like how it works, we love that you can resize the video window with a pinch-to-zoom gesture and we love how responsive it is, even when playing HD videos. We just can't imagine why we'd we use it. Perhaps we are too boring to appreciate this feature, but it seems like it's there because "they can", not because it's a feature that we'd get much use out of.
Pop-Up Play video works very well, but we're not sure when we'd use it.
(Credit: Screenshot CBSi)
It may look like last year's tabs, but the Galaxy Note 10.1 is packing far more firepower. Samsung uses its own Exynos quad-core chipset, clocked at 1.4GHz, a Mali 400P graphics processor and 2GB of RAM. The result is a pretty pleasing computing experience. The tablet breezed through the benchmark tests we use for mobile devices, clocking some of the best results for devices in this category for the year.
This also means that it handles apps well, too. Fast-paced games play well, despite the larger screen size. Switching apps is swift, web browsing is smooth and viewing photos and videos works well.
Battery life is OK, but it certainly does match the longevity of Apple's iPad. In a continuous video-playback test, with the screen brightness set to 100 per cent, the Galaxy Note 10.1 stayed active for just over 5 hours and 20 minutes. Your mileage will vary, especially with the screen set to a comfortable viewing level, but it is still a long way off the 10 hours we saw with the same test on the Google Nexus 7, or the 7 hours and 45 minutes of the Asus Transformer 300T.
Though you'll probably never use it, Samsung opts for a decent 8-megapixel image sensor in the Galaxy Note 10.1, matched with a bunch of the same features you get in a Galaxy S III smartphone. We found that our test images turned out a bit colder than we'd have liked, with the sensor leaning towards a blue/green hue, but the focus is consistent and the shutter is fast. There's no way of using this camera without feeling slightly ridiculous, but at least the results are pretty good.
There is a collection of noteworthy third-party apps to shout out to on the Note 10.1. Samsung's content partnerships keep growing in Australia, and, out of the box, users of this tablet can sign up to Quickflix for movies, view Channel 10 catch-up content and sign up for Samsung's Music Hub. The game Crayon Physics is pre-installed, which makes sense, given the stylus, and Samsung also includes the Peel Smart Remote app to take advantage of the IR blaster. We also quite like the Mag Shop app, which gives you access to dozens of digital magazines, like Australian Geographic, Good Food and Cleo.
As it is with many of the products we review, the question with the Note 10.1 isn't whether it is good, but why it isn't better. For about the same price, you can buy the Asus Transformer 300T with a bundled keyboard dock. For AU$100 cheaper, you can have your pick of a range of 10-inch tablets, with similar specs, comparable screens and the same basic Android experience. The premium you are paying is for Samsung's S Pen and apps, and we're not convinced that these warrant the extra dollars.