14/02/2014 13:45 | By Dan Sung, contributor, MSN Tech

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) review

Super slate, suspect stylus


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What is it?
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) is the latest version of the Korean company’s top stylus-based Android tablet.  

What’s great?
It’s got a killer screen and more under the hood than a fleet of F1 cars. The camera modes actually make it tempting to use for photos too.  

What’s not?
There’s too much unnecessary software and we just don’t feel that the S Pen stylus is really useful enough.  

The bottom line:
It’s a great tablet but the Note part of the equation still feels like too much of a gimmick. There are some use cases but genuine customers are going to be niche.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (© Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) Review

The Note line of Samsung Galaxy products has been going great guns for years now. The 2014 edition of the 10.1-inch tablet version is part of the third generation of such devices. We’ve already reviewed the phablet model that is the Note 3 with all the improvements and added features to the S Pen stylus therein. While it’s a good device in its own right, we did feel that the S Pen and software had taken something of a step backwards, though.

So, does the huge injection to the RAM and processing power in this slate, the enormous boost in screen resolution and improved cameras and battery life make up for all that? Indeed does the stylus come into a life all of its own in the 10.1-inch tablet form? Read on to find out.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): Build

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) definitely looks and feels like a top-end tab. It’s unmistakably Galaxy in its white and chrome styles and actually comes off a lot less flimsy than some of the mobile devices from the same family.

Of course, the one it resembles most closely is the Note 3, surprise, surprise, and that’s all the way down to the seriously nasty faux, faux leather rear and comedy stitching. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s not made of leather, it’s not made of faux leather; it’s made of plastic that’s designed to look like material. Some will think it looks dead classy. If you reckon that a Louis Vuitton bag is the height of fashion, then it’s probably right up your street.

Fortunately, you don’t end up looking at the back of a tablet anything like as much as you do a phone and we only remembered to get annoyed about the finish on this machine when we bothered to look. Instead, what struck us most of all is the improvements to the physical dimensions that Samsung has made.

The 2014 Edition has slimmed down by 1mm and the bezel is smaller, creating vital statistics of 243 x 171 x 7.9mm. That’s almost identical to, but marginally bigger than, the iPad Air at 240 x 170 x 7.5mm and we doubt that’s a coincidence. Where the Apple tablet wins out by a long shot is that it’s almost 100g lighter than the 535g Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. That said, the mass of the latter was never an issue throughout testing. Ultimately, rear aside, it feels great in the hand.

As for the buttons and ports, everything comes across like it's kind of in the wrong place to begin with but there is rhyme to the reason. On the bottom edge is the micro USB slot, as one would expect, but the volume rocker and power switch have moved to the top of the frame just further down than the centrally positioned IR projector. What that means is that there’s now room on the flanks for a pair of stereo speakers instead that aren’t going to get smothered by your fingers when you pick the thing up. Very neat. That still leaves space for the microSD card slot and a good thing too if you’d rather expand your storage on the cheap.

The final mention, of course, is left to that Note-famous S Pen stylus. It tucks in parallel with the top edge of the slate and has been squared off a little in cross section to make it easier to grip. Otherwise, it’s still basically a white stick with a button on the shaft.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): Screen

Given that Samsung is one of the two or three most important panel makers in the world, it’s of little surprise that the 2014 Note 10.1 has a cracker of a display. That 10-inch screen is of the LCD type, rather than an AMOLED, and what that allows is for is some serious brightness. You’re not going to have many issues in the light of the sun although it’s hard to state that for certain because at the time of reviewing it’s the dead of winter and that glowing orb in the sky is something of a scarcity right now.

What we do really like about the screen on the Note 10.1 (2014 Edition), though, is some technology that Samsung has been using in its Galaxy range since the S3. Head over to the Screen Mode settings and you can choose a few display presets which alter the colour range, saturation and sharpness to give you the right look and feel for what you’re doing. There’s Standard, Movie and Dynamic but the one to look out for is Adapt Display which automatically adjusts depending upon which app you’re using. It works very nicely.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (© Dan Sung)


The only pity is that Adapt Display works for a handful of pre-installed apps only and that won’t include your movie player of choice unless it happens to be Samsung Video. Nonetheless, it’s a good inclusion and we urge you not to forget to switch it about according to your needs.

For fans of figures, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 has more or less the same resolution as the iPad Air at 2560 x 1600. That’s not UHD levels but it’s certainly way beyond 1080p - a standard that the Note 10.1 processes very well; handy if you’re a keen film or TV viewer. It’s also excellent for playing games. We were particularly impressed with the look and feel of CSR Racing but more on that in a moment.

Finally, the touch-credentials of the display are as good as you’d hope. It’s not as pixel perfect as the iPad on this front but that’s more down to the software than anything else.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): Performance

This tablet has all the hardware it needs to be a great performer. It has a 1.9GHz Octa-core processor - or a 2.3GHz quad-core if you’ve got the 4G version - and a whole 3GB RAM of number crunching power to keep make sure that there’s enough working memory to keep all your apps running at once. And largely speaking, it wholly delivers.

The Mali graphics part of the chip made mincemeat of streamed 1080p movies from our NAS box with not so much as a stutter in the audio or video quality. We could even skip about our movies from point to point with no issues or breakdowns at all. And the same was true for the gaming experience with the pans and swoops of the camera in CSR Racing making it the smoothest and slickest we’ve ever seen.

The Note 10.1 2014 is just as nifty when it comes to juggling all your needs simultaneously. It was virtually impossible to tell whether we had 10 apps running at the same time or just the one. That said, it’s not all plain sailing on the performance front. The browser can get a little sticky from time to time and it’s just all too obvious that there isn’t that same software/hardware harmony as you get on an iPad.

The fact of the matter is that Android is made to work on a whole bunch of different machines. Samsung then adds its TouchWiz UI on top and rather shoehorns the whole stack to fit with the bits and pieces of the Note 10.1 as best as possible. What’s more, there’s also the third party apps to consider. Not all of the developers out there take quite as much care over the Android versions of their software as they do over the iOS one - particularly if the Android release has come some time later.

The upshot to all of this is that, despite Samsung’s best efforts and all the processing power that lies within the device, it’s not an entirely smooth experience. Touch control can be half-cocked and not every app performs as one would hope. All the same, what’s on show is about impressive as you’ll see on an Android tablet at the moment.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): Software and S Pen

The Note series is all about that S Pen stylus and we’ll prepare you for the bad news. We’re not impressed, just as we weren’t impressed with the recent Samsung Galaxy Note 3 phablet either. As far as we’re concerned, this generation's Notes are a step back on the last which, for what it’s worth, we thought were excellent.

When you whip out the S Pen, or press the button on the side, the Air Command action wheel pops up on the screen, and that’s no bad thing. What we don’t think are really useful enough are any of the apps and actions that you’re offered. Action Memo - which is supposed to turn your scribbles into links for the web, your contacts, maps and all sorts - rarely works as you’d like it to. Pen Windows, which opens a windows anywhere in the UI onto a quick menu of applications, is not actually any quicker or easier than hitting the home key or navigating to a shortcut.

The Scrapbooker tear sheet feature is quite fun. You use the pen to circle bits and pieces which are then cut out and placed in a scrapbook but, again, as enjoyable a feat of technology as it is, it’s probably less effective than using Evernote or some other note taking program.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (© Dan Sung)

We tried dedicating ourselves to the S Note app for a while. Instead of using a laptop in meetings, we took along the tablet and scribbled down in virtual S Pen strokes but what you end up with isn’t as useful as taking proper computer type notes. You still feel that you have to transcribe your scrawls. Sure, you can export your S Notes to Google Drive but you still can’t view them very easily back on a normal computer. Ultimately, it all just feels like you’re doing something for the sake of it and it certainly doesn’t make life any easier.

What we used to get out of the S Pen was some really nice and clever ways of creating your own custom shortcut symbols that take you direct to apps of your choosing. Now, all we can really say that the S Pen is actually good for is signing documents or drawing. It just doesn’t justify its existence otherwise.

What that all means is that there’s an enormous wodge of bloatware all over this device. From all the S Pen applications to the the NY Times trial subscription, Samsung Hubs and My Magazine feed reader. There are better apps out there on Google Play that you probably already use. Our advice would be to uninstall as much as possible and really tailor this hugely powerful device to your own needs.

Now, that all said and done, there are a couple of exceptions to all this. We really like the Multi Window feature that’s been around for a while on the larger Galaxy gadgets. A little tab on the side of the screen reveals a quick menu full of all your favourite apps when you tap it. Not only does that mean you can access them nice and fast but you can also drag some of them in and then split the screen up into one of two different app areas. So, you could have your browser open at the same time as your maps or a video playing while you’re taking notes. There’s a lot of decent use cases that you can pick through. It doesn’t work for every piece of software but certainly all the important ones.

The other feature that’s good is the Easy Chart system in S Note. With a quick squiggle here and there, and the odd dragging and editing of lines after, you can create a professional looking pie chart, bar chart or line chart as you need, and that might well be important to your line of work. What’s more, it’s worth pointing out that, exporting issues aside, using S Note as a typing-based note taking app isn’t so bad either, but that’s probably the end usefulness of all this pre-installed software. If it sounds like you won’t use any of it either, then try a straight Galaxy Tab instead - or maybe even an iPad.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): Cameras

For what it’s worth, the cameras are pretty good on the 2014 edition of the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. More important is probably the front facing, 2MP version. That’s the one that’ll be responsible for your web chats and videos. Should you wish to use the 8MP rear camera over your mobile phone then you’ll be pleased to read that it’s as fully featured - in fact, probably more fully-featured - than the device in your pocket.

Results are quickly a bit nasty and noisy once you get into indoor conditions, or when you let the ISO get beyond 200, but there’s all the interesting shooting modes that you’d hope from a Galaxy gadget. There’s Beauty Face to soften your looks, Best Photo which will take a burst and auto-select the favourite, Best Face which will merge pictures to make sure that you and your mates all look good in one shot and many more.

Amazingly, they actually all deliver really quite well but probably the simplest, most effective and familiar option is to add a series of Instagram-type filters with a quick slide up from the bottom of the frame. As we say, the quality of the results, despite the megapixel headlines, isn’t great but what you can do in the way of image manipulation more than makes up for it. Just don’t expect to be hanging too many Note 10.1 photos on the walls.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): Battery and connectivity

One area where Apple products really excel is the ability of their device to hold their charge while in standby mode. It sounds trivial but coming back to your iPad after a week to find it’s still 90 per cent full of power is seriously impressive.

In the past, the same cannot be said of the Galaxy tablets but there's been a big improvement this time around. The Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) comes with a Li-ion battery with a capacity of 8220mAh which is certainly very big - bigger indeed than the 7000mAh unit in the 2012 model.

The result is around nine hours of life on a single charge. If you’re power-using the streamed video and gaming functions, then you’ll watch that deplete all the quicker but you’ll certainly get a good day’s use out of this tablet. Left in standby, you’re looking at around a week's idle time before there’s nothing much remaining.

As for the rest of connections, well, as ever, Samsung is not one to be out-specced. There’s the top ac-standard version of Wi-Fi and either 3G or 4G if that’s your choosing. You get GLONASS technology to help out with the standard GPS and it is actually noticeably quicker to lock into your positioning because of it.

On top of that, there’s Bluetooth 4.0, DLNA streaming through AllShareCast and the micro USB slot doubles as an HDMI-out thanks to an MHL 2.0 adapter that you’ll need to pick up as extra. Last of all, there’s that IR projector on the top. Should you wish to turn your Note 10.1 into a remote control, then you’ll find it does it’s job - provided that your TV is recognised, of course. CRT users need not apply.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): Verdict

This is a seriously powerful and very, very able tablet indeed. Of that, there is absolutely no doubt. Where we take issues with the 2014 Note 10.1 - apart from the nasty back - is exactly the same place as we had problems with the Note 3 phablet. The S Pen just isn’t useful enough any more.

If you’re an artist or freehand drawing is a key part of your creative process, then there’s plenty of reasons to choose it. Otherwise, we just fail to see that handwritten notes or word-entry is any more convenient than typing on the soft keyboard. It seems only to make things take longer. There’s the odd touch, like the Easy Charts in S Note that we like, and it’s certainly satisfying to swish away with the S Pen but few of its tricks are good enough to stick.

Outside of all that, it’s a good machine. We like watching movies on it. It’s decent for a browse but, then, so is the iPad Air and the Apple tablet is £50 cheaper.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) is a good tablet but don’t buy it unless you think a stylus is important to your productivity - or if you just like to doodle.

stars

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): available now £449/549 (16GB Wi-Fi-only/4G). Check the latest prices with Bing

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