07/05/2013 09:45 | By Dan Sung, contributor, MSN Tech

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 review

Is the pen mightier than the finger?

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What is it?
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 is a tablet you can hold in one hand, that works with a stylus that you clutch in the other; a challenger for the iPad mini.

What’s good?
The S Pen stylus and all that it does is great. It brings shortcuts, gestures, and freedom to make this tablet your complete personal device.

What’s not?
Not all the features work as they should and it’s a good £60 more expensive than its rivals

Bottom line: 
The Note 8.0 is a top end Android tablet that should be in your thoughts if a 10-incher is more than you can handle.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 (© Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: Review

If there’s one thing we’re sure about the age of computing, it’s that the rise of the keyboard has coincided with the decline in our handwriting skills. In fact, we’d say that the relationship between the two has been directly proportional. The faster we get at typing, the more unnatural and pen and paper feel. So, just why should we be getting excited about the Samsung Galaxy Note series of devices?

The short answer is because there’s nothing quite like them. Sure, the touchscreen stylus has been around for a while in one shape or another. They were something of a necessity on Windows Mobile devices of the pre-Windows Phone age because the on-screen options were just too tiny and complicated for our generous fingertips to cope with. But the likes Android and iOS have taken care of all the fiddly bits of touchscreen software, so why should we be interested in styluses any more?

For whatever reason, the fact of the matter seems to be that we are. Samsung has already proved that with its hit devices that are the big phone-styled Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and the full size tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. So, does this 8-inch version, complete with Samsung’s S Pen, make a truly useful gadget or is it just on over-thought, over-priced Google Nexus 7?

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: look and feel

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 is a modern day Samsung through and through. Anyone who’s ever been near anything that the company has made in this space since the Galaxy S III smartphone will understand straight away.

Super thin and light at just 7.95mm in profile and 340g in mass, a pretty white plastic with metal edges combo is the order of the day. While Apple and others opt for more honest materials with a reassuringly solid feel, it’s a pleasure to carry the Note 8.0 around in your hand and no burden at all as a featherweight addition to any suitcase or bag.

See also: Sony Xperia Tablet Z review

The expandable microSD storage slot is conveniently placed on the side, across the way are the on/off button and volume rocker, the 3.5mm jack is on the top and the USB charging socket and stereo speakers are on the bottom. All that remains is the S Pen itself which tucks away very neatly into the bottom right hand corner. This is not a stylus that will be dropping out of its own accord.

Perhaps the one irritation is that the rear 5-megapixel camera is raised up in such a way as to ensure that the tablet rests on the lens at all times. So, do make sure to give it a wipe every now and then. For other tips on how to take better pictures with your smartphone, take a look at our guide.

In general, this is a swish-looking, smooth-handling tablet. As far as design goes, Samsung has been spot on in making a Note in this medium size. It’s small enough to hold comfortably in one hand while using the S Pen with the other and yet is still big enough to bring plenty of screen real estate where you can enjoy your content.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: S Pen

We pretty much all know how an Android 4.1 tablet works. They’re generally very good. So, the far more interesting part of the Galaxy Note 8.0 is to understand exactly how and why that stylus might be of use. We were fairly sceptical to begin with ourselves but the bottom line is that the S Pen has won us over.

It might be hard to persuade those people that say, “I just prefer using a pen and paper diary” to try it out but, when it comes down to it, it’s those productivity ideals which make this the perfect tablet for them. That said, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the S Pen even for those who only use tablets for little more than watching films and playing games.

The pen itself has a tiny button on the side where you normally rest your thumb. It’s too small to get the hang of to begin with but you very quickly get used to it because it’s this little button that’s the key to half the fun. A press and hold combined with a series of swipes can take you straight to all sorts of interesting places. An upward arrow brings up a contextual menu that will have different choices depending upon where in the OS you are. A back-facing arrow undoes the last action, a press and hold captures a screenshot and a click and drag selects text to copy and paste far more easily than with your finger.

Best of all is probably the Quick Commands box which you can launch with a swipe up. In here you can program any S Pen gesture you like to do almost whatever you wish, from a specific setting switch to beginning an email to a specific contact.

Frankly, we could essay on the S Pen alone and how addictive it becomes but suffice to say that it begins to feel weird when you’re without it. Whether you want to cut out a bit of an image or simply hover over an icon to find out more information about it, the S Pen has got you covered.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 (© Dan Sung)

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: apps and features

Aside the S Pen specific software, you still get Samsung’s array of Galaxy apps. There’s the largely useless video and music hubs but the Learning Hub is well worth a play. The more interesting ones come in the guise of Smart Remote - which turns your tablet into a remote control for your television - and the AllShare apps that allow you to stream videos, pictures and music to your tablet from other connected nearby devices or in the other direction.

Sadly, in practice, none of those above are as simple to set up and use as they should be. Smart Remote is hit and miss. We found that sometimes our Philips television responded to the commands and sometimes it didn’t. As for the AllShare features, the sign up and registration process feels all rather long-winded and unnecessary. Even once you get up and running, it can be touch and go as to whether the software recognises your nearby connected gadgets too. It works but expect some head-scratching along the way and none of this is helped by the fact that the name has been changed to Samsung Link or that you’re forced to download some desktop software to get it to operate.

We do like the way you can add in your cloud storage accounts and stream direct from those wherever you are, however. So, if you’re on Dropbox, SkyDrive or SugarSynch, then you’re in luck.

As for the rest of the features, it’s the gestures that stand out as useful. You can pause videos with the palm of your hand or take a screenshot with a swipe across but we wouldn’t recommend getting involved with the motion controls particularly.

Last of all, the multiscreen mode is also something of a life saver; not the one where you can see a video you’re watching in a little window on top of any other part of the OS - that’s there’s but it’s actually a bit pointless - what we’re talking about is the one which allows you to split the screen between two different open apps at the same time. So, you can be looking at your emails while you bring up your calendar to put in a date or browse the web or whatever you need to do really; very useful, very easy to use.

See also: Top 10 tablets available right now

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: performance

One might have hoped for a Full HD screen on this tablet but the major competition hasn’t bothered, so why go and make the Note 8.0 unnecessarily expensive? Instead, what we get is the 720p version of HD thanks to pixel dimensions of 1280 x 800. It’s the same kind of fare as you’ll find on the top mid-size tablet of the moment, the Google Nexus 7. As it goes, you’d probably have to look the stats up, though, because the picture on the Galaxy Note is crisp and sharp enough whether you’re watching movies or mooching about your desktop.

What’s more, it also quite happily plays 1080p files - and very smoothly too, we might add - so, it’s really not that much of a problem. In fact, we found no issues of lag, speed or any sticking annoyances which, perhaps, should be of little surprise given the top spec 1.6GHz quad-core processor at the helm with 2GB of RAM for raw number-crunching power.

By the same token, the battery is just about ok. It doesn’t hold its charge in standby quite as impressively as Apple manages but a single stint at the wall socket should last you a few days of casual pick up and put down use. If you’re burning through the pixels watching movies non-stop, 7 hours is probably your max.

If you must walk around talking pictures with your tablet, then you’ll not be too badly let down by this one. Both stills and videos get grainy once you get away from natural light and there’s no LED flash to help you out. That said, the actual footage of the home movies - even if, like the screen, at a maximum resolution of 720p - is really quite good with little motion distortion at all.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: verdict

Even if it weren’t for the S Pen, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 would be a good mid-size tablet. It would be very expensive next to the iPad mini and Nexus 7, but good nonetheless. For us, though, it’s the stylus and all that you can do with it - when you really take the time to learn - that justifies the outlay. Some will bemoan the plastic build - and with good reason given that Apple’s equivalent is both lighter and made of metal - but it doesn’t detract from the experience for us.

There’s so very many little gestures, features and parlour tricks to get to know but it’s the major ones like the fiddly AllShare streaming systems and the temperamental Smart Remote that lose the Note 8.0 the critical points. Anyone looking for those kind of functions might do better elsewhere. Other than that we happily recommend this tablet. It’s great in the hand, lots of fun to use and very, very addictive.

4 stars

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