If you’re considering picking up a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, there’s one thing to consider above all others. How do you feel about pen input on a tablet? That’s really what the Note is all about. Do you see that as a step backward, or a necessary ability that makes some tasks easier?
Apple is on record with the philosophy that the most efficient and natural stylus in the world is your finger, but that’s an oversimplification that doesn’t take into account that different tasks have different requirements. Fingers are great for selecting icons or clicking on links in a browser, but if you’re planning to take down pages of handwritten notes, or draw extensive diagrams, trying to do it all with your finger will grow old pretty quickly.
So, other than a quick rundown on the basic specs, this review will focus on the things that make the Note 10.1 distinctly different from other tablets – the functional reasons someone might actually choose this over an iPad, a Galaxy Tab, or a Nexus 7.
The Note 10.1 has a 10.1-inch display (of course), with a resolution of 1280×800 pixels. While that’s considerably less than the iPad’s 2048×1536, it never feels “low res” – the images are sharp and bright. Storage comes in 16GB and 32GB sizes and there’s a microSD card slot that will allow you to add another 32GB to whatever onboard size you choose. It has a 1.9 MP front facing camera, and a 5 MP rear facing one, with flash. The version that’s now available is WiFi-only, but a 4G configuration is expected before the end of the year. Also before year’s end is an anticipated upgrade to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) – it ships with 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
There are really two major factors that set the Note 10.1 apart from the competition. One is the native use of pen input, and the other is the ability to run apps side-by-side on a screen and easily move elements between them or just watch two things at once.
S Pen Apps
It’s called the Note for a reason – it really excels as a note-taking tablet, and in fact, is the best tablet-based note-taking experience I’ve ever had. The S Pen stylus feels much more precise than styli I’ve used on the iPad or other Android tablets. Writing with a capacitive stylus is a little like working with a piece of chalk. You’ll be able to make a mark, but it probably won’t be very precise and it doesn’t lend itself well to writing in a small space.
The S Pen resides in a slot on the right edge of the tablet (when held in landscape orientation) and the tablet can detect when it’s removed or replaced. Removing can either bring up a small menu of pen-enabled apps (the default), or if there’s one you use a lot, you can set that app to launch every time you extract the pen.
In the S Note app, the stylus can be set to emulate a variety of writing and art tools. With pen selected, and line width set to minimum, the feel of writing and look of the output is very much like what you’d expect from a ballpoint pen. This is excellent for taking handwritten notes. Other tool options are pencil, highlighter pen, and two types of brushes. All can be adjusted to a wide range of line thicknesses and ink/paint/lead colors. In the pencil and brush modes the pen can detect over 1,000 degrees of pressure, giving effects similar to their real-world equivalents.
S Note also has tools to neaten up your handwritten input. There’s a handwriting-to-text feature, a feature to make drawn shapes like squares, circles, and lines appear more cleanly, and a formula feature that will recognize things like a+b = c and put them in a printed text form.
Polaris Office is the productivity suite that ships with the Note, with pen-enabled applications like Scrivener for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations and are compatible with Microsoft Office formats.
Also included in the software is Adobe Photoshop Touch, which brings a lot of image editing strength to the tablet. Photoshop Touch can be operated with a fingertip (and is available for the iPad), but using the S Pen gives much greater precision.
Since the original iPad set the first rules for modern tablets, one hard and fast limitation has been one app onscreen at a time. You can certainly have two apps running and copy from one into another, but they won’t be visible at the same time. The Note allows side-by-side operation for certain apps (Internet, Email, Gallery, S Note, and Polaris Office) and this allows watching two things at once like reading a web site in one pane while taking notes in another, or dragging elements, such as images, from one pane to another. It makes the Note tablet experience more computer-like (in a good way).
If you have a need for pen input such as handwritten notes or diagrams, this is the best tablet on the market for that. Also the ability to run apps side-by-side is very welcome for those of us used to keeping many apps onscreen and available on our computers. If you’re trying to produce content or work on documents that will be shared with Microsoft Office users, this is a strong candidate.
The most obvious drawback at the moment is the limited number of S Pen- and Multiscreen-enabled apps currently available. What ships on the tablet is a good start and you’ll be able to get a lot done with them, but more will be better. Samsung says more such apps are on the way.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is available now and will run you $499 for the 16GB size, or $549 for 32GB.