Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 review (2014 Edition)
Samsung is doing a good job for many of its devices. The Note 3 is one of our favourite phones, and the Note 2 10.1 was a tablet that we expected not to like, but ended up adoring. A new year must bring a new Note, and that is the updated Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition.
What does the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition offer that might tempt you? It houses more powerful hardware, delivers some new specs and hangs on the hope that it will be chosen for its inclusion of S Pen for multiple input options over the other typically hands-on-only options on the market. There's also a new design and, of course, more up-to-date software - although, not the latest Android KitKat operating system at launch.
But all this comes at a price. And one of the bigger questions is whether the Note 10.1 deserves its fairly hefty price tag. We've been playing with one to find out.
One of the things we noticed about the new Note was the updated look Samsung has given the device. It's a lot more modern now. On the old device, everything was quite chunky and rounded. The opposite is true now, it feels more slimline and the edges are square now, giving it a look very much like the Note 3 smartphone.
Also carried over from the Note 3 is that faux leather rear cover, complete with faux stitching, all made out of plastic. We don't mind this look, but some people absolutely hate it. It's also worth remembering that you can't change it on this device, unlike on the Note 3.
The usual array of Samsung controls are on the front - the large home button, alongside the "back" and the context sensitive menu control. In this updated Note, it's interesting that the speakers have moved from forward-facing to side-mounted, which potentially reduces the quality of the sound, and does make them liable to be interrupted by your hands.
S Pen improvements
We've always loved the pen input on the full-sized Note devices. After all, it makes a lot more sense on a device this size, especially if you're a graphic designer or artist. We use it most for writing notes, because we have roughly the same artistic talent as a chewed bone. Even so, drawing with the kids or just doodling is a massive amount of fun on this device. While Apple has shown the world how to make devices that work brilliantly with the finger, there are some things where the pen is just mightier.
Like the Note 3, the Note 10.1 2014 also offers advanced "hover-over" features too, so now when you have the S Pen near the glass pressing the button on the side of the stylus will bring up a quick shortcut menu to jump to the relevant tool. Hovering gives it a new scope, as it can also be context sensitive based on which app is open as to which tools are offered - although for the most part, the functionality doesn't change from app to app. This might be something that improves in the future.
The Note 10.1 has improved no end in its note conversion and handwriting recognition stakes, which is a similar trend the one we've seen on the Note 3, versus the older Note 2. Writing on this latest tablet is utterly brilliant. The S Pen and screen work beautifully together, and mistakes are rare enough that, with a little training, this can become a really good way to make notes.
We also find that just handwriting can be a nice way to use the device. This just gives you notes as if you were using paper, but also gives you more creativity, and the option to doodle when your mind wanders.
You can also use the S Pen to make a note of names and numbers to add to your contacts list. This already works on the Galaxy smartphones, and is handy in the tablet form for managing your contacts, or calling people with, say, Skype. We didn't have the 4G tablet for this test, but that bump in over-the-air speeds would be good enough to make calls on the go, which adds more use again to this feature.
The Note 10.1 now has an almost ridiculous resolution, in common with a lot of newer tablets. This is, in some ways at least, a blessing. In others, it might be less so. For example, higher resolution screens can use more power. In a tablet, that might not be a problem because the space for batteries is large, but it can attribute to a very long charge time.
Ignoring the downsides though, the Note's screen is amazing. It's incredibly bright - so much so you can see it in strong, outdoor lighting, although we're not getting too much of that in the UK at the moment - and is very detailed. As a matter of trivia the 2560 x 1600 pixel screen here is higher resolution than Apple's 2048 x 1536 panel in the iPad Air, and boasts more pixels-per-inch too, even though the Note has a slightly larger screen.
READ: Apple iPad Air review
High resolution screens are all well and good, but without some high resolution video or games to play there might not be much point. Video will, as the coming years roll on, become 4K and so we will see a benefit on these screens. Right now everything still looks amazing, but most apps and video is not optimised for these screens. This is noticeable on apps in particular, as they look soft when increased in size and resolution to fit this panel. It's a small grumble, but the Android ecosystem has been slower to move to tablet-optimised versions of apps than iOS developers seem to have been. There are, for example, frustratingly few high-resolution, tablet-ready Twitter apps.
Things of Note
It's a oddity, really, but the Note 10.1 2014 Edition doesn't have the same USB 3.0 socket that's found on the bottom of the Galaxy Note 3 smartphone. It makes almost no sense because the tablet is bigger and you're almost certain to want to move stuff on and off your tablet for travel purposes.
It's not the end of the world of course, but we're just slightly baffled as to why you'd make a move to the new USB standard on one device in the range, but not others. That said, USB 3.0 on the Note 3 smartphone isn't as brilliant as it could be and using it is hardly a hassle free experience, so perhaps Samsung just decided that it would be better to ignore it on this year's model tablet.
At the top of the tablet there's a small, reddish window. This is infrared, known as an IR Blaster, that allows the tablet to act like a TV remote, or control pretty much anything that has infrared. For example, your DSLR might have an IR trigger, which allows you to use the Note to fire the shutter.
Most people will use it as a universal remote for TV, if it's used at all, and for that it works just great. Don't throw away your controls though, as the tablet needs to be charged, switched on and in the same room to work.
As we mentioned the Note 10.1 has a big, high-resolution screen and that will use a fair amount of juice if you leave it on a lot. But in terms of stamina, we certainly think it's fair to say that the Note 10.1 will last a decent amount of time with "normal use". Although we always make a point of saying that there is no such thing as "normal" use. In our tests, we tended to use the tablet for a bit, then put it down for a while, then use it again. In that pattern, the battery lasted days as there's more than enough battery power here.
If you watch video constantly, you should expect the battery to deplete the power a lot quicker. Games, too, are a good way to drain it into oblivion because they draw so much more on that quad core 1.9Ghz processor and 3GB of RAM. Other chipset configurations are available for the 3G and 3G+LTE models, we're testing the Wi-Fi only UK model here.
However charging the tablet from flat can take a long time. The 8220mAh battery has a large capacity, and although the charger supplied delivers 2amps, it still takes as long as 8 hours to charge. And that's interesting, because it uses a Qualcomm chipset that supports fast-charging, something we've seen on some phones, and is mind-blowing when it works. In theory, the Note could support this - but it would need a 4amp charger that USB 3.1 would be able to deliver. But Samsung has missed that physical feature out, so perhaps another argument for its inclusion?
As with all tablets, there's a pair of cameras included in the Note 10.1 for 2014. The rear-mounted one has an 8-megapixel sensor, and the front-facing one offers 2-megapixels. Both are capable of shooting video at 1080/30p. Not bad specs either of them.
Just like the Note 3 and Galaxy S4 smartphones the software is great. There are lots of shooting options, the camera app itself is well laid out, very logical and easy to use. You can touch to focus and there are HDR (high dynamic range), panorama, best photo, best face and beauty face modes that will help you have a bit of fun with images. You can also remove moving objects too, based on five single images.
The problem is - other than using a tablet as a camera looks plain silly - that the cameras don't really produce brilliant images. Things have improved compared to the last generation, but in normal, indoor light during the day the pictures lack any punch in colour and are generally quite grainy. This is a bit of a disappointment, but we do come back to the truth of tablets, which is they make hopeless cameras from an ergonomic point-of-view. Put simply, use the front camera for Skype, and forget about anything else. And never, ever use the damn thing at a gig. Please.
Once again we find ourselves loving a Note device. The 10.1 2014 Edition tablet is a steady leap forward from the previous generation model. Aesthetically, we much prefer this new design to the old model, and while the faux leather back is a bit tacky, we can live with it for the smaller dimensions and general improvements in style.
The S Pen input remains the strong advantage here over most competitor tablets. If you work with a tablet, we think this beats everything else on the market. You can get capacitive pens for a wide range of touchscreens, but Samsung's stylus and screen combination are something much better. Factor in the brilliant software, and this becomes a real advantage over any other 10.1-inch device out there.
But price remains an issue. Nearly £500 for the 16GB model is hefty. Our Android tablet of choice remains the Nexus 7 (2013) because it's a nice size for use at home, costs £200 and works beautifully. We do love the Note, but the high price will put some people off. Perhaps think of this as a laptop replacement - and it is good enough - and you might feel that it's worth the cost. Ultimately, you will decide if it's right for you, but we promise you'll love it as a tablet.