Samsung has a unique ability to release a confusing number of devices that all do very similar things, but with slightly different names and aimed at different audiences.
The Galaxy Note is a good example. The phone makes some sense, although it's essentially a small, 3G, Galaxy Tab. We see the value of keeping the Note range separate, as it feels like a phone - because it is a phone - but when the Note 10.1 was announced, we found ourselves confused.
Surely, the Tab should be Wi-Fi focused, and the Note 3G-based. That seems logical to us. But not to Samsung, because it now has two tablets, both doing a lot of the same things, and both available in 3G and Wi-Fi-only variants.
It's almost like Samsung wants to create confusion and extra product lines that don't seem to make much sense. Of course, none of that matters to us, we're just here to review the thing, so let's take a look at it and find out what's on offer.
Quite similar to the Tab, but quite different too
Style-wise, there's nothing new here. You get speakers located on the front - great because you can't accidentally cover them with your hands. You also get the same controls as the Tab, with power, volume and a microSD slot on the top, along with the infrared blaster, which you don't get on the Tab.
The camera is different too, it's higher spec and has a flash on the note. As always, tablet cameras are a bit pointless, but we suppose it's nice to have options.
And, crucially, on the bottom edge there's a little hole for a stylus. This, of course, is one of the main selling points of the device, and we're really glad it fits inside the case, because this means you'll always have it with you - unless you leave it at home - and that's what you need, as the pen will sometimes give you options a touchscreen on its own will not.
Inside, there's a 7000mAh battery, which is the same capacity as the Tab. It's a different battery technology though - lithium ion, as opposed to lithium polymer - and estimates suggest you'll see an hour less life from it than you would on the 10.1 Tab. We've used the Note as much as possible in the time we've had it, and have no complaints with the battery life. You should see eight hours though, which is reasonable. As always, we attach the usual rider here, because everyone uses tablets differently, and one man's eight hours is another person's four hours.
Included software is standard. There's Polaris office, Samsung's own app store, which brings with it music, video and reading hubs for you to purchase books, video and music. You can also sync to your computer with Samsung's Kies or Kies Air, we didn't test this functionality because we blacklisted Kies a long time ago for being annoying, hopeless, nonsense. Things might have improved recently. We very much doubt it.
Also bundled is Adobe's Photoshop Touch. Usually, this is a paid-for app, but Samsung throws it in, as it's a natural companion for the stylus. It's great to see and it's actually a very handy app; it can certainly move the Note away from being a tablet only, to being a much more credible replacement for a laptop.
Interestingly, we have noticed that on the Note, it's possible to use 5GHz Wi-Fi; a test of this on the Tab showed that it couldn't "see" our test 5GHz LAN at all. We also noticed that the Tab needed to disable the Wi-Fi to use Wi-Fi direct - for file transfers between devices - whereas the Note did not. This implies that the Note has twin antennas and the Tab does not, but Samsung's specs tell a different story. But no matter, 5GHz is very worth having, as there's far less interference in this range, and speeds can be a lot better too.
Perhaps the most impressive new feature is Samsung's split screen. Here, you can take one application, and run another to the side of it - or in portrait mode, below. This is clearly the product of having a nippy quad-core processor in the Note and a bit more ram - 2GB - than on most Android devices.
What it means, in practice, is that you can make notes while reading a webpage, or watching a video stream. Apps that work with this mode are limited, with options for the video player, S note, Polaris Office, Gallery, email and web browser to work in this mode. Not bad, and we hope that more apps get added. We'd love to see Twitter work with split screen, although technically it does, through the web browser.
Another pretty fantastic feature with the video player is the ability to watch things in a pop-out window. This means, like an "always on top" window in Windows, the video will sit over anything you do. So you can catch up on movies or TV shows easily, while getting on with other things. It works beautifully, and the video window can be resized to fit your needs. Perhaps most surprising though, it's incredibly smooth. Moving the window, or even resizing seems to be no hassle at all for the Note.
Perhaps what's best about these functions is that they are Samsung designed, and they are unique. This is what we've been asking from companies. Don't copy Apple, do something new and excellent.
Apple, and Steve Jobs in particular, were very certain that the stylus had no place in their world. And, to be fair, their thinking was right, because devices that require a stylus - think Windows Mobile phones of old - are a bind. Apple rightly figured out that people like to interact with their fingers. But, for some tasks, a pen makes more sense.
The stylus on the Galaxy Note is perfect for its job. It's tucked away inside the body of the unit until you need it, then you slide it out, the tablet wakes up and presents you with a list of shortcuts to get to stylus-based apps.
Where it comes into its own is for note-taking in a hurry. As good as tablet touch keyboards can be, they're simply not as fast as scribbling down notes. You could argue that you'd be better off just using a pen and a bit of paper, but here at least you can have a note which is easy to email to yourself, and is therefore always safe and backed-up.
It won't be loved by all, and we much prefer the Windows slate approach, with proper handwriting recognition, but even so, what's here on Android is very nice to use, and it gives you yet another way to interact with your tablet. Oh, and writing on glass is strangely satisfying in a way that typing is not.
Your new remote
Another nice, if not groundbreaking feature is the ability to use the Note as a remote control for your home cinema equipment. Sony has been doing this for a while with its tablets, and it makes sense - after all, a lot of people use tablets while they watch TV to tweet or surf the internet.
We tested it with our setup, and it worked quite well. Our Pioneer TV seemed to dislike the volume control, as it just kept increasing even once we'd stopped pressing the button. There was also no support for our Sky box, which is a huge deal as it's a major part of a lot of people's home entertainment.
It's a nice idea, with a stylish app, but it could use some more device support out of the box.
We've all done it: looked at the specification of a device, be it a phone, or a tablet, or a TV and thought "that's not as good as X". This used to happen all the time with TVs, especially early on when 1080p wasn't as common. Often, people would assume the 720p TVs weren't as good, but in fact they were often better for the vast majority of viewing.
Cutting to the chase, the screen here isn't as technically amazing as the one in the new iPad. It is, however very good for most things you'll actually want to do. It's basically a little higher than 720p - the same as the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. That's almost exactly half the resolution of the new iPad. On a 10-inch screen though, it doesn't feel like a compromise.
One thing we did notice though, was that sometimes text on the screen looked like it had been artificially sharpened. You know the style, you see it on images online quite a bit where you get a slight ghost around harsh, sharp text. It's not a massive problem, but we noticed it, and it is a little bit ugly.
Playing video brings the Note alive though. Especially if you watch 720p material, where the resolution is so well matched to the screen itself. Most striking is the detail in videos, but the colour and contrast both impressed us too. The stuff we watched, quite high-bitrate MKV files, with MPEG-4 video, played very smoothly, with no judder. Another tangible victory for the quad-core processor.
And, like the Galaxy Tab, the Note is happy with most types of video. MKVs do not play at all well on the Asus Transformer Infinity, but the same clip on the Samsung, where those files are supported in hardware, are silky smooth.
And, we think it goes without saying that Netflix and DLNA streaming via Plex are spot on - we avoid the Samsung app, it's not bad, but with a Plex server running on our PC, there's no contest here. If video is your thing, then this is the tablet for you.
The front-facing speakers put in a good show. The volume is decent enough, although in a busy area you won't hear much at all. The quality is good though, and play things through headphones and you get impressive audio with more than enough volume.
There are EQ settings too. Most of these do something productive, and there's no doubt you can find one to suit your preferences. We are, as always, amazed that there are options to make your audio sound like you're in a cafe. Honestly, on what planet would anyone want to listen to music as if they were in a cafe, it's hardly the paragon of audio fidelity is it? And reverb, who on earth wants music to sound like you're listening in a massive empty room, audio engineers work REALLY hard to make sure music doesn't sound like this, only for a tablet to process it back in, electronically.
Photo and video
Video is irredeemably bad on the Note. Focusing while recording produces almost comical amounts of clicking, and worse still the image tears in the middle while the camera hunts for a focus lock.
Photos, happily, are better. The new camera seems better than the one in the Tab, but images are crisp enough for most use. Focusing is a bit hit and miss, and the whole "touch to focus" thing is utterly miserable on a tablet. Even so, when it gets it, the quality - as you can see - is good. And close-ups can look brilliant.
The camera interface is also decent, giving you some exposure options as well as some scene modes that might help from time-to-time.
The 16GB Note, with Wi-Fi costs £400. That puts it at the same level as the iPad. Now, we know we've just told you to ignore the screen resolution, but on a like-for-like basis, the price of the Note might stick for some. And while we stand by the claim that the screen resolution is quite unimportant for most use, we can still see that the Apple device is a more impressive tablet for the high resolution screen.
Samsung also doesn't help itself by pricing the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 at £300, because these two devices are quite similar. That said, the Note has a better camera - with a flash - and a much faster, quad-core processor. At first, we thought the price was all wrong, but having spent time with it, we can now see the reasons for the hike, and we think it's well worth your extra cash.
The split-screen stuff, and that brilliant video player which supports lots of formats, and allows you to play the video while you get on with other things. This is a truly amazing addition to the tablet, and with the stylus we think the higher price is entirely justifiable.
We noted in our Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 review, that the Samsung keyboard is mostly fine, but the autocorrect is terrible. Sadly, the same is true here, and as we were testing the tablet for this review that presented itself in the most absurd manner imaginable.
Quite simply, if you don't keep an eye on it, it will make an arse out of you. For that reason, we honestly think you should switch to another, third-party keyboard. There are plenty in the Play Store, but look out for Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard, which is a pretty good version of the stock Google typing interface.
We like the Note. We like it a lot. It's every bit the tablet that the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 is, and you get the stylus, which while not crucial to most people, is a nice little device. The extra processing power also means you can do some pretty amazing things, and the camera is actually reasonable. Aside from the focusing, and dreadful video recording, it's capable of producing some nice results - in good conditions.
Writing on the Note is fun, the screen and pen work well together, and there's no slowness in the writing process. The side-by-side mode means you can get a real benefit from looking at one thing, and writing notes about it. The ability to play video in a window, along with whatever else you're doing is, in our view, a killer app.
It's powerful, plays a lot of video back incredibly well, and generally feels responsive. There were hiccups on the side-by-side apps, but nothing serious. Overall, we think this stylus situation could be a boon for Android. It's something Apple has no interest in - Jobs said he wasn't keen - so it marks the Samsung tablets out as unique.