As PC sales continue to shrink, the notion of a productivity-friendly tablet is becoming increasingly popular – at least among device makers. Microsoft’s original Surface and Surface RT made a big splash, ultimately sank, but that hasn’t stopped the company from trying again, with the recent announcement of the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2.
Various other PC makers have attempted convertible laptop/tablet hybrids, with Lenovo’s ThinkPad Helix arguably offering the best form factor. But priced above $1,400, it won’t likely find much of an audience outside of serious business users.
The Note 10.1 is arguably better in about every way than the previous-generation Note 10.1.
For most, Apple’s iPad is still the go-to device for getting things done on a tablet. And that has less to do with the device itself than it does with a robust iOS app market and a selection of third-party accessories (like keyboard cases and styli) that far outclass what’s available for Windows and Android devices.
Samsung knows a thing or two about productivity machines. The company’s Galaxy Note line of big-screen smartphones emphasize multitasking and pen input, and has reportedly sold more than 40 million units worldwide. And that number is likely to rise significantly with the launch of a much-improved Note 3 on all major US carriers.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition takes much of what’s great about the Note 3 and shoves it inside a 10-inch tablet. It’s better in about every way than the previous-generation Note 10.1.
Both S Pen input and the ability to have up to three apps running on-screen at once make a lot more sense on this 10-inch device than they do on the 5.7-inch Note 3. And the new Note tablet’s overall package is thinner and lighter than the current-generation iPad, while offering up a higher-resolution screen.
But the cost of entry is high. The Note 10.1 starts at $550 – $50 more than the iPad 4, and $150 more than the Samsung-made Nexus 10, which has the same screen resolution but lesser specs. Is the Note 10.1 2014’s robust feature set worth paying extra for? That depends mostly on how much you’ll use the S Pen and the tablet’s other differentiating features, which we’ll delve into below.
A better feel, thanks to some fake leather
Much like the Note 3, the Note 10.1 2014 Edition has received a much-needed aesthetic makeover that ditches the glossy plastic shell of several previous Samsung devices for a faux-leather back that, while still plastic, looks and feels better in the hand. Also like the Note 3 and most Galaxy devices this year, the tablet’s edges are ridged chrome, rather than plastic.
But as we discovered after jamming the Note 3 in our back pocket with some keys and nicking it, the metal accents here don’t run deep. So while the Note 10.1 2014’s shell is much better than the original, Apple’s iPad still feels like a more premium device.
The iPad’s aluminum back, though, doubtlessly adds to its weight and thickness, putting it at a disadvantage to the Note 10.1 2014 on both counts. The current-gen iPad is 0.37 inches thick and weighs 1.44 pounds, while the Note is slightly thinner, at 0.31 inches, and weighs a fair bit less, at 1.18 pounds.
Personally, we don’t care about thickness these days. Most tablets are thin, but the Note’s lighter weight makes it more comfortable to hold for long periods. And considering the Note 10.1’s productivity features, we’d really like some sort of built-in stand, along the lines of the Surface 2’s dual-position kickstand.
Port selection and button layout on the Note 10.1 2014 offers little in the way of surprises. Holding the device in landscape orientation, the power button and volume rocker sit up top, near the left corner, with the Infrared blaster (for using the device as a universal remote) lives in the center. On the left edge lives a headphone jack and a speaker grille. The bottom houses a Micro USB port for charging and PC connectivity (Samsung has blessedly ditched the proprietary charge port). On the right edge, you’ll find a MicroSD card slot behind a removable door, another speaker grille, and the S Pen slot.
The good news is the Note 10.1 2014’s speakers aren’t as awkwardly placed as on the Note 3. They’re near the upper corners, so they won’t be muffled when holding the tablet. But don’t expect stellar audio without headphones or an external speaker. The Note 10.1 2014’s speakers sound harsh at high volume (they seem to lean too heavily on the high-end), and don’t get overly loud, considering the size of the device.
Lots of pixels and a big bezel
The Note 10.1 2014 Edition’s 10-inch screen has a 2,560 x 1,600 pixel resolution that’s only in the mobile tablet space by the Nexus 10. The Retina Display iPad has a somewhat smaller screen (9.7 inches), and a resolution of 2,048 x 1,536.
The tablet’s quad-core processor is slower than the Note 3 phone. That may account for the occasional stuttering we saw.
Given the screen sizes and the amount of pixels here, that’s a negligible difference. The iPad, though, uses an IPS screen, while the new Note 10.1 has a PenTile display. PenTile displays mix in clear subpixels in with the typical red, blue, and green, to allow for a brighter display and lower power consumption than traditional LCDs.
Those who follow screen technologies closely will know that PenTile displays can result in tiny text that’s a bit fuzzier than with other screen types. But, perhaps because of the high resolution, we didn’t see the issue here. Text looked crisp and clear at point sizes as tiny as we were comfortable reading. And the screen is very bright with good viewing angles, which – combined with its high resolution – make the tablet great for looking at high-resolution photos.
While the screen itself leaves little room for complaints, there is a lot of bezel here – more than a half-inch on the top and bottom (in landscape orientation), and a bit less on the sides. To be fair, a bit of bezel is important for large-screen tables, so you can grasp the device with your thumbs without activating the touch screen. But the Note 10.1 2014 has a bit more than we think is necessary, and it also stands out starkly on the white model we tested. If you’re bothered by these kinds of things, you’ll probably want to opt for the black model.
Also, Samsung continues to use a physical Home button, surrounded on either side by capacitive menu and back buttons. That works well on a phone, because even when you’re holding the device in landscape orientation, those buttons are easy enough to reach. That’s not the case here, though.
When you’re holding the device in portrait orientation (ideal for magazines or PDFs) the buttons sit halfway up the side, where they’re difficult to hit when you want to, yet easy to press by accident. For tablets, we much prefer the floating software buttons used on the Nexus 7, which move when the screen rotates.
Specs & Performance
The Note 10.1 2014 Edition is mostly well stacked when it comes to internal specs. You get 3GB of RAM, just like the Galaxy Note 3, which is helpful for multitasking and running apps on the tablet’s high-resolution screen. The tablet’s quad-core processor, though, is clocked at 1.9GHz – lower than the Note 3 smartphone. That may account for the occasional stuttering we saw when bouncing around the tablet’s TouchWiz-skinned Android 4.3 OS.
Apps and games generally ran well on the device, but screen transitions were sometimes jittery, and the device’s Magazine app occasionally became unresponsive, requiring us to mash the Home button and re-launch it. Considering the Note’s high price, this is disappointing.
Samsung has done a decent job of making Android more multitasking friendly. But Windows has a huge lead on that front.
In the Quadrant benchmark, the Note 10.1 2014’s score of 15,923 far outpaced the score of last year’s Note 10.1, which managed just 5,100. But the smaller Note 3, by comparison, scored much better, at 20,190. We’re not hung up much on benchmark scores, but as we’ll see in a bit, the Note 3 seems better able to handle handwriting recognition with the S Pen.
Also, while the Note 10.1 2014 Edition turned in an “Ultra High Quality” rating in the Epic Citadel benchmark, it only ran that test a 21.8 frames per second, which is a bit choppy. That being said, every actual game we threw at the device ran perfectly fine.
The $550 base model has 16GB of storage, which is upgradable via MicroSD. But given the price and productivity-focused nature of the device, we’d much rather see the Note 10.1 start off with 32GB of internal storage, like the Note 3 smartphone. You can get a model with 32GB or 64GB, but it will cost extra. The 32GB model is $600.
The Note 10.1 2014 sports a pretty substantial 8,220mAh battery, but with lots of RAM and a screen that has over four million pixels, you’ll still need to charge the device every other day if you use it regularly. After about 13 hours of fairly heavy use, snapping a few pictures, checking Facebook, reading Zinio magazines, streaming video with Hulu Plus, and playing a few games, with the screen mostly set at about 2/3 maximum brightness, we managed to drain the battery down below 10 percent.
A boatload of included features
The Galaxy S4 took stock android, layered on the company’s colorful-but-cluttered TouchWz skin, and added a bunch of extra features, like eye-tracking, air controls, Multi-Window, and others. Like the Note 3, the Note 10.1 2014 Edition keeps much of the feature clutter of the S4 and adds another healthy layer of features on top of that.
It’s impossible to detail all the Note 10.1 2014’s features without turning this review into a book, so we’re going to focus mostly on S Pen, since that feature is the tablet’s major differentiator. If you’d like details on some of the Note’s other software features, you can check our review of the Galaxy S4, since most of what’s there carries over to the newer, larger-screened device.
The S Pen sits securely in its slot on the right side of the tablet, but is easier to pull out than on the Note 3 smartphone. The S Pen itself is noticeably longer than the one on the more compact Note 3. When you start to pull the pen out, the phone’s screen will switch on automatically and the Air Command menu pops up in the screen’s lower-right corner. Air Command offers icons for five different S Pen tasks, and you can activate it any time by holding the down the button on the S Pen and hovering over the screen.
Action Memo lets you jot down quick things like a phone number or address with the S Pen and, with a tap, add it to your address book, dial the number or send a text, or look up the address on Google Maps or the Web browser. This worked well for us with phone numbers and addresses, but just like with the Note 3, email addresses gave us a problem. Even with the larger screen, the Action Memo window is only about 3.5 inches wide, which isn’t always wide enough to write out some email handles. And when we did manage to write out a full email address, the device’s handwriting recognition got a letter or two wrong all six or so times we tried before giving up. Curiously, we didn’t have this problem at all when jotting down physical addresses.
Scrap booker is what it sounds like – a sort of Pinterest board that lives on your tablet. You can draw a circle around dynamic content on the device, like Web pages, YouTube videos, etc., and store them in the Scrapbook app. Things like Web addresses and videos in your snipped content will remain live when you go back to look at them. But the amount of metadata that’s saved isn’t consistent. For instance, we saved a restaurant we looked up in Google Maps, and when we went back to open it in Scrapbook, it seemed to have just saved a screen shot of the page, and only gave us the option of sharing the image, or copying it to the clipboard.
Screen Write is also self-explanatory. It takes a screen shot and lets you jot notes on top of it. This can also be done at any time with the S Pen by holding down the button on the side of the pen and long pressing on the screen.
Pen Window lets you open a select few apps in a window; draw a square on the screen and a box appears with icons for Calculator, Clock, YouTube, Phone, Contacts, ChatOn, Hangouts, and the Web browser. This feature is more useful here than on the Note 3’s much smaller screen. If you want to, say, do some quick math or look up a contact, it can be nice. But it doesn’t seem likely that you’ll often want to run a browser window or a YouTube video on top of another app. If you’re that kind of multitasker, you’re probably better off with a traditional laptop with a larger screen, or a desktop with multiple monitors.
If you want to have more than one app open at the same time, Multi Window mode lets you launch multiple apps and drag the edges around to decide how much space they take up, a lot like Windows 8. This works much better here than on the smaller Note 3, both because of the larger screen and higher resolution. Depending on the apps, you can also do things like share content between open windows, and open multiple instances of the same app (like the browser).
Sadly, many of these features only work between specific apps, and any time we got deep into multitasking, we wished the tablet had its own built-in stand like the Surface 2. Then we realized this kind of multitasking is still much easier to do in Windows or OS X.
Lastly, S Finder is a sort of global search for the device. You can use it to search through your handwritten notes, media, calendar, message, etc. For forgetful types, or those who working on multiple projects at once, this could be helpful. But for us, at least, the nicest feature here was the ability to scroll through everything from the past seven days (30 days is also an option). The information is laid out visually, with conversations, notes, and images showing up in a vertical feed, which is helpful for jogging your memory and helping you find what you were looking for. We do wonder how much space this feature will eat up on the tablet over time. 16GB isn’t a lot of space.
Samsung copies HTC, adds a Magazine UI
If you need a break from all the features, apps, icons, and widgets on the Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) home screens, you can swipe up from the bottom and bring up Magazine UI, which borrows heavily from Flipboard (and HTC’s BlinkFeed) to give you a visually pleasing, vertical scroll of news, recent social media posts from your friends, and a collection of your recent notes and photos. Scroll vertically to browse content in a specific category, like news. Swipe left and you’ll see social media posts, swipe right to access your personal data and notes.
If the main TouchWiz UI leaves you overwhelmed, you can spend a lot of time in the Magazine UI interface. Tap an arrow in the upper right and you get quick access to things like the S Notes app, calendar, email, the Web browser, as well as the full app drawer.
We like the look and feel of Magazine UI a lot, and it feels more customizable than HTC’s BlinkFeed. But there still doesn’t seem to be a way to add specific sites into your feed (like Digital Trends). You can do this on Flipboard itself (which comes pre-installed on the tablet). So when we signed in to our Flipboard account, we kind of expected that the News section of the Magazine UI would pull in our customized Flipboard feed. But sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Also, the Magazine UI was pretty much the only area where we saw the device get buggy. A couple of times in our few days of testing, vertical scrolling stopped working in this app, while horizontal scrolling worked normally. Mashing the Home button and then launching Magazine UI again fixed the problem. But clearly Samsung has bugs to iron out here (bugs that probably won’t get ironed out).
The S Pen just isn’t a great way to take notes
So, what’s it like to actually use the S Pen to jot down notes? We know people swear by it. But for us at least, writing things down always felt slower and more cumbersome than using the keyboard or speech-to-text.
We repeated the same experiment we tried on the smaller-screened Note 3. We tried jotting down a brief message (31 words) with the S Pen. And just like with the Note 3, that took us around 90 seconds, and the handwriting recognition wound up making a few errors that needed correcting (like interpreting you’ll as you”). Tapping the same message out on keyboard took about 45 seconds with zero errors. Swyping was more difficult on the larger screen, but using the S Pen, it also took 45 seconds and resulted in zero errors. Dictating the message into the tablet took less than 15 seconds and, aside from line breaks we had to put in manually, there were no errors. We then tried writing the message again using the stylus, and wound up taking a few seconds longer than the first time, again with handwriting recognition errors.
When turning our words to text, the Note 2014 tablet seemed to take longer than the Note 3. There also seemed to be a bit more lag when drawing or writing with the S Pen. It seems the higher-clocked processor in the smaller device handles these tasks better than the tablet.
To be fair, our handwriting is pretty bad (we type for a living), and the Note tablet got things right most of the time, especially when we took the time to write carefully. But it does work best when you write one word at a time, pausing a second or so between words while it converts them into text. Otherwise, the tablet will often turn multiple words into a single jumble.
Also, while the Note tablet’s screen is much larger than the Note 3 smartphone, the handwriting window, like the Action Memo window, only takes up part of the screen, so there still isn’t that much room to write. As it stands, writing with the S Pen is best for short messages.
So unless you’ve got neat, quick handwriting and really enjoy jotting things down over typing or Swyping, we don’t think the S Pen is a must-have feature. Given that Samsung’s stylus is one of the major features that sets the tablet apart from several good lower-priced alternatives, that’s kind of a problem.
The Camera isn’t great, but we don’t really care
The Note 10.1 2014 Edition has a 2-megapixel camera up front for video chats, and an 8-megapixel shooter around back. As is often the case with tablets, photos with the rear camera are worse than we’d expect from current smartphone.
The outdoor shots we took with the Note 10.1 2014 were often washed out, especially with the sun directly overhead or in front of the camera. Things are markedly better with the sun at your back, but that’s not something you’ll often have control over. And indoors, the noise level increases very quickly as the light level decreases.
The camera is good enough in a pinch for snapping a shot of a conference room whiteboard to add to your meeting notes, or recognizing a QR code to get a link or someone’s contact info. But taking pictures with a 10-inch tablet is so unwieldy that it generally results in more blurry photos, because your hands aren’t as steady as they should be. And there’s no getting around the fact that you look silly taking pictures with a large slab of glass and plastic. Just use your smartphone or a point-and shoot. You’ll get better results and look less like a silly tourist.
The Note 10.1 2014 Edition is a solid improvement on last year’s model, with a class-leading screen, oodles of RAM, powerful internals, and an updated shell that sets it apart as a more serious device. On paper, it’s the most powerful mobile-class tablet you can buy, at least until Apple outs a new iPad.
Samsung has also done a good job of bringing the S Pen features to the forefront with Air Command. It’s just a pity that much of what the stylus does seems to work better on the smaller Note 3 than on the roomier tablet.
Multi Window mode is more useful here than on smaller devices, to be sure. But the more we used it and ran into limitations and frustrations, the more we found ourselves saying we’d rather just do this kind of thing on our desktop or laptop.
Samsung has done a decent job of making Android more multitasking friendly. But Windows has a huge lead on that front. If you’re set on a tablet form factor and want to have multiple windows on the screen at once, you may want to seriously consider one of the new Surface tablets.
If you aren’t extremely inclined to jot down notes, you’ll want to invest in a stand and a keyboard. And if you’re going to that much trouble, you might as well get a laptop or a clamshell Android device, like Asus’ Transformer – or, more preferably, an iPad.
- Standout multi-tasking features
- Ultra-high-resolution display
- Top-notch specs
- S Pen is a better fit here than on the Note 3
- Improved aesthetics over previous model
- More expensive than the current-generation iPad
- Some performance glitches persist, despite high-end specs
- Abundance of features can be confusing