August 15 is over, the dust has settled, and the Galaxy Note 10.1 has finally made its official debut for all the world to see. After much initial fanfare from its quick preview at the MWC back in February, the production model is now up for retail in the US and the UK, which means its time to break take a closer look at what everyone in the western hemisphere knows about it so far and decide whether or not we should buy it once it hits Philippine shores.
The original Galaxy Note, of which I am a proud owner, was undecided of whether it wanted to be a phone or a tablet. It’s monstrous 5.3″ Super AMOLED display was the largest screen ever seen on the phone since the Dell Streak 5, and quite a lot of people were skeptical it would sell well. Well screw that, as it has sold over 10 million units to date, which just goes to show the stylus isn’t dead after all. Or should I say S-pen? It’s ironic that the whole selling point of the Note, in addition to its ginormous screen, was the S-pen, which was more than just your ordinary capacitive stylus. For one thing, it wasn’t a capacitive stylus at all, but a pressure-sensitive inductive pen made by Wacom that could detect different levels of pressure, which could reflect on whatever was drawn or written onscreen. This and the slew of built-in and downloadable S-pen apps allowed the Note to become a more effective note-taking machine (yes, I said it) that felt much more natural to use. Of course, 5.3 inches is still not a lot of screen real estate if you wanted to do more than just note-taking, which a lot of Note users expressed.
Well, it appears as if someone in Samsung must have thought the same thing, because soon enough, a preview build of the Galaxy Note 10.1 made its way to the MWC for all the world to see. Back then, the specs were kind of underwhelming. Samsung simply previewed what appeared to be the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 with an extra inductive digitizer for S-pen capture and the S-pen itself. It was easy to see the possibilities with an S-pen that could capture multiple levels of pressure, especially when coupled with a touch-optimized version of Adobe Photoshop.
Fast-forward to today and it appears as if the Note 10.1’s innards have received a much-anticipated upgrade from the mehh dual core processor found on the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 to the same quad core Exynos 4 chip that can be found in the much more recent Galaxy S3. That and a slot for the S-pen that it can be tucked into since the preview build at the MWC strangely didn’t feature one. But are those improvements enough to make this THE Android tablet to buy over everything else that’s out there? That’s a tough one to answer since Acer and ASUS haven’t been slouches in the tablet-making department either and have churned out some equally unique or budget-friendly options as well. We’ll just have to take a look at the specs to see if the Note 10.1 is worth it.
Breaking Down the Key Specs
CPU/RAM: The CPU/RAM configuration on the Galaxy Note 10.1 is easily one of the best things about this unique tablet. The S3, which uses the same 1.4 Ghz Exynos 4 CPU, is the current king of all Android phones right now, and it’s easily because of the powerful processing power that the Exynos chipset brings to the table. It’s main competitor, the HTC One X, actually featured an Nvidia Tegra 4 plus one core CPU clocked at a higher 1.5Ghz, yet the S3 still handily kicked its ass in the benchmarks by a wide margin. And that’s going to be the same CPU that will be powering everything inside the Note 10.1.
Couple that with a healthy 2Gb of RAM and we’re talking about some serious multitasking here. That means being able to run a lot of apps simultaneously or having a lot of information-rich widgets such as Samsung’s own Social Hub widget on the homescreens. Heck, just the 2Gb RAM is enough to make this a notable Android device since the only other ones I’m aware of with that much RAM are the US and Korean versions of the Galaxy S3, while everything else is stuck with just 1Gb of RAM at most.
S-pen: This is singularly what makes the Galaxy Note 10.1 unique among its competitors. Sure, you can get a capacitive stylus to work with your iPad or Android tablet, but those things are horrible. You won’t get any kind of pressure sensitivity whatsoever, meaning if you start drawing on the screen, you’ll only see one big flat line rather than achieve the natural curves that can be found in regular handwriting and drawing. Those things are also hardly smooth to use. The rubberized texture of the tips tend to stick quite a bit, and you’ll be cursing quite a bit if you even try to take extended notes that are legible enough for reading later on.
The S-pen is on a whole different level, feeling much more like a natural pen between the fingers, making it much easier to draw or take notes. Speaking of levels, the S-pen offers 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, meaning this is as close as it gets to mimicking what you would write on a regular piece of paper. It should be noted (see what I did there?) that the S-pen of the Note 10.1 is much larger than that on the original Note phablet/phoneblet/tabphone or what have you.
Screen: This is probably the biggest letdown of the Note 10.1, spec-wise. And it’s no small thing either. Apple’s New iPad sports a “resolutionary” IPS display with a resolution of 2048 x 1536. While there aren’t any Android tablets that have reached that resolution yet, others have come quite close with Full HD displays such as the Transformer Prime HD that has an IPS display with a 1920 x 1200 resolution. Both those tablets are what you would consider top-of-the-line flagship devices, something that the Galaxy Note 10.1 is also supposed to rank among. However, the Note 10.1 only sports a TFT LCD unit with a pedestrian resolution of 1280 x 800. Jeez.
It’s kind of weird how Samsung was able to upgrade the innards of this thing since its preview at the MWC, but not even bump up the screen resolution, especially when during that time, several other premium tablets like the aforementioned New iPad and Transformer Prime HD had already launched with much higher resolutions. Sure, Samsung may have wanted to keep costs down, but if you’re going to make a premium tablet, my opinion is that you shouldn’t scrimp on the screen, especially when it makes up the 95% of the front of the damn thing. Still, the TFT LCD unit on the Note 10.1 is perfectly good enough for most situations. Just don’t sit next to someone holding the Prime HD or New iPad unless you want to catch yourself a case of screen-envy. And the graphic designers and other creative professionals Samsung is supposed to be marketing this for? Yup, they won’t be impressed either.
Storage: The Galaxy Note 10.1 comes in two storage flavors: 16Gb and 32Gb, both of which are expandable up to a whopping 64Gb via MicroSD. (Do they even make those yet?) Based on personal experience, 16Gb of internal storage is already quite enough even if you have a sizable music library and pictures. That is, if you only keep a movie or two on-board for whenever you want to watch one on the Note 10.1. If you want to carry a bunch more movies with you, you’ll probably want that 32Gb version. If it were me though, I’d just use the expandable storage if I wanted to carry around that much media with me. Thankfully, that option exists, unlike with the New iPad or even the Nexus 7, which happens to be gaining a huge following of its own.
Battery: The battery of the Note 10.1 has the same capacity of that on the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, which is 7,000mAh. I haven’t found any official estimates, but the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 (saying that out loud is a mouthful) is rated to last up to 10 hours on straight usage.
Firmware, TouchWiz and S-pen Optimized Apps: Okay, so it isn’t Jelly Bean, but hardly any other tablets out there have launched with Jelly Bean, save for the Nexus 7. What you’ll be getting is ICS 4.0.4 with the TouchWiz UI overlay. If you’re coming from a stock experience of ICS, it shouldn’t take you long to get acclimated to the TouchWiz version. It’s not as intrusive as HTC Sense (HTC fans will say “intuitive”), nor is it as heavy. It does come with a lot of preloaded software though, a few of which you’ll hate, such as the Music Hub app, which is absolutely useless in our country.
Thankfully, a lot of the other apps are useful enough to warrant consideration. Polaris Office is especially useful for those who like creating or editing a range of Microsoft Office documents on the go. You would typically have to pay about Php600+ pesos for the full version of that particular app, but on the Note 10.1 it comes preloaded. Then there’s the powerful S Planner, which is Samsung’s version of the Android calendar app. S Planner is quite simply the best calendar app I’ve ever used, and I’ve tried out a few since getting my Note phoneblet last January. Another “S-app” worth mentioning is S Note, which is a bit different than original Note users got in the Premium Suite upgrade. The New S Note on the Note 10.1 incorporates everything from both the original S Memo and S Note apps. It’s also more optimized to take advantage of the even larger screen real estate.
Other S-pen apps you might want to try out are PS Touch and Crayon Physics, which both also take advantage of the S-pen’s functionality. Most creative types will lean toward using PS Touch, and it’s worth noting that that particular app is normally worth Php420+ on Google Play.
Wired Connectivity: Like most other Samsung smartphones and tablets, the Note 10.1 makes use of a proprietary connector that you would connect the charger to. That’s the same port you would use to connect the USB cable to your PC. You can also use an MHL adapter to connect the tablet to your TV or computer monitor, and yes, it would use that same proprietary port.
Wireless Connectivity: Expect the basics to be covered, like Bluetooth, WiFi b/g/n, and 3G connectivity for the 3G model. It also has a built-in GPS module with A-GPS support that speeds up satellite detection and makes results more accurate. There’s also GLONASS, which is the Russian version of GPS. No I don’t know how to use that here in the Philippines. One interesting bit of wireless connectivity you might be interested in is the IR blaster that, when coupled with the Peel Smart Remote app, allows you to transform the Note 10.1 into a universal remote. This functionality had also found itself on earlier Galaxy Tabs, and it’s much welcome on this one.
Design and Build: Samsung has a tendency to use a lot of its plastic on its devices, and that hasn’t changed on the Galaxy Note 10.1. Even the parts that are supposed to look like shiny or anodized aluminum are really just painted plastic. Sure, it means this tablet should be lighter to hold than its competitors, but you just won’t be getting that same premium feel. That would be alright with most people if the build was pretty solid. Unfortunately it’s not, and a lot of people have reported that it feels rather cheap to the touch, not to mention that it tends to creak a bit when you try to press on the plastic back. If this tablet were to retail at just around Php20k, I would be fine with the slightly creaky plastic, but if this is going to retail for more than Php30k (which I expect it to), I would want no part of that creakiness.
Real World Usage
So what does all that translate to in the real world? That average resolution is like the elephant in the room you can’t ignore. Sure, it’s pretty decent, but if you stack it up against the competition, you’ll start noticing how much more grainy images are on the Note tablet than they are on something like Huawei’s Mediapad HD, Transformer Prime HD, or the New iPad. That’s not a good thing for creative types who are keen on detail, the same kind of professionals Samsung is trying to market this tablet to.
The Exynos 4 and 2Gb RAM configuration makes up for this a little bit, and navigating through the homescreens or the App drawer should be a breeze, especially since there are fewer pixels to push. I guess that’s one advantage of lower resolutions. That Exynos chip is also faster than anything else that’s on the market right now, despite what Nvidia might want you to believe about the current generation Tegra.
I’m not too worried about this launching on ICS, since it’s already quite a functional version of the Android OS in itself. What I don’t like is TouchWiz’s folder creation. It’s unnatural. If you want to create a folder, you would have to drag an app from the App drawer to the lower left corner of the screen into the “create new folder” icon, and then rinse and repeat. There is no way to sort them alphabetically or any other way while creating the folder, unless you transfer the apps in the order you want them to appear. Once the folder is created, there is still no way to sort the apps in the folder. Major bummer if you have tons of games or imaging apps that you want to organize into a single folder like I do. The Go Launcher EX app executed folder creation flawlessly and similar enough to stock ICS that anyone coming from another ICS device would be able to figure out, which is why it really puzzles me that TouchWiz has yet to make it easier to create a folder or at least sort its contents.
The design is okay in my book, especially the white version, however the build quality really leaves a bit to be desired. Samsung has always used very durable plastic, as evidenced by my old trusty Samsung Star and my current phone, the Galaxy Note. However, if the Galaxy Tab 7.7 can look like the premium device that it is, then why can’t the Galaxy Note 10.1?
Overall, I really want to like the Galaxy Note 10.1, I really do. It’s just that I can’t get over that screen. I would imagine some graphic artists and some business types taking a liking to this, as well as the small population of rich students who could afford to buy this for “school”. Then there’s the fact that without the S-pen, this is just another average resolution tablet. Sure, you’ve got a quad core CPU and a powerful GPU coupled with it, but aside from games, are there any other apps that would task them?
So if you really need that S-pen functionality, by all means, get it. Just the S-pen optimized apps are enough to justify the purchase, and there are more of them to be found everyday as more developers make use of that S-pen SDK. However, if you’re looking to use your 10 inch tab for regular media consumption, there are more sensible options you can consider.