In line with Google Android’s meteoric rise in popularity over the past few years, Android tablets became the most popular option for tablet shoppers in 2013, and looking at the latest version of Samsung Galaxy Not 10.1 it’s easy to see why.
The Note 10.1 is exquisitely designed and extremely comfortable to hold on to — something we have never said about an Android tablet before. Sure, there has been plenty of good Android tablets, but none have come this close to offer design and a level of polish on par with Apple’s iPad range. In many ways, the Note 10.1 is another big, rectangular box, but it looks better than this on closer inspection and, more importantly, it feels good.
Samsung opts for the same faux-leather feel plastic backplate for this tablet as we saw last year in the Note 3 smartphone, and it works so well on a device of this size. Whether you’re a fan of the fake stitching or not, the texture across the back of this tablet is both pleasant to touch and it gives you confidence that the tablet isn’t going to just slip out from between your fingers.
In fact, imagining this tablet as a giant Note 3 is probably the best way to get a decent idea of it in your mind. It has the same ribbed metal edging, the same button alignment under the screen and the same S-Pen digital stylus and many of the same software features. Our review unit came with a SIM card slot too, which is supremely handy if you can afford the difference in price.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of this new Samsung tablet is its screen. Samsung cram in 2560 x 1600 pixels into the 10-inch LCD screen and the result is truly eye-catching clarity. This equals about a 20% increase in the number of pixels per inch over the latest iPad Air, so you definitely won’t feel like you have backed the wrong horse in this regard if you choose a Note over an iPad.
If pixel-peeping is not your primary consideration, the brightness and colour in this screen is sure to wow you nonetheless. As we mentioned above, this is an LCD panel, not one of Samsung’s excellent AMOLED screens, and yet the performance here is at least on par with the AMOLED displays in Samsung’s phones — of not better.
Samsung devices receive their fair share of criticism, and most of it is levelled at Samsung’s TouchWiz user experience — the software that sit on top of Android that you will interact with every time you turn the tablet on.
We’ve hated on Touchwiz in the past as much as any other reviewer, but it is a different story here with the Note 10.1. This is definitely TouchWiz installed, but it seems simpler, more lightweight. There are some Samsung apps and widgets installed, but none seem to dominate the user experience. There is a single, tidy folder of Samsung apps in the main app drawer which you can choose to open and use or ignore.
The Samsung keyboard is well designed for the purpose here. You get a row of numbers across the top of the letter keyboard, and continuous typing is turned on by default so you can create words with swipes rather than tapping on individual letters.
Using the stylus to write messages is better too compared with the last time we tried similar software on a Samsung tablet. The handwriting recognition does a remarkable job of identifying words out of even the worst running-writing, which tends to be how writing shows up on a tablet screen.
S-Pen and scribbling apps
Of course, the key difference between this tablet and an Apple iPad, or the vast majority of other tablets available, is that Samsung includes an S-Pen digital stylus and a bunch of handy, stylus-focused apps. These features are common across Samsung’s ‘Note’ range, and if you have played with a Galaxy Note 3, you’ll have seen what is on offer here too.
Central to this experience is what Samsung calls the ‘Action Launcher’, a small circle of app shortcuts which appears whenever you ‘unsheathe’ the stylus. From here you can launch a scrapbooking app or a device search with one-touch, which is handy, but our favourite tool is ‘Action Memo’.
After launching Action Memo, you see a small yellow ‘post-it’ style memo pad. You use the stylus to jot down information on the run, and then use Action Memo to convert that information into a link to a different app. If you write down a phone number, Action Member can launch the phone dialler (provided you have a SIM-card) or scribble down an address and Action Memo can convert this into a Map link for Google Maps.
Another great tool is ‘Screen Write’ which takes a screenshot of your displays, allows you to create annotations, then sends it to friends or colleagues.
Like on the Galaxy Note 3, the S-Pen isn’t a feature that everyone will make use of — it’s not a classic ‘must-have’ feature like a camera or a fast web browser. Some people will find it indispensable, and for everyone else it is an awesome bonus that you won’t find elsewhere.
As cameras in tablets go, the Galaxy Note 10.1 has a couple of the best we’ve seen, though they aren’t a patch on a some of the best cameras found in phones. Samsung includes an 8-megapixel shooter on the back of the tablet and a 2-megapixel camera towards the front, for video calling.
The rear-facing camera is as cumbersome to use as can be expected with a camera on a tablet, but we did like that Samsung uses the extra space on screen to include a video-recording option on the same screen as the normal photo shutter button, allowing you to choose the best option without having to go digging about in the settings.
The photos we’ve taken with the tablet are fine, but nothing to rave about. On a clear, sunny day we found a lot of light bleeding on our photos, which dulled the colours in the images and gave them a milky-white wash. Auto-focus is fast and accurate, though, which is a plus.
The front-facing camera is quite good too, and is excellent for video calling. You can use it for photos too, and the large display makes for awesome selfies.
Performance and battery
As you might expect, Samsung uses the same hardware in this tablet as it does in its top-line phone, the Note 3 and Galaxy S5 — a quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 chipset. Like the Note 3, it also chooses a hefty 3GB RAM to support the processing.
The result is a mostly flawless user experience. The vast majority of our use of this tablet during testing has seen smooth operation, even under taxing loads. We did see a few hiccups while using the Note 10.1, like moments of unresponsiveness, and we did need to reboot the machine once or twice, but nothing which caused us much concern.
Battery life is solid, but not extraordinary, with the Note 10.1 lasting for a little over 5-hours in our looping video endurance test. The screen is the major culprit here, as should be expected, so dimming the brightness goes a long way to extending this figure.
In standby mode, the tablet survived on a single charge for days. Without any use, a fully charge Note 10.1 would continue in standby for about a week, by our estimations.
In terms of how this table looks and feels, and how well it works, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is a diamond within an ever-growing mountain of tablet computers. It’s lightweight, is comfortable to hold and carry, and works extremely well. The S-Pen stylus adds an extra dimension to the tablet experience that won’t be a must-have for everyone, but it will play an important role in this experience for some.
The big point of consideration here is price. Samsung has made an outstanding device, but it doesn’t come cheaply. While it is possible to buy a good tablet for $400 or less, the RRP for the Galaxy Note 10.1 is twice as much at $799 for 16GB with a SIM-card slot. Without 4G the tablet is cheaper, at $649, but not cheaper than many of the tablets it will be competing against.
All in all, you do get what you pay for, which in many ways is the outstanding high-resolution display. The Note 10.1 (2014) is the Rolls Royce of tablets at this time, and if you have the money, you’d do well to spend it on this excellent machine.