Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1

The Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1 is arguably Samsung’s attempt to bring the ‘phablet’ from a small screen to the big screen. It’s not just bringing the ‘phablet’ status to a full-blown tablet but also the S-pen as well – remember, we’re talking about the GALAXY Note here. Did it worked for them? Read on for my full review.

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If you like the phone plus tablet mash-up with the original GALAXY Note, I’m sure you will have the same feelings with the GALAXY Note 10.1. The bigger screen really suits the S-pen, or maybe, we can exchange the two, the S-pen suits the big screen.

What’s in the box?
Let’s take a look at the package first. Samsung did not go above the standards and they included just what's needed. You have your power adapter, the proprietary Samsung USB cable, a pair of headset which is nice since it’s main competitor don’t even have one included, extra stylus tips, the manuals, and the S-pen. At the first time, the proprietary USB cable looked identical to Apple’s own, but if you will take it closely, it is really not. So, don’t even try plugging the white one on your GALAXY Note 10.1 if you don’t want it to be dead on the first day.

PART 1: Hardware and Design

The Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1 is a 10.1 inch tablet. It’s body is mostly composed of plastics aside from the glass screen, which is hardly a surprise given Samsung’s history of smartphone and tablet builds. At the top, it has the 1.9 Megapixels front-facing camera and the ambient light sensor just to the left of that. You may have noticed that there is no earpiece present, so if you are planning to make phone calls using this, you will have to use either a wired or Bluetooth headset. Samsung knows that putting an earpiece will just make someone look crazy holding their Note 10.1 right on their face..

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Just beside the 10.1-inch screen are the speakers. It is nice that Samsung decided to put them on the front and not on the back where the sound may get muffled. On the bottom, there’s nothing but the Samsung logo. No capacitive buttons too, you have to use the on-screen buttons which are the standard on Android tablets now.

The left and right sides of the Note 10.1 is bare, because Samsung put up of all the controls in one place – at the top. Starting from the left, it has the power button which also acts as the screen lock key, the volume rocker, the microSD card slot which can handle up to 64GB cards, the IR blaster (more on this later), the 3.5mm headphone jack, and the SIM card slot. On the bottom of the Note 10.1 is the 30-pin dock connector which as I said, not compatible with accessories designed for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

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Now let’s flip back the Note 10.1. The back is mostly plastic with a silver strip at the top housing the 5 Megapixels camera and the LED flash. On the bottom left is the S-pen holder. It actually looks like the back part of the GALAXY Tab 2 10.1 if not exactly identical. The main back panel sometimes feel creaky and if you try pressing it down, you will notice that it sort of has space between the panel and whatever is inside that. Also, being a glossy plastic, if attracts fingerprints and smudges often and it gets scratched easily even when just laying down on a table. Lastly, it gives a pearlescent reflection when held against a source of light.

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The S-pen is a small tube-like thing that measure about 4.5-inches long that you can use for the features Samsung added on top of TouchWiz like the S Note app. It feels like an actual pen and it’s not uncomfortable to use like the one on the original GALAXY Note. It has a single button in the middle which can be used to trigger specific actions like opening the menu on apps, saving a screenshot, and launching the mini S Note app.

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PART 2: Software

The Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1 is running on Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich (an upgrade to Jelly Bean 4.1 is coming) with their own TouchWiz custom skin on top of it. TouchWiz is known to bring device performance issues on most Samsung’s Android phones, but does that apply with the GALAXY Note 10.1?

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I can at least say no. Samsung equipped the GALAXY Note 10.1 with a 2GB of RAM, more than enough to handle most device operations without breaking a sweat. TouchWiz made the device looked even better than the other Android tablets out there. It is Samsung’s way to differentiate. Now let’s talk about those features.

I’m going to start with the multi-screen feature. Multi-screen basically allows you to work with two apps at the same time. For example, you can browse the web and while doing that, you can go ahead and start jotting down notes. Need to take a screenshot of what you just stumbled upon the Internet? Sure. Just press and hold the button on the S-pen over the browser window and zing!, you now have a screenshot. You can crop it and attach it to your note. It’s just sad that you can only do multi-screen with 6 apps at the moment, and they are: browser, Polaris Office, S Note, Video player, Gallery, and Email. Hopefully Samsung will remove this limitation on the upcoming Jelly Bean update.

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Pop-up Play
Now this feature is not new. Pop-up Play has been introduced since the Samsung GALAXY S III. It’s good to know Samsung decided to include this as well on the GALAXY Note 10.1 because it makes much more sense. You’ve got this bigger screen estate and more generous amount of RAM that will not be a hinder for the feature. I can browse the web while watching a video while sending an SMS. Um, did I say that?

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Mini Apps
Yes you’ve heard that one correctly. I managed to browse the web while watching a video while sending an SMS, made possible by the mini apps. If you’ve ever noticed, there’s a little arrow on the center bottom part of the screen. Tapping that will show you the mini apps tray which consists of 10 built-in apps. So the next time you’re busy playing Zombie Smash and want to make a call or something else, remember, it is just two taps away.

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S Note
The GALAXY Note 10.1 is part of Samsung’s lineup of devices which comes with a pressure-sensitive stylus or a pen, which what they call the S Pen. Accompanying the S Pen is the S Note app. You can do many things with the S Note. You can, of course, draw anything, use it for getting signatures for use on a computer, and what I liked the most is that you can use it to write mathematical and possibly other formulas too and directly look up the solution using Wolfram|Alpha. The handwriting recognition of the S Note and the device in general is pretty pretty good. This feature makes it really appealing to students. But since I only got my GALAXY Note 10.1 by a chance, I really don’t have much use for the S Note aside from when I’m bored and want to doodle random things.

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Aside from the features developed by Samsung, they’ve also added some third-party software like the Adobe Photoshop Touch which comes free on every GALAXY Note 10.1 (originally priced P413.84 at the Google Play Store), Polaris Office, and the Smart Remote app, which I really really like. I always use that  app to change channels on our TV and to play pranks with my 2 year old nephew.

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PART 3: Performance

When Samsung announced the GALAXY Note 10.1 in February, it only had a dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM. Fast forward a few months and Samsung made the decision to revise the tablet’s specifications and put a 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos processor and doubled the RAM. The device generally feels snappy and fast but there is still the occasional lags and hiccups which is not new to Android devices. Sometimes the browser is fast, sometimes it’s not — specially on the desktop Facebook website. Hopefully the Jelly Bean update will change things. On the positive side, I’ve never encountered a force close on any apps on my Note 10.1 thanks to the huge 2GB of RAM. Samsung really made this device ready for the future updates.

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Battery life
The battery life of the Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1 is one of its strengths. It is powered by a 7,000 mAh of battery capacity making this thing easily last for days of moderate Internet use, few to minimum phone calls, and occasional video playback.

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PART 4: Camera

I really don’t like taking photos with a gigantic tablet but if you do, then you will be happy to know that the GALAXY Note 10.1 takes good photos. It has a 5 Megapixels autofocus camera with an LED flash that will help in the dark, which the iPad 3rd generation don’t have.

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The Verdict

Overall, the Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1 really makes for an amazing Android experience. It’s got very sick multitasking capabilities, the powerful S Note, an excellent battery life, and future-proof hardware internals. On the bad side, Samsung could have given their flagship tablet a better construction and build quality because plastic don’t scream premium. Priced at P32,990 for the 16GB Wi-Fi + 3G (HSPA+) version, this device is a little on the expensive side. To buy this or not is really up to anyone.

The good
Long-lasting battery life
Good and plentiful of multitasking options
Front speaker placement
Future-proof hardware internals
Awesome S Note features

The bad
Poor choice of materials for body
Low resolution screen – just 1280x800

Disclosure: I won a Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1 from the raffle at the launch.

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