Review: Galaxy Note 10.1

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In the phone world, there is a ton of competition in the Android sandbox. Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola and many more companies are pumping out countless new Android devices each quarter. And while Samsung is the only one making any meaningful progress (and money), there’s no shortage of options for consumers. On top of all the great 3rd party manufacturer hardware there’s Google’s own Nexus line, which while lacking some custom baked-in functionality, benefits from being above all the carrier and manufacture crap that all too often slows down the Android devices we know and love.

In the tablet sphere, things are much different. Google’s Nexus line of tablets are the golden gems standing out from the rest thanks to a much smaller pool of worthwhile options. Outside of the Nexus line, however, it’s all Samsung. Where they dominate in smartphones they absolutely destroy on in the Android tablet ecosystem.

Today, we’re taking a look at their Verizon LTE equipped Galaxy Note 10.1 to see if it’s everything that Samsung claims it to be. Let’s get to it.

Hardware

galaxynote101-sideTrue to Samsung fashion, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is crafted out of multi-colored and tough…plastic. For hardware aficionados and those who appreciate good hardware design, there’s really not much to get excited about here. Samsung builds some very nicely spec’d, boundary pushing hardware (on paper). But when it comes down to designing a device that makes you want to pick up and caress it based off of looks alone, they fail miserably. Nothing about the Galaxy Note 10.1’s design says “premium” or “high quality”. That cheap image is further enhanced when actually poking and prodding the device. The Galaxy Note 10.1 feels like any other low to mid-range plastic gadget that you’ll find on the retail shelf. If Samsung could improve in only one area, hardware design and quality would be the biggest area.

Aesthetics aside, things aren’t so bad – quite good actually. The 10.1-inch display’s resolution is still a somewhat low 1280 x 800 TFT. But that doesn’t mean colors don’t pop (sometimes too much) and image quality isn’t great – because it is. Still, with smartphone screens half the size gaining 1080p resolution, it’s about the time all high-end tablets should follow. Also worth noting is that the display attracts fingerprints – terribly. Seriously, you’re going to be wiping this thing off constantly (as the pictures in the gallery will prove).

galaxynote101-topbackPowering the entire show is Samsung’s own Exynos quad-core processor running at 1.4 GHz coupled with 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of built-in storage (up to 32 GB additional storage via removable USB). Photographic stints are catered to by way of a front-facing 1.9-megapixel and rear 5-megapixel cameras. Finally, a 7,000 mAh battery ensures multi-day use for even some of the hardest power users.

In day-to-day operation the device never felt slow. We’ve pretty much reached the point now where the hardware has become powerful enough and the software efficient enough that general slow downs and hiccups are a thing of the past. Using the Galaxy Note 10.1 in a scenario in which 85%+ people will use it (checking email, web browsing, light gaming) means the days of spec races for more mainstream users is pretty much over. While hardware is still worth hoisting up on a pedestal of its own when new generations come around, the truth of the matter is that the real talking points of modern gadgets revolve around software and software features.

Speaking of which…

Software

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is the name of the game. And in the transition from 4.0 to 4.1 and with the addition of the Note line’s S-Pen, non-finger input is a lot more robust. For example, multi-window support is a great feature for power users that allows (as the name suggests) multiple windows open at the same time. The list includes 14 of Samsung’s own apps: Alarm, Calculator, Contacts, Email, Gallery, Internet browser, S Planner, Video Player, World Clock, Task Manager, S Note, My Files, Music Player, and Polaris Office. If you don’t see your beloved apps of choice in the list, fret not as a very similar mode dubbed “Cascade View” which essentially allows Windows-like operation with multiple, different sized windows to be open simultaneously. To some it’ll be way overkill and distracting. To power users, however, Cascade view is a gift from the gods.

The beloved S-Pen is what sets Samsung’s devices apart from competing options, and a device that takes the tablet experience to a completely different level. Onscreen actions that despite years of development, still aren’t best suited for finger input, anger us far less with the S-Pen. Also, things like the new Adobe Photoshop Touch take the tablet’s content creation chops to a completely different level. Similarly, the Crayon Physics app and ability to write notes onscreen whenever, wherever are just a couple of additional ways the S-Pen’s utility and versatility are showcased.

It’s part of Samsung’s attention both to hardware (S-Pen) and via their own software suit that makes the Note 10.1 one of the best Android tablet choices on the market. For without their own software, they’d be “just another Android tablet”. And considering Android tablet app support on Google Play is still mediocre at best, it shows why Samsung is killing it in this sphere.

But as great as Samsung’s software enhancements are, there’s still the ever present issue of updates to deal with. For starters, just having a skinned device in general means you’re updates are going to now take many weeks (to several months) to get to your device after Google pushes them out and marks them “official”. Further complicating matters at least in this case is the fact that Verizon isn’t the quickest or seemingly all that concerned with getting Android updates to devices in a timely fashion (read: Galaxy Nexus fiasco). To have a skinned Android device on VZW is just asking for trouble, right? Buyer beware is all we’ll say. With Samsung hardware you could be worse off.

Performance

In terms of performance, the Galaxy Note 10.1 doesn’t disappoint. Normal tasks such as trolling the internet, updating every social service underneath the sun and playing many of the latest games is easily handled by the powerful hardware within the Note’s unassuming shell. We could go on at this point with numerous spreadsheets and pretty graphs containing benchmarks… but really there’s no point. The hardware on the Note 10.1 is more than enough to power through everything we threw at it, so your mom and your friends are probably going to be alright. That said, we can certainly appreciate a well studied and detailed benchmark review when we see them. But truth of the matter is, such things cater to (and matter to) a tiny, tiny percentage of the market. What really matters above all benchmarks is real world usability and experiences. And on that front, the Note 10.1 leaves little to be desired.

But while usable performance is important, battery life is just as important, because a tablet that lasts 4 hours on a charge is useful to no one. Thankfully, the 7,000 mAh powerhouse within the Note 10.1 is sufficient for even the heaviest users. Over the course of several days we spent a couple hours each night streaming Netflix and YouTube along with general web browsing and social networking. After 4 days (leaving on in between using too) we had about 15-20% left. In our book, that’s pretty good.

Wireless performance both on WiFi and Verizon’s LTE network provides you the possibilities for the fastest speeds possible whether at home or on the road. In the several days we had the Note 10.1, there wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary to mention. But perhaps that’s what’s best. When we needed it to work, it just did.

Conclusion

At $499 the Galaxy Note 10.1 is far from cheap (and that’s on contract even). Also, the display is lower resolution than many competing high-end Android tablets (and even a growing number of Android phones now). Video buffs and those looking for a more premium (looking and feeling) piece of hardware will be better served by devices like Google’s Nexus 10 tablet or Acer’s Iconia Tab A700 to name a couple. However, if you can look past the mid-tier hardware, Samsung’s added functionality via the S-Pen and built in software makes the Galaxy Note 10.1 a very compelling offering as long as you’re willing to dig in and explore a bit. Overall, one of the best Android tablets currently on the market despite a few shortcomings.

Thank You To Core Creative and VZW for providing the Galaxy Note 10.1 review unit.

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About Author

Gadget lover, smartphone collector, and beer connoisseur. I've been writing about gadgets and mobile technology since 2008 and loving every minute of it. Outside of the digital landscape, I enjoy being active outdoors and playing guitar and drums. I'm always up for a good conversation so feel free to drop me a line on any of my social accounts or via email.

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