Last year Samsung introduced the Galaxy Note, a device that slotted neatly into the space between tablet and smartphone due to the presence of an unusual 5.3" display. Central to the experience of the Note was, harking back to old times, the use of a stylus, dubbed the S-Pen. I had experience with the Note and found it a relevant experience, despite initial reservations. With the Galaxy Note 10.1, launched last week in South Africa at Shine Studios in Braamfontein, Samsung aims to bring this functionality to traditional tablet form factors.
From a hardware perspective, the Note 10.1 is a powerhouse. The device is powered by a quad core 1.4 GHz Exynnos chip set, with 2GB RAM and 32 GB on-board storage with support for microSD cards up to 64GB. The 10.1" panel is a TFT LCD with a resolution of 1280x800. Camera wise, the rear camera is a 5 megapixel unit with a single LED flash and there's a front facing 1.9 megapixel camera, both units capable of shooting 720p video and the rear 1080p. The device supports the usual array of sensors and also HSPA+ with voice support, though there is no NFC chip inside. At the software level this is an Android 4.0.4 device with Samsung's TouchWizz UI layer on top to differentiate from the competition. And last but not least, the S-Pen.
All in all then on paper, a capable device.
I got some hands on time with the device after a presentation that detailed how Samsung was looking to position the tablet, particularly in South Africa. The approach is four-pronged: Creativity, Productivity, Learning and Performance. Creativity and Productivity utilize the key differentiator of the device, the S-Pen. The S-Pen allows a greater flexibility in terms of interacting with the device, particularly when taking into account the size of the tablet, and how that affects in particular text input. It allows for note taking, and it's coupled with a handwriting recognition system that can improve text entry. From the learning perspective, Samsung plans to introduce a Learning Hub, with textbooks and study material from content providers. Added to this is the opportunity to introduce a self-testing system that keeps track of user progress. Lastly, in terms of performance, to harness that raw power under-the-hood, the multitasking experience on the device has been improved with floating apps and a multiscreen view that aims to bring tablets in line with laptops.
With the limited time on offer with the device, it was difficult to draw too many conclusions. Briefly, as I found on the original Note, once you get used to the idea of a stylus in 2012, it is a remarkably efficient way of interacting with a large touchscreen device. I have notoriously messy handwriting, and, as such was impressed with the handwriting recognition. I would argue that with the larger screen it actually makes writing easier and more natural than on its smaller-screened sibling. The S-Pen works across built-in apps as well as third-party-offerings requiring text entry. There is some sort of palm detection to recognize inputs from the pen over your hand and I found this reasonably consistent. It takes some getting used to be honest, but by the end of the evening I was quite comfortable with it.
The improvements that Samsung is trying to introduce with floating apps and multiscreen are much needed on tablets. I have always felt that the tablet experience still resembled a smartphone, in that it's a one app at a time paradigm. Additionally, the video player has the same pop-up functionality found on the Galaxy S3. The experience is hampered by two factors: first, it is limited to TouchWIZ apps - you can't modify the selection, so for example, the default email client supports multiscreen but the Gmail client does not; floating apps are also somewhat limited in functionality. Second is performance - the device gets a bit sluggish, and switching between screens in mulitscreen mode is slower than anticipated.
Another criticism with the Note 10.1 is the subpar build materials. A criticism of the Android smartphone line-up from Samsung is the choice of build materials. While the likes of Nokia and HTC used better quality plastics, and Apple glass and metal, Samsung uses very cheap plastic. The Galaxy S3 is an improvement but the Note 10.1 goes back many steps. It creaks in places it shouldn't and feels weak and fragile. Added to that, by Samsung's own lofty standards, the display is distinctly average, even suffering under the glare of indoor lighting. All this would be fine if this is was a mid-end offering, but priced at R8 499, it is positioned as a premium product with cutting-edge technology under-the-hood.
My first impression is that with some improvements to the multitasking, a bit of software optimization, in other words, an upgrade to Jelly Bean and a friendlier price-tag, this can be like its smaller 5.3 and now 5.5" siblings, a relevant addition to the tablet space. The device will be beset on top of some of the flaws I encountered, by the usual problem afflicting Android tablets, the lack of a viable app ecosystem. But there is potential, and as a tablet skeptic, I am drawn to the inclusion of a stylus on some high-end tablet hardware.