The instant you pick the Note 3 up for the first time, it feels like a new device, even if you know its two predecessors very well. The funny thing is the Note 3 isn’t actually that different from the Note 2, but its refreshed design makes it feel like a more radical departure from the past than it actually is.
The same can be said about the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, Samsung’s latest tablet flagship that recently became available around the world. The new Note 10.1 certainly looks and feels like a new device, but is it any better than the old Note 10.1 at the end of the day?
More importantly, is the new Note tablet worth its steep price? We take a look at all the things that matter in our Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition review. Let’s dive in.
Build quality and design
The Note 10.1 borrows heavily from the Note 3, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, there’s much to love about the design and build of the Note 10.1 2014 Edition, which is generally a massive improvement over the lackluster original Note 10.1.
Gone are the two-tone design, extra wide bezels, and glossy plastic, replaced with a more decisive and sober design that is much more suited for a tablet that people are expected to use in a corporate environment. The biggest change is the texturized back plate, which feels nice in hand and gives the new Note 10.1 a good grip, making it easier to hold. The bezels are straight and relatively narrow and the sides of the tablet are flat, which makes the Note 10.1 feel in hand like a large notepad or a sketchbook. The faux leather and faux stitching going around the sides contribute to that feel, especially for the black version, though we’re sure that some will find them kitschy.
On the front, you get Samsung’s well-known button layout, which we have to say it, doesn’t feel at home on a 10-inch tablet, especially if you use it in portrait mode. The capacitive back and menu buttons are at least actionable with the S Pen, saving you from having to switch from stylus to finger whenever you have to use them.
On the sides of the Note 10.1, you get the speakers, microSD card slot, and the power and volume rocker, which have a nice tactile feedback even though they are a bit thin. Unlike the Note 3, which features a microUSB 3.0 port, the new Note 10.1 comes with a regular microUSB 2.0 port located on the bottom side of the tablet near the home button. Finally, there’s the S Pen slot, which is now symmetrical, so you can insert the stylus in it in either orientation.
At 540 grams, the new Note 10.1 is lighter than the previous generation, but it’s still rather hefty, especially if you compare it with its direct competitor, the iPad Air.
Overall, the Note 10.1 2014 Edition feels solid and well built, and is leaps and bounds better than last years’ Note.
Another department where the Note 10.1 2014 Edition leaves the old Note 10.1 in the dust is the display. In fact, with a 2560 x 1600 resolution and 299 ppi pixel density, Samsung’s new tablet outshines most competitors in its class.
The AMOLED display is one of the defining features of the Note 3, but unfortunately, the technology is still not mature enough to be used on tablets, so the Note 10.1’s display is still an LCD. It’s a great LCD however, and we found little to complain about in our time with the tablet – games and media are pleasantly colorful, text is as crisp as you’d expect from such a high definition device, and brightness and viewing angles are adequate.
An added benefit of the intense colors of the display is the fact that they suit TouchWiz very well. And, with the S Pen at your disposal, it’s a joy to use the Note 10.1 as a large canvas for graphic work, especially with apps like the Autodesk-made Sketchbook, which comes preloaded on the device.
Performance and hardware
Samsung didn’t cut any corners with the hardware of the Galaxy Note 10.1 Edition — you get most of the components powering the Note 3, with the notable exception of some sensors.
We tested the Exynos 5420 version of the Note 10.1; the 5420 is a refreshed version of the original octa-core processor that debuted on the Galaxy S4, offering higher speeds and an improved GPU in the Mali T-628. With all those pixels to drive, the processor and the 3GB of RAM on the Note 10.1 are generally up to snuff.
However, don’t expect to see the buttery smooth functioning you get on the Snapdragon 800 Note 3. While the Note 10.1 obtains a comparable score in benchmarks, in our experience, it didn’t work as fluidly as its smaller sibling. In some games, such as Dead Trigger 2 on high quality settings, the tablet showed a discernible stutter, although it wasn’t bad enough to ruin the gaming experience. You’ll be able to get every task you set your mind to with the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, for sure, but for some reason, smoothness is still not perfect.
Unlike the Note 3, the new Note 10.1 doesn’t feature a proximity sensor, so you won’t get to preview galleries or messages by hovering your finger close to the tablet’s screen. You’ll still be able to do that, and a bunch of other things, using the S Pen, though.
Media hoarders should be happy about the microSD card slot that lets you add up to 64GB of space to the 16GB or 32GB of built-in flash memory.
A surprising highlight of our experience is the dual speaker setup, that outputs better sound that many devices, and definitely than most tablets. The speakers are located on the tablet’s sides, so they’re neither an eyesore, nor susceptible to muffling like it happens with speakers located on a device’s rear. The Note 10.1’s speakers give crisp and quite rich sound, and even let through a bit of direction information, which is useful when you play 3D games and a zombie or what not is creeping behind you.
Samsung rates the 8220 mAh battery on the Note 10.1 2014 Edition for nine hours of usage. In our experience, about 90 minutes of heavy usage including 45 minutes of Dead Trigger 2 sapped 20 percent of the battery life, which hopefully means that light users will get more than the nine hours that Samsung promised.
When we review tablets, we generally gloss over cameras, simply because there’s not much good stuff to talk about. The Note 10.1 is a bit of an exception, we’re happy to report, though you shouldn’t set your expectations too high.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition features an 8MP rear camera with autofocus and LED flash, as well as a 2MP shooter on the front. The camera app itself is pretty basic when compared to the implementations on the Note 3 and S4, but you still get some interesting features such as Drama Shot and Eraser.
In terms of picture quality, the Note 10.1 2014 Edition does respectably – colors are vivid and images are crisp, though low-light performance is, as you’d imagine, not that good. For a tablet, quality is quite impressive, and we even joked that it’s almost good enough to make taking pics with tablets less ridiculous. Overall, the image quality on the Note 10.1 is somewhere between the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy S4, and definitely good enough to serve as a trusty backup shooter.
Much ink has been spilled over the pros and cons of TouchWiz, Samsung’s proprietary implementation of Android. With all its flaws, we think that TouchWiz looks best on larger displays, where its over-the-top vibe has room to breathe. If you’re familiar with TouchWiz from other Samsung devices you’ll feel right at home on the Note 10.1 2014 Edition, though Samsung did make some changes here and there. Not all of them are inspired; for instance, the notification shade looks exactly like the shade from smartphones blown-up to the dimension of a tablet. The result is rather awkward.
But TouchWiz has its strongpoints, and among them, MultiWindow is probably the most compelling. This multitasking implementation allows users to divide the screen into two parts and open up different apps in each one. Samsung added the ability to share data between the apps by dragging and dropping, as well as to open the same app in the two windows.
The new S Pen apps that Samsung baked into the Note 3 also make an appearance on the Note 10.1, starting with the Air Command palette menu, which puts the five most important functions of the S Pen at the tip of your stylus. From them, we were especially impressed with Action Memo, which lets you complete many contextual tasks starting from handwritten notes, and S Finder, a search tool that is able to index your handwritten notes. We take a good look at the S Pen apps on the Note 3 and 10.1 in this Feature Focus post.
Price and final thoughts
The new Note 10.1 is one of the more expensive Android tablets, with the base model starting from $599. If you’re looking for a high-end, feature-rich tablet with a stylus, the premium may be justified, though with competitors available for far less, the Note 10.1 may be a hard sell for some users.
Clearly, the S Pen and its apps are the highlight of the Note 10.1, but the device is an excellent Android tablet even without the stylus. It offers high performance, a wonderful screen, great build quality, and an above average camera. It’s a device that can play many roles, for work and for play. It’s not without issues – the UI needs some polish, the button setup is awkward, and functioning isn’t as smooth as it could be – but when you draw the bottom line, the Note 10.1 2014 Edition is still one of the very best Android tablets on the market.