Has Samsung finally made an iPad-killer?
Samsung has wrestled control of the smartphone market, but it hasn't been as dominant a force in the tablet space. None of the numerous Galaxy Tablet devices have threatened the iPad, which is top of the food chain.
Enter the Galaxy Note 10.1 with the stylus acting as a USP. But is this enough to justify the splashing out £400?
The Note may appear to be a sizeable chunk of hardware, but it weighs in at 540g and is comfortable to hold. The 10in screen size sets it apart from other small tablets like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire models - and it’s positioned as a challenger to the 9.7in iPad Air.
Styling and profiling
Samsung’s S Pen is thinner than your finger and slots out of the back edge. This review was written using the pen and Swype - the experience was quick and few mistakes were made.
The pen works with Samsung's pre-loaded software. S Note lets you save your doodles to Google Drive or Evernote. The Korean firm throws in a free 12 month subscription to Evernote Premium to attract notetakers.
We did love the pen but there are areas where it can be improved. It's possible to swipe through home screen and tap commands but Samsung omitted gestures for home, recent apps, or back. This means you have to hit the physical buttons below the screen with your fingers. We also noticed a split second lag when writing and drawing - it’s not going to provide trouble when taking notes but if you’re carrying out intricate drawings this could become an issue.
Display and performance
For £400 you’d expect top-of-the-range specs and Samsung delivers these. The 10.1in HD screen squeezes in a 2560 x 1600 resolution giving it a pixel density of 298ppi and making it great for multimedia consumption. The LCD panel has a wide viewing angle and renders apps such as Netflix beautifully. The sharp text also makes the Note a good e-reader.
The Note 10.1 is powered by an ARM-based CPU using the firm's latest big.LITTLE technology. It’s got a quad-core big core running at 1.9GHz together with a little core clocked at 1.3GHz. This is backed up by 3GB of RAM - the most we’ve seen in an Android tablet.
The result is sharp performance for tasks like app switching, multitasking and 3D apps. We were disappointed with the Sunspider web browsing benchmark result as we expected the device to load pages faster - but the internet experience remains good due to the big screen.
Other core features include an 8-megapixel camera on the rear - capable of recording in 1080p. On the storage side you've got a choice between 16, 32, or 64GB of internal space. MicroSD card support can boost this by 64GB. The iPad Air is available in a choice of 16, 32, 64 or 128GB varieties but has no physical expansion slots so the Note holds the advantage in this area.
The Note 10.1 ships with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, but there's no timeframe for when it will be upgraded to the KitKat 4.4. Useful pre-loaded apps include Flipboard, Dropbox, TripAdvisor, Knox, WatchOn, Video Editor, S Voice, S Translator, and a basic file manager.
Samsung has built-in features such as the ability to run apps side-by-side via the Multi-window option, but it feels like the firm hasn't taken full advantage of Android's capabilities. Samsung’s notorious Touchwiz overlay makes an appearance and although it's not as overbearing as it was on the Galaxy S4 smartphone, it looks dated.
The notification drawer belongs in a museum and Samsung opts not to use on-screen context sensitive buttons. As mentioned you've got to use the physical hardware keys to go home, back and bring up the menu.
Still, we can't complain too much when Samsung throws in a 12 months to Evernote Premium and a free week’s subscription to The New York Times app.
We can’t fault the build quality, but there are a couple of design quirks which are baffling. The volume keys are awkward to use and feel misplaced. If you use the Note in portrait with the keys on the upper right like 99 per cent of tablets, but volume up and down are reversed. Chalk this up to Samsung wanting you to use this tablet primarily in landscape mode.
The plastic on the front bezel cheapens the looks and we would have preferred something akin to the soft-touch leather found on the back.
Samsung deserves a tip of the hat for fitting all these components into a 7.9mm chassis. There’s even an infrared sensor so you can use the Note as an oversized TV remote.
Battery life is reasonable. We were disappointed that it’s not replaceable - but the 8220mAH pack lasted 10 hours and 31 minutes when we ran our Iron Man test. It placed last in our list of the latest tablets, but we can't mark it down too much as it did break the double digit barrier and it's screen is largest.
The Note starts at £400 for 16GB Wi-Fi edition. You can double this to 32GB for £450, and if want more storage you can invest in a microSD card for £35.
In comparison, you can get an entry-level 16GB Wi-Fi only iPad Air for £400 as well. Increasing storage on the iPad to 32GB raises the price to £480. The top-end 128GB iPad Air costs £640.
So back to the important question - is the Note 10.1 better than the iPad Air?
It’s good, but it’s not quite an iPad killer. The 2014 Note offers smooth performance and is the better device if note taking is a priority. But the iPad Air has 475,000 apps build specifically for its large screen, a better screen and superior battery life.
OS: Android 4.3 with TouchWiz
Processor: Exynos 5 Octa 5420 @ 1.9 GHz
Memory: 3GB RAM
Storage: 16/32/64GB, plus a slot for microSD cards up to 64 GB
Screen: 10.1in Super LCD display (2560 x 1600), 298ppi
Connectivity: Dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
Ports: Micro USB 2.0, 3.5mm headphone jack
Sensors: Accelerometer, proximity sensor, compass, ambient light sensor
Camera: 8MP rear - Autofocus, LED flash, 1080p 30fps video. 2 MP, 1080p 30fps front
Battery: 8220mAh, non-removable
Size: 243 x 171 x 7.9mm