Performance and Horsepower
Samsung's Exynos processors have serious geek cred for being extremely fast. Last year's dual core Exynos CPUs with Mali graphics were some of the fastest on the market, and we're glad Samsung waited for the quad core Exynos 4412 to roll out the Note 10.1. This is a very fast CPU with very strong Mali 400 graphics. The 1.4GHz quad core CPU with 2 gigs vs. the usual 1 gig of RAM plowed through every demanding 3D game we tested including Tegra Zone games. You'll miss out on graphical enhancements for Nvidia Tegra 3 devices, but so far those have been minor eye candy like water splashing effects on the screen vs. more serious gaming improvements.
The quad core Exynos does extremely well on synthetic benchmarks and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 scored an all time high in Quadrant, AnTuTu and Sunspider benchmarks for stock tablets (no overclocking or tweaks). Samsung's unique side-by-side window function, floating video player and multitasking enhancements really show off the power of the hardware and Samsung's software optimizations. The tablet is one of the fastest and most fluid Android tablets we've tested (and we review them all). Better yet, it stays fast and stable with several apps running. We've yet to see any wait/force close error messages that are common on Asus tablets, and Samsung's fast flash storage likely helps with this. Is the Galaxy Note 10.1 perfect? No, like all Android tablets, it benefits from an occasional reboot to clear out memory. But it holds its own against the New iPad that has copious UI software enhancements to make the tablet feel more responsive. I can't wait to see what the Note 10.1 is like with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and its "Project Butter" speed improvements. Samsung has stated the Galaxy Note 10.1 will get Jelly Bean this year. Thanks to Samsung's less than speedy OS update track record, I don't expect to see it appear very quickly though. Asus still wins for fast OS updates, though as of this writing only 1 model (the Transformer TF300) has gotten Jelly Bean. Given Asus' history and the fact that they made the Nexus 7 for Google (the first device to ship with Jelly Bean) I'd expect the TF700 and Transformer Prime TF201 updates will follow soon.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is available with 16 or 32 gigs of storage (currently the white model is available only with 16 gigs) and it has a microSD card slot that's compatible with SDXC cards up to 64 gigs. Note that SDXC cards often come formatted ExFAT, and the Samsung released a small bug fix firmware Aug. 23, 2012 that also added ExFAT support.
The tablet supports USB host using Samsung's $20 dongle adapter that plugs into the sync port. There are third party USB host (also called USB OTG) adapters on the market as well. We tested the tablet with the Samsung adapter and it worked with USB flash drives and portable hard drives formatted FAT32, USB keyboards and game controllers. Android lacks support for USB 3G modems.
S Pen and Apps for the Pen
The Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone's S Pen works with the tablet, and the tablet's pen works with the phone, though they won't fit in each other's silos. My Wacom pens for the Intuos didn't work but my generic Windows tablet Wacom pen worked (Wacom Bamboo compatible), though it occasionally skipped. The included S Pen lives in a silo at the bottom right corner. It's beefier than the skinny pen included with the Note phone and is easier and more comfortable to hold and use for extended drawing and writing sessions.
Pen applications on Android are still in their infancy. Unlike Windows tablets that excel at pen input while often faltering with capacitive touch (there are some exceptions like the excellent Samsung Series 9 Tablet), Android does better with touch. There's a strong handful of active pen aware apps, from Alias Sketchbook Pro, Photoshop Touch, LectureNotes, Papyrus, Infinite Painter and A Note HD that are pen aware and some even offer decent palm rejection. Samsung bundles Photoshop Touch that normally sells for $9.99 on the Google Play Store and Kno.com Textbooks. And there's Samsung's own S Note, also found on the Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone.
S Note is your one stop note-taking and basic drawing application that offers ink notes as well as handwriting recognition and formula recognition. The app isn't perfect. The UI is quirky and controls aren't as intuitive as we'd like, but once you learn them, you'll be using recognition, ink, embedded voice notes and images easily. Formula recognition and solving was impressive in our tests and requires an Internet connection since the feature uses Wolfram Alpha's servers to do the heavy lifting. Handwriting recognition, even with my terrible left-handed scrawl worked well as long as I wrote a sentence at a time. If you pause after each word, the app will join words together without spaces, which is odd and not what most users want. If you write a paragraph extremely quickly, it might not keep up. It's not as good as Windows 7's mature and impressive handwriting recognition, but it's a very good and usable start. Sadly, there's no handwriting recognition for previously inked notes: you must put the app in handwriting recognition mode before you begin writing if you want conversion.
Though S Note is geared toward rich note creation, it's also a decent sketching app for drawings and digital paintings with several tools, line width and color selection features. I was able to create fairly good art using S Note, though it can't come close to competing with Corel Painter in Windows. Like the Note phone, there's a shape smoothing feature so your circles and squares look perfect.
For those who wish to takes notes while viewing a web page, email or video, Samsung's side-by-side app mode is handy. You can have two apps running side-by-side and the tablet offers this feature for S Note, the standard Android web browser, Samsung's video player, Polaris Office, email and Gallery.
The pen works everywhere as a pointing device (talk about precision in Angry Birds!) since Android 4.0 has pen support. Inking isn't universal however. Pen oriented apps like the third party art and note taking apps support inking, as does Polaris Office for annotation and Adobe Reader allows you to annotate and sign PDFs.
Samsung Software, Goodies from the Samsung Galaxy S III
Samsung created a lot of custom software for the Galaxy S III smartphone, and we're happy to see it's on the Note 10.1 too. We have the floating video player than can play an HD video in a small resizeable window anywhere. The Exynos really shines here and the tablet doesn't bog down when we had a video playing in a window on top of the desktop, web browser or email.
SmartStay uses the camera to watch for a face so the display won't turn off if you're looking at the tablet. It works well, and if you turn your head away the tablet will turn off (you really need to look directly at the tablet). Buddy Photo Share uses facial recognition to identify friends and it can send them photos of themselves that you've taken automatically.
Samsung's Media Hub (rent or buy movies and TV shows), Samsung App Store (great for finding pen-centric apps), My Files file manager and Video Maker are here as well. Samsung adds quite a few codecs to support popular video formats like DivX, WMV, AVI, MKV and FLV formats up to 1080p resolution.
Peel AV Remote
Samsung includes an IR blaster and the Peel AV Remote app in their recent tablets, and it's here on the Note 10.1 as well. The IR in combination with Peel can control your TV, AV Receiver and cable TV box. Setup is straightforward and simple, and we had it controlling our Samsung HD TV (older model), Sony AV receiver and Motorola/Time Warner cable box in minutes. Peel is a content discovery oriented app that highlights programming in your preferred categories that's on now. It lacks the more pedestrian TV Guide style grid, and we missed that feature. Should you discover a show that you want to watch, tap on it and Peel will switch your inputs and channel to bring up the TV show.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 has a 7,000 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's sealed inside. That's a high capacity battery, but we haven't gotten exceptionally long runtimes. That said, after a few charging cycles, the Samsung managed runtimes that are comparable to Tegra 3 tablets that have a low power fifth companion core that reduces battery consumption. Runtimes rivaled that of our Asus Transformer Pad TF700 tablet (not with the optional keyboard dock that houses a secondary battery) and the Tegra 3 powered Toshiba Excite 10. Given the New iPad's lack of runtime improvement over the iPad 2 due to increased backlight consumption, runtimes on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 have been competitive with Apple's flagship tablet. We managed 7 hours of Netflix streaming video playback with the Note 10.1, and mixed productivity use has been solid at 8+ hours. For most folks, that will translate into 3 days of mixed productivity use.
Standby times are particularly impressive, as with other Galaxy Tablets. Overnight on standby, the tablet used just 1 to 2 percent power.
Samsung hasn't disappointed us with their new flagship tablet. The Galaxy Note 10.1 has everything we wish for in a tablet except a full HD display: a bright and sharp display, active pen input, an excellent software bundle with customizations that improve usability, dual band WiFi, an AV remote and more. Though the casing is plastic, fit, finish and quality (including the internal hardware design) are excellent. The tablet is very fast, the multi-tasking features make the Note 10.1 stand out among the sea of Android tablets and even the iPad. Unless you've got your heart set on a full HD display or need the laptop-style keyboard dock, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is an excellent choice.
Price: $499 for 16 gigs, $549 for 32 gigs
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Matched set: the Galaxy Note 10.1 and Samsung Galaxy S III.
The Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.