Samsung's Galaxy Note line of smartphones has been a runaway hit, with sales figures exceeding 40 million to date. The commercial success of the Note proved two things: people want bigger screens and at least like the idea of using a stylus on a mobile device.
The Korean giant is hoping to recreate the same magic in the tablet space with the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition.
Samsung's pricing strategy is also an interesting one, with the barrier of entry set at $649, making it $50 more expensive than Apple's iPad Air. But are the extra dollars worth it?
Powerful internals marred by poor design
Previous Samsung tablets have been disappointingly underpowered when compared to the company's power-packed smartphone line-up, but the company hasn't repeated the same mistake here.
The Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition packs some serious hardware led by a razor-sharp 10.1-inch 2560 x 1600 WQXGA resolution LCD display at 299 PPI (pixels per inch). The LCD panel doesn't quite produce the deep blacks of AMOLED displays and the colour accuracy was a bit off with a slight yellow cast to whites.
That said, viewing movies and browsing the web looked great on the pixel dense display.
Nuts and bolts
Under the hood is a Snapdragon 800 quad-core 2.3GHz processor with 3GB of RAM.
It's worth noting that the tablet is limited to 16GB of storage with no higher capacity models available. What's worse is that the OS takes up over 4GB of space, effectively leaving less than 11GB of usable storage. While storage can be expanded via a microSD card slot, it's no substitute for having a larger pool of internal storage.
The reality is that some apps and almost all purchased content such as movies and music cannot be stored or moved to the microSD card which means it won't take long before you start to feel the storage pinch.
Storage issues aside, the 2014 Edition is without question the most powerful Android tablet currently on the market and it's also one of the thinnest at only 7.9mm thick.
While Samsung nailed the internals, the company continues to struggle in producing a premium-feeling product.
Samsung has adopted the Galaxy Note 3 design manual from its bigger sibling, complete with a faux-leather back and all-round plastic build. Even the ridged silver sides that look like metal are plastic. The overall design lacks class so there’s no premium build to go along with that premium price tag.
In more practical terms, it's light for a 10.1-inch tablet at only 540 grams but still heavier than the iPad Air. It's not quite light enough to use one-handed and the device feels awkward to hold in anything but landscape orientation. The placement of the soft keys and orientation of the logo reinforce the two-handed landscape nature of the device.
The S Pen shines
The excellent S Pen-centric features from the Note 3 have been brought across to the tablet and it truly shines on the larger 10.1-inch display.
I always felt the screen size on the Note smartphones was a bit too small for it to be an effective note-taking device but no such problems here. The larger screen real estate combined with just the right amount of resistance from the S Pen stylus goes a long way in replicating the feel of writing on an A4 piece of paper.
Similarly, other key features such as running two apps simultaneously in multi-window mode scale much better on the larger display.
Stylus basics such as pressure sensitivity and palm rejection have been executed well and it makes the 2014 edition not only great for note-taking but rather handy for creative output such as drawing.
The key functions of the S Pen can be accessed quickly via a shortcut-style pop-up menu called "Air Command" which appears whenever the stylus is removed from its holster.
Action memo intelligently turns your handwritten scribbles into actionable items – for example, jotting down a phone number will give you the option to save to contacts whereas scribbling down an address will give you the option to bring up the directions in Google Maps. It's a handy time-saving feature that worked well in testing.
Features that work
There’s also a handy search tool known as "S Finder" which not only searches through any handwritten content stored on the device but emails, text messages, contacts, social media posts, voice recordings, tagged images and even web history. All of this is interrogated against the provided search terms. It's a sophisticated search tool and we were impressed at the speed and accuracy of the search results.
"Scrapbook" is essentially Samsung's take on Evernote with the idea of collecting content from any app, web page, image or video using the S Pen and storing it into individualised scrapbook files for later access. The capture capabilities are quite intelligent as it saves not only the area you encircle with the stylus but it also harvests data from the surrounding app or web page to help provide context for various clippings.
"ScreenWrite" performs a screen capture with annotation and sharing options while "Pen Window" can launch applications by simply drawing a window of any size on the screen. The size of the application window is based on the size of the rectangle drawn and you can have up to eight windowed applications open simultaneously.
There's also an improved version of the main note-taking app, S Note, on board with an overhauled interface that is now much easier to use. Other tweaks include the ability to convert hand-drawn charts and figures into formal graphs or formulas, and notes can now be synced to an Evernote account.
For the more artistically inclined, Samsung has pre-installed AutoDesk's SketchBook app which takes full advantage of the S Pen's pressure sensitivity. It's an advanced design application with support for layers, a number of different brush types and plenty of customisation options.
Samsung has been making improvements to the S Pen-infused features over the past couple of years and the level of polish shows. The leap made from the original Note is quite staggering and the handwriting experience really is second to none.
Features that don't
It's a shame then that the rest of Samsung's custom Android OS, TouchWiz, hasn't received that same level of attention.
TouchWiz's lack of cohesiveness is even more glaring when blown up on the larger tablet display with several oversized interface elements aesthetically below par. The design language is inconsistent throughout from the green and grey switches of the drop down notification menu to the blue and black of the S Finder interface.
TouchWiz is also overloaded with poorly implemented features. For example, smart stay, smart scroll and smart rotation are all functions that rely on the front-facing camera's ability to detect the movement of your head and eyes for things like turning off the screen, scrolling web pages or rotating the screen.
The problem is that unless you are in ideal lighting conditions and happen to be holding the tablet at just the right distance, the features fail to work altogether. Then there are downright gimmicky features such as motion control which require you to tilt the tablet in different directions to zoom and pan.
Thankfully, Samsung has at least removed the hand-waving antics of "Air Gesture", a feature which first made its debut on the Galaxy S4.
Slow and sluggish
All of these unnecessary features combined with the unoptimised nature of TouchWiz mean that the 2014 edition is prone to stuttering and at times sluggish performance. Even with 3GB of RAM on board, performing rudimentary tasks such as web browsing, navigating through menus or switching between applications are usually accompanied by some form of performance hiccup.
Not to mention that TouchWiz has been further complicated with duplicate browsers, App stores (Samsung App store versus Google Play Store), video and music (Samsung Hub versus Google Play movies and music). Even the popular news aggregator application, Flipboard, has been confusingly duplicated with My Magazine.
TouchWiz is in desperate need of an overhaul and until Samsung does that it will continue to be perceived as the ugly bloated duckling of the Android world.
If you’re in need of a tablet primarily for productivity and can look past TouchWiz, then the Note 10.1 2014 edition is worth the rather high price of admission. But if you’re not sold on the stylus, then there are better options available.
Krishan Sharma is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and writes for a number of different publications covering business IT and consumer technology.