Mobile

Samsung dares to be different with the stylus-toting Galaxy Note 10.1 (hands-on)

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Before you ask, yes, Samsung did make a pretty big deal about the Galaxy Note 10.1 way back in February at Mobile World Congress. But the stylus-equipped Android tablet we’re actually getting is another beast entirely.

Samsung officially unveiled the U.S. version of the Galaxy Note 10.1 at a crowded press event in New York City this morning (after spilling most of the beans a few weeks ago). The device sports a more powerful version of Samsung’s S Pen stylus, which first appeared in the gigantic Galaxy Note smartphone, as well as a bevy of features that aim to differentiate from the crowded (and mostly sad) Android tablet market.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 will be available in stores tomorrow, August 16, starting at $499 for the 16-gigabyte version and $599 for the 32GB variant. The tablet runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and Samsung also confirmed that it will get upgraded to Jelly Bean”sometime this year.”

Samsung almost released the Galaxy Note 10.1 several times this year, but it kept finding new features and tweaks it wanted to implement before it hit the market, company representatives told a small gathering of journalists last week. The Galaxy Note 10.1 is being referred to as Samsung’s “hero product” for 2012, and it’s evident from the constant retooling that the company was desperate to get this tablet right.

On the surface, the Galaxy Note 10.1 doesn’t look much different than the tablet we saw back in February. It still sports a plastic case with metallic accents, and of course, it has a gorgeous 10.1-inch display. But thanks to all of the retooling, the tablet now features a slot for storing the S Pen (just like the Palm Pilots of yore), a 1.4 gigahertz quad-core processor, and 2 gigabytes of RAM.

The tablet will also support an additional 32GB of storage via SD card. Taken as a whole, the Note 10.1′s specs make it seem more like a traditional PC than a mere tablet.

Samsung also implemented some unique new software features, including the ability to run multiple apps on the same screen, which brings a nifty dash of multitasking to the sometimes stale world of single-screen tablet apps, and an intriguing hover mechanic with the stylus, which lets you mimic a desktop computer’s ability to hover the mouse pointer over certain links. Currently only a few apps support Samsung’s Multiscreen technology, but already there’s plenty of productivity potential with it. For example, you can view the Android web browser on one half of the screen, while taking notes in S Note on the other.

Apple has been arguing fiercely in court for the past week that Samsung is nothing but a copycat, but the unique features of the Galaxy Note 10.1 prove Samsung can also put its nose to the grindstone and innovate as well.

To prove just how useful the Galaxy Note 10.1 is, Samsung brought film director Baz Luhrmann on stage. Luhrmann seemed really excited about the tablet (or maybe he was just excited about the paycheck in his wallet) and how it’s changed his workflow. He mentioned that he had to literally cut and paste paper to make storyboards for his hit film Romeo & Juliet, but the Note allows him to do much of that work digitally for his next project, The Great Gatsby.

Samsung showed off the Galaxy Note 10.1′s GroupCast feature in a demo with the press, which lets you collaborate on a presentation in real-time with other Galaxy Note tablets. (Much like the group sharing features on the Galaxy S III, GroupCast is really only useful if you’re surrounded by identical Samsung devices, fat chance of that.)

We also saw how Adobe’s PhotoShop Touch app can take advantage of the S Pen’s 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. Photoshop Touch will be pre-loaded on the Galaxy Note 10.1, and it’ll work together with your existing Photoshop files on Adobe’s Creative Cloud service.

I had a brief amount of hands-on time with the Galaxy Note 10.1, and I still echo my sentiment from back in February: this is what the S Pen was made for. The larger screen makes handwriting much more intuitive than on the Galaxy Note phone, and there’s a noticeably better level of response too with the new stylus. And thanks to the Note 10.1′s speedy processor and RAM, nothing seems to slow the tablet down, something that will be particularly important for app multitasking.

While Samsung’s tablets in the past have been among the best Android had to offer, they still felt restricted by Google’s seeming inability to comprehend the tablet market. There still aren’t many great Android tablet apps out there, but the custom tweaks that Samsung has made with the Galaxy Note 10.1 more than make up for Android’s other tablet deficiencies.

While it hasn’t displaced the Nexus 7 as my favorite Android tablet (and the only one mainstream consumers should consider buying), the Galaxy Note 10.1 could be a dream device for consumers who can take advantage of the S Pen.

Look for my full review of the Galaxy Note 10.1 soon.

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