Mobile

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1: When trying too hard goes wrong (review)

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Samsung’s latest tablet, the Galaxy Note 10.1, has just about everything you’d want, as well as many things you’d never even think to ask for. But while its theoretically an impressive device, the Note 10.1 is a good example of why cramming in too much hardware and features without a cohesive direction can lead to disaster.

If you couldn’t tell by the name alone, the Note 10.1 is what happens when you marry Samsung’s Galaxy Note smartphone (which has sold surprisingly well despite its bulky 5.3-inch size) with its Galaxy Tab slates. The Note 10.1’s key feature is the S Pen stylus, a radically improved version of the one found with the Galaxy Note, which lets you treat the tablet like a piece of digital paper for scribbling notes and drawings.

With the S Pen and clever multitasking capabilities, Samsung is hoping to elevate the Note 10.1 beyond its tablet trappings and position it as a true productivity device. That’s smart: A common complaint with tablets is that they’re great for consuming media, but without a keyboard, they’re not that useful for doing actual work. But for all of its effort, Samsung has ended up crafting a tablet that could actually make it more difficult for you to get things done.

The Good: It dares to be different

The best thing about the Galaxy Note 10.1 is more conceptual than an actual feature. After being assaulted by dozens of similar Android tablets over the past few years (the Nexus 7 is the only one I’d ever recommend, unless I don’t like you very much), it’s nice to see Samsung actually trying to do something different with this one. Samsung’s vision may not have been entirely successful, but like Ridley Scott’s pretty-but-dumb movie Prometheus this summer, you can at least appreciate the effort.

Even though the Galaxy Note 10.1 was officially unveiled in the U.S. last week, we first saw it back at Mobile World Congress in February. Samsung representatives told VentureBeat that it almost released the Note 10.1 several times this year, but constant retooling held the tablet back. Since February, Samsung has added a slot to hold the S Pen stylus at the bottom of the device (a useful feature, but one that really should have been there since the beginning), and the capability to multitask apps by running them side-by-side.

Samsung was clearly desperate to get this tablet right. Ultimately, we see more desperation than success from the Galaxy Note 10.1, but I’m hoping that Samsung will eventually refine some of the interesting features in this tablet. For one, running apps side-by-side is actually useful on a tablet: You could, for example, browse the web and jot down notes at the same time. But Samsung only offers the feature with a few apps on the Note 10.1, and occasional slowdowns make it a chore. I’m impatient for the day when we can multitask on a tablet as easily as PCs (or at least some PCs), but it looks like I’ll have to wait a bit longer.

I found the S Pen to be an interesting curiosity in the original Galaxy Note, a phone that’s so dorky I couldn’t help but dig it. The stylus is even more useful on the larger tablet screen, since your hand can rest more naturally and you have more room on which to scribble. With 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity and Wacom technology (beloved by digital artists), the S Pen is by far the most powerful tablet stylus we’ve seen. Handwriting feels more accurate than that of the original Galaxy Note, and I have a feeling that artists will love the S Pen’s flexibility when it comes to drawing and manipulating images with the bundled Photoshop Touch app.

Samsung also added some additional functionality to its S Note software: Now you can draw shapes and write mathematical equations within the app, and they’ll be translated into cleaner versions that look like they were created on a computer.

With all of those improvements, it’s just too bad that Samsung’s Android tweaks hold the S Pen back.

The bad: Just about everything else

The Galaxy Note 10.1 sports a gorgeous 10-inch screen and some blazing fast hardware, including a quad-core 1.4 gigahertz Exynos processor and 2GBs of RAM, and yet the tablet inexplicably feels slow when performing simple tasks. It’s sometimes sluggish when moving between home screens or switching between apps, and it’s particularly problematic when you try to run two apps side-by side.

You can blame Samsung’s TouchWiz software for those issues, which rests atop the Note 10.1’s Android 4.0 operating system. TouchWiz was one of the few glaring issues with the Galaxy S III smartphone, but Samsung is clearly too eager to put its stamp on Android instead of slimming down its software. Not only does TouchWiz make the Note 10.1 occasionally slow, it sometimes gets in the way of the S Pen, which is supposed to be the tablet’s core feature.

Samsung could potentially offer some software updates that makes TouchWiz perform better, and it might improve the Note 10.1’s speed when it upgrades the tablet to Android 4.1, but that’s a long shot. From what we’ve seen in the past, Samsung doesn’t move very quickly with Android updates, and I haven’t seen TouchWiz performance get better over time on any other Samsung devices.

While Samsung touts the tablet as a productivity machine, the speed issues actually make it more difficult to get work done than on Apple’s iPad, which has no stylus and lacks side-by-side app multitasking. It’s particularly disappointing given that the Note 10.1 has more than enough hardware to be speedy. Instead, it’s betrayed by sloppy software.

The Galaxy Note 10.1’s speed issues are even more troubling after the release of the $200 Nexus 7, which offers the fastest Android tablet experience we’ve ever seen. Given that the Note 10.1 is priced the same as the iPad, starting at $499 for the 16GB version, and sports some of the most impressive hardware in a mobile device, there’s just no excuse for not being as fast as a tablet less than half its price.

For $499, the Note 10.1 also feels surprisingly cheap, thanks to Samsung’s love of glossy plastic cases. The rear of the device feels shockingly flexible, and the glossy material is also a terrible fingerprint magnet. Again, the Nexus 7 beats the Note 10.1 on this. The Nexus 7 just feels like a more expensive and luxurious device, which is simply inexcusable for Samsung.

The verdict: The biggest tablet disappointment of the year

Ultimately, the Galaxy Note 10.1 feels like a hodgepodge of great ideas mixed in with plenty of bad ones. It’s almost as if there was no one at Samsung who could simply say “no” to the pile-on of features. In its attempt to create a powerful multitasking tablet, Samsung has created a monster.

I’m notoriously cynical about tablets, especially those of the Android variety. At this point, I’ve grown numb to the “me too” Android tablets, which generally offer nothing unique to differentiate themselves from the competition. But the Galaxy Note 10.1 is an even bigger disappointment to me because Samsung actually tried to be innovative — it just missed the mark by a mile.

There was plenty of promise in bringing the S Pen to a tablet, but the Galaxy Note 10.1 unfortunately fails to live up to that because it’s ultimately not a very good tablet. No amount of extra accessories, however useful, will fix that.

I’m hoping this isn’t the end of the S Pen. Samsung should keep refining the technology and continue to feature it in upcoming devices (the Galaxy Note II is expected to debut next month). The company has hit on an interesting concept, it just needs to get the execution down.

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