Samsung's sprawling 5.3-inch Galaxy Note strained the definitions of what a smart phone is -- not to mention our thumb joints -- when it landed in November 2011. Despite a gorgeous screen, the handset didn't blow us away.
To try to make it the big hitter Samsung clearly believes it is, it's been super-duper-sized and kitted out with a burly quad-core processor and a whopping 2GB of RAM. The Note has overcome its split smart-phone-or-tablet identity crisis and bulked up to scrap it out with the 10-inch tablet heavyweights.
The original Galaxy Note was primarily designed to be a smart phone which, given its 5.3-inch size, we all thought was a joke. It certainly blurred the line between a phone and tablet to the point of ludicrousness.
The Note 10.1 might share the same name, but there's no confusion over in which camp this new chap stands -- at 10.1-inches, it's unmistakably a tablet, so you're going to look particularly foolish clutching it to the side of your face. The only reason to do that would be if you're using your facial hair to remove a stubborn grease mark from the screen.
The Note 10.1 borrows nearly all of its looks from Samsung's own Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. Both slates are the same size and both have slightly extra space to the left and right of the screen (when held horizontally). It isn't the most luxurious of designs and I don't think it will be troubling the iPad's edge-to-edge glass front in the style stakes. Still, the bezel's hardly an eyesore and at least there's space to house front-facing speakers.
Around the back is a large expanse of white plastic that's been given a pearlescent sheen to stop it from being too boring. Sadly, this panel feels rather cheap and easily picks up dirt and scuffs, quickly turning your shiny new slate into a grubby paving slab. It doesn't offer much flex, so it feels like it could take the odd bump inside a bag, but I wouldn't advise carrying it too far without a decent amount of padding.
The chief difference between this Note and the Tab 2 10.1 is that the Note also comes with a stylus for writing or doodling on the screen. It fits securely in the bottom right of the tablet, which is a slightly awkward place to put it as it's easy to drop when you're removing it. You can't get it out if the tablet is sat in a docking station either.
The Note 10.1 measures 8.9mm thick, which is par for the course for most 10-inch slates, as is its 600g weight -- the iPad comes in at a slightly heavier 635g. If you already own a tablet like an iPad or Samsung's earlier Galaxy Tab, then you won't struggle to carry it around and it should fit snugly in any sleeves or bags you already own.
Around the edges you'll find a power button, a volume rocker, a microSD card slot (for expanding the internal 16GB of storage), a 3.5mm headphone jack and a dock connector. Annoyingly, there's no micro-USB slot, so if you ever want to transfer files to and from your tablet, you're going to need to make sure you have the dedicated cable with you. Woe betide you if you lose that cable -- it gives the Note power as well as data so it would be rendered useless.
S Pen stylus
What separates the Note from the raft of other full-size tablets is the addition of a stylus. The ability to scribble like a toddler after a triple espresso will no doubt draw the eye of creative artsy types who want a digital canvas for their sketches, notes and designs. It'll also come in handy if you own a toddler (with or without espresso, your choice), as they can use the S Pen -- or their finger if it's clean -- to doodle to their heart's content. Your days of worrying over felt-tipped pens making their way onto your wallpaper could be over.
The pen's been redesigned since the original Note, with the bigger tablet size affording a longer, thicker stylus. The squared-off sides will prevent it from rolling down the side of your desk to be lost forever in a tangle of cables, fluff and 2p pieces. The button on it has also received some grooves, to make it easier to find -- although it's also easier to press by mistake.
I was impressed with the accuracy of the lines I was able to draw on the screen, helped by the very narrow point of the stylus. Some styluses designed to work with capacitive touchscreens have quite fat, spongy tips, which reduce accuracy. But the S Pen is more akin to a Biro, making it very easy to quickly sketch or doodle aimlessly while on the phone to your parents.
Samsung reckons the stylus can recognise 1,024 levels of pressure, which is a significant improvement over the 256 levels the original Note's stylus could detect. Having said that though, I can't really say I noticed a benefit of having 1,024 levels. When sketching and shading in Photoshop Touch, I could perhaps visually identify 10 different shade strengths.
The screen is also apparently able to tell when your palm is pressed on the screen when you're busy sketching with the S Pen. I found this to be somewhat hit and miss, with my doodles going sometimes uninterrupted and awkward blotches appearing on my beautiful artwork on other occasions.
If you dive into the settings, you can configure a bunch of apps like S Note, Polaris Office or PS Touch to load up automatically when you take the stylus out. That could save you valuable seconds when you absolutely must sketch something as quickly as possible.
The S Pen improves precision in certain apps and can speed up note taking. But if you prefer typing out missives, it doesn't offer any real benefit. In day-to-day tablet use, jabbing away with your finger will prove better. Unless you have a pressing need for an electronic pen, such as if you're an architect or artist who regularly sketches, the S Pen is not enough reason in itself to buy the Note over other tablets.
Still, Samsung's bundled in some decent doodling software. An app called S Note lets you join images and videos together with your own scrawlings to make your memos that bit more artistic, although the clunky interface and obscure icons are not the easiest to figure out. It's not even clear how to open a blank sheet of paper and the pre-saved S Note document entitled 'S Note Tips' is a one-page document with the single instruction of 'Tap a template and begin'. Super helpful.
The gem for the artsy types will no doubt be the aforementioned Adobe Photoshop Touch -- a pared-down version of Photoshop that includes layers and some effects. It's relatively easy to open existing images to draw over or simply open a blank document for sketching. There's a lot more functionality here than just the basic crop and rotate tools found on Photoshop Express on phones.
Unfortunately, not every app uses the S Pen as you'd hope. S Note and Photoshop Touch make best use of the technology, but the Email app doesn't allow you to write emails with the pen, only to draw in the body of the email, which is a big oversight.
The purpose of the S Pen is to offer an alternative to digit prodding. While the stylus feels fine for navigating menus and swiping through pages, when it comes to typing, you'll almost certainly feel more comfortable using both hands with the on-screen keyboard. If you're going to be hacking through some long emails, you might be better off looking at the Asus Transformer Infinity, with its handy keyboard dock.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
The Note 10.1 arrives running Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest-but-one version of Android. ICS, or Android 4.0 if you prefer, brings a slew of features and interface tweaks to Google's mobile operating system. Oh, and the nifty ability to unlock your device using your face. It's recently been superseded by Android 4.1 Jelly Bean though.
While Samsung reckons the Note will get a Jelly Bean update by the end of the year, if you're after the very latest software out of the box, you won't be best impressed -- and Samsung doesn't have a shining track record when it comes to bringing updates to its devices.
Despite this, ICS is still a slick operating system. Having Android on your tablet grants you access to Google Play, which is crammed full of apps to download. The Note also features Samsung's TouchWiz interface -- familiar to anyone who's used Samsung devices -- that's been toned down with a quieter aesthetic. It offers a mini apps tray that now supports limited customisation, allowing you to swap out apps from the tray.
Samsung has bundled some of its own apps too like its music, video and games hubs, which you might find useful if you're a serial media addict. For the most part though, you're more likely to stick to Google's Play for books, films, apps and games.
A useful feature Samsung's added is the ability to run apps side-by-side on screen. It's effectively the same as the window 'snapping' feature in Windows 7 and works pretty well on a 10.1-inch space. Multi-tasking is given a boost because of this, although the list of supported apps is pretty short -- limited to just six -- so it's questionable as to how useful it will be.
I was able to simultaneously look at the web browser and photos in the gallery and you can do the same with videos (although not using YouTube). Hopefully, more apps will allow for this functionality.
There's also a feature called Pop Up Play, which lets you playback videos in a small, adjustable window, while you carry on operating the tablet as normal. I found this worked pretty well and it's a handy way of checking your email, without having to miss a moment of your film. It's already in use on the Samsung Galaxy S3, so if you've found it useful there, odds are you will on the Note.
The Note 10.1 has -- you'll be shocked to learn -- a 10.1-inch screen, shovelling in a fair 1,280x800 pixels. While that resolution will do the trick for most purposes, recent Android tablets like the Asus Transformer Infinity and Acer Iconia Tab A700 trounce it with sharper 1,920x1,200-pixel resolutions. If it's really intended to appeal to creative types with a focus on images, a higher resolution would have been particularly welcome here -- especially since the iPad crams in 2,048x1,536 pixels.
The screen is still pretty sharp, with the flurries of snow in my favourite YouTube clip displayed well. Some icons can look a little rough around the edges though, and small text on web pages isn't always as sharp as it could be, which might make reading for longer periods uncomfortable.
Still, it's at least very bright and rather bold too, with colours that stand out well and satisfyingly deep blacks. If you're keen on your movies and regularly spend evenings sitting around watching YouTube clips, you'll be satisfied.
Inside that slim white jacket is a quad-core processor clocked at a meaty 1.4GHz, along with a very impressive 2GB of RAM. The most RAM I've come across in a tablet so far is only 1GB, so I was very keen to see what it was capable of.
To begin, I booted up the Geekbench benchmark test and was very impressed at the 1,828 score it achieved. By comparison, the Toshiba AT300, which also packs in a quad-core chip, managed just 1,400 on the same test and I found that slate to be extremely competent.
In fact, the only tablet that's produced a better score than that is the Asus Transformer Infinity, which totalled a little over 1,900 (the best score I've ever seen on an Android tablet). In practice, I wouldn't think you'd ever notice the difference. The Note performed similarly well on the Quadrant benchmark, scoring 5,422, casually beating the powerhouse HTC One X's 4,500.
It's not just about straight-line power though. That 2GB of RAM will lend a serious hand when it comes to multi-tasking. Considering the Note has multi-tasking features like split-screen and Pop Up Play, it's really going to be putting that RAM to good use. Indeed, I found it remained very responsive to my swipes and pokes, even when watching a video at the same time.
That RAM also helps the tablet switch effortlessly between open apps, although I did notice that swiping through pages and some menus wasn't as buttery smooth as I'd like. The 7-inch Google Nexus 7 packs a quad-core chip too, and although it achieved a slightly lesser score on the benchmarks, the Jelly Bean software on board does some wizardry with the frame rates, making everything seem much more fluid.
That power under the hood helps the Note with gaming. It doesn't use the Nvidia Tegra 3 chip found on tablets like the Toshiba AT300 or Nexus 7, which means some glossy titles like Six-Guns aren't available, but there's still an ever-expanding line-up on the Google Play store designed for dedicated gamers.
I tried out the zombie shooter Dead Trigger and was pleased with the smooth gameplay. The tablet's reproduced the demanding graphics without so much as a hiccup.
Around the back is a 5-megapixel camera, which is a step up from the 3-megapixel efforts on previous Tabs. The results from the camera are pretty much what I'd expect from most tablets. The images are fairly sharp but aren't particularly vivid. I've seen better results from the Transformer Infinity and the iPad, but there's not a huge amount in it.
It's certainly good enough for a Twitter update (no doubt with some artsy Instagram filter applied), but you're unlikely to want to take it anywhere for proper photography -- and given that it's a big tablet, not a camera, that's to be expected.
You'll spy a 1.9-megapixel snapper on the front too, which should make you look good on video calls, or make you look ridiculous as you pose for a Myspace-style self portrait.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1's screen resolution may be trounced by the iPad, but it features a powerful quad-core processor and the S Pen sylus will appeal to creative types. Even if you have no use for the pen, the Note 10.1's fast overall performance, sensible design, decent screen and useful features make it the best 10-inch Samsung tablet yet.
However, the potential of the S Pen is not fully mined here, and unless you have a specific purpose for it such as regular sketching, its usefulness is arguably limited. If you're looking for a powerful 10-inch tablet, it's definitely worth considering. But if you hanker after the latest Android software and want to save yourself a couple of hundred quid, the Google Nexus 7 offers a similar helping of power, albeit from a smaller body.
Editor's note, 21 August: This review previously featured a score of three and a half stars, based on CNET.com's review in the US, which had access to the Note prior to it arriving in the UK. Andy Hoyle has since spent time with the tablet and has updated the score and comments based on his experiences.