Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 review: Testing the stylus-toting tablet

Samsung's new tablet is all about the S Pen -- but is a standout stylus enough to make this a winner?

Too many devices these days suffer from Yet Another Android Tablet Syndrome: They're OK but unremarkable -- and in a sea of similar-looking slates, they end up blending into the pack and drowning in obscurity.

With its new Galaxy Note 10.1, Samsung is fighting to avoid that fate. The Galaxy Note 10.1, announced initially in February and then introduced to the market last week, relies on a stylus -- an S Pen, as Samsung calls it -- to provide distinctive features. The product builds upon the concept introduced with the company's 5.3-in. Galaxy Note phone -- a device that, despite initial skepticism, has sold 10 million units worldwide, according to Samsung's recent estimates.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Samsung's latest Android tablet: The Galaxy Note 10.1.

So does the new Note 10.1 deliver? I've been using the tablet extensively for the past several days to find out. After all, the Android tablet market is a crowded space, and top-notch tablet experiences are now available for as little as $200. The mere presence of a 10-in. screen is no longer enough; if Samsung expects people to drop $500 to $550 for a 16GB or 32GB tablet, respectively, it had better be a fantastic product to use.

Body and display

I won't beat around the bush: The Galaxy Note 10.1 doesn't make the best first impression. The tablet -- which is 0.35 in. thick and weighs 1.3 lb. -- feels plasticky and cheap, more like a budget product than a premium device. The rear casing flexes with the slightest bit of pressure from your fingertips. Compared to the impressively sleek tablets available at the same price, like Asus's Transformer Pad Infinity, for example, the Galaxy Note 10.1 has an almost toy-like build.

The body, unfortunately, isn't the only thing about the Note 10.1 that underwhelms. The tablet's 1280 x 800 LCD screen is OK but not great -- certainly a far cry from the high-definition displays available on other comparably priced devices, such as the aforementioned Transformer Pad Infinity or Acer's Iconia Tab A700. From a $500 tablet today, I expect far better.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 has two OK-but-not-great cameras: a 5-megapixel shooter on the back and a 1.9-megapixel camera on the front. With most tablets, I don't worry too much about camera quality -- honestly, how often do you hold up a giant slate to capture important photos? -- but given Samsung's emphasis on artwork and content creation with the Note, its less-than-stellar specs could be worth, well, noting.

The Note 10.1 has a power button and volume rocker on its top, as well as a microSD slot, an infrared blaster to control your TV via a prepackaged app called Peel and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The tablet's bottom has a slot for the S Pen stylus and a proprietary charging port. If you want to connect any USB devices to the Note or plug it into a TV via HDMI, you'll need special adapters; Samsung sells them for $30 and $40, respectively. (Though the Samsung site lists the adapters as being for the Galaxy Tab, company reps assure me they're compatible with the Galaxy Note as well.)

The new Galaxy Note has two front-facing speakers flanking its screen. I found the sound quality to be quite good, relatively speaking; the fact that the speakers face frontward makes a noticeable difference compared to the side or rear placement many tablets use.

Under the hood

Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 has some impressive-sounding hardware under its hood: The tablet runs on a quad-core 1.4GHz Exynos processor along with a full 2GB RAM.

Given those specs, it's surprising how inconsistently the Note performed. Once again, the device proved itself to be OK but not great: I experienced plenty of lagginess and stuttering even in basic tasks like swiping between home screens and opening and closing the app drawer. System animations were jerky at times instead of being smooth and crisp like they should be, particularly with the kind of power this device is packing. All considered, it's hard to blame anything but Samsung's bloatware for those problems (more on that in a bit).

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More tablet info

The table below shows the most recently announced tablets as reported by Computerworld. Click a tablet's name in the leftmost column to read a news story or review with more information about the device, or view a larger table with more details about each product.

Table created by Computerworld staff using Zoho Creator.

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