Hands on: Is the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) worth buying?

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 - 2014 Edition

Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 isn't the only new stylus-packing product in town. The Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, the Note's new full-sized tablet sibling, goes on sale in the U.S. today.

With my Note 3 review behind me, I've been spending some time using the Note 10.1 and trying to wrap my head around it. Since the Note 10.1 is so similar to the Note 3 in most regards, I won't be doing a full-fledged review -- but I wanted to share some scattered thoughts on the device's hardware, what it's like to use, and where it fits in the Android ecosystem.

Here we go:

• In terms of hardware design, the Note 10.1 takes a distinct cue from the Note 3; in fact, it looks more or less like a scaled-up version of the same device. That means it has the same faux-metal plastic trim around its edges and faux-leather finish on its (also plastic -- though not removable) back.

Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) - Back

The style actually works decently well in this form. Like the Note 3, it's a little on the chintzy side, particularly with the fake stitching around the perimeter of the back panel -- but the tablet feels solid and durable in the hand. And it's a massive leap forward from the lackluster design and flimsy-feeling build of last year's Note 10.1 tablet.

• The new Note 10.1's screen is also a huge step up from last year's model: The 2560-x-1600 LCD display packs just under 300 pixels per inch and looks every bit as fantastic as it should. It really is a night and day difference from the 1280-x-800 display on the previous generation device, and it definitely puts the Note 10.1 on par with the best tablet screens on the market today.

• Curiously, the Note 10.1 doesn't have USB 3.0 support for fast charging and data transfers -- which is a shame, as that's one of the coolest elements of the Note 3 and would have been a nice addition on a tablet-sized device. (In case you were wondering, though, yes: The regular micro-USB port does still double as an HDMI out-port with the aid of an MHL adapter.)

• Sticking with standard Samsung strategy, the Note 10.1 has a microSD slot, which lets you add up to 64GB of external memory -- an option that could be useful for people who want to store loads of content on their devices for offline access. It also has an IR blaster for remote-controlling of your TV or other electronics.

• One of my gripes with the Note 3 was the odd and dated hybrid button setup Samsung continues to cling onto -- and with the Note 10.1, the situation gets even more silly.

The same problems I brought up with the smaller Note are still here: The setup, with its physical Home button and capacitive Menu and Back keys (the former of which was phased out of the Android platform years ago), results in hidden and hard-to-find options and an awkward contrast in button sensitivity,

Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) - Buttons

especially when using the S Pen.

But on the Note 10.1, you also gain the added factor that a 10-in. tablet is frequently used in portrait orientation as well as in landscape mode. And with the buttons' immobile landscape-oriented placement, they end up being awkwardly positioned on the left or right side of the tablet when you hold it vertically instead of rotating with the device as they would if they were virtual and on the screen.

All in all, it just doesn't make for a great user experience.

• I'm actually a little shocked by the level of performance on this thing. While the Note 3 suffered from some occasional jitteriness and imperfection, the Note 10.1 is downright laggy -- even right out of the box. It takes three or four seconds for the screen to come on when you press the power button to wake the device. Swiping through home screens is often jerky. And system animations are frequently choppy instead of smooth.

The performance-related flaws present in the Note 3 are present here, too, like the inexcusably slow Gallery app, which routinely takes anywhere from five to 12 seconds to load and to open folders. This just isn't a snappy device, folks -- which is baffling, given its impressive-sounding Exynos 5420 quad-core 1.9GHz processor and 3GB of RAM.

• The Note 10.1's user interface is TouchWiz through and through -- and yup, that means you get the typical Sammy-style mess of clashing colors and inconsistent elements. It ain't pretty.

In addition to the same stuff we've covered ad nauseam before, the new Note 10.1 introduces a redesigned home screen layout, with no Favorites Tray, a shrunken-down search box in the lower-left corner, and a shortcut to the app drawer in the lower-right. It's not necessarily bad, though the inconsistency certainly isn't ideal.

And then there's the new notification panel, which -- well, pretty much speaks for itself:

Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) - Notification

Like with the Note 3, you can cover up some of these design sins with a custom Android launcher, but that only goes so far.

• UI notwithstanding, some of Samsung's software additions really shine on the Note 10.1. Of particular noteworthiness is Multi Window, Samsung's feature that lets you split your screen in half and have two apps running and visible at the same time.

Galaxy Note 10.1 Multi Window

This is a smart option to have on any device, but with the ample space afforded by a 10-in. screen, it's especially valuable.

• The star of the Note 10.1 show is undoubtedly the S Pen stylus. The S Pen is every bit as impressive here as it is on the Note 3; from accurate handwriting recognition to superb pressure-sensitivity for sketching, the S Pen opens the door to a lot of fun and productivity-boosting possibilities. The larger screen space of a 10-in. tablet only amplifies the potential.

The S Pen experience is pretty much the same on the Note 10.1 as it is on the Note 3; you can find a more detailed walkthrough in that section of my Note 3 review.

All right -- so all considered, what's the bottom line? Here it is, gang:

If you like the idea of using a stylus -- for handwriting, PDF markup, or creative purposes -- the Note 10.1 is the tablet for you. Its S Pen is outstanding and the level of functionality it enables is something you won't find on any other device. 

If you're just looking for a good all-around Android tablet experience, though, it's a different story. Despite its improvements over last year's model, the Note 10.1's awkward button setup, laggy performance, and subpar UI make it difficult to recommend for anything other than stylus-related use cases -- especially considering its $550 to $600 price tag (for 16 and 32GB models, respectively).

Nexus 10

Most users would do better with the also-Samsung-made Nexus 10. At $400 to $500 (for 16 and 32GB models, respectively), the Nexus 10 offers a comparably high-res display along with front-facing speakers, virtual on-screen buttons, more consistent performance, and a cleaner and more intuitive user interface. It also includes the benefit of guaranteed ongoing OS upgrades directly from Google within days of their release.

Even with the plausible rumor of a new Nexus 10 model being prepped for release this fall, the original model currently remains a top-of-the-line tablet at an unmatched value (so long as you can live without a microSD slot and IR blaster). If you like the idea of a smaller-sized tablet, the 2013 Nexus 7, made by Asus, is another leading choice; at $229 to $269 (for 16 and 32GB models, respectively), its user-experience-to-value ratio is tough to beat.

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Samsung's new Galaxy Note 10.1 has its place for people who want the benefits of a stylus -- and its Multi Window feature adds a nice touch to the tablet-using experience -- but make no mistake about it: Compared to what you get with other Android tablets, those perks come at a cost.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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