Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1

When Samsung first introduced the Galaxy Note in late 2011, the company floated the idea that the funny device with the 5.3-inch screen and a stylus wasn’t a phone or a tablet, but something in between. At the time, Samsung claimed it had launched an entirely new class of device, the premiere entry in the “Note” category.

Once we actually got our hands on the Note however, the marketing speak evaporated and it was clear that the Galaxy Note was indeed just a big phone and a few gimmicky apps engineered to take advantage of the stylus. While we didn’t think highly of the Note (we gave it a 5 out of 10) the massive handset went on to sell millions of units worldwide.

Samsung has taken the Note’s proven DNA and embiggened it to create the Galaxy Note 10.1, a Wi-Fi-only, Android 4.0 tablet with a 10.1-inch screen and a stylus.

Less than a year later, Samsung has delivered a second Note. But this isn’t a phone, nor a “phablet.” Rather, Samsung has taken the Note’s proven DNA and embiggened it to create the Galaxy Note 10.1, a Wi-Fi-only, Android 4.0 tablet with a 10.1-inch screen and a stylus. It also ships with some specialized apps for drawing and taking notes that have been optimized to work with the pen-like appendage.

The Note 10.1 is available this week, starting at $500 for the model with 16GB of storage, and $550 for the 32GB model.

It arrives at a time when Samsung is in desperate need of some momentum within its tablet line-up. In 2011, shortly after the Galaxy line of Android tablets launched, Samsung reported it sold more than 2 million units worldwide. But it has since come to light, according to documents from the Apple vs. Samsung patent trial, that the company only sold 339,000 Galaxy tablets in the U.S. — the largest market for tablets by a wide margin — during that time: 262,000 in Q4 2010 and 77,000 in Q1 2011. Newer sales data from the first half of 2012 is more promising, but Samsung is still far, far behind Apple in the tablet market, with a 9.6 percent market share compared to Apple’s 68.2 percent.

So Samsung is eager to earn some swagger with this release. But while the Galaxy Note 10.1 wears a different name that its Galaxy Tab predecessors, it’s still essentially the same tablet, offering largely the same experience, as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Galaxy Tab 2 10.1.

The only real differentiators that separate the Note 10.1 from its Tab brethren are the S Pen stylus and Samsung’s suite of stylus-compatible apps. The S Pen uses Wacom’s conductive stylus technology to allow you to easily write and draw on screen, and also interact with websites and on-screen menus. If you hold the S Pen just above the display, you’ll see a small cursor floating around the screen, just like you’re moving a mouse. You maneuver the cursor into position, then actually bring the stylus to the screen with a tap. It’s very intuitive, and it’s easy to use for basic navigation, to scribble words or pictures, or to interact with an app. The S Pen requires no battery, and a raised button near the tip brings up contextual menus, just like the right-click of a mouse.

The stylus included with the Note 10.1 features 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, up from 256 levels on the Note phone’s S Pen. It’s 4.5 inches long and slightly thinner than a no. 2 pencil, so it’s comfortable and natural to hold. Also, when the pen is near the screen, the display switches off the touch sensitivity, so you can rest your palm on the screen without interfering with the pen’s input. It’s not perfect — it didn’t always pick up my intended pen strokes, and drawing or writing on such a large, slick surface took some getting used to. But, without a doubt, using the S Pen on a tablet feels much more natural, much more “right” than using the stylus on the Note phone. Also, if you’re a Wacom devotee and you have a few stylii kicking around, they should work with this tablet, since the same technology is being used.

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