Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Samsung's latest tablet brings has a big differentiator from the iPad: a stylus. And it's a stylus that's actually useful for certain tasks, like writing notes, creating equations and sketching. It starts at $499 (for 16GB).
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When the iPad finally gave birth to the modern tablet market, we all knew the day would come when the stylus would follow. Yes, it never really went away -- little electronic pens have been around in one form or another pretty much as long as we've had touchscreens. But now Samsung wants to take the stylus mainstream with the Galaxy Note 10.1.
Not to be confused with its more diminutive brother, the Galaxy Note smartphone, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is Samsung's latest and most direct challenger to the iPad. Sure, there's the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 from earlier this year, but that's more of a "conventional" tablet, and didn't really give customers much of a reason to choose it over an iPad, aside from the cheaper price.
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The new Note, on the other hand, has a list of reasons for tablet buyers to give it a look. First and foremost is the stylus (what Samsung calls the S Pen), which enables a level of precision that you simply can't get with a finger. Anyone who has used a sketching app on the iPad such as Autodesk's SketchBook Pro knows the value of simulating the pen-and-paper experience.
The S Pen on the new Note does even better than previous stylii, however. It's pressure-sensitive, like the Jot, enabling it to thicken pen marks the harder you press. The screen can tell when the stylus is hovering above it, too, showing where the tip is with a floating dot -- very neat. It's square shaped, not round, so it doesn't roll.
The Note's screen can tell the difference between the S Pen and your palm, so you can rest your hand on the screen while writing, just like you'd do with a regular notepad. And with an optional stylus that has a plastic "eraser" tip, you can even flip the Pen to start erasing. Plus it does it all without batteries -- that's a pretty impressive bag of tricks for an electronic pen.
In practice, the stylus works quite well, although only for certain apps. Still, credit Samsung for partnering with heavy hitters like Adobe to offer S Pen compatibility for apps like Photoshop Touch. When sketching stuff or selecting icons with the stylus, the hovering dot was ever-present. Not so much in Paint Joy, though.
The full power of the stylus is unlocked in the new S Note app, however. This is Samsung's note-taking app, ostensibly the whole Note line's raison d'être. Besides making full use of the pressure sensitivity, writing thicker lines with harder pushing, it also can translate what you're writing into actual text.
The handwriting-to-text ability is actually done sort of in "real time," taking what you've written and turning it into text as soon as you pause. It's a bit of an upgrade from the Galaxy Note phone's after-the-fact conversions, but I would have preferred to have the option to do both. Generally, the results are better with the new S Note (which I'd estimate to be about 65-70% accurate), however, and you feel more compelled to write neatly if you know the tablet's going to be translating your scribbles into real text in a few seconds.
And nerds, rejoice! There's a formula function that takes your x=8 scribbles and the like, turning them into text you can copy and paste into other applications, like a presentation. It also has a direct link to Wolfram Alpha for looking them up. It actually works quite well -- better than the pure text translator -- and I had a good time re-living some advanced math classes from college. (Triple integrals FTW!)
The Galaxy Note 10.1 isn't all about the stylus, however. This is also the first tablet with what Samsung says is "true" multitasking. With a limited set of apps (just six right now), you can actually have two of them running simultaneously, side by side on the screen -- a feature called "Multiscreen." Want to take notes while you watch a video? The new Galaxy Note can do that for you.
It's actually a pretty cool trick, and it's great that Samsung ensured it works with the video player. With video, it can be annoying to need to pause your playback when switching to another app, but with the Note you don't need to. Multiscreen only works with the browser, the video player, the photo gallery, email, S Note and Polaris Office, but it's a start.
An extra bonus for the video player is Pop-Up play, which lets the player exist as a smaller, free-floating window within another Muiltiscreen app, sort of like picture-in-picture on a TV (see pic at right). You can resize the window at will and position it anywhere. It's a cool ability -- now it just needs to work with YouTube.
Besides the Multiscreen fun, Samsung also borrows a few highlights from the recent launch of its flagship phone, the Galaxy S III. The Note 10.1 includes the Group Cast feature, which lets a bunch of Galaxy devices on the same Wi-Fi network view the same presentation. The Note's stylus makes the "group edit" feature even more powerful, letting any participant draw marks on the slides that all members can see. (Don't worry about pranksters ruining your big keynote, though -- the marks fade after a few seconds.)
Also present is Smart Stay, where the device uses its front-facing camera to tell if someone's looking at the display, delaying any screen timeouts until the person looks away. The feature, which didn't work at all on the Galaxy S III, appears to be much improved, never failing to detect my gaze, even when I was wearing glasses. It even brought the dimmed display back to life when I looked at it again.
Absent, though, is S Voice -- you won't be controlling the Galaxy Note 10.1 with speech, at least not at launch. Samsung figures a phone is a more natural place to put a "virtual assistant," and I have to agree.
Samsung's taking a lot of heat for allegedly ripping off Apple's designs, but they're definitely giving the tablet world something different with the Galaxy Note 10.1. Like the S III, it has a plastic back, which keeps it a lightweight at 1.32 pounds (the iPad is 1.44 pounds), but it doesn't feel cheap. The silver trim is quite chic, and it blends nicely with the stereo speakers in front, which can actually play pretty loud. Interestingly, it only comes in white.
From the specs, it becomes clearer that this is a "hero" device for Samsung. The Note boasts a quad-core 1.4GHz Exynos processor and it has 2GB of RAM. It comes preloaded with Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," though no word on when it will get upgraded to Jelly Bean.
The 10.1-inch screen is a mere 1,280 x 800 LCD -- not much to brag about in the age of retina -- and I found it to be somewhat soft now that I'm used to looking at retina apps on the iPad. It's bright, though, and you'll save on battery life since that fancy quad-core processor doesn't have to push so many pixels.
Now the one spec that really matters: the price. The Galaxy Note 10.1 starts at $499 for 16GB of storage, and $549 for 32GB. For the entry level model, that's the same price as the iPad, but the higher-capacity Note is actually $50 cheaper than the 32GB iPad. And those gigabytes tend to go farther since Android apps don't have to support retina displays (yet).
But the Galaxy Note 10.1 isn't really an iPad alternative; it's more of a tablet specialist -- the tablet you go to when you need something very specific, which in this case is drawing, note-taking and multitasking. Just like you wouldn't go to a general practicioner for surgery, you don't get an Apple product if you want to use a stylus. You get the Galaxy Note 10.1. For anyone who ever wanted the digital equivalent of a legal pad, there's nothing better.
This story originally published on Mashable here.