Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 £499
23rd Dec 2013 | 15:31
The Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) is the Swiss Army Knife of tablets
Introduction and features
Samsung has split its forces in two in the ongoing tablet war, with the entry-level Tab range sitting under the premium Note range. As the biggest device in the elite class, then, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 can arguably be seen as Samsung's new flagship tablet.
That certainly appears to be the case when you examine its specs, too. This is another of those 'throw in everything but the kitchen sink' efforts that Samsung seems to favour.
You're looking at a 10.1-inch 2,560 x 1,600 display, an Exynos octa-core CPU (though only four are used at any one time) clocked at 1.9GHz, 3GB of RAM, a fully featured 8MP camera and an even more deeply integrated S Pen stylus.
If the tablet war were to be judged on bullet points alone, few could stand up to the new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. But of course, that's not how it's done. It's decided on look, feel, intuitiveness and seamless performance, and on these counts the Galaxy Note 10.1 still trails behind the iPad Air.
That's not to say that this follow-up to last year's original Galaxy Note 10.1 isn't an extremely strong tablet. It's just that the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
Some of the blame for this can be apportioned to the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014's less than stellar design. While it's a marked improvement over last year's chunky plastic model, it's still a deeply uninspiring tablet to wield, and doesn't feel anything like its £450 (around $740, AU$820) price tag.
As you might expect given the Note branding, Samsung has stuck with many of the design cues from the excellent Samsung Galaxy Note 3. The trouble is, a desirable look and feel weren't exactly among that device's many strong points.
So, you get the same faux-metallic outer rim and the same faux-leather back, which is far too much faux for my liking. The latter actually makes the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 feel a lot grippier than its predecessor, and the tablet itself feels pretty solid in the hand. But the overriding feeling is one of cheapness.
Needless to say, the contrast with the slightly cheaper iPad Air is not a flattering one for Samsung's latest tablet.
Still, the new Galaxy Note 10.1 has made design improvements elsewhere. It's a fair bit slimmer (7.9mm down from 8.9mm) and lighter (535g versus 597g) than its predecessor and its side bezels are considerably thinner.
This helps reduce that familiar Android tablet trait of feeling too stretched - especially when held in portrait view.
Of course, you probably won't be doing a whole lot of that. Samsung clearly intends you to use this full-size tablet in landscape for multimedia and web browsing, as evidenced by the orientation of the Samsung logo and the positioning of its hardware keys.
These are the by-now-familiar Samsung trio of a physical home key flanked by capacitive menu and back controls. The latter two light up when in use.
The volume and power keys are positioned sensibly on the top left-hand edge (when held in default landscape view), and are easy enough to locate when watching a film in a poorly lit room, for example. To the right of these keys is an IR LED, which enables you to use the tablet as universal remote control (more on that later).
With the microUSB port situated on the bottom of the device, this leaves the left and right edges free to hold a speaker each, thus providing true stereo - albeit slightly tinny - sound. The speakers' sensible position high up on the device means that you won't cover them when holding the tablet naturally, which is a thoughtful touch that a surprising number of manufacturers don't think to include.
Just below the right-hand speaker is the Galaxy Note 10.1's microSD slot, which permits up to 64GB of additional storage - very handy when opting for the 16GB model that I was sent.
Finally, just above the right-hand speaker, you have the core feature that makes the Note a Note, and not a Tab. The S Pen stylus is stashed away in a discrete but readily accessible port. A ridged faux-metallic (there's that word again) end serves to blend in with the outer rim from which it protrudes, whilst enabling you to gain some purchase and pull it out.
I'll go on to discuss the S Pen's usability later in the review, but from a design perspective it's a very solid, lightweight and functional but somewhat cheap and plasticky object. Rather like the tablet as a whole, you might say.
Of course, the most important component of any tablet is its screen, and in this department the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 is excellent. It's a considerable improvement over last year's model.
Samsung has boosted the resolution two-fold to 2,560 x 1,600, which is the same resolution as the Google Nexus 10. Indeed, as Samsung built that tablet, it's probably the same display. Either way, it offers a similarly impressive picture, with an iPad-topping degree of sharpness at 299 ppi.
Overall, it's still perhaps not quite as balanced a picture as you'll find on a Retina display-sporting iPad, but it's very pleasant to look at nonetheless, and it certainly does vibrant HD content (such as movies and games) justice.
Interface and performance
You won't be getting the very latest version of Android with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014. Android 4.3 Jelly Bean is the previous version.
In truth this doesn't really matter much - the latest version, Android 4.4 KitKat, is a relatively incremental update, with many of its improvements taking place under the hood and addressing less capable hardware. Besides, with Samsung's usual TouchWiz UI heavily layered on top, this is a different proposition to the Nexus range.
As ever, Samsung's take on the Android OS is brash, flashy, and almost overwhelming in its feature set. If you're the sort of person who likes bold colours and the potential for endless tinkering with your tablets, this is a real contender.
If you're looking for a sober, tasteful, lean and unified OS that doesn't make even a top notch quad-core CPU stutter from time to time, well, there's always that Nexus 10 I mentioned earlier. Or the iPad Air, of course.
In fact, Samsung's bold colour scheme and almost childish approach to icon design sits somewhat awkwardly against the Galaxy Note 10.1's more business-like exterior and spec sheet.
The huge Samsung widgets that greet you upon booting up the tablet seem like a waste of space - there to look pretty and show off that display, but little else. Thankfully, these can be removed and replaced with more useful widgets and icons.
Speaking of poor use of space, the notification bar feels clumsier and less useful than on stock Android. There's no tablet-specific dual-menu split, which I'd started to grow accustomed to with the likes of the Tesco Hudl. Moreover, taking the entire width of the screen to show simple notifications makes them feel unnaturally stretched and restrictive.
Meanwhile the garish green power toggles along the top (for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the like) are… well, garish green toggles. They feel like a left-over from Android's earlier, uglier incarnations.
My Magazine, which is accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the home page, is an interesting incorporation of the excellent Flipboard service, but it feels like a layer of interface elaboration too far.
This section places news, social items and recent personal elements into full-screen collages. They look quite nice, but the feature's usefulness is questionable, with the superior Flipboard app already on the Google Play Store, and with a classy accompanying widget available at that.
That's not to say that Samsung's approach to Android is entirely without merit, though. Far from it. In fact, its vast array of features, many of which seem superfluous on smaller devices, find greater purpose on this larger canvas.
Chief among these additional features is Multi Window. You'll notice the presence of a little arrow icon on the left-hand side of the screen - a touch of this pulls out a little shortcut bar filled with selected app icons over whatever you're doing.
These icons vary, from Samsung's apps like ChatON and Gallery, to Google's own apps like Maps and Chrome, and even include some third-party apps like Evernote and Twitter.
You can select two of these apps to sit alongside each other simultaneously. The default is to grant half the screen to each, but you can give more space to one or the other by dragging a central icon to the left or to the right.
It can be genuinely useful, such as when reading an article in Chrome and taking notes in S Note at the same time. The potential for increased productivity over the usual tablet fare (not including Windows 8 tablets, of course) is clear, and it works pretty well.
Another neat feature carried over from previous Samsung devices is the ability to play video in a little box over whatever else you're doing at the time. I'm not actually sure how this can be classed as useful, as such, but it's undoubtedly cool.
Far more useful, in its own unique way, is the S Pen stylus feature. Over the past year or two, Samsung has steadily improved its integration to the point where it's now a genuinely useful addition to the TouchWiz interface. Or at least, it will be to certain power users.
Once again, this rubber-tipped digital pen can be wielded at any time throughout the Galaxy Note 10.1's OS. By default, the S Pen will act much like your finger in being able to select apps and scroll between home pages, but the Note 10.1 can also detect when the S Pen is hovering just above the screen.
This leads to some interesting applications, such as the ability to preview a picture in the Gallery simply by holding the S Pen over it. The function also has the practical effect of disabling touch recognition, so you can lean on the display while you're writing a note, for example.
The S Pen also comes with its own button which, when pressed, brings up a radial menu of related actions called Air Command. It enables you to do things like create an Action Memo, which creates virtual post-it notes on the fly, then uses powerful handwriting recognition software to link the text to actions.
Write an address and link it to the Map command, and it will locate that address in Google Maps. Write a telephone number and connect it to a contact, and that number will be recognised and stored accordingly.
Whether these steps are quicker than adding or finding such things through traditional smartphone or tablet means is another question, but for many this more naturalistic 'best of both worlds' approach will be genuinely useful.
Another tool on the Air Command menu is Scrap Booker, which enables you to draw around specific elements of whatever you're looking at. This then gets copied and added to the Scrapbook app, where you can add a related memo and tags.
Pen Window, meanwhile, uses a similar 'draw a window' input system to open up small tool apps over whatever you're doing. It's great for those occasions when you want to open up a calculator or check some contact information while you're web browsing.
Another handy Air Command function is Screen Write, which takes a screen grab and enables you to annotate it with the S Pen and save or share. The potential for quickly jotting ideas based on web pages you encounter on the fly is clear to see.
Samsung has again bundled its own digital keyboard with the Galaxy Note 10.1, but it's actually one of the better alternatives to Google's default keyboard. It's a little dated-looking, with none of the cool fonts of other efforts, but there's a nice spread to the keys, a decent word suggestion system, and a full row of numerical keys. I also appreciated the ability to select between a full QWERTY, movable floating, or split keyboard for two-thumbed typing.
Samsung also includes its own Swype-like typing system that negates the need to remove your finger from the screen in between letters.
Samsung is one of many Android manufacturers to persist with the mystifying practice of including two Android web browsers with its devices. Even worse, it seems to push the old Android internet browser as the default choice, featuring it on the main home page while Chrome is tucked away in a Google folder in the apps tray.
I've said it many times before, but I'll say it again. The old Android browser is decent enough, but there's just no conceivable reason for its continued existence. Google invented the Chrome browser to replace it, not to complement it.
Grumbling aside, it's a small matter to shift the Chrome browser to the main home screen, and setting it as the default is as simple as choosing it the first time you follow a link.
When you do, you'll find arguably the best tablet web browser in the business. Its much-copied unified address bar allows you to type both web addresses and search terms in, and it'll provide swift suggestions as you start to type.
Chrome's handling of tabbed browsing is also pretty much peerless. Just hit the little icon at the top to effectively open a new browsing session layered over the last one.
I also love how this latest version of Chrome just gets out of your way. Scroll down a web page and the tabs and address bar slide out of view, maximising screen space. Drag back up and it reappears. Simple but elegant.
Chrome works particularly well on the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014, with its powerful quad-core processor and large, sharp display.
It means that you can view web pages in all their glory without having to pan and zoom too much. That 2,560 x 1,600 resolution, in particular, makes small text eminently readable.
Meanwhile the processor ensures that even content-rich web pages load up extremely quickly. As ever, the TechRadar website is a fine test of a device's rendering chops, as it's packed full of content. That the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 can load the home page up in its entirety in a little under 10 seconds is truly impressive.
Meanwhile, the website is usable and readable in just a couple of seconds.
Movies, music and books
With features like the S Pen and Samsung's extensive suite of productivity apps, you probably couldn't say that the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 was built for media, but it excels in this area nonetheless.
A huge part of that, of course, is down to the tablet's beautiful screen which, as I've already mentioned, displays HD video and text as well as any other Android tablet.
Of course, this being Android, you also have access to the excellent Google Play Store for downloading a comprehensive range of movies, music and books quickly and cheaply (or at least competitively).
While all of this media content is accessible through the one Google Play app, Google has also split the content up into its own separate colour-coded apps, which effectively act as shortcuts to the relevant sections. On the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, these can all be found tucked away in the Google folder in the app tray.
I often find it a little churlish when Android manufacturers relegate Google's stellar service offerings to a dusty corner of their custom UI in favour of their own inferior versions. I recommend promoting the Google folder to your home screen immediately.
Back to the media apps: Play Movies & TV will provide all the video content you could possibly need. Prices for new movies tend to be £3.49 in SD or £4.49 in HD, while you can also rent older or less premium titles for as little as 99p ($0.99, AU$0.99).
You can also purchase titles outright, with newer or premium films costing £9.99 in SD or £11.99 in HD.
Samsung also has its own video store offering as part of the Samsung Hub, which is accessible through one of the oversized widgets found on one of the home screens.
However, it's markedly inferior to Google's offering - in attractiveness and usability if not price or range (which appear pretty much identical).
Its inclusion seems somewhat superfluous, especially when you consider that purchasing films and TV shows here will restrict their usage to Samsung devices, whereas media bought through Google Play can be played back on pretty much any smartphone, tablet or desktop web browser.
Still, when it comes to actually playing video content, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 is unimpeachable. HD video looks stunning, with no hint of performance issues. Then there's Samsung's typically strong codec support. H.263, H.264, MPEG4, WMV and DivX all work without a problem.
Music is handled by the ever-excellent Google Play Music, which enables you to purchase MP3 tracks from a well stocked library. It also lets you upload 20,000 of your existing tracks for free, enabling you to stream them to any device with a web browser - or any tablet with the Google Play App, more pertinently.
Google Play Music now even features a Spotify-like subscription service, offering unlimited access to its vast music library. It's a pretty comprehensive offering.
That hasn't stopped Samsung from adding yet another of its own offerings, though. Its Music Store is possibly the least necessary of the lot, given the all-round brilliance of Google Play Music, but here it is.
Don't get me wrong, it's a perfectly serviceable MP3 store (powered by 7digital) that might have come in genuinely handy, oh, let's say, three years ago. But here and now, on a top-end Android device at the end of 2013? Not so much.
It's a similar situation with books. Google provides a fine ebook store in the Google Play Store, with plenty of well-priced books to purchase. Of course, it's hard to resist the ubiquitous Amazon Kindle service in this field, and that's only a free app download away.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 itself makes for a fine ebook reader, with its super-sharp display and reasonably light body making reading on it a pleasure. It's not quite wieldy enough to displace that Kindle or even that Nexus 7, mind.
Once again, Samsung provides its own Book Store Hub, and once again you needn't really bother.
Apps and games
Naturally, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 sports all the major Google apps that make the Android platform such a joy to use. Google Maps and Gmail need no introduction as the top map and top email apps around respectively.
You also get Google+, which is the company's increasingly prevalent (if only because Google is leveraging its other services to push it) social network. Hangouts forms its instant messaging and video chat solution, but has yet to really mature into a stress-free social environment.
Of course Samsung also provides plenty of its own apps. Some of these serve to duplicate what's on offer from Google, which occasionally feels as wasteful and messy here as it does with every other Android manufacturer that does it.
Is ChatON strictly necessary when Google already provides the aforementioned Hangouts app? Probably not. But in this particular case, I'll waiver the criticism.
Do you really need Samsung's scruffy Gallery app with the sharp Google Photos included? Actually, you may if you like the thought of your Dropbox images being closely integrated with your locally stored snaps rather than Google+. For general use, however, it's functionally similar without being quite as crisp or intuitive as the Google version.
Still, Samsung does provide a number of additional apps that don't step on Google's toes, some of which I mentioned earlier when discussing the S Pen's unique capabilities.
S Note is another that takes advantage of Samsung's versatile stylus. It's a note-taking app, but it allows you to scrawl directly onto the page, as well as import clipping from the Scrapbook app and, well, any type of stored media really.
It's powerful, though not quite as instant or intuitive for quickly noting something down as, say, Google's Keep app, which isn't even included here.
Speaking of powerful, the excellent SketchBook is a fully featured art app that really shows what the S Pen is capable of.
You can choose from multiple pen, pencil and brush types, colours, layers and more. It also demonstrates the sensitivity of the S Pen, as it responds to varying levels of pressure. It still doesn't match the real thing, but it's as close as I've seen.
Elsewhere you get things like WatchON, which provides a TV guide and - most interestingly - a remote control app. This quickly syncs up with your TV and allows you to change channel, adjust the volume, and switch off your TV from the comfort of your Galaxy Note 10.1 - all thanks to that IR port situated on top of the device.
In another nice touch, the remote then makes itself available to you from the notification menu, ready to be accessed at a moment's notice.
Other Samsung apps included here have an app icon, but actually require downloading. Story Album is one of those, allowing you to turn your stored photos into albums. You can even have them published as physical albums.
Speaking of creating, Video Editor does precisely what you'd expect, allowing you to add effects, create a video based on a theme, and generally tinker with your footage.
Group Play lets you share documents, images, videos, and music with your friends in the same room in real time - provided they all have Samsung devices too, of course.
S Voice, meanwhile, is essentially Samsung's version of Siri. You can add memos, search for contacts, add events to your calendar, initiate a search, open apps and more. It all works pretty well, and there's a shortcut to the facility by double tapping the home button.
Polaris Office 5 is an office productivity app, which enables you to open, create and edit text documents, spreadsheets and presentations. It also incorporates Samsung's S Pen technology, so you can sketch out tables and highlight multiple objects using the included stylus.
Android has come a long way as a gaming platform over the past 12 months or so, with the Google Play Store now home to hundreds if not thousands of the best mobile games around. Apple's iOS still has the edge when it comes to securing games first, but more and more top titles are appearing simultaneously or soon after on Android.
As a gaming tablet, you'll struggle to find a more capable Android device than the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014. Its quad-core Exynos CPU, which includes a potent Mali GPU, is pretty much the most powerful non-Apple chip out there.
It means that games simply fly on the latest Galaxy Note 10.1, despite having to shift a lot more pixels via that super-sharp 10-inch display.
My usual Real Racing 3 test resulted in super-silky performance, as did the recent first person shooter technical showcase, Dead Trigger 2, which ran on the 'High' graphical setting without issue.
Meanwhile more colourful games like Rayman Jungle Run and Subway Surfers look pretty much as good here as I've ever seen them.
Camera and battery life
It might sound like damning with faint praise when I say that the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014's camera is good for a tablet, but it's not meant to be.
Tablet cameras are typically awful, and this 8MP unit is far from that. In fact, I found it to be about as accomplished at taking pictures as a current upper-mid-range Android smartphone.
Give the camera plenty of light and it can produce some genuinely decent results, with sharp edges and vibrant colours. The autofocus is generally decent, reliably picking out the area you're trying to capture. A quick tap elsewhere on the screen will adjust the focus accordingly.
In lower light conditions, things aren't quite so impressive - though again, for a tablet the results are pretty good. There's even a flash here, which is not always the case with tablets, and it's reasonably useful if the subject is nice and close.
There are also the usual issues with dynamic range, with bright skies tending to appear bleached out. But that's a problem that even the best camera phones tend to face, and there's always the dedicated HDR mode to help counter that.
Also impressive is the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014's camera interface, which is up to the standard of its smaller smartphone brothers. You get a wide selection of shooting modes, which include the aforementioned HDR, as well as Panorama and the auto-enhancing Beauty mode, among others.
You also get a full range of settings and tweaks, including a burst mode, face detection, metering and more. You can even set up voice control, so that you take shots by saying 'capture' or something similar. After all, have you ever tried taking a proper selfie (none of that front camera nonsense) with a tablet? Tricky.
Shots are set to 6MP by default, with a 16:9 or widescreen aspect ratio. Increasing this to a full 8MP creates somewhat square-looking 4:3 shots, but at least this will come in handy when it comes to whittling down those Instagram-bound snaps.
Talking of Instagram, you can apply Samsung's own filters to your shots via an always-present pop-out menu situated along the bottom of the display. These incorporate 12 filter effects, including the likes of Sepia, Vintage, and Fisheye, and each provides a neat live preview.
All in all, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 doesn't do anything to convince me that taking pictures with a tablet is a good idea, but that didn't stop me from coming away quietly impressed with the quality of its snaps.
Video capture is perfectly adequate, with full 1080p pretty much a given in tablets these days. Footage was clear enough, but the video stabilisation mode didn't seem particularly effective at cutting out the shakes when I tried shooting while walking along, for example.
While video in low light was predictably grainy, the addition of the flash means that you can at least do something about it in a pinch. It also adjusted quickly to rapid changes in light levels.
Battery life for the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 was, in normal conditions, pretty much par for the course. In mixed usage - a fair amount of web browsing, some light gaming, and some S Pen doodling, as well as infrequent email checks - the tablet lasted through two days comfortably.
Samsung has replaced the 7,000mAh battery unit from last year's model with a significantly larger 8,220mAh, and it's easy to see why. Double the screen sharpness means a much higher battery drain.
I only really saw signs of strain during my standard video test. This involves playing a 90-minute 720p video, with the screen set to maximum brightness and all push notifications on, then recording how much juice is left at the end.
From this, I got a disappointing average of around 65% - a good 15% lower than most tablets with lower resolution displays.
Lower that brightness to around half, however, as is perfectly feasible without a massive hit to your viewing experience, and you might well get close to Samsung's projection of 10 hours video playback.
Sample images and videos
Hands on gallery
Samsung has improved its premium full-size tablet considerably in the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014, with a notably lighter and slimmer body and a vastly improved HD display.
It's still not what you'd call a desirable piece of kit, though, with a number of cheap looking (and feeling) design touches. Given that it tops the uber-stylish iPad Air on price, that's a bit of an issue.
Still, this is a seriously capable Android tablet, and Samsung's impressive S Pen technology finds its most natural home here. If you're after a virtual notepad with well-integrated stylus support, this is the best tablet you're likely to find at the moment.
If you're not a fan of Samsung's over-egged and under-optimised software, however, you might want to stick with the stock Android Nexus range, which remains far better value.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 2014 is a seriously well-specced Android tablet, with a class leading quad-core processor and a superbly sharp 10-inch display.
Samsung's S Pen stylus feels perfectly at home with this stunning screen, turning the tablet into a sketchpad, a notebook, a virtual scrapbook, and much more beside.
Some of Samsung's custom UI features are well conceived too, such as the ability to run two apps side-by-side simultaneously.
Samsung's throw-everything-into-the-mix approach continues unabated, and this makes for a slightly overwhelming, unintuitive experience. Many of these additional features and apps are just plain unnecessary.
The TouchWiz UI really is starting to look dated and clunky now, and the thought of the cleaner, slicker, and faster stock Android OS ticking along underneath is slightly maddening.
Also, that faux leather back and faux metal rim are not what you expect to see in a premium tablet. I know Samsung is cautious about aping Apple these days, but a similar respect for aesthetic values would not go amiss.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 is a bit of a Swiss Army Knife, in that it offers a slightly compromised tool for almost every job you could imagine.
If you demand supreme flexibility from your full-size tablet above all else, then the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 is pretty tough to beat. Not only is it light and powerful, but the S Pen will prove extremely useful to those who still struggle to be truly productive on a finger-operated touchscreen.
However, if you're a couch surfer or a more general tablet user, Samsung's somewhat undesirable hardware design and overly fussy software mean that the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 lags quite far behind the likes of the iPad Air and even the Nexus 10.