Samsung has a bewildering array of tablets and smartphones out at the moment, but there’s nothing confusing about where the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition sits. It’s the Korean firm’s top-of-the-range consumer tablet, and it’s designed to rival such products as the Nexus 10, Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in, Sony Xperia Tablet Z and Apple iPad Air.
It certainly has the price and specification to match those aspirations. It costs $685 and boasts a 10.1in, high-DPI, 2560 x 1600 screen; a 1.9GHz Samsung Exynos octa-core processor; an 8-megapixel rear camera; and a pressure-sensitive stylus, which slots neatly into the top-right corner of the tablet.
Other notable features include an infrared transmitter that turns the tablet into a universal remote control for your TV and set-top box, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Surprisingly, there’s only 16GB of built-in storage, but there is a microSDXC slot for adding more.
The design is reasonably high-end, too, with a seamless strip of chrome-effect plastic surrounding the edge and a white plastic rear, imprinted with a leather-effect pattern. If this sounds cheesy, it doesn’t come across that way. It’s certainly a big improvement on the first Note 10.1.
Fire it up, and the good impressions continue. The screen – as is typical of Samsung’s flagship devices – boasts a bright and fully saturated look, and with a pixel density of 299ppi, it matches the Nexus 10 and outdoes the iPad Air. It’s a magnificently crisp display. Resolution isn’t everything, however, and on the quality front, the Note 10.1 also scores highly. Measured with our colorimeter, the display hit a maximum brightness of 367cd/m² and a contrast level of 798:1.
With an eight-core SoC inside, it looks well up to the job of keeping Android 4.3 running smoothly, too. In fact, the Note’s Samsung Exynos 5 Octa comprises a pair of quad-core processors: one clocked at 1.9GHz for demanding tasks such as games, and the other clocked at 1.3GHz, which kicks in when such high power isn’t required. In addition, there’s 3GB of RAM, and a powerful six-core Mali-T628 GPU.
In benchmarks, we found the Note 10.1 to be quick, but not quite as rapid as the iPad Air. In the GFXBench T-Rex HD test run at native resolution, the Note 10.1 gained an average of 14fps; the Air scored 21fps. Its SunSpider result was a touch more impressive at 612ms, but again it lagged behind the iPad Air’s 391ms.
Things begin to look up when you start to compare it with its Android rivals. Overall, the Note 10.1 2014 Edition is on a par with the superb Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in, and faster than the Nexus 10 and Xperia Tablet Z.
The low-power cores seem to do the trick when it comes to conserving battery life, too, with the Note lasting a creditable 11hrs 10mins in our looping battery test. Technically, it’s capable of lasting longer, but with 5% remaining on the gauge the Note dims its screen automatically to save power. Alas, it reduces the backlight intensity to such a level that the screen is unusable, and there’s no way to change this behaviour in the settings, nor by adjusting brightness manually.
The Note’s camera is an 8-megapixel snapper capable of grabbing 1080p video, and has a couple of key weaknesses: a tendency to underexpose when faced with scenes that have very bright and dark areas; and a problem with flare when shooting indoors, which reduced the contrast and overall quality of many of our test shots.
What does make the Note 10.1 2014 stand out from the crowd, however, is its pressure-sensitive stylus and, as usual with Samsung’s Note devices, it’s accompanied by plenty of stylus-specific apps and customisations. Pull the stylus out of its home in the edge of the tablet, for example, and a circular menu appears on the screen, offering a variety of options. You can grab onscreen elements, such as web pages and store them in the Scrapbook app; take quick notes; launch a choice of apps into pop-up windows; or grab a screenshot and scribble on it. There’s also highly effective handwriting recognition built into the keyboard and the full version of SketchBook Pro is included.
This is all very useful, but we’re less keen on Samsung’s hefty Android overlay. Admittedly, it provides a lot of features out of the box, but it complicates things to an unnecessary degree – for example, requiring sign-up to Samsung’s own Hub app store as well as Google Play to get the most out of it.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition is a top-quality tablet. It’s as fast as a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in, has a good screen, decent battery life, stylus support and expandable memory, along with infrared, universal remote control support.
It’s expensive for an Android tablet, but it’s more fully featured than both the Amazon Kindle HDX and the Nexus 10 and is the strongest all-round rival to the iPad Air. Our preference still lies with the iPad Air for its more appealing design, superior tablet-specific apps and faster performance, but Samsung is steadily closing the gap.