Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Review: This Tablet’s Mightier with a Pen

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Its specs are certainly impressive: It sports 2GB of RAM (double the typical amount) and a 1.4-GHz quad-core processor. It’s dangerous to assume that beefy components will automatically result in a pleasing experience, but in this case they deliver–I found the Note 10.1 to be zippy and responsive. It’s also got a five-megapixel camera on its back and a 1.9-megapixel one on the front, and stereo speakers on its front edges.

[UPDATE: The Verge’s Nilay Patel, who ran the Note through formal benchmarks, wasn’t impressed with its performance — and, alarmingly, he found that it got slower over time.]

With 1280-by-800 pixels, the screen doesn’t even begin to rival the Retina display on Apple’s new iPad. It’s only got a third as many pixels, so photos aren’t as eye-popping and text isn’t razor-sharp.  Then again, no other tablet except the iPad has a Retina screen, so at least Samsung’s tablet is in good company.

The Note 10.1 runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich  — an upgrade to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is due later this year — but Samsung has added a number of features beyond the S Pen-related capabilities. While they don’t come anywhere near Apple’s heights of simplicity and seamlessness, they’re mostly good stuff. (A few design decisions are odd: I don’t understand why Samsung placed a screen-capturing icon on Android’s omnipresent toolbar, a place of honor it scarcely deserves.)

An awfully clever feature dubbed Multiscreen might be more accurately called Multiapp: It lets you run two programs at once, each in a window that occupies half the screen. That allows you to perform feats which are impossible with other Android tablets and the iPad, such as opening up a file attachment and editing it in the bundled Polaris office suite without ever leaving the e-mail program.

The catch is that Multiscreen only supports six programs at the moment: S Note, Polaris, the web browser, the photo gallery, the video player, and e-mail. Samsung says it plans to provide third-party developers with the tools they need to build the feature into their own apps; for the sake of Note 10.1 buyers, I hope that many of them do.

Mini-apps, a feature held over from previous Samsung tablets, offer another way to use two programs at once. They’re shrunken-down versions of tools such as S Note, the calendar, and the music player, and you can leave them open in a corner of the display as you use any full-screen app. As on Samsung’s Galaxy S III phone, the video player has a nifty picture-in-picture mode that lets you watch it out of the corner of one eye as you work in another program. There’s also a program, powered by Peel, which lets you use the tablet as a TV guide/universal remote.

Samsung, in short, has done an admirable job of beefing up the Galaxy Note 10.1 with useful Android software. The tablet’s biggest drawback is that too few other companies have done the same. Eighteen months after Google released Honeycomb, the first tablet-friendly version of Android, there are still shockingly few good Android apps developed with tablets in mind. By contrast, there are over 225,000 iPad programs. In fact, numerous apps I’d love to use with the S Pen, such as Paper and Procreate, are iPad-only.

There are plenty of Android apps that run on both phones and on tablets, the Galaxy Note 10.1 included — it’s just that they rarely make good use of the tablet’s roomy screen. News aggregator Zite, for instance, is excellent on the iPad. On the Galaxy Note 10.1, it’s far cruder, leaving vast expanses of wasted white space. (Full disclosure: Zite is owned by CNN, a sister company of TIME.)

Until the Android tablet-app situation brightens considerably, I can’t give an unqualified thumbs-up to any large-screen Android tablet. (The paucity of tablet-specific software isn’t as dire an issue with Google’s own Nexus 7, since phone apps work decently on its smaller 7″ display.) But the S Pen isn’t a gimmick or an anachronism; if you’re smitten with it, and can live with Android’s limitations, you should be tickled with the Galaxy Note 10.1.

MORE: Going Android: An Experiment

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