Now that we've had a chance to park ourselves at Samsung's Mobile World Congress and get acclimated to the various S Pen apps, we wanted to hit back with one more hands-on, this time focusing on what makes the Note 10.1 so special: the writing experience. Meet us past the break and we'll share some early impressions, along with a walk-through video. Only have a minute to spare? Consider those photos below your Cliff's Notes.
S Pen Experience
Though you might assume the Note 10.1 is just an outsized copy of its little brother, it actually improves on the user experience in at least one critical way: you can always use the Wacom-compatible pen to navigate through the OS. No exceptions. If there's one irritating thing about using the original Note (and really, there are very few such things), it's that it's really not convenient to use the pen to tap those touch-sensitive controls. When you think about how often you tap that menu button, you realize how impossible it is to enjoy an uninterrupted pen experience. Since the Note 10.1 has all soft keys, that's a non-issue.
Additionally, we came away impressed with the various ways you can use the pen. And we're not even talking about apps yet: write, if you wish, or use the pen to scroll through lists. Thankfully, the technology is smart enough to know when you're paging through a memo instead of writing. That way, you don't end up with random, unwanted markings on the page.
In general, the apps feel intuitive, with obvious paintbrush, text symbols and other shortcuts scattered throughout. Beneath that handful of icons, though, lie some fairly robust controls. You can choose the writing implement, brush thickness and text color, and even save "brushes" you think you'll use often. In the planner, you can press and hold to create events, as you'd expect, as well as add to different calendars (something you can also do in Google's native app). In the case of writing apps, there's an eraser icon, although you can also flip the pen over and use its pen like an eraser. Granted, we've seen this before, but it remains a favorite trick nonetheless.
Moving away from specific apps for a moment, you can take screenshots using a shortcut located at the bottom of the screen near where you'd tap for home, or to see which apps are running. Not a feature you'll use every day, though we can see it coming in handy for marking up webpages and doodling on photos, among others (to say nothing of the pleasure tech reviewers will take in being able to grab screenshots without the help of Android's SDK).
As for performance, we'll happily revisit what we're about to say when we get a Note in to review, but so far as we could tell today the screen seems responsive to pen input. We didn't have to bear down on the display to make our scribblings register, and we got by lightly tapping shortcuts with both fingers and the pen. Still, even with 1GB of RAM and a dual-core 1.4GHz chip, we noticed that some of the native apps were slow to load, which can be a drag, to the extent that a few-second delay can be irritating to someone used to instant digital gratification.
What's that, you say? You want to talk hardware? Well, that is what we do here, right? In any case, rest assured this doesn't mark much of a departure from the original 10.1 you know and love. Though the Note is indeed a bit thicker, the difference between the two silhouettes is subtle at best. Besides, the two have the same build quality, which is to say you won't find any unibody aluminum here, but it feels dependable and well-made just the same.
Regrettably, though, Samsung's swapped out the not-too-shiny plastic on the 10.1 for a darker, drabber, much more reflective cover. In its latest iteration, the 10.1 is a fingerprint magnet, and as you can see in our comparison pics, the smudges are just a bit more conspicuous than on the 10.1. Other than that, though, these two tablets have way more similarities than they do points of divergence. Take the bright, 1280 x 800 display, for instance, or the proprietary charging connector, or the simple selection of ports that includes a microSD slot, headphone jack and volume rocker. Make no mistake: these two tablets are clearly cousins -- first cousins, even.
Something tells us we'll have to live with this thing a while to truly do it justice, but tentatively it seems Samsung's carefully tailored the software to make it both useful and responsive to that pen-that-isn't-a-stylus (essentially, what we said about the smaller Note).
Of course, a price and performance / battery life benchmarks will help put this all in perspective, but for now we're just pleased Samsung's taken an already-solid tablet and found a way to incorporate pen input in such a way that the entire OS is one pen-optimized app. Is it worth it, though? We'll let you watch our demo and decide for yourselves.