Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 review (from TheVerge)

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The story of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 really starts with a different device — the Galaxy Note 10.1. Samsung advertised a power-user’s dream device: letting you edit documents or draw with a pen, do more than one thing at a time, and even take handwritten notes like it’s 1746 or something. Oh, and be a tablet and do all the things a tablet should. The Galaxy Note 10.1 did all of those things, but didn’t do a single one well, which left a previously very excited Nilay Patel very sad indeed.

A few months and a lot of angry feedback go a long way, and Samsung’s had a chance to right its wrongs. The Galaxy Note 8.0, which will be available April 11th for $399, is the result of those efforts: an 8-inch tablet that offers all the features of the Note 10.1 and ostensibly none of its issues. It has a faster processor, a newer version of Android, and hopefully the results of six months of tweaking from Samsung’s engineers.

So I broke out my reading glasses and my red pen, readied some documents (it’s always good to have documents sitting around for such occasions), and set out to see if Samsung’s created a tablet for more than just watching Netflix and reading Pocket. Here’s how it went.

The plastic problem

Samsung is nothing if not consistent. Like the Galaxy S III, the S4, the Note, the Note II, the Note 10.1, the Tab 2 10.1, and an enormous list of other devices, the Note 8.0 doesn’t feel at all like a premium device. The plastic body feels even worse here than it does on Samsung’s phones, because instead of wrapping your hand around its entire body you’ll spend most of your time with your fingers pressed against its slick, glossy back. Not only does the white body pick up fingerprints and dust at a remarkable rate, it just feels gross, like your hand is constantly sweating as you hold the device. Even the slightest bit of texture would have helped — a fact Samsung figured out with the Galaxy S4 — but as it stands the Note 8.0 is far less comfortable or pleasant to hold and use than the soft-touch Nexus 7 or the smooth, metallic iPad mini. To its credit, though, it’s still into a well-constructed, solid device, and gave me no pause as I tossed it into my crowded bag. But for $399, I expect a premium device like the Galaxy Tab 7.7, not a toyish slate like the Note 8.0.

If I learned one thing from Josh’s iPad mini review, it was that our venerable Editor-in-chief has absolutely gigantic hands. I can hold my mini by the back, sure, but my fingers barely extend around its three sides and I can’t grip it like that for very long. The Note 8.0 is exactly the same way: the 5.4-inch-wide tablet is much more suited to being held by a corner, or in two hands, rather than gripped from the back like you hold your phone. (Unless you have insane giant hands like Josh, anyway.) At 12 ounces and just shy of 8mm thick, it’s thin and light enough to be easily held in one hand, and thanks to the slightly wider bezels around the screen I actually found it easier to wield one-handed than my iPad mini, which is almost exactly as wide but slightly thinner.

The Note 8.0’s design is very much like the Galaxy S4’s, from the plasticky body to the layout of the ports and buttons on the device. There’s a big Samsung logo above the display, next to a light sensor and the front-facing camera lens — I don’t love the asymmetry of the layout, but it’s not the end of the world. Below the screen are a physical home button and two capacitive buttons, for Menu and Back; you long-press the Home button to get to the multitasking menu, and double-tap to open S Voice, Samsung’s weird Siri knockoff. On the right side as you hold the tablet vertically, a power button and volume rocker are placed altogether too close to each other, next to the device’s IR blaster; the left is barren except for a microSD slot. There’s a headphone jack on top, and two speakers plus a Micro USB port (mercifully replacing the proprietary connector) and the S Pen slot on the bottom. I wish the headphone jack were on the bottom as well, where it wouldn’t dangle annoyingly in front of the screen so often, but in general Samsung laid the device out pretty well.

Samsung keeps building acceptable devices that could be great, if only the company would use slightly better materials – aluminum, maybe, or even the soft-touch rubber on the Nexus 7. The plasticky bodies keep selling, though, so either people don’t care or Samsung’s other features outweigh that vague feeling of sliminess. The latter may well be the case, too — the Note 8.0’s feature list is long.

Samsung can do better than this, but doesn’t seem to care

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Sound and Vision

Fine for now, but the next generation is almost here

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I don’t quite know how to feel about the Galaxy Note 8.0’s display. On one hand, the 8-inch, 1280 x 800 panel is as good as almost any of its direct competitors, and as is typical with Samsung displays the TFT screen has great viewing angles and very (maybe even overly) vivid, contrasted colors. At the same time, though, most of its similarly-outfitted competitors are many months old now, and nearly every one — from the Kindle Fire to the Nexus 7 to the iPad mini — is likely to be outfitted with a better, higher-res screen in the near future. Given that, and the fact that many high-end phones (including Samsung’s) now come with 1080p screens, it’s hard to tell you to cast your lot with the Galaxy Note 8.0 and its only-good-enough-for-now display.

I do know how to feel about the Note’s speakers, though, as well as its cameras. They’re all terrible. The two speakers at the bottom of the tablet are neither very loud nor very good, and since most of the time you’ll be in landscape mode while watching movies or playing games, you’re not exactly getting stereo sound — just anemic audio times two. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the Galaxy Note 8.0 only has cameras because Samsung had a bunch of leftover 5-megapixel sensors from the original Galaxy S. The camera is pretty bad — it takes soft, noisy pictures even in great lighting — but odds are good there’s at least one better camera in arm’s reach. On any phone made in the last three years.

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Doin’ work

Samsung made a big bet that “The Post-PC Era” is a real thing

The Galaxy Note 8.0 is definitely for reading and casually browsing the web. It’s also for much more than that — this is a Galaxy Note, after all, not the lowly, lazy Galaxy Tab. It’s a tablet for getting things done, made for People Who Get Things Done. It offers tools to that end that none of its rivals match, from an honest-to-goodness multitasking system to the S Pen. I have to say, too, the Note 8.0 is the first tablet I’ve ever felt almost works as productively as my laptop. Almost.

Every phone and tablet manufacturer talks about multitasking, but what they mean is essentially task-switching. You’re not doing more than one thing at a time, you’re just moving between things more quickly. On the Note 8.0, you are really truly multi-tasking, using more than one window at once — you can browse the web and take notes at the same time, or look up an address in Maps without having to go through Android’s awkward copy-and-paste process. It doesn’t work with every app, but it works with Chrome, Gmail, Maps, and a handful of other key ones — that’s a big leap beyond what the Galaxy Note 10.1 used to offer, though still not nearly where I’d like it to be. It also, well, works: there’s no half-second lag while the system switches between one app and the other, as there was on the Note 10.1, and both apps work fluidly. You’re legitimately doing two things at a time, for maybe the first time ever on an Android tablet. (This was until now the biggest advantage a Windows tablet like the Surface RT offered.)

For once, it’s actually multitasking

It works via an on-screen menu, which you access by holding the back button. When you activate it, a menu pops up on the left side of the screen, and you tap an app to open it. Then you drag a second app to the top or bottom, where it splits the screen. You can resize the windows to your heart’s content — my standard move was to have a small 16:9 video playing while I triaged my email — or quickly swap them or jump back to fullscreen mode. It’s really fluid and insanely useful, much more than the Windows 8 snap modes or any other mobile platform’s misnomered “multitasking” setups.

I’d argue multitasking should be at the forefront of how Samsung sells the Note 8.0 against the iPad mini or the Nexus 7, but the company makes a much bigger deal out of the S Pen. It’s the same Wacom-made pressure-sensitive stylus I’ve seen in so many other Samsung devices, slotted into the bottom right corner of the Note 8.0. You can use the stylus for almost any activity — Android basically treats the pen like a finger, except for the AirView feature that lets you hover over a link or menu and see what’s underneath. Using it that way is kind of missing the point, though, and using a pen on a tablet is sort of awkward anyway — the S Pen gets in the way of some things, like typing, and it’s not really any better at getting you around Android. The S Pen is mostly meant as a drawing and scribbiling tool, and for that the tiny pen is great.

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When you unsheath the S Pen (which I will forever call the Spen, and thus assume it’s a Swedish stylus), the Note 8.0 makes a noise and immediately jumps to S Note (Snote), a note-taking app. The app reminds me a bit of OneNote, letting you draw or type or annotate screenshots, and providing a handful of templates to help you do so without making a mess. S Note is in theory a great app, but it actually lends a falsely negative sense of what the S Pen and Note 8.0 can really do. In S Note, the app quickly starts to lag behind the stylus, which means that instead of scribbling quickly you have to draw pretty deliberately for the app to keep up. Luckily it’s just S Note, and even heavier apps like Photoshop Touch work much better — it’s a shame Photoshop Touch doesn’t come bundled like it does on the 10.1, but it’s worth the $9.99 if you really want to take advantage of the S Pen and its 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity.

Productivity tool? No. Awesome drawing fun? Yes!

Nearly every software feature from the Note 10.1 shows up on the smaller model as well, except for one I quite liked: the “mini apps” that pop a video player, calendar, or notepad over top of whatever app you’re using. The feature’s made mostly redundant by the dual-windowing feature, but in some cases I like being able to pin a video player in the corner while I deal with full-screen Gmail.

When we reviewed the Galaxy Note 10.1, we found software problems basically everywhere we looked, from odd UX noises to constant lag and awkwardness. In almost every case, Samsung has fixed those problems – with a much-too-late software update for the Note 10.1, and from the getgo on the 8.0. This device is smooth, fast, powerful, and consistent no matter what it’s doing. It surely doesn’t hurt that the Note 8.0 is runs a more recent version of Android — 4.1.2 Jelly Bean — and a more powerful 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor, either. (This is basically the same spec sheet as the Note II, which is something to be happy about.) But the Note 10.1’s development over time makes it abundantly clear that with Android, it’s all about the software, and if you’re going to customize the software you’d better do it well. After swinging and missing pretty badly, Samsung finally figured it out.

Mostly, anyway. I still can’t stand the incessant bloops and ripples that make up the Nature UX, or Samsung’s constant instructions — if I’m told one more time to tilt to scroll the browser, I’ll lose my mind. (That’s the fastest I’ve ever checked the “Don’t show me this again” box, ever.) Almost every action involves some strange sound effect — they can mostly be turned off, but it’s a pain, and in all likelihood that terrible chirping noise is going to end up being your notification sound as well. I muted my Note 8.0 early and resolutely, and I’m a happier person for it.

I also can’t stand that so many of Google’s apps are replaced by Samsung’s universally inferior versions, like the hideous S Planner and Music Player. I’d hold out hope that Samsung will make like HTC and begin to scale back its overbearing Android customizations, but the company appears clearly headed the other way — it’s creating a “Samsung experience” that is completely separate from what Google offers.

There are a lot of apps and services involved in that “Samsung experience,” most of which I don’t particularly care for. There’s the Samsung Apps app, which exists for reasons beyond my understanding, as well as apps actually called Screen Saver and Samsung Cares Video. S Voice demotes the much more useful Google Now, the Hub apps are mostly just ersatz Play Store competitors — I just wish Samsung would tone it all down a bit. I do like the Peel app, which works as a visual TV Guide and integrates with the IR blaster to let you control your TV and cable box; the new WatchOn app gives you some useful search and discovery features to help you find stuff to watch. If only Samsung had kept the international Note 8.0’s ability to make phone calls, I might say the good outweighs the bad, but as is it’s a close call.

When the Note 8.0’s battery first died on me, I thought I had done something wrong – it couldn’t have died after only a day and a night of mostly sitting in its box, not when my iPad mini and Nexus 7 both last the better part of a week. Even now, I’m still a little confused. I got about 36 hours of use when I used it heavily, including one about six-hour stretch where I never put it down, which is solid longevity for any tablet. But even when I used it much less, it only lasted about two days. On the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent, it lasted just about six hours, which would be a great score for a cellphone but for a tablet is a bit lacking. Basically, no matter how heavily you use the Note 8.0, expect somewhere between a day and a half and two days of battery from it.

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Good Stuff

  • S Pen is a great drawing tool
  • Fast, consistent performance
  • Light and thin

Bad Stuff

  • Samsung software is overbearing
  • Weak, poor speakers
  • Display resolution is quickly becoming obsolete
A true ‘lean-forward’ tablet experience, if that’s possible

The Note 8.0 is very much the realization of what the Note 10.1 promised: a tablet that’s actually, really, truly, genuinely useful for doing things. Not a lot of things, necessarily — broader support for multitasking, or at least integration with some suite of office apps, would go a long way — but things. If productivity is what you want most from your tablet, look no further.

But as far as I can tell, most people don’t buy tablets for help in getting their work done — everyone I talk to wants a tablet for reading, watching movies, getting a few things done when they don’t want to open their laptop and Get Things Done, and maybe spending too much time playing Ridiculous Fishing. For all those things, there are better tablets out there: the iPad mini’s app support still blows Android’s out of the water (and its stylus capability is better than you think), and even though the Nexus 7 is starting to show its age it’s still my favorite tablet hardware out there. Plus, we’re hearing there’s a much-improved Nexus 7 coming sooner rather than later.

Samsung’s smartly building on the success of its tweener lineup, and has clearly found a market of people who want to do more with their devices. The Galaxy Note 8.0 is destined to be a hit for those people — despite some build quality issues and unexceptional specs, this is a very good tablet, and a uniquely capable one. But like the other Note devices, it’s still a niche product. If you just want a device to read books, watch movies, and maybe answer a few emails, there are better ways to do them all than on the Note 8.0 — and whether you buy an iPad mini, a Kindle Fire HD, or a Nexus 7, you’ll save a considerable chunk of change in the process.

TheVerge

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