Tablets are a tough market. Unless you are Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Lenovo, or ASUS, the tablet market hasn’t been very kind to you. Just because you do well in smartphones or personal computers doesn’t guarantee you will do well in tablets, either. Tablet makers will do everything to differentiate their tablets. Amazon subsidizes their cheap tablets with a proprietary app and media store and also has direct video chat with a “helper” called “Mayday”. Apple had first mover tablet advantage and now differentiates on experience, quality, the biggest tablet app store, and brand. Samsung has adopted the “spray and pray” approach that actually works well for huge, 800 pound gorilla companies. Whatever the input method, screen size, or price, Samsung will have something to offer you. One of Samsung’s biggest methods of differentiation is on input method, featured in the Samsung Galaxy Note product line using the S-Pen.
The Samsung Galaxy Note line of tablets use a pen, the “S-Pen”, to control the tablet, but also to draw with, take notes and annotate. I had the chance to use the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 for a month and I wanted to share information that should help you decide whether you buy one or not. This isn’t a comprehensive review. You can find those all over the web. This is is a list of important things based on my nearly 25 years strategizing, analyzing, planning, developing, launching and managing 100′s of products in my career.
Here are some things I think you need to know:
- 8″ Display: The Galaxy Note has an 8″ screen like the iPad mini, but larger than both the Nexus 7 (7″) and Tegra Note (7″), giving it around 8 square inches or 37% more viewable image area.
- Decent Camera: Most tablets have crummy cameras, particularly Android tablets, and Apple and Nokia have really had the lock on decent tablet cameras. The Samsung Galaxy Note has a pretty good camera. It’s not great like the iPad, but it’s good, and certainly better than the Nexus 7.
- Cool, Geeky Features: If you are into exploring technology, the Samsung Galaxy Note is a great choice as it is a geek’s Swiss Army Knife of geeky features. You may use some or none of those features, but they’re fun to play with. First, it has WiFi Direct, meaning you can connect to any other WiFi Direct device without the need for a router which is very, very fast. I sent pictures from a Galaxy 4 camera phone to the Note using WiFI Direct. I would take the picture then a few seconds I would hear a chirp indicating it had been transferred to the Note. The Note also has Miracast screen sharing meaning you can show what is on the tablet on a TV that has Miracast or on a DMA like my Netgear Push2TV. The Note also has “Smart Screen” where as long as you look at the tablet, the screen will stay on, won’t dim or shut off. You can even take a picture by saying, “Cheese”, “Capture”, “Smile” and “Shoot”. It does work, for real.
- Fitness Device Compatibility: Unlike most Android devices, the Note works with the FitBit and other BT LE health devices.
- Finicky Pen Interaction: The S-Pen isn’t as easy to use as pen and paper and takes some getting used to. First, the “S-Pen” is tiny at 5.5mm. It’s like writing with one of your kid’s broken pencils they use in kindergarten. It’s short, skinny, and narrow. Secondly, only apps deigned to work with the S-Pen will work to take notes and draw. Standardized on Evernote or Microsoft OneNote? You are out of luck as you cannot use the S-Pen to write notes or draw pictures inside of OneNote or Evernote. Samsung does include apps with the Note, like aNote HD, S Note, and paper Artist, but they’re not best-of-breed apps. You can take screen shots inside of any app by pressing on the S-Pen’s button, circle what you want to annotate, and then annotate it.
- Feels Dated: As Apple, HTC, Motorola and stock Google Android phones moved to more modern looking icons combined with the always-modern look of Windows Phone look and feel, the Samsung Galaxy Note did not. But if you like the skeuomorphic look of the Apple of yore, you are in luck, all the way down to the feather screen background and leather-looking cover of aNote HD and S Note. Heck, even the pen is brown and the packaging has wood grain as if it is inspired by wood.
- Feels Plasticky: Most tablets are made of some kind of plastic, but they don’t all feel like it. The Samsung Galaxy Note definitely feels plasticky. Compare that with the Google Nexus 7 (2013) and the Nvidia Tegra Note 7 that are both made from plastic, but have rubberized coatings so they are less slippery, more resistant to fingerprints, and don’t feel cheap. iPads definitely don’t feel cheap as they are made from machined aluminum, not cheap-feeling plastic.
- Back Button Reversed: Most every new Android phone and tablet device available today has the back button on the left side of the tablet. The Samsung Galaxy Note has its back button on the right. I cannot tell you how incredibly difficult this was to get used to given every single Android device I have has it on the other side. The following Android manufacturer brands have the “back” button on the left: Google, Lenovo, Motorola, Asus, HTC, Sony, LG, Huawei, ZTE, Coolpad, Tianyu, Gionee, Oppo, Xiaomi, BBK, Haier, Konka, TCL, Kyocera, and Pantech. The following Android manufacturer brands have the “back” button on the right: Samsung. Sometimes being different isn’t good, it’s just confusing.
- Low Display Resolution and PPI: Tablets priced between $399 and $349 have screen resolutions like 1,920×1,280 with the Nexus 7 or 2,048×1,536 with the iPad mini with Retina. The Samsung Galaxy Note operates at 1,280×800. Why does this matter? Well, on the mini and Nexus 7, you will see between 2.4 -3X more detail, or pixels, on the display when compared to the Galaxy Note. There is a big pixel per inch difference, too as the mini (Retina) and Nexus 7 (2013) have between 72-75% higher PPI, meaning you will see more details and cannot be pixels.
- Odd Gestures: To take a screen shot users need to make their hand into a karate chop and swipe from left to right or left to right. I’m not kidding you. Muting music is a bit less odd, as you place your entire hand on the screen. When you do this, be prepared to have any palm sweat transferred to your tablet display.
- Pricey: The Galaxy Note is expensive and has a suggested retail price of $399, but you can find it at $349 at certain retail stores. You can get an iPad mini for $299, and iPad mini with Retina for $399, and an Nvidia Tegra Note 7 for $199. The Galaxy Note is overpriced, but if you can get it at $249, it would be a good deal.
- Slow Benchmark Performance: The Galaxy Note 8 is a very poor benchmark performer when compared to other products in its class like the iPad mini with Retina display, Nexus 7 (2013), and the Nvidia Tegra Note 7. This low benchmark performance plays out in benchmark after benchmark. I attribute this to a very slow, home-grown, Samsung chip, the Samsung Exynos 4412, which uses an ARM Cortex A9, used primarily in mid-range phones, not premium-priced tablets. Other premium tablets use a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 600, Nvidia Tegra 4, or other ARM Cortex A15 based SoCs. I do want to add that the Note did have “snap” when opening folders and moving between panes, which I attribute to decent 2D graphics.
- Short Battery Life: I thought the battery life felt short when I used it. Anand over at AnandTech pegged battery life pretty low with his benchmarks and reinforced my non-technical experiential perceptions. The Note has particularly low battery life when hitting 3D functions that can be found in games. I also attribute this to the Samsung Exynos 4412.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 isn’t a bad product, it just isn’t remotely competitive where it is priced. Priced between $399-349, if you are looking for pen interaction with really good performance at nearly half the price, you are better off with Nvidia’s Tegra Note 7. If you are looking for the top of the line experience, great overall performance, the highest quality workmanship, you are better off going with the iPad mini with Retina at $399. If you are looking for a very good balance of features and performance, you are better off getting the Nexus 7 (2013) at $249. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 could be a real winner if it were priced $249-299. Let me know What you think below.
NOTE: While most of my product evaluations go directly to my analyst client base, I will do some evaluations publicly for a broader audience like Forbes. These public evaluations are for high-volume, well-distributed or unique products.