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New Tablet Time


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#1 of 9 OFFLINE   Hanson

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Posted November 05 2013 - 02:00 PM

When first powered on my Transformer Prime almost two years ago, it quickly usurped my smartphone as the center of my mobile world. But as the months went by and I went from one Galaxy phone to another, my smartphone became much more capable for core functions like Web browsing, Facebook, and reading articles in Pocket and Flipboard. As a matter of fact, one of the updates in Pocket rendered it unusable on the Transformer Prime about 15 months ago, and Flipboard was never really all that smooth to begin with. Browsing felt sticky on the TPrime compared to my Samsung phones. But two functions, video and remote desktop, were still better experienced on the TPrime. And so that's what it evolved into, a specialized device that did little else, having lagged behind my smartphone in almost everything else. But after an estimated 400 hours of video playback and likely more than 4000 hours of remote desktop control, I've decided it's time to move on from my stalwart but aging tablet.
 
I had three serious candidates as replacements. The first was the latest refresh of the Transformer Prime. The second was the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition. The last candidate was the Nexus 10 2. I didn't consider any tablet without the 2560 X 1800 resolution and didn't want anything over 1.3 lbs. After looking at the iPad Air and drooling over the 1lb weight (an amazing engineering feat but not one that was enough to cover the myriad of functions and conveniences I would lose by moving to iOS), weight was a huge consideration with my new tablet. Storage was another consideration -- 16gb would be a non-starter. Even 32gb was skating very close to the edge of what I needed. Ideally, 64gb would be my sweet spot. 
 
The Transformer Prime was a prime candidate because of the keyboard dock. Having had one from the start, it was especially convenient to have that netbook style form factor that extended battery life as well. And the SD card slot would get me the 64gb total storage I was looking for. But there was no size or weight reduction to the new TPrime and no release date was forthcoming. 
 
The Nexus 10 2 only had 32gb (and very likely without a memory card slot), but if new Nexus 7 is any indication (also made by Asus), it should be very fast and sport the newest version of Android. However, it is also a no show with regard to release date, and the rumored specs showed it to be the same size as weight as the TPrime.
 
The Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition had the reduction in size and weight I was looking for (at 1.19lbs, it's the lightest Android tablet with 2560 X 1800 resolution) and it trims .8 inches of width from the bezel. It's also thinner and includes the SD card slot. It even comes with the S Pen stylus with active digitizer (leaps and bounds better than any capacitive pen). But the 32gb model was $100 more than other two (even though it's in line with the 32gb iPad Air) and reviews complained of instances of sluggishness and hanging during normal operation. On the other hand, I could buy it today.
 
In the end, I decided to buy the Note 10.1, for the most part due to the size and weight. It didn't hurt that it was actually for sale. I am encouraged that Samsung ironed out a lot of the bugs in the original Note 10.1 with updates released after launch (that tablet a few months later was almost a different device than the one that went to reviewers pre-launch). And current owners of the 2014 edition are on the whole very satisfied with their purchase. But I'm pretty sure that this tablet will blow away what I own now regardless. 


#2 of 9 OFFLINE   Hanson

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Posted November 05 2013 - 03:12 PM

I also strongly considered the 12.2" Samsung tablet. Ultimately, the ppi would have suffered, and I decided that it wasn't worth the increase in weight. And this one isn't even past the rumored stage.

#3 of 9 OFFLINE   Hanson

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Posted November 06 2013 - 11:40 AM

Okay got the tablet, but I don't have time to really play around with it, so it's just charging right now. I will say that it's smaller and lighter than I expected. It's quite comparable to the iPad Air, and even though it's 20% heavier, I don't really feel it. Conversely, even though it's only 9% lighter than the Transformer Prime, it feels even lighter. I assume it has something to do with the size shifting the center of gravity making it feel lighter in the hand. Or maybe it's just in my head. In any case, I give the Note 10.1 '14 five stars for form factor. 



#4 of 9 OFFLINE   Hanson

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Posted November 07 2013 - 01:42 PM

Compared to my Transformer Prime, the Note just flies. Setup and installation of 40+ apps took under 30 minutes. Scrolling through my downloaded and purchased apps in Google Play was a breeze (on my TP, it stuttered so badly it would take 10 minutes just to get to the end of the list). And the tablet never stuttered while multiple apps were downloading and installing the background. On my TP, even a background update of a single app would cause the tablet to hang and stutter.
 
One of my concerns about the Note was the fact that so many reviewers complained about tablet lagging while swiping screens and scrolling through the web browser. While this was concerning, I took the bet that Samsung would issue software updates to correct the lag issues like they did with the original Note 10.1. That tablet was destroyed in reviews for the hanging and lagging throughout the OS. But within a couple of months, Samsung corrected a lot of those issues. Even though it had gotten a terrible reputation, the Note owners would routinely defend the tablet whenever it was brought up as an example of a laggy tablet because a lot of it was fixed by software updates. 
 
In fact, there were three system updates waiting for me, and it took about 30 minutes to install them in succession. I have no idea what they fixed, but scrolling through Dolphin browser was silky smooth. I was even able to watch a Flash video on NFL.com in full screen with a single, brief buffering pause marring the otherwise smooth playback that was perfectly synced to the audio. As far as lag swiping between screens, this does not affect me since a) I don't use the Touchwiz Launcher, and b) the big reason I use Nova Launcher is to specifically have a one screen desktop and so I barely ever swipe to other screens. In the iOS world, swiping between screens is essential because thee app drawer is the launcher. In Android, you can have a single screen arranged with all the apps you use and hide the less used apps in the app drawer. Note too, that the iPad only has room for 20 icons, 16 on the screen and 4 in the dock. On 10.1" Android tablets, that number is 36 plus 6 in the dock (actually 7 if you count the app drawer shortcut). That's more than twice the number of icons. So scrolling between screens is much less important. Basically, I don't experience lag in the apps I use. Perhaps it still has some lag in TW Launcher and Chrome, but I don't use them so I don't see it. Apps like Flipboard and Pocket are smooth and fast on the Note, not only faster than on the TP, but faster than on my Galaxy S4. I couldn't even run Flipboard on the Prime because it stalled so much. Now it's like butter. Flipboard looks great in portrait mode, which I never really used on the Prime.
 
In fact, the Note 10.1 handles screen rotation as well as the iPad. My TP was too sensitive and rotated with the slightest provocation. And because it lagged during the screen rotation, it was painful to sit through two rotations to get it back to where I wanted it, which is why I ultimately disabled that feature and primarily used it in landscape mode. The rotation transitions on the Note are as smooth as the iPad, and the higher tolerances means less accidental screen rotations. 
 
Video, of course, it is fantastic on the 2560 X 1600 screen, with 720p material scaled perfectly to 2560 X 1440. No visible pixel structure anymore, and the screen isn't as reflective in bright ambient light, which means I don't have to crank up the brightness as much to compensate. This is definitely a big plus with regard to battery life. Similarly, comic books look amazing on the Note. Because of the resolution, I can read them in double spread pages in landscape, and all the lettering is still sharp and crystal clear. In portrait, the artwork absolutely pops. The 16:10 aspect gives you the most display area of any tablet, and the 299ppi is the only way to go. This is also true for pdf magazines -- I have never been able to read the articles without zooming in on my TP because the text was so fuzzy. Now, it looks almost as sharp as print.
 
But if there was one task/app that I primarily used my tablet for, it was remote desktop. And that meant Pocket Cloud because it was the RDP app with the best mouse/pointer implementation. I was excited to utilize the Note for RDP -- I figured the higher resolution would allow me to go past the 1280 X 720 I was constrained to on the TP. I knew 2650 X 1800 would be unusable, so I went for 1920 X 1200. Unfortunately, the screen updates were really laggy. So I bumped it down to 1440 X 900, but it was still laggy. To my horror, 1280 X 800 was still laggy -- I had to jiggle the desktop to get the screen to refresh when I scrolled down a page, and that made it unusable for the kind of hours I put into the app. If I couldn't do competent RDP on the Note, then it would have to go back.
 
Now, a couple of weeks ago, Microsoft released their official RDP app for Android, and I absolutely hated it. No custom resolutions, you had to toggle modes to move the screen around, and the keyboard would push the screen up instead of sitting on top of it. And it was slow. I gave it one star on Google Play, and would have given it zero if that were an option. And then a couple of updates changed everything.
 
The first thing, of course, was the new Note. The screen refreshes weren't slow anymore -- they were very close to real time. It could even competently play video with sound, something I could never do with Pocket Cloud on the TP. Things like scrolling felt as fluid as they did on a desktop RDP session. And finger accuracy was so good, I didn't need a pointer anymore (although there is a mouse pointer mode if you need finer touches, but the SPen also works in a pinch). The other part was the update to SwiftKey. Because of the undocked thumb mode, I could float the keyboard above the RDP screen and move it around if it was obscuring anything. And the thumb mode left the middle open, so I didn't lose half the screen every time the keyboard was enabled. All of a sudden, I was getting a desktop like experience with full finger control. RDP is now a much better experience than it ever was. In fact, if there is any single reason I am keeping the Note, it is because of RDP (which is appropriate since probably chews up 70% of my screen time).
 
But there are two drawbacks to the tablet. The first is the configuration of the capacitive buttons. Unlike just about every other Android tablet, Samsung decided to ditch the software buttons and include a physical home key and capacitive back and menu buttons in the bezel. The upside to this is the extra real estate you get on screen. It's actually great in most cases, but especially in remote desktop, where the extra 60 pixels makes a huge difference in what gets cut off at the bottom of the screen. And the menu button will conveniently bring up the function keys in the Microsoft RDP app. However, I was used to the soft buttons in the lower left hand corner like the TP (which is actually an ASUS thing) which allowed me to touch those buttons one handed. Now I have to use two hands for that, as it's impossible to reach them with your thumb from the side. 
 
The worst thing is that when you hold the tablet in portrait mode, it's very easy to accidentally hit the back button. In fact, it's almost unavoidable if you hold the tablet in your left hand the traditional way. I have to relearn how to hold it in portrait, with my thumb gently resting on the home key. I can hold the tablet flipped the other way so the keys are on the other side, but some apps are forced in a specific portrait orientation, so that's not a universal fix.
 
In the end, it's a trade-off -- more real estate and a handy menu key versus relearning how to hold it in portrait. For some people, this is an abomination and a design flaw. For me, it's a slight annoyance. I will get over it.
 
The biggest drawback, however, is battery. It's just not that good. It's par for the course for Android tablets with this resolution screen like the Nexus 10, but 7 hours screen time pales in comparison to the 11-12 hours you can get on the iPad Air. It's also well below the 9 hours from your average Android tablet, but that the price I pay for the gorgeous 299ppi screen. I also console myself in the fact that the universal microUSB port means that I can recharge in practically any home or office, which cannot be said for the proprietary 30 pin cable that came with the TP. I would have to special order it from ASUS if it ever got lost or damaged, which is a far cry from, say, throwing a rock and randomly hitting a microUSB charger. Still, when it comes right down to it, 7 hours isn't great shakes. Depending on your use case it can last anywhere from 2 days to... 7 hours. For me, this is not even a full day. I have invested in a 15K mAh external battery pack for those times when I will have an extended trip away from an outlet.

Edited by Hanson, November 07 2013 - 02:00 PM.


#5 of 9 OFFLINE   Hanson

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Posted November 12 2013 - 09:57 AM

The capacitive buttons are becoming more annoying than I thought they would be. I accidentally activate them constantly when the tablet is in portrait mode. Not as much of an issue in landscape, where they are where they're supposed to be. 

 

The battery life is not stellar, but it is not causing me pain, as I have yet to run out of juice in the middle of the day. So it's not great, but it's more than good enough. Being able to charge it almost anywhere is actually a big convenience, but I do wonder how bad it will get after, say, a year of use.

 

The Microsoft Remote Desktop program is AMAZING. Coupled with the undocked SwiftKey keyboard and the SPen, I am accomplishing tasks in half the time it took me to do them with Pocket Cloud. The pen is way faster than the virtual pointer, and the undocked keyboard means I don't have to move around the screen every time I want to type something. If they could fix the inconsistent long press for right click (about 20% of the time it flakes out and doesn't bring up right click menus), it would be absolutely perfect. Even with that small handicap, the MS RDP absolutely smokes any other remote desktop program for Android, at least on this tablet. It's not as good on my Transformer Prime, for instance, and the Xperia Tablet Z chokes on the default 1920 X 1200 resolution, making it difficult to select any links without having to zoom in. Thankfully, the Note display RDP in a 1280 X 800 resolution (a quarter of the full resolution) which renders elements large enough to be finger friendly, although the pen makes that moot anyway.

 

When I was younger, I was really into comics and all of my doodles (even to this day) were of superheroes. During a Google Play sale, I bought SketchBook Pro for .99, but really never used it. Now the two have come together on the Note -- I sketch out pencils with the SPen, and I can rest my hand on the screen because Pen Mode ignores my hand and fingers for drawing. Then I add a new layer on top for inking. Then I add layers under the inks for color. Objectively speaking, the art is on the amateurish side (there's a reason I never became a professional comic book artist), but the results themselves are amazing. My 16 year old self would have begged and begged my parents to get me to Note just for this functionality. I have a friend who also dabbles in comic book art, and I can't wait to show him the results. I let my daughters draw in a simpler app like Papyrus. Can we email those drawings straight to grandma? Yes we can.

 

There are a couple of build quality issues here -- the metal band around the tablet creaks sometimes on the left hand side, and the right speaker grill is loose and rattles a bit. I debating whether or not to contact my vendor for a replacement, as this appears to be a common issue but I don't have some of the other, more invasive problems. That said, this does not speak well to Samsung's quality control, as something like this would ever pass muster in Cupertino. Otherwise, it's a solidly built unit, without any give or flex. I do like that they have a door for the SD card -- in an act of engineering incompetence, ASUS left the SD card slot exposed, which meant if you jostled the side, it could activate the spring and the the SD card would pop out, something that happened to me a few times. That tablet also had a gap between the housing, so if it wasn't aligned well, you could jam the card into that empty space, and that required great effort to extract.

 

[color=rgb(0,0,0);font-family:Helvetica, Arial, 'Droid Sans', sans-serif;]I cannot say enough good things about the screen. It's less reflective than the TP, so I don't have to crank up the brightness as much to watch videos on the train. The 299 ppi makes for an absolutely gorgeous picture, and even mundane things like the home screen icons really pop on the Note. Remote desktop looks great -- I can see so much more detail with richer colors than the TP. The truth is, because the Note is the highest ppi display I use, the picture I get through remote desktop looks better than if I actually sat at my desktop.[/color]


Edited by Hanson, November 12 2013 - 09:57 AM.


#6 of 9 OFFLINE   Sam Posten

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Posted November 12 2013 - 05:02 PM

Hanson, you and I have disagreed over much but I will say this: You know what is important to you and you write it up well. Thanks for posting your thoughts here.

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#7 of 9 OFFLINE   Hanson

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Posted November 13 2013 - 02:50 PM

Thanks Sam.

 

I found a new way to hold the tablet on the train. I clasp my hands together resting on my legs and nestle the tablet between my arms and sitting on my lap. The trick here is the faux leather back -- the aluminium back of the Transformer Prime would cause it to slide around, so this was not a viable option. The back of the Note is just grippy enough to stay put.

 

Good thing too, because I fell asleep in the middle of The Blacklist. I woke up 10 minutes later with everything in the exact same position. I have dropped the TP onto the train floor 5 or 6 times after conking out. Not a scratch, however, and one time was a doozy. I thought for sure the screen was cracked when it landed. Lucky.

 

While I have used the stylus for drawing extensively (I was up until 2am last night working on a little something), I haven't really been using it for note taking. The reason is this -- after years of using keyboards and mobile devices as my primary means of input, I have discovered that my handwriting is awful. I mean, it is just pitiful. And I find it a taxing chore to hand write my notes, which is wasted effort anyway since the results are illegible. You can use it for this purpose and many of the owners are students or professionals who reach for this Note or the previous model for note taking and they love it. It's just awkward for me.

 

After a week with the device, I think I can come up with a pretty good Pros and Cons list:

 

Pros:

The screen is beautiful

Stylus is spot on and for the most part feels like a real pen

Lighter and smaller than comparable Android tablets

Flawless video playback

Microsoft RDP is fantastic

SD Card slot up to 64gb

Very fast and lag free (with Nova Launcher)

 

Cons:

Battery is just south of mediocre

Annoying placement of capacitive buttons in portrait

Build quality issues

 

Based solely on the screen, only the Nexus 10 compares. The Note 10.1 is a much better tablet, however. The only real competition is the iPad Air, but the biggest difference between the two devices comes down to operating system. I simply prefer Android wholeheartedly. The list of things I can do and am accustomed to doing on Android that either cannot be done as simply or flat out cannot be done is extensive. I will give the edge for tablet optimized apps and games to the iPad as that is the conventional wisdom (although I have yet to have my iPad owning friends show me any app that has me seething with envy other than Flipboard, which was ported to Android almost 2 years ago). It also takes the crown for battery life, weight, and accessories. But it's the ease of getting files on and off the tablet where Android is the clear winner. Wireless, wired, or, if I'm in a rush, via SD card, getting media onto my Note is a breeze. Also, for a device that I use heavily for video playback, the 16:10 screen at 299 ppi crushes the iPad Air. Not only is 16:9 material 22% larger, there are 56% more pixels on display. Comic books and magazines are also better reproduced on the Note. In my perspective, if the iPad Air weren't 16 freaking ounces, this wouldn't even be a contest. I would go for the 1.19lbs Note over the 1.46lbs iPad 4 without hesitation.  

 

But if you are looking for a 10.1" Android tablet, I would say this is the cream of the crop. That said, the next wave of 2560 X 1600 tablets will ultimately decide how good it is in context. 


Edited by Hanson, November 14 2013 - 06:14 AM.


#8 of 9 OFFLINE   Hanson

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Posted November 17 2013 - 07:22 PM

Although I was impressed with the Note out of the box, a lot of what I liked was based on improving the inadequacies with my Transformer Prime. But as time goes by, I'm more and more impressed with what the tablet can do rather than what the tablet does better. In fact, I'm starting to be blown away with a lot of features and all of the  exponential rather than iterative improvements.As I've touched upon, comic books and magazines are reproduced remarkably on the Note. Due to the resolution, this is the closest thing to print you're going to find. The amount of minute detail you can resolve is exceptional, and I have never needed to magnify or zoom into the page. And after years of using Comic Rack Free, I finally caved a purchased the rather pricey paid version for the princely sum of $8. Samsung's $25 Google Play credit gift for registering the Note took the sting out of that purchase.On the video front, the lack of visible pixel structure makes for a crystal clear picture, and the playback is absolutely rock solid without a single pause, hitch, or stutter.The SPen is something I dismissed as a non-essential accessory when I ordered the Note, and it had zero factor in my decision. But I've been using it quite a lot for Sketchbook Pro. I've also been pulling it out for Remote Desktop, for those touch targets that are just too small to consistently hit with my finger. I recently used remote desktop to perform some system maintenance at work. It easily took half the time compared to Pocket Cloud on my old tablet.I've have gotten fairly used to using my phone for web browsing and reading articles. But I might want to rethink that because browsing on the Note is much faster than my phone and doesn't require any pinch and zoom to read. I filled out a tax rebate on Dolphin with the exact same experience as on the desktop. The only difference was that at the end, I couldn't print or save my receipt page. After thinking about it, I simply took a screenshot.As a device to supplant my Transformer Prime, the Note 10.1 surpasses it in every way. As a tablet in and of itself, I'm still scratching the surface of what it can do. It's exceptionally powerful and very fast, and whether it's due to the updates or the installation of Nova Launcher, the lag reported in the reviews has not been seen on my unit.All in all, I am extremely pleased with my purchase. It never fails to put a smile on my face whenever I use it.


Edited by Hanson, November 17 2013 - 07:29 PM.


#9 of 9 OFFLINE   Hanson

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Posted December 04 2013 - 11:35 AM

If there is one thing that I am disappointed in, it's the battery. Part of it is the lack of endurance -- I can squeeze 8-9 hours of screen time  out of this thing, but that's at 12% brightness. If I up it to a more vibrant and pleasing 25% brightness, the battery doesn't quite make 7 hours screen time. But that's only half of the problem -- due to the large capacity battery and the microUSB plug, it takes an awful long time to get to 100% charge. My Transformer Prime gets to 100% in half the time with it's proprietary cable.

 

However, the added features outweigh this one glaring weakness. It's really difficult for me to go back to my Transformer Prime after using the Note 10.1. The 1280 X 800 screen just looks like a pixelated mess now. I cannot stop seeing the screen door effect when I look at it. I am also really hooked on the SPen. I rarely used it on the Note 2, and after a few weeks, it never slid out of the holster. But on the Note 10.1, I rarely use it without pen in hand (although that mostly because I am on remote desktop all the time).

 

In a perfect world, Samsung fixes the battery issue next year and I figure out some way to upgrade. But right now, I'm staring at 18 months down the road when I'm either getting 5 hours screen time or I'm turning the brightness down to the barest minimum so I can eke out 7 hours. I will have to cross that bridge when I get to it, because experience is too compelling to let that be a deal breaker.






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