The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is a smart phone that's now sporting the very latest version of Google's operating system --Android 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean.
We first reviewed the Nexus in December 2011 when it arrived with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but since this notable Google blower is the first to run the swanky new software, we've taken it out for a spin again.
The handset's hardware features are still impressive, including a 720x1,280-pixel resolution 4.65-inch screen and a 1080p video camera. But now the 1.2GHz dual-core processor has been bettered by a new crop of quad-core phones, is the Nexus still the draw it once was?
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is up for grabs on two-year pay-monthly contracts starting at £20.50. You can pick it up on pay as you go for around £490, or bag it SIM-free from £480.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy Nexus?
If you've already owned the Nexus One or Nexus S, chances are you already know the answer to the question above and have dutifully placed your order. The allure of getting the latest flavour of pure Android is temptation enough for many dedicated fans to purchase the Galaxy Nexus.
Make no mistake, the Nexus is a seriously impressive handset. It trumps the Nexus S in every conceivable manner. That 4.65-inch Super AMOLED screen has to be seen to be believed. It offers a 720p HD resolution with unbeatable viewing angles.
The buttons at the bottom of the screen aren't actually buttons -- they're part of the display and vanish when it switches off.
We were blown away by the speed and slickness of the Android Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) software on the Galaxy Nexus back in December 2011. Now the latest version, Jelly Bean, has landed and performance is even slicker. Google has obviously sweated buckets to improve responsiveness, especially with web browsing, where Android phones are all too often irritatingly laggy.
On this Android handset at least, web pages respond to your swipes and taps as if they're glued to the ends of your fingertips. It's impressively quick and feels effortless. A+ for Google on that score.
While the Nexus shames practically every previous Android phone in terms of responsiveness, it struggles in some key areas. The all-plastic design is disappointing when placed alongside the iPhone 4S and HTC Sensation.
Samsung has a habit of avoiding the use of brushed metal on its phones. In this instance, I'd have liked to have seen a little more sophistication in the case design -- especially when you consider the Nexus retails for around the same price as the aluminium and tempered-glass iPhone.
The bottom of the handset showcases the 3.5mm headphone jack and the micro-USB socket.
When the Nexus arrived in the UK, it suffered from a deeply annoying bug that dropped the volume when we were using 2G, meaning it was almost impossible to make calls. That meant we couldn't recommend it initially, but Google quickly fixed the problem.
There's little doubt the Galaxy Nexus is a very compelling phone -- Android purists would doubtless say it's the best handset money can buy right now. However, Samsung's quad-core behemoth, the Galaxy S3, should get a Jelly Bean update fairly soon -- so some Android lovers may prefer to opt for the latter, more powerful handset and keep their fingers crossed.
Of course, the advantage of owning the Galaxy Nexus is not just getting Jelly Bean right now -- you should receive future Android updates, such as the mooted Key Lime Pie, before other 'droids.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus' cachet is that, as a Google-branded blower, it's first in the queue for Android updates. It was not only the first phone with Android 4.0 (an OS that's relatively new and still only on less than a fifth of Android phones), but the Nexus has already been updated to Jelly Bean, Google's codename for Android 4.1. It's the latest and greatest edition of the company's mobile operating system.
Here's the Nexus' lock screen (left), and Android Jelly Bean's multi-tasking menu in all its glory (right).
If you're familiar with the basic, Tron-esque look and feel of ICS, you won't see an immediate change with Jelly Bean as Google's kept the same look of 3D panels and ice blue highlights. Likewise, swiping around the home screens, apps and widget menus feels fast and slick.
The Face Unlock feature still struggles with changes in expressions, not to mention face furniture like glasses.
Headline ICS features such as Face Unlock, which let you unlock the Nexus by looking at it, and full device encryption are still present and correct. But Jelly Bean builds on ICS with new features and improvements in speed and responsiveness. Google's claim is that Android 4.1 delivers "buttery graphics" and "silky transitions". Flicking around the Nexus certainly feels slick.
Swiping around the Nexus' home screens and menus has never felt so quick, with Android 4.1 stepping on the gas.
Google has added triple buffering to Android's graphics pipeline to give smoother, more consistent rendering. It's also enforcing a consistent frame rate across all drawing and animation so on-screen elements remain speedy and in sync.
When you swipe or flick the screen of the Nexus Google, it now makes an informed guess on the trajectory of your fingers to improve touchscreen responsiveness. Add to that, if your phone has been idle, the CPU gets a little booster kick so it's wide awake right off.
These are all very welcome tweaks -- and it really does feel that the OS's reputation for dragging its feet has been given the heave ho, on this Android device, at least.
Android 4.1 means you can swipe directly from the camera view (left) to the gallery view (right).
Another area that's had a speed boost with the 4.1 update is the camera. After snapping a shot, you can now swipe straight from the lens view to the gallery view to see the photo you've just taken or view all your shots. Snapping is also instantaneous, with no discernible lag between pressing the shutter and the picture being grabbed.
After this speed injection, the headline feature of Jelly Bean is Google Now. This is a new service that analyses your emails, calendar appointments, location info and search history to act like a virtual butler, pushing cards of relevant data out to the phone in an easily digested, easy-on-the-eye form.
Allow Google to spy on your location (left) and it'll reward you by serving up cards of relevant info such as the weather where you are (right).
Cards refers to how the data is presented: on a square, typically with a photo and a few bits of basic info. Tap on the card to drill down further and view a more detailed web page. The cards also let you tap to check into places. If you check in, you'll be broadcasting your whereabouts via Google+ to either the general G+ user or specific circles of buddies.
Examples of the sort of cards Google Now pushes in your direction include cafes and restaurants in your immediate vicinity. You have to enable location in the settings to use Google Now because it needs to know where you are to serve up relevant stuff. For example, using the Nexus at CNET Towers in Southwark, I'm shown the weather for London and five additional cards, four of which are local eateries, while one is a hotel.
Google Now uses these dandy cards to put relevant snippets of info in front of your eyeballs.
The hotel isn't a very useful card to be shown since this is my place of work, ergo I'm not a tourist. But Google Now is supposed to improve over time as it gleans more insights into your daily grind. After a while, it will apparently start pushing more sophisticated cards in your direction -- including squares containing recent match information about the sports team you support; flight data showing the departure and arrival time of flights you've searched for; and traffic info showing how long it will take to drive home.
To view cards, you either tap on the Google search bar on the home screen, or swipe up over the bottom bezel of the phone at any point. The latter can be a little fiddly to trigger at first, but once you've got the gesture in muscle memory, it's second nature. Cards appear in a scrollable stack, concertinaed together if there are several for you to flick through (as shown above).
Jelly Bean also makes use of cards in certain instances when you're using voice search -- taking inspiration from Apple's Siri. For example, ask the Nexus how old Kevin Costner is and you'll be presented with a card showing a mugshot of Costner's beaming face, next to age info and an option to read more about him. If you just want to see normal Google search results, you can scroll down past the card to see the standard text-heavy search results stream.
Bark a question at your Nexus and -- if you're lucky -- it'll deliver the answer to you on a handsome card.
Google Now seems like a really neat feature to cut through info overload by presenting (hopefully) relevant data in a clean, easy-to-digest format. It remains to be seen whether it will get super-savvy as it gets to know more about you.
As a quick, elegant way to find a restaurant when you're out and about, it already looks handy. Tapping on the 'more details' link on a restaurant card brings up a full page of info including the address, website and user reviews. You also get a button to view the location on a map, a button to get directions (either by car, walking or public transport options), a button to call the place so you can book a table, and a button to write a review. There's also a tab to view a grid of photos of the place and an option to upload your own snap.
Tap on a restaurant card and you can drill down further, viewing photos of the eatery or getting walking directions.
Jelly Bean's extras don't stop with Google Now. The notifications tray has been given a spit and polish, with extra info added to each new item in the stack -- such as the subject line of an email -- and visual items like photos allocated extra space. These large notifications can be collapsed down to the standard bar manually, or they'll squeeze up as the tray fills up.
The Android notifications tray has had a refresh, with certain elements such as photos becoming more prominent.
That's not all. Google has tweaked the widgets in Jelly Bean so they're more dynamic. So, for example, you can flick widgets off the top of the screen to get rid of them. If you're trying to add a new widget to a home screen that already has some on it, the existing widgets will make room for the newcomer by moving out of the way -- a civilised touch. If there isn't enough room for the new one, the existing widgets won't excuse themselves by shuffling onto another home screen, you'll simply get a message saying the screen is full.
Other tweaks in Jelly Bean include widgets that shuffle out of the way when you're trying to cram another in (left), and support for offline dictation.
Another Jelly Bean tweak is a more advanced predictive keyboard to better guess the next word you're typing. Word prediction also improves the more you use it, according to Google. And if you want to speak rather than type your missive, Jelly Bean adds supports for offline voice typing, so you don't need a Wi-Fi or 3G connection to dictate emails or messages.
The browser has had some TLC too. As well as improved rendering speed, scrolling and zooming -- part of the general Jelly Bean responsiveness improvements -- you also get slicker HTML5 video support, with touch to play or pause and smoother transitions from embedded to full-screen mode.
Google has updated the YouTube app, with a column of channels on the left and a video stack you can drag over at the right-hand edge.
Google has updated the YouTube app in Jelly Bean, with a panel of channels on the left and a video stream on the right a mere swipe away.
Google+ has been refreshed. The basic look presents posts in a very readable form, which resembles a stack of Google Now cards. Jelly Bean brings some general app changes too -- developers are required to make app updates leaner, so there's less for users to download every time they update.
The Google+ app has been refreshed again (left), while Android 4.1 puts new requirements on app makers to slim down app updates.
Elsewhere, if you're familiar with Ice Cream Sandwich, using the Nexus will mean you're on home territory. But if you currently own a Gingerbread-flavoured phone, then you'll have the shiny new look and feel to get accustomed to, plus changes such as with contacts and the ability to preview widgets.
Simplification could be the keyword to describe the changes ICS has ushered in (and Jelly Bean continues). Google has nipped and tucked wherever possible, changing the layout of the settings menu and generally attempting to make the entire OS more user-friendly.
The Android contacts application has undergone a drastic visual overhaul since the Gingerbread days.
On the whole, these changes are an amazing success. There are loads of neat little tweaks such as being able to decline a call with one of several stock text message replies. You can also access the camera directly from the lock screen. This feels like the most intuitive Android yet.
However, there are still some little problems. There's no native Android file manager in 4.1, which seems like a really odd decision when you consider that most third-party manufacturers are adding them to their own user interfaces.
Google's high-ranking developers have publicly stated that they want users to move away from messing about with files on their phones. There are bound to be times when you need to access certain files and can't -- unless you download a dedicated app likeLinda File Manager or OI File Manager.
Folders have been part of Android for ages but they're even slicker in Android 4.0 and above.
I'm also disappointed you can't mute the phone from the lock screen any more. Instead, you have to unlock the phone and then long-press the power button to bring up a separate menu. This allows you to silence the device, but it will feel like an incredibly long-winded process if you're an Android veteran.
Samsung has a reputation for producing predominantly plastic phones. That hasn't changed with the Galaxy Nexus. There's no trace of brushed metal or aluminium anywhere on the casing. While this makes for a surprisingly lightweight phone (135g, in case you were wondering), it also creates an unwelcome impression of cheapness.
When you consider that the Galaxy Nexus is contesting the same turf as Apple's gorgeous iPhone 4S -- and that it costs roughly the same SIM-free -- you can't help but feel that Samsung's challenger isn't quite dressed for the fight.
While the design of the Galaxy Nexus is pleasing to the eye, the plastic casing feels a little cheap and nasty.
That's not to say it's an ugly device -- far from it. From the front is looks like an enlarged Nexus S, while the back panel calls to mind the Galaxy S2. There's also that trademark Galaxy bump on the back of the phone towards the bottom. This aids grip and makes the Galaxy Nexus comfortable to hold.
Although the Galaxy Nexus has retained the distinctive curved profile of the Nexus S, it actually feels a lot less pronounced this time around. The curve is supposed to make the phone more comfortable to use for calls, but I can't say I felt any tangible benefit.
The slightly rubberised battery panel also takes inspiration from the Galaxy S2, and snaps away from the main body of the phone with considerable click. Although it's made from super-flexible plastic, getting it back on again is harder than it should be. You have to line it up perfectly before the panel will locate, and even then there's some serious massaging required to get it to lock into position.
The plastic battery panel boasts a rubber coating and is surprisingly flexible.
Like the Nexus S, you'll find no physical buttons on the front of the Galaxy Nexus. However, unlike the previous Nexus handset, there are no capacitive inputs either.
As I've already mentioned, the face buttons are actually part of the screen itself. When it's powered down, they vanish from sight. In this state, the Galaxy Nexus resembles a slab of black plastic. Thankfully, there's a notification LED at the bottom of the screen and this springs into life when you get an email or text, reminding you that your device is fully functional.
Physical inputs are at a premium on this handset. Aside from the power/lock button and volume rocker, you won't find any other keys to press anywhere on the phone. In keeping with its rather cheap feel, these two buttons appear to be a lot less robust than their equivalents on the Nexus S.
The Galaxy Nexus is quite a thin customer.
The only other items of note from a design perspective are the micro-USB port located on the bottom of the device, the 3.5mm headphone socket placed alongside the charging port and a row of metal dots on the right-hand side of the handset. Similar to the connections on the HTC Rhyme, these allow you to charge the Galaxy Nexus when it is placed inside the dedicated dock -- which, of course, is sold separately.
Remember the first time you witnessed the iPhone 4's retina display? Brace yourself for an even more jaw-dropping experience with the Galaxy Nexus.
With an HD resolution of 720x1,280 pixels and a pixel density of 316ppi, this is effortlessly one of the best screens I've ever seen on a mobile phone.
The Galaxy Nexus' 4.65-inch screen means the phone is quite large, which is worth bearing in mind if you possess small hands.
It's not just the number of pixels that impresses -- after all, the iPhone 4S squeezes more pixels into an inch at 330ppi -- the Galaxy Nexus uses Samsung's world-beating Super AMOLED technology to give an unparalleled picture quality. Colours are bold and bright, while viewing angles are fantastic. You'll also notice that dark areas are especially convincing, because AMOLED screens actually turn off pixels to represent black.
The only negative thing you could possibly say about the Galaxy Nexus' screen is that it doesn't use the Super AMOLED Plus tech seen in the Samsung Galaxy S2. Instead, PenTile tech is used. This gives the display a dot-like effect when viewed very closely.
The famous curved screen of the Nexus S has made its way over to the Galaxy Nexus, albeit in less dramatic form.
The reason for this is that Super AMOLED Plus isn't currently capable of achieving the HD resolution required for the Galaxy Nexus' screen.
Although it's only a decimal place update, Android 4.1 is far more significant than Google's shonky version numbering would have you believe. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say it's the most important iteration of the mobile OS we've yet experienced -- but not for the reasons you might initially assume.
In addition to the brand-new Nexus 7 tablet, Google has confirmed Jelly Bean will be landing on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus S and the Motorola Xoom tablet in the middle of July, via an over the air update. Updates for other Android devices will depend on your phone manufacturer and network operator, but don't hold your breath -- many device are still waiting to receive Ice Cream Sandwich.
Jelly Bean may not be officially out for a while, but we've taken the Google I/O 2012 developer version for a spin -- loaded onto the trusty CNET UK Galaxy Nexus, of course -- to see what all the fuss is about, and our impressions are below.
Google has made no secret of the fact that it wants to go toe-to-toe with Apple's headline- grabbing Siri voice assistant, and late last year reports were circulating that the folks at Mountain View were working diligently on their own pocket-sized personal pal, provisionally named Majel, after Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's wife. It was also widely expected that Google would unveil this new software at this year's Google I/O, but the end result is possibly a little different from what people were expecting.
Google Now is part personal assistant, part knowledge centre. Voice control is a big part of the appeal, but you can actually get a lot out of it without ever having to utter a single word. Google Now can be accessed directly from the lock screen, or by pressing and holding your finger on the home icon at the bottom of the display. You can also boot it up by tapping the newly- designed Google Search bar, which remains pinned at the top of the screen -- just like it was in Ice Cream Sandwich.
As soon as Google Now opens, it bombards you with useful info. This is displayed as a series of cards, which can be scrolled through vertically and dismissed with a horizontal swipe if you feel they're not relevant. This is the clever bit -- these cards are context and location sensitive, and also incorporate your web history to offer up the kind of data you genuinely need.
Google Now can perform weather searches by detecting and using your current location.
Before I even had chance to try Jelly Bean, I performed a search on my desktop computer (a Mac, ironically) for a route map to a place I intended to drive to the following day. A few hours later, I opened Google Now for the first time and bingo -- there's a card which shows the location I searched for, plus the estimated journey time and distance in miles. To top it all off, Google Now even presented me with a mini-map, and a link to Google Navigate, allowing me to effortlessly obtain the driving directions. Now that's clever.
This is just one small example of Google Now's power. By looking at your location, it can display public transport times or places of local interest. After a while, Google Now learns the route you take to commute to work, and can therefore inform you automatically when traffic incidents are likely to impact your trip home. Some people would call all this knowledge gathering covert or slightly creepy, but it only takes a few days with Google Now to realise it's actually incredibly useful, and possibly one of the most intuitive elements of Android yet seen.
Another aspect of Google Now is Voice Search -- which is essentially the 'Siri' part of the app. Like Apple's software, Voice Search is able to respond intelligently to natural questions, such as 'How old is Tony Blair?' or 'How many inches are in a foot?'. On the whole, the system works well -- in fact, its actually faster than Siri when it comes to getting the data you need.
I noticed some annoying inconsistencies however with the way Google Now's voice search handled some of my questions. For example, asking 'How far is the Moon?' gave a voice response, plus an on-screen distance in miles. However, asking the same question but with 'Pluto' in place of 'Moon' merely brings up the default Google web search results -- Google Now's 'fall back' option when it can't reply in a human-like manner. It's not entirely clear why this should occur -- unless of course Google has pre-programmed replies to what it believes will be popular questions, which is sort of cheating.
Google Now's voice search is speedy, but watch out for inconsistencies.
I also noticed that some functions such as text messaging, calling people and setting alarms and timers didn't work for me, despite the fact that many other Jelly Bean users have reported success with these functions. This could be something to do with region issues -- Google has already vaguely alluded to the fact that Google Now doesn't provide full functionality outside of the US. The UK female voice is also a lot more robotic-sounding than its smooth-talking US counterpart.
On the whole, the Voice element of Google Now is actually a bit of a letdown. While it does some things better than Siri, it feels half-finished -- in the UK, at least. It's important to point out -- lest we forget -- that Siri is also bound by location-based issues, with UK users unable to use Siri to search for local business or locations.
While Google Now might be the most obvious new feature of Jelly Bean, for me, the stand-out inclusion is Google's Butter UI. As something of an Android fanboy, it has always pained me that iOS is so much smoother and more responsive than Google's OS. I always convinced myself that this was a trade-off for enhanced functions and multi-tasking, but secretly, I coveted the silk-like interface of my iPhone-owning chums.
Those pangs of jealousy can now be put to bed, because Jelly Bean is as smooth as a baby's posterior. The Butter UI is all about increasing CPU power when your finger makes contact with the screen -- so swipes are recognised instantaneously, rather than with a delay, as was often the case with previous versions of Android.
Access galleries of pug photos within seconds with the silky Butter UI.
Google has also worked hard to ensure that there's no lag when opening up applications or switching between various sections of the UI. Ice Cream Sandwich vets will no doubt concur that opening the multitasking menu sometimes took seconds -- in Jelly Bean, it appears instantly.
It's not a complete break from the past -- there are still odd stumbles and pauses, but these are usually in third party applications which haven't yet been optimised to fully support Android 4.1. On the whole, Butter UI is a revelation -- and in my opinion, the most striking aspect of Jelly Bean by far.
Apple has been playing catch-up with Google when it comes to notifications, and pretty much ripped-off the Android system in iOS 5.0. In many respects, Apple managed to better Google's system, loading up the iOS Notification Center with additional data which made it even more useful.
Jelly Bean's notification system is better than ever.
The pendulum has now swung back in the opposite direction thanks to Jelly Bean. Google has overhauled the existing Android notification system and made it even more adept. You can now see additional information on emails, including a list of your unread messages. By holding two fingers over an email and pulling them apart, you can get an expanded view, showing the contents of the message without even having to open up Gmail.
It's also possible to react and respond to notifications without actually having to fire up the relevant application. For example, if you take a screengrab, it appears in the notifications panel with a link to share it instantly.
Not many third-party programs support this feature at the time of writing, but that's understandable when you consider that Jelly Bean isn't technically released yet. Once July comes around, expect to see many popular apps boasting quick-access functions direct from the notification bar.
In addition to better notifications, a smoother interface and Google Now's impressive ability to learn your every move, Jelly Bean has a few more minor enhancements. Arranging icons and widgets on your homescreen is easier, thanks to the fact that other icons shift aside automatically depending on where you drag your new item.
Simplified widget arrangement and better notifications are just a few of the enhancements that can be found on Jelly Bean.
There's also a slightly different 'Share' menu, faster camera performance, a more accurate keyboard (complete with SwiftKey-style word prediction) and secreted deep down in the bowels of 4.1's developer menu you'll find the ability to protect your USB storage to prevent unwanted applications from accessing it.
Speaking of irksome apps, it's also now possible to completely suppress notifications from certain programs -- especially handy if you have Draw Something installed and want to put an end to all those pesky update messages.
I have to admit that Google has really surprised me with Android 4.1. I wasn't expecting such a dramatic change, and to be honest, a cursory glance at the feature list doesn't suggest that it's really that big a deal. It's only when you scoop up a device running Jelly Bean that you appreciate just how different this update makes Android feel -- everything is smoother and faster, and that on its own makes this one of the most competent updates I've yet witnessed from Google.
Jelly Bean is about refining the Android experience rather than adding tons of new features.
For once, the search giant's development team has wisely decided that the quality of the experience is just as important as how many new functions have been added.
Of course, there's no way we can be sure that the same level of performance will apply when Android 4.1 is pushed to phones with single-core CPUs (like the Nexus S, which will get an OTA update at the same time as the dual-core Galaxy Nexus in July), or how it will react when a third-party UI skin -- such as HTC's Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz -- is slapped on top of it.
Moving forward though, every new Android device will benefit from Butter's vastly superior performance and Jelly Bean's enhanced functionality -- which bodes well for the future of Google's OS.
Fast performance from quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM
Bright, bold screen
The S Pen stylus is a helpful addition on a tablet
Feels somewhat cheap
No Android Jelly Bean
Few apps make full use of the S Pen and some are buggy
Some S Pen features aren't enabled by default
Samsung's sprawling 5.3-inch Galaxy Note strained the definitions of what a smart phone is -- not to mention our thumb joints -- when it landed in November 2011. Despite a gorgeous screen, the handset didn't blow us away.
To try to make it the big hitter Samsung clearly believes it is, it's been super-duper-sized and kitted out with a burly quad-core processor and a whopping 2GB of RAM. The Note has overcome its split smart-phone-or-tablet identity crisis and bulked up to scrap it out with the 10-inch tablet heavyweights.
Costing £400 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model, does this 10-inch beast have what it takes to beat down the stunning 7-inch Google Nexus 7, which sells for half that price?
The original Galaxy Note was primarily designed to be a smart phone which, given its 5.3-inch size, we all thought was a joke. It certainly blurred the line between a phone and tablet to the point of ludicrousness.
The Note 10.1 might share the same name, but there's no confusion over in which camp this new chap stands -- at 10.1-inches, it's unmistakably a tablet, so you're going to look particularly foolish clutching it to the side of your face. The only reason to do that would be if you're using your facial hair to remove a stubborn grease mark from the screen.
The Note 10.1 borrows nearly all of its looks from Samsung's ownGalaxy Tab 2 10.1. Both slates are the same size and both have slightly extra space to the left and right of the screen (when held horizontally). It isn't the most luxurious of designs and I don't think it will be troubling the iPad's edge-to-edge glass front in the style stakes. Still, the bezel's hardly an eyesore and at least there's space to house front-facing speakers.
The plastic back picks up grazes and grime easily.
Around the back is a large expanse of white plastic that's been given a pearlescent sheen to stop it from being too boring. Sadly, this panel feels rather cheap and easily picks up dirt and scuffs, quickly turning your shiny new slate into a grubby paving slab. It doesn't offer much flex, so it feels like it could take the odd bump inside a bag, but I wouldn't advise carrying it too far without a decent amount of padding.
The chief difference between this Note and the Tab 2 10.1 is that the Note also comes with a stylus for writing or doodling on the screen. It fits securely in the bottom right of the tablet, which is a slightly awkward place to put it as it's easy to drop when you're removing it. You can't get it out if the tablet is sat in a docking station either.
The S Pen stylus is a unique feature among the tablet hordes.
The Note 10.1 measures 8.9mm thick, which is par for the course for most 10-inch slates, as is its 600g weight -- the iPad comes in at a slightly heavier 635g. If you already own a tablet like an iPad orSamsung's earlier Galaxy Tab, then you won't struggle to carry it around and it should fit snugly in any sleeves or bags you already own.
Around the edges you'll find a power button, a volume rocker, a microSD card slot (for expanding the internal 16GB of storage), a 3.5mm headphone jack and a dock connector. Annoyingly, there's no micro-USB slot, so if you ever want to transfer files to and from your tablet, you're going to need to make sure you have the dedicated cable with you. Woe betide you if you lose that cable -- it gives the Note power as well as data so it would be rendered useless.
At 8.9mm thick, it's as slinky as you'd expect of a top-end tab.
S Pen stylus
What separates the Note from the raft of other full-size tablets is the addition of a stylus. The ability to scribble like a toddler after a triple espresso will no doubt draw the eye of creative artsy types who want a digital canvas for their sketches, notes and designs. It'll also come in handy if you own a toddler (with or without espresso, your choice), as they can use the S Pen -- or their finger if it's clean -- to doodle to their heart's content. Your days of worrying over felt-tipped pens making their way onto your wallpaper could be over.
The pen's been redesigned since the original Note, with the bigger tablet size affording a longer, thicker stylus. The squared-off sides will prevent it from rolling down the side of your desk to be lost forever in a tangle of cables, fluff and 2p pieces. The button on it has also received some grooves, to make it easier to find -- although it's also easier to press by mistake.
Drawing lines with the S Pen is pretty accurate, due to the stylus tip, which is pointier than fatter-tipped ones made for use with touchscreens.
I was impressed with the accuracy of the lines I was able to draw on the screen, helped by the very narrow point of the stylus. Some styluses designed to work with capacitive touchscreens have quite fat, spongy tips, which reduce accuracy. But the S Pen is more akin to a Biro, making it very easy to quickly sketch or doodle aimlessly while on the phone to your parents.
Samsung reckons the stylus can recognise 1,024 levels of pressure, which is a significant improvement over the 256 levels the original Note's stylus could detect. Having said that though, I can't really say I noticed a benefit of having 1,024 levels. When sketching and shading in Photoshop Touch, I could perhaps visually identify 10 different shade strengths.
The screen is also apparently able to tell when your palm is pressed on the screen when you're busy sketching with the S Pen. I found this to be somewhat hit and miss, with my doodles going sometimes uninterrupted and awkward blotches appearing on my beautiful artwork on other occasions.
Samsung says the stylus will recognise up to 1,024 levels of pressure, but that's not obviously apparent in use.
If you dive into the settings, you can configure a bunch of apps like S Note, Polaris Office or PS Touch to load up automatically when you take the stylus out. That could save you valuable seconds when you absolutely must sketch something as quickly as possible.
The S Pen improves precision in certain apps and can speed up note taking. But if you prefer typing out missives, it doesn't offer any real benefit. In day-to-day tablet use, jabbing away with your finger will prove better. Unless you have a pressing need for an electronic pen, such as if you're an architect or artist who regularly sketches, the S Pen is not enough reason in itself to buy the Note over other tablets.
Still, Samsung's bundled in some decent doodling software. An app called S Note lets you join images and videos together with your own scrawlings to make your memos that bit more artistic, although the clunky interface and obscure icons are not the easiest to figure out. It's not even clear how to open a blank sheet of paper and the pre-saved S Note document entitled 'S Note Tips' is a one-page document with the single instruction of 'Tap a template and begin'. Super helpful.
Bizarrely, it's not obvious how to open a simple blank sheet to doodle on when you load up the S Note app.
The gem for the artsy types will no doubt be the aforementioned Adobe Photoshop Touch -- a pared-down version of Photoshop that includes layers and some effects. It's relatively easy to open existing images to draw over or simply open a blank document for sketching. There's a lot more functionality here than just the basic crop and rotate tools found on Photoshop Express on phones.
The pared-down Photoshop Touch is a great tool if you want to visually recreate a migraine.
Unfortunately, not every app uses the S Pen as you'd hope. S Note and Photoshop Touch make best use of the technology, but the Email app doesn't allow you to write emails with the pen, only to draw in the body of the email, which is a big oversight.
The purpose of the S Pen is to offer an alternative to digit prodding. While the stylus feels fine for navigating menus and swiping through pages, when it comes to typing, you'll almost certainly feel more comfortable using both hands with the on-screen keyboard. If you're going to be hacking through some long emails, you might be better off looking at the Asus Transformer Infinity, with its handy keyboard dock.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
The Note 10.1 arrives running Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest-but-one version of Android. ICS, or Android 4.0 if you prefer, brings a slew of features and interface tweaks to Google's mobile operating system. Oh, and the nifty ability to unlock your device using your face. It's recently been superseded by Android 4.1 Jelly Beanthough.
Having Google's Android software means you can get onto the Play store and start filling your boots with apps.
Despite this, ICS is still a slick operating system. Having Android on your tablet grants you access to Google Play, which is crammed full of apps to download. The Note also features Samsung's TouchWiz interface -- familiar to anyone who's used Samsung devices -- that's been toned down with a quieter aesthetic. It offers a mini apps tray that now supports limited customisation, allowing you to swap out apps from the tray.
Samsung wants to entertain you with its own games, video and music hubs.
Samsung has bundled some of its own apps too like its music, video and games hubs, which you might find useful if you're a serial media addict. For the most part though, you're more likely to stick to Google's Play for books, films, apps and games.
Android Ice Cream Sandwich lets you customise your home screens with widgets galore.
A useful feature Samsung's added is the ability to run apps side-by-side on screen. It's effectively the same as the window 'snapping' feature in Windows 7 and works pretty well on a 10.1-inch space. Multi-tasking is given a boost because of this, although the list of supported apps is pretty short -- limited to just six -- so it's questionable as to how useful it will be.
You can open up two apps side by side, which is handy, but the number of supported apps is limited.
I was able to simultaneously look at the web browser and photos in the gallery and you can do the same with videos (although not using YouTube). Hopefully, more apps will allow for this functionality.
There's also a feature called Pop Up Play, which lets you playback videos in a small, adjustable window, while you carry on operating the tablet as normal. I found this worked pretty well and it's a handy way of checking your email, without having to miss a moment of your film. It's already in use on the Samsung Galaxy S3, so if you've found it useful there, odds are you will on the Note.
I've seen the future: watching a film while browsing the web.
The Note 10.1 has -- you'll be shocked to learn -- a 10.1-inch screen, shovelling in a fair 1,280x800 pixels. While that resolution will do the trick for most purposes, recent Android tablets like theAsus Transformer Infinity and Acer Iconia Tab A700 trounce it with sharper 1,920x1,200-pixel resolutions. If it's really intended to appeal to creative types with a focus on images, a higher resolution would have been particularly welcome here -- especially since the iPad crams in 2,048x1,536 pixels.
The screen is still pretty sharp, with the flurries of snow in my favourite YouTube clip displayed well. Some icons can look a little rough around the edges though, and small text on web pages isn't always as sharp as it could be, which might make reading for longer periods uncomfortable.
The screen looks great, but it should really be matching the higher resolutions of competitors if it's to truly appeal to creative types.
Still, it's at least very bright and rather bold too, with colours that stand out well and satisfyingly deep blacks. If you're keen on your movies and regularly spend evenings sitting around watching YouTube clips, you'll be satisfied.
Inside that slim white jacket is a quad-core processor clocked at a meaty 1.4GHz, along with a very impressive 2GB of RAM. The most RAM I've come across in a tablet so far is only 1GB, so I was very keen to see what it was capable of.
To begin, I booted up the Geekbench benchmark test and was very impressed at the 1,828 score it achieved. By comparison, the Toshiba AT300, which also packs in a quad-core chip, managed just 1,400 on the same test and I found that slate to be extremely competent.
That score tops the performance of the Toshiba AT300.
In fact, the only tablet that's produced a better score than that is the Asus Transformer Infinity, which totalled a little over 1,900 (the best score I've ever seen on an Android tablet). In practice, I wouldn't think you'd ever notice the difference. The Note performed similarly well on the Quadrant benchmark, scoring 5,422, casually beating the powerhouse HTC One X's 4,500.
The Note 10.1 fared better on the Quadrant benchmark test than the mighty HTC One X.
It's not just about straight-line power though. That 2GB of RAM will lend a serious hand when it comes to multi-tasking. Considering the Note has multi-tasking features like split-screen and Pop Up Play, it's really going to be putting that RAM to good use. Indeed, I found it remained very responsive to my swipes and pokes, even when watching a video at the same time.
That RAM also helps the tablet switch effortlessly between open apps, although I did notice that swiping through pages and some menus wasn't as buttery smooth as I'd like. The 7-inch Google Nexus 7 packs a quad-core chip too, and although it achieved a slightly lesser score on the benchmarks, the Jelly Bean software on board does some wizardry with the frame rates, making everything seem much more fluid.
That power under the hood helps the Note with gaming. It doesn't use the Nvidia Tegra 3 chip found on tablets like the Toshiba AT300 or Nexus 7, which means some glossy titles like Six-Guns aren't available, but there's still an ever-expanding line-up on the Google Play store designed for dedicated gamers.
I tried out the zombie shooter Dead Trigger and was pleased with the smooth gameplay. The tablet's reproduced the demanding graphics without so much as a hiccup.
Splatter the undead without getting the jitters, with the Note 10.1's smoothly rendered gameplay.
Around the back is a 5-megapixel camera, which is a step up from the 3-megapixel efforts on previous Tabs. The results from the camera are pretty much what I'd expect from most tablets. The images are fairly sharp but aren't particularly vivid. I've seen better results from the Transformer Infinity and the iPad, but there's not a huge amount in it.
The Note 10.1's camera packs in an extra 2 megapixels over the Tab 10.1.
It's certainly good enough for a Twitter update (no doubt with some artsy Instagram filter applied), but you're unlikely to want to take it anywhere for proper photography -- and given that it's a big tablet, not a camera, that's to be expected.
The camera's results are underwhelming, but that's to discourage you from making a fool of yourself by holding it aloft at a gig (click image to enlarge).
You'll spy a 1.9-megapixel snapper on the front too, which should make you look good on video calls, or make you look ridiculous as you pose for a Myspace-style self portrait.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1's screen resolution may be trounced by the iPad, but it features a powerful quad-core processor and the S Pen sylus will appeal to creative types. Even if you have no use for the pen, the Note 10.1's fast overall performance, sensible design, decent screen and useful features make it the best 10-inch Samsung tablet yet.
However, the potential of the S Pen is not fully mined here, and unless you have a specific purpose for it such as regular sketching, its usefulness is arguably limited. If you're looking for a powerful 10-inch tablet, it's definitely worth considering. But if you hanker after the latest Android software and want to save yourself a couple of hundred quid, the Google Nexus 7 offers a similar helping of power, albeit from a smaller body.