Greg Hook takes some notes on Samsung's latest mini-tablet offering
IntroductionIt wasn't long ago that, in the relatively new but can't-live-without-now-that-we have-one world of smart phones and tablets, all you had was a choice between a phone offering a 4" screen or a tablet with a screen around the 10" size. The phone was mobile and easy to hold, whilst the tablet offered a more comfortable screen size for playing games or watching movies and TV. Seeing a gap in the market many manufacturers now offer what are commonly referred to as 'Phablets' which are phones with larger than normal screens - often around the 5" size. Larger than your average smartphone but smaller that mini-tablets in the 7-8" range.
A big recent introduction to this new 'mini-tablet' range was the iPad Mini, offering all the functionality of the larger iPad but with a new 7.9" screen and at a significantly lower price. This opened the door on many buyers that wanted a tablet but couldn't afford the higher premium that the 10" tablets demanded. Today most of the major manufacturers offer tablets in the mini 7-8" size range. From the likes of the extremely cheap Google Nexus and Amazon Kindle Fire HD tablets, to a comically larger 'phablet' from Acer, the popular iPad Mini and our tablet for review today, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.
Building on the excellent Galaxy Note range of phones and tablets, this 8" version aims to offer all the features and specification of the larger 10.1" tablet in a smaller, more affordable package. It includes a very fast 1.6Ghz Quad-Core CPU, 2GB Ram, Multi-core GPU and 16GB of internal storage together with the fabulous S-Pen stylus for increased accuracy with photo editing, drawing or just taking hand written notes. So let's start taking notes and see how the new Samsung measures up.
Design and Build QualityThe Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 follows the familiar stylings of the Note range. It's currently only available in white, although a brown/black colour is rumoured. The 8" screen is surrounded by a white frame and along the bottom you have the home button together with the menu and back keys. At the top we have the light sensor and the front facing camera lens. A thin silver bezel encases the device, whilst at the bottom there is the S Pen slot, a mini USB/power connector port and the stereo speakers, with the volume and power keys along the right hand side of the device. Also on the right you will find the infrared blaster for the excellent Smart Remote feature that we will come back to later in this review. On the left you have the microSD card slot and to the top there's the 3.5mm headset connection. The back of the tablet is an all white affair with the rear facing camera (no LED flash) protruding from the chassis by about 2mm. Presumably due to the thin design of this tablet, it wasn't possible to have the camera lens sitting flush with the rear cover.
This smaller 8" tablet keeps the 1280 x 800 resolution and the 16:10 aspect ratio of it's 10.1" bigger brother and unfortunately it also retains the same cheap feel. For a tablet at this price there is far too much plastic and, whilst it doesn't have as much flexing as the 10.1 version, the back cover still presses in slightly and still isn't as solid a device as the iPad. Which is disappointing for £339. The few external buttons it has are all solid and responsive although the mini USB/power connection at the bottom does feel rather loose. For a tablet in this 7-8" size range, weight is very important and the Note 8 sits in the mid range here. The non 3G version weighs 341g, the iPad mini is significantly lighter at 308g, whilst the Kindle Fire HD 7" is a hefty 395g and the Asus Fonepad clocks in at 340g.
Features and SpecificationThe Note 8.0 improves on the already impressive specification of the 10.1" version with a fast 1.6Ghz ARM Exynos 4412 quad-core CPU and 2GB RAM. Our review sample was the 16GB internal storage version and at time of writing there are rumours of a 32GB version, but no release dates as yet. You can of course easily use a microSD card (up to 64GB) so storage shouldn't really be an issue. The graphics are also provided by ARM in the shape of the Mali 400 multi-core GPU and during our testing the overall high specification really shone through with every application, game and video test running flawlessly and without any stuttering or freezing.
During our testing, going from the home screen to fully loading the AVForums homepage took just 9.1 seconds which is just marginally slower than the iPad 3 and Toshiba's AT300, but not significantly so. Benefiting from the fast 1.6Ghz CPU, loading Angry Birds took just 6.9 seconds, beating the Toshiba AT300's 7.5 seconds and significantly faster than the iPad3 at 11.5 seconds. Whilst the Galaxy Note 8 doesn't feature Nvidia's excellent Tegra 3 graphics processor, the ARM GPU is just as impressive. Tegra 3 titles such as Heroes Call and Air Attack HD ran flawlessly on our tablet with no frame rate issues or stuttering and the gameplay felt very smooth.
We then tested with non Tegra 3 optimised games such as Soulcraft and Six Guns both gave similar positive experiences with no major performance issues. Only Six Guns with it's large open landscape resulted in a very tiny load stutter during the first level, but only for a brief moment, the rest of the time it was flawless. With these tests we could see what a high performing tablet this is, thanks to its very impressive specification. The Galaxy Note 8.0 should offer everything you need for mobile gaming or intensive applications on the move.
The tablet comes with a rear 5MP camera with autofocus but unfortunately no LED flash. It 's also capable of 720p HD video recording at 30fps. As with the 10" version it has a 4x digital zoom which, as with most digital zooms, degrades the picture quality to such an extent that they may as well just leave it out altogether. The front camera is a basic 1.3MP which is a step down from the 10" versions 1.9MP. The front camera is capable of average pictures which are particularly grainy in anything but the brightest of conditions and we wouldn't use it for anything special but it's fine for video conferencing. The usual camera features are present here including panoramic mode plus a feature called Smile shot whereby the camera automatically takes a photo when it detects a smile from your subject along with options for instantly sharing photos.
The camera specifications are a touch lower than we've come to expect from Samsung. Their 10" version has the LED flash which is missing in this 8" version. It's particularly important in anything but optimal conditions as a few test shots with the rear 5MP camera show a lot of grain and it's difficult to take a perfect shot with it. It's not a terrible camera by any means and if you are using this as your sole camera then it should be able to take reasonable looking pictures. Just don't expect to be the next David Bailey with it. The reduced size of the 8" tablet does help slightly with regards to looking rather odd taking photos with a full size tablet, especially at a concert when all you can see is someone's iPad screen blocking your view of the stage!
For the Wi-Fi on this tablet, it's good to see Samsung have kept with the high specification of their 10" version - with both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands. This is really a feature that should be a standard on all tablets these day so it's good that Samsung have included it here. The 5Ghz band is very useful if you are in a Wi-Fi signal heavy area that is likely to be congested across the usual 2.4Ghz band. You can usually obtain faster speeds with the 5Ghz band too but the range is a lot shorter and it doesn't work as effectively if the signal has to come through several walls. The full specification of the Wi-Fi is 802.11 a/b/g/n with Wi-Fi Direct and Wi-Fi Channel Bonding.
We had no issues with the Wi-Fi during testing and the signal strength and speed was consistent with other devices we have tested such as the Samsung 10" Note and the iPad. As an example with the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz band, on the 5Ghz band we were able to achieve top speeds of 35720kbps next to the router, whereas on the 2.4Ghz band we only achieved 18750kbps. It was also noticeable that the signal strength dropped a lot quicker on the 5Ghz band compared to the 2.4Ghz. Our review sample is Wi-Fi only, but a 3G version is also available, if you are lucky enough to live anywhere near a 3G signal of course.
An excellent feature that was present in the larger 10" tablet and follows in a similar but not identical guise in this 8" version is the split screen multitasking. A innovative feature that allows you to have two applications open on the screen at the same time. Via the multi window tray, which you access by touching the '>' icon on the far left side of the screen, you open the first app then open the tray again and touch and drag another app onto the screen. This results in both apps being open with the screen split in half. You are also able to change the ratio of each app, so you could have some music playing on YouTube and have the window dragged right to the bottom, whilst having most of the screen open on a webpage. Both apps are fully running rather than having one frozen with the other working for example. Some parts of each app are restricted in split screen mode as the app is basically open to fill the whole screen with the other app just sitting on top of it. It's slightly different to the 10" Note's floating window feature but it does seem to work with more apps than that one. This doesn't work with every app but for those that it does, it works very well. A feature I'm sure we may see on the next iPad!
Another features that are worthy of a mention are Samsung Smart Stay which via the front camera detects whether you are looking at the screen and keeps the screen on if you are. There's also a reading mode which optimises the screen to provide the best illumination and tone which makes it a lot more comfortable to use as a reading device and with the ability to make notes on eBooks whilst you are reading them. One last feature is the buttons just below the bottom of the screen, especially the back button - it's amazing how much this gets used - and when going back to an iPad you certainly miss it. The menu button is also surprisingly useful and you soon realise how those who just have a home button are missing out and finally the middle button to take you back to the home screen.
S PenWhen we reviewed the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1" here having a stylus in a modern day tablet certainly attracted some surprise and this reviewer personally turned his nose up initially at the thought of 'going backwards' to using a stylus. However, when you start using the S Pen, it becomes immediately apparent how much more functionality it opens up in the tablet and what a great addition this is. The S Pen is so much more than a stylus and sets Samsung's Note tablets apart from the competition. It is embedded into the tablet and accessed from the bottom right corner. It offers up to 1024 levels of pressure, so in drawing applications the harder you press the thicker the line you draw. Samsung say this gives you the same degree of sensitivity as demanded by professional designers and also it gives you very accurate control for photo editing.
Once the S-Pen is removed it brings up a shortcut list of the specially optimised pre-installed applications. From the basic Note, Idea Note and Meeting Note applications which enable you to make and save handwritten notes, a Birthday app for making your own birthday cards and a Recipe app for creating your own recipes cards together with photos and hand written notes. These are all pretty basic applications but do show just what the S-Pen is capable of. One disappointing omission with the Note 8 and an app which really shows off the full potential of the S-Pen is Adobe PS Touch. This app came free with the 10.1" version but for some reason is not included here. It is available on the Google Play store for £6.99, however, and if you do a lot of photo editing then it may be worth it. Going back to our 10.1" Note review we commented how easy it was to edit photos with excellent accuracy compared to a PC with a mouse. It's just a shame it doesn't come free here. Other S-Pen compatible apps are also available to buy and the S-Pen certainly appears to redefine what you can do with a tablet.
ConnectivityAs with the 10" version there is no HDMI connectivity out of the box with the Note 8, but thankfully compatible connectors are now available for as little as £9.99 on Amazon, compared to the £30 for the official Samsung kit. But unlike the Note 10.1, Samsung have finally removed the chunky proprietary power connection and replaced it with a mini USB port - used for charging as well as easy transferring of data to the tablet. This is an excellent addition to the Note tablets and hopefully a change that will be seen on future releases in Samsung's other ranges. Now all we need is to see a mini HDMI port and all the connectivity boxes would be ticked! We also get a MicroSD card slot (up to 64GB) and the headphone jack.
DisplayThe display is a 203.1 mm (8") WXGA 1280 x 800 TFT screen with a 16 million internal colour depth. The pixel density is 189PPI, which puts it behind Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 7" which has 216PPI but above the Apple iPad Mini's 1024 x 768 screen with 163PPI. The usable screen size measures 172mm x 108mm and despite the pixel density not being comparable to the larger retina type tablets the overall quality of the screen is good. From a subjective perspective, the brightness and contrast were decent, with bold and clear colours and text on webpages, making them perfectly readable. However, for a tablet costing at least £339 we would have expected a screen that was ahead of the competition and not a previous generation screen, especially as we have got used to the higher resolutions and retina type displays. The much cheaper 8.9" Amazon Kindle Fire with a 1920 x 1200 resolution and a pixel density of 254PPI particularly enforces that point.
Home Screen, Interface and Pre-installed Apps
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 comes out of the box with a customised version of Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, although version 4.2 is the latest release but hasn't yet been pushed to this device. The next version, imaginatively titled Key Lime Pie, is due out later this year. The custom skin that greets you on the home screen is Samsung's TouchWiz, which is their own user interface which sits on top of the Android OS. This TouchWiz interface is what brings us the excellent split screen multitasking along with a few other less useful features such as swiping the side of your hand from left to right to take a screenshot and pausing an audio or video file by putting the whole of your palm on the screen. These last two are questionable at best and seem to fail to work correctly more often than not. But as you can see from the screenshot below, it's the usual customisable layout that Android users have come to expect.
Onto the customisation and this is where Android has a clear lead over Apple's iOS, you can position apps wherever you want on the screen, group them together in folders or add the compatible ones to the multi-window tray. Various interactive widgets can also be added to the main screen such as the latest live weather information, notes or browser bookmarks, although due to the size of the screen you are only likely to have room for one on the home screen. The list of apps along the bottom of the screen can also be changed to include your favourite ones. Along the top of the screen we have the battery life, Wi-Fi strength and various notifications. With this tablet further settings can be found by dragging down from the top of the screen giving you quick access to turning on or off the Wi-Fi, GPS, Audio, fixing the screen rotation and various other settings. The main tablet settings can be found at the top of this quick access screen or by pressing the menu button.
Apple is slowly catching up with this, but they are still behind compared to Android with regards to the automatic updating of apps and downloading of free apps. With Android for example the first time you download an app and agree to automatic updates, you never need to do anything again, it will keep itself updated and just give you a notification message whenever it has done so. A much better system than with iOS where you have to manually update apps. Wtih free apps no password is required with Android and can be installed straight away.
The Galaxy Note 8 comes pre-installed with all the apps you would expect such as a browser, camera, YouTube, Maps, Book Reader and many more including a Beta version of Google's Navigation app which gave some rather amusing but totally wrong suggestions when using the 'speak destination' feature. As with previous Samsung tablets we get Polaris Office included, which offers an equivalent to Word, Excel and Powerpoint. We also get both the Google Play store and Samsung's version, Samsung Apps. The Google Play store has the most apps with a lot also available on the Samsung Apps store and a few exclusive to each. It's a good idea to check both prior to making a purchase as you will often find price differences and special offers on each store. It's not such an issue with the smaller screen size with this tablet, but one negative with the Android apps is that there is still no easy way to see whether you are downloading a phone or tablet optimised version.
Battery LifeThis tablet comes with a 4600 mAh Li-ion battery, significantly thinned down from the 7000 mAh battery in the 10" version, but given the reduced size of the Note 8, that should come as no surprise. The listed specifications claim to offer up to 8 hours usage for Wi-Fi, 8 hours for video playback and up to 120 hours for music. These battery times are always pretty optimistic and our experience during testing was that you're likely to get nearer to 5 hours usage for video playback or browsing the net. This was with the power saving mode disabled and the screen quite bright, so of course that battery life could be extended by lowering the screen brightness or enabling the power saving mode. From a full charge and in standby mode, after 18 hours 5% battery life had been lost which would point to a couple of weeks battery life if left in standby. Unfortunately our review copy did not come with a UK plug, so we were unable to verify the battery charging times using the power lead, but it should be about 5 hours to fully charge.
AudioThe speakers in the Galaxy Note 8 are your average stereo speaker affair. They offer a reasonable level of quality, nothing special and perhaps slightly lower quality than we would expect for a tablet of this value. You do get a slight tinniness on occasions but overall the volume and performance is acceptable. Sadly we still have yet to find a tablet other than the iPad that appears to use really decent speakers as presumably manufacturers believe everyone would use headphones, but the ones in the Note 8 are far from the worst we have heard. Samsung have reverted to bottom facing speakers as opposed to the decent forward facing speakers on the 10" version of the Note. This does cause issues depending on how you hold the tablet and we did find forward facing speakers much better for watching videos.
Media IntegrationWe are grateful to again see the IR emitter in this device - a superb feature in the 10" Galaxy Note and now in the 8" version. Using the Samsung Smart Remote/Peel pre-installed app, the tablet is turned into a home cinema remote control that you can add all of your equipment to and use a universal controller. Those familiar with the Logitech Harmony series of remote controls will understand how useful this feature is. Once the Remote app is setup it will show your favourite programs, suggest additional favourites and show all the programs currently on grouped into categories and much more. To give you an idea of how it works, with all your devices off, you open the Remote App, select a category or channel, then just select a program and click view. All your devices will turn on and if you have a Sky box for example, it will take you to the correct channel too! You can control all the functions of the Sky box from the tablet including recording and setting reminders.
The app is slightly Americanised unfortunately as in the Sport category you only really get Soccer, hidden amongst Baseball, Basketball and Football, but this is just one app. The IR emitter isn't restricted only to the Peel app, it will work with any other app designed for it which sadly are few and far between. One that stands out is the very pricey but highly regarded 'Samsung Remote Touchsquid' (£13.00 for the Home version and £31.40 for the Pro). The free Samsung Remote/Peel app should have enough features to keep you happy.
With a decent wireless network in your home and the latest generation of TVs, Blu-ray players or Receivers for example, you will find many manufacturer specific apps on the Google Play store to control all of these devices. Samsung, LG and Sony for example all have free apps to control their TVs and in Sony's and Samsung's case, you can control their Blu-ray players too. Apps are also available for other devices such as Logitech's Squeezebox and AV amplifiers such as Onkyo, Denon and Marantz.
StorageCurrently the Galaxy Note 8 only comes in the 16GB internal storage version, a 32GB version is rumoured but nothing is concrete at this time. Although with the microSD card slot which can take up to a 64GB SD card, you might find it more cost effective, should a 32GB version or higher become available, to stick with the base 16GB version and just get a 64GB SD card, which can be bought for about £40. It's a good idea to get an SD card as the internal storage available won't get you very far. Pointing to the large amount of pre-installed Samsung and other apps, you are left with just 9GB of internal storage, which given that some mobile games can reach 1GB these days (Six Guns for example) you will quickly run out of space. A 16GB card can be bought for around £10, which would be a good investment if you were buying this tablet, to instantly add storage. This is where these Android devices have another edge on Apple, given the huge cost differences between the various internal storage versions, on an Android device you can just plop in a cheap SD card and away you go!
- Excellent, fast performance
- Superb S Pen stylus
- Split screen multitasking
- IR emitter
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- Expensive compared to competition
- Build quality could be better
- Previous gen screen resolution
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 Tablet Review
Our previous review of the larger 10.1" Samsung Galaxy Note found a tablet that offered high specifications and excellent features, particularly in the form of multi-tasking and the S-Pen stylus, at a competitive price. As far as the features on the smaller Galaxy Note 8 are concerned, we're happy to say that Samsung have kept most and they even improved on some areas of the specifications. We get a faster 1.6Ghz Quad-Core CPU, multi-core GPU and 2GB ram together with the usual Android storage expansion in the shape of a microSD slot (up to 64GB) and, best of all, Samsung have got rid of their bulky proprietary power connection and replaced it with a mini USB port. This now greatly improves the out-of-the-box connectivity options, with perhaps just a mini HDMI port missing from the equation. The screen resolution is 1280 x 800 which, whilst offering good quality and a vibrant image, did makes us feel that Samsung had missed a trick by including the screen from the previous generation.
It may seem odd for a tablet to feature a stylus in 2013 especially as using your finger has become so common place but, for those who have never tried it, the S-Pen in the Galaxy Note tablet really is a very welcome feature. For the artists and photo editors out there it offers a very fine level of accuracy along with numerous other uses such as taking a screenshot of the tablet by just holding the side button on the S-Pen and then touching the screen. Another welcome feature is the very useful split screen multi-tasking which, whilst lightly different to the floating window style on the larger 10" tablet, allows you to have two apps open and fully working simultaneously (rather than one being frozen). An excellent feature if you want to play some music on YouTube whilst browsing the web for example.
Yet another welcome feature is the IR Emitter, which along with the Samsung Remote app, will turn the tablet into a fully functioning universal controller for your home cinema. We also get an average 5MP rear camera (with no LED flash), decent battery life and just about average sound quality from the pair of stereo speakers. We did have a particular bugbear with the price though. At £339 the build quality and feel of the tablet should be considerably higher and it just feels slightly plasticy. Compared with the iPad Mini at £269, the ludicrously cheap Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7" at just £159.00 and the Google Nexus 7 at £229 it is considerably higher in price. In this new and now highly competitive mini 7-8" tablet marketplace, Samsung need to stand out from the crowd and overpricing their 8" tablet is not the best way to do it.
If recent price reductions are anything to go by, it appears Samsung are realising this 8" tablet is slightly expensive and in the last few days one major online retailer has dropped the price to just £300. Whilst still more expensive than the competition, it does perhaps show a sign of things to come. Overall the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is an excellent proposition for those users wanting a tablet in the mini 7-8" range, particularly if you are looking to make the best use of the excellent S-Pen. Minor complaints about the screen resolution, build quality and price aside, we have no reservations in awarding the Galaxy Note 8 our AVForums Recommended badge.Price Check
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