Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2'' Tablet Review
Samsung's flagship tablet tries to fix what isn't broken.
It's been a while since I've seen a Samsung tablet cross my desk, but the promised successor to the Galaxy Tab line is finally here. Boasting a huge number of features and a radical design change—called the "Magazine UX"—this is the tablet that brought Samsung's conflict with Google to a head, and could result in the demise of the widely-panned TouchWiz UI.
Ignoring the software for a moment, one thing is certain: The hardware is damn nice. Building on the successes of the Galaxy Note 10.1", Samsung's hardware division really brought its A-game when building a tablet to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the Android ecosystem. Unfortunately, TouchWiz brings its own issues to the table in the form of poor software optimization and cruft.
Through our time with Samsung's newest top-end slate, we kept wondering just who this tablet is for. For true power users Microsoft has been making a strong case for replacing your laptop with a tablet. On the other end Apple's iPad continues to dominate with casual users. What's left for a high-end tablet to aim for? The hardware here is excellent, and the multi-tasking makes judicious use of all that screen real estate, but it's hard to imagine anyone getting all their work done on an Android device. This may be Samsung's flagship tablet, but it's a ship without a port.
Everyone goes crazy for a sharp dressed... tablet?
If there's one thing that stood out about last year's Galaxy Note 10.1, it was the faux-leather backing. This year, Samsung gave its flagship tablet the same aesthetic—with the option for a more photogenic black color as well. Unfortunately, the sides and front of the tablet still feel like cheap plastic.
That helps keep the overall weight of the device low, sure, but it feels chintzy in a world of titanium and aluminum competitors. It's the first thing you'll notice when you pick up the device, and it's a compromise. It sets a fitting tone for the entire experience, though; this is a tablet chock full of trade-offs.
Despite a comparatively enormous screen size for a tablet, this thing will slip into just about any normal-sized messenger bag. After all, it's 11.63x8.03 inches, and only 0.31 inches thick. If you really want to ditch a laptop—which is not a good idea—in favor of a tablet, this is a very portable option.
Like all tablets, the defining feature is the screen. In this case, it's a 12.2-inch monster of a TFT LCD with a resolution of 2560x1600. For those of you keeping score at home, this qualifies as a "Retina" display; your eyes won't be able to see jagged pixel lines on this tablet from a normal viewing distance. It's an impressive sounding spec, but as we'll address in a moment, it's ultimately a rather hollow claim.
Like its predecessor, the Galaxy Note Pro has a bunch of bells and whistles nestled inside the chassis. Front- and rear-facing cameras, 802.11ac wireless card, GPS... enough items to make anyone's eyes glaze over. Taken at face value, this is a great thing: The more features you have on your device, the better it is, right? Well, in this case you may never use many of them. For example, the IR blaster is great in theory—but if you have a SmartTV, you can often just stream things from the tablet to the TV or control it with an app over WiFi. Similarly, the GPS works when connected to the internet, but if you don't have the 4G LTE model of Note Pro you're outta luck if you get lost on your way home from a new place. Many of the features of the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro sound great, but I get the eerie feeling that many of these things were crammed in to list on a spec sheet and little else.
If there's one part of the Note Pro 12.2 that we have unreserved praise for, it's the included S pen. It slots into a dedicated compartment in the device, and it's excellent. If you've ever looked at a Surface Pro 3 and gotten jealous of that wonderful pen, the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro has one all of its own. It's also the one area where we're very glad Samsung has done some customizing. You can draw with it, use the pen to write notes that are turned into text via the tablet's character recognition system, or hold the stylus just above the screen to access a suite of different options. The tablet is smart enough to ignore your palm resting on the device if you're drawing with the pen and you can even draw a box anywhere on the screen and run one of the tablet's main apps inside of it. It's not perfect, but it is the one feature that sets the Note Pro 12.2 apart from its rivals.
Big on specs, low on optimization
If you were to look at the lab notes, you'd see a tablet that performs extremely well by the numbers. Truly, it's a very high-powered machine that hits all the superlatives: Great color, decent contrast, great battery life. However, it's where the rubber hits the road that the Galaxy Note Pro runs into problems.
On paper, we see that it has an outstanding color gamut and decent contrast—nothing can take that away from the Galaxy Note Pro. However, because of the pixel substructure, effective resolution is cut down considerably depending on what colors are displayed. In a traditional display, each pixel has a red, green, and blue subpixel. However, in a PenTile display like the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro's—there's a fourth subpixel—white—and they're shared between adjacent pixels. Because Samsung counts each pixel has having only two subpixels, and not four, effective resolution is cut by roughly 25%-50% depending on the color displayed. Despite what the spec sheet says, this slate has a varying effective pixel density of somewhere between 125-200 pixels per inch. It's still perfectly fine most of the time, but that's one big, fat asterisk when it comes to performance.
You'll see these resolution issues intermittently as a strange lattice-like pattern in a few colors. Tablets and phones with PenTile displays were roasted in the past for eminently visible resolution problems, but I'm here to tell you that it's not as much of an issue anymore. It just needs to be noted that the Galaxy Note Pro's screen is nowhere near as good as the spec sheet would have you believe. It's still close to print-quality—save for pronounced issues in red, green, and blue—but overall we'd say the screen is adequate, if highly reflective.
All else aside, the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2" has an outstanding battery that lasts a hair under 10 hours playing video. Even when making liberal use of the wireless card, you can expect that behemoth of a power cell to last you through just about any workday or weekend. Despite that huge screen, you don't have to worry so much about sucking your juice dry prematurely.
The tablet does well with benchmarks, but such tests largely take software out of the equation. When you actually use the tablet, you'll notice the occasional hiccup in performance. Nothing that'll ruin anything, mind you, but the tablet doesn't run as well as a 2.9GHz Exynos 5 Octa processor backed up by 3 gigabytes of RAM should run. Much of that is no fault of the hardware—rather, it's due to the software optimization (or lack thereof). It's extremely frustrating that you're not exactly getting what you pay for when you buy this tablet. If you're paying for the best, you should get it, right? So why is it that the $220 Nexus 7 can scroll through web pages smoothly and the $750 Note Pro can't?
Though it uses different hardware, this video is a great illustration of just how big this problem is for Samsung devices. On the Galaxy Note Pro, too, there were optimization issues on Chrome and opening apps. In this case, the culprit is unquestionably the software.
Check out our Science Page for a closer look at all of our performance results.
Before you buy the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro (Wifi), take a look at these other tablets.
A lot left on the table(t)
Though it'll get me in trouble with the enthusiast element of the Android community, I'm going to go out on a limb and point out that the Magazine layout of the Galaxy Note Pro's homescreens is actually quite useful for the business crowd. The well-designed calendar layout and Flipboard integration are also surprisingly refreshing for content hounds. Unfortunately, this is one of the things that brought Samsung and Google's conflict to a head, so this interface is going to be unceremoniously tossed into the bin on newer models.
I have no issue with the addition of function-driven homescreens on a tablet because most users will end up making something resembling their own anyway. If you want to change it, simply hold your finger down on a panel until the tablet allows you to edit your magazine page. It's simple, good-looking, and it's the sort of thing Android should be moving toward by default.
Additionally, some of the unique features of TouchWiz are also useful: Multi-window support is logical for such a large tablet, while voice control for your camera, alarm, and music is top-notch. The aforementioned multi-window apps are fantastic on a large-screened tablet if you need to bounce from spreadsheet to spreadsheet—while streaming the World Cup in the corner. It's a significant drain on available resources, sure—but it's something non-Windows tablets don't usually do.
Despite the added focus on more efficiently driving content to interested users, improving Samsung's optimization of Android was ignored. Even though the Galaxy Note Pro runs a forked version of Google's latest software (4.4), many of the layout and usability problems present in earlier versions of TouchWiz are not only still there, but made worse. For example, settings are much more spread out and less organized. Everything's still there, but it takes a lot more hunting to find what you want. This is not an easy OS to use without prior experience, even if you're used to Android on other devices.
In spite of that, just about all the apps found on the Play Store work famously on the Galaxy Note Pro, and some of the included apps are actually fairly useful if you're a member of their target audience. The New York Times app is a great way to access their content if you're a subscriber, and must-have apps like Dropbox, Netflix, and the Google suite come pre-installed.
You're not forced to use the janky, default redundant Samsung versions of stock apps, but there's no way to remove them, either. That would be fine and well if they behaved themselves, but they drain available resources as they toil away in the background, doing nothing. Thank heavens the battery is great, but it's depressing to know that the tablet could have been so much more.
There but for the grace of TouchWiz.
There's certainly a market for a powerful sub-$1,000 tablet that can function as a laptop replacement for business users on the go. After all, it shouldn't be that hard to get e-mail, web browsing, and office functionality into a single device. The Note Pro 12.2 takes dead aim at this part of the market, sweetening the deal further with the addition of the wonderful S Pen. When it debuted at CES 2014 in January, it seemed to be hitting the market at just the right time.
But with the market trending toward hybrid devices for their blend of function and portability, the Note Pro had to make a strong case for going without an included keyboard. Unfortunately, for all the things that the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 gets right, it's hindered by a poorly optimized version of TouchWiz that slows down the overall experience, hinders easy operation, and fails to get the most out of the high-end components. Those high-end components also drive the price up, placing it in the dangerous middle ground where it's too expensive for occasional browsers and not as good for business use as hybrid Windows laptops that cost about the same.
Windows is still king of the hill when it comes to operating system usage in the professional world. And now that Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 offers a device that's not only a stellar tablet but a great laptop, things are looking a little grim for the Galaxy Note Pro. Though the base model of Surface Pro 3 is much more expensive, it can run all the same software that you use at work. It's not hard to justify spending an extra couple hundred dollars when you can run almost any piece of major software from the last decade.
And if cost is your concern, there are more and more hybrids hitting the market that give you a better bang for your buck. They're a tad bulkier, but they bring a physical keyboard and full USB ports to the table. The Note Pro's S Pen is great, but nothing beats a keyboard when you need to take a lot of notes.
None of which is meant to say that the Note Pro 12.2 is a bad tablet—far from it. It has a big battery and a decent screen in a wafer-thin package, with an excellent stylus and access to a massive collection of Android apps. But unfortunately this is another example of Samsung putting out flagship hardware with flagship features and undercutting the entire experience by failing to get the little things right. It's not a bad tablet, but it's not nearly as good as it could've been.