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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 Tablet Review

In the highly competitve world of tablets, there can only be room for so many products before the category begins to feed on itself and sales begin to suffer. These punchy little processing powerhouses become a commodity like anything else and consumers tend to vote with their wallets when there is no point of differentiation. Apple was strongest out of the gate with iOS and coupled with the success of the iPod, iPhone, and iTunes, took a almost irreversible slice of the tablet pie with the iPad.  It has taken Amazon, Microsoft, and Samsung (as a representative of the Android-based tablets) years to put a major dent in Apple's market share.

In recent weeks, Barnes and Noble began scaling back its support for certain Nook apps, and it appears almost inevitable that the company will cease manufacturing the Nook HD and HD+ tablets and sell off the division as it is punishing the bookseller's bottom line. Sadly, 700+ retail locations and millions of eBooks were not enough to derail Amazon's Kindle and it remains to be seen if Microsoft (or some other taker) will take the hardware end off B&N's balance sheet.

So with blood in the water, Samsung finds itself in a position to capitalize on its explosive growth in the mobile category with a comprehensive line-up of Android-based tablets that give the competition a real run for its money. While not inexpensive at $400, the Galaxy Note 8.0 is a turbo-charged mid-sized tablet with a virbant 8-inch HD screen designed to give the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini a royal beating. Does it succeed or has Samsung wagered too much on the usefulness of the S Pen that it also includes with the 10-inch Galaxy Note 10.1 that we favorably reviewed back in 2012?

Out of the Box

The Galaxy Note 8 comes ready to work straight out of the box, and while we really like the sleek looking white bezel, silver accents, and rounded corners, it does feel a tad on the plastic side in comparison to the iPad Mini's unibody aluminum enclosure. The Note 8.0 is actually heavier than the Mini (0.76 pounds versus 0.68 pounds), but you would hard pressed to know that in the palm of your hand.

 The Galaxy Note 8.0, however, feels quite comfortable to hold for hours in one hand, while you use your free hand to draw or write with the S Pen. One thing we would like to see Samsung implement is the non-slip rubber surface that Google uses on the back of the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10; something which we feel makes tablets easier to hold and makes them seem more rugged.

The 8-inch screen of the Galaxy Note 8 is the most impressive part of the entire package, offering 1280 x 800 resolution (189 pixels per inch) and really impressive contrast and color accuracy. The Galaxy Note 8's screen is also brighter than the iPad Mini, and we found it to be less reflective outdoors which will matter if you plan on reading eBooks, looking at photographs, or watching video content outside on a sunny day.

The Galaxy Note 8 is 8.2-inches wide (landscape) x 5.3-inches high x 0.31-inches deep and easy to stick in a purse or laptop bag but a too large for most pockets.

The bottom section of the front bezel contains three buttons: a menu key, home key, and the back key and we found them to be quite responsive; at times they could be too responsive and send you back one additional screen, but users will get used to it rather quickly.

One area where the Galaxy Note 8.0 really has the edge over the iPad Mini is in the storage department. Samsung supplied us with the standard 16GB, WiFi version of the tablet, but we love the ability to add up to 64GB of storage via the microSD card slot that supports the latest SDXC cards. Apps cannot be stored on or run from an external SD card, but documents and media files can. No WiFi access? Not a problem as you can store loads of songs, photos and videos on a 32GB or 64GB microSD card.

Apple has been rather vague about the processing power of the iPad Mini, but the folks at Samsung couldn't be happier to the let the world know that the Galaxy Note 8 comes with a 1.6GHz quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM.

In the top-right corner on the front panel sits the 1.3MP front-firing camera. The rear panel holds the 5MP rear-firing camera which we like from a performance perspective, but we did notice that our finger got in the way when taking photographs with the tablet in landscape mode. Users with big hands (that would be me) will probably get annoyed when that first shot of the baby crawling across the floor doesn't come out, but it's a minor adjustment to be aware of.

The bottom edge of the bezel is home to the two loudspeaker grills, the slot for the S Pen, and a MicroUSB port. On the right side, you'll fnd the volume control, IR Blaster, and power/sleep button. On the opposite side, you'll find the microSD card slot. The top of the bezel holds the headphone jack.

The Galaxy Note 8 ships with Android Jelly Bean 4.1.2 and also includes Samsung's TouchWiz UI skin. When we reviewed the Galaxy Note 10.1 last year, we liked the UI but we can see how some users might prefer the more polished looking iOS interface on the iPad Mini.

The big selling point of the Galaxy Note 8.0 is the S Pen and while it works quite well if you are illustrating or writing notes, we are not as crazy about its performance when navigating the Internet or selecting items on the screen; it felt somewhat clunky compared to just using one's fingers.

One of the best features of the Galaxy Note 10.1 was its ability to operate with multiple apps open at the same time and that capability has trickled down to the Note 8; it was actually the most impressive part of the Galaxy Note 10 which we felt was the first tablet to graduate from being a mere media player and toy to genuine productvity tool.

Another bonus feature of the Galaxy Note 8.0 is that with the purchase, you also get 50GB of free space on Dropbox and a full version of Polaris Office. Polaris is a great app that allows you to view or edit Microsoft Office documents including Excel, Word and PowerPoint.

Tell me Schatze. Is it twue what they say that you people are gifted?

At $400, the Galaxy Note 8 has some stiff competition from the iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7, and Amazon Kindle Fire HD, many of which are significantly less expensive.  We really think the final buying decision needs to take a few items into account.

From a pure processing perspective, the Galaxy Note 8 is faster than all of its competitors, but that doesn't always translate to better performance in the real world; we actually found the iPad Mini quicker when surfing the Internet. Was it a huge difference? No. But it's hard not to notice when one transitions from one activity to the other and we think Apple has the edge in that regard.

The iPad Mini also beats the Galaxy Note 8 in the battery life department by more than two hours from a complete charge. We easily got 10 hours of performance from the Mini compared to slightly over 8 hours with the Galaxy Note 8.

Our biggest criticism of the iPad Mini is that it still feels like you're using a toy versus the Galaxy Note (and the Nexus 7) which actually allows you to get real work done while running mulitple apps at the same time and allowing full editing capabilities of the most popular Office documents.

If you're looking for the ideal device to use within the iOS ecosystem, and run iTunes, AirPlay, Siri, iCloud, and the other 260,000+ apps available, then the decision to purchase an iPad Mini is rather easy.

If you're looking for something different that can server multiple purposes as a universal remote, work productivity tool, handheld gaming device and media player, then the Galaxy Note 8 has the edge.

I watch movies on the go. Why should I buy this?

The Galaxy Note 8 features Samsung's new universal remote/video hub app, WatchOn; which does a rather good job integrating cable TV, OTA, and streaming video content. WatchOn features social media sharing so that the entire universe can know what you're watching (they don't care...just saying), but that's the least impressive part of the entire package.

 After going through a rather simple set-up process, WatchOn allows you to search for a film or television program via IMDB, YouTube, or Rotten Tomatoes, and then download the content via Blockbuster Video or Samsung's Media Hub.

The most obvious omission is the integration of Netflix, Hulu, or Vudu in that searchable collection of streaming apps but we've been told that those are coming in the near future.

The Galaxy Note 8 can also serve as a universal remote control via Peel's Smart Remote app and while it's not as effective as using something like the Logitech Harmony Ultimate, we can see it working rather effectively in a home theater set-up that doesn't require too much customization.

As a streaming media device, the Galaxy Note 8 gets high marks for its crisp looking screen and solid black levels. We watched a few films and television programs via Netflix and Hulu Plus and the tablet never stumbled once. The sound quality was also quite decent considering the size of the drivers, but we had much better results streaming the audio portion through the Definitive Technology Sound Cylinder which utilizes a clamp to secure the tablet. The two make a great combination and are well worth considering for those long trips in the car with the kids (though really, headphones may be better for that).

To S Pen or not to S Pen?

In our review of the Galaxy Note 10.1, we really liked the technology behind the S Pen and how well it actually worked once you got over its steep learning curve. For a more detailed explanation of how it works, check out our earlier thoughts, but we thought it would be interesting to see if anything had changed more than a year later and whether Samsung had taken our constructive criticism to heart.

The slot where the S Pen resides on the Galaxy Note 8.0 is not spring loaded and we actually found it a chore to remove the S Pen unless we used our nails to hit the tiny crevice that enables one to remove it smoothly.

The S Pen is very intuitive and we like how easy it is to write notes or select content on the screen with its sensitive tip. The execution is brilliant and responsiveness has certainly improved from the Note 10.1.

But is it worth $400?

If you want an excellent media player, albeit with fewer apps compared to the iPad Mini, and a tablet that can actually double as a work device, then the Galaxy Note 8.0 is worth its rather steep asking price. The Samsung tablet packs a quick processor, upgradability, gorgeous screen, and easy to use UI into a sleek looking design that plays well with others within the Android ecosystem.

Is it really worth spending an additional $200 for the Galaxy Note 8.0 over the Nexus 7 which does a superb job with almost every task? Yes - with the caveat that you won't get your money's worth unless you take advantage of the S Pen and the great productivity applications that come with it. Highly recommended for those who want to use their tablet to get some actual work done.

Gorgeous looking HD screenFast performance even with multiple apps running at the same timeStorage is upgradeable by up to 64GB (microSD card)S Pen works extremely well8 hours of battery lifeWatchOn and Peel Universal Remote apps work wellRelatively expensiveBattery life is shorter than both iPad Mini and Nexus 7 by 2 hoursUI is not as flashy looking as those found on iOS devicesNo AirPlayOverall construction quality needs to be higher considering the priceSamsung Galaxy Note 8.0AC AdapterUSB cableS PenDocumentation
Manufacturer's Contact Information

Samsung U.S.A.
85 Challenger Road
Ridgefield Park, New Jersey 07660
P: 800-SAMSUNG (726-7864)

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