For years we've been reading about the alleged iPad killer, a mythical device that never arrives. There have been impressive Android tablets in recent months, but on the whole, it's been clear to everyone but the most ardent Android fanboy that Apple's iPad is the superior tablet in almost every way.
But the new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 to be released in the United States tomorrow changes the game. I've been using a loaner unit for a couple days now, and it's the first Android tablet that I could see replacing my iPad. It certainly bests Samsung's previous flagship, the Galaxy Tab 2. Samsung has succeeded in making the Note a great tablet, with very nice user interface enhancements that add up to a satisfying and, dare I say, intuitive experience. Samsung has amped up and improved on the good Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," with close attention to detail and user experience -- Apple's hallmarks. Best of all, the hardware looks and feels great.
The innovations in a nutshell
Samsung has done more than smooth out the Android experience. The Note takes the intriguing pen capabilities from the 5-inch Galaxy Note "phablet" and brings a more sophisticated version of them to the tablet. Many people like the phablet, but I found it too small to use as a tablet and too big to use as a smartphone. The screen was too large for thumb-typing, for example, yet too small for reading my calendar.
I have no such reservations about the Note 10.1. The 10-inch tablet is the perfect size for a pen interface -- there's enough screen real estate to doodle and annotate, and the onscreen keyboard is quite easily typed on -- like the iPad's keyboard, but with Android 4's better complement of onscreen keys (such as numerals being available on the main keyboard). It's the right combination of pen and keyboard.
Samsung is the main innovator in the mobile market after Apple -- the tiresome lawsuits over design and patents notwithstanding -- and that adaptation really shows in the Galaxy Note 10.1. For example, rather than simply port its pen interface from the phablet to the tablet, Samsung has introduced a split-screen mode for Android apps so that you can run an app on one side while having your pen-savvy notetaking area in the other. I've grown quite comfortable switching screens on my iPad and various Android tablets, but being able to scribble without leaving the app entirely is really useful.
Microsoft's decade of bad pen computing in various Windows versions may have convinced Apple to ignore the technology. However, I believe a stylus has a useful place on a tablet, where simple drawings are often more effective than text for some types of notes and where annotations are helpful in presentations and other collaborative activities.
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