|Introduction and Specifications|
|Samsung introduced the original Galaxy Tab in late 2010 and Samsung's line-up of Galaxy-branded products has simply exploded since then. Even for those who avidly follow consumer technology, it's getting tough to track. There's the Galaxy Tab line of tablets, the Galaxy S line of smartphones, and then there's the Galaxy Note line which is comprised of an array of devices. It's the Galaxy Note line in particular that's perhaps the most complex. The smaller Note devices are traditionally phones, while the Note 10.1, which as its name suggests is a 10.1 tablet, was added in order to offer S Pen stylus functionality in a tablet. As Samsung has evolved the Galaxy line-up, it has also attempted to introduce all sorts of form factors, including some that others have ignored.
The Galaxy Note 8.0 was first introduced at Mobile World Congress as a multifaceted device; it was part tablet, part mobile phone. Indeed, the global variant of the Note 8.0 is equipped with a cellular radio that can handle both data and voice transmissions. But the Note 8.0 that shipped in the U.S. market is a simpler device, because there's no voice capability--it's just a tablet. Well, "just" is a complicated term in this case. You see, the Note 8.0 is one of the only 8-inch tablets on the market. It's positioned between a glut of 7-inch tablets (including a few from Samsung itself), and a raft of 10-inch tablets.
If you aren't familiar with the Note line, it's Samsung's way of advancing the tablet. Due to the inclusion of the S Pen (a sophisticated stylus) as well as a unique mix of TouchWiz applications atop Android, the Note line can do more than your average slate. Samsung's proposal here is a unique set of software components, as well as a uniquely sized device. But are those extras worth the $400 asking price, particularly in a world full of 7-inch tablets that perform quite admirably available for under half of that? Join us as we find out...
|Design and Build Quality|
|The Note 8.0 is a curious device from a design standpoint. After using it for a time, we now know why 8-inch tablets aren't very common: this form factor is a bit awkward. Perhaps the biggest selling point for a 10-inch tablet is that it's large enough to be used in presentations, as a video viewer on a plane, as an e-reader on the beach, and as a productivity tool in the office. Similarly, the biggest selling point for the 7-inch form factor is that it's small enough for most adults to use it one-handed. There's a very clear delineation: if you want a single-handed tablet, get a 7-incher; if you don't, and perhaps want to get some work done, get a 10-incher.
The Galaxy Note 8.0 is only slightly larger than your average 7-inch tablet, but it's too large to use with a single hand, so you're forced to handle it with two. And at that point, if you know it's a two-handed affair, why wouldn't you splurge for a few more inches of screen real estate? The Note 8.0 is in no way small enough to fit into any cargo pockets, so if it's going in a knapsack or purse, we suspect most people would go ahead and get a size up.
The only obvious counter to this would be screen resolution. Had Samsung equipped the Note 8.0 with a 1080p panel (or something relatively close), it would have an impressive pixel density. A 1080p panel on an 8-inch screen would be incredibly crisp, and it would be a major selling point. As is, the unit has a 1280 x 800 resolution panel, which at 189ppi, isn't nearly as crisp as the slew of Retina-level displays we're seeing on some devices these days. Viewing angles are acceptable, colors are vibrant, touch response is excellent and brightness levels are admirable, but we think Samsung missed a golden opportunity here to more easily justify the 8-inch screen size.
Moving beyond that, the Note 8.0 has Samsung's typical plastic shell. The white hue looks fairly premium, but the choice to use plastic instead of a more superior material leaves us wanting. In fact, the rear of the $199 Nexus 7 feels much more premium than the slick, plastic backside of the $400 Note 8.0. The front is unsurprisingly glossy, but the coating does a decent job of rejecting fingerprints. There's a 1.3MP front-facing camera up above the LCD, while a physical 'home' button is between a menu softkey and a back softkey along the bottom.
There's a silver (also plastic) accent ring running around the device, with a microSD slot on the left, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, a power button + volume rocker along the right, and a micro-USB port on the bottom. There's also a slot for the S Pen stylus at the lower edge on the right side, which slips out easily and seems to hold itself inside fairly well when reinserted. The rear is fairly vanilla, though there's an odd bulge around the 5MP camera sensor near the top.
In use, we found the package to be a bit too slippery. Yes, slippery. The glossy exterior is somewhat tough to grip, and when you're trying to use a handheld device, grip is important. (See our prior comment about the grippy backside of the Nexus 7.) Typing on the virtual keyboard was a satisfactory experience when holding the tablet in portrait mode, but it's too wide in landscape mode for typing to be useful.
|Software: Android Jelly Bean and TouchWiz|
|The Galaxy Note 8.0 ships with Android 4.1.2, a version of Jelly Bean that was first introduced at Google I/O 2012. It's hardly the freshest build, and after Google I/O this year, it's apt to feel even more dated. Samsung nor Google has admitted that an update will be coming for the Note 8.0, so those who are concerned about always having the latest version of Android may want to hold off and see what this year's I/O conference brings.
That said, at least Jelly Bean (even the 4.1 variety) includes Google Now, which can be accessed on the Note 8.0 by long-pressing the menu softkey. By double-tapping the Home key, you're able to uptap S Voice. This voice app allows you to launch programs, capture a photo, enter a ChatON message, set an alarm, Google the Web for something, or do simple math. We honestly struggle to use these types of programs consistently; they're novel, yes, but we find that most tasks can be completed more reliably (and just as quickly) using your hands on the display. Voice recognition still isn't perfect, and it's the type of situation where if you can't trust it to always understand you the first time, you'll just opt to never use it in order to save yourself the trouble.
Aside from the usual Google inclusions (Gmail, Maps, Navigation, Google Play, etc.), the Note 8.0 has a layer of TouchWiz that's unlike the layer found on any other product. Given the name, it's no surprise that note taking is a big selling point. Samsung loads up a number of note taking templates for use, helping you to jot things down, annotate and doodle as you go about your day. All of those notes can be OCR'd and converted to text for more accurate sharing and archiving. The Note 8.0's S Pen now works on the Back and Menu buttons, so you don't have to put the stylus down if you want to tap those. The S Pen is actually quite enjoyable to hold and use, and it's extremely responsive on-screen. Doodles were always precise, and it picked up our text accurately even when scribbling in a hurry.
You'll appreciate the Note 8.0 more if you really take advantage of the S Pen. Things like adding a quick drawing to an e-mail, jotting down notes onto an existing calendar entry, and the ability to highlight and clip something from the Web while pasting into a note. All of those things are fairly impossible to accomplish on non-stylus slates. Polaris Office is also included, which allows users to edit, read and create Office documents; again, using the S Pen here really comes in handy.
Multi-window is perhaps the most useful software addition. It allows you to run two apps in split-screen view, and you can even adjust to give one program 70% of the screen while the other takes 30% (as an example). The rub is that not every app supports this. While Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and most of the inbuilt apps do, the vast majority of programs on the Play Store do not.
WatchON is undoubtedly the most intriguing feature of the Note 8.0. It's a new video app + service that's launching on this product and the GS 4. In a nutshell, WatchON is like Nintendo's attempt to create a digital remote control and second-screen experience with the Wii U. Upon launch, you input your ZIP code and TV provider, and a setup screen programs the Note 8.0 to turn your television off / on as well as your DVR. In our experience, we had no issues getting the Note 8.0 to become a remote for our Sony HDTV and DirecTV receiver. While we found the setup easy and the program to be useful, there is still some work to be done. You see, WatchON pulls up a program guide and allows you to tap channels on the device, but it has no idea what TV packages you're subscribed to. So if you surf through Sports, for example, you may see hundreds of channels that you can't access, and you have no way of knowing which those are. After three or four failed attempts to watch games on channels that we didn't have, we grew a little frustrated. In fairness, the Wii U's TVii app has the exact same problem, which we complained about in that review as well.
Things work a bit nicer if you have a Samsung HDTV with Wi-Fi, as you're actually able to watch channels (that you subscribe to) on the Note 8.0 itself. But, if you don't have a Wi-Fi HDTV, this feature isn't available. The idea behind WatchON is great, but it still needs some refining.
Finally, there's Air View. Air View lets you hover over the screen and control some apps without actually touching the glass. In the photo gallery, for example, you can hover over the screen with your fingers and flip through pictures without actually touching the screen. AirView takes some getting used to, but once you learn the gestures, it can be quite useful if you're in a situation where you can't or don't want to touch the screen, like when cooking, or perhaps when you're wearing gloves, etc.
|Performance: CPU and Web Browsing|
In the following tests, we take a look at how the Galaxy Note 8.0 compares to other tablets by running a few common benchmarks that are currently available in the Google Play Store.
No surprise here -- the 1.6GHz quad-core chip in the Note 8 put up some decent numbers. The quad-core SoCs in the current generation of tablets offer much better performance than the dual- and single-core slates of yesteryear.
|Performance: Graphics and GLBenchmark|
The GLBenchmark test suite is an OpenGL ES 2.0 benchmark with a number of performance metrics incorporated within. We specifically use the fillrate test here and the Egypt Off Screen test to measure 3D performance in frames per second. The Off Screen test renders workloads at 1280x720 for all devices, but off-screen, so Vsynch and screen resolution are not limiting performance factors.
Looking at the texture fill rate numbers, Apple's A5 offers a boatload of bandwidth, almost two times that of NVIDIA's new Tegra 3 T33 SoC in the Pad Infinity, even at its performance setting. Samsung's Exynos processor in the Note 8 holds its own though, notching a second-place finish compared to these rivals.
The Basemark X benchmark is built on top of an actual game engine, Unity 4, and features workloads modeled after actual games designed for smartphones and tablets. Basemark X exploits features like particle effects, advanced lighting effects and post processing, and really taxes the current generation of tablets.
|Performance: Graphics and General System Level|
3DMark Ice Storm is an OpenGL ES 2.0 benchmark test that uses fixed off-screen rendering at 720p then scales the output to fit the native display resolution of your device. Ice Storm includes two graphics tests designed to stress the GPU performance of your device and a physics test to stress its CPU performance.
Thanks to its relatively powerful quad-core SoC, the Note 8 put up some good physics and overall scores here. Take note, however, that in the graphics related tests, the Note 8 trailed a couple of competing devices.
The Android-based AnTuTu benchmark does a nice job of measuring individual subsystem level performance for our tablet competitors here, with models for CPU, GPU, RAM and IO (or storage subsystem) performance.
In this test, the Note 8.0 shows a commanding lead over most slates that shipped in the dual- and single-core era. The Note 8 also outpaces the quad-core equipped Galaxy Note 10.1, however.
|Battery Life Testing and Camera Samples|
The 5MP rear camera on the Galaxy Note 8.0 seems to be there simply because Samsung felt that it had to have some kind of sensor embedded. Why do we say that? Because there's no flash of any kind. Of course, taking photos with a tablet is awkward to begin with, so we aren't going to get too worked up over it. Phones need high-end camera sensors, but it's an area that we're okay skimping on in the tablet arena. That said, the Note 8.0 takes halfway decent photos in daylight, so at least it's there if you need a snapshot in a pinch. Have a look at the samples below.
In an attempt to quantitatively measure the Note 8.0's battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we ran two tests. For a more controlled setting, we used AnTuTu's battery rundown test. This a newer test for us, so we're still building out our baseline reference numbers still. For now, we can see that it slots between the Note 10.1 and Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T. This test is fairly intense, ramping up CPU cycles in an effort to drain the battery as fast as possible -- it's a solid look at endurance under duress and heavy use.
To give you a more realistic look at what to expect, we also used the device over a number of days as any average consumer would. We had Wi-Fi connected, screen brightness set at 50%, and engaged in watching a bit of Netflix, chuckling through a few YouTube clips, reading a bit, scrolling through the day's news, tossing a few pigs in Angry Birds, and browsing the Internet. In moderate off-and-on use, we managed to eke out about two days of use. When we used it much more heavily (editing spreadsheets, running benchmarks, etc.), we saw it last right around 14 hours. The Galaxy Note 8 took approximately 3.5 hours for the battery to fall to 80% after a full charge. That's roughly in line with similar-sized tablets on the market today, but it's not a standout performance either.
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Analysis: From a pure performance standpoint, it's really hard to knock the Galaxy Note 8.0. With its 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos SoC paired to 2GB of RAM, Samsung has created a top performer on the benchmark track. It blew away the single- and dual-core rivals from six to twelve months back, and easily notched a sub-1,000ms SunSpider score in Chrome. It's a very zippy tablet, and everything from flipping between apps to surfing the Internet felt incredibly fluid. We're glad Samsung packed the powerful SoC into the Note 8, as the TouchWiz features and S Pen interactions do indeed demand more giddyup to run smoothly.
The Note 8.0 is an interesting tablet, that much is certain. It's one of the more powerful solutions on the market, and one of the only "tweener" options for those who aren't satisfied with other 7- and 10-inch form factor alternatives that abound. It's also equipped with a stylus (S Pen), which allows it to be far more functional that your average tablet. If you're looking to take lots and lots of notes (or annotate / doodle on a regular basis), that inclusion will add a lot of value. But in practice, the 8-inch form factor doesn't always strike us as a positive. It's too large to use with a single hand, for most of us, and it's not beneficially smaller than a 10-inch slate. Moreover, Samsung's choice to use a 1280 x 800 resolution display rather than a 1080p panel hurts the overall appeal. For a $400 device, we were hoping for higher pixel density but that's the geek in us bleeding through.
The reality is that it is somewhat difficult to justify the Note 8's $400 asking price. When you have the excellent Nexus 7 available for under $200, spending double for a tablet that may or may not receive the latest Android updates is a dubious proposition, though in all fairness, the Note 8 has many more features than the Nexus 7. To justify the cost, you would need to regularly take advantage of the Note 8 as a productivity device, and leverage the S Pen and other TouchWiz features unique to Samsung at this time. While the Note 8.0 screams in the benchmarks, it doesn't feel all that much quicker than the Nexus 7 in everyday tasks, so you're left with additional screen area (not resolution) and its stylus as key differentiators beyond benchmark numbers. With that said, the Galaxy Note 8 is a really nice tablet but cost pressure from the street is working against it currently.