Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 Review

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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.

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