Overview, Design & Features
The Professional's Tablet
These days, tablet screen sizes typically fall into two sweet spots: 9 to 10 inches and 7 to 8 inches. You go for the former if you want a bigger screen for the tasks you engage in (duh!), and the latter if you’re looking for something more portable or more suited for one-handed use - you know, like when you’re in bed. While the I-want-a-big-screen-mobile-device-but-not-too-big-please market is now mostly taken care of by large-screen smartphones (affectionately known as ‘phablets’), the other end is still largely capped at the size that Apple has chosen for the original iPad.
Case in point: Samsung. Before the Korean consumer electronics giant announced its large-screen ‘Pro’ tablets this past CES, the company has already made 18 different tablets with varying screen sizes (7 inches, 7.7 inches, 8 inches, 8.9 inches, 10.1 inches - you name it) in its Galaxy Tab and Galaxy Note lines. Tablets in the Galaxy Tab series are usually positioned as midrange Android tablets, while those in the Galaxy Note series differentiate themselves by taking on additional pen computing duties.
The 12.2-inch Galaxy Note Pro here today is one of two 12.2-inch pro tablets to come from Samsung; the other sits in the Tab Pro series, which Samsung Singapore isn't bringing in. For the most part, they’re twins, sharing the same internals like a Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor clocked at 2.3GHz (there's also a Wi-Fi model that uses the Exynos 5 Octa processor), 3GB RAM, a 12.2-inch LCD with a 2,560 x 1,600-pixel resolution, an 8-megapixel rear camera, and of course, support for LTE. But just like what I explained earlier, the Galaxy Tab Pro has to address the Galaxy Note Pro as big brother because the latter wields the S Pen stylus.
Design & Hardware
The first thing I noticed when I lifted the 753g Galaxy Note Pro out of its box is how it resembles the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition). It looks as if someone has put a rolling pin on the Galaxy Note 10.1 and rolled out the Galaxy Note Pro. The result is a tablet whose 295.5 x 204mm frame is almost as large as an A4 sheet. However, at 7.9mm, it’s as thin as the Note 10.1. Coupled with the faux leather back and its faux stitching (the layer underneath is still plastic, for obvious reasons), I can’t help feeling that I’m holding on to a larger Note 10.1.
Even the buttons and ports are similarly positioned. There’s the power and volume buttons along the top (in landscape mode); the 3.5mm headphone jack on the left; a speaker on each side; and the stylus (in its silo) on the right, with the micro-SIM and microSD card slots closer toward the bottom. Unlike its 10.1-inch sibling though, the Note Pro doesn’t use micro-USB 2.0. Instead, it has the same micro-USB 3.0 port that we first saw on the Galaxy Note 3. The port has also moved from the bottom to the right side, which makes more sense because now the cable won’t get in the way when I try to prop the tablet up on a flat surface.
By having the physical Home button along the long side of the Note 10.1, Samsung is telling us that landscape is the preferred orientation to use the tablet. If anything, I’ll say that on the Note Pro, with its even larger display, that’s the only logical and healthy way. I’ve tried holding it in portrait mode on the train, and always went back to landscape mode, even though that meant I had to scroll the page more often. Why? Not because it’s douchebag behavior to hold a tall, protruding tablet at arm’s length on a crowded train, but because the balance is way off if I were to grip it at the lower side, like how I (and almost everybody else) hold a book or small-screen tablet. Gripping the long side also increases the prospect of accidentally pressing the Home button or invoking the App Switcher and Back capacitive buttons. That said, even in landscape mode and holding it with two hands, I often found myself looking for a seat, so that I could sit down and rest the tablet on my lap.
Similar things can be said for using the Galaxy Pro in bed. It’s unlikely that you can last through a chapter holding the tablet in bed, portrait mode or not, or a 2-hour movie, unless you’ve some kind of folio case or bed stand to prop it up. It’s not impossible, it's just too energy sapping to be worth it. And you better not fall asleep with the tablet above your face.
The Case for a 12.2-inch Screen
If that’s the case, why build a tablet with such a big screen? In short, Samsung is playing the productivity card here. On the Galaxy Note 10.1, you can activate two apps, and have both of them on screen at the same time. On the Galaxy Note Pro, this number goes up to four, and they're resizable. Want to watch a video, reply an email, check your upcoming appointments, or take a note? There’s no need to cycle through the apps one screen at a time, as you can now see all of them at once. And you aren’t getting puny windows by any measure. A quick punch on the calculator shows that I’m getting four 6.1-inch, 1,280 x 800-pixel windows.
Then there’s Pen Window for simpler apps like Calculator to appear in smaller popup windows, overlaying other apps. Combined that with Multi Window and you're in for some serious multi-tasking treat. But like previous implementations, the caveat is that not all apps support Multi Window (we counted 18, which include mainstays like Gmail, S Note, Chrome, Maps, Hangouts, YouTube); and even fewer (14) support Pen Window.
If you've an Galaxy Note 3 (or any Galaxy smartphone running KitKat), it's also possible to view the smartphone's screen on the tablet using SideSync 3.0. You drag and drop files between both devices, and even reply to messages sent to the Note 3 from the Note Pro.
As far as display performance goes, I’ve no problems with the Note Pro’s Super Clear LCD, which sports an PenTile RGBW pixel arrangement. Sure, with the tip of my nose a few inches away from the screen, I can see some jaggies on straight lines and the dreaded cross-hatch pattern, but no one can get any work done at this distance. At about 30cm away, text looks sharp and colors vibrant. And while sharpness is slightly affected by the lower pixel density (247ppi here vs. 299ppi on the Note 10.1), most people would be hard-pressed to notice it. Side by side, what most will notice immediately are the larger on-screen elements (e.g. icons and fonts), as the Note Pro implements a 320ppi or xhdpi density.
Samsung has the habit of putting the latest version of Android on its latest flagships, and the Galaxy Note Pro is no different, running Android 4.4.2 KitKat and (of course) the company’s TouchWiz UI. The home screen is similar to recent Galaxy Note tablets, with its 8 x 6 grid, and where you can add Samsung’s custom widgets like Action Memo, S Bookmarks, and S Note, among others. Out of the box, we’ve the usual suspects preloaded: Weather and Briefing, S Note, Discover Twitter, and NYTimes. A Google Search shortcut and an app drawer shortcut are docked at the bottom left and right corner respectively, and are visible in every home screen (you can have up to five).
The pull-down notification panel is also tweaked on the Note Pro. Unlike the Note 10.1, it doesn’t span the entire width of the display when it’s in landscape mode. Instead, it maintains the width (about 16.4cm) used in portrait mode. Depending on how you look at it, this can be both good and bad. On one hand, the notification panel is less overwhelming (and less comical) in landscape mode; on the other hand, the number of quick setting buttons in the panel remains at seven in either orientation. And those circular icons used for the quick setting buttons and in the Settings app? It’s probably a prelude of the TouchWiz revamp that's set to continue in the Galaxy S5.
Same as before, shortcuts for the Phone, Messages, Google Search, Internet, and Camera apps can only be placed on the lock screen when the Swipe screen lock method is used. However, Samsung has removed the ability to display multiple lock screen widgets. In its place is something called Lock Screen Card, which shows you up-to-date weather information, your appointments, emails, news, and social streams. The good thing about Lock Screen Card is that it can be enabled regardless of screen lock method. As someone who uses Pattern screen lock, I appreciate Lock Screen Card as it shows me information that’s not possible previously. But I don’t understand why Samsung cannot keep the multiple widgets option for those using Swipe screen lock. Perhaps just like the new Signature screen lock method, it’s to make the Note Pro more secure and appealing to paranoid business users.
A spanking new feature in Samsung’s pro tablets, including the Galaxy Note Pro, is the Magazine UX (a.k.a. Content Home), which sits on the left of the first home screen (or to the right of your last home screen). Powered by Flipboard, think of it as a giant dashboard that aggregates your apps, news (both business and entertainment), and social feeds. You can have up to five 'magazine' pages, with each page having six widgets. This content-based UI/UX is a stark contrast to your typical app-based home screen. Like Multi Window/Pen Window, Magazine UX works well until you find an app that doesn't support it.
To know more about Magazine UX, you can check out our previous hands-on article or the video below.
S Pen & Other Business-oriented Apps
While Samsung says the Galaxy Note Pro is great for both work and play, the company is clearly making a play for business users with the various office productivity apps that come pre-installed. Depending on region, the premium apps and service subscriptions that come with the tablet can be worth up to US$700. The key ones are: Remote PC (2-year subscription) for transferring data remotely from your PC to the tablet, e-Meeting for collaborating and sharing content with others, and Cisco WebEx (6-month free trial) for conferencing with up to eight people and screen sharing between devices. And Hancom Office, comprising of Hword, Hcell, and Hshow, and downloaded for free from the Samsung App store, allows you to view, edit, and create Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. For the most part, Hancom Office for Android is an adequate replacement for Microsoft’s office productivity suite. But with all the on-screen buttons and layout controls, touch is probably not the best input method. This is why Samsung is giving away a Bluetooth keyboard (but not the S Action Mouse) as part of its launch promotion here.
Of course, how can we forget the S Pen and all the S Pen apps. Air Command, which we first saw on the Galaxy Note 3, and later, the Note 10.1, makes an expected appearance on the Note Pro, with Action Memo, Scrap Booker, Screen Write, S Finder, Pen Window, and S Note all in tow. Also hanging around are long-timers like Smart Stay, Smart Pause, and Smart Rotation.
In a nutshell, if you enjoy using S Pen on the Galaxy Note 3 or Note 10.1, you'll like the Note Pro. If not, well, there's a reason why Samsung created the Tab Pro.
Update (March 17, 2014): Editor's note: But that's not all we've got to say about the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro. Check out this article for our benchmark results and final verdict.