Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 review

In search of a true flagship tablet from the world's top smartphone maker

Review
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 Review

In the global smartphone market, Samsung (005930) is a force to be reckoned with. The company extended its lead during the fourth quarter as it shipped an astounding 63.7 million smartphones, representing 29% of the global market according to research firm IDC. Samsung’s next closest competitor was Apple (AAPL) which sold 47.8 million iPhones for 21.8% of the market during the same time span. The story is much different when it comes to tablets, however. IDC estimates that Samsung shipped 7.9 million tablets in Q4 2012 for 15.1% of the global market, which represented big year-over-year growth put still paled in comparison to Apple’s 43.6% share. In other words, Samsung still has a lot of work to do.

Samsung’s strategy in the tablet market is similar to its strategy in the smartphone market, with one major difference. As is the case with smartphones, Samsung has launched a number of different tablets that span a wide range of sizes and price points. It also divides its tablets into two main categories, Galaxy Tab and Galaxy Note, as it does with its key smartphone lines, Galaxy S and Galaxy Note.

The main difference between its smartphone strategy and its tablet play is that with smartphones, Samsung focuses much of its marketing effort in many countries on one flagship device. Affordable handset sales in emerging markets will grow much faster than the high-end smartphone market in the near future, but the high end is still where the profits are. In 2012 it was the Galaxy S III and it’s no coincidence that the South Korean vendor shipped well over 30 million of them in just a few months.

With tablets, Samsung’s approach has been a bit different. The company offers a number of appealing options but there isn’t a key model that stands head and shoulders above the rest. There isn’t a Samsung slate that is more worthy of consumers’ attention and the lion’s share of Samsung’s marketing dollars than the vendor’s other tablets. There isn’t a true flagship device.

Does the Galaxy Note 8.0 change that? I have spent the last few days with Samsung’s latest tablet, and this is the most important question I sought to answer.

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First, I have to qualify this review. Samsung delivered Galaxy Note 8.0 review units to U.S. media last Friday, which gave us fewer than four days to review this tablet. That is not even close to enough time to truly put the device through its paces and form a firm opinion. It’s more than enough time for an in-depth look at the device though, and I plan to elaborate on the conclusions I reach here in future coverage.

I should also note that the Note 8.0 Samsung sent me has a serious bug and was unable to transmit data on either of the two wireless routers I have in my home (an Apple Time Capsule and an Arris TG852), nor did it work with a third router (Linksys E2000) that I borrowed to test. More than a dozen other devices, including several Samsung phones and tablets, were able to connect to all three wireless access points without issue.

Interestingly, the tablet was able to transmit data while connected to two different smartphones with the mobile hotspot feature enabled, and these were the data connections I used during my testing. Samsung was unable to help me with the issue, though a company representative did assure me that he had not previously encountered the issue during his extensive testing. The company’s public relations firm is sending me a replacement unit, and I will update this review to confirm that the new unit is not impacted by this bug.

UPDATE 4/17: Samsung’s replacement tablet finally arrived and I can confirm that the new Note 8.0 is not affected but the aforementioned Wi-Fi connectivity issues.

With all that behind us, let’s take a look at the Galaxy Note 8.0.

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Beginning with the hardware, Samsung chose an interesting design for its latest slate. Imagine a Galaxy S III that has been flattened with a steam roller and that’s exactly what the Note 8.0 looks like.

The tablet’s 8-inch 800 x 1,280-pixel display is surrounded on all sides by a white plastic bezel and an oblong home button sits beneath the display. The Note 8.0’s pixel density works out to 189 ppi, besting Apple’s iPad mini (163 ppi) until the second-generation model launches later this year.

In terms of quality, the TFT display on the Note 8.0 is nothing like the Super AMOLED displays that Samsung’s mobile devices are famous for, but it’s still a very good screen. Colors are nice and vibrant, contrast is good and it gets very bright.

Silver plastic with a brushed metal look wraps around the outer edges of the device and the back is glossy plastic similar to the material we’ve seen on countless earlier Samsung devices. Yes, it still feels somewhat cheap and it still gets marked up with fingerprints very easily.

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The Galaxy Note 8.0 can obviously be used in portrait or landscape orientation like any other tablet, but it’s clearly designed to be used in portrait more so than landscape, as opposed to some other Android tablets that cater more to landscape mode. The tablet’s stereo speakers are both positioned on the bottom edge of the Note 8.0 when held in portrait orientation, as is the S Pen stylus and the microUSB charging port. The power and volume buttons are on the right edge just like the Galaxy S III and Samsung’s branding on the front and back is positioned to be read with the device held in portrait mode.

In terms of fit and finish, this tablet is a good representation of the rest of Samsung’s device lineup. The build is fairly solid but the feel is a bit cheap. While I still favor a device with a more premium feel, Samsung’s choice of materials does offer one clear benefit in this case: the Galaxy Note 8.0 is nice and light, which is great at this size because the tablet makes a fantastic eReader. For comparison, the Note 8.0 weighs 338 grams and Apple’s iPad mini weighs in at 308 grams.

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Other hardware notes: the audio quality while using connected headphones is decent but the audio quality while playing music through the integrated stereo speakers isn’t very good. The 4,600 mAh battery seems to last at least a couple of days with average use but Samsung certainly didn’t give us enough time to test it thoroughly. And finally, the rear 5-megapixel camera captures good quality images compared to other tablets — but please, do us all a favor and never use a tablet to take pictures.

In terms of performance, the Note 8.0 also delivers an experience typical of modern Samsung devices. The 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos processor and 2GB of RAM ensure that operation is fast and smooth, though the tablet does sometimes get caught for a beat when switching between apps or when opening new apps with a lot going on in the background.

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Moving on to the software, there’s a lot to like on the Note 8.0 thanks to Android 4.1.2 as well as Samsung’s various enhancements.

Just like other recent additions to the Galaxy Note family, Samsung’s new S Pen features are outstanding on the Note 8.0. Air View lets users hover over messages, media or folders with the stylus to preview content without having to tap, and it lets users scroll up or down a page simply by hovering over the top or bottom edges, as well. There’s also a great widget that lists all of your Note templates and lets you start a new meeting note, diary entry, memo, recipe or any other type of note with a single tap.

Samsung’s S Pen also supports all of the company’s standard stylus shortcuts, including holding the button on the stylus and long-tapping on the screen to capture a screenshot, or holding the button and double-tapping to open a new blank note.

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Multi Window is another feature that comes over to the Galaxy Note 8.0 from other Note devices, and it’s just as useful here as it is on the Note 10.1 — and far more useful than it is on the Note II. The feature lets owners open two apps and use them side by side in like-sized windows or with one app taking up a third or quarter of the screen and the other consuming the remainder of the display. This means you can watch a video in one window while replying to emails in another, or even take notes in S Note or Polaris Office while you have a web page open in Chrome. It’s a great feature that every tablet should have.

Smart Stay is on board as well, so the screen will remain lit as long as the front-facing camera detects a user’s face.

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Another addition to the Note 8.0 that I really like is Reading mode, which automatically optimizes the tablet’s display for reading when supported apps are opened. So when a book is opened in Google’s (GOOG) Play Books app, the hue of the display automatically changes to make reading for extended periods of time more comfortable.

Since the tablet’s size and weight make it an ideal for reading eBooks, this is a fantastic feature to have — the Note 8.0 is nice and thin (25% thinner than the Galaxy Note 10.1), which makes it very comfortable to hold.

The downside of the Reading mode feature is that apps must support it, so your eReader app of choice might not be compatible. The other issue with using the Galaxy Note 8.0 as an eReader is one that plagues all tablets, of course: battery life absolutes pales in comparison to a true eReader with an E Ink display. This is not something that will change anytime soon.

We have covered many of the Note series’ unique features in early reviews of Samsung devices, but there is one more recent addition that definitely warrants a closer look: WatchON.

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Samsung is focusing on several key areas of the user experience with its device lineup in 2013, and entertainment is among the company’s top priorities.

According to Samsung Mobile vice president and general manager Nanda Ramachandran, Samsung wants its tablets to be “the center of the living room” and WatchON is the first step toward realizing that vision. The app serves as an enhanced TV guide and a universal remote control, just like the HTC TV app I discussed in my recent HTC One review. Like HTC’s (2498) app, WatchON shows you content that is currently airing as well as shows and movies on later in the day. It adds another layer to the experience though, by showing movies and TV shows available for purchase on demand from services like Netflix, Blockbuster On Demand and Samsung’s own Media Hub service.

While WatchON works well enough, I prefer HTC TV even though the integration with other video services like Netflix is a nice feature. I find that HTC and Peel are much better at the guide part of the equation, placing on-air content front and center, as it should be. Samsung’s app tries a bit too hard to sell users content available through its Media Hub service, and it also features a user interface that is less than intuitive at times.

The Note 8.0 ships with Peel’s Smart Remote app pre-installed as well, which is nice since the UI is a bit cleaner. It’s also a curious move, however, considering Samsung wants people to live in the WatchON app for TV and video.

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Samsung did a great job with the Galaxy Note 8.0. The design is sleek, the size is almost perfect, the display is solid and the fit and finish are as good as any other Samsung device.

The S Pen support and Samsung’s suite of stylus-friendly apps are big selling points that add a whole new layer of utility to the Note 8.0, and they will be appreciated by anyone with even the slightest need or desire for a tablet with good stylus support. No other vendor offers anything anywhere near as comprehensive on a media tablet.

Entertainment is a big focus for Samsung in 2013, but the Galaxy Note 8.0 definitely falls short in this area. WatchON leaves much to be desired and other Samsung services like Media Hub have similar shortcomings. Media Hub in particular was a bit finicky on the Note 8.0, and I wasn’t able to stream any of the music I had previously uploaded to my account. AllShare works as described though, which is great for anyone who has a Samsung smart TV or an AllShare Cast Wireless Hub. Like Apple’s AirPlay, this feature lets users stream anything from their Note 8.0’s display to a connected TV, eliminating the need for other accessories like a Roku or even a DVD player.

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As a total package, the Galaxy Note 8.0 is a solid tablet but it lacks any discernible wow-factor that might set it apart from the crowd. In my eyes, the size is the star of the show as it’s far more manageable than a 10-inch tablet but far more versatile than a 7-inch slate. Beyond that, this tablet is just another Galaxy Note.

On the plus side, at least Samsung had the wherewithal to ditch the ear speaker and phablet features from the U.S. version of the Note 8.0, though it would have been nice to have a version with optional cellular connectivity.

So in the end, the Galaxy Note 8.0 likely isn’t the standout tablet with the potential to be positioned as Samsung’s flagship slate. It isn’t the Galaxy S III of tablets. It is a terrific addition to Samsung’s tablet lineup though, and it fills a gap between 7-inch tablets and larger 10-inch tablets. The Galaxy Tab 7.7 used to fill that gap in Samsung’s lineup, but the new Note is better in every way.

The Galaxy Note 8.0 launches in the U.S. on April 11th starting at $399.99 with 16GB of internal storage — making it $71 more expensive than a comparable iPad mini, though the Note 8.0 includes microSDXC support — and it will be available from retailers online and around the country including Amazon, Best Buy, h.h. gregg, Newegg, P.C. Richard & Son, Staples and TigerDirect.com.

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