Having sworn off Android tablets for productivity purposes after a failed year-long experiment to use one, I don’t exactly jump through the roof when a new Android tablet hits the market, even if it’s one that would have made me excited once upon a time. Thanks to a friend who bought one though, I recently had a chance to play a bit more with a Note 8.0 than what in-store demos allow you to, and it was enough to leave me with some quick, subjective impressions.
Hardware-wise, the Galaxy Note 8.0 is quite nice. I don’t particularly like the rounded off shape, and the thing is so plastic-centered it’s annoying, but internally it’s a well-equipped device. The 8-inch, 1280 x 800 screen does an OK job of providing a clear image, though both AMOLED and a higher resolution screen would have been great upgrades, in my opinion. I’m more excited about the 2GB of RAM and quad core Exynos chip, which is a breath of fresh air from a company that seems to have made it its mission to release tablets with outdated hardware, in the form of the Galaxy Tab line (seriously, go look at the specs for the Galaxy Tab 1, 2, and 3, and tell me you see several years worth of change in that).
In practical use, those specs do a good job of making the tablet smoother than other Samsung tablet offerings. I would never even consider any Galaxy Tab-branded Samsung tablet at this point, as they’re simply sluggish, which isn’t an issue with the Note 8.0. When you then throw in microSDXC support, GPS, a 5 megapixel camera (even one that’s not very good, as is the case here), and an IR emitter, you have a decent set of specs. Still, $400 does seem a bit high for this, and $299 or $349 would have sounded more reasonable.
Of course, the pen is one of the main selling points, and probably drags the price up quite a bit. It’s also the thing that intrigues me the most about the Note line, as I do a lot of hand-written notes. Unfortunately, Samsung’s S-Note software is not very good, and could never ever replace the apps I use on my iPad. It has some “ad banner features” that look great in commercials, like hand writing recognition, formula recognition, and pinpoint accuracy thanks to the pen, but it just fails so massively in the most basic of tasks. S-Note doesn’t even support importing PDF files, which to me is the biggest sin any note taking app could ever commit. I see a lot of people praise the pen and the software, and I honestly don’t think those people have tried the alternatives. For someone like me who’s been using note taking software on both iOS and Windows for years, S-Note just feels like a tech demo and not in any way a finished, usable software product, and there’s no third party software that I’m aware of that can compete with the iOS offerings.
Another issue I have with the Note 8.0 is Touchwiz. I don’t know what’s wrong with Samsung’s UI designers, but even iOS 7 looks better than the horrible looking changes that Touchwiz makes to things like the Settings menu and the notification pull-down. It’s perhaps the least professional design I’ve ever seen in a operating system, reminding me of some sort of Chinese knock-off MP7 player from years back. The color palette is all over the place, and compared to stock Android it frankly just looks horrible. I’m normally not one to care too much about things like that, but I frankly don’t think I could use the tablet with it looking like that.
Still, not all of Samsung’s additions are bad. The split screen mode that allows you to have multiple apps open is quite nice, although the sidebar menu you use to access compatible apps is horribly executed compared to sidebar apps in Google Play. It’a quite note to be able to put up a video on the top third of the screen and a web browser on the lower 2/3, although a fairly massive problem in that regard is Android’s infamous overscaling of everything. An 8-inch 1280 x 800 screen is fully capable of displaying both a video and a browser at the same time, but with stock Android UI sizes it uses up way more than it should on just displaying UI elements. Root, the Xposed framework, and the per-app-DPI tweak would shine on this device.
All in all, I find the Galaxy Note 8.0 to be a decent device that I could easily forgive for all its minor issues if it wasn’t for the fact that the Android tablet software market is so horrible. Even with all the Note’s hardware advantages over my iPad mini, the lack of software basically just disqualifies the Note from the race altogether. For anyone who have tried both platforms and have then made an informed decision to use Android, the Note is a great tablet, but the lack of tablet software on Android is not to be underestimated. That’s also why the friend of mine who bought the Note is returning it.