It seems like Apple and Samsung are constantly parrying each other. Samsung launches the Galaxy S III; Apple launches the iPhone 5 a few months later. Apple launches a new iPad; Samsung launches one of its new Galaxy Tabs a few months later. Now we have Samsung's answer to Apple's iPad Mini: the Galaxy Note 8.0, but is it worth buying?
What Is It?
It's an 8-inch Android tablet that has a special stylus called the S Pen, just like Samsung's other Note-branded devices. It can also do a lot of things the iPad can't, like run two apps at the same time in a split screen. But as good as Samsung's phones are getting, the company has yet to make a tablet that can stack up to what Apple and Google have pulled off so far. The Galaxy Note 8.0 brings Samsung a bit closer, but not nearly close enough.
It packs a 1.6GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16/32GB of internal storage expandable up to 64GB via microSD card, a 4600mAh battery and a screen resolution of 1280 x 800 (189ppi).
Like all Samsung mobile devices, the Galaxy Note 8.0 is covered in plastic. But unlike the upcoming Galaxy S4, which actually feels relatively durable, the Galaxy Note 8.0 feels like a flimsy toy. The white plastic creaks when you grip the device and it's a magnet for dirt and smudges.
From a design perspective, the Galaxy Note 8.0 looks like a giant-sized version of last year's flagship Samsung phone, the Galaxy S III. It even has the same pill-shaped home button flanked by function keys for "menu" and "back."
The display is pretty weak too, at least by today's standards for mobile devices. Its resolution is only slightly better than the iPad Mini's (to be clear, I think the iPad Mini display also stinks), and icons and graphics often look dull and pixelated. Yes, I'm probably just spoiled by the high-resolution displays on devices like the full-sized iPad and HTC One, but it seems odd that Samsung would wimp out on the screen, especially when it makes some of the best ones in the industry.
The basic Galaxy Note 8.0 model comes with 16 GB of storage, but you also get a MicroSD card slot that lets you add up to 64 GB. Plus Samsung has a deal with Dropbox that'll give you 50 GB of free storage for two years, which is a great value.
But the best part of the Galaxy Note 8.0 hardware is under the hood. It has a zippy quad-core processor plus 2 GB of RAM, meaning you have plenty of power to run multiple apps at once without choking the device or zapping your battery.
And battery life is great. The tablet barely sips power when switched to standby mode, and it can last several hours under normal use. You can't switch out the battery like you can on Samsung's phones, but you won't need to.
Samsung loves to pack its devices with feature after feature after feature, and it's the same story with the Note 8.0. There's far more to the tablet's software than I can fit in one review, so I'm going to hit the most important stuff.
The most distinguishing feature is Samsung's "Multi Window," which lets you run two apps at once in a split screen mode. You activate it from the drop-down settings bar in the notifications centre. When switched on, a tray of apps that support Multi Window appears on the left side of your screen. Tap to open an app, then tap and drag a second app over to run the two side by side. You can adjust how much screen real estate an app takes up by sliding the divider bar up and down.
Multi window is easily the best feature on the Note 8.0, especially when you need to copy and paste something between two apps. On other tablets you have to copy an item, close out of one app, open another, and then paste the item. Annoying.
But there are some drawbacks. Multi Window only works with a handful of apps (about 20) such as Gmail, Chrome, Twitter, Facebook, and a bunch of Samsung's own Android apps. Samsung lets developers tweak their apps to work in split screen mode, but there doesn't seem to be a huge rush for them to do so. Still, the most important apps do support the feature, which is a decent enough start.
I also don't like how the Multi Window app tray leaves a little nub at the side of your screen, even when you have other apps open. This is supposed to help you slide the tray out, but it becomes more of a distraction than anything.
I wish there was a way to make it disappear without having to go back into settings to turn off Multi Window. Update: You can actually do this easily by just long pressing the back soft key.
Another feature I like is called Smart Stay, which uses the tablet's front-facing camera to detect when you're looking at the screen and keep it from dimming. If you've ever had a tablet or phone go dark while reading something, you can probably see the value in this.
Finally, there's the S Pen, Samsung's special stylus that's been around since the original Galaxy Note phone launched last year. Samsung's note-taking software has handwriting recognition that can convert your notes to plain text so you can easily copy and paste it elsewhere. The pen also lets you hover over the screen to view more options in drop-down Web menus and the tweaked version of the news reading app Flipboard that was specially made for the Note 8.0.
The S Pen is an OK accessory to have, but it's hardly essential to the device. It doesn't feel natural to write with, and it's only real benefit is the ability to hover over menus.
Other than those and numerous other extras, the Galaxy Note 8.0 functions like most other Android tablets. You can customise the home screen with widgets and apps, and connect to all your Google services like Gmail, Calendar, and Google Talk.
However, the tablet app selection in Google's Play store is still pretty weak compared to what you find on the iPad. It's getting a little better, but most apps, even popular ones like Twitter and Facebook, are just blown up versions of the smartphone-sized apps. They look pretty awkward on a larger 8-inch screen.
Should You Buy It?
Maybe. The main issue is that it's quite expensive for a fairly average device.
In Australia the Galaxy Note 8.0 costs $459 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi-only model. That's $90 more expensive than the equivalent iPad mini and a whopping $210 more than the Nexus 7, both of which being better devices.
It's a pretty absurd assumption that anyone would want to pay a premium for a tablet with a low resolution screen and poorer construction than its closest rivals.
Unless you absolutely must have that stylus or the ability to run two apps at once in a split screen, then there's no good reason to buy the Note 8.0 over your other options. If you want the best smaller tablet, buy the Nexus 7.
The Galaxy Note 8.0 isn't as attractive or well built as the iPad Mini or Nexus 7, and it's much more expensive. Those two things alone will probably turn off a lot of people, but there's still a lot to like.
Originally published on Business Insider Australia