Samsung's phone call-making 8in tablet – the Galaxy Note 8.0 – might look silly next to most Team Stuff faces, but press it to the ear of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, BFG or Jolly Green Giant and everything starts to make sense.
We’re being facetious, of course, and in fact 7in and 8in tabs are fast becoming popular with far more than a ragtag band of fictional giants, with even normal-sized people realising that this can be a cheaper way of getting your fill of apps, movies and messaging on the fly than the latest flagship phone.
Samsung’s recipe is an obvious and sensible one – take the multi-tasking friendly, S Pen-rocking Galaxy Note 10.1, shrink it to iPad Mini-size and add a pumped up quad-core processor, cheaper price tag and SIM card/3G-friendly model. Sounds super to us.
design and build
The Note 8.0 looks and feels exactly how you’d expect if you’ve owned or played with a Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note 2 or Galaxy Note 10.1. That is, a shiny, white plastic body that’s light and comfortable, with curved lines and faux-metallic details. It feels more solid than the Note 10.1 but still creaks and flexes more than aluminium slates from Apple and Sony. Those touches mean you’re unlikely to be drawing envious glances in the coffee shop, but at least you won’t be too precious to chuck this Sammy tab straight into your bag.
On the front of the device it’s the same set-up as the Galaxy S3 – a Home button with capacitive Back and Settings buttons either side. The power and volume buttons are on the right-hand edge, just a headphone jack up top, and on the left you’ve got a microSD card slot. We tested the Wi-Fi only model of the Note 8.0 but you’ll also find a SIM card slot on the 3G model.
At first glance the Note 8.0’s big white bezels make it feel bigger than the almost identically sized (but slimmer and lighter) iPad Mini. But you can still grab it one-handed without too much trouble – we also found ourselves holding it by the bottom right corner or resting the tab in one hand while using the S Pen with the other.
An 8in screen such as the Note 8.0’s propels it from a device purely for media consumption (such as the Nexus 7) to something made to get work done, yet also makes it a more useful size than the 10in Galaxy Note for replacing your trusty pen and paper double act. Borrowing Smart Stay from the Galaxy S3 also means that the Note 8.0’s display won’t time out when you’re looking at it.
It’s a lovely 1280x800 screen with good contrast, vibrant colours (which can be muted with the ‘movie’ screen mode) and a 16:9 ratio that works just as well for watching movies as it does for using two apps side by side via Multi-Window. With Full HD screens coming up through the ranks this year, though, text does show up the Note 8.0’s resolution with a little fuzziness on close inspection. The iPad Mini suffers similarly, of course, but where Apple’s dinky tablet screen is a clear winner is in its colours, which are more neutral and natural than the slightly orangey reds and questionable skin tones of the Note 8.0.
OS and features
Running on Android Jelly Bean 4.1, Samsung has loaded up the Note 8.0 with many of its recent mobile tech treats. With the usual inviting set of widgets, homescreens and pre-installed apps, plus a keyboard that’s fast and easy to type with, the standouts are Multi-Window and Page Buddy.
The first is fantastic and much smoother in operation than on the Note 10.1 – long-pressing the back button brings up 20 or so compatible apps which can be used side-by-side or one up, one down onscreen. This multi-tasking feature now supports Chrome, Gmail, YouTube, Maps and MX Player as well as Samsung’s own apps, making it much more useful than it was perviously.
Page Buddy is also really neat – just forgive the name and the annoying “enjoy listening to your device” messages. It works by bringing up customisable homescreens when you plug in earphones, unsheath the S Pen or dock the Note 8.0. So stick your SoundMagic E10s in and you can add apps like Spotify to the screen alongside the built in music and video players.
performance and camera
Indoor shot with the Galaxy Note 8.0's rear 5MP camera
Outdoors shot with the Galaxy Note 8.0's rear 5MP camera
Put it this way, the Note 8.0 is speedy and smooth – whether you’re careering around Asphalt 7 or watching an HD movie on one half of the screen while planning your escape via Google Maps on the other. With a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos chip at the wheel plus 2GB of RAM, that’s not exactly a surprise, but Samsung should be given credit for tightening up the Note tablet experience and a Geekbench score of 2132 is certainly not to be sniffed at, even if the Note 8.0 was also acting like a water bottle while it thrashed through the test.
Wi-Fi connectivity is good and Bluetooth pairing is swift. Its two speakers sound average but are located on the bottom edge of the tab, which means that in landscape you’re likely to cover one up. The 5MP rear camera too is usable but not great: colours look washed out and detail is disappointing even when snapping in broad daylight – especially compared to the photo skills of the iPad Mini.
As with the Note 10.1, you’ll use the S Pen more than you’d first think. There’s a tidy little slot in the bottom right-hand corner for it, and it’s a thin, lightweight stylus rather than a chunky toy, making it a pleasure to use for Sketchbook Mobile Express, Photoshop and note-taking.
When using the handwriting recognition in the S Note app, the Note 8.0’s screen cleverly ignores the palm of your hand to avoid messy scrawls. Choose from writing freehand, converting your scrawls to text or simply inputting text via the keyboard, but be warned: you’ll have to go slowly and correct mistakes as you go along if you plump for the writing-to-text option.
as a phone
We’ve been testing the Wi-Fi only Note 8.0 model so can’t comment on call quality or battery life with 3G. We do know that the SIM-friendly model has extra multi-tasking features so you can browse the web or take notes while chatting. Just make sure you grab a Bluetooth headset with your tab.
Battery life is very good indeed and the Note 8.0 will last eight to nine hours of regular gaming, TV show-bingeing, WhatsApping and emailing. Plus, if you need to stretch out the Note 8.0’s massive 4600mAh battery even further you can choose between CPU and screen power saving modes and turn off haptic feedback.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 vs iPad Mini
Considering the Galaxy Note 8.0 is $140 more expensive than the 16GB iPad Mini, it’s a tough sell. The Apple tab wins hands down for build quality and apps (they’re generally better quality, optimised and better-looking on the App Store). But the Note 8.0 feels less like a gorgeous device to own and brag about and more a tablet to use – if stylus input is a big draw and multi-tasking a must, this is a better bet than the iPad. Only the below-par 5MP cam and bizarrely high price tag let it down – just remember that for $499 you can get a grippy-backed, first-to-be-updated 3G Nexus 7.
This is a much more exciting prospect than the Note 10.1 in terms of form factor, performance and price. Forget the gimmick of making calls – no-one’s actually going to do that more than once or twice – and focus on what this really is: an easy-to-use, everyday tablet with value-added stylus and a very good screen. If only this multi-tasking and note-taking powerhouse was also a little bit cheaper.
Review by Sophie Charara