Review: 12-inch Galaxy Note Pro is too big for its own good
- 18 March, 2014 10:03
If there was ever a need to show that bigger isn't necessarily better, the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12-inch Android tablet provides the evidence.
The Note Pro 12.2 is a classic example of Samsung's habit of letting engineers design products and its strategy of having a product for every possible niche, rather than designing great products that support the needs of a wide range of users.
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The 12-inch Galaxy Note Pro is one of several sizes of the Note Pro tablet line, which are all the same except for the screen size. But the major issue with the Note Pro 12.2 is that it's simply too big. People love to complain that the 10-inch size popularized by the original iPad and the 7-inch size popularized by the original Samsung Galaxy Tab are too small to do "real" computing. Using a 12-inch Note Pro should help them dismiss that complaint.
The tablet designed for three handsThe 12-inch Note Pro weighs only a few more ounces than a classic 10-inch iPad: 26.5 ounces versus 23.5 ounces. (An iPad Air weighs 17 ounces.) But the much larger size means it's a much greater drag when held in one hand, a common practice with tablets that allows the use of gestures or the Note Pro's included stylus with the other hand. In fact, the drag of the 26.5-ounce Note Pro 12.2 felt heavier than the 30-ounce weight of my case- and cover-protected third-gen iPad, simply because of the greater pull of the Note Pro 12.2's larger chassis. Others who tested the tablet had the same reaction.
Your wrist will complain quickly after holding the 12-inch Note Pro -- you really need to rest it on a surface, whether your lap or a table.
When the Note Pro 12.2 is supported by your lap and held with one hand (so the screen is tilted to a functional angle), you'll find the degree of travel required to access the screen and the device's buttons is onerous. I compared using the 12-inch Note Pro 12.2 to the older 10-inch Note 10.1 model, and it's a night-and-day difference. With the Note 10.1, an average person can thumb easily to the Home or other standard Android buttons. Not so much with the Note Pro 12.2 -- one-handed typing and menu selection require more arm movement, rather than hand movement, in the Note Pro versus the Note 10.1. It's quite fatiguing.
If you hold the tablet with both hands, such as when standing, you'll find thumb-typing is workable on the Note 10.1, but difficult on the Note Pro 12.2. Again, the travel is too far -- and you can't let go of the tablet's side to move your hand (at least not for long).
The reality is that you need three hands to use the Note Pro 12.2 unless you have a desk or table to rest it on. To use it on such a surface, be sure to buy the $79 Book Case cover for it. Like the $79 Apple iPad Smart Case, the Book Case raises the tablet's back so that you get an inclined surface for both viewing and typing. Samsung didn't loan me the Note Pro 12.2's Book Case to test it, but I use the Book Case for the Note 10.1 and the Smart Case for the iPad. I can tell you covers like these are essential for sustained deskwork. Without such covers, you have to hunch directly over to the tablet to work with the screen, with horrible ergonomic results.
The frustrating Multi Window modeLike the other 2014 Galaxy Note Pro and Tab Pro Samsung tablets, the Note Pro 12.2 has a mode called Multi Window that displays apps in floating windows, like those in a Windows PC or a Mac. The feature makes logical sense on a 12-inch screen, which approaches the size of an Ultrabook's or MacBook Air's screen.
The 12-inch Samsung Galaxy Note Pro's screen with Multi Window enabled. Note the floating window at upper right, the circle buttons for minimized apps, and the new, expanded onscreen keyboard.
But it's an awkward feature in practice. Even on the 12-inch screen, the app windows are hard to read, due to how they shrink the contents and UI elements. On a PC or Mac, opening multiple windows does not shrink their contents, but I suspect Samsung did so on its tablets because Android apps aren't designed for resizable windows as Windows and OS X apps are. Bad choice.
They can also be slow to load, as well as hard to select and move; in my tests, the tablet ran like molasses when I worked with these floating windows. The reason, though, turned out not to be Multi Windows' fault but Android's. Something -- I never did figure out what -- was consuming the tablet's RAM, and Multi Window really slows down in a low-RAM situation.
The solution is to power down and reboot the tablet. That sped up their performance noticeably Samsung's engineers told me this is an issue in the Android OS itself that happens occasionally, similar to runaway processes in Windows. You may not notice it in a regular Android tablet, where only one app is onscreen at a time, because the other apps are deprived of resources as they are shunted offscreen. But in Multi Window, that Android trick can't be used to hide the low-memory effects of a runaway app or service.
Another awkward aspect of Multi Window: The keyboard doesn't always stay on top as you open floating windows. Opening a new app in a floating window can cause that window to overlap the keyboard. There is a solution, but it's not appealing: If you tap and hold the Settings key or Microphone key on the keyboard (you'll see one or the other, not both, to the left of the spacebar), a Keyboard Options button appears. Tap it to display three options, and choose the Floating option. When you do this, the keyboard shrinks to an unreasonably small size, but the overlapping issue does go away. As I said, this is not an appealing solution.
The Multi Window feature works only with apps you dock to its Multi Window bar, which you open by swiping from the screen's right edge. Basically, it's a clone of Windows 8's App bar, which is on the left side of a PC's screen. But the Note Pro continues to use Android's standard methods for opening apps -- going to the Apps screen from the home page or using the Running Apps bar invoked from the Multitasking button. If you use those methods, you get only full-screen views of apps, even those docked to the Multi Window bar. It's a bit confusing to have these multiple methods and multiple display results. (The previous Multi Window had no such slide-out bar; instead, it used an icon in each app to split the screen or go back to full screen. It was a better approach for a tablet.)
The Multi Window feature has an option to minimize an app to a circular button that you can move anywhere you want onscreen. That sounds like a nice idea, except these buttons overlay whatever is running, so you'll frequently need to move them out of the way. There's no place to dock a minimized window so that it's always out of the way, and closing a minimized window means long-tapping the icon, moving the window so that you can see the Close button, and tapping that Close button. There should be a simpler way to hide or close them.
To me, the previous generation of Multi Windows made more sense: It split the window into side-by-side panels, similar to what Windows 8 allows in its Metro UI, keeping text readable and incurring no performance penalties. In trying to have Multi Window act more like a PC than a tablet, Samsung made it less usable in practice, if not in theory.
When running with Multi Window enabled, the Note Pro's floating windows can overlap the tapped window. Here, you can see the Calculator app is above the active Calendar app, obscuring the onscreen keyboard.
What the Note Pro 12.2 has to likeAlthough it has some big usability flaws, there are good aspects to the Note Pro 12.2 shared by its smaller brethren. (Unlike many reviewers, I liked the original Note 10.1, and I still encourage Android tablet buyers to consider the current version of that model.)
One nice feature is the included S Pen stylus, which is a great adjunct if you use software optimized for it, especially for drawing and sketching. The Note's Air View contextual menu is also a handy use for the S Pen, for the few apps that take advantage of it. There's not much software designed for the S Pen, but it's useful even in regular apps as a more accurate way to select items. My only beef is that the pen's button is hard to feel and press, an issue in every generation of the S Pen.
The Email app has an option to display messages in three columns: one for folders, one for messages, and one for the selected email's content. (You can hide the folder column if desired.) That's a PC-style feature taken from Windows and OS X, but it's a good one and works quite nicely on the Note Pro 12.2's 12-inch screen. I absolutely love the new ability to create mail rules within the Email app -- I've been begging Apple for years to do that in iOS, which it continues to ignore.
You'll also find a keyboard with lots of markings on its keys, as well as extra keys. I found the extra markings distracting at first but got used to them. One value is that they show you what special character you can get if you long-tap a key; Apple has long had that capability in iOS, but you had to know what symbols each key could insert, as there was no way to display a map of them as in OS X or, now, in the Note Pro 12.2.
I also like the inclusion of Ctrl keys that let you use standard Windows shortcuts for Select All, Copy, Cut, and Paste. When you're doing heavy keyboard work, it's nice not to have to interrupt your typing to use a selection gesture or gesture-invoked menu. Likewise, I like the inclusion of cursor keys for the same reason -- plus, you can use them to Shift-select text!
The rest of the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 is pretty standard for Android tablets: There's a MicroSD slot for additional storage and OK-quality built-in speakers. The Note Pro runs the latest Android version, 4.4 KitKat, along with the standard Google apps, the standard Samsung apps, and the standard Samsung UI extensions.
The Note Pro 12.2, like the other members of the Note Pro lineup, uses yet another new charge-and-sync cable plug -- Samsung is notorious for changing the sync cable frequently. But the good news is that the Note Pro is using a standard cable, the new MicroUSB 3.0 type, giving hope that Samsung will finally adopt a common standard across all its devices going forward.
A few more quibblesThe included manual is unreadable, thanks to tiny type on medium-brown paper (it's meant to look recycled, so it's the color of a paper grocery bag -- a triumph of marketing over usability).
And due to the raised Home button, it takes little pressure to invoke the Google Now voice assistant. Even when the Note Pro was in its box asleep, the pressure from being in my backpack caused Google Now to keep warbling. Because Samsung did not loan InfoWorld a Book Case for the Note Pro 12.2, I can't say whether that cover would prevent such accidental, battery-draining Google Now invocations in transit -- or exacerbate them. I suggest you power down the Note Pro to be safe when carrying it in a backpack or case.
The Note Pro 12.2 makes a good case for buying a laptop or a smaller tablet The $750 Note Pro 12.2 model has 32GB of storage, and the $850 model has 64GB. The 32GB version with a built-in LTE radio costs $850; only Verizon offers it today, but Samsung expects other carriers to offer versions for their networks later this year. The Note Pro 12.2 is pretty pricey, especially when you add the $80 you need to spend on the Book Cover. A comparable 10-inch Galaxy Note 10.1 costs $150 less, so you're paying a lot for that too-large screen. A comparable 10-inch iPad Air also costs $150 less, and it weighs 60 percent of what the Note Pro 12.2 does, though the iPad Air lacks a stylus.
If the 12-inch Galaxy Note Pro appeals to you as a PC-like tablet, frankly it makes more sense to spend the same -- or even a little more -- money on a Windows 7 Ultrabook or MacBook Air (just like it makes sense to skip a Windows 8 tablet, which also has major usability issues). You'll get a more ergonomic device that does more. If you want a tablet, don't let the "bigger is better" impulse lead you to a purchase you'll regret: Get a 10-inch model -- plenty of good ones are on the market, including the smaller Galaxy Note Pro models.
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