Is Samsung’s Galaxy Note Pro better than Apple's iPad Air? Peter Nowak's review

It's not cheap, but it is powerful

(Peter Nowak)

(Peter Nowak)

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I’m something of an iPad Mini fanboy. I’ve written before – without a trace of hyperbole – about how the device has changed my life. I rarely surf the web or use social media on a computer anymore, opting instead for the tablet, which I also use to take notes when out on assignment. It also comes in handy for signing documents digitally, a feature that lets me live a printer-free existence. It has also, amazingly, helped me become a more patient person; I almost look forward to delays when travelling because it gives me more time to catch up on movies and books.

But there is still one problem with it, if it can really be considered as such, in that it’s still a supplemental device when I’m on the road for work purposes. While the Mini is fine for taking notes during an interview or press conference, it’s not something I really want to write a full story on. A proper keyboard is still a necessity for that, so I inevitably end up toting a laptop along as well.

This issue is at the core of efforts by several tablet manufacturers to bridge the gap with hybrid devices. Microsoft took the highest-profile stab at it with the Surface Pro, a device that sought to emulate the best features of both tablets and laptops. The initial effort, however, flopped for a host of reasons – it was too heavy and too pricey and had limited battery life and app selection. The Surface Pro 2, released last fall, is an improvement, but it still suffers from many of the same problems.

Lo and behold, Samsung is now stepping into this realm with its new Galaxy Tab Pro and Galaxy Note Pro tablets, both of which are hybrid devices designed to appeal to professional power users. The Tab Pro series comes in three screen sizes: 8.4-inch, 10.1-inch and 12.1-inch, at respective (Canadian) price points of $419, $519 and $669. The Note Pro is available with only a 12.2-inch screen at $769, but it also comes with Samsung’s S-pen stylus, which accounts for the extra $100 premium over the Tab Pro.

At a briefing a few weeks ago, I asked Samsung representatives why they think the Pro lines can succeed where Microsoft has failed, and the answer was somewhat curious. While the software giant tried to create a PC that worked like a tablet, “We’re doing a tablet with PC functionality,” said Vlastimir Lalovic, director of wireless product realization at Samsung Canada.

I don’t know if I initially bought that explanation, which is why I decided to give the Note Pro – along with its optional $129 snap-on keyboard/cover – an extended test run. I thought the best way to do that was to really jump into the deep end by doing the unthinkable: I’d take it, and only it, on assignment. Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was coming up, which would serve as the perfect trial by fire – the long flight across the Atlantic would let me test the tablet’s entertainment functionality while the conference itself, from which I’d have to file stories, would serve as a good work scenario. With no laptop in tow, I wondered if the one device could handle both situations.

It’s hard to convey how nervous I was in prepping for the trip. The iPad Mini has become a sort of travel security blanket for me – whatever inevitably goes wrong, I can at least approach a voyage confidently knowing that I won’t be bored or out of touch. Disrupting that comfort zone with something new and unproven was scary.

Fortunately, things started out well. Since the Note Pro is an Android device, all of my necessary apps were there. I set up my Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Kindle accounts, then added the all-important GoodPlayer, which I use on the iPad to watch videos. Moving movies from my computer to the Note Pro actually turned out to be a pleasant experience – with Android File Transfer, you simply drag and drop, which is less of a hassle than syncing through iTunes.

Next up was business. Samsung’s Pro tablets come with a host of free bundled software and services, including limited-time subscriptions to Cisco WebEx Meetings, the New York Times, LinkedIn premium and Next Issue. Of most interest to me was Hancom Office, a sort of Microsoft Office clone from the South Korean company of the same name. I loaded up the free software and, after testing its Word functionality, was confident that it worked and was familiar enough to use. Typing with the Bluetooth keyboard attachment also seemed fine, so off I went.

When I sat down in my plane seat and fired up the Note Pro, it was hard not to be stricken by its giant screen. I’m used to watching TV shows and movies on the iPad Mini’s comparatively tiny 7-inch screen, so the additional visual real estate was almost an embarrassment of riches.

Of course, that much screen results in an inevitable tradeoff – battery life. I’ve yet to take a flight long enough to completely drain the Mini, even with continual video playing, but the Note Pro was running low by the time we’d crossed the ocean. Fortunately, the plane’s seats had electrical outlets. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if they hadn’t… I might have relapsed into my old, impatient ways. And trust me, you don’t want to see me impatient.

Weight is inevitably a major issue, both when travelling and when hauling a device around all day at a trade show like MWC, which is where hybrid devices such as the Note Pro get interesting. At 750 grams, it’s considerably heavier than the iPad Mini (331 grams) but also quite a bit lighter than the typical Ultrabook (the 13-inch MacBook Air is 1.3 kilograms, for example). Its whole purpose, however, is to replace the need to carry both a laptop and a tablet, so on this front it’s a clear winner. I carried it around in my backpack for the better part of a day and barely noticed it was there.

The tablet also performed admirably for its intended work purposes. I typed my way through an hour-long press conference and was impressed with the results in two ways. The tablet and keyboard combination very closely approximated the feel and comfort of a laptop, to the point where I could hardly tell the difference. Almost as importantly, the Note Pro barely used up any battery power over the course of the hour. This is actually a key point – my laptop would have chewed through a good 15% to 20% of its charge over the same time frame. While video may suck out the juice relatively quickly, the tablet seems especially well suited for simple note-taking – perhaps more so than a laptop. Writing full stories on it back in my hotel room, meanwhile, was pretty much the same experience as using a laptop.

It wasn’t all roses, though. One continual annoyance was having to reposition the cursor on the touchscreen with my finger whenever I made a typing mistake. Doing so on a laptop with a touch pad is obviously much easier and more accurate. Samsung is offering an optional Bluetooth mouse for its Pro series, but that only makes things awkward if not unwieldy. You can’t, after all, use a mouse on your lap.

In the end, the Note Pro performed its work and play functions well; my complaints on both ends were relatively minor. It is worth noting, however, that my work needs – consisting mainly of connectivity and word processing – are relatively light and certainly not comparable to someone who might need to edit video or deal with large files and data sets. The mouse issue, for example, would be much bigger for people who need to work with spreadsheets.

That said, how does Samsung’s device fit in the bigger picture for professionals and where does it rate in terms of the competition?

With the necessary keyboard/cover, it comes in at a pricey $908, although that’s still less than the Surface Pro 2 and its detachable keyboard, which together sell for $1,029. While Microsoft’s device has full Windows functionality, Samsung’s philosophy is much easier to buy into after having used the Note Pro – these hybrid devices are indeed tablets first and PCs second, rather than the other way around. Running Android and its associated apps is thus a big advantage.

Comparing the Note Pro to the iPad Mini is probably unfair, even though there are attachable keyboards available for Apple’s device. The more apt comparison is to the larger 10-inch iPad Air, the base 16-gigabyte model of which sells for $519. Even with 32 gigabytes to match the Note Pro’s storage and a keyboard, the Air still sells for considerably less at $719. That’s still cheaper than the Tab Pro and keyboard at $809, which has no stylus.

The Tab Pro does have a few advantages over the iPad, not the least of which is its stylus. I didn’t find much use for it, but it works well and would certainly come in handy for certain types of users (artists who draw, for example). Samsung’s devices also have multitasking capability, which really came in handy while I was working – I had my notes, the story I was writing and a web page all open and on screen at the same time. It was nice to not have to constantly switch between apps. The 12-inch screens are also better for accommodating all that multi-tasking.

Finally, as mentioned above, the Note Pro comes bundled with a bunch of freebies. I didn’t get the chance to explore these too much, but I’m not sure how much value they add since most of them – like the Next Issue and New York Times subscriptions – are limited-time offers.

Ultimately, Samsung’s device costs more than a similar experience replicated on an iPad might, but with the stylus and multitasking capabilities, it also does a bit more. I’m not sure it’s enough to wean me off the Mini or even carrying two devices when I travel, but that’s probably more the result of my own inertia than any of the Note Pro’s shortcomings. It’s a solid alternative for road warriors looking to lighten their load without giving up too much in return.