Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: Confessions of an Android Newbie

Image: Samsung.com
Image: Samsung.com

When it comes to personal devices, I’ve been an Apple girl since the very first iPhone came out in 2007 (wow, has it been almost 6 years already?). To me, the Apple iOSs are revolutionary, especially at the beginning when it was incredibly novel to integrate address books with maps, email services, and web browsers. We are a household of iPhones and I recently had received my first iPad — an iPad 2 — for my birthday last year.

When I received an invitation to try out the new Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0, I was excited to get a chance to really crack into Apple’s nemesis: the Android operating system. I had a brief exposure to the Android OS — with Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 — when I reviewed the Ematic FunTab Pro last holiday season. But that system had a kid-friendly GUI that shielded users from the meat and potatoes of the OS. This time around, I dove right in.

Between the iPad and two Kindle Fires in our house, I felt we had a pretty decent sample set of tablets with which I can compare my experiences. Please note that this review is not to compare the Galaxy Note 8 with other Samsung tablets, but rather a discussion of my first impressions of Android and how much more useful a “small” tablet can be. In addition, I found many features that are unique to Android and Samsung products that I’m excited to share.

I discovered over the course of my use that the Note 8.0 does not have many of the features that their other full-sized tablets have. In fact, between the processor set and operating system, the Note 8.0 is more like Samsung’s Galaxy Note II than other Samsung tablets. It might interest you to know that this tablet comes with a cellular phone capability in many foreign markets! This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth owning; read on as I provide a unique exploration into my first Android device. I have had this tablet for one month exactly. Be sure to page through the entire review, the page buttons are below the “More on GeekMom” links.

The Look and Feel

Unlike Samsung’s other tablets, Kindle, Nook, or Kobo eReaders, this is an 8″ screen that seems to give the iPad Mini a competitor. At less than 1cm thick and less than 3/4 lb (340g), it’s much lighter than my full-sized iPad and much easier to hold with one hand for easy reading. However, since the iPad Mini is a mere 308g, things will be a bit heaver with the Samsung.

I love the overall dimensions of this tablet!  It’s big enough to read easily, yet small enough to fit into my purse.

I’ve noticed that the margins are pretty slim. I understand it’s an attempt to maximize the screen size, and perhaps my hands are just big and fat or something, but when I’m using my Kindle app, my right hand easily would drift onto the active screen and BOOM, turn the page for me….before I’m ready.

I also have to get used to the two additional flat buttons at the bottom edge of the tablet. One is a “go back” button, the other is a menu button. These are standard on most Android devices, but all these years I’ve been accustomed to Apple mobile devices’ single multi-function button. The Galaxy Note has a multi-function button too, and one of the first things I had done was hold down the button and double-click the button to see what it does. It’s completely the opposite of the Apple device’s functions.

This tablet comes in white. If you have an issue with how dirty a white smart device can get, you’ll have to get over it if you want this product. The plastic casing cleans very easily; so far it looks very good.

Like with Apple mobile devices, Samsung expects you to set up an account — a Samsung account — to use many of the indigenous Samsung apps pre-loaded on the tablet, from the gaming to the TV remote control. On the other hand, this tablet is optimized for Google’s many apps, so with your one Google account, you will have ready access into your Google contacts, Maps, GMail, You Tube and Chrome settings. Your photo gallery will even bring in your Picasa albums!

Android Jelly Bean

The Galaxy Note 8.0 comes with Android 4.1.2, Jelly Bean. This isn’t the latest version, so you won’t see such features as easy access to Google Now. Nonetheless, things seem to run efficiently enough for my purposes. I may have to revisit the review after a few months to address processor speed management.

Flash

Because Android recently stopped supporting Flash in support of HTML5 applications, you have to do a little hack work to get Flash working on your tablet. But hey, at least this is an option for an Android device, right? It was glorious being able to see my Flash-enabled weather station readouts on my tablet (with the Samsung indigenous browser, not with Chrome)

NFC

I was encouraged to try out the NFC (Near Field Communication), which is a line-of-sight data transfer feature. It took a while before I could find another user with an NFC-enabled Samsung device (he has a Galaxy Note II) and when he tried to transfer me a picture by chest-bumping our two devices together (back to back)…nothing.

Well, it turns out that the Note 8.0 does not have the NFC capability. Further discussion with the fellow Samsung user revealed that he really doesn’t use the feature much. So many other folks don’t have compatible devices, he’s accustomed to emailing or texting the photos… even to his wife who has the same phone.

Camera and Gallery

The Galaxy Note 8.0 is outfitted with a 5MP camera on the back of the unit, and a 1.3MP camera on the front. By comparison my iPhone 4S from 1 1/2 years ago has the same quality camera. The iPhone 5 now has an 8MP camera. The Note 8.0’s front camera is not only good for those ubiquitous self portraits with your friends, but it also serves as your camera for Skype sessions, and it also works with the Smart Stay and Face Unlock features that I will mention below.

The photos I have taken with my Note 8.0 haven’t been very good. So far most of the pictures I’ve tried have been either of action outdoors, or of my sons posing in low light conditions. I’m not happy with any of them.

Enjoy this video I took of my youngest son singing “America, the Beautiful” to test out the video features. See for yourself the quality of the camera.

The camera lens on the backside of the tablet is ever-so-slightly raised. I don’t know why. It doesn’t seem to impact the tablet’s ability to lie flat, but it doesn’t make sense…other tablets/smartphones can have a flat camera lens.

Music

The indigenous music player feature. You can download others through the Google Play store. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
The indigenous music player feature. You can download others through the Google Play store. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

There’s an indigenous music player preinstalled on the Galaxy Note 8.0. For my purposes, I’m pretty happy with it. I installed the Amazon MP3 player and used it to import all my Amazon music to the tablet. I like the simple controls, and if you’re happy with iTunes’s capabilities, you’ll see similar features with the Samsung Music Player: playlist manipulation, easy sorting, album covers, and shuffle/repeat controls.

Since this is an Android device, the sky’s the limit with other music players that you can download/use.

Videos

My choice of HD video to test out the Galaxy Note 8.0's video quality. It's stunning in true HD, but I simply didn't see it here. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
My choice of HD video to test out the Galaxy Note 8.0’s video quality. It’s stunning in true HD, but I simply didn’t see it here. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

The 1200 x 800 pixel resolution screen certainly isn’t the best quality on the market, but for my purposes — I’m not an artist nor am I a government imagery analyst that requires the fidelity that an HD display provides — I like the image quality.

You can view full 1080p HD videos with this screen also, but it isn’t the best quality. I ran the same video side-by-side with my iPad 2 and the iPad’s resolution was superior.

That being said, I had some difficulty taking advantage of my favorite video player, the Amazon Prime Instant Video. With the Flash Player installed, I figured I could play the streaming videos on the Samsung Internet app, but it didn’t go well at all. So no Captain America, Hunger Games, or Adventures of Tintin for my boys and me. I’m sure this was Amazon’s way to drive business to their Kindle devices, since on those we can watch the instant videos with no problems.

If you have Netflix, you’re all set. There’s a Netflix app for the Android that allegedly works like a charm.

I want to assume that you can upload a video file directly to the device and watch it with the tablet’s indigenous video player.

It’s a TV REMOTE!

I found this the coolest thing. Because I have a Samsung TV, it worked very easily. It's supposed to work with other brands of TVs also. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
I found this the coolest thing. I imported my Direct TV channel lineup by logging in to my Direct TV account and then programmed the tablet to interact with our TV as a remote. Because I have a Samsung TV, it worked very easily. It’s supposed to work with other brands of TVs also. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

There are two TV remote control apps that were preloaded onto my Note 8: The Samsung Smart Remote and the Peel Remote. The right-hand edge of the tablet has an “IR Blaster”, which allows the tablet to communicate with most major brands of TVs.

Both TV remote control apps have easy-to-use set up instructions to “train” the tablet to send signals to the TV.  In my case, I was able to input my zip code and login to my cable/satellite provider (in my case, Direct TV) to bring up my customized channel lineup. I was able to set up both applications quickly, and for a couple days I could use the apps without incident.

Then the Samsung Smart Remote app stopped working for us. That’s the one pictured above… and was my favorite of the two apps. It had a guide-system that looked similar to the guide on the TV itself.

The Peel Remote app doesn’t have a clear cut channel listing, and that disappoints me. Instead you can only browse by genre and until you use the app a lot, you are pushed “trending” and “most popular” shows first.

Because the IR Blaster is on the side of the device, you have to point the tablet sideways at the TV.

Polaris Office

I love love love that I'm able to edit Microsoft Powerpoint files from my Galaxy Note. While I wouldn't want to make a document from scratch, this is great for those little tweaks and last minute edits just before a presentation. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
I love love love that I’m able to edit Microsoft Powerpoint files from my Galaxy Note. This can’t be done easily on an Apple mobile device. While I wouldn’t want to make a document from scratch, this is great for those little tweaks and last minute edits just before a presentation. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

I was tickled that this device came to me with Polaris Office already loaded. This is another way Android devices have a leg up on iOS: in order to get editing privileges on an iOS mobile device, you have to download a separate editor, and it will have very limited capabilities. There are several iOS options for Word and Excel, but very little available for Powerpoint and what little is available is very primitive.

But with an Android, I was golden. Polaris Office gave me everything I needed to edit Office easily from my Galaxy. I wouldn’t want to start a new document from scratch necessarily, but if I had to make last minute edits to a file, this works very well.

Games

There’s plenty of opportunity for gaming on this tablet. Anything you can play on an Android is fair game here. I didn’t do too much gaming but here are a couple things that we did explore.

  • Game Hub: Through your Samsung account you can access and download many games. We enjoyed playing Sonic Hedgehog II Lite.
  • Candy Crush: Yes, I’m addicted to this game too. The mobile version of this game works exactly like what you see on Apple mobile devices.

Playing games drains the battery VERY quickly. Be sure to use your task manager (by holding down the center button until the list of available apps appears) to close any unnecessary apps before playing for long periods of time.

Face Unlock and Smart Stay

As mentioned above, the front side camera can be set up to serve as a “Face Unlock” capability. This is considered a “medium security” feature because someone could merely hold up a picture of your face to unlock the tablet. There’s a “Presence Check” function that you can turn on that requires the face blink before unlocking. You can start by using one face capture but over time you can add additional captures over time to refine the capability. You will find the options for this feature in the Security section of the Settings.

The Galaxy Note 8 has the “Smart Stay” feature: it uses the tablet’s camera to detect if eyes are on the tablet. If so, it will refrain from going into screen savers or dimmed mode. I really liked this when I was reading my Air War College articles, but there are several limitations which are fully disclosed in the settings for the feature:

  • If the device is on a table, it may not work as well
  • If you aren’t in the camera’s field of view
  • If your head is backlit and the camera won’t see your eyes, even if your face is in the field of view
  • If the front camera is being used as a camera

Typing and Autocorrect

I have a very hard time with the Note 8’s small keyboard. I invested in a bluetooth keyboard to help with this. Part of my issue is my comfort with the iOS on-screen keyboards, which are laid out slightly differently. The best example of one of the differences between the two systems’ exclamation points. On the Apple keyboard it’s a stand-alone key, while you will use the shifted comma key on the Android. Neither of these options match a standard QWERTY keyboard (where the exclamation point is found via “Shift-1”).

Android’s autocorrect system is also profoundly different. I like Apple’s setup, where it will autocorrect the most blatant (and sometimes not-so-blatant) misspelled words. On the Galaxy Note, it pops up the options for auto-finishing and auto-correcting the words while you’re typing. These words appear just above the keyboard.  You can stop typing and select one of those words or you can ignore those words altogether.

I had become quite accustomed to Apple’s system, to the point that I can type pretty quickly with my iPhone and iPad, all the while relying on the autocorrect feature to take care of me. With the Galaxy Note, my errors are coming through loud and clear and I’ve discovered my typing is pretty awful!

The S Pen

My icky attempt at writing with an S Pen. It isn't pretty at all, but useable. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
My icky attempt at writing with an S Pen. It isn’t pretty at all, but useable. Note the arrow sticking out of the left edge of the screen. That’s a pop-out easy-access menu that you can customize with your most-used apps. My left-handedness made the menu keep popping out. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

So you don’t care for the on-screen keyboard. That’s okay, with many of the apps on the Galaxy Note 8.0, you have the option to use Samsung’s trademark feature: the S Pen.

I’m not going to go into too much detail defining the S Pen. It’s been out already, having been introduced on the original Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone about 1 1/2 years ago. Feel free to learn more about what an S Pen can do here.

For me, this was a whole new world! About a week after receiving the tablet, I had to go to a debriefing meeting for a charity auction for which I was one of the committee members. I decided to take my tablet and try out the S Pen on the tablet’s S Note app.

It did NOT go well. I have big handwriting and my left-handedness kept making the quick menu pop out from the left (I have since moved the menu to the right, where it’s now being a pain in the rear on my Kindle app).

I also tried the feature where you write the letter with the S Pen and it forms a “fonted” letter for you. This takes a lot of practice and I got easily frustrated when I tried this feature.

The other Samsung user I talked to really loves his S Pen, he’s a graphic designer and he uses his pen for sketches all the time. I’m sure with practice I will come to appreciate my S Pen too.

My oldest son likes it — I am reminded of accounts of going to school at the turn of the 19th Century where the kids had slates. Last week, my oldest son and I worked with long division with decimal numbers.

I am reminded of the slates that students used over 100 years ago at school. My oldest son really likes the S Pen. Screencapture: Patricia Vollmer.
I am reminded of the slates that students used over 100 years ago at school. My oldest son really likes the S Pen. Screencapture: Patricia Vollmer.

File Management

Unlike on the Apple iOS, with Android you have full access to the file system. This is the #1 thing I dislike about iOS. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.
Unlike on the Apple iOS, with Android you have full access to the file system. This is the #1 thing I dislike about iOS. I’m also enjoying a split screen here. Screenshot: Patricia Vollmer.

I’m very happy with the access you get on an Android OS’s file management system. If you are comfortable with Windows-style File Manager, you can manipulate the files similarly here. You can add and subtract files, folders, and organize with ease.

I haven’t done anything out of the ordinary with the file system so far, and I don’t see a need to do so.

Storage

My Galaxy Note 8.0 has 16GB of internal storage, and includes a microSD card slot with which you can augment the tablet with up to 64GB of additional space. For a small investment ($20?) you can get a microSD card and a USB reader for it for an easy way to transfer large files to your PC or MacBook. The ability for external data management is something that Android systems make available to users but Apple does not.

Note that as it stands, you can only store documents such as MP4s, pictures and Office files on the external storage. Hacks exist to overcome this, such that you can run applications from your microSD card. It’s easy to learn more about that through our friend Google.

I have a 16GB iPad2. It didn’t take me long to fill up that internal storage, I predict the same thing with the Samsung.

Kindle/eReader Differences

My main motivation for getting any kind of tablet was for the eReader capabilities. My husband had bought me my iPad when I signed up for Air War College (a USAF continuing military education course) and all of my course materials were to be downloaded in ePub or PDF format. With the Kindle App, it was easy to download and manage the individual course files all within the Kindle.

As I’d said above, the iPad has many many benefits, but being an easy-to-hold eReader is not one of them. My wrist would get pretty fatigued. But with the Galaxy Note 8, I’m able to hold the tablet with one hand and read it as easily as if I was holding a small paperback.

Charging

The Note 8.0 can hold a charge in idle/standby very well. I left the tablet alone for three days on a camping trip and it had only used about 20% of the battery.

I was shocked that the Kindle app used as much battery as it did. On the iOS devices, the Kindle App uses very little battery. I am able to read all I want on my 4-hour flights to and from Nebraska for my AF Reserve duty. On two recent flights since I’ve received the Note 8.0, I drained all of the battery before I was ready. In both cases, all I did with the tablet was read Air War College articles through the Kindle App.

Accessories

Like most other Android-based devices, the Galaxy Note 8.0 uses the universally-accepted Micro USB cable. The box includes a five-foot USB cable that works with any computer and an AC adapter for wall-charging. Between my sons’ Kindles, my husband’s work Blackberry and this Samsung tablet, we only need a couple of Micro USB cables on hand to support everything.

I tried to get a case for this tablet right away. When I searched in mid-April, there were very few to choose from . A Google search for “Galaxy Note 8 case” would return mostly Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note phones, and Galaxy Tabs. A month later, I was able to find a nice substantial leather case with a built-in bluetooth keyboard on Amazon. I certainly wish I had that keyboard last month at my spouses’ club planning meetings (see the S-Note section above).

In addition, you should have no problems finding protective screen covers for the Note 8.

Final Thoughts

I found the Galaxy Note 8.0 a lot of fun to use. The Android operating system didn’t freak me out that much. On the contrary, I enjoy the liberties I can take with the file system. Whether I take advantage of the file system or not isn’t the question, but I like that I have the option to do so if I choose. It’s something that doesn’t come easily to Apple iOS users.

I am very pleased with the size of the tablet as well. It fits in my purse with ease, and is lightweight. The S Pen, although a paradigm shift, has capabilities that you can’t get with my fat fingers. The two people I know who are big Samsung fans both happen to love the S Pen and use it routinely for their notes and graphic design business. I’m not there yet, but with time I’m sure I can be convinced.

You can buy your own Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 through most major electronics retailers, from Staples to Best Buy to Amazon. It retails for $399.99., although I’ve seen it for as low as $379.99. (By comparison, the 16GB iPad Mini’s MSRP is $329.99 — but can be found for as low as $299.99 right now).

Expect to invest another $30-50 in accessories.

A complimentary sample was provided for review purposes.

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Patricia Vollmer is the proud mother of two emerging geek sons, ages 12 & 14. She serves part time as a meteorologist with the Air Force Reserve and is currently assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Patricia blogs about her family's nomadic military life at Ground Control to Major Mom. Home is always where the Air Force sends her family, which for now is in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Hobbies include running, despite no one chasing her, sharing her love for Disney and Star Wars, and exploring the world with her boys. Ask her why the sky is blue at your own risk.