(Illustration by Mark Shaver)
Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.’s new supersized tablet—the 12.2-inch Galaxy Note Pro—is perhaps the most exciting mobile device on the market today. But before you whip out the credit card, hang on: You probably don’t want to buy it, at least not yet.
The tablet comes with a significant price tag ($750 for the entry-level model), and like a lot of recent products (here’s looking at you, Surface 2), it definitely falls into the “not quite there yet” category. There’s the fact, too, that it runs on Android, a great mobile operating system but one that still lags behind Apple Inc.’s iOS when it comes to the breadth, and often the quality, of apps, particularly legal and business titles. More than any other tablet, this device demonstrates the unique and largely untapped potential of tablets, and even starts to deliver on it. So while you may not want to buy Samsung’s beast, you should keep your eye on it—and better yet, the tablets that follow, and improve upon, its lead.
More specifically, the Galaxy Note Pro shows that a tablet doesn’t have to replace a laptop to be a valuable business tool, and maybe we should stop demanding that it should. With its gigantic screen and innovative features, the Pro lends itself to new uses—not replicating a PC but leveraging the inherent advantages of a tablet.
For instance, multitasking gets a whole new (and terrific) spin here, one that really shows how a tablet can improve work flow in ways that a conventional laptop can’t. With just a few taps and gestures, I could quickly have up to four apps running on the screen simultaneously, each in its own independently controlled, perfectly aligned window. The 12.2-inch screen is a revelation here. Yes, it adds bulk to the device (though, at 1.65 lbs, Samsung’s tablet is not much heavier than an early-model iPad). But it’s big enough to have four usable windows open—you can work within each without needing an ophthalmological miracle.
Think about this: You can be sitting in an airport lounge and within seconds have your email, a Web browser, maps and a note-taking app all open simultaneously. You could read a message from a client, perform research on something they’ve written you about, jot some notes on your findings, and look up an address—all without changing screens. You don’t need to boot up a laptop, wait for software to load, or resize windows to get everything to fit just right. This is the beauty of tablets—instant on, instant productivity. And features like Samsung’s “Multi-Window View” really exploit it (speeding things up even further, the Pro allows you to save favorite combinations of apps, so you can get them up and running with just a single tap).
Still, Samsung’s implementation of the Multi-Window View isn’t perfect. The big beef: Not every app is compatible with the feature, and I found there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to what worked and what didn’t. Core Google apps, along with Twitter, Facebook and some popular productivity titles like the note-taking app Evernote, worked fine. Others, like Skype and Netflix, couldn’t be used at all in Multi-Window View (although they worked fine in traditional full-screen view). Some nosing around on Android forums revealed that there are, ahem, ways of getting apps to work, but I think I speak for all technically disinclined tablet users when I say that it would be better if everything was just multiviewable out of the gate. (Like all new Android tablets, and iOS devices too, the Galaxy Pro doesn’t support some older applications, most notably Flash. You’ll need a laptop to run those applications.)
The Pro’s giant screen was a revelation in another way, too. It proved that really big tablet screens work—and, in fact, are probably essential for bumping up the business value of these devices. For me, this was a bit surprising. I like my tablets light, and I think the 1-pound iPad Air is the best iPad yet, mainly because it is more portable. But the more I used the Samsung tablet, the more I realized that as far as productivity goes, bigger was better. It wasn’t just a matter of getting more windows on the screen. The bigger display meant that the virtual keyboard could truly resemble a full-scale physical keyboard, complete with all keys—alphanumeric, function and symbol. Note-taking apps worked better because there was more real estate to work with. And Samsung strikes an excellent balance between utility and bulk: At 1.65 pounds and 0.31 inches thick, the Pro manages to be reasonably svelte for its footprint.
Another great touch here is Samsung’s S-Pen, its integrated stylus. Pop it out of its slot, and you can immediately write a note on the screen—and then do something with it. For example, you could jot down the name, phone number and email address of a colleague at a CLE session, draw a box around them, and send them to your contacts app, where they will be used to prefill the appropriate fields. I found that as long as I wrote legibly, and made sure my box didn’t cut off any letters, the Pro did a great job of getting the right content into the right fields.
That feature—called Action Memos—isn’t unique to the Pro: Other Samsung devices feature it too (just as other Samsung tablets allow you to multiview two, but not four, apps simultaneously). But once again, it just works better on the bigger screen. It was easy, even seamless, to write memos while referring to other material on the screen.
To be sure, I have gripes about the Pro. It’s too heavy to comfortably hold in your hand for long periods of time. The battery life wasn’t amazing (with the screen at full brightness, I consistently got between six and seven hours of use, less than an iPad or Surface 2). And while the screen is bright and vivid, it’s not a standout. I had hoped that Samsung would take advantage of its unique screen size to create a unique experience. Instead, it delivered something more in line with everyone else. Indeed, its pixel density is actually a bit lower than the iPad Air’s (247 pixels per inch versus 264 ppi).
Then there’s Android. Samsung loads this device with best-of-breed third-party productivity apps, but somehow, this only highlights Android’s runner-up status to iOS. For example, the included suite of word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software—Hancom Office—is probably the best Microsoft Office–compatible package on the Android platform. But while it works well for viewing documents and even doing some light document creation, it suffers that same catch as all third-party Office emulators: no track-changes function. It also implements comments poorly. That’s a real problem for lawyers who collaborate on work product. And it’s a particular disadvantage for Android now that genuine Microsoft Word is now available for the iPad.
While I’m not keen on the Pro’s price tag—a whopping $749 for the 32-gigabyte Wi-Fi version, and $849 for either a 64-gigabyte Wi-Fi version or a 32-gigabyte 4G LTE model sold by Verizon—I’m not sure it really falls into the grievance category. For the Wi-Fi models, the price works out to $150 more than comparable iPad Air tablets, and I think for a lot of users, lawyers in particular, that will be money well spent to get the larger screen. It truly makes a difference.
In the end, I think Samsung’s Galaxy Pro Note 12.2 will make a difference, too. It shows that there are still more, and novel, ideas for how to use a tablet, letting us be even more productive with them, particularly on the go. Warts and all, Samsung’s Galaxy Pro Note 12.2 makes a convincing case that tablets can stop trying to be laptops, and just try to be better tablets—and that will be plenty.
Contributing editor Alan Cohen writes about law firms and technology.