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Samsung unveils a comfortable, functional Galaxy Note 8 (hands-on)

BARCELONA, Spain–After months of leaked pics and rumors, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 is now officially a corporeal thing of reality. It’s an 8-inch tablet that thanks to its size is ready to compete directly with the 7.9-inch iPad Mini. How successful it is at doing that will depend heavily on price.

The Mini currently starts at $329, a price that’s considered expensive for a tablet of its size. Despite its high asking price, though, the Mini has proven a consistently brisk seller. Samsung has yet to announce a price for the Galaxy Note 8, but if it wants to see it launch successfully, that’s a detail the company will have to get right.

However, given Samsung’s premium tablet pricing history, it’s doubtful the Note 8 will cost any less than the Mini, especially in international markets where it will double as an extremely large phone.

Read on for my first impressions of the device and look for it in the second quarter of 2013.

A comfy feeling
The Note 8 definitely feels different than a typical 7-inch tablet; it’s noticeably wider, of course, but still feels comfortable in my hands. It’s a simple, elegant design with really smooth edges and corners. The Note 8 feels to be made of the same stuff as the Note 10.1, with a bit more metal thrown in for durability sake. It’s also fairly thin, and at only 0.74 pound, it’s only slightly heavier than the iPad Mini.

From left sit three bottom bezel buttons: a menu key, home key, and the back key. Samsung has also added the ability to use the S-Pen with the three buttons, something that was missing on the Note 2.

The 5-megapixel back camera is located directly in the top middle of the back, which probably lowers the chance an unwanted finger will enter the frame with taking a picture.The front camera, however, sits off to the top-right corner on the front. On the bottom edge are two speaker grills, a Micro-USB port, and a slot for the S-Pen.

On the right edge sits a SIM card slot (more on that later) and a microSD card slot under it. On the left edge is an IR blaster, supporting Peel’s Smart Remote software, along with a volume rocker and power/sleep button.

The S-Pen of course returns with its pressure sensitivity in tow. Writing on the tablet with it felt a lot less cumbersome compared with on the 10.1-inch Note, but it wasn’t quite as conducive to writing as the Note 2 is.

New and refined options
The Galaxy Note 8 will ship with Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean), with Samsung’s ever-present TouchWiz UI over it. While in most international markets the Note 8 will include 3G (HSPA+ 21) capability, in the U.S. it’ll strictly be a Wi-fi-only tablet. It’s actually not uncommon to see tablets with phone capabilities in international markets. While the Asus PadFone line has seen success in Asia, Asus has no plans to release it in the U.S. The 3G version will have support for the GLONASS satellite navigation system.

Samsung’s Note series, in its latest, 8-inch form.

If you’re at all familiar with the Galaxy Note 10.1, the Note 8’s software suite won’t surprise you. S Note makes a return and there’s some new functionality with Flipboard where hovering the S-Pen over tiles delivers headline previews. Samsung claims it also has a one-year Android exclusive with Awesome Note, a feature-rich list-making app.

While the Note 10.1 only supported dual-screen functionality with six different apps, Samsung has now increases support to many more. Also, its “reading mode” feature optimizes the display’s contrast to be more appropriate for e-book reading.

The sharp, colorful 8-inch screen measured 1,280×800 pixels with a 189 ppi, and Samsung’s TouchWiz UI makes yet another tablet appearance. Swiping felt responsive whether when using the S-Pen or my fingers, and apps seemed to load without much delay.

Hardware features
The Note 8 houses an unidentified 1.6GHz quad-core A9 and 2GB of RAM. Tablet mainstays like 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth 4.0, and GPS are included as well as a gyroscope, accelerometer, and a digital compass. The tablet will come in both 16GB and 32GB varieties.

First thoughts
I’m going to be honest: without a price, it’s difficult to have a strong, concrete opinion of the Note 8. While it’ll be offered as a phablet internationally, in the states it’ll be in full-on Wi-Fi tablet mode. As an 8-inch tablet, it’ll compete directly with the 7.9-inch iPad Mini. If I can stifle the cynical part of my brain for a minute, I’d say the success of the Mini can be directly attributed to its size, weight, and app offerings. Samsung seems to have delivered on the former two with the Note 8, but is unfortunately still reliant on the Google Play store for the latter. While the store continues to improve its offerings every day, it’s still nowhere near as compelling as Apple’s App Store.

Samsung has yet to announce a price, and the company isn’t in the habit of aggressively pricing its premium tablets, and that likely won’t change anytime soon. With an SD card slot, a home button, and native Jelly Bean support, the Note 8 offers a compelling package. Also, its S-Pen stylus offers a level of functionality the iPad can’t match, and those looking for a highly functional electronic daily planner will want to give it a serious look. Just don’t expect the same level of app support you’d find on the iPad Mini.

Look for the Note 8 to launch worldwide sometime in the second quarter of 2013 with GNzs full review of the device.

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