If the iPad mini was Apple's response to the small tablet craze, then the Galaxy Note 8.0 is Samsung's rebuttal.
The light, slim tablet sports some impressive specifications that slightly edge out the iPad mini: a 1.6 GHz quad-core Exynos processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM and a 1280x800 pixel display.
It's not the impressive specs that make the Galaxy Note 8.0 stand out, however. The big sell is productivity, with Samsung pushing its pressure-sensitive "S-Pen" stylus and dual-window support, allowing you to run two apps simultaneously. With a stylus and multiple apps running at the same time, Samsung believes you can regain some of speed and efficiency you get from a laptop.
That's what Samsung thinks, anyway.
The S-Pen stylus is definitely a solid piece of hardware that works as advertised. The pressure-sensitive pen is extremely accurate and responsive. All of the apps render input quite well. It also has a "hover view" function which can detect your stylus without actually touching the screen, letting you preview certain content in some apps.
But does using a stylus improve the tablet experience in any meaningful way? Not really.
It's fun to sketch and draw, sure, but it will never replace the ease and convenience of a pen and paper for random notes and sketches. Hover view is interesting, but it feels like more work to use the feature rather than just tapping in and out app screens. And aside from a few niche apps, it doesn't make any non-drawing app better.
Similarly, the Galaxy Note 8.0's multi-window support is a really interesting concept, but it's not quite ready for primetime.
Choosing from a dozen-or-so compatible apps, you can run any two programs side by side, using a slider to change how much screen space you want each to have. It's very similar to Microsoft's ( Windows 8 Snap Widgets. )
Being able to look something up in Google ( Maps or Chrome while emailing is definitely convenient, but unlike Snap Widgets, there's almost too much freedom in how much room you can give an app. Some apps, like Samsung's S-note, aren't properly optimized to adapt to smaller chunks of screen space (especially in landscape mode), and there's generally not a lot of room for smart interactions between any two apps. )
It also doesn't help that there are a limited amount of apps that support the feature -- it's largely kept afloat by Samsung's own services. But if Samsung actually spends time improving it's multi-window mode, it has the potential to be quite good.
The basic experience of using the tablet is very good for the most part. It's fast. The battery is impressive. The screen is sharp, bright, and vibrant, though at 1280x800, does not have the same jaw-dropping qualities as the screen it put in Google's Nexus 10. The cameras are serviceable, if not amazing, which is fine for a tablet.
There's nothing quite revelatory or transcendent about using the Galaxy Note 8.0, but it's certainly no slouch. It is a very good tablet without the stylus or software tricks: It's versatile enough to function as an e-reader for commutes or a second screen in the living room, and powerful enough to handle anything you throw at it.
But if you're expecting the Galaxy Note 8.0 to make productivity as easy as on a laptop, you may find yourself a bit disappointed.