I posted the previous cartoon because it was something special to me. It was the first cartoon I’ve ever drawn on a Samsung Note 10.1 tablet.
Yes, I know I said I wouldn’t… I’m clearly a fool but isn’t that half my charm? Samsung didn’t respond to the letter, cartoon, and free book I sent to Ines van Gennip, their Marketing Director, by way of begging for a 2014 tablet to review. In fact, they didn’t respond at all. It meant that my resolve had to be stronger not to buy one of the new Notes. The price (reported to be £479) ensured that was easy to do. Less easy was avoiding the relatively cheap 2013 edition tablets which are available right now.
My resolve cracked yesterday when I jumped on a train into Manchester. I went for the silver version, which is actually a rather tasteful grey and looks much better than the white versions which, for inexplicable reasons, are usually the models you see on display in most shops. Since then, it’s been a crash course in Android and its apps. It also feels strange summarising my thoughts about an already outdated product.
There are plenty of reviews out there for anybody wanting to know about the old Note, so I’m not going to get into all that technical jargon or explain where the ports are. I did, however, indulge myself by buying a high-speed 64gb microsd card which I slipped into the slot on the top edge to expand the tablet’s storage from 16gb. The two types of memory aren’t equal, with anything stored on the internal chips accessed much more quickly. So, for my purposes, the 64gb will be taken up with music, images, and writing. As much as I can, I’ll try to reserve the limited 16gb for installed applications.
I primarily bought this machine because I want to draw cartoons when I’m not sitting at my desk. I also wanted to be able to browse the web, update this blog, and check my emails without my tablet crashing (something my inherited first generation iPad was doing all the time). If I could play the occasional game, that would be a positive, though I’m not going to talk about my sudden obsession with ‘Simpsons Tapped Out’, ‘Bridge Constructor’ or the totally wrong-yet-wonderful ‘Zombie Gunship’.
I’m not even going to dwell on the things that the 2014 tablet might do better. Of course, I would have loved that extra gigabyte of memory, that screen with twice the resolution of this. But neither of those things impact hugely on what I’d write in this review. Not that it’s even a review, rather the opinions of a scribbler on a very limited budget who has bought and used technology for more years than he’d like to admit and is generally hard to impress when it comes to technology.
That much said: this Note 10.1 has impressed me like no other technology I’ve ever owned. As I sit here, I’m trying to remember the last bit of technology that impressed me this much but it’s a struggle. This is the first time I’ve bought something that felt like the technology lived up to the ambitions of the designers.
And that’s the thing with the Note. This tablet is so easy to use and unbelievably useful. It just does what I ask of it. There’s no fussing around with cables, finding the right software to make a file transfer happen. No need to use iBloodyTunes. There’s little ‘I’m still setting it up’ involved. I turned it on, entered my wifi password, and the rest was straightforward. If I want to transfer bulk files, there is a cable. In fact, the cable is one of the few complaints I have. It’s too damn short and is unique to Samsung when I’d have preferred something in the USB family. However, my complaint about the wide plug noted, the other plug is standard USB and goes straight into my PC, a standard file explorer window opens and I can drag my files where they needed to go. Incidentally, this is the first device with Bluetooth that actually connects to everything I own. Even my Apple keyboard which was always a bit of a struggle to get connected to my iPad connects first time.
I’ve had a limited chance to play with it but iPad owning friends are already looking enviously over my shoulder. That’s down, in part, to Android and the ability to use widgets on top of Live wallpaper. Android Jelly Bean just looks and feels better than Apple’s offering. Of course, personalisation can also be a euphemism for ‘clutter’ and my screen is already suffering from a bit of that. However, that clutter reflects my personality and I already feel like the tablet already reflects who I am, not how Apple want me to be. Where Apple’s iOS is simple to use and has a narrow range of options, Android’s possibilities seem to multiply the more you learn to use it.
Of course, the Note is more than Android. It’s also the S-Pen.
If you’ve used one of those capacitive screens such as you find on the iPad, you’ll know that it’s impossible to achieve any degree of accuracy with your finger. There are always some geniuses who can produce stunning work with them but I always found it next to useless for drawing. There are so-called styluses you can buy with rubber ends but even these don’t improve matters. That’s where the Note has a huge advantage.
Although it can also be controlled with your finger, the Note (along with the Pro version of Microsoft’s Surface) uses a Wacom stylus which captures very fine movements of the pen’s nib. Wacom have also brought out their own tablets, through they’re prohibitively expensive. An additional advantage of the Wacom stylus is that it also measures how heavy you press on the screen, meaning that drawing on the screen is like drawing with a real pen or pencil, making your strokes wider or stronger depending on the pressure. The Note measures 1024 levels of sensitivity while (I think) the Surface and Wacom measure 2048, though at twice and three times the price of the Note respectively.
Speaking of the S-Pen: I was wrong to question its size based on my experiences using it in shops. Despite my earlier reservations, I’ve found the pen a comfortable size once you get used to it. I had considered buying the holder, which encases the S-Pen in a larger barrel but, really, for the moment, I don’t feel like I need it. What is probably required is a decent dock because, even with a case, it’s hard to sit it on a desk when the cable is protruding from the bottom.
As to its practicality in cartooning: well you’ve seen my first effort, drawn entirely whilst lying on my bed. I’ve tried out a few of the drawing packages that are available including Photoshop Touch, Autodesk Sketchbook, Infinity Painter and Infinity Design. There were others, less notable, and, quite honestly, it was difficult finding one that really felt right. All packages seem to involve some level of compromise and I guess you choose the one that feels right for you. The package I’ve settled on and have now bought is called ‘Art Flow’. I hadn’t heard of it before but it’s brilliant at what it does. It has the best sensitivity (the ability to accept only pen input is a huge positive), the biggest canvases (some of the others, especially Sketchbook are very limited in this respect), and the pens just felt the most responsive to the way I draw.
It’s far from perfect and there are things it’s missing such as the ability to store favourite pen sizes or add text (which would save me time moving it back to the PC, though I suppose I could try exporting it to Adobe Touch). Art Flow has the option to toggle the pen and eraser using the button on the S-Pen but, so far, I’ve been unable to get it to toggle back to the pen after using the eraser. This means a slightly laborious business of opening a menu and selection the tool. However, I think the result is worth it. What I like about my first effort is that it looks like what I’d produce with a pen and ink. I generally hate the digital look. This feels and looks like working with ink, only ink I can erase perfectly.
There are other things I’d like to see improved but these apply to most packages out there. The canvas size is still a problem. I’m working at 2500x2500 pixels (I’ll have to experiment to see if it goes higher) but when I zoom in to work on detail, the pixilation is still pretty severe. It doesn’t matter too much when the final image is reduced for the web to 800 pixels wide but I’d like more resolution. I’ll have a tinker later today to see how far I can take it. Of course, the solution might be to use a package that creates vector art, such as Infinite Design (where the canvas size is supposedly infinite) but I’ve not seen one that felt responsive enough to for my taste. I did come across an interesting app called Papyrus which worked quite well but I’d have to buy the full version to unlock the ‘true eraser’ and I really don’t intend to get locked into buying many apps just to test features.
I’ll probably bore you still over the next few weeks with observations about the Note 10.1. Although I really had my heart set on the new edition, I ended up buying the 2013 edition because it’s what I could afford and it’s no understatement to say that I’m more than delighted with the result. In fact, I’m so impressed that I might even consider this a trial. Rumours persist that Samsung might bring out a 12 inch in the coming months and a slightly bigger screen would be one of the improvements I would have asked for. Perhaps by the time they release it, the work I’ve been doing will start to pay off and my workflow will be at a stage where I’m entirely comfortable working electronically. Perhaps by then, they’ll have even read my letter and consider sending me one to review.