Review: Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2
By Harry McLaughlin
2014 is already an interesting year for digital artists and animation professionals as far as technology advances in the tools of our trade.
Samsung kicks things off with the massive Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, launched on Valentine’s Day, 2014. (Currently US $749 for 32GB model)
Of particular interest to artists: the large size, high quality screen and built-in Wacom (S-Pen) technology used throughout Samsung’s Galaxy Note line.
This was a device I’d been waiting for. As an owner of the Galaxy Note 2 and Note 3 smartphones, I’ve liked having a digital sketchpad/ computer in my pocket at all times. I’ve wanted the same technology in a larger size. Samsung certainly accommodates this wish: The Galaxy Note line (smart phones and tablets) ranges in size from 5.5”, 5.7”, 8”, 10.1” and now 12.2”
By far the most striking feature of the Note Pro is the screen. At 2560 x 1600 (247ppi) the screen is beautiful to look at. Colors are vibrant, with nice inky blacks. For displaying high-resolution artwork, photos and movies, the Note Pro excels.
Size comp with the Galaxy Note 3
In fact, watching HD video on the Note Pro is probably the pinnacle of tablet entertainment.
The Note Pro’s screen almost perfectly matches the size of a standard comic book. Reading digital comic books on the Note Pro is a joy; you’re able to read a full comic page with no zooming/scrolling.
Above left with an actual comic book over the screen.
Holding the device in portrait mode for comics, magazines and books does make the device’s downside readily apparent; it’s heavy! Held in portrait, the full mass of the tablet bears down on your hands for any extended length of time. The tablet is far more comfortable to hold in landscape mode, and it seems made to be oriented this way most of the time.The Note Pro’s screen is so large that I found reading in landscape as two-page spreads to be perfectly comfortable, with only a modest amount of zooming and scrolling needed for digital comics and magazines.
But how does the Note Pro stack up for artists?
The answer depends on your needs, and what technology you may already be used to for creating digital art. If you require an experience rivaling a full Wacom Cintiq setup, with a slew of desktop-quality applications, then the Note Pro is definitely not for you. However if you can cope with the trade-offs of a mobile operating system (Android) or are already using an Android device to create artwork and do productivity tasks, then the Note Pro will easily be the BEST Android device you’ve used. If you’re already in the market for an iPad Air, or other 10” Android tablet and want the added benefit of drawing with a Wacom digitizer and pressure sensitive pen, then I’d highly recommend the Note Pro. It does a great job of bridging the divide between premium media consumption vs. light productivity and content creation.
I use the Note Pro 12.2 to view PDF storyboards.
All-in-all, I’d say Android is in its infancy for producing finished, professional quality artwork. The closest competition to the Note Pro, (in the race for an iPad-like sub $1000 Wacom-enabled tablet for producing professional artwork) is Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2. For drawing, the Surface Pro 2 is the better choice, certainly in terms of software since it can use desktop Windows software.
That said: the Note Pro is an amazing tool for artwork and productivity in its own right.
The key is navigating Android’s minefield of applications and separating the quality apps from junk. Another factor is improving the tablet’s included S-Pen. (Which I will outline.) With the best creative software Android has to offer, the experience of sketching and drawing on the Note Pro is very good. A few apps manage to achieve a low enough latency that the feel rivals last-generation tablet PC’s. (For example, I find drawing to be similar to a Motion Computing LE1600 Tablet PC of 2007 vintage.) Compared to the LE1600 (and most last-gen Tablet PCs) the Note Pro is light as a feather. So to achieve near the same level of drawing performance in a lighter package (relatively speaking) is a major plus. Also, keep in mind the bang-for-buck mobile applications give you. Many quality applications can be had for $3-$5. Quality desktop applications usually start much higher, and can skyrocket into the thousands Samsung includes $25 in Google Play Store credit with the Note Pro, so you can go shopping for some of the apps you will need on their dime.
Here’s a list of a few of my favorite Android apps for use on the Note Pro:
Autodesk Sketchbook for Galaxy (Included)
Included with the Note Pro. Don’t bother to install SketchBook Pro for Android in place of it, according to Samsung these are virtual identical apps, but Sketchbook for Galaxy includes some under the hood fine-tuning that’s specific to the Galaxy Note and S-Pen hardware.
The mobile version of Sketchbook Pro is fairly barebones compared to its full desktop counterpart, but enough features are intact to produce decent artwork. Out of the box, I was a little disappointed with Sketchbook Pro on the Note Pro; I was looking for the feel of it to be more accurate, closer to the feel of pencil/pen on paper. But some fine-tuning and modifying of my S-Pen improved the experience greatly, enough that I wanted to outline a few basic procedures you can try yourself to improve the sensitivity of the S-Pen. (Later in this article). Once I took these steps (as well as tweaking my brush and pen settings in Sketchbook) I found the results very satisfying.
Sketchbook Ink ($4.99)
This is a one-trick pony to be certain. It has no features, other than 10 pen settings that simulate inking styles. The latency is surprisingly high. Still, I was able to easily do some very fine line cross-hatching using the pressure sensitive pen setting. Since it uses vector lines, you can create artwork that looks great at even the highest resolutions.
Artflow (Free, $4.99 in-app purchased Pro license)
This was a pleasant surprise for me. I find it has the lowest latency of any drawing app I’ve used on Android. Drawing with it feels very natural. The free version lets you use a small selection of customizable pens and pencils; the paid version adds an assortment of paintbrushes, airbrushes, rollers and pattern pens. The Pro license also allows export to PSD with layers. So far, this has been my go-to app for drawing on the Note Pro.
S Vermeer (Free)
A very nice drawing app with some of the most realistic colored pencil and watercolor effects I’ve seen for Android. Minimalist interface and controls, but there’s plenty to work with, including the ability to import photos. Optimized for S-Pen and good palm rejection.
Serious Paint (Free, $3.99)
This is probably the closest thing to Painter or ArtRage on an Android tablet. The latency is a little high, but not enough to prevent creating nice work with it. The free version is fully functional; the paid version adds on the ability to tweak and customize brushes to your heart’s content. My favorite feature is a full-screen color palate, called up from a corner button. The ‘color sweep’ function allows you to paint with up to 5 palette colors at once.
Infinite Painter (Free, $4.99 for Galaxy Note version)
The latency is a little high, but this app makes up for it with a huge assortment of brushes, paint blending and mixing, wet and dry effects, unlimited layers and S-Pen optimization. You can import photos or drawings and paint over them. The ads plastered across part of your canvas will have you either uninstalling it, or ponying up for the $4.99 ad-free Galaxy Note version.
A really nice app for drawing using flat colors. I was really impressed by the fairly low latency and S-Pen optimization and great pressure sensitivity response for accurate lines. In particular, I like the controls for precisely changing brush thickness variation.
Animation Desk (Free, $3.99)
Ported over from the iPad, this software is more fun than it is useful for actual production. Still, it’s a great way to do quick pencil tests. The interface is an approximation of an animator’s light table, with peg bars and onion skinning a user-selectable range of frames forward and back. There’s no pressure-sensitive pen support so the drawing tools are pretty rudimentary. Also the resolution is fairly low. Still, it’s a fun app to play around with.
FlipaClip (Free, $2.99)
This is a great app for pencil test animation. The tools and frame manager are more robust, and it can export your finished animations to file or straight to YouTube and Facebook. The app was built with S-Pen support in mind. The $2.99 unlocker removes ads, gives you improved onion-skin controls and removes the FlipaClip watermark from exported files.
NOTE TAKING APPS:
S Note (Included)
It may seem like bloatware at first glance, but S Note is actually a great tool for note taking. Since it’s made for S-Pen, it’s easy to take notes that are true to your handwriting. On the Note Pro’s gigantic screen, it’s truly like a large digital notepad. Notes can be exported to Google Drive and synched to Evernote. Best of all, S Note is Multi-Window capable (as most of Samsung’s native apps are). More on Multi-Window later.
Handrite (Free, $3.98)
Handrite is a notepad that features a unique ‘continuous writing’ system. Rather than write directly on the page, Handrite captures your pen strokes and arranges them in order, like typing into a word processor. I’ve found it makes note taking extremely fast. You simply write in large strokes across an area in the middle of the screen, and the app keeps the output neatly aligned on ruled paper. The paid version allows export to PDF and unlimited notebooks. Unfortunately, it isn’t Multi-Window ready.
Papyrus (Free, $4.99 PDF Import, $2.99 Tool Pack, $2.99 Cloud Services)
This is a great app. Papyrus is designed to feel like pen on paper for handwritten notes. I found it fast and accurate for taking notes. Because it uses vector graphics, everything you write or draw remains sharp even when zoomed in. It’s also Multi-Window ready.
Hancom Office (Free with the Note Pro)
After registering your device with Samsung’s Apps service, you can download a specialized full version of Hancom Office that’s only available for the Note Pro.
Hword is the closest thing to Microsoft Word that I’ve used on Android. When I paired my Note Pro with a Logitech Bluetooth Keyboard, using Hword felt just like using Word on a laptop. Also included is Hcell for spreadsheets and Hshow for presentations.
Add a Bluetooth keyboard and you have a 12” laptop.
Currently ZAGG makes a $99 Cover-Fit keyboard and Logitech just unveiled a $130 Pro Keyboard case for the Note Pro.
MULTI-WINDOW – A KILLER FEATURE ON THE NOTE PRO
On smaller devices, Multi-Window (running apps side by side in multiple windows) doesn’t seem like such a useful idea. On a 5.5” smartphone I’ve rarely felt the need to use it. But the Note Pro’s screen is so large that Multi-Window is actually a killer feature. Further, Samsung has expanded Multi-Window to four panes from its original two.
Multi-Window with 3 applications at once.
I’ve used it to have a script open, side by side with an animatic movie, a storyboard PDF and a note pad for jotting down notes. (Papyrus or S Note). Each quarter of the screen is about the size of my Note 3’s entire screen, so even split 4 ways there’s enough room to comfortably view and work on each individual task in each pane. And split two ways, half of the Note Pro’s screen is roughly the size of a full 7” tablet. Multi-Window lets you resize the panes to your liking. The Note Pro’s Exynos Quad-core processor (1.9Ghz) really shines when using Multi-Window. Running multiple windows (with Pen-window apps and videos running over top of that) I didn’t detect any hint of the tablet slowing down in any application.
IMPROVING THE S-PEN
The Note Pro’s S-Pen (black) is slightly longer and thicker than a Note 3 pen.
Out of the box, I was slightly displeased with how the S-Pen felt on my Note Pro. Lines were coming out a little too thick, and I felt the pen was over-sensitive, not giving me enough line variance. I liked the feel of my Galaxy Note 3 much better. Then I noticed that the Note 3’s pen was just as good when used on the Note Pro, so it was clear the pen itself was the problem.
I discovered while doing some reading on the site xda-developers (where any Android enthusiast should be a member) there’s a way to fine-tune the S-Pen’s sensitivity. These are the instructions in a nutshell:
- Use an exacto blade or small screwdriver to very carefully pry up the S-Pen’s click button. Do it carefully, it will come up with just a small amount of pressure.
- Locate the small potentiometer toward the tip of the S-Pen. (DO NOT adjust the one toward the rear). It’s hard to see, but there’s a small slot on top. Use a very small eyeglasses screwdriver to turn the dial: clockwise to decrease sensitivity and counter to increase it. Test the pen on the screen until you find the sensitivity setting that’s best for you. Carefully snap the button back into place.
It took some trial and error, but I managed to fine-tune my Note Pro’s S-Pen to the perfect degree of sensitivity for me, allowing finer and more accurate lines.
AN INEXPENSIVE S-PEN MOD
Another issue with the S-Pen led me to a bit of hackery, but I’m very happy with the results. The pen is a bit too small to be the best choice for artwork or extended note taking. I wanted a larger full-sized stylus. Unfortunately, ready-made options are limited.
Most ‘penabled’ Tablet PC styluses will work with the Galaxy Note line, as long as they are the Wacom variety. (Note: Wacom Cintiq and drawing tablet styluses will NOT work with the Note).
My LE1600’s stylus works with the Note Pro- but there’s a catch. Most of the penabled styluses are a few pixels off on a Galaxy Note; (where you press the screen and where the line is actually drawn is offset by 3-4 pixels.) The difference can be overlooked for simple note taking. But for precise drawing, it’s a deal breaker.
Unfortunately, even Samsung’s own $20 8pt Wacom Touch Pen stylus that seems like it should work with the Note Pro suffers from a slight offset. The standard S-Pen is a great stylus as far as function- all it really needs to be more comfortable is a weighted holder. Samsung does make a somewhat pricey S-Pen holder, but there’s also a cheapskate solution that works very well. On XDA, I came across a method of repurposing a common Pilot G2 ballpoint pen into a perfect S-Pen holder.
1. A Pilot G2 pen -I used an 07- ($2).
2. An S-Pen replacement from eBay or Amazon. ($8 – $16) Assuming you don’t want to sacrifice the Note Pro’s stylus. Make sure you buy an S-Pen that’s labeled “Original” or “OEM” so you don’t get a cheap knock-off. I found an OEM S-Pen (for Note 3) for $8 on eBay that works perfectly with the Note Pro.
3. A package of foam or gel pen/pencil grips. ($2 – $3)
Unscrew the G-2 and discard the ink barrel and spring. (I left the clicker as counter-weight).
Use a utility knife to very carefully slice about ¼ inch off the plastic tip. Push the S-Pen through the front barrel until it fits snugly, and with enough tip sticking out to write comfortably. If you can live without the click-button, you can screw the pen together and start using your larger stylus. If you want the click button, remove the rubber grip (note: this is hard to do, the grip is on incredibly tightly!) Easiest: cut the rubber grip off with an exacto blade, Later you can replace it with a foam or gel pencil grip.
Mark where the S-Pen’s click-button is through the clear barrel. Remove the S-Pen, and (VERY CAREFULLY!) use a utility knife to cut open a corresponding notch in the pen barrel. Easiest: heat the blade with a candle flame to melt the plastic some. Be careful not to melt too much of the barrel and warp it. I used a utility knife to shave down and smooth out the opening. I didn’t do the neatest job of it in the above example, but it doesn’t matter- this is hidden under the gel grip. More advanced DIY’ers can likely use a Dremel tool.
Push the S-Pen back in the barrel and line up the opening. Once you can easily click the button, cover with a foam or gel pencil grip. I was easily able to click the button through a gel grip, and a slight indention cues you where the button is. The replacement gel grip is also more comfortable than the G-2’s original plastic grip.
I found this modification to be a tremendous improvement for the S-Pen. I highly recommend this if you do any drawing or writing with an S-Pen. (I chose a garish blue G-2 pen to prevent it getting mixed up with common pens.)
I wouldn’t recommend the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 for artists that require as close to a Wacom Cintiq experience as it is currently possible to get from a tablet. I would instead recommend a Windows 8 Tablet PC with Wacom digitizer like the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 or similar.
But for anyone already on the lookout for a tablet like the iPad Air, that you plan to incorporate into drawing and animation work, I would very much recommend the Note Pro 12.2 as a more capable alternative. The larger, higher-res screen and addition of the Wacom digitizer and S-Pen puts it ahead of the iPad for basic drawing tasks. (An advantage for iOS is a greater selection of high-quality tablet applications vs. less selection from Android.) For viewing and editing documents (storyboards, scripts, spreadsheets etc.) taking notes, viewing animatic and other footage while multi-tasking, the Note Pro is a very valuable productivity tool.
At its $749 (32GB) introductory price, the Note Pro is expensive, and will keep many away until the price eventually drops. Consider that Samsung also makes the Galaxy Note 10.1” 2014 edition at around $449 that may be a better fit. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab line is less expensive still, but sans S-Pen and Wacom hardware.
I wouldn’t recommend the 64GB version of the Galaxy Note series tablets, as each has a microSD slot allowing you to add additional storage. Currently a 64GB microSD card can be found for around $45. The combined 96GB of storage is plenty for movie files, tons of documents, applications, photos and digital media.
AT A GLANCE:
The Note Pro features a quad-core 1.9ghz processor, 3GB of memory, 32/64GB, internal storage, 12.2-inch 2560×1600 WQXGA TFT Display, microSD card slot, 8 MP (rear) 2MP (front) cameras, USB 3.0, Bluetooth 4.0, Choice of white or black, ships with Android 4.4 (KitKat)
Harry McLaughlin loves all kinds of gizmos and gadgets. He’s currently an animatic editor on “American Dad” for Fox TV Animation. He also dabbles in writing books for kids, as featured on his website Zaptoons.com.