Review: Samsung's Galaxy Note 8.0 takes Apple's iPad mini head on

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The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 is a powerful heavyweight packed into a glistening, plastic package. It's a worthy contender to the Apple iPad mini -- and at $70 more money, the rare product to cost more than an iAnything.

The mid-size tablet market has been dominated by the traditional outsiders, first retailer Amazon with its 7-inch Fire, then software giant Google with its Nexus 7. Priced around $200, both offered a budget introduction to the wildly popular iPad. And what wasn’t to love? The touch experience at a great price established the “mini” tablet market; it was only a matter of time before the big boys came to play.

Apple's iPad mini, released before the holidays, has a 7.9-inch screen and the power of Apple. Samsung made sure to bring the cavalry.

And with the arrival of the Note 8.0, Apple finds itself in an strange predicament. For what seems like the first time ever -- Microsoft’s Surface lineup notwithstanding -- Apple’s entrant isn’t the most premium device in the space. In fact, priced at $400, $70 more than the iPad mini, Samsung has aggressively positioned its 8-inch tablet at the top of the hill.

To justify this price premium, Samsung has made sure to outmatch Apple in nearly every quantifiable specification, from its 1,280 × 800 AMOLED screen to its quad-core 1.6-GHz processor.

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The first thing you’ll notice, holding the Galaxy Note 8.0 in your hand, is that it genuinely feels like a fantastic tablet. The size and weight are just about perfect. The screen is crisp and clear with vibrant colors. Even the stylus, the signature accessory of the Note family, feels both solid and subtle and always precise when needed.

Google’s latest version of Android, Jelly Bean, runs like a dream on the Note 8.0, powered by 2GB of RAM. Everything feels fast and responsive. Websites load quickly. Multimedia plays without a hitch. Android users will find the set up experience familiar, and it’s just minutes before you’re up, synced and ready to go. And Android’s generally level of customizability these days, with its widgets and sidebars, can make OS X feel downright antiquated.

Of course, as is often the case with both Samsung and Android, there’s some superfluous functionality that’s more gimmick than feature. That could change over time and there’s nothing wrong with some risk taking. Overall, core smartphone features run swimmingly.

There’s one area where the iPad mini is clearly superior, however: battery life. The mini beat out the Galaxy Note 8.0 by a few hours, something noted by other reviewers as well. Roughly six to seven hours of playtime every charge isn’t shabby for such a powerful device, but it pales in comparison to the half day the iPad mini consistently delivers.

The 8-inch Galaxy Note also comes in Samsung’s trademark plastic, but that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. It’s lightweight, although it can look and feel cheap, especially sitting next to Apple’s more refined offerings. And sometimes it is the little things, especially at this price. The 5MP camera in the back juts out a tiny bit, for example, which means the tablet doesn't lie completely flat on any surface.

If you were at this year’s Mobile World Congress, you may have witnessed a preview of the device used as “phablet” (to the chagrin of English lovers everywhere) -- a combination phone and tablet -- thanks to a cellular antenna. With eight inches of real estate pressed to the cheek, it made for an awkward, if memorable scene -- and a really poor phone.

Luckily, for the style conscious, this curious reality won’t materialize for American consumers as the HSPA+ radios have been left out on this side of the pond. This means the Note 8.0 is more of pure play against the iPad mini, which is also Wi-Fi only.

For $400, some small details did stick out. But in the end, there’s no denying that Samsung has delivered a wonderful tablet. The Galaxy Note 8.0 will be released on April 11.